Robert J. Lifton on “Superpower Syndrome”

6/19/09

Following up on the series of my six preceding posts on Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, this is the first of two posts on a later work of the same author, written after 9/11–Super Power Syndrome:  America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World (New York:  Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003).  I first wrote the entry below in my philosophical journal on the date indicated.

 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lifton, Super Power Syndrome, p. 19:  “The image of apocalypse has been so much with us because we are meaning-hungry creatures who know that we die, and we fervently seek a place for our deaths in the cosmic order.  Individual deaths, when associated with the death and rebirth of the world, can take on special significance and high nobility.”

Against that, the acknowledgement that all death is in vaincould help.  [That is my observation, not Lifton’s.]

P. 22–When apocalyptic ideas take on an interventionist activism:

The evil being confronted is viewed as something like an enemy army, which must not only be defeated but, since ever ready to regroup, annihilated.  For that task one requires what the writer James Carroll calls “god-sponsored violence”–violence that is both unlimited and holy.  As individuals and as a group, then, apocalyptics merge with God in the claim to ownership of death.  That is, they claim the right not only to murderous purification but to make all judgments concerning who is to die and who is to be permitted to survive.  This ownership of death comes to include ownership of meaning and of all aspects of life.

Perhaps all claims to ownership finally involve, as their inner sense, the claim to such ownership of death.

 

Pp. 140-141, on “what I call death guilt (frequently termed ‘survivor guilt’)”: 

Death guilt has to do with others dying and not oneself, or with remaining alive when one  has been close to death (and was “supposed” to die).  It has to do with what I would call failed enactment:  one’s inability at the moment of the disaster to act in the way one would have expected of oneself (saving people, resisting the  perpetrators), or even to have experienced the expectable and appropriate emotions (strong compassion for victims, rage toward perpetrators).  Death guilt begins with, and is sustained by, this “failure”; the memory can be endlessly repeated psychologically, and although somewhat ameliorated over time, is never completely erased.

As this passage indicates (and as Lifton suggests even more strongly in a note at the bottom of the same page, where he writes:  “There has been much confusion over ‘survivor guilt’ and related terms because they can be erroneously understood to suggest actual  wrongdoing, as opposed to guilt feelings, which are psychological manifestations of self-condemnation, however undeserved”), in this recent work, Lifton drops what I take to be fruitful indications in his earlier book Broken Connections that “survivor guilt” is a non-pathological form–or at least can be–of guilt, rather than involving a split between experienced and “real” guilt.

Here, then, he falls back on an equation of guilt with “wrongdoing.”  Thus, in the very next line on p. 141 he writes, “Guilt feelings [of “death guilt”] are closely bound up with a sense of debt to the dead, a debt that can never quite be repaid.”  So, here, he splits “guilt” and “debt,” which he connected, on the basis of their common etymological German root [the common root of Schuld (guilt) and Schulden (debts)], in Broken Connections.

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