Hope as Insult and Provocation

On Jean Améry's Suicide

In 1945, a few months after returning to his adopted hometown of Brussels, following internment in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen, the Austrian writer Hans Maier, later known as Jean Améry, began work on the novel Dornenkrone der Liebe. It was to have constituted, he wrote to friends, his "spiritual autobiography." In one of the few surviving fragments, his narrator Althager suffers the same humiliation and torture experienced by Améry himself in the Belgian fortress of Breendonk, transformed into a German prison camp in October of 1940, upon his arrest for possession of anti-Nazi propaganda. Left alone and deranged, his shoulders torn from their sockets, Althager grasps his longing for life, and writes a series of false confessions that guarantee safety for his conspirator Agathe. These pages, eloquent in their assessment of the solitude and hopelessness of the sovereign individual against the officious barbarity of fascism, end by invoking "an absolute triumph of the spiritual over the material." Two decades later, in the essay on torture that would make his name known throughout the German-speaking world and open for him, though too late, the possibility of a career as a bona fide man of letters rather than the hack writer, the raté that he had long considered himself, he writes:

The tortured person never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may, according to inclination, call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that crackling in the shoulder joints.
One's immediate temptation—to describe the earlier, triumphal quote in terms of the naivety to be expected of a young man newly acquainted with freedom, eager to throw himself back into the promising literary career from which the disaster of Nazism had untimely wrenched him two years before, and the latter as the verdict of a mature writer of fifty-three, nearly defeated by illness and disappointment and too late on the scene, as he repeatedly stressed, to begin again—is not quite adequate, for it assigns Améry's afflictions, not at all limited to those suffered during the war, a discrete moment in time, underrating both their extension forward into the succeeding years and backwards, corrosively, into memory.

At the time "On Torture" was published, in the book At the Mind's Limits, Améry had twelve years left to live. He was far from idle in the interval: his incessant travels, his journalistic work, and his formally innovative books, combining fiction, memoir, essay, and philosophy, all speak of a vivacious curiosity and intellect. Yet even a cursory reading of the writings he produced in this period—On Aging and On Suicide, the two spite-filled novels, Lefeu, oder der Abbruch and Charles Bovary. Landarzt, and his autobiography of spiritual exhaustion, Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre—makes clear the writer's mounting impatience with the burden his remaining days represented, and the inevitability that he would draw them to an early close.

What separates the still-young man of 1945 from the prematurely decrepit author of At the Mind's Limits is less a matter of ingenuousness than of a usurpation of the will by circumstance, according to which certain vital possibilities available to the former were walled off, and his conversion into the latter was rendered inevitable. By 1968, with the publication of On Aging, Améry's suicide was a given: all that remained was the settling of scores, a few last stabs at vitality, and the extinction of the remaining embers of ambition. Still, the specific nature of Améry's suicide, the etiology and signature that render it his own, cannot be arrived at without taking into consideration his attraction to French existentialism and his almost perversely intimate relationship to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. These are attested to throughout his oeuvre, but most exhaustively in the fourth chapter of Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre and the pages dedicated to Paris in the posthumously published Örtlichkeiten. Améry states, referring to himself, as customary, in the third person:

An intellectual system is what it is, and is what its creator wishes it to be. But it is also its reflection in the consciousness of the one who takes it up. Thus, French existentialism was also what it was for him, the recently liberated, who, because they had forgotten to murder him or else had spared themselves the trouble for unfathomable reasons, to untangle life, to experience it once more. It was his philosophy, more misunderstood than not, stamped, throughout the process of its assimilation, with his own unmediated associations.
The basic tenets of Sartre's thought—that man is born free, that his essence devolves from the choices that define his existence, and so forth—are so widely known as to have become commonplace. What shocks now is that, amid the fractiousness of the postwar era, a doctrine so plainly reactionary in its fundament should have appealed to a broad swathe of intellectuals at least purportedly insurrectionary in outlook. The reasons must be sought in the immense moral authority—largely borrowed, in Sartre's case—attributed to the surviving members of the Résistance in the intellectual life of postwar France; in the rank absence of the kinds of scientific researches that would render risible, for example, Sartre's analysis of homosexuality in Saint Genet; and in the likelihood that only the most committed or spiritually destitute—Améry belongs in the second category—could have found time to trudge through the master's innumerable and turgid publications. Recollecting that the hypotheses of psychologists such as Janet and Kardiner on physioneurosis and the lingering negative effects of trauma had not yet been quantified by those neuroimaging studies that have nowadays established the persistent alterations of brain structure in which trauma often eventuates, we can forgive the young survivor's longing to define himself by his future rather than his past, by choices in which he could take part rather than by those before which he was merely prone.

