Jean Améry: Melancholy of the European Spirit

Fifty-five years ago, in 1966, under the name Jean Améry, Hans Mayer, former anti-Nazi resister and Auschwitz survivor, published At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. [1]. In the preface to the first edition of this momentous book, he speaks of the “a gloomy spell” that prevented him from speaking for two decades, until the moment when “suddenly everything demanded telling.” This “everything” that wanted to be said is first of all a powerlessness: that of culture and spirit in the face of Auschwitz. Maxime Decout revisits for K. this masterpiece of the Viennese-born intellectuals, published in Germany in Munich – because it is “to the Germans,” said Améry, “that I would like to relate a few things here that until now have perhaps never been revealed to them.”


Jean Améry by Félix De Boeck, 1951 © Wikimedia Commons


David Rousset, Robert Antelme and Primo Levi had exhibited their desire to understand and document the concentration camp system, based on testimonies that were also essays, or narrative-essays, in which narration was mixed with analysis. Some twenty years later, Charlotte Delbo declared, in the second volume of her trilogy Auschwitz and After, that Auschwitz was “useless knowledge.” This was in contrast to the documentation work she herself had done in The Convoy to Auschwitz ten years earlier. Ruth Klüger agrees with her in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered.  “I don’t want to say that I don’t understand how it came to this. I understand it very well (…). But this knowledge explains nothing, » she wrote.” [2]. Knowledge that does not explain, useless knowledge. Such expressions strike and disturb, because they run counter to the work of archiving and understanding that witnesses and historians have carried out.

Shortly before Charlotte Delbo, someone else had declared, in his own way, that Auschwitz is useless knowledge: Jean Améry. He wrote several works of fiction, many of which were not published during his lifetime, and never any direct testimony, which, like Jean Cayrol, he found particularly difficult to read. This is certainly why, in order to conduct his reflections, he did not reject, like Delbo, the form par excellence by which the text attempts to understand what happened: the narrative-essay. It is this form that he embraces in his most famous work, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. With this text, Jean Améry attempts to examine the way in which the Shoah undermined knowledge and thought, and more precisely the European spirit. He dissects in detail the ins and outs of a pivotal moment. But the feeling that lurks in the text is a deep nostalgia for this spirit, a nostalgia that constitutes the first step toward a powerful melancholy of knowledge, a melancholy that today’s Europe may still labor under.


Jean Améry was born in 1912 in Vienna, under the name of Hans Mayer. In 1938, when Austria was annexed by the Third Reich during the Anschluss, he emigrated to Belgium. After the German invasion, he was arrested and interned for the first time in the Gurs camp before being tortured by the Gestapo in July 1943 for acts of resistance. He was then deported to Auschwitz, this time because of his Jewish origin. It was after the war, in 1955, that he changed his name to Jean Améry, thus erasing the traces of his Austrian origins. In 1966, he published under this name At the Mind’s Limits, a disillusioned and melancholy text informed by the destruction of the European spirit and knowledge by the camps. This disenchantment would haunt Améry all his life, who did not manage to “overcome the insurmountable,” which the French subtitle of At the Mind’s Limits advertises as the text’s aim. He took his own life in 1978.

If Améry is one of those who most intensely experienced the disintegration of knowledge by the camps, it is first of all because Auschwitz destroyed what he calls the spirit, or Geist in German. It devastated a whole cultural and intellectual heritage, Austrian and German but also European. The writer sensed this collapse as early as the 1930s, but it was with the Shoah that it really happened. The spirit was all the more easily swallowed up in it as it was perverted with the “SS state” which managed to “appear reasonable[3]” “The SS state” disguised its insanity; it passed itself off as the supreme achievement of the German spirit and philosophy. Améry notes this with grating irony: everyone “here became a Hegelian,” “the SS state appeared to everyone “as a state in which the Idea was becoming a reality.”


The 1966 preface to At the Mind’s Limits introduces us to a witness who practices the narrative-essay in the most lucid way possible. Améry confesses there that by opting for the essay, he thought he would be able to avoid his “I” and “I had still believed that I could remain circumspect and distant and face the reader with refined objectivity.” “Impossible,” he concedes however, because this “I” turned out to be the only valid starting point. Having embarked on”a contemplative, essayistic study,” he finally produced “a personal confession refracted through meditation.” That is to say, a narrative-essay, but one in which the analysis is even more dominant than in David Rousset’s L’Univers concentrationnaire (translated in English as A World Apart, David Rousset, trans. George Secker and Roger Warburg, University of Michigan Press, 1951.)

First German edition

Améry then centers part of his essay on “the intellectual in Auschwitz,” as Primo Levi will later do in The Drowned and the Saved by way of response.[4]. To take this particular case as a model is certainly to forego a more general scope of testimony. But it is to focus especially on the sort for whom thought is the main occupation, almost the profession, the one who is its representative. Améry questions the one who, theoretically, should have been the most equipped to think about the camps. This example is a magnifying lens to approach the abysmal question of knowledge and thought confronted with extreme violence.

