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Victims of Hiroshima

In response to:

Stoicism and the Holocaust from the March 28, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

Each man needs his own Hiroshima. Each of us willy-nilly creates an inner image of what took place there and what that signifies. More often than not the image is amorphous, distant, and resisted by its creator, but it can also be vivid and terrifying. Yet, as I point out in the first chapter of my book, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, “what did happen—what people in Hiroshima experienced and felt—seems to be precisely what we have thought least about.” My assumption is that we have much to gain by bringing our images of Hiroshima into closer relationship with something approaching actuality.

The main impression I get from Paul Goodman’s review of my book [NYR, March 28, 1968] is that he does not want his Hiroshima to be contaminated by anything that happened there. He reads my findings to mean that survivors of the bomb became “elect saints, in communion with the dead…purgatorially trapped in the meaningless interim of current history.” Such an interpretation may be tempting: survivors were certainly awe-struck, felt themselves undergoing something “more than natural,” and were reminded of images of Buddhist hell. Moreover, one can think of all religion as emerging from some form of survival. But what Goodman chooses to ignore, and in fact attacks me for pointing out, was survivors’ inability to achieve (in William James’s terms) “reunification” of the “divided self.” “To be converted,” James tells us, “to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.” This was exactly the kind of experience survivors described themselves as unable to have. Nor should we be surprised: what meaning is one to derive from victimization through a man-made technological device, infinitely deadly yet totally impersonal in its effects, in a world which continues to proliferate these devices in ever more lethal forms? Survivors are Chosen People, but the fate they were selected for strikes them as singularly unrewarding, demeaning, and above all confusing.

To be sure, there is always the possibility that a prophet will appear among them. What I point out, however, is that there have been a number of would-be prophets, a few with exceptional qualities, but that survivors have been unable to respond. Hiroshima survivors were denied their metaphysical experience—or at least the metaphysical experience Goodman thinks they should have had—not by me but by the bomb.

A key issue for them is that of guilt. Here Goodman makes the inexcusable inference that I judge the survivors to be the guilty ones, both in relationship to the bomb itself and to subsequent nuclear testing. To do this he must completely ignore the important distinction I made between guilt feelings or a sense of guilt on the one hand, and judgments of moral, theological, or legal guilt on the other. Nor should Goodman find my stress upon the guilt of survival so “astonishing,” since such self-condemnation is almost universal among those who live through either large catastrophes or the smaller disasters of individual deaths of people who matter.

When I speak of a “guilty community,” I do so in quotations, and in relationship to “the communal reinforcement of guilt…in which self-condemnation is in the air.’ ” Nuclear testing by anyone reactivates the entire constellation of survivor emotions in Hiroshima, including the sense of guilt, as I could actually observe when such testing was done by Russia and America during the course of my research.

Martin Buber and other existentialist writers make useful distinctions between “neurotic guilt” and “genuine” or “ontic” guilt. But the imposed guilt of victimization—not only in survivors of disaster in minority groups subjected to various kinds of dehumanization—falls into neither category. And such guilt is especially intense when victimization includes killing that is not only massive but grotesque and random, as it was in both Hiroshima and Nazi concentration camps. Survivors then take on special burdens of responsibility and guilt for the over-all cosmic disruption, as well as for the “homeless dead”—those spirits which (according to folk cultures throughout the world) remain restless and dangerous through having died violently, unnaturally, and without proper ritual.

Rather than “a bunch of neurotics caught in their box” (Goodman’s phrase), I view survivors as victimized human beings who usually carry on their lives in ordinary fashion—work, marry, and have children—but who are at the same time entrapped by a unique and permanent encounter with death. I am in fact wary of psychiatric categories, and when I refer to the term (used by Japanese physicians in Hiroshima) “A-bomb neurosis,” it is again with quotation marks. When I speak of survivors as having “an existence with a large shadow cast across it, a life which, in a powerful symbolic sense, [they] do not feel to be [their] own,” my impression is based upon a good deal of evidence, and the spirit in which I write is quite the opposite of the clinical put-down Goodman insists upon seeing.

Around the subject of “psychic numbing” in particular, Goodman is fast and loose with his judgments and accusations. I speak of psychic numbing (and its more acute form, psychic closing-off) as a cessation of feeling undergone by survivors at the time of the bomb (and in some cases later on as well): “They had a clear sense of what was happening around them, but their emotional reactions were unconsciously turned off.” I emphasize the need for such a defense against otherwise overwhelming anxiety and guilt in relationship to their immersion in death. And I point out the susceptibility to the same psychological process of others coming in contact with the atomic bomb experience, including those who study it. I thus report a self-observation, on how my initial shock and emotional exhaustion from the brutal details I heard gradually gave way to a more comfortable operating distance between hibakusha and myself—“a distance…necessary, I came to realize, not only to the intellectual but to the emotional demands of the work.” I find it presumptuous and grandiose of Goodman to dismiss this as “very like a rationalization,” and to insist that I was already numbed when I arrived in Hiroshima and that “the kind of knowledge which eventuates is what comes from being numb and what serves remaining numb.” In fact, the book and the work in general have consistently had the opposite effect upon people. But of more general significance are the kinds of distortions Goodman makes concerning the meaning of psychic numbing and the nature of an approach such as mine.

