Listen to New Voices on Studs Terkel our partnership with 826CHI-here! Read the Story

00 / 00

Bruno Bettelheim discusses his book"The informed heart: Autonomy in a mass age" ; part 2

BROADCAST: Apr. 1, 1961 | DURATION: 00:29:45


Bruno Bettelheim discusses his book "The informed heart: Autonomy in a mass age". The book chronicles his time in concentration camps in Germany during World War II and discusses the dangers of the advancement of technology and how a totalitarian government impacts the personality of its' people.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel And if, if I judge your book correctly, Dr. Bettelheim, what is important to you is your freedom to make the choice, your freedom to make your own choice

Bruno Bettelheim Yes, but sometimes one cannot act on one's choices. And certainly in the concentration camp or, let's say in the army in wartime, you cannot always act on your choices. What I think you have to retain is the ability to have your own opinion, that is, if you do something, you must have a freedom to evaluate what you are doing in terms of your own personal system of values. And it was really a quite of, quite pathetic how some people tried to do that. Still it worked. For example, some people, as tired as they were, insisted that they want to read for a few minutes each day, something that was meaningful to them and that kept them going. Others tried to organize the prisoners for purposes which were opposed to those of the Nazis, and that kept them going. But most of all, at any one moment, because things happened to one, one had to be able to have an opinion in line with one's own convictions about what happened to one.

Studs Terkel Of course this, though it took place at a certain period, would have been impossible later on would it not, with Auschwitz?

Bruno Bettelheim That's right. This is my point. After you've reached a point of no return, there's nothing you can do anymore because you have given up this freedom of evaluating your own actions and those of others. You become simply clay in the hands of those who want to form you.

Studs Terkel Of course you speak, then, of course this raises a troublesome point. You speak of the very definite dehumanization, aside from the SS people being dehumanized before, the dehumanization of the inmates of the camps and how an individual would be lopped off--

Bruno Bettelheim That's

Studs Terkel [as many up to?] five to seven percent. That's safety in the mass. At least the, even though it was a delusion.

Bruno Bettelheim There is no safety in the mass. You see this is one of the wrongest slogans, to believe there is ever any safety in the mass. Once you enter a mass, you are dragged away by it and you have neither safety nor freedom in it.

Studs Terkel The subtitle of your book, of course, is "Autonomy in a Mass Age".

Bruno Bettelheim Yes.

Studs Terkel The reference is to our age, day too, as well as a, that, that particular specific horrible moment in the concentration camp. Of what of this application today?

Bruno Bettelheim Well I, I think in many ways more people have a better chance to gain their personal autonomy than ever before, simply because we don't have to struggle so hard just to feed our families and to get shelter. We are better protected against all the vagaries of life; droughts, floods, diseases.

Studs Terkel And yet, and yet in the first third of your book you speak of the, well, the mass media that we have that shapes our lives in a conformist sort of pattern.

Bruno Bettelheim If we permit them to do so. Only if you permit them to do so. There's no need for it.

Studs Terkel How then is one, if we may be even more specific, how is one able to retain his autonomy or his individuality in this age of mass communication?

Bruno Bettelheim Well, you know I was very much interested that our president evoked the image of the new frontier. There was a time when a individual who wanted autonomy went West, to the new front--then new frontier. And there he could hew out a way of life according to his own convictions and live in relative autonomy. Only it wasn't autonomies, it was very much impinged upon by the hardships of nature. And it's difficult just to make a living, of clearing the land, of building a, a house. None of them now exists. The new frontier is not in building your own house, is not being so far away that you can't see the smoke from the smokestack of your neighbor. The new frontier is a frontier of viewing human society and man entirely differently. Not as beholden to the necessities of life, but being able to surpass them. There is a reason why some of, of our geneticists or biochemists are fascinated by the problem of manipulating heredity. I have my anxieties about it because it's, it's kind of a fearsome thought, that man could manipulate his own heredity. Still and all, it is again, one frontier where man frees himself from necessity and can take fate in his own hands. Let's only hope that those people whose, in this way, take fate in their own hands, will be people who know what the new frontier ought to be.

Studs Terkel And yet there's a contradiction at work here, isn't there? A cockeyed sort of paradox that, if one is, tries to maintain individuality and be different, he more or less is ostracized in one form or another, even in our day today or as, suffers some material penalty? In some--

Bruno Bettelheim Well you say ostracized and material penalty. You know, this argument I hear very often. I only hardly ever see the evidence thereof. Who, as far as you can recall, really suffered severe penalty and was ostracized for sticking up for his own opinion?