Améry first introduces a distinction between the different camps because of their specificities. In Dachau and Buchenwald, Améry considers that the mind could still stand up against the “SS state” since it had a social function among the inmates. In Auschwitz, on the other hand, the intellectual “was isolated.” It was there, therefore, that “thus the problem of the confrontation of intellect and horror appeared in a more radical form and, if the expression is permitted here, in a purer form.” “The intellect was nothing more than itself”: without support from the outside, delivered to an unprecedented solitude, it became both something unreal and “an forbidden luxury.”

Améry then asks whether culture was able to help the prisoners survive, as numerous passages in Antelme, Semprun, Delbo, Levi, Le Lionnais or Ruth Klüger show. But his answer is completely different: for him, the spirit had lost all effectiveness in Auschwitz. We “looked in vain to our literary, philosophical or artistic household gods.” Améry takes the example of a poem by Hölderlin, which comes to mind and which, when recited, “no longer transcended reality”: “There it was and all that remained was objective statement.” In Auschwitz, the poem is no longer anything more than a collection of words that are inoperative to describe, fathom, or understand this reality.

But Améry extends things far beyond that, since it is also “rational-analytic thinking” that is crushed when it could have been a source of “support and direction.” Améry shows how the camp brought the human mind face to face with its limits, smashing to pieces most intellectual concepts such as death, being, or beingness. Like poetry, “the philosophic declarations also lost their transcendency”: “Where they still meant something they appeared trivial, and where they were not trivial they no longer meant anything.” The impasse is total. “We didn’t require any semantic analysis or logical syntax to recognize this. A glance at the watchtowers, a sniff of burnt fat from the crematories sufficed.” No doubt about it: “In the camp the intellect in its totality declared itself to be incompetent.” So that thought, like knowledge in Delbo, is useless. It turned out to be a “game that was not only worthless and an impermissible luxury but also mocking and evil.”

Worse still, the quest for knowledge could be harmful. Why? Because, according to Améry, the intellectual, accustomed to questioning the world, would be the least prepared of all to accept the arbitrary and senseless reality of the camp. If we look at them closely, we can see that the attitudes that Améry attributes to the deported intellectual, in reaction to the annihilation of the spirit, correspond to the characteristics that Freud attributed to melancholy, which, after the loss of a beloved object, results from an inability to carry out the work of mourning. The latter takes place in several phases. The subject is first confronted with a loss that stuns him and extinguishes all vital energy in him. In a second phase, he rebels by prolonging psychically the existence of the loved object. It is only then that the principle of reality imposes itself: the subject comes to accept the disappearance and reintegrates then the order of the world. This progression allows, as Freud explains in Totem and Taboo and Mourning and Melancholia, to establish a separation between the dead, on the one hand, and the memories and hopes of the survivors, on the other. But this pathway can break down during one of its phases so that the subject is no longer able to draw a hermetic border between the deceased and the living, tipping over into a universe where he or she rubs shoulders with the ghost of the departed.

It is indeed a question of loss and mourning with Améry, but of a loss and a singular mourning, those of a certain conception of the world, of the possibility of a knowledge of this world. In the first place, explains Améry, the intellectual “revolted” at “the impotence of abstract thought.” This rebellion, which follows the confrontation with the loss of knowledge, corresponds to the second phase that Freud situates in the work of mourning. This struggle is vain and desperate since the intellectual will end up “recognized that what may not be, very well could be.” But it is not for as much that he will complete his mourning of the spirit. The intellectual is stubborn in his search for the spirit. He does not begin the third phase of the mourning process, in which the revolt calms down because of a liberation from the specter of the lost object. The disappearance of knowledge, in Améry, obsesses the prisoner who struggles to resurrect it, who maintains its chimerical presence at his side. That is what handicaps him heavily in his struggle for survival and precipitates him toward self-destruction. Because this lost thought, says Améry, seeks to “it could be used for its own abolishment, and that in itself was something.” It is its ghost that haunts the intellectual. The knowledge continues to captivate him and meets, along the way, only its own negation, and that until exhaustion. Refusal to accept, self-destruction, withering away: all these attitudes are characteristic of a melancholy whose origin is the impossibility to subscribe to the loss of knowledge which, even if it is certain, remains unbearable.

Certainly, one could object to Améry that the notions of intellectual and non-intellectual that he brings into play cover in reality a great diversity of individuals whose reactions cannot be reduced in this way to a unique category. One might also disagree with certain arguments such as the supposedly greater respect for power among intellectuals than among non-intellectuals. The fact remains that Améry’s essay draws all its relevance from its extremely meticulous analysis of an impeded effort to know and the deleterious melancholy to which it gives birth. To read Améry is to put to the test the feverish desire to understand what Auschwitz did to thought, starting with its representative on the spot, the deported intellectual.