Greater weight must nonetheless be granted to the enormous corpus of scientific data concerning trauma than to Sartre's pernicious assertion that "even torture does not dispossess us of our freedom." We now know that victims of torture display reduced executive functioning, increased susceptibility to dementia, atrophy of the hippocampus and a host of other symptoms that seem to represent something more refractory than a simple failure of the will. Seen from this viewpoint, Améry's election of existentialism as a particularly abstruse form of self-help presages his disappointment; for Améry was not Sartre, was not the coddled darling of a well-connected petit-bourgeois family, favored by numerous circumstances of which having been born gentile must be counted the most germane. At times, he recognizes this, showing a measure of lenience never entirely free of rancor: "One can never be indulgent enough," he repeats in Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre, after mercilessly summing up his own shortcomings. Yet implicit in this phrase is the certainty that his books and radio addresses, his essays and travels, his prizes and his election to Berlin's Academy of the Arts, required excusal, that they were insufficient to endow his life with the necessary dignity.

It was all too little and too late. Despite his protest, in an early letter to Maria Leitner, his wife-to-be, that he has no desire to unseat the greats, his screeds against structuralism and the intellectual sloth of the European left—not to mention his book-length indictment of Flaubert and the interminable grumbling about his métier which reaches its apogee in the superficially gracious but very bitter essay "After Five Thousand Newspaper Articles"—make clear that Améry expected more of himself than the capsule biographies of Brigitte Bardot and Eddie Constantine or surveys of 1950s multimillionaires by which he earned his bread. The distinction he draws in that aforementioned text between legitimate and purely commercial success seems to have been difficult to keep in mind, especially as the hoped-for "respect accorded him by like-feeling people," unanimous in regards to his writings on Auschwitz, brought with it the suspicion that he was the subject of piousness rather than real sympathy, as well as the risk of becoming a professional victim. If the acclaim accorded to his analysis of aging served to damper these worries, the criticism that followed upon the publication of his novel Lefeu, oder der Abbruch, which Germany's Literaturpapst Marcel Reich-Ranicki denounced as "tasteless" and "mediocre," represented a verdict on his life's work (Améry's words) and plunged him into a profound depression against which the praise of such friends as Elias Canetti and Günter Grass was powerless.


Every suicide consists of two people, one condemned to die and one forced to carry out the death sentence. It is the struggle between the desire and the reluctance to kill and to be killed that marks out the unique character of every voluntary death. Améry is eloquent about the displeasures of existence, and no one who watches the wearied movements of his countenance in his televised interview with Ingo Hermann on Zeugen des Jahrhunderts, recorded a few months before his suicide (by overdose, in a Salzburg hotel) and available online, can doubt the extent of his dejection; yet his ruthlessness when confronted with what he judged inadequate in himself is of equal importance to an understanding of his death.

The whole of his work is characterized by a condemnatory streak bordering on the juristic: he disparaged Simone Weil, scorned Primo Levi as a "pardoner," his painter Lefeu crowns his unrelenting diatribes by consigning his masterpiece to flames, and in Charles Bovary. Landarzt, the titular character literally puts Flaubert in the docket, charging him with crimes against his own creation. Lacking an ideological foundation, this intransigence would have found expression in Améry's writings solely as a matter of style; spurred by existentialism, and especially by the notion that acts taken in alleged freedom are to be judged in moral terms, it acquired the rigidity of an edict. Améry's encounter with existentialism guaranteed that there would be no mercy, no excuse or escape-hatch, were his expectations of himself to come to nothing; for his failure to compose a masterpiece, to play a more decisive role in the intellectual debates of his time, to fulfill his longstanding wish to cease writing in German and become a French intellectual, he would not permit himself, as he did his beloved Charles Bovary, the luxury of conceding, "C'est la faute de la fatalité": it was instead inevitable, as he phrases it in On Suicide, that in answer to the échec, the mental court of appeals should offer its own extinction.

