“Screen-Visions,” Prophecy, and My Mazatlan Weekend (2)

Real vision today is only possible with closed eyes; and today the only “realist” is someone who has enough “fantasy” to paint the fantastic morrow.

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall

. . . nothing is ever past.

The actual value of memory lies in this insight that nothing is past.

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, two entries from 1971


Truth plays with us. Sometimes it trifles and toys with us as a cat might a mouse. Then its play with us becomes delusion, which comes from the Latin de-, used here as a negative intensifier, and luder, “to play.” We ordinarily understand delusion in a negative sense, as something that plays with us in such a way as to lead us astray. We think that delusion teases us, and appears to us to do so with malice. In the same way, a cat playing with a mouse capable of imagining such things as deliberation and malice might appear to that mouse to be deliberately malicious.

That appearance, however, would be an illusion, from the same root meaning “play,” plus the prefix il-, a form of in-, used here in the sense of “against.” How the cat’s play appeared to such an imagination-able imaginary mouse would be a distortion of the truth, a twisting or torturing of it. In the same way, even when truth plays with us, that is, deludes us, truth is not in truth malicious. As toying with a mouse before killing it is just in the nature of the cat, so is deluding us just in the nature of truth, when that’s how truth strikes us.

*     *     *     *     *     *

At one point in “Cultural Roots,” the second chapter of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson observes that it was through such “sacred silent [because written, not vernacular] languages” as, to use his own examples, Latin during the European Middle Ages, Arabic in Islamic tradition, or the ideograms of classical Chinese writing, that “the great global communities of the past were imagined.” However, such set apart, non-spoken, written languages could serve as such media for imagination only because “the reality of such apparitions”—that is, of such visions of universal community—“depended on an idea largely foreign to the contemporary Western mind.” That idea, according to Anderson, was “the non-arbitrariness of the sign.” To understand just what he means by that, we need to look at the examples he then gives of “sacred” languages, which is to say languages consisting of such “non-arbitrary signs.”

His first example is “[t]he ideograms of Chinese,” which, he says, “were emanations of reality, not randomly fabricated representations of it.” In other words, they were not the results of convention, but rather of what we might well call projection—which I mean in just the sense that, for example, images in dreams work, by Freud’s analysis, as projections of repressed wishes.

“We are all familiar,” writes Anderson next, to give his second example, “with the long dispute over the appropriate language (Latin or vernacular) for the mass.” What is at issue for Anderson in that second example really only begins to clarify itself, in my judgment, when he progresses to his third one. To introduce that third example he writes—with emphasis added to highlight what is to me the truly salient point: “In the Islamic tradition, until quite recently, the Qur’an was literally untranslatable (and therefore untranslated), because Allah’s truth was accessible only through the unsubstitutable signs of written Arabic.” He then follows up with a remark that, by my reading, is the clincher. “There is no idea here,” he writes—that is, as I read him, no idea in any such “sacred language” as ideograms in Chinese tradition, Latin in Roman Catholic tradition, or Arabic in Islamic tradition—“of a world so separated from language that all languages are equidistant (and thus inter-changeable) signs for it.”  Once again I have added the emphasis in that line, to bring out what I consider to be the crucial operative notion at issue.

That is the notion of the substitutability or interchangeability—the equivalence—of all languages, insofar as languages are reduced to mere systems of signs that refer to a world from which they have all been equally separated, and hence in relation to which they are all “equidistant,” as Anderson says. That is, insofar as languages can be substituted or interchanged for one another, it is precisely because they have all been equally “separated” from the world, all placed at one and the same distance (“equidistant”) from the world—and become, in such equi-distance, equi-valent (equal in “value”) to one another. Accordingly, to the extent that all languages can be translated into one another, no one language has anything special to say, anything that cannot be said just as well in any other language. All languages become interchangeable with one another, and no language is set apart any longer as special—special as language, which opens a world, as opposed to being special in the sense of being reserved to the some elite, who have stolen it and set it aside as their special property.