Studs Terkel Well, this has happened in the past decade or so and--

Bruno Bettelheim Well--

Studs Terkel In matters political, certainly. Yeah.

Bruno Bettelheim Well, well, well tell me, use examples. Who?

Studs Terkel Oh, well, there has been a blacklist of--

Bruno Bettelheim That's right, and where are the people who were on the blacklist?

Studs Terkel Well, some, perhaps, have recovered some have not. But I think, I think--

Bruno Bettelheim If they haven't recovered, they haven't recovered because they didn't want to recover. Anybody who stood up to McCarthy received more admiration from those people who counted and those who wanted admiration from those people who didn't count for them of course collapsed because they were no good people to begin with.

Studs Terkel I'm not sure I agree with you on this--

Bruno Bettelheim Ahh, very few people do.

Studs Terkel No, I'm not sure because of the, of the very nature of job giving and, and, and--

Bruno Bettelheim But you see they are, there you go into this system of scarcity. If jobs would be at a great premium anybody whose livelihood--

Studs Terkel No, well you, you speak in the book of someone that, the nature of being, of liking your work too, of being at home with work. You speak of this as very important for man's fulfillment.

Bruno Bettelheim That's

Studs Terkel And some have done work that is not according to their training, to their like, to their aspirations, the result of that. So therefore they have suffered in that sense, I believe.

Bruno Bettelheim Well I, I, I don't know. Have those artists who were not immediately recognized in their own lifetime and had to work against great odds and were considered oddballs, created less good art? The idea--

Studs Terkel Well, this is another point, of course.

Bruno Bettelheim Uh huh.

Studs Terkel You're speaking now of, of great creative spirits.

Bruno Bettelheim That's right. Now I think that we all have to develop not great but creative spirit. This is exactly the point. And I have followed the McCarthy witch hunt and it was amazing to see that those who were already scared to death before even McCarthy touched them, who, who burned their books or papers because they were so scared--I don't want to express myself more drastically about--

Studs Terkel It's drastic enough.

Bruno Bettelheim Yeah. Okay. Those were those who felt that the persecution has done them terrible harm. Those, in my own profession, those professors who didn't sign the oath in California, all got better jobs or became known and admired and respected by those people whose respect counted for them. And they were hunted down in headlines by people whom they have despised before anyway. Now I think we have to make up our mind whether we want to be admired by those who we despise. And if we want to do that, I think we should go for histrionics and not for a serious human enterprise.

Studs Terkel Well doesn't this return, then, to the situation in the camp of those who, without realizing it, sought the favor of the SS.

Bruno Bettelheim Exactly, exactly it's always the same. It's always the same situations.

Studs Terkel There is something you said of, a very [unintelligible]--

Bruno Bettelheim Now you spoke about blacklisting here. I think the immigration under Nazism, both to Israel, to this country, to other countries, has told the story. Those who said we will not stand for such indignities and emigrated as soon as possible--blacklisted, persecuted if you like--they all did very well in their new countries.

Studs Terkel Of course this raises so many points that I know we have, this is a subject for a, for another hour, and perhaps we should, on this. I want to return to the book again--

Bruno Bettelheim Please

Studs Terkel Because I'm not sure I agree with you on that all the way. But, and back to the book. The, the person, you spoke of a situation here toward the end, a very dramatic moment, of the people in the gas chamber were standing naked and there was this girl who was ordered to dance by the officer. And that moment she was called out and danced at the job for which she was equipped, she was able to grab his gun and kill him. The inference is at that moment, she was able to return to her, her own autonomy, autonomous state.

Bruno Bettelheim Yes. This certainly is a very moving story and there were, there were several. There were several. There were certainly many in the Warsaw ghetto. And the Warsaw ghetto, of course, is a tragic story, and one also that teach us a lesson because you see, in the Warsaw ghettos there were, from the very beginning, several thousand who pressed for a resistance movement against the German. But the vast majority wanted to go on with business as usual. You know, that, their cabarets, and some of them ate well while others starved and all that, which is a very sad story but a very true story. And again, those finally who organized the resistance at the end, whereas also had wanted to organize it all along. These were not the people who suddenly in the last moment got courage to fight. They wanted to fight all along and had been prevented by those who didn't have the courage to fight for their life and their convictions.

Studs Terkel These were militant people from the beginning then?

Bruno Bettelheim I don't know if they were militant in the sense of militant, but they were people who knew there are certain things we have to defend, even if it means risking our lives.

Studs Terkel They were aware of point of no return.

