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Stoicism and the Holocaust

THE SURVIVORS OF HIROSHIMA, Dr. Lifton has shown us, are certainly fucked up, but they are not so fucked up as Dr. Lifton. After all, it is rather much to drop an atom bomb on people and then to come and ask them how they feel about it.

Dr. Lifton is critical of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission’s research center; it should, he says, have been international rather than supported by the Army and the Atomic Energy Commission; it should have done therapy as well as research; it should have been devoted to peace. Inevitably, he says, the Japanese over-reacted; there were protests and strikes; they cried that they were being used as guinea pigs, that the scientists were Svengalis, that the United States was planning more nuclear war. To be sure, some of the protests were “politically motivated.” But did the people over-react? In reality, the ABCC was set up as it was set up, not according to Dr. Lifton’s fantasy. In reality, we have proceeded to magnify and stock-pile enough bombs to wipe out the world, and the present funding for scientific research in this country is overwhelmingly for weapons of destruction. We do treat the various gooks and niggers of the world like things. Obviously the crazy people are more in touch with the reality than the doctor is. Why does not Dr. Lifton protest and strike? (As a matter of fact, the section on the ABCC has seven plaintive footnotes to twelve pages, far beyond the doctor’s usual ratio!) A further detail: when Hiroshima was rebuilt, some people bitterly protested against the grand 100-meter parkway as out of keeping with the old spirit and simply a royal road to the ABCC up the hill, where the guinea pigs, reduced to IBM cards, were driven in plush limousines. Was this paranoia, as Dr. Lifton implies? Is the road not part of the technological package, and are not the people reduced to IBM cards? A repeated tactic of Dr. Lifton is to show that there is a “kernel of truth” in the neurotic response and then to disregard it. But I am afraid that often there is only a kernel of truth in Dr. Lifton’s diagnosis and the rough reality is with the “paranoid.”

By “politically motivated” he means, I take it, that the protest was not against the policy of the ABCC as such, but against the structure of society; therefore it was not bona fide. But what if the policy is inherent in the structure? It is. Assuming that Dr. Lifton is bona fide, we must say he is not bright about this.

He cites a hibakusha moralist: “We have come to the knowledge that we live and die in a common fate. The world, we now realize, is the ship we sail in together.” “The virtual impossibility of achieving this idea,” comments Dr. Lifton, “contributed to his confusion and despair.” What is he saying? Would he, if he gave counsel, counsel him to be realistic and face the facts? But these are the facts. Is it not somewhat demented to be detached in such a case, rather than to say, “Yes. How can I help?” But throughout this book, Lifton’s picky attitude toward the peace movement, toward desperate people acting with a fragment of sanity in a bland storm of madness, is morally problematic indeed. Politically, it is idiotic. At this level, politics has nothing to do with Communism and anti-Communism; it is the people of the world against the Powers of the world.

He comments on the fatal paradox of being Chosen People: “It is derived on the one hand from a sense of unique possession of the knowledge of death, and on the other from being untouchable because of death taint.” No, there is a simpler meaning that undercuts the paradox: “We take our mission seriously. You don’t.”

A MAJOR RECURRING THEME is “psychic numbing,” not noticing in order to survive, which Lifton understands both subtilely and with broad application. Let me quote at length an interesting passage from the concluding chapter:

Examining some of the larger issues surrounding psychic numbing, we recognize it as an important factor in the general neglect of the human impact of atomic bombing. I mentioned earlier my own need, in attempting to study these effects, for at least that degree of “selective numbing” that could be accomplished through focus upon my scientific task. Such numbing was, I suggested, essential to carrying out, the research, as it is to any work which deals with the problem of death, whether performing surgical operations or serving on a Red Cross rescue team. But here too there is the danger of “miscarried repair,” of “professional” and “technical” identifications leading to dangerous degrees of psychic numbing. A grotesque example was provided by the Nazi physicians who conducted brutal experiments upon living human subjects, and by those who conducted the “selections” which directly dispensed existence and nonexistence. To the question of how a doctor could lend himself to such activities, Bettelheim replies: “By taking pride in his professional skills, irrespective of what purpose they are used for.” The doctors in question had to focus upon these professional skills to prevent themselves from feeling. In a more indirect manner patterns of psychic numbing have surrounded the overall creation, testing, and military use (actual or planned) of nuclear weapons: a combination of technical-professional focus and perceived ideological imperative which excludes emotional perception of what these weapons do. It is no exaggeration to say that psychic numbing is one of the great problems of our age.

Because it is so pervasive in our lives, experiences which help us break out of it are greatly valued. This is another reason for the loving rumination by some Hiroshima and concentration camp survivors on painful details of their death immersions. For these memories are unique in that they enable one to transcend both the psychic numbing of the actual death encounter and the “ordinary numbing” of the moment. Similarly, those who open themselves up, even momentarily and from afar, to the actualities of death encounters, can undergo an intense personal experience which includes elements of catharsis and purification. On several occasions members of audiences I addressed on the Hiroshima experience told me later that their involvement in what they heard was so great that they resented subsequent speakers who dealt with more ordinary concerns. Their participation in the death anxiety and death guilt of those victimized had provided a highly valued moment of breakout from the universal psychic numbing.

