Writing the Unthinkable: Narrative, the Bomb and Nuclear Holocaust

Arts — POSTED BY Adam Gyngell on January 3, 2010 at 5:07 pm

City_RuinsIn Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Riddley enters ‘the woom of Cambry’, the epicentre of the nuclear blast that reduced England to a neolithic state over two thousand years earlier. Walking through the crypt of the devastated cathedral, he experiences a numinous revelation of the power that was at once the apex of civilization’s achievement and the architect of its destruction. Riddley struggles to articulate the sense of annihilation, of absence, he feels: ‘Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try and word the big things and they tern ther backs on you’ (Hoban 2002, 161). Riddley finds it difficult to come to terms with the nuclear holocaust that constitutes his primitive society’s point of origin. But his problem is also that of narrative: faced with the empty space that lies at the centre of this apocalypse, Riddley finds that the blank page expresses the totality of the annihilation better than any words could. Riddley’s experience illustrates the extent to which nuclear holocaust resists representation, defies narrative structure, eludes the very words with which we write.

The detonation of the atomic bomb irreversibly altered man’s relationship with the world he inhabited. Absolute finality had been the exclusive preserve of story-tellers, of fictions, of narrative; the bomb now threatened to end to the human narrative itself, to put an end to not only history but the conditions by which history might exist at all

By Adam Gyngell

The detonation of the atomic bomb irreversibly altered man’s relationship with the world he inhabited. Absolute finality had been the exclusive preserve of story-tellers, of fictions, of narrative; the bomb now threatened to end to the human narrative itself, to put an end to not only history but the conditions by which history might exist at all. In 1948, Andre Breton admitted that he had once been seduced by the ‘temptation for the end of the world.’ Apocalypse had represented the thrill of revolution, the absurd carnage of meaningless devastation. Now, having come through another global war and the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Breton decided on behalf of his generation that ‘we no longer want the end of the world’ (Conrad 1998, 39). Nuclear apocalypse would represent nothing, nothingness. The end of the world, Breton realized, could happen: but the event would be purely destructive, annihilating. It would not be hermeneutic, it would not be revelatory, it would just happen. Insofar as we represent it at all, we are not representing it. Like Riddley’s paper, nuclear holocaust occupies a blank space. We can write about it only by writing ‘about’ it, by writing around its perimeter, by circumnavigating an empty centre. Nuclear holocaust is intrinsically alien to narrative, aggressively extinguishing the very possibility of narrative itself. Nevertheless, we look to narrative to see what it can ‘tell’ us about nuclear holocaust, to see whether it can tell us about it. Steven Connor astutely notes: ‘apocalypse is as much a challenge to our capacity to conceive, represent and narrate it, as it is to our will to avert it’ (Connor 1996, 201). Indeed, one might say that the atomic bomb and its aftermath have become suitable icons for the post-mortem condition of post-modernism: for the post-modern, as Lyotard notes, is ‘that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself’ (Lyotard 1984, 81).

Nuclear holocaust is framed from the longer perspective of future time: rather than the end, the disaster becomes a distant point of origin, a cataclysmic past that is reconstructed through surviving texts and oral myths. The apocalypses of these post-apocalyptic representations are historical events.

Narrating the annihilation of the world and its inhabitants, the writer occupies a liminal space after the end, becoming a survivor and witness of his own apocalypse. In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, the need to circumscribe an apocalypse that cannot be circumvented is taken as a matter of national policy. The government authorize a history of the nuclear holocaust to be written on glass bricks, encased in a cement cellar on Australia’s highest peak. Nuclear holocaust is a (non)event that puts an end to history. Yet the decision demonstrates an attempt to historicize an event that will put an end to writing, an event that has not taken place and that, in taking place, will end rather than initiate its historicity. No one will read this history; Dwight’s belief that ‘there should be something written, all the same’ (Shute 2000, 77) is indicative of the impulse towards resisting the absolute finality of nuclear holocaust, towards providing the satisfaction of narrative closure that nuclear ending prohibits. Indeed, the document is characteristic of the way writers find means of framing the apocalypse, of defusing its finality: the idea that it could be the end of the narrative, or the ending of narrative itself, is strenuously resisted. Rarely does the end of the narrative coincide with the end of the world. The existence of the ragged remnants of humanity provides the psychic space needed to contemplate and articulate nuclear annihilation. Faced with the prospect of an end without appendix, with the task of imagining an event that is terminal, authors construct scenarios ‘after the end’. Apocalypse must be displaced chronologically and ontologically. Nuclear holocaust is framed from the longer perspective of future time: rather than the end, the disaster becomes a distant point of origin, a cataclysmic past that is reconstructed through surviving texts and oral myths. The apocalypses of these post-apocalyptic representations are historical events. Remainders and reminders survive: the people who inhabit these post-apocalyptic worlds try to discover, through deciphering its traces, the nature that war, and of our own situation before its outbreak. For Riddley’s community, all quests for forgotten knowledge resemble the excavation of wrecks from the earth. These speculative fictions point back towards an apocalypse that is an erasure, a blank space that characters try to interpret and understand by articulating the fragments that remain. The worlds they portray are characterized by the absence of written texts and literacy. As a result, nuclear holocaust becomes an enigma which survives only outside the order of conventional discourse.

