Surviving and Other Essays
by Bruno Bettelheim
Knopf, 448 pp., $15.00
It is a formidable task, being a survivor. The new lease of life is not given on the same terms as the old one. Bruno Bettelheim quotes a letter written to him by a half-Jewish woman who survived the Nazi occupation of Holland hidden in a Gentile family: “Again and again I have asked myself, ‘Why was I saved?’ ” A friend who had been a Resistance worker told her, “So that you prove for the rest of your life that it was worth being saved”; quite a burden to carry. And the survivor, the memento mori, can be an inconvenience: when Bettelheim came to the US in 1939 and tried to communicate his experiences inside the Nazi camps he was treated as unbalanced and paranoid, and his paper on the subject—later incorporated into The Informed Heart—turned down by one journal after another.
I wish in this book he had written more, and more directly, about the business of survivorship. He makes it clear that his whole life since his return from the inferno has been in one way or another concerned with integrating his experiences there into his life, making sense of them and using them for good, and that this is what links these collected essays; but in some places the connection is tenuous. Surviving is a selection of papers from his whole professional output, linked by this need to come to terms with Dachau and Buchenwald, and taking the place of the autobiography he was too reticent to write. The papers vary a good deal in interest and substantiality, and some of the slighter pieces, such as those on student revolt and on modern sexual mores, lapse at times into a series of dignified and worthy clichés. As a writer Bettelheim has always been pedestrian: he needs a theme on which he can spread himself, slowly and methodically deploying his special insights within a social or clinical setting.
Without doubt the most moving and important papers in this collection are those to do with the concentration camps and their aftermath; here Bettelheim speaks with absolute authority. The two most important ones are also the best known: “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” his first, horrific, and disbelieved paper which finally got into print in 1943, and the long piece published in The New Yorker in 1976 on a film of Lina Wertmüller’s that is set partly in a concentration camp. Between them they represent Bettelheim’s two great strengths: his totally realistic acceptance of the satanic in human beings and of the gross disintegrations of personality this can impose on others, and his simultaneous unshaken confidence in order and mutuality and reconstruction. He quotes, in a discussion of the value of art training in education, a jotting of Rilke’s:
Art cannot be helpful through our…concerning ourselves with the distresses of others, but in so far as we bear our own distresses more passionately, give, now and then, a perhaps clearer meaning to …