Still on the Bridge: Locating Hiroshima Today

Sixty-seven years ago today—on August 6, 1945–the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima.

In 1958 German philosopher Günther Anders, who was also Jewish and as such had had to leave Germany under the Nazis, spending most of the years from then until the end of the Second World War in the United States, flew to Japan to take part in the Fourth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and for Disarmament taking place in Tokyo that year.  While in Japan he visited, along with fellow delegates to the Conference, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two cities so far ever subjected to nuclear bombing.  On August the 6th that year, the thirteenth anniversary of the bombing, he was in Hiroshima.

Anders kept a journal of his visit to Japan that year.  In 1963 he published that journal under the title Der Mensch auf der BrückeThe Man on the Bridge—a title he took from his own closing remarks at the Conference, delivered in Tokyo on August 20, 1958, two weeks after the anniversary at Hiroshima.  Here is my translation of those remarks, by the citation of which Anders begins his published book of 1963:

On one of the bridges of Hiroshima stands a man who strikes a tune and sings.  Look at him.  Where you would expect to see his face, you find no face, rather a veil:  Because he no longer has any face.  And where you expect a hand, you would find no hand, rather an iron hook:  Because he no longer has any hand.

So long as it not granted for us to accomplish what we have come together here [namely, in Tokyo at the Conference he is attending] to accomplish:  the exorcising of the danger that took two-hundred-thousand with it when broke out for the first time [at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945], just so long will that robotic figure stand on the bridge and sing.  And so long as he continues to stand on that bridge, just so long will he continue to stand on all the bridges that might lead into our common future.  As a sign of our disgrace.  As a messenger.

Let us release that man from his office.  Let us do what’s necessary, so that we can say to him:

“You have become unnecessary.  You may be go.”

Later yet, in 1982, twenty-four years after first delivering those remarks and nineteen after first publishing them, Anders reissued The Man on the Bridge, along with two related other works of his, under the title Hiroshima ist überallHiroshima Is Everywhere.  That is certainly a fitting title, since so long as that man remains on that bridge, then, to be sure, wherever we are, there is Hiroshima.

As Elie Wiesel once observed, after “Auschwitz,” after the occurrence of all that that name has come to stand for, “we are all Jews”—all of us, regardless of who else we may be, Israeli or Arab or German or American or Yemeni or Zulu or Zuni or whatever, it just doesn’t matter which.  Similarly, as Anders in effect said back in 1958, after “Hiroshima,” which means after the dropping of the atom bomb over that city on August 6, 1945, we all—all of us Jews, whether Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Buddhist or Shinto or Wiccan or atheist or all or none of the above–live in Hiroshima.

In fact, in far more ways than one Auschwitz and Hiroshima are inseparable.  That is, the going-universal of being a Jew and the going-ubiquitous of Hiroshima are forever yoked to one another, and that yoke cannot be thrown off.  That both occurred during World War II–a war in which Germany, which perpetrated “Auschwitz” (that is, the extermination of the Jews of Europe), and Japan, upon which America perpetrated “Hiroshima” (that is, the nuking of human beings), were allied, on the losing side—is only a relatively superficial dimension of a far deeper connection.  To formulate that connection in short:  After Auschwitz, which made all of us Jews, the dropping of the atomic bomb in August, 1945, made Hiroshima into the only place available any longer for human habitation.  When the bomb dropped, Hiroshima became the universal human habitat, the single, singular place where we human beings, who by then had all been made Jews, can–and must–live.  From now on, Hiroshima is where all human being have to live.

The only question is:  When, if ever, will we start living there?  Since that’s the only place we have left where we can live after August 6, 1945, that question could also be asked this way:  When will we start to live at all?  To live, and not just hang on till our lives are over, letting them run on beside us, as it were, while we sit there next to them, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for it all to end?  When will we begin to set up at last a human habitation, now that our old haunts are no longer haunt-able?

Early on in The Man on the Bridge,Anders remarks that after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima anyone of conscience had to be ashamed to be a member of the same race that could do such a thing.  Anders is very careful to explain that the “race” he means in that remark is the human race, the one and only race to which we all–all human beings whatsoever, whoever we are, with no exceptions—truly belong, the only truly “natural” race, as opposed to such arbitrary, fictive entities as “the Jewish race” or ‘the German race,” “the white race” or “the black race.”  The race Anders is talking about is, then, the same one that gave Robert Antelme, who survived the Nazi camps as a French prisoner of war, the title for his memoirs of life in those camps—The Human Race, a resounding document of enduring resistance.

