2015 has been a strange year for a number of reasons, but one of these is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Noticeably, VJ Day (or Victory over Japan Day) didn’t catch on in cultural memory. ‘Hiroshima’, though, has been a damning noun, unable quite to capture the atrocity. Of the three grandparents alive when I was little, all remembered World War II. As this generation dies out, I’ve been increasingly worried by the knowledge that tomorrow’s children – even today’s children – will have lost that direct link to our shared past. What is history for me, was reality for my grandparents.
I’ve been intending to write something on this since I saw Oppenheimer in Stratford, but the 80,000-word thing I’m supposed to be writing always operated as a powerful deterrent. Now with little left of the year, and my country dropping bombs I don’t agree with on Syria, it seemed like the right moment. While I’m in no way comparing airstrikes on Syria with Hiroshima, I did feel disturbingly as if I was in the wrong century to read the headline ‘PM receives huge backing for war’ across the train aisle the other week. It is also sobering that my 93-year-old Granny (who remembers German bombs dropping on the Admiralty, where she worked through the London Blitz) has asked for an Atlas for Christmas: she wants to be able to see where we are bombing now.
Anyway, what is this? It’s a reflection on how I have experienced Hiroshima: through literature. I wanted to consider how this news ruptures the text in a favourite novel – Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) – and a recent reimagining of the Manhattan Project – Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer (2015). Yes, I engage with literature because that is my whole life, but artistic re-tellings of historical events are the only way most of us will have any imaginative engagement with historical events (and, dare I say, learn from them?). To these two fictional texts, which accidentally affected me, I add a third: in preparing this, I purposely sought out John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the famous piece of journalism which offers the stories of six survivors. Hiroshima originally appeared in the New York Times, before Penguin published it in 1946. It became a Penguin Special Issue and was reissued this year to mark the 60th anniversary (along with Eric Schlosser’s Gods of Metal, which is also well worth a read). So, one novel, one play, and one landmark work of journalism: three texts and an attempt to tackle my abiding incomprehension that Hiroshima ever occurred.
Perhaps I should point out that I have no particular links to this, beyond that of all humans who live with this legacy. However, my sister’s doctorate was in Nuclear Physics – a fascinating and fiercely intelligent field – and I went from being a science enthusiast as a child to incredibly afraid of any science practical as a teenager (thanks to an irresponsible science teacher at my comprehensive who couldn’t keep control of unruly schoolchildren wielding acid). In large part because I don’t understand it, but also due to these formative experiences, science is something which can inspire fear in me. Maybe this plays into my intrigue and my concern over Hiroshima: a defining moment both for science, and humanity at large.
August, an ending; ending with August
I’m one of the few people, I think, who really likes both the novel of The English Patient and also the film. Although the film is quite a variation on the book, both of them move me. In order to explain how and why Ondaatje’s incorporation of Hiroshima is so powerful, I need to provide a little back story. The present-day action of the novel takes place in an abandoned monastery in Italy, where a young nurse, Hana, has left her job as a wartime nurse to care solely for the English Patient, or Almásy: a former desert explorer burned beyond recognition, who is dying a slow and painful death. Also present are David Caravaggio – a former thief and wartime spy whose thumbs were cut off during interrogation – and Kip (real name Kirpal Singh) – a sapper whose day job it is to defuse mines and ‘regular’ (in inverted commas because such a modifier seems a nonsense given their own destructive power) bombs. Each character is mentally, and often physically, scarred by war in its pre-Hiroshima manifestations. Ondaatje doesn’t spare the reader the abject misery of the warfare which atomic bombs hoped to make obsolete.
