[NASA Image of the Day Gallery: “The Horsehead Nebula, embedded in the vast and complex Orion Nebula, is seen in this representative-color image from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. The dark molecular cloud, roughly 1,500 light years distant, is visible only because its obscuring dust is silhouetted against another, brighter nebula. The prominent horse head portion of the nebula is really just part of a larger cloud of dust which can be seen extending toward the bottom of the picture. Credit and Copyright: Jean-Charles Cuillandre (CFHT), Hawaiian Starlight, CFHT.“]
The title of my post comes from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Advice to a Prophet.” It was 1959 (when his poem appeared for the first time, in The New Yorker). The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still relatively fresh. The thermonuclear arms race between the world’s two superpowers was ramping up, fueled in the United States by the Soviet missile technology that launched Sputnik and which showed that (in principle) no place on earth was beyond their reach. American teachers were drilling their students on how to flash-react to a nuclear blast. Jimmy Buffett captured the hilarious naïveté of the strategy they were taught in this verse from his song “Waiting for the Next Explosion”:
Back in the fifties they thought it made good sense
To teach all the school children about civil defense.
Don’t be scared, do not cry,
Just dive under your desk and kiss your ass goodbye.
It’s not easy, some fifty years on, with no intervening nuclear detonations (either in anger or by mistake) and with the Cold War ended, for most of us to register the shock that nuclear weapons caused among those who came of age before 1945. Some idea of the colossal upgrade in destructive power that nuclear weapons represented is provided in the following voice-over from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:
Each B-52 can deliver a nuclear bomb load of fifty megatons, equal to sixteen times the total explosive force of all the bombs and shells used by all the armies in World War II.
A mere factoid for most of us today. But for those who lived through World War II, and for whom all those bombs and shells weren’t just abstract or second-hand ideas, it staggered the mind. Wilbur takes an interesting tack in his poem. He advises the prophet to warn us not, as one might expect, by directly appealing to our self-preservation, i.e. by imagining the rest of creation without us – something the poet calls “an undreamt thing” that “we cannot conceive of” – but rather by indirect appeal, i.e. by imagining us without the rest of creation:
. . . What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
This poem was a favorite of the theologian Joseph Sittler (whom I have mentioned in some prior posts). The co-editor of a compilation of Sittler’s work (Evocations of Grace : Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics), Peter Baaken, has written:
Sittler returned to that poem again and again to illuminate the deep interior filaments binding the human spirit to the natural, “nonhuman” world. [p. 8]
Another poet active in the 1950s whose conscience was shocked by nuclear weapons was the Swede, Harry Martinson (1904–1978). His long poem (in 103 cantos) titled “Aniara,” published in 1956, contains harrowing descriptions of “how ghastly fission is in mind and body” (canto 29 – the translations here are by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert). Here is a description by a witness (the poem’s narrator) to the witness (“the stone-deaf mute”):
And then the blind man started to describe
the appalling fiery glare
that burned out his eyes.
Describe it he couldn’t.
He mentioned but one detail: He saw with his neck.
His whole scalp, flayed open, was an eyeball
which, dazzled beyond the bounds of bursting,
was lifted, whirled away in blinded trust,
in the sleep of death. But that was not a sleep. [canto 26]
Perhaps most horrifying of all is what the fiery light does to the very stones:
All that could burn crumbled to ashes.
The stones were glazed
to a depth of four inches.
In some places the glaze went even deeper.
A foot or more
of granite surface boiled.
But humans were spared the sight of this,
they had been whirled ahead, above, around
like shooting cinders. [canto 67]
The poem chronicles the voyage of a large space ship (Aniara) carrying 8,000 people which has accidentally strayed from its planned course (from a ravaged Earth to an inhospitable Mars) and is now traveling farther and farther into deep space without possibility of return. The ship has onboard something that resembles a computer, a device that is able to receive signals from elsewhere in the galaxy and present them to the travelers, who are captivated by what the machine allows them to see and hear (the travelers having little else to do to occupy themselves with). In today’s terminology, think artificial intelligence joined with galactic wi-fi. This amazing device is known as Mima. In canto 26 of the poem, Mima shows to the ship’s passengers the final nuclear destruction of Douris (the Earth). Seeing this, the narrator of the poem, who is chief among Mima’s tenders, reports:
I dash towards the Mima as tho’ I might
arrest the frightful action with my anguish,
but Mima shows it all, uncompromising,
transmits to the last picture, fire and slaughter.
And turning to the passengers I scream
my agony of pain at Douris’ destruction.
There is protection against almost anything,
against fire and damage caused by storm and cold.
Yes, count up everything you can think of,
but there is no protection against man!
Mima, it turns out, is undone by what she has seen (the narrator uses the feminine pronoun when referring to Mima). Her demise is related in canto 28:
For several days after Douris’ destruction
the Mima showed disturbance from the Phototurb
and the third veben fought as against a cloud
of deepening distant shame. On the third day
the Mima prayed deliverance from the sight.
On the fourth day she gave me some instructions
about the octopus feelers of the Cantor works,
not till the fifth day was she calm again,
receiving a broadcast from a better world,
and once more her cell-works glowed serenely.
But on the seventh day there came a surging
from Mima’s cell-works I’d never heard before,
the indifferent third veben’s tacis
switched off, then reported itself blind,
and suddenly the Mima called me forward
to the inner barrier, and with apprehension
I went towards her, towards the awful goddess.
And as I stood there, shaking and cold with fear,
and full of anxiety for her condition,
the Mima’s phonoglobe began to speak
suddenly to me, in the dialect
she and I used most, for every-day purposes.
