Torture Fort Breendok

Torture: The total Annihilation of the Self

Améry’s Essay Die Tortur, first published in 1966 as part of the book “Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Überwältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten”1 [Beyond guilt and atonement: attempts to overcome by one who is overwhelmed], describes his direful experiences at the SS-Camp Fort Breendonk and the resulting everlasting trauma. The Essay, which can be attributed to the autobiographical genre of survivor memoirs, adds to the understanding and definition of torture as it leaves behind clichéd discussions about strategy, efficiency and the ticking bomb scenarios that currently dominate the human rights discourse about torture.2

In his Essay Die Tortur Améry stresses the insufficiency of language to transfer the extra-linguistic experience of torture into written speech, arguing that qualities of feeling [“Gefühlsqualitäten”3] especially the shattering exposure to torture, remain indescribable and incommensurable.4 Who attempts to describe the experience of torture operates at the borders of linguistic communicability and runs the risk to get lost in a “hopeless carousel of metaphorical speech” [“hoffnungslosen Karussell der Gleichnisrede”5]. The language employed by the author to recapitulate his own searing interrogation, is reflected-descriptive, analytical and impersonal in outlining the undergone atrocities. Améry, whose Oeuvre often has been defined by the struggle to translate his traumatic experiences into language,”resists the impulse to employ metaphor”6 as “it would be senseless to try and describe […] the pain that was inflicted […]” [“Es wäre ohne jede Vernunft, […] die mir zugefügten Schmerzen beschreiben zu wollen”7] and as there is no abstraction or converging imagination adequate to depict the cruelty of the reality.8 In this contiguity Elaine Scarry refers to the “incommunicability of pain”9, that is radically expressed in Améry’s Essay, when he states that “if someone wants to impart his physical pain, he would be forced to inflict it and thereby become a torturer himself.” [“Wer seinen Körperschmerz mit-teilen wollte, wäre darauf gestellt, ihn zufügen zu müssen und damit selbst zum Folterknecht zu werden”10].

Despite the deficiencies of metaphorical and literal speech in describing qualities of feeling and the hence resulting reluctance of Améry to describe his convulsive pain-experiences, the trauma of torture also remains irresolvable interweaved with the act of linguistic expression. By utilizing the language of the victim against itself,11 forced production of language is at the core of the experience of the tortured, leaving the victims of torture behind with the disability to express what happened to them.

Joseph Slaughter states that “torture destroys the linguistic system of the victim”12 to the extend, that the reciprocity between signifier and signified is completely dissolved. Clarkson supports this statement by adding that the “damaged body, without premeditation, roars its truth in a way that cannot be recapitulated with integrity in the organising patterns and structures of language.”13 Similarly Spitz comes to the conclusion that to “witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and whispers, is to witness the destruction of language.”14

When Améry describes the first hit which intrudes his bodily border, inflicted by a policeman, his consequential loss of the trust in the world is constituted by three major elements: the extinction of any kind of expectation of help 15, the total negation of the will of the tortured 16 and the existence-threatening isolation which reduces the world to torturer and tortured. In this context Horrowitz suggests that the “profound and total helplessness that Améry recollects erases his sense of physical and psychological agency in the world.”17

The infiltration of Améry’s bodily integrity cannot be counterbalanced by the expectation of help nor amended by any kind of resistance.18 “They will do to me, whatever they want” [“Man wird mit mir tun, was man will”19], is his disillusioning conclusion. The precondition for his “Weltvertrauen” to feel only what he wants to feel is shattered with the unparriable first blow, which demonstrates the absolute power of the torturer over the tortured.20 “Outside”, here merges the feeling of abandonment and isolation, “nobody knows about it, and nobody advocates for me.” [“Draußen weiß niemand davon und keiner steht für mich ein”21].

“And suddenly I felt—the first blow. […] The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come. […] They are permitted to punch me in the face, the victim feels in numb surprise and concludes in just as numb certainty: they will do with me what they want.”

“Who is overcome by the pain of being tortured, experiences his body like never before. His flesh realizes itself totally in self negation. […] only in being tortured the carnification of the human being becomes completed.”

[“Wer nämlich in der Folter vom Schmerz überwältigt wird, erfährt seinen Körper wie nie zuvor. Sein Fleisch realisiert sich total in der Selbstnegation. […] in der Tortur wird die Verfleischlichung des Menschen vollständig”22] To Améry, who equates the boundaries of the body to the boundaries of the self, in the act of torture the torturer imposes his corporeality on the victim.23 The language Améry employs, compares the involuntarily physical intimacy, resulting from the violation of the inmate’s skin surface, to the experience of sexual abuse and rape.

“At the first blow…trust in the world breaks down. This other person, opposite whom I exist physically in the world and with whom I can exist only as long as he does not touch my skin surface as border, forces his own corporeality on me with the first blow. He is on me and thereby destroys me. It is like a rape, a sexual act without consent […].”

