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Stoicism and the Holocaust

In his book on Moses, Martin Buber holds that the Bible story cannot be taken literally yet is not unhistorical: something happened that was, to those people, supernatural or crazy, and the account we have received was their attempt to cope with the experience, to regain their wits, to reconstitute themselves in the world that had been transformed. Reading these interviews from Hiroshima collected by Robert Jay Lifton of Yale, I have no doubt that those people too experienced something crazy and supernatural on August 6, when they were unprepared, thinking of other things, and their senses and passions had to confront existentially what their categories of understanding were not adequate to—this is Kant’s definition of the sublime.

The evidence is clear that the experience was religious, metaphysical. Lifton interviewed about seventy people, uneducated folk like shopkeepers, peasants, housewives, outcast boys; and educated professionals like physicists, sociologists, writers, preachers. There is little essential difference in the reports; again and again we hear the familiar topics of theology. They insist—it is seventeen years later—on the abiding presentness of the event. They refuse to betray the sacred literalness of its detail. The event was Great, some could even speak of a “quicker happiness” in the sense of awakening from the illusions of this world. They are Chosen People. Many have stigmata like marks of the Lord Jesus. They form a mystical fellowship with a mission. They are a sacrifice. They are to be liberators of the out-caste and apostles of peace. They are despised but they are the stone that the builders rejected. They are dead to this world. “The city,” says the Mayor (of Nagasaki), “has been rebuilt under the protection of the souls of the dead.” One must be morally perfect and not sell the experience to money-changers. Indeed, according to some, any speech and self-initiated or socially initiated effort are a profanation. One must safeguard purity by refined taboos, e.g., not wear nylon stockings for they are made by DuPont. Yet since there has been a reversal of values, it is incumbent on people to “despoil the Egyptians,” e.g., to operate on the black market. The matrix of human existence has broken down; there has been a wound in the order of being: one cannot live unless there are a new heaven and new earth. “I saw actual hell in this world.” Traditional religion, Buddhist or Catholic, cannot cope with the new fact. The new dispensation belongs to all mankind. “The A-Bomb represents the termination of Western thought.” But some day the lion will lie down with the lamb—

They dream:
that those swine in man’s shape
who do not know how to use the power from the earth’s center except for slaughter
survive only in illustrated books for the little ones.
That the energy of ten million horsepower per gram
be delivered out of the atom into the hands of the people.
That the rich harvest of science
be conveyed, in peace, to the people
like bunches of succulent grapes
wet with dew
gathered in
at dawn

—this Isaiah-like vision is by Sanchiki Toge. A rainbow will shine after the black rain. Even before the Bomb, in the ordinary past, we were not living—it was a delusion; but a man keeps seeing an indelible still photograph of his innocent childhood: it is fixed—until the new world in which to come alive.

The elect saints, in communion with the dead who are also present because they took part in the real event, are meantime purgatorially trapped in the meaningless interim of current history. Presumably they are awaiting a new prophet who will make possible a transfigured life that is not at all like the politics of Japan or the United States in 1962 or 1968, and not at all like the activity and ideas of Dr. Robert Lifton, Professor of Research in Psychiatry at Yale. While waiting, some sit silent and remember the wrathful theophany; others speak with the dead; others engage in Works which, though imperfect, are appropriate, like the peace movement. A fairly persistent feeling, a theme of novels and movies, is dismay, ranging from anger to nausea, at the arrogant world-view of masterful scientific technology, epitomized by the United States but of which, among Orientals, the Japanese were such apt monkeys.

Death in Life is itself a theological treatise, a meditation on how “to master death.” But the strategy of Dr. Lifton is to rob the elect of Hiroshima of their metaphysical experience in order to argue his own, and incidentally to denigrate any insight and discourage any action that they may have initiated from it. Put crudely, not in the always considerate style of the author, they are a bunch of neurotics and therefore cannot get out of their box. The strategy appears in the first pages. The Japanese term for those closely connected with the Bomb is hibakusha, a coinage meaning explosion-affected persons; they avoid being called “survivors” because, Lifton was told, it emphasizes the idea of being alive. This the doctor at once interprets as entirely “guilt over survival priority”—what right did they have to survive?—and proceeds to write a book on The Survivors of Hiroshima, ending with a chapter on the Survivor (mainly a comparison with survivors of the Nazi camps). Throughout, his harping on the guilt of surviving is extraordinary—he speaks of the “creation of a guilty community” in Hiroshima where, for instance, “nuclear testing reactivated this guilt.” It is an odd way of looking at it, as if it were the people of Hiroshima, rather than some others, who most have to cope with the guilt.

