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On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"


John Gery

Ai's "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer," with its conspicuous subtitle of "A Fiction," belongs in a series of dramatic monologues in Ai's collection Sin, where she speaks in the grim voices of those in extreme historical circumstances--John Kennedy after his assassination, Joseph McCarthy fantasizing about unlimited power, a leftist dying in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, an aging journalist remembering Vietnam in 1966, the Atlanta child killer in 1981--so Oppenheimer's "testimony" (presumably before a Senate Committee on atomic warfare in the 1950s) takes its place in the landscape of horrors that comprise for Ai our recent American legacy. Though portraying widely different characters in her monologues, Ai makes no attempt to vary their voices from poem to poem, and the speaker in "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer" makes his confession in the same frenzied tone of the other poems, as though recalling a nightmare. Still, Ai's characterization of Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb, is not unlike other psycho-biographical accounts of him by those such as Brian Easlea and Lifton: Her poem opens with the physicist praising the bomb as evidence of modern "enlightenment." Yet because this is a confession, the speaker also acknowledges his guilt for having pursued truth too scientifically, a guilt he then tries to rationalize:

To me, the ideological high wire
is for fools to balance on with their illusions.
It is better to leap into the void.
Isn't that what we all want anyway?—
to eliminate all pretense
till like the oppressed who in the end
identifies with the oppressor,
we accept the worst in ourselves
and are set free.

As a scientist, Ai's Oppenheimer embodies the cultural urge to know beyond speculation. But in the second strophe, he equates this obsessive drive, this desire for "the big fall smooth as honey down a throat," with prenatal desire, as he sighs, "Anything that gets you closer/ to what you are./ Oh, to be born again and again/ from that dark, metal womb,/ the sweet, intoxicating smell of decay/ the imminent dead give off." As Spenser Weart has also observed about nuclear psychology, this poem insinuates that the drive for atomic wisdom reflects a desire to return to the womb. Yet in the last strophe, Oppenheimer confesses his ultimate frustration with the futility of pursuing a truth that "'is always changing,/ always shaped by the latest/ collective urge to destroy," and he feels trapped by his own "urge" to know, calling his soul "a wound that will not heal." He looks at the country around him, "our military in readiness,/ our private citizens/ in a constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride,/ our enemies endless,/ our need to defend infinite, " and mocks us that "we do not regret or mourn" but "like characters in the funny papers" just "march past the third eye of History." By the end of the poem, Ai portrays Oppenheimer not in order to imagine a nuclear holocaust but to question the popularly held assumption that history is progressive. Behind the veneer of Oppenheimer's guilt-ridden confession, she disrupts that notion, and she reconfigures nuclear annihilation not as a violent climax but as a slow spiritual decay:

We strip away the tattered fabric
of the universe
to the juicy, dark meat,
the nothing beyond time.
We tear ourselves down atom by atom,
till electron and positron,
we become our own transcendent annihilation.

As a dramatic monologue, with its obsessive tone, its focus on the past rather than the future, and its Browningesque psychoanalysis, Ai's poem distracts attention from the phenomenon of nuclear war, turning instead to the ideology behind that phenomenon, and, by implication, condemning that ideology.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright 1996 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.


Ryan Cull

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


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