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.