YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Psychoanalyzing the Superpowers : UNTHINKING THE UNTHINKABLE by Jeff Smith (Indiana University Press: $25; 183 pp.; 0-253-35353-X) : POWER AND POLITICS The Psychology of Soviet-American Partnership by Jerome S. Bernstein (Shambhala Publications; distributed by Random House: $19.95; 196 pp.; 0-87773-471-2)

July 02, 1989|Russell Jacoby | Jacoby's latest book, "The Last Intellectuals," recently appeared in paper (Hill & Wang/Noonday); he currently teaches at UC Riverside. and

No one who writes of nuclear war can be accused of tackling a small issue. To be sure, neither the courage nor the books are in short supply. We pay attention to these books, however, in fits and starts, depending on the state of the world. The Reagan Administration--until its final years--spoke of evil empires and winning nuclear wars. If this gave rise to nightmares, it was good for books on nuclear disaster.

The nuclear freeze movement of 1982-84, itself a product of these renewed fears, provoked Jeff Smith to reflect upon the nuclear debate; his book seeks to go beyond the usual policy discussions to a more illuminating cultural dimension. By learning what "made nuclear weapons thinkable . . . we might, finally, unthink them." His title alludes to Herman Kahn's "Thinking About the Unthinkable." Kahn, a RAND theorist, delighted in calculating the utility of nuclear war, which he judged possible, probable and, even with no preparations, not too bad. "Would the survivors live as Americans are accustomed to living--with automobiles, television, ranch houses, freezers and so on? No one can say," wrote Kahn, "but I believe there is every likelihood."

For Smith the cultural dimension necessitates a historical and textual approach. Previous studies have failed on both accounts; they have generally slighted history and "discourse"--symbols and texts. "No text is going to turn cities into firestorms or bring on nuclear winter. But if those things happen, they will be results of discourses and ideologies." This supposition justifies Smith's critical appraisal of various writings, a commitment that sometimes takes him far afield. For instance, one chapter focuses on Shakespeare's "Henry V" because the play "encodes" attitudes about their state and war.

Elsewhere Smith is tough on Jonathan Schell's widely read "The Fate of the Earth." He faults Schell for a "dubious psychology," superficiality, technological determinism and a failure to look at causes. "We need," writes Smith, "to search for actual causes." Unfortunately Smith never quite does this. It requires "problematizing the sovereign state" or realizing that the warring state is founded on a questionable "metaphysics of virtue." Fine, but who today believes in divine right of leaders, the ethical purity of the state? Too much of "Unthinking the Unthinkable" attacks straw-men. Moreover while Smith commendably wants to address the educated public, not simply the professionals, "Unthinking the Unthinkable," rarely breaks free from academic language.

Smith closes with six suggestions derived from a "true cultural history;" an anti-nuclear politics, runs the first proposal, should "reflect a newly sophisticated understanding of the relationship between people's personal feelings about things and their political actions (or inactions)." The practical touch is welcome, but the recommendations reveal how little Smith achieves.

Jerome S. Bernstein's book shares with Smith's a dissatisfaction with previous studies of nuclear warfare; a Jungian analyst, he is less interested in texts than depths or "the psychological dynamics underpinning superpower conflict." Drawing on Carl. G. Jung's theories of archetypes, collective unconscious and "shadow" he posits a "new way of looking at Soviet-Union conflict and the nuclear peril."

Freudian analysts from Freud himself to Bruno Bettelheim have long written about war and politics. As Bernstein notes, the Jungians have written little along these lines. Their forte has been mythology and religion, but political reality and the Jungians do not mix. This is not surprising, since Jung was--to put the best face on it--confused by the politics of his day. In Nazism he glimpsed an ecstatic Wotan; he babbled about the creative Aryan unconscious and the inferior Jewish psyche.

According to Bernstein, Jung taught that one of four qualities dominate in all individuals: thinking, feeling, intuition, sensation. In addition Jung divided individuals into two major groups, "introverted" or "extroverted," which gives eight types. For instance, former President Reagan, Bernstein writes, is "Extroverted Feeling," Bush "Extroverted Thinking." The common American typology is "Extroverted Thinking" and the common Soviet, "Introverted Feeling." Americans spout facts; Russians brood. See the problem? "The two societies are typologically opposite," and consequently talk past each other. Bernstein proposes to use psychological testing to select especially appropriate American negotiators; perhaps the Soviets will do the same.

Los Angeles Times Articles