*     *     *     *     *     *

A sacred language is an irreplaceable one. No other language can be substituted or interchanged for it. There are no equivalent languages, that is, other languages that could serve just as well as it for saying whatever it might be able to say. A sacred language does not refer to some world from which it is separated off and set at a distance. Rather, a sacred language projects a world, opens a world in the first place, letting it first be as a place where people can build a dwelling for themselves.

The untranslatability of one sacred language into any other is the untranslatability of worlds as such. Worlds are incommensurable with one another, and there can be no exchange or substitution of one for another, any more than one beloved person (or even guinea pig) can be exchanged or substituted for another. One may some day come to love another, after one’s beloved has died; but there is no substituting of one beloved for another. Each is unique. It’s the same with worlds, and the languages that, in speaking, open them.

When a language ceases to be capable of projecting a world, opening it for building and dwelling in—rather than just referred to as an already given world from which the language has been artificially separated and set at a distance—then the language dies.    The world the language once opened closes off. It dies, too. The world is not there at all any longer even just to be referred to, let alone lived in.

When Latin ceased to be a vernacular language and came to be reserved for the few, put to service to insure their special entitlement, sacrilege was committed against Latin as a sacred language. Even when blasphemed, what’s holy is still holy.   Otherwise, one could not blaspheme against it in the first place. Just so, even after having sacrilege committed against it by the Medieval elite, Latin remained a sacred language, which is to say a language that opened a world. Latin remained a living language even after it had been sold into bondage to the ruling elite, and no longer permitted to the people in common—permitted them so that, in speaking back in their commonplaces what they heard Latin say, they might build for themselves a common place.

Eventually, however, even the elite ceased to have access to the world of Latin. Then Latin truly did die, along with the world it once opened.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In a journal entry he includes in Hiroshima Is Everywhere (Hiroshima Ist Überall, pages 56-58), Günther Anders recounts a breakfast conversation he had one day in 1958, when he was in Japan to participate in an international conference for nuclear disarmament. The conversation was with an American professor of economics who also happened to be in Japan. After the American arrogantly dismisses Anders’s disarmament concerns as “utopian,” Anders turns the tables on his tablemate by saying that it is he, the American, who is the utopian. The economics professor has just pompously predicted that by, say, 1970 or 2000 (it is to be remembered that the conversation is taking place in 1958), the earth will still have human occupants on it, and won’t be reduced to a “dead cinder circling the sun.” Well, Anders, replies, all the odds are that that’s exactly what the earth will be reduced to by then, if nothing is done to stop the rampant nuclear proliferation and stockpiling of nuclear weapons by Cold War contestants. So the American is the one being “utopian,” says Anders, in denying what is there to be seen by anyone who has eyes to see, and the will to use them.

Of course, we who have all survived till 2015 can look back with condescension on both parties to that long-ago breakfast conversation. We can still find the American economics professor to have been an ass, but we can also look down on Anders himself, albeit with charity for his meaning well. However well-grounded Anders’s prediction may have been on the basis of the evidence available at that time, it is so clear as to hardly merit noting that subsequent history has obviously proven him to be the one who was wrong, and the ugly American right. After all, we are already 45 years past 1970, and even 15 past 2000, and, as the American predicted, the earth is indeed still not reduced to a dead cinder circling the sun. People in ever greater abundance still hop around all over its surface, apparently as ineradicable as cockroaches (to paraphrase one of Nietzsche’s lines).

Or do we just lack the eyes to see?

Anders himself falls prey, perhaps, to an all too common lapse of vision, when he takes his own concern for banning the bomb and encouraging disarmament to be founded on any such thing as a prediction—a “saying in advance,” from Latin prae-, “beforehand, prior to,” and dicere, “to say”. However, what struck me when, some four years ago, I first read the passages from his journal in which Anders recounts that now-old conversation, was that back then he was really not advancing any prediction at all, and that by taking himself to have been speaking at the level of predictions, he played unknowingly into the know-it-all American’s equally but differently unknowing hands.

