Friday, June 15, 2007

The First Blow Changes Everything - Jean Amery on Torture

Why is torture so abominable? One of the standard responses is that it denies human dignity. But torture survivor Jean Amery tells us that he doesn't know what the expression "human dignity" means. He does know, however, that the first blow forever changes the torture victim's world. His attempt to make sense of his own experience in At the Mind's Limits* is one of the most sensitive and insightful treatments of torture I know. Amery was a Viennese Jew (his birth name was Hans Mayer; he changed it after WWII to dissociate himself from all things German) who was arrested by the Gestapo in the summer of 1943 because of his involvement in the Belgian Resistance. He was taken to Breendonk, an old fortress near Antwerp that had been commandeered by the SS, and questioned under torture. Eventually he was sent to Auschwitz.
Generally, says Amery, we relentlessly cerebral humans tend to filter and codify even everyday experiences and events through abstractions. "Only in rare moments of life do we truly stand face to face with the event and, with it, reality." Torture is one of those moments. Torture, from the Latin torquere, "to twist," wrenches the victim out of the world of safe abstraction and hurtles him into brutal reality.
In that malformative moment, the victim begins the devolution from person to body. There occurs a "border violation of self by the other which can be neither neutralized by the expectation of help nor rectified through resistance." The boundaries of my body, asserts Amery, are also the boundaries of my self. "My skin surface shields me against the external world." So long as other people respect my body boundaries, my self likewise experiences itself as autonomous.
But when my body is attacked--and, furthermore, when I have neither the ability to defend myself nor any expectation of help from another person--then my self is attacked. The torturer "forces his own corporeality on me... He is on me and thereby destroys me. It is like a rape, a sexual act without the consent of one of the two partners." The other becomes "absolute sovereign" with the power "to inflict suffering and destroy," and the victim becomes nothing but hurting body, agonized flesh. "Only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete. Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that."
In the brutal experience of being tortured, the victim collapses under the weight of desolate isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, and physical pain that reduces him to quivering flesh. There is no future, no chance of reprieve or rescue, no familiar landmark in this utterly foreign land that's beyond the mind's limits. Torture robs the victim of "trust in the world," the certainty that his self is inviolate and that others will respect the boundaries of his self.
Once lost, this fundamental trust in the world can never be regained. Torture, says Amery, has an "indelible character. Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him," and he will live forever in astonishment at a world in which some people boundlessly assert themselves by reducing others to body. "With the first blow from a policeman's fist, against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived."
Jean Amery killed himself in 1978, 35 years after the first blow that shattered his world.
*All quotations used here are taken from the essay "Torture" in Amery's book.