Undoing the Past in Jean Améry and James Baldwin
This article compares the works of James Baldwin and Jean Améry, a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. It attempts to unpack the ethical and political implications of their shared conception of the temporality of trauma. The experiences of the victim of anti-Semitism and the victim of anti-Black racism not only parallel one another, but their mutual incapacity to let go of the injustice of the past also generates a unique ethico-political response. The backward glance of the victim, the avowed incapacity to heal, as well as the phantasmatic desire to reverse time all guide this unique response. Instead of seeking forgiveness for the wrong done and declaring that all forms of resentment are illegitimate, Baldwin and Améry show us that channeling the revenge fantasy that so often attends the temporality of trauma is the material precondition of actually ending that trauma. This ultimately suggests that, for both thinkers, anything less than a new, revolutionary humanism equipped with an internationalist political project would betray the victims’ attempt to win back their dignity.