‘August’ is the title of The English Patient’s tenth, and final chapter. It refers, of course, to the month that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the event which precipitates the end of the Second World War and, within the novel, the end of Hana and Kip’s relationship (and leads to the novel’s close overall). Hiroshima becomes a momentous event in the microcosm of this quartet-housing Italian villa. Although couched in terms of Kip’s leaving her, Hana ‘recalled everything that August day – what the sky was like, the objects on the table in front of her going dark under the thunder’ (300). It’s as if she has a flashbulb memory for Hiroshima this is ‘recalled’ in such snapshot detail (‘flashbulb memory’ the term for the seeming, though heavily flawed, perfect memory for specific news events i.e. JFK’s assassination, 9/11). Ondaatje offers this before the nature of ‘that August day’ is revealed – at least to the characters. There’s a good page a half of Kip’s reaction to the news only he knows before Ondaatje deploys ‘One bomb. Then another. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.’ (302). The brevity, the unadorned names return us to the way that ‘Hiroshima’ has become less a location than a powerful symbol. It reminds me of Primo Levi’s observation that Auschwitz was ‘un nome privo di significato’ for the Jews seeing this name upon arrival at the camp (‘a name without meaning’, from Se questo è un uomo, 15). I’m not aligning Auschwitz and Hiroshima except to say that in both cases these proper nouns have had to become improperly capacious for all that we tax them to mean. Ondaatje’s one city name after another also puts me (perhaps fancifully) in mind of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Drawing a worrying parallels between ancient cities which were destroyed and two modern European metropolises, Eliot’s list names solid, civilised entities which were capable of ‘falling’. Alighting on ‘unreal’ helps me at least to negotiate Hiroshima, even if of course it wasn’t a European city that was in fact destroyed. Part of Kip’s disbelief in The English Patient is that it is ‘a bomb the size, it seems, of a city’ (305, emphasis mine), a seemingly impossible idea.
While we are on the topic of names, let’s speak of planes. However, I don’t mean the Enola Gay. I was both intrigued and disturbed to learn that the second B-29 to fly over Hiroshima after the Enola Gay (for the purpose of strike observation and photography) was called the Necessary Evil. Admittedly, it was only so-titled after this flight, but as Jared Farmer’s blog makes clear, immortalising this name might have made a significant difference to our cultural memory of this event (particularly given the plane’s ‘mockingly militaristic and sexist artwork’, Farmer). Considering this evil ‘necessary’ was the only way to commit it, yet having ‘evil’ as one of the words commonly associated with Hiroshima might have been a boon to the anti-nuclear movement.
The dropping of the atomic bomb renders Kip’s bomb disposal job useless. Part of his distress is in his self-questioning ‘What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen?’ (303, original emphasis). At this point, Kip is alone in his anguish, with only Almásy also having forcibly heard the news via the crystal set. Both The English Patient and Oppenheimer feature characters led to question their own professions critically. Kip loses sight of the good of his, Hana leaves a relentless round of near-dead soldiers to care for one man to whom she can make a difference. Similarly, the scientists of Oppenheimer subject their profession to criticism. Frank, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s brother, confronts his sibling with the memory that ‘we talked about what we’d do if we had the power to change the world. The assumption … from me … was that we would change it for the better’ (2.14, 100). Robert Wilson (the most concerned by the moral implications of the bomb) asks boss Oppenheimer ‘We are the heirs to Newton, Faraday and Curie – we looked at their beautiful work and we saw this?’ (2.11, 94, original emphasis). The advantages of this scientific discovery have, by this point, left Wilson. Noticeably, it’s the same italicised ‘this’ in both texts: indeterminate, of unknown quantity, said with disdain or disbelief, the bomb lurks in the least specific part of these two men’s vocabularies.
This new type of bomb makes Kip’s training obsolete. The magnitude of destruction is beyond the understanding of a man who daily deals with mines and unexploded bombs. Kip ‘steps away from the many small bombs of his career towards a bomb the size, it seems, of a city, so vast it lets the living witness the death of the population around them’ (305), emphasising the sheer size of it. This bomb expert is so traumatised by the news of the A bomb that ‘he does not feel he can draw a match out of his bag and fire the lamp, for he believes the lamp will ignite everything’ (305). Through Kip’s imagination, the reader is led to link to this distant event alongside the characters present. Indeed, the scale of the damage is foremost in Kip’s vision, since ‘if he closes his eyes he sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map’ (302). What Ondaatje does, in this one Indian man marooned in Italy, is dramatise the attempt to understand the bomb post-detonation. If Oppenheimer depicts the attempt to understand the bomb pre-Hiroshima, then The English Patient, and obviously Hiroshima, depicts the attempt to understand it post-event.