Améry makes the inextinguishable feeling of being-overwhelmed to the Archimedean point of his Essay.24 This feeling of being overwhelmed, which cumulates in the Annihilation of the self, is initiated through the first blow that has, according to Améry, the capacity to end a part of our life, that is irrevocably lost.25 Not only does it alter “one’s relation with one’s self”26 but also with the “others, with the world.”[27] In this aspect Horowitz assumes that the distortion of relationships happens because the loved ones have proved irrelevant and unreliable in the devastating moment of torture. They have remained “outside the assault […], outside the rape” and failed to “rush to the prisoner’s aid.”28

Through the experience of torture the identity endowing core of the victim is replaced by the experience of being overcome by the other: Everything that is called soul, consciousness or identity, is being annihilated and the victim becomes engulfed by the agonising feeling of being concaved and decoupled from the world.29 When Améry at the narrative climax of his Essay proclaims that “who has been consumed by torture, can never be homely again in the world” [“Wer der Folter erlag, kann nicht mehr heimisch werden in der Welt.”30] he refers to the tremendous disruption, which makes the victim of torture a psychological nomad in a restless and never-ending struggle for reconciliation with the world.

“Torture”, states Améry, “is the most dreadful experience, that a human can keep in himself/herself” [“Die Tortur ist das fürchterlichste Ereignis, das ein Mensch in sich bewahren kann”31]. In a haunting realization the author recapitulates 22 years after the incident “I am still hanging” [“Ich baumle noch immer”32]. He further emphasises on the “character indebilis”33 of torture by stating “who was tortured, remains tortured” [“Wer gefoltert wurde, bleibt gefoltert”34]. The traumatic stigma of torture, which has become embodied memory, has no limitations in time nor space. It is impossible to repress and enshrined in the victim, that perpetually encounters “freedom without freedom”35, due to its coercion to live through its trauma again and again.

This text is an adapted abstract of “The depiction of torture in Jean Améry’s Essay ‘Die Tortur'” by Robert Fellner. Read the full research paper here.



[1] Améry, Jean, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. Überwältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1977.

[2] Hirsch, Marianne, ‘Editor’s Column: The First Blow – Torture and Close Reading’, pp. 361-370, in PMLA, 121, 2006.

[3] Améry, 1977, p. 70.

[4] cf. idem, p. 70.

[5] idem, p. 70.

[6] Horowitz, R. Sara, ‘The Rhetoric of Embodied Memory in In the City of Slaughter’, pp. 73-85, in Prooftexts, 25, 2005.

[7] Améry, 1977, p. 69.

[8] cf. idem, p. 58.

[9] Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain. The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. p. 4.

[10] Améry, 1977, p. 70.

[11] cf. Slaughter, Joseph, ‘A Question of Narration: The Voice in International Human Rights Law’, pp. 406-430, in Human Rights Quarterly, 19, 1997., p. 426.

[12] idem, p. 426.

[13] Clarkson, Carrol, ‘J.M. Coetzee and the Limits of Language’, pp. 106-124, in Journal of Literary Studies, 25:4, 2009, p. 120.

[14] Spitz, Shirley, The Psychology of Torture, 1989, at (consulted on 25 April 2014).

[15] cf. Kramer, Sven, Die Folter in der Literatur. Ihre Darstellung in der deutschsprachigen Erzählprosa von 1740 bis >nach Auschwitz<. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2004. p. 450.

[16] cf. Horowitz, 2005, p. 80.

[17] idem, p. 81.

[18] cf. Améry, 1977, p. 63.

[19] idem, p. 61.

[20] cf. idem, p. 61.

[21] idem, p. 61.

[22] idem, p. 70.

[23] cf. idem, p. 62.

[24] cf. Kramer, 2004, p. 449.

[25] cf. Améry, 1977, p. 63.

[26] Horowitz, 2005, p. 81.

[27] idem, p. 81.

[28] idem, p. 81.

[29] cf. Améry, 1977, p. 81.

[30] idem, p. 80.

[31] idem, p. 53.

[32] idem, p. 75.

[33] Kramer, 2004, p. 451.

[34] Améry, 1977, p. 71.

[35] Faust, Volker, Psychosoziale Gesundheit von Angst bis Zwang. Die Folter und ihre Folgen., at (consulted on 2 May 2014).

About Robert Fellner

Robert studied Literature and Linguistics in Graz, Vienna and London. He was lecturer for German Literature, Language and Scientific Methods between 2010 and 2012 at the Alsun-Faculty of the Ain Shams-University in Cairo. Currently he studies Human Rights in Vienna and interns in the StopTorture-Campaign of Amnesty International and at the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights in Graz.

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