This is thoughtful—and simply horrible. I do not think the first paragraph is in good faith. A surgeon or a rescue team, acting in an emergency with self-forgetful compassion, can go numb; but for the researcher this sounds very like a rationalization. He does not become numb in order to perform the task, rather he chooses to perform a task of a certain kind, in a certain way, and under certain auspices because he is already numb. And the kind of knowledge that eventuates is what comes from being numb and what serves remaining numb. Here we see, taken for granted, the corruption of autonomous ethical professionals to what I have elsewhere called professional-personnel, as if it were possible to practice the humane professions in this way. But what shall we make of the second paragraph? Have modern times come to this? Surely a man has a duty to revive himself by purging his own numbing tradition, training, and perhaps even Yale, rather than by looking to be moved by other people’s corpses. It seems a sinister use of the dead, to prove to oneself that existence is for real. Instead of compassion, which is a form of denial, we are invited to masochistic identification. With this kind of entertainment it is possible to go on with business as usual, including victimizing. It is a fair description of how “audiences” watch the war news on TV without protest.

If this response is common, and the Gallup and Harris polls indicate that it is, then the black separatists are right, white sympathizers ought to leave victimized colored peoples strictly alone.

Yet Dr. Lifton’s aim is a realistic one, to provide a practical philosophy of life for the American empire in conditions of high technology, when all persons are survivors and the problem, as he puts it, is “to undergo the survivor’s ordeal with honor and dignity. Through records,” he adds, “one can achieve that most difficult level of expression, authentic protest.” The fruit of psychiatric research is a new kind of Stoicism. Effectually we are back to Marcus Aurelius who fought the imperial wars because that was his station and its duties; he did not choose it but inherited it from Trajan and Hadrian and the divine Antoninus. It is also useful to have rituals to purge the damage that one cannot help but cause and see. In this universal purgatory, the difference is trivial between victimizers and victims: “Through the substance of the universe as through a torrent,” says the Golden Book, “pass all particular bodies. How many such as Socrates, Plato, and Epictetus hath the age of the world long since swallowed up and devoured! Of all my thoughts and cares, one only thing shall be the object: that I myself do nothing contrary to the proper constitution of a man.” For Marcus, however, apatheia was not merely psychic numbing, it was not a “problem,” but was the blessed state itself. Perhaps Dr. Lifton will work this out in his forth-coming volume. If so, he will provide a new religion for our scientists and other civil servants.

THE EFFECT of August 6, Dr. Lifton points out, has been contagious and we are all hibakusha, the Japanese, the Americans who came, the scientists of the world, he himself doing his research. Now one group of explosion-affected persons, whom he does not mention, are the young, for instance the students at Yale. An important difference between this group and the others is that they have lived their entire lives in the world transformed by the atom bomb; the possibility, the statistical likelihood, of total annihilation is for them part of the given nature of things. If he would investigate his students’ dreams, I predict, he will find that more than half of the individuals are “explosion-affected,” though, unlike us, they hardly talk about it.

The American young have not suffered “death immersion,” that is not the salient part of the experience. My impression is that two other metaphysical intuitions are more prominent. First, that their lives are built on sand, there is no use of making long plans, for instance seriously preparing for a profession as a way of life. Second, that Science has become evil, they are in thrall to the devil, Thrones, Dominions, and Powers; and this too, of course, negates the possibility of learned professions or a University. Students complain that their education is “counterfeit nurturance,” not attentive to them as persons; rather, they have been fed to the juggernaut.

When Oppenheimer said, “Science has learned sin,” he was making a disastrous theological proposition. Simply, for several centuries the non-rational religions had been losing their force, but this did not leave a vacuum of faith, for there arose at the same time the system of science which everybody believed in, which proved itself by its works, and which indeed was a chief means of discrediting the faiths that it displaced. In practice, for human happiness, the fruits of science were of course a mixed bag, but on balance rather benevolent, probably better than Jehovah or Jesus. For this generation, however, the balance of value has shifted fatally, the cult object has become an object of fright. The gaschambers could still be explained away as the work of an insane fanatic; but the atom bomb was a concerted effort of excellent brains with rational intentions. It is unnecessary to spell out the sequel. The fiendish weapons of the past twenty years (planned and actual) have been drawn from every branch of science from physics to sociology; the “useful” technology is more and more turning into an ecological and cultural calamity; and who can seriously doubt that the advances in genetics, pharmacology, and surgery will be used mainly to implement the provincial prejudices of moral morons?

I am writing this in 1968, a bad season for the Americans. Grave, judicious, and scrupulous, Dr. Lifton is an example of the best of them—I say, them—who at their worst are monstrous. But they are all of a piece.

Letters

Victims of Hiroshima April 25, 1968

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