Comparisons can be drawn between Ondaatje and Hersey’s work in this way, not least because in both cases the news is carried by radio. Kip receives the news from his crystal set, causing ‘a scream [to] emerge from his body which had never raised its voice […] He sinks to his knees, as if unbuckled’ (300). Angry with the English Patient, Kip then ‘puts the earphones over the black head of the patient, who winces at the pain on his scalp’ (302): the news of Hiroshima literally hurts to hear. Hersey notes that on 7th August, the Japanese radio broadcast an announcement for survivors (who were unlikely to hear it). Amid the confusion, the government ‘“believed that a new type of bomb was used. The details are being investigated”’ (65). ‘A new type of bomb’, ‘a bomb the size’: both texts struggle to conceive of the A bomb in its all horrendous glory. Ironically, of course, ‘Japanese radar operators, detecting only three planes, supposed that they comprised a reconnaissance’ (Hersey 8) and survivor Mr. Tanimmoto, thought that although ‘he had heard no planes, several bombs must have been dropped’ (25). Hersey captures the instinct to find a logic, but also ̶ with such a bomb the stuff of fantasy ̶ the many incorrect readings of the situation. Many of the people of whom Hersey speaks believed the bomb had dropped directly on them: how else to explain the scale of their own experience? The distances people were thrown by the blast are unthinkable: ‘Father Kleinsorge never knew how he got out of the house’ (18). Of course, for Ondaatje’s Kip, there is only the radio (and then his own imaginative) representation: ‘a terrible event emerging out of the shortwave’ (304). However, by offering a character knowledgeable about bombs to be so disorientated by the news of the A bomb, Ondaatje intensifies the reader’s own reaction to the news.
Hana’s profession is also implicated in the events of August. She cares for ‘a burned patient’ rendered ‘unrecognizable’ by his burns (30), much as one imagines the Japanese citizens ‘leaping into rivers into reservoirs to avoid flame or heat’ (304-05) may end up. Furthermore, for the whole novel, nursing during a war is shown to be little more than witnessing death. Having become an expert in helping men to die, knowing ‘when to give the quick jolt of morphine in a major vein’, Hana claims that ‘every damn general should have had my job. Every damn general. It should be a prerequisite for any river crossing’ (89). That pre-Hiroshima war caused so much suffering emphasises the worrying possibilities of ‘A new war’ (304) from the new bomb. Before reading Hersey’s Hiroshima I hadn’t considered the quite obvious problem of the immediate aftermath:
The lot of Drs. Fujii, Kanda, and Machii right after the explosion […] with their offices and hospitals destroyed, their equipment scattered, their own bodies incapacitated in varying degrees, explained why so many citizens who were hurt went untended and why so many who might have lived died. Of a hundred and fifty doctors in the city, sixty-five were already dead and most of the rest were wounded.
Hersey’s juxtaposition ‘lived died’ and the ever-conjecturing ‘might’ (so present in his text overall) is particularly arresting. Medical professionals had little to work with and no understanding of their plight: not only unable to comprehend the attack, but about to be faced with a type of sickness previously unseen. The English Patient’s Hana struggles to work in bombed-out hospitals and to cope with what the profession asks of her. She has to ‘swab at blood that never stopped, as if the wound were a well’ (43), ‘swabbed arms that kept bleeding […] removed so many pieces of shrapnel’ (52), but she is a fictional character and these wounds at least (small consolation, if any) were in some way expected. Hersey reveals that Dr. Saraki ‘became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding’ (35) in an endless round which only chronologically came after all the previous wounds, compounding injury with injury, only increased ten fold.
What makes The English Patient’s engagement with Hiroshima so unusual is that it is caught up in postcolonialism, or rather a critique of colonialism. It is British-trained Indian Kip, Kirpal Singh, who is the messenger in this case and it awakes in him an incredible anger towards the British. He directs this, then, at the English Patient (who is, ironically, not English). Before Kip has explained to any of the others what has happened, he rails against his growing up ‘with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world’ (301, original emphasis). In the minds of his listeners, and also the readers, August’s events are a colonial problem before they are allowed to be anything else. Told that Almásy isn’t English, Kip says
American, French I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA. You all learned it from the English.