THE BULK of the 550 big pages is devoted to demonstrating the usual psychological defense-mechanisms against trauma: repression, denial, reaction formation, blotting out, hysterical conversion of affect to neurasthenia and hypochondria, screen memory, scapegoating and alibiing, self-hatred in order to avoid the anxiety of abandonment, identification with the power that has harmed one in order to avoid the anxiety of impotence, turning of anger against the self and becoming guilty. More aggressive responses like revenge or political action are put down as mere spite or quite impractical (as well as sometimes being Communist-inspired). The moral in almost every case is that therefore there is no transcendence of the trauma and no adjustment to the world as it is.

The psychoanalysis at this level is pretty good, though routine. It is repetitious but never boring, for the protocols on which Lifton works are endlessly interesting. They are personal histories, dreams, attitudes toward social welfare and other attempted help, economic attitudes, attitudes toward the Bomb-memorials and the new architecture of the city, protests and peace movements, typical leaders, and heroes, novels, poems, and movies. Death in Life is a very ambitious work and recreates a remarkably total traumatized environment. Within the limits of his own situation and character (I shall return to this) the analyst is empathetic. Some critics might object to the customary psychoanalytic sleight-of-hand that gets the patient coming and going: if he mentions something, aha! if he fails to mention it, aha! but I am satisfied that that is how it really is. Occasionally, especially in literary criticism for which he has a flair, Lifton is a more inventive psychologist, for instance when he shows how creative imagination is inhibited by a persisting past actuality, or in his fine appreciation of the elegiac mood that accords with his own.

YET LET ME MAKE a couple of critical objections to the psychoanalysis as such. In the first place, as I read these protocols, Lifton over-rates the importance of the neurotic mechanisms. Much of this neurotic behavior looks like “protection” from psychotic breakdown, or from vital breakthrough into the unknown, what I have called “religion.” (Freud called religion a “shared psychosis”: the crux, of course, is whether or not it is true, whether it works.) The shock of these people was far more intellectual, more surprised, astonished, crazy, dirempted from reality, than he allows. There is remarkably little hate or anger expressed, so I cannot buy the heavy emphasis on self-hatred and guilt; there is almost no suicide; Lifton himself points out that there is little scapegoating. One has the impression, rather, that the enormity of their experience has carried them into an area where they are not sure they have a world at all, so frustration or revenge are not the big deal, but just meaning. Again, Lifton develops at great length the concept of “counterfeit nurturance,” the belief of victimized people that the help and sympathy offered them is not authentic, is not loving of them as persons. This makes sense for oppressed peoples in general, but in the case of hibakusha we can hardly dissociate this suspicion from their being poisoned; they are not sure if there is a Mother Nature at all, or only a witch, and this is a psychotic state of mind.

Secondly, in this study Lifton continually adumbrates a metapsychology to which he will devote a forthcoming volume: the task of health, which he seems to equate with survival, is “to master death,” to achieve a formulation of symbolic immortality. This was, of course, the beginning insight of Otto Rank (who astoundingly is never mentioned in this book). Rank, however, seizes it with great power. He sees—with Spinoza, Kant, and Nietzsche—that the only way of transcending death is to leap, often into the unknown. It is to counter-will; in his phrase, to “terminate the analysis.” To try to “master” death is to be bogged down and not to live at all. Thus, speaking of artists, Lifton hits on, or borrows, Rank’s term “creative guilt,” which he says is “related to death symbolism, to the killing of old forms in order to give birth to the new.” This does exist among weak artists. But to Rank, the “guilt” of art is the anxiety of losing control, losing ego-boundaries, not unlike the fear of orgasm. Since the new is new, one cannot know whether it is acceptable and sane or insane and punishable—therefore artists feed on fame, which accepts them back into the community. Let me say the same thing in theological terms, which I find more congenial: one cannot “master” death; but one can either, like the Buddhists, methodically dissolve the ego and melt into Nirvana, or, like the Christians, foolishly risk agape and hope for resurrection. Immortality is an idol.

But the Mayor of Nagasaki quoted above was curiously Rankian when he said, “The city has been rebuilt under the protection of the souls of the dead.” This is Rank’s concept of the Building Sacrifice, as Romulus killed Remus, in order to have a soul, so the city can have a meaning and destiny. This is hardly guilt about the dead, as Lifton thinks; it is the right use of the dead. The dead are useful by their lives, their souls, not their deaths. This brings me back to the peace movement, the political and religious use of the dead at Hiroshima, the counter-will against the atom bomb and our world as it is. It brings me back, alas, to what is the chief subject of this review: what is it to write a book like Death in Life? what is it as a way of being in the world?

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