"In the Penal Colony", from The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (Scribner, 1993)
At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities by Jean Améry, tr. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press, 1980)
In Kafka's "In the Penal Colony", a foreign diplomat visited the machine used for torturing and executing all criminals. There was no distinction among the crimes being punished. Whether the offense be petty or serious, the offenders would be uniformly subjected to the penal system and would have to suffer the precise mechanism and motions of the death machine, "the apparatus".
Does the condemned man know his judgment? the diplomat asked of the executioner. No. He doesn't know his own judgment. The diplomat again asked, But he does know that he has been condemned? The reply was again a no. Then the man doesn't yet know how his defense was received? And again the reply: He had no opportunity to defend himself. The diplomat rises to his chair. He must have had an opportunity to defend himself.
"This is how things stand," said the officer. "I have been appointed judge here in the penal colony. Despite my youth. For I assisted the former commander in all criminal matters and I am also the person most familiar with the apparatus. The principle on which I base my decision is: guilt is always beyond doubt.
A man is guilty and he cannot be proven innocent. The observation was later made that "the injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond all doubt." The detailed description of the apparatus and the mechanical procedure of execution was some of Kafka's most graphic writing.
Both the bed and the draftsman have an electric battery each; the bed needs one for itself, the draftsman needs one for the harrow. Once the man is strapped tight, the bed is set in motion. It quivers in tiny, very rapid twitches, both sideways and up and down. You must have seen similar apparatuses in sanitariums; except that in our bed all the movements are precisely calculated. You see, they have to be meticulously geared to the motions of the harrow. But this harrow has the job of actually carrying out the judgment.
The harrow, the harrow. Among Kafka's corpus "In the Penal Colony" explicitly revealed one abiding subject of his fiction: systematic violation of human rights. If in his other novels and stories an invisible tormentor or aggressor, maybe an absentee landlord, circled around the protagonist, in this long story we were in direct contact with the torturer, explaining his wares and his violent procedures. The systematic reduction of a human being, physically and psychologically, was through the slow process of dying. It would take approximately 12 hours for the condemned to expire under the harrow. The harrowing harrow was the horrifying image of man's inhumanity to man.
* * *
I don't recall the word "dignity" being used in this story. But alongside human life, human dignity was the casualty of this inhumane penal system. Dignity was a slippery concept, but it was traditionally seen as the articulation of inalienable human rights. "To die with dignity" was a contradiction in state justice systems that execute its own kind.
In his encyclical of last year, Pope Francis talked at length about dignity in the context of climate change and inequality. The challenge for the disenfranchised and the poor was how to (in the pope's words) be "able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity." Disenfranchisement of access to basic resources lowers the quality of life and robs one of human dignity.
Jean Améry (1912-1978), the German writer imprisoned and tortured during the Nazi occupation, sought to personally define human dignity. What is dignity, really? he asked in At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities. He came to equate it with life, or with the antithesis of destruction and degradation and death. "I believed to recognize that dignity is the right to live", he wrote. But it is a right "granted by society."
If I was correct that the deprivation of dignity was nothing other than the potential deprivation of life, then dignity would have to be the right to live. If it was also correct when I said that the granting and depriving of dignity are acts of social agreement, sentences against which there is no appeal on the grounds of one's "self-understanding," so that it would be senseless to argue against the social body that deprives us of our dignity with the claim that we do indeed "feel" worthy—if all of this were valid, then every effort to regain our dignity would have been of no value, and it would still be so today. Degradation, that is, living under the threat of death, would be an inescapable fate. But luckily, things are not entirely the way this logic claims. It is certainly true that dignity can be bestowed only by society, whether it be the dignity of some office, a professional or, very generally speaking, civil dignity; and the merely individual, subjective claim ("I am a human being and as such I have my dignity, no matter what you may do or say!") is an empty academic game, or madness. Still, the degraded person, threatened with death, is able—and here we break through the logic of the final sentencing—to convince society of his dignity by taking his fate upon himself and at the same time rising in revolt against it.