Much as with the geography of the desert explorations for which Almásy was known, Ondaatje ranges around here as Kip draws wild parallels in his distress. Kip feels complicit, noticeably stripping ‘all insignia off his uniform’ later that evening (305). Hiroshima acquires a racial element from Kip’s speech, that it is directed towards ‘the brown races of the world’. Uncomfortably, white Canadian Caravaggio ‘knows the young soldier is right. They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation’ (304). Oppenheimer, too, is ill at ease with the foreigner as enemy. Although Oppenheimer briefly asks that the Japanese be warned (2.13, 97), the last scene sees him correcting himself: ‘I saved many lives … American lives’ (2.26, 116). This is a reversed echo of Bob Serber’s earlier slip ‘No one’s going to die. I mean … of course … people are going to die … Japanese people’ (2.21, 111). Morton-Smith has a knack for the awkward added modifier. What both of this examples show is the change in perspective that comes with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, when human beings artificially divide themselves into separate categories. In a sense, it’s a concept which the whole of The English Patient rails against, where nations and nationalism are consistently criticised as limiting: until the war breaks up the group of desert explorers ‘we were German, English, Hungarian, African […] Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states’ (147). With war, nationalism’s grip tightens and drives these diverse men apart. Later, the multicultural microcosm that is the Villa San Girolamo is torn apart by news of Hiroshima. It can be no accident that at the end of the novel, in Kip’s future life, ‘at this [dinner] table all of their hands are brown’ (320). Hiroshima in The English Patient is decisively divisive.
Scientific discovery: A game of consequences
I’ve always been oddly fascinated by the Manhattan Project, as one of the greatest moments of scientific collaboration and yet which resulted in one of the most horrific destructions of life. Hearing, then, of Oppenheimer, I was intrigued (not least because I haven’t seen that much new work at the RSC). Before going, I wondered whether this was going to address the possibility of making J. Robert Oppenheimer into a tragic hero. If Oppie (as he is referred to by almost all characters) has a tragic flaw, it appears to be ambition. As General Groves determines of the whole project, ‘it smacks of ambition’ (1.21, 47). Oppie himself states ‘It would be easier if I thought it was beyond me. I know it is not’ (1.17, 40). Ability burdens the capable scientist. If ambition aligns Oppie a little with Macbeth, let’s not forget the other Shakespearean tragic character with whom Oppie is aligned when he worries about being ‘a man of inaction’ just lines later. This refers to the worry that in the race to atomic arms Germany might pip America to the post (a fear which transpired, of course, to be unfounded ̶ depicted in Oppenheimer 2.8). Given that the (original Stratford) Oppenheimer trailer utilised this exact speech, there can be little doubt that the RSC were positing a Hamlet dimension to Oppenheimer, at least. Unlike Hamlet, though, here inaction gives way to action, which causes its own problems:
KITTY [OPPENHEIMER]: The man who builds this bomb will be hailed a hero.
OPPIE: I have never asked for that.
KITTY: But you have wanted it. Everyone will know your name. Everyone will want to bask in your light.
OPPIE: My ‘light’ … if I were to show it … would strike the world blind.
KITTY: You cannot be scared of your own potential.
OPPIE: I have it within me to murder every last soul on the planet ̶ should I not be scared?
For Kitty, ‘light’ here is figurative ̶ the glow of success, fame and reputation. As Oppie correctly predicts, his ‘light’ was to be all too literal and overpowering, the ‘Noiseless Flash’ from which Hersey’s first chapter would take its name. Human potential and scientific potential come into conflict in this play, partly because in both cases, this ‘potential’ remains the great unknown. One near ludicrous example is that Hans Bethe asks ‘what if we were to set fire to the earth’s atmosphere?’ (1.27, 55). This was one of the possibilities which had to be (scientifically) discounted in the early stages of the Manhattan Project (see 1.30). What clearer way to suggest that we were tampering with powers beyond our understanding?
‘Potential’, of course, has a specific meaning within physics, but even the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of ‘having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future; latent’ begs meditation given that no one could, or did, predict the tremendous long-term potential of the bomb to cause damage – the ‘slow violence’ of Rob Nixon’s book of the same name. Not only have several generations of humans suffered as a result of the A-bomb, but the poisoned earth similarly struggles to recover, even now. This long-term potential was foreshadowed perhaps in the fact that Hersey’s last chapter was called ‘Aftermath’ and is by far the longest chapter (occupying nearly half the of the book). For instance, he details the plight of the ‘‘hibakusha’ ̶ literally, ‘explosion-affected persons’’ who suffered economically as well as medically (120). Father Kleinsorge became ‘a classic case history of that vague, borderline form of A-bomb sickness in which a person’s body developed a rich repertory of symptons’ (142-43). Although Hersey’s aftermath concerns the lives of the six individuals and their offspring, and Nixon’s aftermath the natural environment, Hersey depressingly punctutates ‘Aftermath’ with different nations’ announcements of the successful testing of an A, or an H, bomb: the potential for mutually assured destruction lives on.
