Absurd Dignity: The Rebel and His Cause in Améry and Camus


  • Ingrid Anderson Boston University




Améry, Camus, revolt anti-Semitism


In “On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew,” Jean Améry admits that in Europe, “the degradation of the Jews was...identical with the death threat long before Auschwitz. In this regard, Jean-Paul Sartre, already in...his book Anti-Semite and Jew, offered a few perceptions that are still valid today.” In no uncertain terms, Améry aligns his own project to “describe the...unchanging...condition” of the Reich’s victims with Sartre’s 1946 book on anti-Semitism, a philosophical gesture that was not uncommon for left- leaning Jewish intellectuals after the war. According to Robert Misrahi, who discusses at length what he calls Sartre’s “evident good will,” “his manifest care to render justice, and his desire, in the face of the Jews’ great suffering, to address himself to them,” Anti-Semite and Jew was primarily a “powerful affirmation of sympathy” for European Jews and, moreover, “an effective weapon against anti-Semitism.” Misrahi insists that French Jews were “astonished, even stunned for what we (Jews) were used to was hatred and contempt.” Sartre’s repeated assertions that the suffering of European Jewry was undeserved and unwarranted, are underscored by his declaration that Europe’s problem was not, after all, ‘the Jew’ but the anti-Semite, whose sadistic Manichaeism and profound fear of himself and his own instincts and responsibilities, had inverted European values so profoundly as to make genocide ethical. And although Sartre repeatedly emphasizes his intention to analyze primarily the situation of French Jews, he does not fail to connect European anti-Semitism with other forms of racialized hatred; ‘the Jew’ is only a “pretext,” since “elsewhere [the anti-Semite’s] counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” because anti-Semitism, “in short, is fear of the human condition.” Given the profound radicalism of such declarations at the time, it is not a surprise that Améry confessed and enacted a deep affinity for Sartrean existentialism. And yet, despite Améry’s understandable eagerness to wave the Sartrean flag, Améry’s existentialism is less like Sartre’s, and, consciously or unconsciously, far more like that of Albert Camus. Although Améry never mentions Camus in At the Mind’s Limits, Améry shares Camus’ reverence for rigorous analysis that simultaneously resists the kind of moral and political rigidity that often leads to a falsification of human experience and history. This is perhaps most evident in their overlapping treatments and understandings of human dignity and its solitary champion, the absurdist ‘rebel.’