After the Bomb
Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima.
by Robert Jay Lifton.
Random House. 594 pp. $10.00.
The premise of this book, that extraordinary historic events must have extraordinary psychic effects, seems at once plausible and difficult to apply. But, in fact, the 20th century simplifies the problem. When all the major events of an era are massacres, the majority of those who take part in these events experience the single and incommunicable effect of death, and only a manageable few go on to experience psychic effects. In 1962, Robert Jay Lifton conducted interviews with seventy-five adults, men and women, who had lived through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The names of thirty-five were selected at random from the lists of survivors, while the rest were chosen on the basis of their known interest and competence in discussions of the atomic bomb. The Japanese, clinging to some anachronistic delicacy in these matters, prefer not to emphasize the advantage of the living over the dead and therefore call these people, as they are called in the book, hibakusha, “explosion-affected person (s),” rather than survivors.
The details of the actual bombing furnished by Death in Life render its first emotional effect, “psychic numbing,” entirely convincing. Those who retained consciousness in the hours and days succeeding the blast lost for that time the capacity to feel for others—obviously, there was too much to feel for them to feel anything. This numbing enabled some hibakusha to deal with the revolting bodies of both wounded and dead, but it also enabled most hibakusha not to deal with these bodies. Dr. Lifton speaks at one point of an “addiction to survival”—on this universal drug, the living Japanese fought to live longer. The same self-concern at the core of their panic is stated even more explicitly in Robert Jungk's Children of the Ashes: in absolute terror, adults trampled children. It seems clear, both here and in other accounts of the bombing, that the only social bonds which held were those of the family.
In this sense of shock by catastrophe, the term “psychic numbing” is generally understood and accepted. Familiarity perhaps lends the term its vagueness as well. “Psychic numbing” is also applied in Death in Life to those persons who arranged the atomic bombing, and, ultimately, to all persons in modern society who evidence restrictions in feeling—as these restrictions appear not only in military euphemisms of pain and death, but also in such civilian responses as psychosomatic illness and insanity. All may be considered, Dr. Lifton argues, ways of continuing to live (or half-live) rather than of succumbing to the knowledge of death, but strictly, at the moment of Hiroshima, there must have been a psychological (as well as a moral) difference between those inured to the administration of death and those stunned beyond pity by the sight of sudden death. This was at least the difference between experience and naivete, habit and surprise. And such a distinction must still persist between psychic modes of inflicting and of enduring pain. Victimizers and victims may both be “numbed,” but they arrive at the same condition from the opposite directions of power and vulnerability.
A second distinct effect upon the hibakusha was that of personal, national, and finally racial humiliation; and in this retrospective effect the image of the United States loomed larger, ironically, than it had in the original effect of suffering. A weapon had been used whose power was imperfectly gauged before its use. Therefore, soon after the war, an American organization called the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) was established in Hiroshima, and hibakusha were examined by its staff. The hibakusha stripped, gave blood samples, and exhibited the pink, rubbery scars which are called “keloids.” They hoped for some treatment (which did not, in fact, exist) and took scrutiny in its place. Their tabulated injuries seemed merely to increase American understanding of the bomb's capacity to injure. The humiliation of the bomb itself (which suggested the cheapness of Japanese, if not of Asiatic, death) gave onto this humiliation of the ABCC (which suggested the insignificance of Asiatic life as well).
Out of this humiliation, the hibakusha have come to dwell upon what Dr. Lifton calls “Svengali” (American) associations and (Japanese) “guinea pig imagery.” But what remains obscure in this psychic effect, is the dividing line between actuality and exaggeration—i.e., the point at which real disregard became a disregard only supposed by the Japanese. The use of the word imagery in Death in Life is crucial to this problem: it seems to be a mental process which is at once unavoidable and unsubstantiated—as though fact or truth always stood apart and observed in silence its distortions in the human consciousness, as in a false mirror. The mind, evidently, has no choice but to generate either life-promoting (desirable) or life-retarding (undesirable) images, but the relation of either set of images to reality, or to degrees of validity in the judgment of reality, is not easily determined.
This alienation of the Japanese from the United States is more ambiguous and more variable than the hibakusha's alienation from non-hibakusha. In a final chapter, which reverts to the term survivor, Dr. Lifton finds this type of alienation throughout World War II, emerging from the London blitz even as from the Nazi concentration camps. Victims appear to enter a caste of victims—as though, once damaged by other people (or by disease or accident?), the damaged can never reunite with other people. The fortunate, as we have known before, draw insensibly apart from the unfortunate: the well from the sick, the cheerful from the mournful, the rich from the poor. And the hibakusha have been, many of them, all of these—sick, sad, and poor. (It was the “inner city” of Hiroshima, the common, crowded, laboring heart of the place, over which the bomb directly exploded.) Moreover, many hibakusha bear the atomic stigmata of the keloid scars, and all are especially vulnerable to leukemia, if not to other types of cancer. And to marry a hibakusha involves the radical, though still unconfirmed, fear of abnormal children. The victims smell of trouble and death, and the non-victims recoil from contact with them, out of dread of dying too.