The unknown potential of the Manhattan Project was what made it so intellectually stimulating and so practically dangerous. Part of Oppenheimer’s pull for me was its depiction of the heady excitement you get when you gather great minds together and have ideas. Act one scene 18, set in ‘Berkeley campus’, reminds me of the electricity I have felt in certain supervisions, coffee conversations, symposiums, conferences. In 1942, though, men (and they were largely men) met to be shown ‘images of the devastated city of Halifax, Nova Scotia’ and hear from Oppie ‘This is the level of destruction that we are hoping to achieve’ (1.18, 42). It’s nothing if not direct. Yet even with ‘destruction’ so obvious, so intentional from the off, it somehow doesn’t connect to any tangible reality. Some of the gathered scientists shift perspective radically during the course of the play, but, at this point, ‘Everyone is excited’: a stage direction which included me, in the audience.
Edward Teller, a Hungarian physicist, is portrayed as more ambitious than Oppie and is driven by scientific curiosity without any moral barriers. Teller considers the Manhattan Project ‘beneath me […] It is a nonsense to have someone of my ability scratching out sums that would barely challenge a college freshman’ (1.35, 68). Just as the play as a whole suggests that ̶ like nuclear fission ̶ once events are set in motion they are unstoppable, for Teller and his H-bomb, ‘I cannot simply stop halfway … I cannot simply say “well this will do”… no … I must know the full extent … the ramifications … the … the … progression of a thought’ (2.5, 85). Compulsion seems to be a property of the scientists as much as the science in this play. The fact that to ‘know’, that this knowledge, is dangerous does not come into the equation. In my day job, ‘the progression of a thought’ results in a sentence, but here it is the successful completion of a bomb. One ambiguity which Morton-Smith keeps in play, for both the A and the H bomb, is the difference between the outcome of an experiment (seeing the science through to its logical conclusion) and the outcome of a bomb project (in terms of real human lives). The scientists appear to operate under the former condition until the last possible moment, making their actions more understandble.
Once the physics has been tamed, the scientists want to see the bomb deployed. To this therapist, and lover, Ruth Tolman, Oppie says ‘Let’s hope not. (Beat.) I mean to say …’ (2.9, 89) in response to the suggestion that the war might end before the bomb be used. Intellectual curiosity here slips over into eagerness to explode a bomb: two things which one feels should remain separate. Bob Serber couches it in slightly more palatable terms:
I’m interested. God help me, but I’m interested. We have to know … the effects … how bad … the pressures … the temperatures … to compare with our calculations. How else to know if we were right? Sorry … if we were correct. Correct is different from right.
Serber has greater self-awareness about what his words might betray. In the whole of Oppenheimer this might be the clearest recognition of a difference between academia and actuality: putting these calculations into practice might prove them ‘correct’, but a lot else besides. ‘We have to know’, says Serber. This insistence rankles (or it did for me in the audience) because it is both understandable and terrible. Knowledge is, it’s often said, power ̶ and has a biblical precedent for being trouble ̶ but what is missing is the sense of responsibility. The characters of Oppenheimer seem to feel responsibility only to science: seeing the experiment through, solving the equation.
The one exception to this is Robert Wilson, who undergoes the greatest re-evaluation of his opinion about the bomb. Indeed, Wilson attempts to hold a meeting about ‘The Impact of the Gadget on Civilisation’ (2.11, 93; ‘gadget’ being the Manhattan Project’s euphemism for ‘bomb’). I say ‘attempts’ because Oppie breaks up Wilson’s gathering, in which he raises the fact that ‘we’re talking cities … we’re talking actual human beings obliterated … could that be justified?’ (2.11, 93). Oppie’s army-informed arguments in reply are logical, but Wilson at least tries to put their project in terms of ‘actual’ lives.
