Wednesday, December 19, 2007

where to go part 6

On Monday night, Hannah’s family and I went to the Lyric Opera in Chicago to see Doctor Atomic, by John Adams. This is a recent opera, premiered in 2005 in San Francisco, about the first test of the atomic bomb; Chicago is presenting a revised version of the work. Major characters include the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, his colleagues Edward Teller and Robert Wilson, and General Leslie Groves. Both Adams and the librettist/stage director Peter Sellars were present at the performance and took a bow at the curtain call.

The setting is June 1945, a month after V-E day but still a long while before V-J day. The bomb is hoisted onstage towards the end of the first act and remains present throughout the second act. (Compare the images from the article about the test and the article about the opera, linked above; the bomb looks exactly right.) The introduction of the bomb to the stage leads into the emotional (and, in a sense, Shakespearean) climax of the work, Oppenheimer’s soliloquy based on the text of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV. This poem has long held deep import for me, and it’s somewhat surprising that I haven’t mentioned it here before:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
It is well-known that Oppenheimer struggled with the consequences of creating an atomic weapon. He later recalled being mindful of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita immediately after the test was completed: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The whole first act of the opera portrays the moral struggle of the physicists—and the fear they held that all might go awry. In the staging of this aria at the end of the first act, at the phrases “to another due” and “betrothed unto your enemy”, Oppenheimer is kneeling and gestures back to the horrible globe suspended upstage. Whether or not Oppenheimer was religious (I don’t think he was), this shift from the devil to the bomb (by extension, the quest for violent power?) as enslaver was striking. (Some sources indicate that Adams and Sellars intended Oppenheimer to be a Faustian character.) I was reminded of the image from Asimov’s short story “Hell-fire”, where the face of the devil appears in a photo of a nuclear explosion. (The story is more of a position paper than a narrative, and essentially only lasts long enough to present this image.) Oppenheimer writhes under the text “knock, breathe, shine” and again at “break, blow, burn”. He flings his arms over his head in surrender at “o’erthrow me”. These small gestures were just a tiny contribution to a marvelous piece of dramatic music (which is much harder to describe than physical movements, and which I heartily recommend hearing whenever possible). I wish I were a baritone, so that I could sing it sometime.

It was not, however, the opera as a whole nor this musical setting in particular that prompted me to post this. It was the reference to a letter by Leo Szilard, read in the opera by Teller and included with a petition to be sent to President Truman:
Many of us are inclined to say that individual Germans share the guilt for the acts which Germany committed during this war because they did not raise their voices in protest against these acts. Their defense that their protest would have been of no avail hardly seems acceptable even though these Germans could not have protests without running risks to life and liberty. We are in a position to raise our voices without incurring any such risks even though we might incur the displeasure of some of those who are at present in charge of controlling the work on “atomic power”.
I’m not sure I agree with Szilard’s conclusion (or “inclination”) regarding the German people’s guilt. But this kind of situation keeps happening. We are again at a time when governments are acting in ways that are at best incautious and at worst reprehensible (I am concerned most particularly with ours at the moment), and the question of how culpable we are as citizens again arises.

I am appalled at the duplicitousness, arrogance, and incivility of our national behavior. Forget our unflagging support for Israel, which seems determined to uphold unstable and unfriendly relations with its neighbors. Forget the opportunism that accompanied the invasion of Iraq, or whether we should even have gone there. These are matters about which I know little, and which as far as I know could be justified or at least comprehended. Here are the actions to which I object: that we seem to have entered Iraq precipitously, with little idea of what to do afterwards, so that it now is smoldering in unrest and terror; that we cannot bring ourselves to acknowledge the rules of combat and the proper treatment of prisoners, so that we find words to excuse torture and means to obstruct due process (viz. Gitmo); that we frighten and abuse even ourselves with the threat of further terrorism if we fail to comply with arbitrary and superficial ways of addressing the problem. (Another blog last year phrased it well: “It’s easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it’s shortsighted.”)

In principle, these actions have been in the name of security and self-defense, but in practice they have mainly appeared to be displays of a kind of national Übermenschheit. During a recent gathering at my apartment, we pulled out a collection of Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons from World War II. Many are still relevant. I indicate in particular October 1, 1941, in which “America First” tells a tale of destruction of foreign children, but with the comforting moral that the listeners suffer no loss. We have lost much—I cannot rightly say whether it has just been in the last decade or over the last half-century—even on our own soil, even after 9/11. We have lost dignity and respect. We have lost soldiers. We have betrayed trust. I remember how after the attacks of September 2001 I wanted nothing more than to see and hear my president speak to rally our country. But they did not merit this thrashing about that we have done, like some wounded monster. Even if we had lost nothing material in the last seven years, we must seek the welfare of those “foreign children” and pay heed to their humanity. As Donne has written elsewhere, “[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” May we, please, return to the fundamentals of civilized life, and act in such a way that our consciences will be clean and our world will indeed be safer.

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