At the Mind’s Limits extends his reflection by examining the consequences of this scuttling of thought after the camps. What “wisdom” could the intellectual have brought back from there? The answer is uncompromising: the camps did not make the prisoners and other people more human, better, wiser or more altruistic. There is no ethical or intellectual benefit to the camp experience. The real learning is this: “For we brought with us the certainty that remains ever unshakable, that for the greatest part the intellect is a ludus and that we are nothing more—or, better said, before we entered the camp we were nothing more—than homines ludentes.” In ironic form, the observation is no less serious: Auschwitz revealed that the mind in general is not even a luxury but a game, that is, an entertainment and a posture, nothing more. Something that, like Delbo’s knowledge, could well be fundamentally useless. The only teaching of Auschwitz is a negative one: it is a radical “demystification” of the mind.

In light of these words, Améry’s choice of essay form appears more complex than it might at first appear. Certainly, it is conditioned by a desire to restore man’s ability to think, which was dynamited by the camps. But if the spirit is definitely gratuitous and vain, it is a safe bet that Améry’s text will not succeed in restoring the status of thought. It is in this tension, between a text driven by the desire to understand and the defeat of thought, that we experience the disenchanted violence of the melancholy of knowledge.

From his preface, Améry does not delude himself anyway. He admits that his narrative-essay did not dissipate all the zones of shadow. “I had no clarity when I was writing this little book, I do not have it today, and I hope that I never will,” he wrote. “Clarification would also amount to disposal, settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history. My book is meant to aid in preventing precisely this.” It is not a question of producing a document or a treatise on concentration camp philosophy: the narrative-essay, with Améry, recognizes its debt to the efforts to know more than to knowledge as such. But these efforts must not and cannot end: it is not a question of mourning knowledge and the spirit. Melancholy, in spite of its pains, remains the only way to keep close to the deep nature of the event, an event that has annihilated knowledge.

In addition, Améry reflects, in the last section of At the Mind’s Limits, on his own Jewishness. He explains that the discomfort he feels at the idea of being included in a group does not come from a refusal to be Jewish but from an impossibility. More precisely, from this paradoxical mixture of “the necessity and impossibility of being a Jew.” Why this impossibility? Because he is devoid of any sense of belonging to Judaism or even to a Jewish culture. And because he does not believe that it is possible to make Judaism a free choice, which would mean reviving a lost tradition or even inventing it. Being Jewish remains, however, a necessity, a necessity whose roots are historical, because of the way in which a whole society, Austrian and German, has assigned him this identity.

Jean Améry’s grave in the Central Cemetery of Vienna © Wikimedia Commons

Améry thus agrees with the way Sartre had theorized Jewish identity in 1946 in his Anti-Semite and Jew, a Jewishness resulting from the perception of the Jew by the anti-Semite and defined entirely by the negative. But Améry makes the issues more complex, in the light of the defeat of the spirit and the melancholy it provokes. For him, to be a Jew was to be certainly “firmly promised to death, already in the midst of life. His days were a period of false grace that could be revoked at any second.” But we must go further and affirm that it is to be a dead man on probation. For Améry, Jewishness is not only the result of carrying within oneself “a catastrophe that occurred yesterday”: it means living in fear of the repetition of this catastrophe. To be Jewish, for Améry, is to lose “every day” one’s “confidence in the world.” However, one should not believe that there is some metaphysical concern here. Améry deceives us: things are much more trivial. His Jewishness has nothing elevated or noble about it: it is entirely “a social unrest.” Here we touch the extreme point of the negative definition of Jewishness because of the collapse of the European spirit and the melancholy which results from it. To understand this, one must pay attention to the very last words of the book, which are terrible: “That such knowledge has made me unfit for profound and lofty speculation, I know. It is my hope that it has better equipped me to recognize reality.” Knowledge, in its noblest forms, is definitively outdated, in spite of the nostalgia and the melancholy that it stirs up, and even if the work of knowledge continues, in its way, by inspecting the rubble of the thought. This is the only way to be Jewish for Jean Améry. This is how one perceives the tragic dimension of the undertaking of At the Mind’s Limits: this essay attempts to re-establish the destroyed thought but, by thinking through this destruction, it confesses the impossibility of this task.

Maxime Decout

Translated by Daniel Solomon

Maxime Decout is a researcher in literature and essayist. He is the author of Albert Cohen. Les Fictions de la judéité (Classique Garnier) and Écrire la judéité. Enquête sur un malaise dans la littérature française (Champ Vallon, 2014). For Editions de Minuit, he published Qui a peur de l’imitation? (2017), Pouvoirs de l’imposture (2018) and Eloge du mauvais lecteur (2021)


1 The original version was published in German. See Jean Améry, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten. München 1966. For the English translation cited in this article, see At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, Jean Améry, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
2 Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Kluger, New York: Feminist Press, 2001. 
3 At the Mind’s Limits.
4 The two men maintained a complex relationship, made of equal parts friendship and disputes.

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