As human beings, says the eminent Yale psychiatrist, we seek an immortality system, a means of perpetual connection. Yet...


THE BROKEN CONNECTION: On Death and the Continuity of Life

As human beings, says the eminent Yale psychiatrist, we seek an immortality system, a means of perpetual connection. Yet that connection shows signs of strain to the breaking point. The traditional modes of achieving personal immortality--through family, religion, creative works, an appreciation of the natural world, or transcendent experience--are threatened by all too evident signs of separation (disconnectedness), disintegration, and stasis: what Lifton calls ""death equivalents"" in life. A major contributing factor, he feels, is the presence of nuclear arms, posing a threat, now, of group annihilation. Such views may not be surprising in a scholar who has devoted so much time to the study of survivors--of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam--and of noteworthy suicides such as that of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. For Lifton, these traumatic confrontations with death are focal points in a continuum--an ongoing life-death dialectic characteristic of the human condition. Survivors bear the taint of death as well as feeling guilt that they have been spared. They may experience anxiety or rage, become victims or victimizers. In their trauma they exemplify a kind of existential either-or present whenever we experience strong emotions, from the infant's experience of anxiety at separation from mother, to the more elaborate feeling states of depression and despair in adulthood. The emotions, interpreted in terms of death imagery by Lifton, can serve either as animating forces to enrich life or as the means by which the individual becomes stuck in psychic numbness, death equivalents, various denials or defenses--and thereby in violence, suicide, or schizophrenia. Thus Lifton's focus on a life-death dialectic becomes the ground and center of a new analytic paradigm--one that serves to de-emphasize Freud's stress on sexuality and instinct. In subsuming all under the new life-death rubric, however, Lifton is subject to much the same criticism as Freud: everything cannot be so explained, and much may simply be explained away. But this is, regardless, an impressive and often persuasive achievement.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1979


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979