Bruno Bettelheim That's right.

Studs Terkel [Very?] aware. There's another aspect here throughout the book that permeates it and that's most intriguing, the matter of becoming as a child, you speak of childhood of, of infantilism early, and you speak how the human being, the adult was debased by the captors in the Nazi camps.

Bruno Bettelheim Yes.

Studs Terkel And this, would you mind expanding on this just a bit? This whole theme of--

Bruno Bettelheim Well, there were many ways the Nazis used to turn supposedly mature individuals into little children who obeyed blindly and feared them all the time, and this was true of course not just for the concentration camp prisoners, it was true for the vast majority of the, the Germans, you know. So there was a lot discussion about whether the German knew about the concentration camps. It's nonsense, of course they knew. The SS and the secret police advertise it most highly in the newspaper. And in the early days of Hitler even, there was a ditty going around in Germany, "Lieber Gott, mach mich stumm, dass ich nicht nach Dachau komme", which means "Dear God, make me mute or dumb so that I will not have to go to Dachau." So you see this was very much a method used. Government wanted to make these people dumb so that they would do exactly as told. And this of course, going back to childhood, what really makes a child is that he cannot make decisions for himself. It is amazing how youngsters aged 10, 12 can take on man-sized jobs and execute them well if they've learned to make their own decisions. And, on the other hand, how people can be infantilized in some of our families that up to the age of 20 they are unable to form their own opinions and make their own decision. Decision making is also something that has to be learned step by step and all along and cannot be learned overnight.

Studs Terkel Isn't decision making difficult on the part of a child today because decision making on the part of his parents has become something of a rough situation today, too? Isn't there less decision making today on the part of adults because of this mass age in which we live?

Bruno Bettelheim Yes, yes. There are too many choices and too many meaningless choices.

Studs Terkel What do you mean by too many choices? That's an interesting passage in your book, too.

Bruno Bettelheim Well I, I think it's very simple. If I have a choice between two possibilities and I'm a reasonable person it's pretty easy to make this choice. But when I have a choice between 20 different possibilities, we see that in college for example: if only one or two job lines are open, I think the individual can readily assess where his talents are and his opportunities and select one of the two. But if, as a young man in college now is pursued with 20 or 30 different professional choices, then it becomes awfully hard to know where his real talents really are, and which of these 20 or 30 choices he should make, and in desperation he grabs the first. For example, every kid going to college supposedly that economic or geographical considerations do not enter, he is bombarded by 20 or 30 colleges. Well, some carry high prestige and maybe those who can get there go there anyway. But for the rest, they're really one like the other. But they have to stress their differences and the kids are really befuddled since there are differences. But between most college programs there is hardly any difference to speak of. In every college there are some good teachers, and if you are able to select them and attach them to you, you are going to learn something fine. Most college have a fine library. Nobody is going to prevent you from taking out books and studying them. But the college, in order to attract students, have to maintain that they are different. That what, what some of the sociologists have called the marginal differentiation; Riesman has talked about that. And, but you see to make a wise choice when the differentiation is marginal is practically impossible. So we make a choice and then find out it really wasn't a very smart choice, because I might as well have done something else. And that destroys our ability in believing that our choices are very important.

Studs Terkel So we spend so much time in seeking to make a choice that is really unimportant.

Bruno Bettelheim That's right.

Studs Terkel Instead of trying to find out who we are really.

Bruno Bettelheim Exactly, exactly.

Studs Terkel Is this what you mean, it is more difficult today as a result of these choices that are not too important, to be the integrated, you speak of the integrated person?

Bruno Bettelheim That's

Studs Terkel The one with the

Bruno Bettelheim Well integration is, of course, also something that doesn't come by itself or is here or not here. Integration is something that has to be striven for and fought for all the time.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking now even, even though we seem, they seem to be, at, at a random discussion it isn't and, it isn't at all because it's all related with what you're saying in your book. You speak of this age of plenty IN which we live, the technological age in this room, for so much new freedom on the part of the man. Yet in TV, you point out, there's a passage here on TV and its effect on the children in relation to their parents. That the, the TV seems to have far more effect, this articulate glib voice coming from this machine, has far more effect on the child than the fumbling of the parent.

Bruno Bettelheim That's right. On the other hand, we would hope that the child will recognize, behind the fumbling of the parent, the human personality and will eventually recognize the pretended personality of the performer. But you see, in order to respond to the genuine article, you have had to be exposed to the genuine article. And the trouble is that many of these kids are not, never exposed to the genuine article. Because their parents too, while they fumble of course, and don't have the skill of the performer, they, they are not the genuine article because they live their life according to what the neighbors think.

