BRUNO BETTELHEIM writes at the beginning of his first essay in this collection, "Unless philosophically inclined, people are content to take life as it comes when things go reasonaly well, preferring to evade the troublesome question of life's purpose or meaning . . . In times of trouble, however, the problem . . . forces itself on our awareness. The greater the hardship we experience, the more pressing the question becomes for . . . Death, life's ultimate denial, poses most acutely the problem of life's meaning."
Before arriving in this country in 1939, Bettelheim spent a year as a prisoner at Dachau and Buchenwald because he was, although an atheist, a Jew whose values were inimical and whose blood was despicable to the Nazi's totalitarian state. He had been arrested in the spring of 1938, immeadiately after the annexation of Austria, in his native Vienna, where he was born in 1903 and where he trained in the pyschoanalytic method. Later he came to the University of Chicago where he founded a highly successful institute for autistic children, the Othogenic School, and for many years taught education, psychology an psychiatry. He is the author of a dozen books, most recently an award-winning study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment (1977). He is renowed in his field and acclaimmed throughout the world, but is is the experience in the camps that has given his life its discentive coloration and direction. "This is the bock of a survivor, "he writes at the end; "hence its tittle." A survivor who bears witness.
The 24 essays in this eloquent collection were written over the last four decades; most of them have been previously published but many have been extensively revised. Their subjects are various: the teaching of art, the problem of privacy, the changing roles of men and women, the education of children, the design of living space, Lina Wertmuller's films, and, most especially, the "extreme situation: of the concentration camp experience, the war against the Jews and its after math. Whatever the ostensible subject, the essays pose a single, overriding, uniquely human and modern question: What does it all mean, if anything?
"So intricately, so inextrically interwoven are death and life's meaning," Bettelheim writes in "The Ulitmate Limit," "that when life seems to have lost all meaning, suicide seems the inescapable consequence . . . To have found meaning in life is thus the only certain antidote to the deliberate seeking of death. But at the same time, in a strange dialectical way, it is death that endows life with deepest, most unique meaning."
After World War I, Freud came to believe that death was a powerful a force in humankind as the love of life, and postulated a death drive that parrelled his concept of the life drives. Bettelheim revises this somewhat. "Actually, it is not the battle between the life and the death drives that governs man's life," he writes, "but a struggle of the life drives against being overwhelmed by death anxiety. In short, there is an omnipresent feat of extinction which threatens to run destructively the rampant when not successfully kept under safe control by our conviction of the positive value of life.
For society at large, the gas chambers and the first atomic bomb undermined this convection, becoming "the indicators of the ineffectiveness of our civilization's defenses against the reality of death. Progress not only failed to preserve life, but it deprived millions of their lives more effectively than had been possible ever before . . . It is most destructive to a person - and when it happens to many at the same time and in the same way, to an entire culture - when the beliefs which gave direction to life are revealed as unreliable, and when the psychological defenses which depended upon to secure physical and psychological well being and protect against death anxiety - psychological structure which in their entirety form our personality - turn out to be untrustworthy. That experience is sufficient to disintegrate a personality build up on the basis of these beliefs."
After such trauma, what integration? "To be in touch with the intolerable, and to remain psychologically whole," Lawrence L. Langer wrote in The Age of Atrocity, "is the vexing challenge that confronts us. To ignore the intolerable, as if death by atrocity were an aberration and not a crucial fact of our mental life is, to pretend an innocence that history discredits and statistics defame . . . (but) the painful experience of atrocity stubbornly opposes the lodging for reintegration and mutes the appeal of a future in limited hope.
It may oppose it, and indeed Bettelheim reports that "one group of survivors allowed their experience to destroy them; another tried to deny it any lasting impact; (but) a third engaged in a lifelong struggle to remain aware and try to cope with the most terrible, but nevertheless occasionally realized, dimensions of man's existence." Bettelheim himself obviously falls into the third group. He retained his identity during his year in the camps by bringging to bear on his new situation the powers of observation and analysis he had learned in his previous life. He has spent the 40 years hereafter integrating that experience auto his emotional and intellectual life - extracting meaning, in other words, from an ultimately incomprehensible experience. "I know that all attempts to extract meaning from life are to avery large measure into life," he writes in "Trauma and Reintegration." "This can occur only when and to the degree that a person is able to find meaning within himself which he can then project outward. One must invest life with meaning, so that one may be able to extract insight from it. This is not quite the circular or soliplistic process it sounds, because in order to derive meaning from life one has to arrange and organize it in a personal way. This organization then permits one obtain personal knowledge from one's relation to the world which goes beyond that which originally projected into it."
For a person's life to have "meaning," either imposed on it or extracted from it , one must have some control over it, some sense of autonomy, a belief that one's legitimate physical and emotional needs will be met - and not with denial or iindifference. That, of course, is only the beginning. For one to survive - at least under extreme conditions - one must want to survive for a purpose that transcends "the body's crude claims," as Bettelheim puts it in his title essay on Wertmuller's film, Seven Beauties.
"Self respect and being well integrated," he writes in an essay on talitarianism, "are the only psychological buttress which can prop us up, and give us the strength to keep going in a world that threatens us at all times with destruction." But when destruction is an active threat, one must behave appropiately and not as though a modified version of the old way of life might continue in spite of everything." That is what the Anne Frank family thought (or hoped) and acted upon to its peril and eventual destruction. They and many other Jewish families in Europe were unable to comprehend the horror of their true situation. "Anxiety, and the wish to contract it by clinging to each other, and to reduce its sting continuing as much as possible with their usual way of life incapacitated many, particularly when survival plans required changing radically old ways of living that they cherished, and which had become their only source of satisfaction."
Survical, in the sense of merely staying alive, is not enough. Beyond "the body's crude claims," Bettelheim would set the ability to choose good over evil (in the sense that most of us know what is good and what bad). "To be able to choose . . . and to feel guilty if one has failed to do so is decisive both for preserving our humanity and forgiving meaning to survival."
In the real world, thought and feeling cannot long be separated, for we do not read (or think) with our analytical minds only but with our heart as well. There were times when I found this wise and excellent book in expressibly moving, and at all times I found it deeply thoughful and deeply interesting. CAPTION: Picture, Photo of Bruno Bettelheim, Copyright (c) 1979, Jill Krements.