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?

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.

This Issue

March 28, 1968