Here is one way I might put the point: To take the whole issue to be one of competing predictions is to reduce it to a matter of the American being “optimistic” and Anders being “pessimistic,” and arguing about which of those two is the most “realistic.” However, what was really at issue—so it struck me strongly when I first read the passage—was not prediction at all, one way or another. Rather, it was a matter of prophecy, which the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) tells me ultimately derives from the Greek prophetes, meaning “ ‘an interpreter, spokesman,’ especially of the gods, ‘inspired preacher or teacher.’ ”

The same source also tells me that the Greek prophetes was used in the Setpuagint—the translation of Hebrew scripture done by and for Greek-speaking Jews in the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE, then later also adopted by the early Christian church—to render the Hebrew word nabj, “soothsayer,” that is “one who speaks the truth.” That is what Anders was doing, speaking the truth, which is not at all a matter of making some sort of “prediction.” It is, rather, a matter of saying what is.

Thus, what struck me was that, though Anders himself may have thought he was speaking Latin, he was actually speaking Greek, a very different language indeed.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Latin is a language of power, whereas Greek is a language of thought. At least that is how things have gone since Latin became the (pseudo-)universal language of those who exercised power—that is, since Latin, withdrawn from common usage, was set aside for special use by the elite, as the language they used among themselves to protect their dominance, during the European Middle Ages.

Heidegger often said things to the same effect about Latin and Greek, though he arrives at that destination while walking along his own pathways, rather than the one I’ve been walking in this blog-series. That Latin is the language of power is also for me one level of resonance to be heard in Jacques Derrida’s insistence that what has commonly come to be called “globalization” is really a matter of “globalatinization,” as he puts it* (with my emphasis added).

Today, all of us—everybody everywhere around the whole globe—speaks Latin. It’s the only language any of us speaks any longer. The problem, however, is that none of us really knows any longer what we’re saying when we speak it. For the overwhelmingly vast majority of us, such knowledge was long, long ago reserved for the elite, to which so few of us ever belonged. On the other hand, the ever fewer and fewer among us who do belong to the truly privileged elite of our endless day of the going-global of the economy—the .1 or .01 of 1% (or whatever it currently is, since the number continues to dwindle drastically) who already own pretty much everything everywhere, and will continue to come into possession of more and more of it as the clock continues to tick—no longer understand Latin, either. That’s because it long ago (less long ago than when Latin was first made blasphemous, but still a long while back) ceased to be necessary for the elite to learn it, to use it among themselves in order to insure their privilege. And that, in turn, is because the only people who might ever have really questioned that privilege, long ago lost any language still left sacred enough even to be able to protest against such blasphemy.

So, today, everyone everywhere without exception speaks Latin, but nobody anywhere any longer knows what anyone is ever saying in that tongue. We all just keep on chattering away mindlessly.

No wonder Anders misunderstood himself in his long ago breakfast conversation with the American economics professor!**

*     *     *     *     *     *

What we need, then, is a new sacred language. We need it even—and above all—to name clearly just why we need it: the dimensions of the crisis at hand for us all, without exception, in the very loss of such language, and the catastrophe that threatens us all in that crisis.

At least that is one way that I would like what I said at the very beginning of this current series of blog posts on “ ‘Screen-visions,’ Prophecy, and My Mazatlan Weekend” to be taken, when I wrote: “The catastrophe may not be coming. It may already be here. The catastrophe may be that there is really no such thing as ‘the coming catastrophe.’ ”

There are other ways as well.

*     *     *    *     *     *

I will address those other ways in my next post, which I plan to be the last of this current series—and which will probably not go up for a couple of weeks, since I’ll be doing some travelling in the meantime.

* In ¶15 of “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone” (translated by Samuel Weber in Religion, edited by Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, Stanford University Press, 1998), Derrida defines the term this way, between parentheses: “. . . globalatinization (this strange alliance of Christianity, as the experience of the death of God, and tele-technoscientific capitalism) . . .”