However, the hibakusha's isolation has been not only imposed but acquiescent. It becomes clear in Death in Life that they are possessed: they have experienced what they cannot forget and cannot describe. The most articulate insist upon the unspeakable nature of their past. Naturally, then, they gravitate toward other hibakusha, who need not be told anything. But at the same time, inimitable knowledge of the bombing prompts a distrust of all efforts to discuss it, and of all efforts to sympathize with it. Dr. Lifton emphasizes the hibakusha's childlike hunger to tell and to be cared for, and their adult sense of the inadequacy or falsity of words (“selling the bomb”) and of help, which they dismiss as “counterfeit nurturance.” (Surely the word is nurture, not nurturance?) Hence, the hibakusha seem inhabitants of a sealed psychic sphere, like a bomb itself, in which they cannot hear properly or be heard.
Within this sphere, they are further impeded by the two emotions which dominate this book, “death anxiety” and “death guilt.” Both of these are considered here, reasonably enough, to be consequences of an extraordinary “death immersion.” Thereafter, each hibakusha has remembered death, feared death, and imagined his own death and that of other persons and other populations, more than the rest of us, us non-hibakusha, ever do. At the same time, each suffers intense guilt, not only the guilt of having lived while others died (“guilt over survival priority”), but also of having mistreated the dead. The lively replacement of “psychic numbing” is a revulsion from the self which was previously capable of indifference.
This sensation, Dr. Lifton indicates, is more complex in Japan than it might be, say, in Chicago or Los Angeles. It was our destiny, as actions used to be called in history books, to dehumanize for a time people who valued a meticulous courtesy to both the living and the dead. The American might feel the same guilt as the Japanese for having ignored the wounded, but probably not the same guilt for having (in such a situation) ignored the dead. But the Japanese dead are cultural presences. The souls of the bombed, restless, in every sense disoriented, and gravely displeased by their manner of dying, continue to live in the minds of the living. As we say to comfort, “He died instantaneously,” the Japanese says, “He was not given time to contemplate his death.” And all burial ceremony had been suspended. Bodies utterly vanished or putrefied in piles throughout the city before they were burned, like diseased cattle, en masse. So the hibakusha appears, in this account, incapable of moving past these brutalities, immobilized by regret and remorse. One observes, incidentally, that national and even racial emotions of anger, humiliation, and hostility are superficial in comparison to these emotions of anxiety and guilt—the basic liabilities, first of life and then of love.
Altogether, Death in Life exemplifies the virtues of formal scientific study: the collection of invaluable evidence, its intelligent organization and conscientious analysis. The primary concern of the book is psychoanalytic. Has this bombing experience kept the hibakusha from the fullest exercise of their powers? Has it atrophied their daring? Has it left them incapable of “mastery”—i.e., of any psychic formulation of their experience which might enable them to function as competently as people outside of Hiroshima? The conclusion is yes, and it receives support from the ways in which the hibakusha live and speak. Generally, Dr. Lifton's interpretation of their statements is persuasive.
At the same time, every book legitimately creates its own world out of the world it examines. In this second world of Death in Life, the constant repetition of the central terms, “death anxiety” and “death guilt,” in commentary upon the different voices of the hibakusha, becomes a psychic phenomenon in itself. It is difficult to describe the counterpoint, one might say, which develops between the hibakusha's statements and the book in which they appear. The one seems expressive, the other reserved; the one tentative, the other decided; the one pensive or agitated or bitter, the other flat and controlled. The presumably typical hibakusha retain idiosyncrasy; the individual writer seems to represent a group. These contrasts result from what might be called the reductive thrust, which is also the therapeutic intention, of psychoanalysis. That is, each hibakusha's words at least momentarily reflect him alone—even as his scarred face must be his alone. But to the analyst, the words of the patient are at once an entrance to, and an obscuration of, the essential matter: they are like a curtain which must be opened to find, for the sake of treatment, the reiterative symptoms of illness. And one feels in Death in Life an urge to treat and to cure. This is a natural predisposition toward these unfortunate people, but also a predisposition which encourages the immediate and invariable reduction of whatever a subject says to these two emotions, death anxiety and death guilt.
In time, this reduction becomes dull, but the argument of the book is too important for such a “reading” consideration. What is troublesome, however, at the argument's level is the sense that this diagnostic purpose, this determination to define what keeps the hibakusha from becoming well, unintentionally slights the qualities which they show as they are, in stasis, as permanently marred people. It does not seem to signify enough that, however dark their psychic space may be, their words frequently burst out of it with wit or grace or fire or perspicacity. Some of them ask questions and frame answers which would prove only moral sensitivity or philosophic intelligence in the well, but which in them seem always primarily to affirm illness. Death in Life is an admirable book within its discipline. But perhaps every discipline, as the word suggests, must to some degree confine humanity.