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The Destroyer of Worlds in His Newfoundland | posted August 26, 2015

Ed Simon 


Military and civilian personnel inspect the Trinity site a few weeks after the test.  Courtesy of the United States Army Signal Corps

Military and civilian personnel inspect the Trinity site a few weeks after the test.
Courtesy of the United States Army Signal Corps

[1] On July 16, 1945 an assembled group of scientists saw a false sun rising in the west. Here, in the Jornardo del Muerto scientific myths of progress and religious myths of the last days were finally fused in a terrifying transmutation of mass into energy. They witnessed an alchemical nightmare at Alamogordo, New Mexico where man’s fear and desire for apocalypse was finally matched by man’s technical ability. It is hardscrabble country, desolate, alien, foreign, uninviting, inhuman. “Single Day’s Journey of the Dead-Man” is the translation of the name of this barren basin that was a northern edge of colonial New Spain. The Spanish supposedly named it after a German prisoner that perished while trying to escape the clutches of the Inquisition, death marking its earliest days. It is a country where the twin dreams of New World millennialism ambivalently exist alongside the apocalypse that naturally awaits any journey into not just a New World, but the Last World. It was here that the Spanish searched for the utopian paradise of the Seven Cities of Cibola, but also where Franciscans and Dominicans were killed in the Pueblo Revolt. Here, towards the far west of the North American continent, life and death exist in reciprocal accord. El Dorado and the Seven Cities of Cibola do not exist in the Jornardo del Muerto, but the Trinity Test Site did. It was there, long after this land had been indigenous, Spanish, or Mexican, that the United States – that inheritor of millennial expectations and apocalyptic desires – tested its first atomic bomb.

[2] Years later J. Robert Oppenheimer, the learned, cultured, cosmopolitan physicist who headed the Manhattan Project was asked by its military director Lieutenant General Leslie Groves why he had chosen to name the test site “Trinity.” Groves had assumed that Oppenheimer chose the name arbitrarily, just another generic religious place name that would throw off any suspicion that something special was happening in the New Mexico desert. The physicist answered, “There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: ‘As West and East / In all flat Maps—and I am one—are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.’ That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’” And so this site – where the intense heat of man’s first nuclear explosion would transmute sand into glass – would forever be known as “Trinity.” Less than a month later 129,000 Japanese civilians would die at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

[3] Scarcely more than a year before the Trinity test Oppenheimer’s mistress, the psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, had committed suicide. Her father John Tatlock was a prominent literary scholar and had introduced his daughter to Donne right as the first generation of New Critics and modernist writers began his rediscovery as a poetic voice (and not just as the author of the sermons for which he was also rightly celebrated). It’s been conjectured that Oppenheimer first read Donne while living at Los Alamos, given a copy of his poems by Tatlock. If he named Trinity in honor of his dead mistress he scarcely could have picked a more appropriate writer. In Donne we see not just the combination of radically discordant metaphorical images “violently yoked together” (as Dr. Johnson famously had it) but also the conflation of the individual with the cosmos, a life with all of human history. Microcosms and macrocosms endlessly reflect one another so that a person can be the universe and a single death the apocalypse. In his splitting and combining of metaphors we have a type of literary fission and fusion and in the atom bomb we have the most sublime of this metaphysical poetry writ gargantuan. As Donne could see the whole world in a room, the apocalyptic destruction of the bomb from the tiniest of atoms shows us a little world made cunningly: it is a combination of elements, of angelic sprite and black sin.

. Robert Oppenheimer  Courtesy of the Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs

Robert Oppenheimer
Courtesy of the Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs

[4] That Donne should be connected to Oppenheimer is one of those illuminating oddities of history that, given the physicist’s incredible breadth of knowledge, should ultimately not be seen as surprising. In this, Year 70 of the Newfoundland that was discovered by men like Oppenheimer, it is worth considering the correspondences that exist between Donne and he. This may not provide answers but rather questions; there may be no argument but perhaps reflection. It would be untenable to argue that Donne influenced Oppenheimer. “Trinity” is merely the name Oppenheimer chose – an atomic bomb test by any other name would be as destructive. But this synchronicity across time does provide us seven decades later with a way of examining the metaphorical, or perhaps even allegorical connections that exist between poetry and reality. The two were after all not just masters of paradox in their respective domains – Donne with the wit of the metaphysical conceit, Oppenheimer with the enigmas of quantum mechanics – but in their own lives as well. The seventeenth century poet was both Jack Donne, libertine seducer of women, and Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s. Oppenheimer was both the American patriot and the political subversive denounced as un-American by his own government; and he was the sensitive pacifist who constructed the most violent weapon in humanity’s arsenal. It was a tool that could melt both poles at once, and store deserts with cities, and make more mines in the earth than quarries were before. In the consilience of Oppenheimer and Donne, science and literature, there are shadows of the ever-receding sun in the west, premonitions of that last day to come.

