ROBERT JAY LIFTON, who is now a research professor in psychiatry at Yale, is best known for his study of the survivors of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, Death in Life. Lifton is an indefatigable author with a lively sense of history and a considerable capacity for assimilating and reordering huge amounts of information. What chiefly interests him is the reaction of human beings to extreme situations. His early work was concerned with "brainwashing" and reassuringly demonstrated how difficult it is to alter men's fundamental beliefs, even when prisoners are subjected to extreme psychological and physical pressure. He has also studied the psychology of the veterans of the Vietnam war.
His present concern, which follows naturally enough upon his previous studies, is with how man copes with the knowledge that his own death is inevitable. This new book is a long meditation on the theme of death, linking death and its imagery with the stages of life, with the various forms of neurosis and psychosis, and, above all, examining where we all are in relation to the most formidable death threat of all time, the nuclear "deterrent."
There are certainly some strange paradoxes in modern man's attitude to death. In Western culture, more of us than ever before survive to complete our life-span of 70 or more years, because contemporary hygiene, inoculation and antibiotics have rid us of so many infections. We no longer expect, as did our grandfathers, to lose a substantial proportion of our children in early life. And so, for us, death has become less of a constant preoccupation than it was for our ancestors. This means that, in spite of the nuclear threat, we have lost some of our capacity for coming to terms with death by means of ritual and symbol. In Holy Living and Holy Dying Jeremy Taylor wrote; "He that would die well must always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave; and then the gates of the grave shall never prevail upon him to do him mischief." What can such an injunction mean to modern man?
Lifton rightly dismisses as an oversimplification Freud's well-known remark that "in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality." Most of us, most of the time, are at least partially aware that death is inescapably overtaking us, but, as Lifton points out, we can come to terms with it by means of "symbolic perception of connections that precede and outlast that annihilation." One way is by what we leave after us, whether in books or in children. Reading what Lifton has to say about this, I was irresistibly reminded of Nikos Kazantzakis' wonderful description of the dying grandfather in his novel Freedom and Death. The old man, who knows he is dying, does so in public surrounded by friends, neighbors, children and grandchildren. "'The earth is opening, she wants, it seems, to shallow me. Let her swallow me, let her take her revenge! But she's not swallowing all of me! Look what I'm leaving behind!' He pointed to his daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, and great-grandchildren. 'A whole people! So I'm not worried about death. I've beaten him. The Devil's got the best of him!'" Compared with this 19th-century, 'primitive' death in a Craten village, how impoverished is one's own likely demise in a hygienic, impersonal hospital bed.
For his fellow psychiatrists, the most interesting part of this book will be Lifton's discussion of death and "death equivalents" in psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia and depression. A schizophrenic breakdown is often ushered in by dreams and fantasies of death and destruction. Schizophrenics, because of the weakness of their ego-structures, are particularly prone to be frightened of being overwhelmed by others -- of being "engulfed" or "petrified" as R. D. Laing would put it. Because they cannot face this kind of emotional annigilation, they withdraw from involvement with their fellows. But this overprotection of the self, paradoxically, leads to a psychic death in which the sufferer only lives in fantasy. Such extreme examples illustrate one of Lifton's main points, which is that man has to be able imaginatively to conceive of his own death if he is to be able fully to participate in life. In fact, from his study of the Vietnam veterans, Lifton concludes that "a sense of renewal, in which sensitivity to threat could combine with playfulness, erotic freedom, and deepened general awareness" followed as a consequence of a real confrontation with the threat of dissolution.
This is a long, ruminative book, and some may be irritated by its circumlocutory style and the plethora of footnotes. However, Lifton has, from his unique investigations, begun a series of new formulations about the place of death and death imagery in human psychology; and this is an apt and salutary message for our times.