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


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

Frances Ferguson , “The Nuclear Sublime,” Diacritics 14 (1984): 410

Rob Wilson , “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

Richard Klein and William B. Warner , “Nuclear Coincidence and the Korean Airline Disaster,” Diacritics 16 (1986): 221

Arthur Kroker , Marilouise Kroker , and David Cook , Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene (New York: St. Martin's, 1989), p. 64

Michael Rogin , “Kiss Me Deadly: Communism, Motherhood and Cold War Movies,” Representations 6 (1984): 136.

Rob Wilson , “The Will to Transcendence in Contemporary American Poet, Ai,” Canadian Review of American Studies 17 (1986): 437–48.

Julia Kristeva , “The Pain of Sorrow in the Modern World,” PMLA 102 (1987): 138152.

Cornel West , The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

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  • ISSN: 0361-2333
  • EISSN: 1471-6399
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