** How appropriate on all three counts: “American,” “economics,” and “professor”!

Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After–continued yet again

Day Zero, the Day that dawned when the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was not just another Day.  Rather, it was the Day that ended all Days, the point at which the Day as such vanished without trace, as I tried to articulate in my pervious post.  As Günther Anders saw so clearly, what was truly unique about Day Zero—what made it the Day to end all Days–was not the devastation of an entire city and the killing of two-hundred-thousand of its inhabitants in a single flash, as shockingly horrendous as such sudden devastation and death may be.  Unfortunately, even such awful destruction has all too many precedents, and the speed of destruction remains a difference of degree, not kind.  No, what was truly unique about Day Zero, what made it the very null point of the Day as such, was that it marked the onset of the devastation of the very devastation, the masking of the devastation under a façade that almost immediately began to take the form of rapid reconstruction.  What was truly horrible was, so to speak, not the demolition of the city, but the demolition of its ruins.

Worth noting is that another important author who, like Anders, survived the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe—though he survived it differently, going through Auschwitz itself, whereas Anders survived by going into exile in France and eventually the United States—is concerned to make the same point.  I mean Jean Améry.  In Lefeu oder Der Abbruch (Lefeu or The Demolition), his final novel, Améry’s title character (whose name, “Lefeu,” is French for fire) resists all orders to leave the run-down, condemned, decaying apartment building in which he lives in Paris, so that the old, no longer functional dump can be demolished to permit brand new construction.  Through Lefeu Améry stages his own protest, a protest against the destruction of ruins as such.  Lefeu asserts our need to live among the ruins of our life, as opposed to our desire to bury those ruins beneath the frenetic busy-ness of everyday contemporary activity.  Lefeu himself, in Améry’s hands, becomes a call to remember the ruins, rather than to try to move “beyond them,” to build something “new” over them, burying them beneath our re-constructions.

To return to Anders, the third, final, and by far shortest (only about 30 pages total) of his three works that make up Anders’s 1982 publication, Hiroshima Is Everywhere, is The Dead:  Speech on the Three World Wars, first delivered in 1964 and first published the following year.  In it, Anders himself discusses what is required of those of us who are survivors, those who have been left behind by the dead.  Specifically, he means those who, like himself, were left behind by the millions of those who died fighting on the German side during the first two World Wars.  His concern, that is, is with the survivors of those whom Germany enlisted into its forces and sent into battle to die on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and North Africa from 1914-1945.  Anders strongly insists that what makes the deaths of all those millions so hard to bear for their families and compatriots left behind is that they all died (page 364) “for nothing,” that they died, as he poignantly puts it, “not for their country, but to its shame.”  He goes on to insist just as vehemently that it is only when the survivors, such as himself, left behind in such cases “hold fast to that knowledge”—the knowledge that their dead died for nothing–that they can “truly honor the dead.”  Only then, in turn, can their survivors make it true that those who died did not die in vain! “Whether they died in vain or not,” he writes, “depends on us, who have been left behind.  On our incorruptibility”—on such survivors not being open to any sort of bribery to cover over the fact that their dead did indeed die for nothing.   “Only so do we pay them their due.”*

The specific millions of dead at issue in Andres’s remarks—namely, the millions of Germans and their allies who were sent to die in battle during the first two World Wars—have the distinctive status of what Anders calls “die schuldlos Schuldigen,” which literally translates as “the guiltlessly guilty,” but which we might more usefully render as “innocent perpetrators.”  At least many if not most such innocent perpetrators were also what Anders calls “victim-perpetrators” (Opfer-Täter), those whose acts inflicted suffering on others, but who themselves also suffered from their own acts as well (albeit they may well have suffered differently:  for example, from feelings of guilt, quite possibly even overwhelming ones, for what they did).

At any rate, whether “only” innocent perpetrators, or “also” victim-perpetrators, in all such cases what is at issue are those who, perhaps with what ordinarily count as the best of motives, such as love of their country, carry out acts that help accomplish or at least enable such deeds of horror as the extermination of the Jews of Europe—or, to use another example, the one for which Anders first employs the term at issue, the bombing of Hiroshima.  Anders’s uses the expression “schuldlos Schuldigen” to describe the American pilot Claude Eatherly, who piloted one of the planes flying reconnaissance and providing accompaniment to the Enola Gay as it went to drop the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, and who subsequently suffered guilt for what he had helped perpetrate against the people of Hiroshima, and the world.  The second and longest part of Anders’s book on the ubiquity of Hiroshima consists of a long exchange of letters between him and Eatherly.