Studs Terkel Well it's the point I was raising earlier again, the matter of conformity. The individual is the strange duck. I don't want to return to our earlier argument, but this matter of the parent himself is influenced by the cliches that are offered by the machine.

Bruno Bettelheim Well let me put it this way: everybody, really, would like to be a person in his own rights. Only if we despair of our ability to become real persons do we want to be like the others, in our hopes that in this way they will not discover that we have not developed a personality of our own. So this is really due to anxiety and insecurity. Nobody really wants to be like the Joneses. This is ridiculous. Only if you are afraid [the fact? that?] you can't make it your way, if you are afraid that your own way is no good, then you copy somebody else's way. Then you develop an 'as if' personality. And it's true that we, if the parents have an 'as if' personality, [then they're in a poor position?] to compete with the performer on TV.

Studs Terkel The, the 'as if' personality, this would be parallel to Riesman's outer-directed man, wouldn't it? The 'as if' personality, being influenced by the outside forces than from within, or am I wrong on

Bruno Bettelheim Yes, there are certain overlapping, yeah, I don't think it's really the same.

Studs Terkel Yeah,

Bruno Bettelheim I think nobody is entirely other [outer?] directed as much as nobody is entirely inner directed. But these are, after all, statements of degree. And Riesman has, so to say, built up ideal types which never exist in pure culture.

Studs Terkel Want to return to the title of your book now, perhaps we'll understand it a little more, "The Informed Heart". We speak of Otto Frank, a good man, a very human man, not recognizing the reality of the situation--

Bruno Bettelheim That's right.

Studs Terkel At the time when he kept the whole family together in a trap, as against a figure you mention here later in the book. And this intrigues me very much because of a parallel with our time, and scientists perhaps: Dr. Nyiszli. Dr. Nyiszli worked with the Nazis, didn't he, on human experimentation?

Bruno Bettelheim That's right. That's right. He was, he was bought into the camp and offered his services as a physician to Dr. Mengele who, incidentally, has been in the news lately. They found him in South America. And there's a problem as to whether he would be extradited or, or not--

Studs Terkel As Eichmann

Bruno Bettelheim As Eichmann was. Well he was captured, yeah. And he performed, and had Mengele on his crazy sci, so-called scientific, pseudo-scientific experiments on human beings.

Studs Terkel Now Dr. Nyiszli, I assume, was a brilliant doctor. The mind, the inference here was the mind was working but they were wholly heartless, am I right in that assumption?

Bruno Bettelheim Well, he, from his story, I, I don't think that he was heartless but I think that his heart was not in contact with his mind. They were separated. And using his excellent mind he survived, and this is very fortunate for him. But I don't like to talk about Dr. Nyiszli or anybody in particular--

Studs Terkel No, the reason I--

Bruno Bettelheim But frankly, if I would have done those things some of these people did, I don't know how I could now live with myself. This is another problem one has to consider. This is one of the problems that one has to ask oneself. If I do that, how I'm going to live the rest of my life with myself?

Studs Terkel Of course. Now, I was thinking--I wasn't thinking of him specifically, I was thinking of the case, the symbol--pride in skill, irrespective of the purpose of the work.

Bruno Bettelheim Well this is, of course, what we see now in our nuclear physicists--

Studs Terkel That's what I was about to ask, I was coming, I was coming to that,

Bruno Bettelheim It's the same, it's the same problem. But it is true, you see. All these human experimentations which were done by these, some very famous German physicians, all these physicians were trained in pre-Nazi times. So you see you cannot say this was Nazi training that they did it. They were trained before Hitler ever came to power. But they were pure men of the mind and men without a heart. Their heart, if they had any at all, if we must assume they did, their heart was not educated, was not permitted to assert itself against their mind. They lived in isolation, they had split personalities.

Studs Terkel I had raised this point specifically, not because of this man but because of our time now. I think of some of the brilliant young nuclear physicists and there are some, and they're good men and they love their wives and children, and they're proud of their work. But they are working, let us say, on a nuclear project of a sort that is highly destructive. And may, and yet I'm wondering, are they aware of what they are doing? They are skillful at what they're doing, but are they, are they aware? Is this the purpose of science?

Bruno Bettelheim Well, I don't think that we really can separate that because you see you cannot study germs without potentially adding to the possibility of germ warfare. Now nobody would suggest as a physician that they no longer study dangerous bacilli or viruses because it can be used to exterminate people.