While being detained for posting anti-Nazi propaganda and receiving the first blow from the Gestapo, Améry had lost trust in the world. Disillusioned, he had come to renounce his citizenship and his German name. Born Hanns Chaim Mayer, he opted to use a pseudonym in his writing, choosing a French-sounding name that is an anagram of his last name. Améry was a post-national writer adrift in "memory and cruelty" of history.
In describing his harrowing experience of torture, the victim was limited by the capacity of words to describe his condition. It was both a limitation imposed by language and the mind. In reaching beyond the "mind's limits", one was constrained to go back to the sources of language. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology! he wrote after describing a painful twisting and dislocation of his arms and shoulders while being suspended on an "apparatus".
In the bunker there hung from the vaulted ceiling a chain that above ran into a roll. At its bottom end it bore a heavy, broadly curved iron hook. I was led to the instrument. The hook gripped into the shackle that held my hands together behind my back. Then I was raised with the chain until I hung about a meter over the floor. In such a position, or rather, when hanging this way, with your hands behind your back, for a short time you can hold at a half-oblique through muscular force.
To twist. There was no redeeming wordplay or pun but the original word. The writer's fallback was the gratuitous qualities of words in their original intent. (In describing a scene from Poison, Shadow and Farewell, the protagonist of Javier Marías had also to recognize a Latin root word to describe his helpless situation: "A poison was entering me, and when I use that word 'poison', I'm not doing so lightly or purely metaphorically, but because something entered my consciousness that had not been there before and provoked in me an immediate feeling of creeping sickness, of something alien to my body and to my sight and to my mind, like an inoculation, and that last term is spot on etymologically, for it contains at its root the Latin 'oculus', from which it comes, and it was through my eyes that this new and unexpected illness entered, through my eyes which were absorbing images and registering them and retaining them, and which could no longer erase them as one might erase a bloodstain on the floor, still less not have seen them.")
The reminiscences of Améry had affected W. G. Sebald to the extent that he had written about him in an essay in On the Natural History of Destruction and in the novel Austerlitz, both translated by Anthea Bell. In the novel, the narrator Austerlitz visited the same Breendonk fortress where Améry was imprisoned and tortured.
It was only a few years later that I read Jean Améry's description of the dreadful physical closeness between torturers and their victims, and of the tortures he suffered in Breendonk when he was hoisted aloft by his hands, tied behind his back, so that with a crack and a splintering sound which, as he says, he had not yet forgotten when he came to write this account [At the Mind's Limits], his arms dislocated from the sockets in his shoulder joints, and he was left dangling as they were wrenched up behind him and twisted together above his head.
The torture chambers in Kafka and in Améry were there to discredit the right to live, hence to dignity. Améry had to borrow Kafka's terms for his tortured condition: Those who had tortured me and turned me into a bug, as dark powers had once done to the protagonist of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, were themselves an abomination to the victorious camp. Améry was turned into a monstrous insect by the Gestapo, something non-human.
Josef K in The Trial was forever denied due process. K in The Castle and Gregor in The Metamorphosis were denied the right to work with dignity intact. Kafka had documented the various labyrinthine ways in which humans were marginalized, deprived of their rights and physically and mentally tortured by being kept in the dark about their condition and judgment. Torture was an offense against the body and mind, bringing one to immediate shame and indignity. For Améry, torture has an indelible character: "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected. The permanence of torture gives the one who underwent it the right to speculative flights, which need not be lofty ones and still may claim a certain validity. [emphasis added]"
Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained. That one's fellow man was experienced as the antiman remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror. It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules. One who was martyred is a defenseless prisoner of fear. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.
Because the tortured had learned of the human capacity to inflict pain and suffering, the tortured had also come to acquire the character of the torturer because he had the imagination to relive his torture and the acts of the torturer.
Kafka had inverted this sense in "In the Penal Colony". The torturer, who was arguably a madman, upon learning that his "justice system" might be abolished in case the travelling diplomat hand in a negative report, decided to become the tortured. He had come to accept the normalcy of his system. He would rather succumb to his harrow and be robbed of dignity than to face a life without the pleasure of seeing offenders suffer under his apparatus. The torturer and the tortured were one.