This is curious insofar as his writings elaborate, with great sensitivity, an ontology of the passive subject, of the inner experience of suffering, radically at odds with French existentialism's lofty declarations on human freedom. In On Suicide, Améry is unequivocal:

I know that wherever my aspirations take me, it is never my freedom, only resignation. I am not free to lift 150 pounds off the ground with one arm; my physical constitution won't allow it. That is necessity. I see into it and I grasp it—that doesn't make the renunciation any easier. Freedom is not an existential.
The limits he ascribes to the body, which may conceive and even long for what it can never do, impend equally on the spirit, billowed by unrealizable ambitions, on the mind tempted to transcend the immobile fringes of thought, on the being whose endless horizons are relentlessly abridged by its progressive descent into oblivion. In fact, Améry's philosophical and moral achievement lies in his insistence on the ease with which the outside—in the form of the torturer, of age and infirmity, the winds of history, or the specter of death—may restrict or irreparably corrupt one's subjectivity, and in his unmasking of solace as a nefarious conciliation with forces whose ineluctability does not detract from their injustice. The relegation of his work to such secondary fields as victimology and Jewish Studies—his failure to achieve recognition as a philosopher as such—speaks, on the one hand, to a basic longing for self-preservation that tends to immunize us against unalloyed pessimism, and on the other, to a generalized moral failing on the part of Western intellectuals, whose superficial alignment with leftist or liberal values is undermined by the ease with which they find their place in a capitalist order determined by those values' negation: people, like Sartre, whose acquaintance with desolation, typically second-hand, is sufficiently scanty to maintain inviolate their perspective on the future as a repository of hope.

Jean Améry, who always stressed his fidelity to the ideals of the Enlightenment, is one of the few voices to recognize the contradiction between humanism and free will; his philosophical legacy is the attempt to revindicate the first by grounding it in interior experience, in a duty of attendance to the feeling of subjectivity, to the "total and unmistakeable singularity of [...] the situation vécue, that can never be completely communicated."

His voluntary death, which left so many implications of his writing unexplored, is attributable less to his pessimism than to an adventitious notion of human freedom, largely expunged from his philosophical works but a constant torment in his personal life. Even in his last moments, as he penned his farewell to his wife, it seems to have lingered before his eyes, as beguiling as Magritte's castle in the Pyrenees. An atheist with a deep grasp of the logical innovations of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, he must have sensed his own mendacity in applying the predicate "free" to a body bare hours from ceasing to be a self; still, he professes, by way of valediction, to have entered onto the "open road," referring explicitly to Schnitzler, but undoubtedly to Sartre's Chemins de la liberté as well. It is a testament to the intractability of freedom as a category of thought that its importance as a repository of hope should culminate, for Améry, in indurate severity: in the incapacity to bring to bear on himself in the first person the extraordinary sensitivity he drew on when writing about his own anguish, and that of others, in the third.

Quotations from Jean Améry have been taken from the published English translations, when available:

On Aging: Revolt and Resignation. John T. Barlow (trans.), Indiana University Press: 1994.

On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. John T. Barlow (trans.), Indiana University Press: 1999.

At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. Stella and Sidney P. Rosenfeld (trans.), Indiana University Press: 1980.

All others are translated by the author. The discussion of Dornenkrone der Liebe and of the critical reception of Lefeu draw on Irene Heidelberger-Leonard's biography Jean Améry: Revolte in der Resignation, recently translated into English by Anthea Bell as The Philosopher of Auschwitz: Jean Améry and Living with the Holocaust. The author would also like to acknowledge Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk for his crucial investigations into trauma and its effects.

Click here to read Jean Améry's suide notes, translated by Adrian West.