Book Review - The Protean Self

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 1, pages 118-120. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review -The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation. 

Robert Jay Lifton. Basic Books, New York, 1993, 262 pages.

The Greek god Proteus was a shape shifter able to adapt himself to every changing situation. His name makes an apt title for this book by Robert Jay Lifton about the human person in a changing world. One will find here a psychological description of this changing world followed by a description of the type of person whom Lifton labels protean. Then, there is a comparison with the chief alternative to proteanism: that is, fundamentalism.

A reader may question, "What is a review of this book doing in the Cultic Studies Journal?" The answer lies not merely in the respect that Lifton has earned as the premier authority on totalitarian thought control. But also, the fact is that this book offers a clear and necessary understanding of the mind of contemporary men and women so mysteriously susceptible to manipulation.

Everyone who works at the "cult problem" is asked continually, "What sort of people are they who are being recruited into these controlling groups?" And we respond, more often than not, "There is no profile; anyone can be caught." One of the most useful leaflets that we distribute is entitled, Could this happen to you? And it clearly gives the reader an affirmative answer. Anyone is vulnerable.

Somewhere in the course of this book Lifton says that "the dream of the human heart is that life may complete itself in some meaningful pattern before death." That thought suggests another: Could it be that this common aspiration contributes to the human susceptibility to propagandists? Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, for example, turned dreams into nightmares.

Further on, Lifton speaks of the characteristically human search for ethical commitment. He says that "being responsible is what it is to be human." Paradoxically, this idealism may also leave one open to manipulation. Long ago Shakespeare sensed this when he had Polonius advise Laertes, "See thou character...."

Toward the end of the book Lifton cites Vaclav Havel who, imprisoned at the time by the then totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia, discovered in himself the struggle to break out of the context of falsity. It was in prison that Havel strove as he says, "to describe and analyze my fundamental experience of the world and of myself."

Every reader of the Cultic Studies Journal is aware that the list of Lifton's publications is a very long one—which includes the classic Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, as well as The Nazi Doctors, The Future of Immortality, and a dozen more. Nevertheless, Lifton admits that the material in this particular book has occupied his thinking for 30 years. He focuses here on "the many-sided self of modern man who seems to be in constant motion." He reminds us that our present world is one "marked by breathtaking historical change and instantaneous global communication." In the midst of earth-shaking occurrences such as the fall of Communism, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, each individual person "has been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time, a time in which human history has become more open, more dangerous, and more unpredictable."

In Lifton's view, life is no longer governed by rites of passage and therefore modern men and women must pursue a personal search for authenticity and meaning. In actuality, the modern pilgrimage takes place between two poles, which we can label the protean and the fundamentalist.

Lifton explains that the human potential for proteanism includes a capacity for flexible imagination and action. The subtitle of the book, "Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation," reflects the author's optimism about the future of mankind.

Here are a half dozen of Lifton's convictions that may stir up some profitable reflection:

1. Culture is inescapable from symbolization.

2. We are cultural animals for whom the resources of culture are ingredient and not merely accessory to human thought.

3. The knowledge that we are to die is crucial to the sense of self.

4. The sacred and the secular have become unbonded.

5. Our human thinking consists of a continual creation and re-creation of images and forms.... Our symbolization of self focuses on our own narrative, a life story that is constantly re-created.

6. America is a protean nation, a nomad people, ever beginning anew.

The alternative to the protean mentality is the fundamentalist—which can express itself either in politics or religion. The person who sees things through the prism of fundamentalism draws primarily upon a sacred past (in the name of a harmony that never was). His vision of the future is of one that will rise out of a violent end to profane history. He would replace history with doctrine. He mistrusts intellectual or spiritual suppleness and he would obliterate the subversive effects of humor. The author says aptly, "Armageddon with its destructiveness fits this nuclear age."

Fundamentalism, although obsessed with chaos and loss of control, creates a fellowship of the only immortals. The self fragments, and the capacity for empathy is lost. There develops a psychic numbing which impairs symbolization and involves a threatening imagery having to do with death and its equivalents and an impediment to meaning.

It is Lifton's view that the protean self can help people to renew their relationship to culture, both Western and non-Western. He tells us, "the protean path is a path of hope. It embraces an act of imagination and is, as such, a profound beginning."

This book will prove most helpful for those who are called to counsel people in shepherding and discipleship groups. However, it must be repeated that the fundamentalist mind-set is not restricted to the religious realm. It "flowers" in political ground as well.

This review has attempted to digest the psychological facts and conclusions of the author's 30 years of observations and reflections. The reader would be misled if he or she were left with the impression that the work is all abstraction which is best left for philosophers. Far from it. As Harvey Cox says, "It is based on interviews with a variety of engaging and very real people." They are all here. And for bringing them together we are, once again, indebted to Robert Jay Lifton.

Walter Debold

Seton Hall University

South Orange, New Jersey

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1994