Finally to inhabit Hiroshima, the only humanly habitable place left anywhere on earth (or “off-planet,” for that matter), is the only way we human beings, universal Jews that Auschwitz has made us be, will ever again, after “Hiroshima,” be able to stop being ashamed of ourselves for simply being human.  It is no less true to say that only by such real inhabitation, such actual dwelling and home-making, can we at last truly join the human race—the truly human race—instead of just hanging out around its fringes while we wait to be buried.

Anders is wonderfully clear, at least in the essentials, about what it would take, really to join that race—what it would take to at last be able to dismiss the man on the bridge from his station, with our thanks for doing his duty so faithfully for so long.  He is especially clear that to “exorcize the danger” that was unleashed and set lose to roam the earth on August 6, 1945, involves something far more and altogether different from just enacting and then enforcing, however widely, stringently, and effectively, treaties or pacts or vows or laws or rules or regulations or intentions or resolutions for everyone everywhere never ever forever anywhere at all to drop “the bomb” again.  As Anders puts it, even if we were to succeed in altogether dismantling the global nuclear arsenal, we would still not be able to address the real danger, which lies in this, that we still know how to make those bombs again.  In effect Anders points out that, try as we might, we cannot lobotomize ourselves into forgetting that knowledge, that know-how or techo-logy.

Let nuclear disarmament be global and enduring as it could conceivably be.  Let all the bombs be defused and beaten into plowshares.  Let all the resulting radioactive garbage be miraculously disappeared.  What Anders calls the danger would still grow no less.  If anything, it would become even greater, since that absence of all the toys of the nuclear warriors would just spawn a deep and deeply betraying sense of complacency and safety, calling out “peace! peace!” where there is no peace and where, as Nietzsche taught more than a century ago, the devastation just keeps on growing.

Anders took an active role, alongside such more famous colleagues as Bertrand Russell, in the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, as he tried forcefully to call attention to what he saw as the very real danger that then and still faces the whole human race.  Around the same time, Heidegger, a very different figure who would never have joined such a movement and even made various remarks that might be taken by the unthinking to speak against what Anders says, actually pointed in the same direction.  The real risk, according to Heidegger, was not that another atomic bomb might be dropped over another city and citizenship, or even over scores of them.  The real danger emerged, he consistently argued, even if “that day” never came.  The real danger manifested when the bombs did not fall, and had even been neutralized.  The real danger was that then the monstrous distortion of human being and habitation that the bomb only symbolized would cease even to be visible at all to anyone any longer.  In effect, we might say, Anders’ man would still be on the bridge, but no one would any longer be able to see him there—or even that there was a bridge.  Then, to use the way of putting it I’ve been using above, all prospects for our race, the human race, would truly be eradicated once and for all, beyond hope of all resurrection, however miraculous.

To paraphrase a famous line from Alcoholics Anonymous, “the bomb” is not the problem.  The bomb is just a symbol of the problem.  The problem, as usual, lies not in our stars, but in us.  The problem is ourselves, the human race itself—or, rather, that so far that race remains without members, since the solution to the problem the scandal of which the man is sent to stand on the bridge to keep us all mindful is joining that race.  To put the same point just a bit differently, as I also suggested above, the solution, if there is one, is truly to inhabit Hiroshima, our henceforth only universal habitat, home for all us Jews.

Anders gives us the hint and continuing guide that we need to begin doing just that.  I will end this post after citing it.

He writes early on in his Hiroshima-Nagasaki journal, that the solution is to insist on maintaining, not our cherished security, but our in-security.  “What faces us,” he writes, is “the endlessness of insecurity.  And our never-ending task consists of this, that we be careful that this very insecurity never ends.”

Today, sixty-seven years to the day after Hiroshima went global, thanks to America’s gifting it with “the bomb,” Anders’ man is still standing sentinel on his bridge.  Hiroshima is still everywhere.  We should all still be ashamed of ourselves for belonging to the human race.  We are all still far too secure.

Published in: on August 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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