The six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II may not themselves have shared any guilt for those murders–though the extermination-camp system of inmate capos and “special commands” (Sondercommandos) constitutes a moral “gray zone,” as Primo Levi famously called it.  That is, they may not have been “innocent perpetrators” in the sense that Anders applies to Eatherly, or to the German war dead from the first two World Wars.  The distinctions involved in these various cases are well worth careful reflection, and I may return to them in some later posts.  However, what I am concerned with here is one important thing these different cases all have in common, which is that in every case, from the most purely innocent victims to the most guiltily compromised ones, those who died from their victimization all died for nothing, to use Anders way of putting it.  If they were “innocent perpetrators” who died in the process of committing their deeds of perpetration, then they may have died not only for nothing, but also “to the shame of” that in whose name they went to their deaths (e.g., their country).  In contrast, of course, the millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis died to no shame of Judaism.  However, be that as it may, they still died for nothing—died for no good reason whatever, died without any justification for their dying.  That is what I want to address.  Specifically, I want to address the same question Anders addressed in his remarks about all the dead innocent perpetrators of German aggression during the first half of the twentieth century.  That is the question of how we can properly honor such dead, who died for nothing.

Anders not only raises that question for us, but also gives us the best answer to it, an answer I’ve already cited:  We honor such dead only by holding fast to this, that their death was “for nothing,” that they were wasted, their lives and the lives of their loved ones shattered, reduced to ruin, for nogood reason whatever.   Thus, we pay the dead who died for nothing their due only by refusing to bury the fact that their lives were squandered for nothing.  That is what it means, genuinely to honor them.  In means, in effect, to preserve the ruins of all their lives—to preserve them as ruins, and not as convenient means for marshalling resources for new accomplishments, or just as museum pieces to provide opportunities for education and entertainment for the living.

Never to forget, always to remember, all those millions upon millions who died for nothing—died for nothing in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, or even at the fronts as German soldiers in battle–is to reject all endeavors to demolish the ruins, and replace them with glittering new fabrications.  It is to refuse to call out “peace, peace” where there is no peace, but instead to keep exposed the face of war that everywhere reigns, consigning all things to obliteration, even and especially the evidence of the very obliteration itself.  It is to remember the ruins and to preserve them as such, defying the demolition of the ruins, protesting alongside Lefeu, Améry, and Anders.

Viewed from the sort of perspective Günther Anders adopts in the final part of his three-part book on Hiroshima, what he identifies as “the three World Wars”—the first two “hot,” the third one “cold”—show themselves to be but the revelation of three faces of a single nihilistic Anti-Trinity, the Counter-Divinity of Demolition that imploded so gaudily over Hiroshima in August 1945.  Dying in 1992, Anders lived long enough to see the end of the Third World War, the “cold” one, and therewith the end of the whole process:  the finalization of the disappearance of the devastation cast up everywhere by triumphant, ceaseless war, the burial of all the ruins beneath the mask of the global market.  Anders, with his philosophical background, might have recognized that the world thereby entered into the end stage of despair, by Kierkegaard’s lights—the despair which does not even know it is in despair, but thinks it is, or at least ought to be, just pleased as punch.  From such a black hole of despair, no light of hope can any longer escape:  All genuine hope has vanished along with all the ruins.

Fundamentally, August 6, 1945, was Day Zero not because on that day such horrendous ruins appeared, the ruins of an entire city, reduced to rubble in less than the blink of an eye.  Rather, that day was Day Zero–the nullification of the Day itself, the multiplication of zero days to infinity—because on that day the ruins themselves began to be dis-appeared, like Argentines under the Junta.  It was Day Zero because that day  “the Demolition”—the Abbruch to protest against which Lefeu/Améry give their very lives–began.  Day Zero was Demolition Day, the Day the ruins went away.

