To be without destiny: For Imre Kertész

Man, when reduced to nothing, or in other words a survivor, is not tragic but comic, because he has no fate.

Imre Kertész, Liquidation

Imre Kertész’s literary work is inseparable from his life as a survivor of the nazi death camps; inseparable from the search for an ethics beyond mass political murder.

The camps marked the advent of men and women without destiny, without qualities, a new form of human life.  They testified to the failure of the ideals of humanism; they serve as a reminder that the reduction of human life to bare, naked existence is always possible, even while others continue to carry out their daily activities of eating, working, copulating, of entertaining themselves.

For  Kertész, there is no established morality that can serve as a bulwark against this horror, for there is none that cannot be transformed into a licence to kill, into a justification for murder.  And yet the need, the desire, for an ethics persists.  Dispossessed of our existence, there is no more urgent, more difficult, more improbable task than to respond to the ethical exigency of making and re-making one’s life one’s own.  “Only our singularity proves that our form of existence has not been imposed upon us by others.” (Simmel)

Through this re-appropriation, that is ethics itself, there is a chance to “survive” in a world that makes of collective life madness, as well as a weapon of intimate destruction.  If others before Kertész (Paul Celan, Jean Améry, Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi) brought their own lives to a premature end, it is perhaps because, unlike them, he was able to transform his art into his life.

In his novel Fateless, Kertész speaks of wanting to describe “how, in the universe of the concentration camp, an adolescent could be systematically robbed of his emerging personality.  It is the state in which one finds oneself when even your history is confiscated.  A state in which it is prohibited to confront yourself.  The whole challenge of the novel was to invent a language that brings these notions together and reveals a blocked, impeded existence.”

Freedom for Kertész is found in shattering from the interior the limits of language: the languages of power, of total authority, of moral blindness.

If the absolute evil of the camps lies in an experiment that rendered the lives of all who passed through them superfluous, and therefore expendible, part of that experiement was made possible through the flattening out of language’s human temporality and spatiality, of making it impossible to speak of the Other as oneself (something shared by all totalitarian regimes, past nazi and communist, and present capitalist, regimes).  The language of the nazis was administrative, imperative.  It permitted no thought, no possibility of separating oneself from oneself so as to be able to think, to reflect.  The nazi world became the only world conceivable.

Imre Kertész’s art was a form a resistance to the one dimensionality that made art and life itself impossible; a resistance grounded in a life lived as art.

Imre Kertész died on the 31st of March 2016.

(This post is, in part, a free and partial translation of the obituary for Imre Kertész published in Le Monde 02/04/2016)

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