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THE PROTEAN SELF by Robert Jay Lifton

THE PROTEAN SELF

Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation

By Robert Jay Lifton

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 1993
ISBN: 0-465-06420-5
Publisher: Basic

 Noted psychiatrist and author Lifton (Psychiatry and Psychology/John Jay College) contends that the self is less traumatized by modern rootlessness than we might expect. Lifton's preoccupation with the macabre in his work on survivors of the Holocaust (The Genocidal Mentality, 1990, etc.) and Hiroshima brought to his attention the phenomenon of human resilience in the wake of the most terrible suffering. Here, he offers a sustained study of how people manage to take up new attitudes and endeavors in response to the constant change and instability of modern, especially American, life. Drawing on interviews with poor blacks, social activists, and the children of immigrants, and quoting Zeitgeist figures like Paul Klee and Andy Warhol, he argues that the self turns out to be surprisingly malleable: In true American fashion, it continually evolves into new possibilities. For Lifton, such transformation involves personal choice and effort, and the ``protean'' path is taken when we're open to change and respond positively to the lack of bearings in our world. Noteworthy here is the author's balanced and perceptive analysis of religious fundamentalism as a negative psychological response to change--but although he acknowledges that ``proteanism'' has its dark side, many of his informants seem to owe more to Kerouac than to Ben Franklin, and thus belie his basically upbeat tone. Moreover, while Lifton no doubt wants readers to make up their own minds, his text is so overburdened with quotes that it's easy to lose track of what he's trying to say. In particular, he doesn't tell us exactly what he means by ``symbolization,'' by his vision of the greater ``species'' self, or, for that matter, by the ``self'' itself. An almost convincing account of how to make virtue out of a necessity.