Wilson has an uneasy time of it in Act II, facilitating the Trinity Test to the point that – as he agonises – ‘My fingerprints were on the inside of the bomb casing’ (2.19, 106). (This concern particularly affected me because I wrote a very bad teenage poem called ‘The Guilty Signatory’ after watching a program on the History Channel about the Enola Gay. They showed footage of the plane’s crew, drawing and writing on the bomb’s casing pre-loading. I didn’t then, and still don’t now, understand that misplaced camaraderie). A page of dialogue later, the bomb has already crippled one man:
WILSON: Can we undo it, please? Can we … before it’s actually … actually used?
BETHE supports WILSON as they exit.
The cerebral momentum, so winning early in Act one, is here recast as a process which has advanced beyond control so that already all of them are past the point of no return. Wilson is ‘undone’ by being complicit in something he knows will kill, and kill well.
An enduring image and a long shadow
I can remember (and it’s got to be an early-ish memory, given its own clarity but lack of any surrounding context) looking at a photograph of a woman with kimono pattern burned into her flesh. Of course, I didn’t name this ‘kimono’ – I didn’t know what a kimono was. Perhaps I learned it then. The more incomprehensible aspect of the picture was that the pattern of her clothes was on this woman’s skin. Clothing – external, that which one wears over the body – suddenly seemed to have no distance or distinction from the body. I remember being confused.
Although the mushroom cloud is the single image which has come to stand for Hiroshima, the kimono has also figured largely. Act two scene 22 of Oppenheimer is called ‘Hiroshima’ and with simple but effective symbolism, an actual little boy actor voices what the device named ‘Little Boy’ will do:
So can we talk of the kimono … of everyday dress …
Its pattern seared into its wearer’s flesh.
And can we talk of the shadows burned into the stone …
And if I say vaporization … then yes … that includes bone.
The only speech which emulates verse in the play, the couplets neatly pair consequences even as they describe unspeakable atrocity. This ‘pattern seared’ also makes Bob Serber’s intended gift for his wife (from a previous scene) retrospectively awkward. Though not a kimono, ‘a dressing gown. Silk. With embroidered cherry blossom’ (2.20, 109) is too close to the mark. I’ve termed this horror ‘unspeakable’ but I wonder if this is my own reaction (and my audience-member reaction) to Little Boy’s semi-request ‘so can we talk of […] and can we talk of […] and if I say’. The bomb becomes a speech act and a challenge to linguistic inadequacy in the face of intentional destruction.
While The English Patient never uses the word ‘kimono’, Kip’s imagination is caught by the bomb’s effect on flesh: ‘the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadows of humans suddenly in the air’ (302); ‘heat that within seconds burned everything, whatever they hold, their own skin and hair’ (305); ‘boiling air scoured itself towards and through anything human’ (305). Burns figured as shadows feature in all three texts, but although Ondaatje doesn’t deal specifically with burns into flesh, he clearly depicts burning flesh. As the characters react to the news of Hiroshima, gathered round the bed of the dying man, there is a poignancy to the fact that Caravaggio ‘cannot bear to turn and look at the sapper or look towards the blur of Hana’s frock’ (304). If this ‘blur of […] frock’ is a reference to the pattern of the kimono, it’s a coded one, and yet knowledge of the visuo-cultural memory of Hiroshima makes the sentence hard to read. Hersey’s calm prose offers the inconceivable up as factual:
On some undressed bodies, the burns and had made patterns […] on the skin of some women (white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.
‘Patterns’, ‘the shapes of’ – the seeming decorative nature of these burns belies the physical trauma. The bracketed explanation is as neutral as the people Hersey witnesses, who ‘looked straight ahead, were silent and showed no expression whatsoever’ (40).
This vision of survivors, and images, as simply there without expression brings me back to shadows – ‘shadows burned into the stone’ (Morton-Smith, 2.22, 112) and ‘the shadows of humans suddenly in the air’ (Ondaatje, 302). Unless I’m being stupid (more than possible) ‘shadow’ here is a metaphor: really what is present is a solid burn mark, which looks like a shadow. As Hersey documents, ‘a painter on a ladder was monumentalized in a kind of bas-relief on the stone facade of the bank building on which he was at work, in the act of dipping his brush into his paint can’ (96). Hersey chooses ‘monumentalized’ but he could have written ‘immortalized’, the painter forever ‘in the act’, yet static and absent. Again, the destruction is awkwardly artistic, Hersey borrowing ‘bas-relief’ from the vocabulary of art history, of sculpture.