Studs Terkel No, of

Bruno Bettelheim I hesitated for a moment as you saw because it occurred to me that if we continue to exterminate whole groups of animals because they're inconvenient to us. And we don't think anything of it. You know, this is also a questionable procedure. I don't want to go into that. But--

Studs Terkel No, upsetting nature's balance, if you will.

Bruno Bettelheim Well, you know this is too rational a statement from you, upset, upsetting nature's balance. It's, it's a good statement, but it's again a statement of the mind. You know, these animals, you know, are living matter, and we have to start to respect all living matter. If you are going to exterminate whole groups of animals because they're inconvenient to us, we don't show very great respect for living matter. On the other hand I don't believe, like in India, that the cows should deprive the people of their livelihood. Again, we have to make decisions. These are issues that cannot be decided on black or white. I'm convinced we have to go on with nuclear experimentation. I think the answer to many problems of scarcity, of hunger and so on will be in, in gaining nuclear or solar power or what have you. We have to push the frontiers of the mind ahead. But we have pushed the frontiers of the mind ahead so fast that we have not given the heart, if you excuse me this kind of simpleminded simile, to catch up with it.

Studs Terkel Yes. Of course, I wasn't denying what you're saying. I was simply thinking of specific projects that are not obvious for peaceful purposes in which young scientists are working in a brilliant--this is another problem, a moral ethical problem I suppose that is, is in a special category.

Bruno Bettelheim Well look, look at our school systems. I'm an educator. How much time, how much energy, how much thought goes into educating the feelings, the emotions, the morality of the child compared to the continuous push to develop the mind. We want to push these children with bright minds along. We want to feed them so much intellectual material that there is no time left for them to develop and to educate their emotions.

Studs Terkel And so the, the integrated man is one whose heart is informed, back to the original theme again. At the very beginning you said "no longer can we be satisfied with a life where the heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know. The daring heart." And this is your credo, Dr. Bettelheim, "the daring heart must invade reason with its own living warmth, even if the symmetry of reason must give way to admit love and the pulsation of life." And really, then, you are condemning what may be called the cult of impersonality.

Bruno Bettelheim I certainly do, yeah. I couldn't live in it.

Studs Terkel Doctor this is, it seems as though we've, we've gone for the hour here and we've just scratched the surface of, of this book itself and what the book says. And may I just suggest to the, to the members of the audience, it's called "The Informed Heart", Dr. Bettelheim's book and it's The Free Press of Glencoe publishing and it's available now. And certainly it's a provocative, one of the most perceptive books that I've come across in a long time, that deals with, not only with your experience in the camp, but what it means to us today. Doctor, I know that I've just, we just wandered here and yet we, we're, we're biting into the core of the apple. Anything you'd care to say that we haven't said thus far?

Bruno Bettelheim No, I, I think that we covered as much as you can cover in an hour. There are the limits of time, the limits of human capability.

Studs Terkel There's something you said in the book about psychoanalysis itself earlier, at the very beginning, as a result of your work, as a result of your being in the, in, at Dachau and at Buchenwald. You saw this alone was not the answer either.

Bruno Bettelheim No, I think it deals too much with pathology which is the legitimate field of medicine to restore people to their mental health. But we need much more to know what mental health really means. I think psychoanalysis, modern psychiatry, has gone a long way, and it should be much more widely applied in restoring a disturbed individual to functioning. But we have not learned enough yet about how to help people to live the good life, to become the persons that will stand up in adversity and retain their human dignity at all costs.

Studs Terkel And this is the problem we face today. I must say that in the last two pages of your book there is a note of affirmation. You refer to it as a reassuring thought. And perhaps, if I may read this last paragraph,

Bruno Bettelheim Please do.

Studs Terkel "In time", Men Are Not Ants is the heading, "In times of great crises of inner and outer revolutions in all phases of life, situations may occur in which men have only the choice between such a giving up of life and the achieving of a higher integration. Because we have not yet achieved the latter, is no proof we're going to choose the former. If I read the signs of our times correctly, we have taken the first steps toward mastering the new conditions of life in an age of atomic power. But let us not fool ourselves either. The struggle will be long and hard, taxing all of our mental and moral powers, if we do not want a brave new world but an age of reason and humanity". Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, author of "The Informed Heart", Free Press Glencoe, available and certainly a must read for all interested in what is the human condition today. Dr. Bettelheim perhaps next time around, soon, we'll be talking to you, if you will, about your work at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago.

Bruno Bettelheim I will be very glad to do so.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much, Dr. Bettelheim.

Bruno Bettelheim Thank you.