But then, beyond all possible expectation, suddenly, on September 11, 2001, the impossible happened.  On that day, the ruins returned.  In the vast void of endless accumulation of zero days, all the countless string of days during which the global wasteland just stretched on and on, history itself having come to its end, or rather the end of its end—suddenly the whole façade began to shimmer, and then to break apart, and to collapse, revealing beneath its gaudy, fun-house veil the nullity it had till then concealed.  The ruins reappeared.  A Day again dawned, even “after” Day Zero, the day all days were reduced to zeros, another Day “after” the Day the Day itself died.

September 11, 2001:  The Day After.

*     *     *     *     *     *

There is more to explain about that.  So I will need to continue this series on “Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After” for yet one more post.

* In The Open Wound:  Trauma, Identity, and Community, which I have just published (available through amazon.com), I try to make the same point in a different way, without using the same verbal distinction Anders does between dying “for nothing” and dying “in vain.”  I am in full agreement with what I understand him to be saying through such locutions, however.  The difference is solely one of formulation.

Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After–continued

Toward the end of The Man on the Bridge, his journal of his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958, Günther Anders recounts a lengthy conversation he had with a fellow passenger during one leg of his return journey to Europe–a conversation  about Hiroshima, nuclear arms, the Cold War, and related matters.  Anders’ seat-mate has bought the official party line of the powers that be. He proudly spouts the dictated slogans about the unprecedented threat of “totalitarianism” and the supposedly regrettable but necessary reliance on the strategy of “nuclear deterrence” and “mutually assured destruction” until that threat can be eliminated.  In short, he marches with the compliant masses who back in those days contentedly and complacently reduced everything to the thought-imploding chant of  “Better dead than Red!”

In the course of the conversation Anders attempts to explain to this self-satisfied conformist a theme with which the readers of Anders’s journal are already well familiar by that point.  That theme is embodied in his observation to his fellow passenger that the most disturbing thing about the Hiroshima he visited in 1958 was precisely how, thanks to the massive, sustained efforts to rebuild the city after its nuclear devastation in 1945, virtually all signs of that very devastation had been erased, buried beneath the gleaming new skyscrapers, shops, office buildings, and homes that had been erected over the ruins.  The only visible evidence of the devastation that remained was confined to a carefully, officially selected section of the city.  There, the ruins were not replaced and erased by new construction.  Instead, they were deliberately preserved and protected.  So maintained, those ruins were put on exhibition for all who live in Hiroshima and all who visit the city to go and see.  They stand there as an officially sanctioned “memorial” to what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and a sobering “warning” to all future generations, lest they be tempted to any relaxation of the perpetual vigilance that must be kept alert if the world is to avoid the same sort of devastation, only this time going global, in effect.  So, at least, went—and still goes–the official party line.

To his seat-mate Anders tries to make the point that what is really most sobering is noticing that the unprecedented annihilation, not just of property but above all of two-hundred-thousand human lives, that took place in Hiroshima on that August day in 1945 is itself annihilated by the furious reconstruction that rebuilt the city after the disaster.  That annihilation of the annihilation, the erasure of the erasure of human life and habitation that took place there, is in no way countered by the special preservation of evidence of the devastation in one confined area of the city.  By being reduced to the status of a sort of museum, which one can visit as tourists have long visited the excavated ruins of the ancient Pompey, to gawk at what the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius did in the days of ancient Rome, only distances the devastation further.  Far from fostering any genuine recollection, it institutionalized forgetting, and buries what happened even more deeply beneath the façade of pious pretenses.

Anders tells his companion (page 161 of Hiroshima Ist Überall, the first of the three parts of which is his Hiroshima-Nagasaki journal, once again in my own somewhat free translation) that “the reconstruction is a betrayal of the dead.  They themselves don’t complain about it, of course.  I mean the dead.  They never complain.  And they who in that way make no appeal, they never even put in an appearance.  As missing, I mean.  It’s not that the dead are invisible that’s the scandal.  Rather, it’s that their being missing is missed.  That their being missing is not visible.”