Psychic closing-off or numbing, as I try to make clear, is not limited to holocaust. In more partial and selective fashion, it operates in everyone who performs some kind of useful function—medical, artistic, or investigative—while confronting death. Though including myself among such people, I meant it when I said that “I by no means became insensitive to the suffering described,” and I thought that the tone of the book made this clear. Perhaps Goodman has not learned to recognize moral passion in quiet tones.

I repeatedly emphasized the general relationship of psychic numbing to our deadly technologies, and end the book with a view of Hiroshima as a “last chance” in the sense of being “a nuclear catastrophe from which one can still learn”:

Hiroshima was an “end of the world” in all of the ways I have described. And yet the world still exists. Precisely in this end-of-the-world quality lies both its threat and its potential wisdom. In every age man faces a pervasive theme which defies his engagement and yet must be engaged. In Freud’s day it was sexuality and moralism. Now it is unlimited technological violence and absurd death. We do well to name the threat and to analyze its components. But our need is to go further, to create new psychic and social forms to enable us to reclaim not only our technologies, but our very imaginations, in the service of the continuity of life.

I also want to say a few words about method. Years ago Dwight Macdonald (in relationship to John Hersey’s book) questioned the adequacy of a naturalistic approach for understanding what happened in Hiroshima. Psychological empiricism is a first cousin to literary naturalism. In conducting and writing about my study, I found myself pressing an empirical approach to its limits, and then moving beyond those limits. That is, I placed great stress upon interviews with survivors and tried to explore every ramification of what survival of the atomic bomb meant; but I moved outward from individual survivors to groups they formed, leaders emerging from among them, and social and historical currents in Hiroshima which they both created and were affected by; then to their (and other Japanese) artistic efforts to confront the bomb; and finally to their relationship to survivors of comparable holocausts both contemporary and ancient as a means of raising issues about the significance of the survivor for our time. I know that this method cannot tell the whole truth about Hiroshima; anyone who writes about the subject must in important ways fail. But I must insist upon differentiating it from the “routine psychoanalysis” and the psycho-pathological emphasis Goodman attributes to me.

As an investigator concerned about all aspects of his subject my moral commitment was to tell the story as fully, and interpret what I observed as wisely, as I knew how. Rather than “protest and strike” in the middle of things, my form of protest (on this occasion) was writing the book I did.

This form of commitment required that I examine my subject in all of its ambiguity. Consider, for example, the peace movement in Hiroshima. It is all very well for Goodman to see that movement as a Rankian “counter-will against the atomic bomb and our world as it is.” But which of the bitterly contending peace movements does he have in mind: small unofficial meetings at which survivors recount their experiences? the efforts of the city of Hiroshima to mobilize world peace sentiment? Gensuikyo (Japanese Council Against A- and H-Bombs), which began as a mass movement but lost much of its national following when it began to insist that only American and not Russian tests be denounced, and even more of its following when it defended Chinese nuclear testing and denounced Russia for its support of the Test Ban Treaty? the first split-off from Gensuikyo which condemned all nuclear testing but tended to favour American views on most nuclear and general issues? or the second split-off from Gensuikyo which rallied socialists and “Russian” Communists against the increasing “Chinese” domination of the original Gensuikyo organization?

To record all this is hardly to “put down” protesters or peace movements, but rather to open oneself to Hiroshima as it is and to the larger ramifications of the atomic bomb itself. For although the atomic bomb can hardly be said to have been totally responsible for these conflicts, it did have a very great deal to do with them—not only in Hiroshima but throughout Japan. And keeping in mind that Japan was probably the only country in the world in which a peace movement became a genuine mass movement, one can appreciate the enormous impact of the fragmentation of that movement not only upon Hiroshima survivors but upon the political and moral life of the entire country. Once more Hiroshima will simply not behave the way Goodman thinks it should and says it did. It will not rise in anger as one man against American evil, but rather behaves in complicated ways toward America and Americans—patterns I also record with some care, in a way that one would hardly guess from reading Goodman’s odd little discourse on “paranoia.”

The basic source of Goodman’s distortions emerges in his last sentence: “But they are all of a piece.” He was talking about Americans at the time, but he extends his all-of-a-piece-ism to every other group he discusses: psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, scientists, Japanese, and above all atomic bomb survivors. In the process individual people in each of these groups are divested of their humanity as they blend into a pure image—a prevision so stark in its contours as to eliminate the very symbolic and psychological processes that characterize the human condition. And woe be it to any who dare to stray from the image.

He assigns me the image of an establishment psychiatrist, and points out no less than three times that I am at Yale. And from this pure image emerges a wild series of accusations beginning with psychoanalytic orthodoxy (That will be interesting news to those who know my work), and moving on to psychiatric Stoicism and something about providing a practical philosophy of life for the American empire.

