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Towards the Nuclear Sublime: Representations of Technological Vastness in Postmodern American Poetry

  • Rob Wilson

When Brigadier General Thomas Farrell groped to describe (in an official government report) the subjective effect of the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, at 5:29:50 A.M. on July 16, 1945, he found himself, like many a would-be writer of the sublime before him, at a loss for adequate terms and tropes – stupefied, dwarfed, reaching for hyperbolic endterms like “doomsday” and “blasphemous” and resorting to spaced-out adjectives such as “tremendous” or “awesome” that 19thcentury Americans had reserved for more manageable spectacles of God's grandeur such as Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Though a military man and no poet, as Farrell registered this history-shattering event in words, he struggled to command some rhetoric of ultimacy before nuclear “effects [that] could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying”:

No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was the beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came, first the air blast pressing hard against people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental, and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.

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1. See Barash David, “Immediate Effects of Nuclear Explosions,” The Arms Race and Nuclear War (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth, 1987), p. 64. Farrell's report is part of General Leslie R. Grove's initial “Report on Alamogordo Atomic Bomb Test, Memorandum for the Secretary of War” [Top Secret]: this document is reprinted as an appendix to Sherwin Martin J., A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Knopf, 1975), pp. 310–12. I would like to thank Brien Hallett of the University of Hawaii's Peace Institute for wellinformed guidance on this crucial subject. General Farrell's firsthand evocation of “the nuclear sublime” intuits what I call the post-nuclear historical rupture of atomic forces in these terms: “All seemed to feel that they had been present at the birth of a new age – the Age of Atomic Energy – and felt their profound responsibility to help in guiding into right channels the tremendous forces which had been unlocked for the first time in history [at the Alamogordo bomb test]” (p. 312). America as a “Post Bomb” place is shrewdly described by Flannery O'Connor in a letter to Betty Boyd postmarked November 5, 1949: “Congratulations on Los Alamos. Was Los Alamos a place before the bomb? My notions of the southwest are very vague but I should think you would have definite sensations about living in a place completely Post Bomb.” See The Habit of Being, ed. Fitzgerald Sally (New York: Farrar, 1979), p. 18.

2. Bakhtin M. M., Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. trans. McGee Vern W. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), p. 4.

3. I comment more fully on General Farrell's compound of ideological uncertainty and American piety before the bomb in “Postmodern as Post-Nuclear: Landscape as Nuclear Grid,” in Ethics/Aesthetics: Post-Modern Positions, ed. Merrill Robert (Washington: Maisonneuve Press, 1988), pp. 169–92. The atomic landscape of postmodernism's “alter [post-altar] sublime,” for example, is bravely articulated in the work of Canadian “Language Poet,” Dewdney Christopher, Alter Sublime (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1980), pp. 1122: “The room breaking into flashing white shards of interstellar nothingness” (p. 18). Landscape implodes into technoscape, self into vasty cybernetics.

4. See Adorno Theodor, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Lenhardt C. (1970; rept. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 280–84: “The sublime in nature and art [and play].”

5. In Schley Jim, ed., Writing in a Nuclear Age (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984), p. 223; on the deconstructive paradoxes pervading the rhetorical overkill of nuclear force, see Solomon J. Fisher, Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

6. Perelman Bob, “Statement,” in To the Reader (Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 1984), n.p.

7. Cooper's essay appears in Jones Richard, ed., Poetry and Politics: An Anthology of Essays (New York: Morrow, 1985), p. 306; I draw some nuclear data from Ground Zero (Director, Molander Roger), eds., Nuclear War: What's in It for You? (New York: Pocket Books, 1982), p. 34; and Heaney's comment appears in Schley , Writing in a Nuclear Age, p. 150.

8. Lowell Robert, “Fall 1961,” in For the Union Dead (New York: Noonday, 1964), p. 11.

9. Auden's poem is reprinted in Schley , Writing in a Nuclear Age, pp. 12.

10. See Thompson E. P., “Deterrence and Addiction,” Yale Review 72 (1982): 118.

11. This is the claim of Ground Zero, Nuclear War: What's in It for You? p. 60.

12. Oppen George, The Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1975), p. 49.

13. See Sklar Morty, ed., Nuke-Rebuke: Writers & Artists Against Nuclear Energy & Weapons (Iowa City, Ia.: The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1984), p. 103.

14. Derrida Jacques, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives),” Diacritics 14 (1984): 2031, pp. 21, 27.

15. Frost Robert, “Fire and Ice,” The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 220. This ice-and-fire “destruction” was evoked – on a cosmic scale – in World War I.