If there is any duty to remember those who died on August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, and honor them in the memory, then it is not by making fetishes of their names or of pictures or trinkets kept as tokens of them that we fulfill that duty.  It is, rather, by keeping the wound of their absence open, in remembering that they have been forgotten.  It is by keeping their absence, their still being missing, ever before our minds–which doesn’t even require that we know their names, and may even be hindered by such knowledge—that we remember, and honor, those whose deaths are not to be forgotten, and who are to be honored in their absence.  What is at issue with regard to remembering Hiroshima is the same sort of thing that is at issue, to give a different example, by the still ongoing admonitions, on black flags, bumper-stickers, and elsewhere across America, to remember all those American troops who went—and are often still–Missing in Action (MIA) and/or were Prisoners of War (POW) during the American debacle in Vietnam.

Anders saw and said that is not the gaping void opened by the horrible, sudden snuffing out of so many human lives—the two-hundred thousand disappeared, as it were–by the nuclear bombing of August 6, 1945, that is so scandalous.  Rather, it’s that that void itself is given no void—no room—wherein it might manifest itself with any force, to make itself felt.  What’s truly scandalous is that the ghosts of all those killed that day are not even granted any site where they might haunt the living, but are made instead to pass on beyond recall.  Every nook and cranny, every dark corner or place aside where they might make their ghostly presence—which is always just the sort of presence of an absence, a void, a going missing, that Anders is talking about—known to us whom they have left behind.  Thus robbed even of haunting places, those who have died can no longer be honored by genuine mourning among us from whom they have been taken.  And we, in our turn, are denied any presence of the dead—they themselves, as dead, as absent, as leaving a hole never to be filled again.  We are bereft of our very bereavement.

Days before his trip home, when he was still in Hiroshima itself, Anders had a similar conversation with a dissimilar companion, this time a Hiroshima resident who, as a member of the Japanese army, was doing duty elsewhere when the bombing occurred.  He tells Anders (page 62) that now, upon his returning to the city, he has a strange feeling of “not being there, where he is,” namely back in Hiroshima.  Standing on the bridge into the newly rebuilt city, and recalling when he first came home there at the end of the war, he cries out, “Yes!  When I [first] saw the city again, when it still lay in ruins, then it still was itself.  But now!”  Now, he has the strange feeling already described, of not being where he is.  (As an aside my regular readers may appreciate, let me add that he’s right, he’s not in Hiroshima, where he is, because it really is Hiroshima no longer.  It’s become Las Vegas.  Hiroshima is everywhere/Las Vegas is everywhere:  those are jus two sides of the same coin.  Or, to say that a bit differently, those are just two different ways of pointing at the same thing.)

Anders writes that he easily identified with that feeling, of not being where one is.  Back at his own home in Europe, the same phenomenon of massive, amazingly rapid reconstruction had occurred, after so much of greater Germany had been reduced to ruins by the Allied forces.  Anders writes that he and the other inhabitants of rebuilt central Europe have even grown used to such erasure of the erasure, so that by the time he is writing (1958) it had “almost ceased being  shocking.”   It had become “the new normal.”  No one really even noticed it any longer–and, not noticing, also didn’t even notice that they had failed to notice, so that not only did the former devastation vanish altogether from view, but so did it’s very vanishing.   Everything appeared to be there after all, with nothing absent. “For,” Anders writes (with his own emphasis), “the reconstruction is even the destruction of the destruction, and thereby the culmination of destruction.”  He goes on to write that he himself can no longer see anything of what happened there, in Europe or in Japan.

Everything visible—the new houses—they hush up what took place exactly as do the newspapers or everyday chatter [which bury what has happened under the din of “the news”].  Everything looks to be “time-neutral,” that is, everything looks as if it has been that way since who knows when; what’s now present masks itself with the sense that “it’s always been this way”; and mere appearance of its having always been this way masks what really happened.  History is falsified backwards, and even (for the reconstruction is also history) by history itself.  History—the history of its own falsification.

