Cultural aspects of atomic anxiety
written by Professor Alan Filreis
for use in discussions of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen
Penn Reading Project, University of Pennsylvania, 1999
Some culture-watchers doubted that Americans were as anxious about the prospects of nuclear annihilation as everyone said they were. Was it really the "Age of Anxiety" specifically because of the bomb? The poet Rolfe Humphries, in his introduction to a 1953 anthology of New Poems by American Poets, noticed a distinct lack of such anxiety in the hundreds of poems by young writers he considered including in his book. "In the profession of anxiousness, there is an element of fashion," he noted, "of chichi: how many, I wonder, who feel sure that the Atom Bomb is going to get us all tomorrow, ever dream about bombs, instead of their father chasing their mother with a knife, or vice versa." Leaving aside his apparent naivete about how in dreams we substitute one set of fearful symbols for another, Humphries seems to have missed the point about the larger cultural effects of the nuclear age. People feared the bomb itself, yes - and probably such fears were indeed overstated by officials who wanted every new home to be built with fall-out shelters; and perhaps poets, among others, did not abide what seemed to them hysteria. But it seems also true that the bomb generally made midcentury Americans fear more acutely what they always already feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled.
Fragmentation was one fear. The loss of control was another. The bomb symbolized the two fears in one.
In an issue of Time heralding the end of World War II, a good fight brought to its end by these remarkable new atomic weapons, the magazine summed up the cultural impact of the bomb by taking seriously the metaphor suggested in the physics that produced it. "With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split - and far from controlled." From the time of the linguistic disjunctions in the broken free-verse line of Gertrude Stein, the visual break-up displayed in the cubism of Braque and Duchamp, the Balkanized state of Euro-nationalism emerging from World War I, the philosophical "atomism" of Bertrand Russell and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, modern life seemed already best characterized as disintegrated. There were no more wholes, no coherences. The A-bomb did not bring on something new. Rather it took cultural or aesthetic aspects of modern life - a "modernism" that could be safely imagined as something threatening but very far-off or at least contained, in Paris or New York - and seemed now to bring that incoherence dramatically home, or, indeed, into the home.
Paul Boyer has written a book called By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985). He argues that after initial activism a dumb acceptance of the bomb set in. Allan Winkler's Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom (1993) argues the opposite: the threatened feeling continued through to the end of the cold war in the early 1990s. But Winkler and Boyer agree, as Boyer put it, that "American culture had been profoundly affected by atomic fear, by a dizzying plethora of atomic panaceas and proposals, and by endless speculation on the social and ethical implications of the new reality." No audience or reader of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen should for a moment forget Frayn's frank projection of the long view of such fears onto a conversation between two nuclear players who might not have been able to predict the culture beyond the physics. The dreams described by poet Humphries as unrelated to nuclear anxieties are the same "strange dreams" Frayn's Heisenberg has when he tries not to think about the U.S. A-bombing of Japanese cities. Once the bombs had been dropped, could Americans go on and play ping pong or poker, go shopping, shoot cap-pistols in fringed jackets and Dan'l Boaone caps? Of course. What choice did one have? Should one bite one's nails or pull at one's hair all day long because instant annihilation was always possible? When Heisenberg confronts Bohr with the deadly seriousness of the issue, one senses that he is almost mistaken in thinking he must pull Bohr out of the world of innocent quotidian acts:But, Bohr, we're not ski-ing now! We're not playing table-tennis! We're not juggling with cap-pistols and non-existent cards! I refused to believe it, when I first heard the news of Hiroshima. I thought that it was just one of the strange dreams we were living in at the time . . . . It's like a pre-war house-party - one of those house-parties in a play, that's cut off from any contact with the outside world, where you know the guests have all been invited for some secret sinister purpose.
The normal was no longer normal. Every innocent act had the potential of the acutest dramatic irony. Every ping-pong game could have the feel of false innocence, of denial.
In 1955 the "Hiroshima Maidens" came to the U.S. These young Japanese had been badly scarred from the atomic bombing of their hometown. Their trip had been organized by Americans who sought to help arrange for corrective plastic surgery. They stayed in host homes in the New York metropolitan area. Naturally, while they awaited treatments, they shopped, walked, saw movies, lived the life of tourists. Americans, likewise shopping and film-going, were horrified by this abruption onto the scene of innocent daily doings - activities "unrelated" to worries about the effects of the bomb. (Some people were so threatened by the presence of these disfigurements of American policy that they actually pondered whether organizers of the visit were communist agents.)
In such normality the cultural impact of the atomic age was Readers of nuclear war literature might be surprised to find that, with just a few exceptions - Red Alert of 1958 is one - soldiers and the military generally are not real ly relevant. The classics of nuclear holocaust literature - John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946), Aldous Huxley's Ape and Essence (1948), Philip Wylie's Tomorrow! (1954), Neville Shute's On the Beach (1957), Pat Frank's Alas, Bab ylon! (1959), and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) - have less to say about military aspects of the bomb than about dystopias where people dream the sort of dreams in which fathers chase mothers with knives.
One wonders if Rolfe Humphries, in choosing that dream as an example among all the others he could have imagined, unwittingly meant to suggest the ultimate out-of-control splitting of the American family. One of the poets whom Humphries published in his anthology of "new poets" of the 1950s was Constance Carrier, who taught Latin at a high school in quiet New Britain, Connecticut. The poem she published in Humphries' book depicts the tranquil scene of everyday life in the fifties. There is a statue honoring the Civil War heroes on a grassy "island" in Main Street. Old men sit on park benches, feeding birds nuts and breadcrusts. The contemplation of the end of that old war - bloody yet befitting placid monumentality at its end - leads Carrier to write about her own day. In a poem called "Pro Patria," which turns suddenly toward "the coming of the light" at the end of the recently concluded horrific war, who could not think of a view of a nuclear blast as seen from the pacific center of a small town? What's so eerie in the poem is the quietness - and almost the beauty - of this light succeeding "the end of the dark." Still stranger, though, is her editor's sense that poets really were not writing about the effect of the bomb on the American culture. Here is the pivotal stanza and a few of the lines that follow from it:
Who can recall the day of that war's ending?
Think of our own time, then, the summer night
when the word came, and all the churchbells sounded
the end of the dark and the coming of the light.
. . . leaving no trace except some little park
where no one recalls that dream, that disillusion,
and a monument to death is only known
as a place where the harmless unambitious gather
and the doves come down for bread on the sun-warmed stone.
50s HOME | READING LIST | NEWS | FILREIS HOME
Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/atomic-anxieties.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:48 EDT