16. Perelman , To The Reader (see note 6 above).

17. Perelman Bob, The First World (Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1986), p. 23.

18. Reprinted in Schley , Writing in a Nuclear Age, p. 11.

19. Ferguson Frances, “The Nuclear Sublime,” Diacritics 14 (1984): 410; and “The Sublime of Edmund Burke, Or the Bathos of Experience,” Glyph 8 (1981): 6278.

20. See Jameson Fredric on “Periodizing the 60'sSocial Text 3 (1984): 178209; see p. 200.

21. Schopenhauer Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, trans. Payne E. F. J. (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 205. (Subsequent references to this compelling analysis of the will-to-sublimity appear in parentheses.) On the ideological functioning of aesthetic “double consciousness” within 19th-century materiality, see Wilson Rob, “Sculling to the Over-Soul: Louis Simpson, American Transcendentalism, and Thomas Eakins's Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,” American Quarterly 39 (1987): 410–29. The poetic sublime leaves nature intact, yet wills domination.

22. Stevens Wallace, Collected Poems (1954; rept. New York: Knopf, 1974), p. 314.

23. Ibid., pp. 201–3.

24. Mariani Paul, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 738.

25. Ibid., p. 699.

26. See Klein Richard and Warner William B., “Nuclear Coincidence and the Korean Airline Disaster,” Diacritics 16 (1986): 221. From another, more post-Jungian point of view on imaging-forth the nuclear sublime as a (symbolic) way of preventing its literal occurrence in history, see the boundary-crossing essays collected in Andrews Valerie, Bosnak Robert, and Goodwin Karen Walter, eds., Facing Apocalypse (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1987).

27. Derrida , “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” p. 23. On the related, yet quite differently inflected idea that “There will never be a [nuclear] catastrophe, because we live under the sign of virtual catastrophe [nuclear simulacra],” see Baudrillard Jean, “Panic Crash!” in Kroker Arthur, Kroker Marilouise, and Cook David, Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene (New York: St. Martin's, 1989), p. 64. Also see the attempt to think our post-nuclear de-realization into one “hyperreal” technoscape and simulacrous mediascape in Baudrillard Jean, “Orbital and Nuclear,” in Simulations, trans. Foss Paul, Patton Paul, and Beitchman Philip (New York: Semiotext [e], 1983), pp. 5875.

28. See Benjamin Walter's disturbing, dread-and-wonder evocation of the new technologies of war, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Jephcott Edmund (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 94.

29. Adorno , Aesthetic Theory, p. 284.

30. This is the kind of big question — concerning vast forces and negations (American “terror, terror beheld and resisted”) — which cultural critics such as Terrence Des Pres in anthologies like Writing in a Nuclear Age (p. 11) are urging American poets to contend with as consequences of their own globe-policing culture. Also see the inadequately theorized portrayal of lyric self against a deaththreatening system in Praises & Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century (New York: Viking, 1988).

31. See Ferguson on Kant , “The Nuclear Sublime,” p. 6.

32. Denise Levertov appears in Jones Richard's anthology, Poetry and Politics, p. 312; Forché Carolyn, “Imagine the Worst,” Mother Jones (10 1984): 39.

33. Talk on anti-nuclear poetics in Perelman Bob, ed., Writing/Talks (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), p. 88.

34. Scheer Robert, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (New York: Random, 1982), p. 121.

35. Derrida , “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” p. 23.

36. Dorn Edward, Hello, La Jolla (Berkeley: Wingbow Press, 1978), p. 25.

37. Creeley's poem appears in Sklar , Nuke-Rebuke, p. 104.

38. This small-town rapturism is depicted in Mottjabai A. G., Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas (Boston: Hougton, 1986).

39. Poem in Perelman , To the Reader (1984).

40. See Boyer Paul, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1985); Schell Jonathan, The Fate of the Earth (New York: Knopf, 1982); and Rogin Michael, “Kiss Me Deadly: Communism, Motherhood and Cold War Movies,” Representations 6 (1984): 136.

41. Scheer , With Enough Shovels, pp. 1832; Ashbery John, The Double Dream of Spring (New York: Dutton, 1970), p. 13.

42. Boyer , By the Bomb's Early Light, pp. 243–56.

43. Williams William Carlos, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, in Collected Poems, 1950–1962 (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 165.

44. On the “liminal” tactics of textual deconstruction, see the post-Derridean speculations of Hartman Geoffrey H., Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 150.

45. Perelman , “Person,” The First World, p. 51.

46. As quoted in Zero Ground, Nuclear War: What's in It for You? p. 29.

47. Ai , “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Sin (Boston: Houghton, 1986), pp. 6467; also see Wilson Rob, “The Will to Transcendence in Contemporary American Poet, Ai,” Canadian Review of American Studies 17 (1986): 437–48.

