Radical Humanism: Selected Essays

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Essays by Jean Améry, 1984

Radical Humanism, a collection of essays compiled and translated for an American audience by Sidney Rosenfeld, reveals the breadth of Jean Améry's intellectual work, spanning his experiences in the Holocaust, his postwar political engagement, and his philosophical interests. The essays are united by the theme of "radical humanism," a concept that appropriately describes Améry's life. Radical humanism, in a nutshell, means prioritizing the welfare of human beings in all circumstances. He suggests a "radically humane demand for a 'revolt against reality, which is rational only as long as it is moral."'

Not all essays in this collection are autobiographical. The final five focus on Améry's philosophical studies and discuss philosophers whose work had occupied him during his life: Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The collection closes with an interpretation of the Enlightenment and its enduring humanitarian values, in opposition to structuralism, which Améry sees as antihuman and even fascist in its relativism. The remaining six essays follow the autobiographical style of Améry's writing but discuss events that he did not witness himself. He comments on these events from the perspective of his experiences, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as well as from the perception of emigrants in their host country and historiographical representations of the Third Reich. Subjects Améry had previously discussed are taken up again, including his identity as a Jew; anti-Semitism in the political left, especially in Germany; German attempts at "coming to terms with the past"; and his own sense of mission as a writer. As a whole the collection is representative of Améry's work written between 1967 and 1978.

The essays united in this volume address human, social, and political consequences of the Holocaust in a variety of contexts. In most of the autobiographical essays, the focus remains on Améry's self-understanding as a Jew, his disappointment and anger at anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism, and the loss of Heimat (Home), which is intensified in an analysis of West German public discourse on the legacy of the Holocaust, particularly in the political left.

At the Mind's Limits , another collection of essays by Améry, is a book of hope and measured optimism despite the terrifying nature of much of its content. It warns against the human capability of inflicting evil on others, while expressing a belief in the possibility of human beings changing for the good. In contrast, Radical Humanism largely speaks of Améry's disappointment with the way his message has been received. The collection conveys the intense sense that he has not only begun his career as a writer with much delay but also that he has failed in making himself heard. In his own interpretation his insights about the human condition after the Holocaust have not been received; in particular, West Germany's left has not lived up to the high ethical-political hopes Améry placed on it.

Améry's own philosophical and political allegiances remain the same. His profound sense of alienation from German culture and his native Austria as well as his sense of being abandoned by the world as a Holocaust survivor and Jew are manifest in his struggle to invest his Jewishness with meaning that conveys identity rather than only forced identification. In particular, his unwavering support of Israel at a time when criticism and condemnation of Israeli politics was popular among the political left demonstrate his frustration with and sense of betrayal by the political movement he had placed his faith in. The Holocaust, while not explicitly the subject of most of the essays, is the background against which all his reflections need to be read. His own experience of being a refugee and victim of atrocity motivated him to support political and humanitarian activities and can be seen as the driving force for his writings.

—K. Hannah Holtschneider

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Radical Humanism: Selected Essays

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