Thursday, January 21, 2010

Last Train from Hiroshima

There are things so horrific, the mind shies away from addressing them in any kind of detail.One wonders then, how the author of The Last Train from Hiroshima could have withstood setting out - in excruciating slow motion - the millisecond by millisecond replay of the impact of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the crucible of war, the human potential for heroism and horror is revealed - a paradox exhaustively explored in book and film. Pellegrino's account attempts to elide the morality of the complex issues surrounding the atom bombs but coolly presents the horrors of the fallout and in writing about the science behind the atom bombs, grants the reader a gift - the poetry of science:

"Each of the uranium-235 atoms at the bomb's core had been forged more than 4.6 billion years earlier, in the hearts of supernovae. The core was assembled from the ash of stars that had lived and died long before the oldest mountains of the moon were born. Mined and refined to better than 83 percent purity, and brought together in precisely the right geometry, the primordial remnant of Creation was coerced to echo, after ages of quiescence, the last shriek of an imploding star. In all its barest quantum essentials, what happened above Hiroshima that morning — and three days later in Nagasaki, in a separate, plutonium cauldron, filled with the by-products of a uranium reactor — signified the brief reincarnations of distant suns. None of the men who worked this strange alchemy understood yet that the carbon flowing within their veins was, like uranium, the dust of the stars. Nor did they know that the nuclei of carbon and uranium could possibly conceal anything much smaller than the diameter of a proton...."

NYT review is here and the excerpt from the book is here.

But as he went on to describe - in heart stopping detail - the vaporizing effect of the bomb, the obliteration of the city, the way in which survivors were known only by the ghostly shadow imprints they left on walls, my mind recoiled.

As regards the literature of war, the need to explore the themes of courage, redemption, horror and cruelty in war is understandable, even commendable. There is moral and pedagogical dimension to this: That we can and must learn from the bloody battles of the past and remember them, so that the future may be free from the same.

But war aside, there are depths to human depravity and the human capacity for horror that the mind shies away from and the desire the plumb these depths - even vicariously - is no more than pure voyeuristic depravity.

But one wonders at people who intentionally soak themselves in the literature and film of debauchery, cruelty, violence and depravity: Are they really so naive as to think that they will not be affected - morally or psychologically - by the depictions of such corruption? This is particularly so in film - once said to be a form of virtual reality - how many stories have we heard of people having nightmares after watching horror films or young children attempting to perform impossible stunts from movies and breaking bones, incurring permanent injuries in the process?

We attempt to protect children's minds with the ratings system, determining when and at what age they should be capable of digesting horror, sex, violence and corruption. The rationale behind this is that as we age, we gain an understanding that what is seen on film is "not real" and maturity (or cynicism) will enable us to deal with the other moral issues enfolded in films rated to have highly sexual content or to be violent.

This logic must be recognized as being unrealistic (pardon the pun) and fallacious. To be blunt, it just doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, as with the best fallacies, it has enough truth embedded in it to deceive.But there must be a recognition that at best, this logic is a rough estimation of the human ability to develope discernment (by age 21!) and at the worst, a completely unrealistic view of the workings of the human psyche.

It is accepted that we are affected by the friends we make, the social milieu in which we circulate. It is accepted that our moods, the amount we eat, the length of time we stay in a restaurant can be swayed by even the colours and lights around us. Psychological studies, the endless data collected by marketing experts tells us that fast food restaurants are decorated and lit in such a way as to encourage people to feel safe but eat quickly. Studies tell us that one's probability of becoming a smoker, a college graduate, developing obesity rise or fall depending on the crowd around us.

It doesn't make sense for us to turn and say that after age 21, we will somehow become impervious to being steeped for 120 minutes at a time, in images that are morally and ethically degrading. If we are so sensitive to other influences, how much more so to thousands of images, coloured by depravity flashing in front of our eyes? Even for the literature of war, lines must be drawn; surely there comes a point when overly graphic descriptions and film productions of blood and violence are unnecessary?

We are learning, to be more careful about the things we eat, whether they are grown organically, whether they contain caffeine, trans fat, gluten, chemicals etc. But the practice of discernment must be extended to our intellectual fodder as well. It is a truism, that one can tell a man by the friends he keeps. But it is also true, that one can tell a man from the things he loves, where he chooses to spend his time, the books and movies that he chooses to consume.

The Last Train to Hiroshima is beautifully written, a clearly told tale of the horrors that followed the decision to drop the atom bombs on two Japanese cities, a paean to the lost of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But I am unsure if I will be buying or reading it in full, especially when the 5 page NYT excerpt left me drained, gasping for air. This post is more a reminder note to myself than anything else - I have a fondness for war movies/stories - to continue to practice discernment, wisdom in my choice of reading material.