[5] Indeed if America is the nation which may have provided the first actual means for a man-created apocalypse then Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” is an appropriate baptismal name for that moment zero in human history. As mentioned earlier, both Donne and Oppenheimer were fascinated with the transformation of space. The tiny and the large, the atomic and the cosmic, exist in a more malleable relationship than common sense would assume. For Donne “one little room could be an everywhere,” and Oppenheimer demonstrated how the rapid splitting of atomic nuclei could unleash enough energy to level a city in a second. But Donne saw in the declining West a prophecy – for as history ever moved forward into the future it also moved geographically to the west – the prediction of the classicists’ translatio studii et imperii or the biblical Daniel’s visions. In America history had reached its conclusion, its westernmost terminus. The circle had been closed where the occident collapsed into the oriental, and Revelation must be fused with Genesis. Donne’s logic – in fact many people’s logic, spread across poetry, sermons, and pamphlets – had it that America’s westernmost status signified it as the site of our play’s last scene. The irresistible logic of history and the arc of teleology signified the new lands at the western edge of our maps as the site of Judgment. Indeed Donne himself preached in a sermon from 1628 at St. Paul’s that

In a word, whether we be in the Easterne parts of the world, from whom the truth of Religion is passed, or in the Westerne, to which it is not yet come; whether we be in the darknesse of ignorance, or darknesse of the works of darknesse, or darknesse of oppression of spirit in sadnesse, The world is the Theatre that represents God, and every where every man may, nay must see him.

For Donne and many others the natural course that history must take was the transition of faith from the eastern world where the “truth of Religion is passed” to the western, to “which it is not yet come.” Indeed, Donne himself harboured an obsession with America: he had attempted to immigrate to Virginia but been unable to do so, and this very sermon was preached before the stockholders of the Virginia Company. For Donne, America was the site of mankind’s last act. With such a prophecy, whose poetry would have been more appropriate to christen that nuclear testing site in the western desert?

John Donne, c. 1595, Artist Unknown Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

John Donne, c. 1595, Artist Unknown
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

[6] If we were to construct a new calendar system to reflect a new world, one would start with July 16, 1945. Donne wrote that “We think that Paradise and Calvary, /Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.” Alamogordo New Mexico was the Adam’s tree of our new error, the atomic apple plucked as part of the Faustian bargain of pure knowledge manifested in terrifying violence. It’s the first moment and also paradoxically the last, a Calvary of sorts, though it remains doubtful whether this New Golgotha offers any promise of salvation.

[7] Some of the physicists harboured a worry that the intense heat of the nuclear explosion would cause a chain reaction in the atmosphere, atoms fusing together and engulfing the whole planet in the equivalent of a massive hydrogen bomb. Hans Bethe – the man who figured out how stars actually shone while the poets were just observing that they did – performed a few calculations on the back of an envelope and decided that that fear was probably unfounded. That day they did not go and catch a falling star. To wrench a lyric of Donne’s from its original context and to invert it, the scientists had feared “There I should see a Sun by rising set, /And by that setting endless day beget.”

[8] The physicist Richard Feynman recounted desperately trying to get his radio communication working with others assembled to watch the test, and finally freakishly hit the frequency of a classical music station out of San Francisco just as the bomb detonated, the desert eerily filling with the sound of arias as the horizon became a blinding light, the music only to be silenced by the tremendous sonic blast of the bomb itself as sound caught up to light.

[9] Enrico Fermi, who first constructed a fissionable nuclear pile under the squash courts at the University of Chicago, reported that: “Although I did not look directly towards the object, I had the impression that suddenly the countryside became brighter than in full daylight. I subsequently looked in the direction of the explosion through the dark glass and could see something that looked like a conglomeration of flames that promptly started rising.”

[10] A 13-year-old boy named Jim Madrid driving with his mother to Hollman Air Force Base where he often did odd jobs for extra money witnessed the blast as he travelled west: “It rose from the heavens, so bright, so extremely bright. My mother said in Spanish, ‘El sol esta arrimando. El mundo se va a acabar. The sun is coming close. The world is coming to an end…. She told me to drop to my knees, but I kept looking…. That light was horrendous. As high as the heavens. I expected to see God coming out from under it. If it’s the end of the world, I wanted to see.” As Donne wrote “Yesternight the sun went hence, / And yet is here to day. “A few hours after the blast a bewildered farmer found one of his donkeys standing, dead, with his eyes open. It seems he had been frightened to death by the blast, the first casualty of the nuclear age.

[11] In 1721 the Puritan divine Cotton Mather – who was an inheritor of Donne’s eschatological hopes in the redemptive promise of America – had a vision from the comfort of his Boston manse: “We have seen the sun rising in the west.” At 5:29:21 July 16, 1945 – half an hour before God’s dawn – a new sun rose in the west of Alamogordo. It signaled the emergence of man’s dawn. Donne and Mather had been correct: the means of apocalypse had been created here in the uttermost west, but whether redemption would follow remained unanswered, and seems increasingly unlikely.

