Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #5


Below is another entry from my philosophical journal–first written on the date indicated–on Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. 


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lifton’s analysis in The Nazi Doctors is excellent and important.  That is especially true of one of his closing chapters–the one he calls “Doubling:  The Faustian Bargain” (the first of three chapters in his third and final part, “The Psychology of Genocide”).  The whole chapter is well worth reflection.  Here are just some of my initial responses.

Lifton writes (p. 418):  “One is always ethically responsible for Faustian bargains–a responsibility in no way abrogated by the fact that much doubling takes place outside of awareness. . . . For the individual  Nazi doctor in Auschwitz, doubling was likely to  mask a choice for evil.”  This remark, with its insistence that responsibility extends even into what lies outside awareness (i.e., even to what is “unconscious”) opens upon a whole  new way of beginning to think through the notion of responsibility.  As the analysis he goes on to provide suggests, what needs to be brought into play in such a rethinking is a matter of the personal, egoistic “pay-off, in effect, of acting in a certain way and [that is already in play], most crucially, in the very structuring of awareness–of what will and will not come into awareness in the first place.  Along those lines he remarks,  for example (p. 419), “a major function of doubling, as in Auschwitz, is likely to be the avoidance of guilt:  the second self seems to be the one performing the ‘dirty work.’ ”

He goes on to differentiate “doubling” from “splitting,” but how he does so does not seem fully clear to  me.  I wonder if the key to the difference between the two  might not well be that “doubling,” as the last line I quoted just above suggests, would involve self-justifying, self-interested (in the proper sense:  a matter of “looking out for number one,” in effect) motives such as avoiding the sense of guilt, whereas “splitting”–the sort of thing abuse victims do when they “dissociate” (which term he mentions himself)–is a matter of self-preservation, to put it in short.  (Self-preservation as such entails no special  investment in “selfish interests.”)

Thus, on the very next page (420) he goes on himself to write: 

In general psychological terms the adaptive  potential for doubling [here clearly being used to name what is structurally common to “doubling” in the narrower sense I’m suggesting, where it’s coupled to self-interested justification, and “splitting”] is integral to the human psyche and can, at times,  be life saving:  for a soldier in combat, for instance; or for a victim of brutality such as an Auschwitz inmate, who must also undergo a form of doubling [i.e., what I’d suggest be called, not “doubling” at all, but “splitting,” following his  own distinction on the preceding page] in order to survive.  Clearly, the “opposing self” can be life enhancing [i.e., life preserving,  I’d say].  But under certain conditions it can embrace evil with an extreme lack of restraint.”

In the latter case–to which I’d confine the term “doubling”–what he writes two pages later (422) applies:  “In doubling, one part of the self ‘disavows’ another part.  What is repudiated is not reality itself–the individual  Nazi doctor was aware of  what  he was doing via the Auschwitz self–but the meaning of that reality.”  Later on the same page he goes on to  note that Auschwitz Nazi doctors “welcomed” doubling “as the only means of psychological function [short of  genuine resistance, that is–I’d add that crucial qualification].  If an environment is sufficiently extreme, and one chooses [note:  none of the victims had any choice] to remain in it, one may be able to do so only by means of doubling.”

On pp. 423-424 he writes: 

In sum, doubling is the psychological means by which one evokes the evil potential of the self.  That evil is neither inherent in the self nor foreign to it.  To live out the doubling and call forth the evil is a moral choice for which one is responsible, whatever the level of consciousness involved.  By means of doubling, Nazi doctors made a Faustian choice for evil:  in the process of doubling, in fact, lies an overall key to human evil.

I think he’s right about that.  And perhaps reflecting on how to avoid such evil should start with considering how, if what is at issue is guilt and responsibility for something occurring at the unconscious level, one can guard against the sort of motivated avoidance of knowing (or “willful ignorance” [to use the definition of stupidity John Hawkes gives in his novel Adventures in the Skin Trade in Alaska]) at issue in those [unconscious] processes:  How, that is, one can learn to recognize when one is (pre-)choosing to unleash and exploit just such unconscious processes.

Perhaps part of the answer to that question lies in the practice on a regular basis, until habituation occurs, of such things as the [AA] 10th step [of continuing to take “personal inventory” of oneself], or Ignatian examen of conscience, daily.


P. 458:  “The doctor’s [special, or especially frequent and intense] danger, we now see, lies in his capacity to double in a way that brings special power to his killing self even as he continues to anoint himself with medical purity.”  Thus, the Nazi doctor presents an emblematic instance of “a universal human proclivity toward constructing good motives [for oneself] while participating in evil behavior.”  And thus, too (p. 459):  “[E]ven as he killed,  every doctor’s Auschwitz self could retain some sense of mediating between man and nature and thereby saving life.”

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