Resilience, Recovery, and the Death Camps

3/9/09

I continue with reflections on some of the essays collected in The Unbroken Soul (see my preceding post).  In the entry below, dated when I first wrote it, I am concerned with an article by Henry Krystal, exploring the experiences of Nazi death camp inmates for insights into the interconnections of resilience, survival of trauma, and recovery from it.  The entry consists primarily of citations from Krystal, with only a few sparse remarks of my own along the way.  Because of the paucity of the latter in my journal entry itself, it may be helpful to say a bit more here about what interests me in the essay at issue.

In short, what interests me is the possibility of extrapolating, from remarks such as Krystal’s, a perspective addressing human life as such, and not just life in what can all too easily be dismissed as “extreme situations,” such as inmates faced in the Nazi death camps.  Insofar as human life is viewed as, say, Heidegger views it (to use what is, for me, the prime example), there is something irreducibly “traumatic” about human life as such.  

Heidegger’s vision of human being is that we come to ourselves only by recovering our very selves from an initial lostness–lostness of ourselves to ourselves.  We start out finding ourselves cast away into the world, as it were, and into fascination with what we find there.  In effect, although Heidegger never puts it in these terms, what comes “first” for us is the traumatic rupture from ourselves, and it is only “later”–only “belatedly,” to  use a Freudian, not Heideggerian, way of putting the point–in day to day recovery of ourselves from out of such rupture, that we become for the first time who we have always been.  My favorite definition of walking is that it is continuous, controlled, forward stumbling.  Something similar, I think, applies to the relationship between Heideggerian “authenticity” and “inauthenticity,” in that the former is an ongoing daily process of recovery of oneself from out of the lostness of the latter.  Life itself, humanly lived, is the daily practice of recovery from the trauma that thus defines human being. 

From such a perspective, the “extremity” of the inmates’ life in the Nazi death camps ceases to be a matter of such camps constituting, happily, a rare and unusual–if not unique–situation, the very rarity of  which all too easily allows us to forget about it as we go about our common, usual lives.  Instead, the extremity at issue becomes a matter of how decisively the fact of the camps cuts through all the darkness in which the trauma of life, in the sense of the traumatic nature of human life as such, typically wraps itself.  What would then be extreme about the camps would not be the life-situation of those unfortunate enough to get taken there.  It would be, rather, the clarity with which the situation of human life as such is revealed there.  

These matters continue to occupy my thoughts, and to become explicit in many of my posts, past, present, and to come.  

 

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Henry Krystal, “Resilience:  Accommodation and Recovery,” Ch. 4 in The Unbroken Soul, p. 52:  “Returning to the process of trauma . . . :  If the effort to arrest the progression of the traumatic state failed [in efforts up to and including what he calls “the robot state” in the death camps, where one just did what one was told, like a robot], the deepening of it manifested in a growing numbing of pain and painful emotions, followed by a loss of all vestiges of self-reliance, initiative, and agency.  The empowerment to  say ‘no’ and to carry out self-defense was progressively lost.  At a certain point the traumatic closure reached a malignant state, with the blocking of all mental functions:  cognition, registration of perceptions, recall, scanning, information processing in general, planning, and problem solving.  Finally, just a vestige of these functions was retained, with some capacity for self-observation.  If the traumatic process continued, all vitality was suppressed, and the individual succumbed to psychogenic death, with the heart stopping in diastole.”

Insofar as life is as such traumatic, what he describes here is a matter of life dying of itself, so to speak.

 

On the very next page (53) he distinguishes the mode of “psychogenic death” he has just described from the “Musselmann”:  In the first case,”there was a direct progression of the traumatic process toward death, following a  universal pattern common to the entire animal kingdom.  By contrast, the Musulman death pattern followed the exhaustion of all emotional resources and manifested in an observable pattern of ceasing necessary survival behavior.  Sometimes, just before death, the Musulman manifested an ineffectual rage, indiscriminately lashing out at anyone who happened to be around him.”

He adds:  “For those who managed to arrest the traumatic process [short of either form of death just described] in the robot state and had to live in this condition for a significant time, there were consequences that were to last the rest of their lives. Survival in the face of an impasse, a ‘no exit’ situation, takes  place in a state of ‘psychic dosing off.’  Survivors undergo symbolic death in order to avoid physical or psychic death.  Such cataclysms result in a permanent ‘death imprint,’ desensitization, and identification with death and with the dead.” 

In his earlier work, [he tells us], he has explored and elaborated “the idea of a ‘stimulus barrier,’ not as a passive bar, but as the totality of potentially mobilizable defenses.  Signal affects are the essential sensory, monitoring, and regulatory signals or ‘switches’ in information processing.”  They “do not stop totally in the traumatic state.  Indeed, and always, we have to create our mental representation of everything we behold.  We must maintain our psychic reality, as it is the only knowable reality.”

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