This sense of the bomb’s speed in killing and recording, recalls a section of text in The English Patient which comes mere pages before the Hiroshima episode. Retelling Kip’s work in Naples, the narrator states ‘He passes the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, where the remnants of Pompeii and Herculaneum are housed. He has seen the ancient dog frozen in white ash’ (297). Another historical moment in which living things were caught mid-action is referenced, though this one was a natural occurrence, not set in motion by fellow animals. ‘Pompeii and Herculaneum’ are not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Ondaatje leaves the parallel there to trouble the reader. Additionally, it is only following Hiroshima that Hana writes home to her stepmother, Clara, to say that her father was left by his unit ‘burned and wounded. So burned the buttons of his shirt were part of his skin, part of his dear chest’ (314). Although Hana may ask ‘What did we have to do with it?’ (306) of Kip, Ondaatje shows the pervasiveness of such trauma across national boundaries.
The most troubling manifestation of Hiroshima’s ‘shadow’, though, is Oppenheimer’s 2.24, entitled ‘Lecture Series: Bob Serber is in Japan’:
What would you say was the average height of a Japanese? Five six? Five seven? Let’s say five six. Those black marks we saw … those smudges we found at the centre … are all that remain of the closest to the point of detonation. Shadows burnt into the sidewalk. Fatty stains collecting ash and dust. If we measure those marks … take the average height of a Japanese … by the length … by the direction of the shadow we should be able to calculate where they were in relation to the bomb blast. From that we can gauge how high the bomb was when it detonated. Approximately. There will of course be outliers to discount … those significantly shorter … children … but we should be able to take an average … (Beat.)
Having watched the play, I think I bought the script in order to look back at this particular speech. Bob Serber is a likeable character: bespectacled (in thick round lenses), faithful to his wife, a trustworthy colleague. Yet he says this. People reduced to ‘black marks […] smudges’ doesn’t seem to upset him. If anything he seems keen to introduce others to the effect of the bomb. Violent deaths become reconfigured as ‘calculations’, measurements which can yield further scientific results. The ‘outliers’ which can be discounted in an equation to establish an ‘average’, are in reality children.
What constitutes an achievement?
This subtitle is, I believe, a question all PhD students and indeed academics ask themselves on a regular basis, but that’s not where this is going. I’m taking my end from the beginning – from a consideration of Morton-Smith’s epigraph: ‘Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe’, from Kurt Vonnegut. Deserving or not, this is what J. Robert Oppenheimer did: the stage direction which ends the Trinity Test is ‘the sound of the very matter of the universe pulling itself apart’ (2.16, 104). Vonnegut’s statement speaks to what ability affords one; being capable is not necessarily an asset, and it certainly isn’t objectively good. Potential is always intriguing and I think anyone with intellectual curiosity wants to find out how far he or she can carry that, but with this pursuit of potential comes if not an arrogance then an overreaching that distorts one’s understanding. So I leave you with some of the words of Oppenheimer that most appealed to me, from Frank to Robert, brother to brother, reminding us that intelligence isn’t everything:
OPPIE: The average man cannot possibly begin to grasp …
FRANK: Listen to yourself … the ‘average man’ … as though there’s some gaping chasm between the stupid and the smart. Do you honestly believe that intelligence sets a man so far ahead of the rest? The ability to solve differential equations is a minor variant on the marvel that is alphabet … language … the written word. Being well versed in Joyce or opera or Sanskrit is as nothing next to the child’s ability to recognize their mother. Give me a dancer … give me the world’s foremost ballerina … all of their skill … it is insignificant next to the miracle that is standing and walking on two legs.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
Farmer, Jared. ‘Curios: Necessary Evil.’ Jared Farmer. 6 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Hersey, John. Hiroshima. 1946. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.
Levi, Primo. Se questo è un uomo. 1958. Torino: Einaudi, 2009. Print.
Morton-Smith, Tom. Oppenheimer. London: Oberon, 2015. Print.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print.
‘potential, adj. and n.’ Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
References to Oppenheimer are given as (Act.scene, page number) in the text.
A pedant might point out that, as Hersey notes, ‘(Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb)’ (9).