"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

This Ghastly Age

I took the train to Washington, DC last week to give a paper on Orthodox-Muslim relations at the fifth annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), a splendid new organization bringing fresh and overdue attention to critical questions often overlooked by too many academics and others today. It was founded in 2007 thanks in significant part to the doyen of Islam scholars in North America, Bernard Lewis (whose memoirs I noted in the summer). (ASMEA, incidentally, is very committed to exploring further the questions, historic and current, of encounters between Islam and Eastern Christianity. Scholars interested in putting a panel together on this theme for next year's conference should contact me.)

It was a long train ride (though quite lovely in parts, seeing the autumnal colors in the rolling hills of West Virginia), and that enabled me to read in one go an eloquent and winsome set of memoirs from Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (2011). Lifton, a longstanding professor of psychiatry at Yale, has done pioneering work in the fields of social psychology and what he came to call "psychohistory." I discovered Lifton fifteen years ago through his most (justly) famous work The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing And The Psychology Of Genocide. Lifton wrote another work that also is of use to Eastern Christians (especially in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus) trying to understand what they lived through under communist persecution and oppression: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China

Lifton is a unique personality, and not only because of his important and original work in the aforementioned areas and others (including a study of the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing). What shines through his memoirs is an elegant humanism and graciousness of spirit made all the more impressive by the fact that he examined people and events of ineffable horror. His interviews alone with the Nazi doctors would probably have been too much to handle for other people, but not Lifton. His capacity to look at evil (a term he unapologetically adopts, even if he explicitly eschews its theological or metaphysical overtones) and not succumb to despair is remarkable in one who describes himself as a Jewish atheist. That unflinching recognition of evil is bound up with an equally admirable refusal to demonize people, and an acutely uncomfortable awareness that goodness is mixed with evil in almost every instance. (He does not quote him, but there are clear echos here of Solzhenitsyn's famous aphorism that the line between good and evil runs right through every human heart.) Lifton, originally descended from Russian Jews, is a remarkable example of an academic who was also an activist (especially around the Vietnam War), and a prolific writer of many books in a variety of areas. Now in his late 80s, this may well be his last book, but we will continue to profit from his research and insights for decades to come. 

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