48. In Contact II, eds., Nuke Chronicles: Art on the End (New York: Contact II Publications, 1985), p. 10.

49. Ginsberg Allen, Plutonian Ode and Other Poems, 1977–1980 (San Francisco: City Lights, 1982), pp. 1213.

50. In Bruchac Joseph; ed., Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets (Greenfield, N.Y.: Greenfield Review Press, 1983), p. 272.

51. Salter Mary Jo, Henry Purcell in Japan (New York: Knopf, 1985), p. 59.

52. Hass Robert, “Images,” in Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (New York: Ecco, 1984), p. 303.

53. Stafford William, note to “Next Time,” in Schley , Writing in a Nuclear Age, p. 202.

54. Kaminsky Marc, The Road From Hiroshima (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 4143.

55. Duras Marguerite, Hiroshma Mon Amour (text for the film by Alain Resnais), trans. Seaver Richard (New York: Grove Press, 1961); on Duras 's postmodernism as “post-nuclear” in form and affect, see Kristeva Julia, “The Pain of Sorrow in the Modern World,” PMLA 102 (1987): 138152.

56. Stein Gertrude, Reflection on the Atom Bomb, in Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein, vol. 1, ed., Haas Robert Bartlett (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1973 [1946]).

57. Mailer Norman, Of a Fire on the Moon (New York: Signet, 1970), p. 60.

58. Lowell , For the Union Dead, p. 72.

59. See Jameson Fredric, “Baudelaire as Modernist and Postmodernist: The Dissolution of the Referent and the Artifical ‘Sublime,’” Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed., Hosek Chaviva and Parker Patricia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 262.

60. See Deleuze Gilles and Guattari Felix, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Hurley Robert, Seem Mark, and Lane Helen R. (1972; rept. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) on “desiring-production” mechanisms of the Oedipalized ego.

61. Cage John, A Year From Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 159.

62. Stevens , Collected Poems, p. 95.

63. Benjamin , Reflections, p. 93.

64. Marx Leo, “On Heidegger's Conception of ‘Technology’ and Its Historical Validity,” Massachusetts Review 25 (1984): 638–52, p. 645. For an even less enchanted view of America's “technological activism” and control of North American self-representations, see Kroker Arthur, Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984); and Guillory Daniel L., “Leaving the Atocha Station: Contemporary Poetry and Technology,” TriQuarterly 52 (1981): 165–81.

65. I am implicitly building upon (and amplifying) reflections on the “rhetoric of the technological sublime” in Marx Leo's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); and the mythopoesis of technology in Trachtenberg Alan, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965): “Translating engineering accomplishments into ideas, the poet [Whitman/Crane] completed the work of [American] history, and prepared for the ultimate journey to ‘more than India,’ the journey to the Soul: ‘thou actual Me’” (p. 150). Euphoria at the urban technoscape, as in Crane, is, however, double-coded with sheer dread: an emerging panic sublime that threatens the power claims of lyric selfhood.

66. Pinsky Robert, “The Uncreation.” The New Republic (04 14, 1986): 38.

67. Pinsky Robert, History of My Heart (New York: Ecco, 1984), pp. 34.

68. See Geuss Raymond, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas & the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and, in the American grain of “prophetic pragmatism” as cultural critique, see West Cornel, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

69. Heidegger Martin, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt William (New York: Harper, 1977), p. 49; also see the counterresponse of Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Hofstadter Albert (New York: Harper, 1971).

70. Heidegger , The Question Concerning Technology, pp. 14, 2627.

71. Marx , “On Heidegger's Conception of Technology,” p. 649.

72. Heidegger , The Question Concerning Technology, pp. 1317.

73. Crane Hart, Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), p. 116.

74. Stevens Wallace, “Of Mere Being” (1955): for obvious reasons having to do with the whole genre of the American sublime, I prefer the phrase “bronze distance” (suggesting natural vastness) in the third line (used in Opus Posthumous, 1957) to its textual variant, “bronze decor” (suggesting an aura of aesthetic bric-a-brac, or even Jameson 's “camp sublime”), as used by Stevens Holly, ed., The Palm at the End of the Mind (New York: Vintage, 1972), pp. 398, 404. On Stevens's lifelong struggle with the Romantic sacralizing and/or modernist de-idealizing of sublime landscapes, as in “The Rock,” see Wilson Rob, “Wallace Stevens: Decreating the American Sublime,” American Poetry 3 (1986): 1333.

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