Wednesday, December 1, 1993

Book Review: Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self


First appeared in the Boston Globe.

Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (Basic Books, $25.00, 262 pgs)

Over the course of his long and influential career as a writer and student of the human psyche, Robert Jay Lifton has avoided detours, sidetracks and secondary phenomenon. He has proceeded unerringly toward the central lesions of the age — brainwashing, Vietnam, the nuclear threat, and “darkest of all,” by his own accounting, the mentality of Nazi doctors. 

Lifton’s new book, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, shares qualities of scope, centrality, and accessibility with its predecessors. It differs in that it is not concerned with yet another moment of human destructiveness operating at peak potential but instead with a psychological development that recommends itself to the author as an alternative to violence and as a source of hope.

“Violence,” writes Lifton, “always has an absolute quality: behavior is reduced to a single, narrow focus; and in that sense, violence is a dead end.” But dead ends are precisely what the protean self, the subject of Lifton’s new book, is constructed to avoid. The protean self is prey to maladies of its own, to be sure — superficiality, disintegration, and frustration, to name a few — but tunnel vision and the sheer failure of imagination are not among its most common complaints.

Proteus, as Lifton reminds us, was the Greek sea god who could fashion his watery substance into whatever shape he pleased. The Odyssey describes him as going from lion, to serpent, to leopard, to boar, back to water again, before ending up, for the moment, as “a tall green tree.”

Perhaps Proteus changes so often because he is ignorant of his true shape and hopes to discover it. Perhaps he shapeshifts to confuse his enemies, or perhaps this talent for mutability, this urge to be not one but many things, is a sort of a playful wisdom. Proteus sees not only the differences between things but also the pathways between them that allow for constant renewal and suggest the possibility of ultimate unity.

Proteus serves Lifton as a potent symbol for the form of the self best adapted to the “restlessness and flux” that characterize our age in relationships, in work, in questions of religious and political belief. The protean self has learned it cannot afford to be a stickler for uniformity in matters of identity. Instead it becomes psychologically agile. It appreciates disjointedness and juxtaposition in art (collage, mixed-media), and cultivates a sense of the self as a provisional agreement not yet ratified by the interested parties. It exists without the requirement of fixed or final form; like Proteus, it shapeshifts.

Whether by coincidence or by design Lifton’s book is structured much like the protean self it describes; the work achieves coherence only after flirting with fragmentation. The text is built up, to a large degree, out of quotations. Lifton has interviewed men and women of varied ages and occupations who exemplify one or another aspect of the protean experience. Each of his insights into the contemporary self is cycled through their commentary. This sometimes slows the book down but it anchors it as well. And the stories of those who have chosen openness and change — not without risk, and not without anxiety — over stasis and security eventually implicate the reader, supplying connections to and images of our own evolving paths.

The best lines in the book undoubtedly come neither from the author himself nor from his interviewees: They are the bits of well-chosen prose and poetry Lifton strews liberally throughout the text. Here, for example, is Salman Rushdie describing the making of meaning “out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved.” Here is Václav Havel marveling about his own curious career as writer, dissident, and politician: “How does it all fit together? Why don’t . . . paradoxical qualities cancel each other out instead of coexisting and cooperating with each other?” And here is novelist Don DeLillo observing that “when there is enough out-of-placeness in the world, nothing is out of place.”

It is not surprising that Havel and Rushdie emerge as protean personalities of special relevance for Lifton: In the face of the most determined assault by fundamentalists, in one case political, in the other, religious, both men have refused the invitation to be silent; both have continued to grow, to speak, to write, to matter.

Fundamentalism is the contemporary force Lifton finds to be most antagonistic to proteanism. It is the opposite response to crisis and disquiet. Proteanism confronts the threat of chaos by opting for greater permeability, by opening borders and developing a larger, more inclusive self. Fundamentalism shuts its borders down and patrols them round the clock.

With regard to violence, the differences could not be starker. Many of the protean personalities Lifton interviews live in dread of nuclear war and have developed some form of social activism partly in response. Many of the fundamentalists he interviews, on the other hand, see nuclear apocalypse as pre-ordained, a sign of God’s anger and the fiery gateway to another world.

Lifton does not present proteanism and fundamentalism as only inimical to each other; he sketches modes of mutual dependence. Fundamentalism lends a necessary sense of limitation, finitude, and permanence to the protean self; it helps defend against decomposition. Likewise proteanism is at work even in those areas fundamentalism has declared off-limits to change — otherwise fundamentalist stasis would result inevitably in death. As Lifton puts it, “proteanism is never absolute, and fundamentalism can never succeed in its agenda of complete purification.”

Fundamentalism has spawned an entire literature, as has postmodernism (a term Lifton uses somewhat interchangeably with proteanism). If Lifton’s new book had accomplished nothing else, it would be significant for having demonstrated what many already suspect, namely that fundamentalism and postmodernism (or proteanism) are reigning principles of contemporary culture. But the book takes matters a step further, linking fundamentalism and proteanism to the same historical crisis and making it plain neither can be understood in isolation from the other.

After giving fundamentalism its due, Lifton leaves no doubt about where his sympathies lie: It is to the emergence of the resilient and non-dogmatic protean self that this student of Hiroshima and Auschwitz turns in his new and important book with all his hope that humankind is not fated for catastrophe. 

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