nuclear2Nuclear holocaust thus exists on the margins of the text: the bomb falls in an unspecified past before the start of the narrative (like the shadow of nuclear destruction in Orwell’s 1984) or beyond the last page of the book (as in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). Authors invariably write about nuclear war without confronting it directly. Speculative fictions dodge the realities of human apocalypse by transferring it to other times, other species, other galaxies. Nuclear annihilation itself is seldom portrayed in narrative: peering into the crater, writers nervously edge back to the narrative safety of solid ground. The most challenging narratives are those that attempt to render holocaust in the narrative present, rather than placing it in the assumed narrative past. Yet, in the present, it is an event that annihilates the very possibility of narrative representation. It can only be known in advance, in projections, predictions, and premonitory narratives: it exists in the tense of science-fiction, the future-conditional of what ifs and maybes. The few works that take us through the blank of the atomic blast itself are forced to question their own capacities of representation. Set in the distant past or projected future, apocalypse finds a narrative frame: the end of narrative is signalled by and within narrative itself.

R. J. Lifton has observed that the hypothetical space of nuclear disaster cannot be inhabited by the imagination. Writers find themselves skirting round the perimeter of the gaping chasm of disaster, unable to conceive or represent it except by indirection. Nuclear holocaust offers a test of the limits of the human imagination. The Editorial in August 31st 1946 New Yorker explained its decision to print Hersey’s Hiroshima in full: ‘in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive powers of this weapon…’ (Hersey 1981, 15). The bomb and its effects are ‘all but incredible’: the very language used to convey its power is stretched to its elastic limits; one would not believe it were it not for knowledge of its very real existence. Its consequences exert an even greater pressure on the resources of the imagination: confronted with the picture of mass obliteration, radioactive contamination, and even human extinction, the mind recoils. Denied a cosmic perspective, the human imagination, trapped in the confines of the individual consciousness, finds itself engaging with something too big to comprehend, too final to overcome. If nuclear holocaust defies human imagination, then it constitutes an even greater challenge to artistic representation. Devoid of its symbolic or allusive mediations, nuclear holocaust precludes the possibility of a narrative structure: imagining the destruction, one is projected into a dead time that falls outside the human tenses of past, present and future.

Lifton discovered in the hibakusha or ‘psychic numbing’ of Hiroshima survivors a metaphor for what one might feel if one tries to undergo and absorb the experience of nuclear annihilation: ‘the human mind cannot bear very much of this reality’ (Lifton 1967, 33). The memory of the Japanese holocaust acts both as a brake and a stimulus to the apocalyptic imagination, exposing the limits of our language and our imaginations. Nuclear holocaust is ‘unthinkable’: it is not only meaningless, but consumes all potential for meaning, all systems of human thought, in its destructive fire. When we try to articulate the totality of the obliteration, we are left facing a blankness, or emptiness.

When proposals were being made for the Hiroshima Ground Zero Memorial, one survivor suggested a large, empty open space to represent nothingness – because ‘that was what there was’ (Lifton and Falk 1982, 108). Disintegrating people, the blast left white shadows on the walls and pavement: like these spectral outlines, narrative can only register a blank, a mark of absence, when it comes to delineating the bomb and its aftermath. Lifton notes that many Japanese survivors describe their state at that time with the phrase muga-muchu, ‘without self, without center’ (Lifton 1967, 26). The Japanese who lived through the blast are ‘Empty Ones’: the words they grasp to give expression to their experience take the form of negation, of cancellation. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot explores the problems of addressing a holocaust in language: ‘it is that which, in thought, cannot make itself present, or enter into presence, and is still less able to be represented or constitute itself as a basis for representation’ (Blanchot 1986, 33). Nuclear holocaust manifests itself as ultimate absence, an annihilation that is purely destructive, a return to the nihil from which the world was made.

