Nationality: French. Born: 1917. Family: Married the writer Marguerite Duras in 1939 (divorced). Career: Active in the French resistence, 1943-44, arrested and imprisoned in 1944. Died: 1990.
L'Espéce humaine. 1947; as The Human Species, 1992. *
"Purity and Danger: Between Hell and Reason" by Bernard Knox, in New Republic, 207 (22), 23 November 1992; "An Introduction to Robert Antelme" by Kevin C. O'Neill, in Marguerite Duras Lives On, edited by Janine Ricouart, 1998.* * *
Robert Antelme survived imprisonment at Gandersheim, an especially cruel subcamp of Buchenwald, a death march, and finally incarceration at Dachau, where he was liberated. He is best known for his work The Human Species (1992; L'Espéce humaine, 1947), which tells this story and maintains that the human race is indissolubly one, a point shown by the extremities of the camps. The book was reissued in 1957 as, in France, intellectuals and others began to take more notice of the Holocaust (André Schwarz-Bart 's Le dernier des justes [1959; The Last of the Just ] won the Prix Goncourt in 1959, for example). As Dan Stone writes, the "book, when it finally achieved success at the end of the 1950s, was lauded by the French intellectual establishment (to which, thanks to his marriage to [the avant-garde writer] Marguerite Duras, Antelme had easy access)." The book was extremely influential to generations of French thinkers.
For French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot, in his essay "The Indestructible," Antelme illustrates a basic truth about being. The human subject is reduced to its need, to "naked life," "human existence … lived as lack at the level of need." The human becomes an "egoism without ego" and alien from his (or her) own self. This most basic level affirms a sacredness to life beyond being human. In turn then, this bears a relation to the act of writing or speaking. Blanchot suggests that it is not simply a question of "telling the story" (that is, relating facts) but of speaking, of speaking to another human being. And this is the tension Blanchot finds in The Human Species , a book about the way humanity is taken away that is at the same time reasserting humanity; thus, it is "choking" or "stifling" words. For French writer George Perec, the camps are too distant for non-survivors to talk about. The facts given in memoirs are, for him, too far from any experience of the truth. Yet Antelme's testimony affirms the triumph of the human over the camps; the SS, for Perec, cannot stop history. As in Antelme's testimony, Perec seems to pass over the fate of the Jews, and for some critics his conclusions, influenced by Antelme's memoir, are too glib. For Sarah Kofman, a leading French philosopher, The Human Species offers a way to think about the dilemmas of the Holocaust; her book Smothered Words (1998) comes from Antleme's account. She suggests that his book does not simply celebrate on "old-fashioned" humanism, based on similarities, but rather begins, or is a way of understanding, a new form of humanism that is based not on what people have in common but on differences, on the experience of lacking—a community which has nothing in common.
What is perhaps significant is not merely the influence of The Human Species but the sort of influence it has had. By its insistence on survival and in its French national and non-Jewish context, the book, when used to think through the Holocaust, leads to a certain sort of interpretation. For Blanchot it is the reading of the book against its feeling of human survival that is its strength. Overall, however, it shares more with David Rousset 's L'univers concentrationnaire (1946) and the ability to recuperate the Holocaust into a wider and more extensive narrative (of humanity rather than Marxist revolution) than other survivor narratives.
See the essay on The Human Species.