It strikes me that what is at issue here is akin to when those who are abused are denied even the linguistic means necessary to complain about the abuse, since the language made available to them has already been laundered to mask and perpetuate that very abuse.  If one’s very language, the language into which one is born, the only language one has available, is such that it already institutionalizes sexism, for example, then not only are some members of society targeted for victimization by sexism, but are also in the process denied access to the means whereby they could even become conscious of their plight, let alone protest against it.  In just the same way, Anders is saying that the reconstruction which erases evidence of the earlier destruction is really a double erasure, which also and above all erases any evidence that anything was destroyed in the first place—just as Himmler and the other Nazi murderers sought to exterminate all signs that they had exterminated the Jews of Europe.  As Anders rightly observes, no destruction could conceivably be more complete than that which destroys all access to the very fact of destruction, no dishonoring of the dead greater than that which buries their very burial.

There are absences, and then there are absences.  There are voids, and then there are voids.  The fertile womb is a void, as is the Nothing from which all things come.  Then there is another sort of void.  For instance, the void, the absence, the not-being, of that second sort is what is at issue in what Kierkegaard—in The Sickness Unto Death, written nearly a full century before the bombing of Hiroshima, which means nearly one-and-two-thirds centuries before September 11, 2001–identified as the very worst form of despair, the most devastating form of hopelessness, with really no chance at all of ever recovering.  That worst, most ineradicable form of despair is the despair that doesn’t even know it is in despair, and is therefore barred from any possibility of changing its condition.  It is the despair that thinks itself to be happiness.  In a kind of anticipation of those remarks on despair, a few years earlier in Works of Love Kierkegaard had written these lines (in the translation by Howard and Enda Hong) about such deception:  “People speak of [life’s] falsity and immediately take it to mean that it deceives one in respect to earthly goods, disappoints one’s great expectations, makes sport of one’s darling plans.  But that it can be most dangerously deceiving when in these respects it honourably maintains everything, almost more than it has promised—that this is the most dangerous falsity [we] seldom think about.”  A misery so deceptive that it makes the miserable think they are happy, or at least ought to be, is the deepest imaginable misery, a despair altogether beyond hope.

The void that opened over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945, was that sort of void, the kind that results from voiding the void itself—from cancelling it out, effectively erasing it, burying it beyond possibility of recall.  As Jean-François Lyotard would say a few decades after Anders wrote his remarks about Hiroshima, with reference not to Hiroshima but rather to Auschwitz, it is the void, the erasure, that comes from forgetting that we have forgotten.  What really happened during World War II in Auschwitz and then, at the War’s end, across the globe in Hiroshima, was above all just that:  the forgetting that we had forgotten.  It was the opening of a Day that consumed all days, that gobbled them all up at once, wolfed them all down whole, and then digested them completely, transforming them all into itself–which means, as Anders has told us, into one endless nullity, one endless, endlessly unnoticed absence, of any actually new Day at all.  From that Day Zero on, every day was nothing more than that same zero Day, over and over and over again.

That was the Day Zero, the null Day.  It was  the Day that marked the vanishing point of every Day, the Day “after” which there is no more “after that Day”:  as already noted, zero multiplied by any number up to and including infinity is still just that–zero, zilch, nada, null.

Day Zero:  that was the Day the Day died, and died so completely that even its death died away unnoticed, not even forgotten but just erased, never to be recalled.  And thus Day Zero was the Day without end, that repeats itself endlessly, day after day after day after dead and deadening day—a limitlessly wasted expanse of ever expanding wasteland, with no outer boundaries.

And yet, despite all that, despite the dying of the Day beyond any renewal,  another Day did dawn one day.  At least it did if Baudrillard and his like are onto something.  To everyone’s surprise, what was in principle beyond any prediction, because it was beyond any realm of possibility that remained after Day Zero, happened anyway, as impossible, as inconceivable as it may have been.  A new Day did dawn one day—on one of those endless zero days after Day Zero.

It dawned on September 11, 2001.  What happened that day was the dawning of the Day After, that is, the Day After that Day Zero, after that Day after which there were no more Days to dawn.

September 11, 2001:  An impossible day–The Day After!

More on that next time.

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  
Tags: , , , , , ,