Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #4

6/12/09

This is the fourth in my series of posts of philosophical journal entries I wrote last fall concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  As was true for the journal entry in my immediately previous post, the first entry below begins with a remark about Alain Badiou, before shifting to Lifton.  The two entries below were written at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, near Abiquiu, New Mexico, where I have been making personal retreats for years.

 

Thursday, October 28, 2008–at Christ in the Desert

During Vespers here yesterday, it struck me that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ could  be taken in the sense I’ve been exploring a bit in recent entries on the “reality” of what is experienced–or, better, on “reality,” period.  That is, the resurrection could be taken to be the revelation to the apostles and then generations of the faithful that suffering, destitution, and pain are not “ultimate reality,” any more than, for Badiou [see my immediately preceding post], “the sad passions” such as “death and depression” are “loyal feelings,” or “licit passion” (so they are il-licit!).  The resurrection–which, for Badiou’s own account, is the sole truth [which Badiou, however, insists did not “really” happen] that makes of the human animal Saul, the subject Paul, with claim to universality–would then be the event of just that truth, at the very heart of the crucifixion itself, dispelling the later as “a dream one wakes from,” to borrow [again] from the Psalms.

 

Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, on Dr. Ernst B., the Auschwitz doctor who was able to help and rescue many, to become, in the words of one survivor, used as the title for this chapter in Lifton’s book, “a human being in an SS uniform”–p. 333: 

An important part of B.’s post-Auschwitz self and worldview is his unfinished business with Auschwitz.  His conflicting needs are both to continue to explore his Auschwitz experience and to avoid coming to grips with its moral significance.  His insistence that Auschwitz was not understandable serves the psychological function of rejecting any coherent explanation or narrative for the events in which he was involved.  He thus remains stuck in an odd post-traumatic pattern:  unable either to absorb (by finding narrative and meaning) or to free himself from Auschwitz images.

But isn’t that, indeed, how it is with all trauma, finally?  One cannot get past it!  One cannot “free” oneself from its “images” (and note how the ability of “finding narrative and meaning” for any trauma is just a way to “free”oneself from it–or, more accurately, to bury and avoid it).  (Lifton himself knows this, as his comments on p. 13, which I site in an [earlier] entry, shows, to give one good example.)  Isn’t that what [Eric] Santner [in his Psychotheology of Everyday Life], for example, distilled from his reading of Freud with Rosenzweig?  And doesn’t Santner’s analysis point to a “recovery” from trauma which respects it, so to speak, by neither explaining nor otherwise avoiding it, in its very inexplicibility and one’s own “stuckness” on it?

Related:  Lifton’s book came out before, a few years later, [Claude] Lantzman’s [film] Shoah, and Lantzman’s argument that any attempt to make Auschwitz “understandable” is a blasphemy, tantamount to compounding the brutality of the camps and the “Final Solution.”  That would complicate Lifton’s picture here,  and I’m curious what he thought of  Lantzman’s film and assertion.

There may be some advantage in distinguishing two different places from and in which one can get traumatically “stuck.”  One such place would be that of the perpetrators, to which in some sense Ernst B. continues to belong despite his attempts at (relative) “humanity” in his role there (as Lifton correctly insists).  From that place, as Lifton suggests in the quote I began with, there is a definite self-serving (by way of self-exculpating) dimension of “payoff” that comes from denying the explicability of Auschwitz.  But precisely for that reason, the specific nature of the stuckness at/from this locus is basically an exploitation of the very inexplicability at issue. 

In contrast, there is the place of the victim, where no such  exploitation occurs in the acknowledgement–here, genuine; when exploitative, disingenuous–of the inexplicability.  And it is here, in this place, if anywhere, that any “resurrection” must occur. (As, perhaps, it does in D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel?  I’m not sure:  Need to look at that novel again, maybe.)

 

Wednesday, October 29, 2008–at Christ in the Desert

Yesterday, a propos Lifton, I forgot to note this thought that came to me when reading the passage I cited yesterday:

It is as if Auschwitz mirrors an event of truth, most especially in its “excessiveness,” its irreducibility to any explanation.  Because it (Auschwitz–and other [pseudo-?]events like it) mimics truth in that way, the illusion of it–specifically, it’s being “how things really are“–can only be dispelled by the event of a genuine truth, one that dismisses the illusion as a phantom.

There is also, perhaps, a sense in which such points of the mocking mimicry of a truth-event opens, despite its mimicking intentions, a site for the striking of truth.