The atomic bomb and the prospect of universal annihilation place an interminable stress on the capacity of language to articulate the realities of the nuclear age. Ideas that were formerly unthinkable now required a semantic structure, a new language. In Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg questions how we might understand nuclear physics when we cannot speak about the atom in ordinary language. Physicists found themselves confronted with a mystery, a power that defied the vocabulary that first tried to encompass it: sub-atomic particles whose behaviour could be explained only in the densest mathematical equations. We see the human world replaced by a statistical one: death and destruction are reduced to a neat collection of fractions and figures. Our vertiginous sense of dislocation, our awareness of the helplessness of words to express such precise annihilation, is one shared by those whose task it is to narrate nuclear holocaust. Derrida observes how, faced by the bleak prospect of nuclear ending, we seek to neutralize its horror, “to translate the unknown into a known, to metaphorize, allegorize, domesticate the terror, to circumvent (with the help of circumlocution…) the inescapable catastrophe’ (Derrida 1984, 201). Unable to comprehend the unprecedented destructive force of nuclear war, we are reduced to rolling out clichés, exchanging dead metaphors.

Nuclear war is ‘unthinkable’: it is a site where language stops, for reasons of both internal logic and social proscription. If the unthinkable cannot be thought, it is both in terms of possibility and prohibition. Striving to reveal the secrets of apocalypse becomes an attempt to uncover forbidden knowledge. The scientists at Los Alamos strove to unlock the secrets of the universe.  In doing so, they discovered the means by which the world might be destroyed. In 1944, while work on Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project proceeded, Niels Bohr arrived in Washington from Europe. He warned that the plan to release nuclear energy through a bomb constituted ‘a far deeper interference with the natural course of events than anything ever before attempted’ (Jungk 1958, 345). Scientists, Bohr reckoned, were dealing with something beyond their control, beyond their comprehension. A decade earlier, Szilard had been quick to realize the potential dangers of nuclear chain reaction, and called on his colleagues to keep the discovery secret from the Germans. Szilard was painfully aware of the need to restrict this knowledge.

Unlike the apocalypses of the Bible, nuclear holocaust precludes the possibility of a ‘secret pointing to salvation’. It offers no revelation, no judgment, no definition. The title of Derrida’s seminal essay, ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’, does not imply that the world cannot be destroyed by nuclear war: rather, it underlines that there will be no revelation, ‘not now’. Nuclear holocaust makes revelation of meaning impossible: it represents ‘the historical and ahistorical horizon of an absolute self-destructibility without apocalypse, without revelation of its own truth, without absolute knowledge’ (Derrida 1984, 27). As in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the apocalypse that will consume the world is an absurd accident. Death is accidental, random, meaningless. At the point of critical mass, the light does not illuminate, but incinerate.

Derrida famously observed that nuclear apocalypse as a ‘phenomenon is fabulously textual… a nuclear war has not taken place: one can only talk and write about it’ (Derrida 1984, 23). Denied its all-consuming reality, nuclear holocaust can exist for Derrida only within the secure confines of the text. It seems suitable, then, that the history of nuclear war itself seems to be so ‘fabulously textual.’ Over thirty years before the Alamogordo explosion, Wells’ The World Set Free depicted a devastating global war fought with ‘atomic bombs’ – a Wellsian coinage. Dedicated to Soddy and his ‘Interpretation of Radium’, the novel would later influence Szilard in his development of the nuclear chain reaction: a discovery that paved the way for the first atomic bomb. The bomb germinated in the mind of a writer of speculative fiction. By 1980, faced with the nightmarish prospect of human extinction as a result of global nuclear conflict, the American Office of Technological Assessment compiled a mammoth report called The Effects of Nuclear War. The report concludes by abandoning its hypothetical empirical assessments of a surviving society, ending, ironically: ‘In an effort to provide a more concrete understanding of what a world after a nuclear war would be like, OTA commissioned a work of fiction’ (O.T.A 1980, 9). The bomb’s genesis was located in a work of fiction: staring at a future more unbelievable and overwhelming than the most dystopian of novels, it seems appropriate that a work of fiction should be commissioned to find its solution.

Apocalypse is a product of the imagination. The scientific imagination has produced weapons with the destructive capability to end the world, leaving no remainders, no aftermath. Within the artistic imagination, the end becomes a permeable boundary, an event that can be rehearsed, reversed and repeated – like the looped footage of blossoming mushroom clouds, accompanied by Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’, at the end of Dr Strangelove. In a world where there is no-one left alive to watch his film, Kubrick permits this primal scene, the sight forbidden to humanity on pain of death, to repeat itself indefinitely.

© Adam Gyngell, 2009

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