But distasteful as I find it, Goodman’s treatment of me is a good deal less important than his approach to America, and especially to protest in America. Prior to pronouncing Americans “all of a piece” he spoke of them as “at their worst…monstrous.” What he is saying is that Americans are damned—no use trying to redeem ourselves or take constructive action of any kind as Americans. Putting the matter in its simplest terms, I must tell Goodman that we cannot afford the luxury of his messianic despair. It is indeed a “bad season for…Americans”—not for “them” but for us. During the past few weeks the weather turned worse, then a little better; yet there are still those in positions of power who favor courses of action that, if adopted, could bring about the world-wide nuclear annihilation Goodman and I have committed ourselves to resist with all the force we possess. Yes, I end by affirming this common commitment. For there is a very real sense in which his review is still another casualty of the war in Vietnam. His rage and frustration are directed not at real enemies but at those whose purposes are closest to his own. Such unwillingness to discriminate, however, leads not only to an entropy of protest—a wasting of energy through friction—but to the kind of angry purism that can move us closer to the thing we struggle to prevent.

Paul Goodman replies:

No, it is not the bombs and the other deadly technology that make Americans numb; it is because they are numb, affectless, callous, narrow that they make the bombs and misuse scientific technology. My remark about “psychic numbing” as a rationalization was not aimed pointedly at Dr. Lifton himself but at his sentences about professionals and technologists. We are dealing here with many thousands of scientists who do the research under bad auspices; of great universities that batten on it; of hundreds of thousands of unionized workmen who do not protest; of millions of Americans who pay the taxes. We must explain their affectlessness by their institutions, the centralizing social organization, competitive economy, suburban privatism, processing schooling, consumer ideology, prejudices; in brief, by the American way of life which is a cotton-batting against the flesh-and-blood reality of their actions. They are not numbed by what they see on the TV screen; they gobble it up for dinner, with the ads, because they are numb. They are all of a piece.

I agree with Dr. Lifton, however, that “we” and “they,” whether or not to identify with the Americans, is a tragic problem. It happens that I am religiously American, a Jeffersonian anarchist; and I guess that I have written more patriotic purple passages than any other good American writer alive. Nevertheless, because of forty years of harsh and conflictful public life, I think I am not answerable for “those” people. (Really, my review was not a casualty of the Vietnam war; I have been writing it since a boy.) Dr. Lifton feels that he is answerable; I think he is too, and I called him on it—perhaps with some effect. I doubt, too, that I am afflicted with “messianic despair,” just messianic grit: we call what we do Resistance to Illegitimate Authority.

In university gabble, “Yale” stands for students who are very hip, point out all the dilemmas, conclude that nothing can be done, and get cushy jobs. I ought not to use it so sarcastically about Dr. Lifton just for a literary joke. Yet consider his remarks here again about the Japanese peace movement. The issue is not whether or not these difficulties exist; of course they do; but given the doom-laden fact of our lives, it is appalling, inadmissable, that it is so; we will it to be otherwise. Practically: since there is so much youth unrest around the world, I urge the young to find themselves as an international movement, to transcend national and ideological boundaries, and to get rid of these bombs or they will never have a chance to live.

I did not “accuse” the doctor of orthodoxy. I pointed out that he demonstrates the usual defense-mechanisms—the list which I drew from his interpretations is nearly the list in Anna Freud’s book on the subject—and I judged that this was perfectly adequate psychoanalysis, though routine. I then went on to praise highly his “endlessly interesting” material which “recreates a remarkably total traumatized environment.” He now says that he wanted to “explore every ramification” and give “all aspects.” To my mind, he succeeded; I said so.

It is unfortunate, however, that he does not here return to his broader and more touchy theme, how we are coping with the homeless dead. It was at this level that I found him preaching a bad religion, which I compared to an imperialist stoicism. To call me wild simply means that he is unaware of the dimensions of what he is doing. He would be wise to risk that there might be something in what I say, to try it on for size.

My own objection to his psychology was a quite orthodox one. As I read his protocols, I think he underestimates the confusion, the intellectual and sensory panic, the sheer loss of meaning; it seems to me that a good deal of the “neurosis,” including the “guilt,” is a safeguard against psychotic breakdown. I agree (and said so) that guilt, self-hatred, suspicion of help as counterfeit, etc. are characteristic of oppressed and victimized peoples; but on the evidence he gives in his book, these people seem to have experienced something more drastic than victimization. They are crazy in that they are not “all there”; they are inspired in so far as what they see is true.

Dr. Lifton is in error, I do not have “my” Hiroshima. My interest in Hiroshima, as well as my information about it, comes almost entirely from his book. I do, however, have “my” atom bomb—reinforced by contact with thousands of young people brought up since 1945: it is a deep disbelief that any solution for our troubles will come from sociologists or statesmen without an amazing change of spirit. I was struck at hearing this note so clearly from Hiroshima. Of course these people have not yet heard a true prophet; if they had, I too should have heard him, for it is the nature of a prophet to make himself heard.

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