Ryan Cull: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"
A "testimony" suggests evidence provided by an expert witness to a governmental or judicial hearing. On the other hand, at the opposite end of the spectrum, it also could be indicative of a more personal account of an ecstatic or religious experience. In either case, a testimony is fundamentally a truth claim of sorts, whether it appeals to evidence deemed objective, subjective or some combination thereof (and this poem's account certainly runs the gamut between such a polarities). With such preliminary indications in the direction of truth-claims, Ai's subtitle, "a fiction," comes as a bit of a surprise. The work is obviously fictional in the most basic sense that Oppenheimer himself did not write it. But what is interesting, nevertheless, is the fact that the poet, at a rhetorical level, from the very start would appear to be teasing her readers in opposite directions with such generic indicators, leaving us in an epistemological no-man's-land. These strains are only further accentuated by this fictional testimony's bold beginning which announces the "attain[ing of] enlightenment," a presumably blissful moment of intellectual resolution. In this manner, Ai's dramatic monologue introduces itself as a kind of puzzle that eventually reveals the relationship between this epistemic crisis and the singular moment in history that she also is documenting.
The "enlightenment" described in the first two verse paragraphs is in fact a magical (albeit horrific) kind of elision between a creator and his creation, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb at the moment of its impact on Hiroshima. In a moment of immense irony, we find Oppenheimer finally gaining a private sense of peace amidst great public destruction, finding his own desires for a kind of pre-natal "rest" fulfilled by the results of his weapon. Thus, in a shocking enactment of Freud’s death drive, the "searing wind that swept the dead before it" is juxtaposed with a preternaturally peaceful "silence" in a "soothing baby-blue morning/ rocking me in its cradle . . ./ beyond the blur of mortality."
But beyond these private desires, the moment of the bomb's detonation is a kind of singularity separating all that came before it in human history and thinking and all that will come after - beyond the founding Creation myths (trees of life and death), beyond "Art and Science," beyond an early evocation of Western imperialism (Alexander). Abdicating these "illusions," Oppenheimer's supposed "enlightenment" quickly spirals into a nightmarishly resigned pessimism as he decides it is better to "leap into the void" and "accept the worst in ourselves." But how did he (we?) get to such a moment? And what does it mean?
The final two verse paragraphs provide something of an explanation. Oppenheimer states that he was taught in "high school [that]. . . / all scientists/ start from the hypothesis 'what if.'" From this point onward, he was driven "by a ferocious need to know," an "urge" that publicly was called science but privately was in fact a kind of all-consuming fervor for self-knowledge and, above all, control. It was an insatiable desire for "anything that gets you closer to what you are." According to the now disillusioned yet chastened Oppenheimer, the same Cartesian urges for epistemic control at all costs that sped along scientific and industrial revolutions now threaten the very existence of the human race.
The deep pathos of these final verse paragraphs, however, is in the fact that Oppenheimer is simply unable to think outside of these drives. He explains that "all I know is that urge," which, in effect, has become his de-facto religion/meta-narrative. He continues (in whatever infernal place that he seems to exist) "gnawed down by the teeth/ of nightmares/ My soul, a wound that will not heal." Observing Western society moving forward, he falls into cynicism. No better than "characters in funny papers," our national identity is founded upon "military readiness," a "constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride," and "endless" enemies. The logical endpoint of our pursuits is that we continue to "tear ourselves down atom by atom,/ till electron and positron, we become our own transcendent annihilation" (another terrifying image of the death drive that also reminds one of Lacan’s suggestion that Freud's signal contribution was to describe the ultimate undoing of Descartes' cogito).
"The Testimony," thus, raises far more questions than it answers. Can we think of "science" in terms outside of this Cartesian "urge"? If not, must we forsake potential scientific gains in view of such dangers? And is it possible to resist (or should we resist?) the self-corrosive cynicism that is so terrifyingly narrated through the persona of Oppenheimer? It is not at all clear, in the end, that the poet believes we have found many answers to such crucial issues. Instead, she leaves her readers with the dark realization that we also may still be caught, even 50 years hence, within the speaker's harrowingly ironic still-moment of "enlightenment."
Copyright © 2001 by Ryan Cull
|Title||Ryan Cull: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Ryan Cull||Criticism Target||_ Ai|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||25 Nov 2013|
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