[12] It was Oppenheimer’s reaction that would be the most famous. Not only a dutiful student of science, but a prodigy trained in languages, history, religion, literature, he claimed that a line from the Bhagavad Gita emerged in his mind like the flash to the west. “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one….. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was unclear whether the United States had killed God or merely created a new one. The bomb was a “quintessence even from nothingness, / From dull privations, and lean emptiness”; it was a thing “Of absence, darkness, death – things which are not.” It had the power to bend, force, break, blow, burn and make the world new. Months later – after thousands of Japanese had been instantly incinerated, thousands more dying in hideous physical pain from radiation sickness, and still thousands more permanently handicapped – the physicist told President Harry Truman that he felt like he had blood on his hands. The president told him to wash them. And then he privately told an adviser that he never wanted to see Oppenheimer again.

The Trinity Test, July 16 1945, Alamogordo New Mexico Courtesy of  National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office

The Trinity Test, July 16 1945, Alamogordo New Mexico
Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office

[13] It was in 1962 that Groves asked his odd-couple civilian partner in the birth of the atomic age why he had chosen the name “Trinity.” By that point HUAC had hounded Oppenheimer over tangential relationships to suspected communists during his student days, he had lost his security clearances and had effectively retired to the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study where to the chagrin of the mathematicians and physicists he hired that other apocalyptically minded poet (and champion of Donne) T.S. Eliot, falling into alcoholism and despondency over his ruined reputation and the nuclear age he had inaugurated. It was at this point in his life that Oppenheimer reflected “Trinity” took its name from a conflation of two Donne lyrics, “Hymn to God, my God in my Sickness” and “Holy Sonnet XIV.”

[14] Oppenheimer’s explanation of the choice performs its own close reading of the poems by the light of a nuclear flash (we’ll leave Tatlock’s role to theorists of a more Freudian disposition). “Hymn to God, my God in my Sickness” says “As West and East / In all flat Maps – and I am one – are one, so death doth touch the Resurrection.” On a sphere, a globe, there is always more east or more west to travel to as one converts and conflates into another. It is only on a map (Donne’s “Imagined four corners”), that there are definite edges to the east and to the west, and that all four cardinal directions’ most extreme definitions are the edges of the paper. East and west are positive and not merely relational qualities in the fiction of the map. It is these “flat Maps” which produce the illusion of a definite east and west. For Donne, death and Resurrection are similarly illusory, ultimately being one. In the “flat Map” of a human life, death and resurrection seem real and final. For Donne, in the spherical reality that is actual life, death and resurrection merely mingle into one another, as east and west do in reality. In this way Oppenheimer seems to betray an optimism that his famous quotation of Krishna from the Mahabharata didn’t indicate – that this death should signal a resurrection. For Donne – and for Oppenheimer? – east is always touching west just as death is always touching rebirth. And yet batter our hearts nuclear bomb; no resurrection seems to have come from those New Mexico sands.

[15] It may have been that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented a hideously violent invasion of the Japanese homeland. But the great fear of the promethean nuclear demon released from bondage is that it will verify Chekhov’s principle of narrative – if you see a gun on a table in the first act of a play you can be guaranteed it is going to go off in the last.

Engraving of Donne in his funeral shroud by Martin Droeshout, which was the basis of his grave statue.

Engraving of Donne in his funeral shroud by Martin Droeshout, which was the basis of his grave statue.

[16] A dark vision – it is the midnight of our age, and the world’s last night. New York, Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin, London, all the great cities of the world destroyed in whatever war is to come. St. Paul’s Cathedral once laid waste in the Great Fire of the late seventeenth century and almost destroyed again in the blitz of 1940 finds itself in ruins. In the debris one can make out the remains of a chapel built in honour of the men that perished in that last world war. It is dedicated to the Americans who fought alongside the British, and facing that chapel is a statue of John Donne, the base of which is still black from the flames that almost destroyed London in 1666. In this way Donne stares at an America to which he always wished to journey and to which he never did. The statue is based on a drawing of Donne in his death shroud, made while he was still alive, and which he hoped would depict how he would look upon his resurrection at the Day of Judgment.

[17] Now I ask, J. Robert Oppenheimer may have convinced us of the reality of apocalypse, but how many of us are naïve enough to still believe in Donne’s millennium which would follow? Can Donne’s grave be broken up again, can any of ours, can the world’s? After such death who can still believe in resurrection? Who among us has faith that on that last day the dead eyes of Donne’s funeral statue will be able to finally open, and that if he could, he would be able to see anything left in that west? Can we still believe in spite of it all?

Canna Blooming in the Scorched Earth by Eiichi Matsumoto, c. 1945 Courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Canna Blooming in the Scorched Earth by Eiichi Matsumoto, c. 1945
Courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

[18] Evidence of hope: after the destruction of Hiroshima the official United States military report predicted that the soil in the city would be so radioactive that nothing would be able to grow there until the year 2020. Yet in the autumn of 1945 a photographer took a photo of a single red canna flower growing through the rubble of the destroyed city. Donne writes: “And Death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.”

Lehigh University, September 2015

About the author

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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