She bade me tell the Leaders here that she
for sometime past had felt as guilty as the very stones
for she had heard them crying out
as stones will do, on distant Douris’ plains
and she had seen the hot white tears of granite
when stones and ores are vaporized,
it wrung her heart to hear these stones lament.
Her cell-works dimmed and damaged by the cruelty
which in his evil only man can show,
she came, as might be expected, to the point
where she at last, as even Mimas must, broke down.
The indifferent third veben’s tacis
sees a thousand things no human eye can see.
Now, in the name of these, the Mima
craved for surcease. She will not speak again.
Without Mima’s interstellar reach, the “world” of these rootless passengers collapses to the dimensions of their goldonda (spaceship) which though large (16,000 feet in length; 3,000 feet in width) isn’t large enough. Attempting to ease the ennui in himself and the others, the poem’s narrator demonstrates great ingenuity in his use of illusion and distraction. From canto 36:
At one time I developed the idea
of so placing a thousand mirrors that they
could give us everything that mirrors can
of bright reflection and seemingly-widened space
which optically magnifies every inch
to an illusory depth of some eight thousand inches,
and when we had furnished twenty halls like this
with mirrors taken from another eighty
the results were so magnificent
that for four long years with mirror glass
I could entrance the soul-distraught.
By canto 61 even greater lengths are gone to, but in the end, the jig is clearly up:
I invented, with the utmost difficulty,
a screen composed of two sorts of rays,
and found a way of hanging this as it were
out in space, some miles from the goldonda,
and towards this space-screen then I could send
a third sort of ray which transmitted pictures.
In this way I contrived to establish
the illusion of a wall in space – a kind of frieze
stretched out there and made up
of pictures of forests and moonlit lakes,
mountains and cities. Sometimes I introduced
a mighty army of people carrying banners
of victory – all to make a seeming wall
which could shut out the intolerable void.
Later I built up yet another wall
this time on another side, and in between
these two resplendent walls of dense illusion
our space-ship glided – well screened from the immense
and gaping gorges which could no longer
stare in at us, as they’d done for the last nine years
stinging us like lances, pricking us like needles.
But even such tapestries of fantasy
need the support of some human will at least,
the contributions of some secret dreams
from those who only crave but never give us
– anything but emptiness, a void
which must be constantly filled and embellished.
And now this emptiness turned against me,
pursuing me to dark corners of the ship,
threatening my life when I could not
explain at once why emptiness remained.
I saw then how things are and how they were.
No one can hide his inner emptiness.
Mima had been smashed against the waves of time
like Humpty-Dumpty on his famous wall.
No one could mend poor Humpty-Dumpty then.
Still less have I any chance of mending you.
Your emptiness is terrifying indeed.
I keep on conjuring – but at bottom
the effort is hardly worth the trouble,
but you contribute nothing of your souls,
and so the pictures faded clean away.
This reminds me of a similar, but much simpler, illusion that was seen in a less apocalyptic, less dystopic work of art – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film, Solaris. In the film, the psychologist Kris Kelvin travels from earth to the space station orbiting a planet called Solaris, in order to investigate the deteriorating mental health of the three remaining scientists working there: Drs. Gibarian, Snaut, and Sartorius. Upon his arrival at the space station, Kelvin learns that Gibarian has already committed suicide, and that Snaut and Sartorius are not well. The cause becomes apparent soon enough and need not be discussed here. The illusion to which I refer involves taking a sheet of paper and, using scissors, making many long, parallel cuts from one side of the paper almost all the way to the other side. The result is a still intact sheet of paper with lots of long “fingers” that flutter when taped to an air vent hanging down from the ceiling in the space station. The effect is meant to simulate leaves on trees moving in a breeze. Snaut shows this trick to Kelvin in the midst of the following dialogue (as translated in the English subtitles):
Kelvin: “The night is a blessed time here. Somehow it reminds me of the earth.”
Snaut: “You can also tie strips of paper to the air vents. At night you’ll think you’re hearing leaves rustle in the dark. Gibarian’s invention. Like all strokes of genius, it’s so simple. Sartorius said we were sentimental fools, but he has something like that hidden in his closet.”
What do all of these examples from art foretell? They foretell that we’d better take care of the rest of creation on earth, and not merely for its sake, but for our sake as well. Because without substantially all of it we literally are, or soon become, nothing. The last three cantos (101-103) of Martinson’s poem bear witness to this, our possible, but preventable, fate:
This was our final night in Mima’s hall.
Soul after soul broke down and vanished
but before each ego finally dissolved
the soul’s will made itself quite clearly felt
finding at last the strength to separate
time from the grip of space, and thus to grant
oblivion to the race of Douris.
I had coveted a Paradise for this race
but since we left the one we had destroyed
the Zodiac’s lonely night became our only home,
a gaping chasm in which no god could hear us.
The eternal mystery of Heaven’s stars,
the miracle of the celestial mechanism,
is the law but not the Gospel.
Mercy can only thrive where there is life.
We failed to grasp the true meaning of the Law,
and found an empty death in Mima’s hall.
The God on whom we fixed our final hopes
lay wounded on the plains of Douris.
I turn the lantern low, enjoining stillness.
Our tragedy has ended. But with the right
of travellers down the ages, I have told
our tale, a vision in galactic night.
With unabated speed towards the Lyra
the goldonda droned for fifteen thousand years,
like a museum filled with bones and artefacts,
and dried herbs and roots, relics from Douris’ woods.
Entombed in our immense sarcophagus
we were borne on across the desolate waves
of space-night, so unlike the day we’d known,
unchallenged silence closing round our grave.
By Mima’s graveside fallen in a circle
transformed once more to blameless dust we lay,
impervious to the sting of bitter stars,
lost and dispersed in oceans of Nirvana.