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‘Bare life’ in camp memoirs and in the prose of Jaan Oks



The article compares the prose oeuvre of Jaan Oks with certain death camp memoirs with a documentary background, based on the concept of ‘bare life’ borrowed from the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben. The hypothesis is that Jaan Oks’s short stories of village life keep consistently outlining the contours of bare life. Bare life means a life emptied from normal human desire for happiness and for a future. The article compares the peasants depicted in Oks’s short stories with the camp residents called ‘Muselmänner’, who had given up fighting for their lives, thus finding themselves halfway between life and death. In Oks’s prose peasant life is also a mechanical existence emptied of all meaning and without any chance of developing one. The consequence is that life is not worth living and suicide is the only exit. 

The final part of the article describes, based on camp memoirs, some of the so-called survival strategies and speculates a little on modern life in general. It is observed that in the extreme conditions of the concentration camp all aims normally giving sense to human life were superseded by the necessity of mere survival, that is, bare life came to occupy people’s whole consciousness and their system of values. However, such a shift is not confined to concentration camps only; the end of the article attempts to demonstrate how a similar regard of the mere fact of staying alive as the ultimate value is flooding the whole space of modern thinking.