Saturday, October 29, 2011

Narrative & Catastrophe

In the life of a professor, there's always a new project waiting in the wings.  So, I no sooner finish the grant proposal than I have to start thinking about the conference papers I'll be proposing.

There's an upcoming conference on "Catastrophe and Change" and my thinking is that, given the past several years of my life, this oughta be right up my alley.

I actually have ideas for two separate proposals, so it'll merely be a question of whether I can pull them together in time.  I think I can, I think I can...

So I'm going to muse a bit about one of them here, in the hopes that this will speed the proposal along a bit.

I've always wanted to write about John Hersey's Hiroshima.  I blogged about it a bit last year, in my post about the fact that Rhode Island still celebrates VJ day (Victories, Pyrrhic or Not).

There's an excellent article by Steven Rothman detailing the history and circumstances behind the publication of Hersey's essay in The New Yorker in 1946.  The story of its publication alone is an interesting fact of American culture and its response to the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

The intensity of the subject matter Hersey writes about goes without saying.  In spite of its brevity and the accessibility of its style, Hiroshima is not an easy book to read.

Henrik Hertzberg phrased it best, I think, in Hersey's obituary in The New Yorker in 1993:
"If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima; yet Hersey's reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm, and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly."
The self-described "flat style" that Hersey adopted to convey the accounts of six of the survivors of the atomic blast is an interesting study in narrative perspective.  The details are horrific, but the style is always calm: one survivor describes being stopped by a soldier who realizes that something is wrong because he can't see.

He doesn't realize that he can't see because his eyeballs have melted and are running down the front of his face.

This is the challenge that Hersey effectively faced: how to put into human language sights that defy human comprehension.  And to do it in a way that does justice to the events and their witnesses.

When I teach literary journalism, we spend a great deal of time talking about "objectivity"--what it is, who has it, how we can know, why it's beneficial.  We also spend a great deal of time talking about the advantages of subjectivity in writing: how do you balance the benefits of the emotional connection you can forge with your reader through subjective engagement against the necessity of historical accuracy?

We discuss the distinctions between those who witness, and those who write.  The question of narrative voice takes on a very different kind of urgency when you purport to speak for a victim--or a perpetrator.

What I want to look at is the specifics of Hersey's use of narrative voice (what he describes, how and why) in contrast to the information offered in "The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," the document created by The Manhattan Project Investigating Group.

In August of 1945, just days after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American military organized an effort "to secure scientific, technical and medical intelligence in the atomic bomb field from within Japan as soon as possible after the cessation of hostilities."

One group went to Hiroshima, one to Nagasaki, and a third focused on "information concerning general Japanese activities in the field of atomic bombs." 

Their mission served two primary purposes: "[t]o make certain that no unusual hazards were present in the bombed cities" and "[t]o secure all possible information concerning the effects of the bombs, both usual and unusual, and particularly with regard to radioactive effects, if any, on the targets or elsewhere."

I'm interested in comparing and contrasting how the members of these information-gathering groups use language to describe precisely the same phenomena as those described by Hersey.  All of the writers and observers are interested in "intelligence" and "information," broadly defined.  Clearly, something very different and profoundly important, with extensive implications for the future of humanity itself, happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The approach to communicating that intelligence, however, is obviously very different.  For instance, in Chapter 3: Summary of Damages and Injuries, The Manhattan Investigating Group parenthetically indicates that, for the purposes of its report, "the point directly under the explosion" "will hereafter in this report be referred to as X."

And it is.  As the report indicates in Chapter 17: Flash Burn,

...a characteristic feature of the atomic bomb, which is quite foreign to ordinary explosives, is that a very appreciable fraction of the energy liberated goes into radiant heat and light. For a sufficiently large explosion, the flash burn produced by this radiated energy will become the dominant cause of damage, since the area of burn damage will increase in proportion to the energy released, whereas the area of blast damage increases only with the two-thirds power of the energy.  
In Chapter 19: Burns, "The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" concludes that
[t]he maximum distance from X at which flash burns were observed is of paramount interest. It has been estimated that patients with burns at Hiroshima were all less than 7,500 feet from the center of the explosion at the time of the
bombing. At Nagasaki, patients with burns were observed out to the remarkable distance of 13,800 feet.
When you contrast these official descriptions with Hersey's account of a survivor who has to repeatedly remind himself that "these are human beings" in order to fight off the overwhelming nausea that would otherwise prevent him from helping the injured, I think you can begin to make an interesting argument about the moral and ethical implications of narrative descriptions of global catastrophe.

My goal is to make this argument and to see what conclusions (if any) I can draw about the function and purpose of "objectivity" in narratives of catastrophe.

As I think through these ideas, I'm reminded of the words of the Japanese photographer Yosuke Yamahata who photographed the devastation of Nagasaki less than 24 hours after it occurred. 

In the words of Rupert Jenkins, Yamahata's photographs represent "the only extensive photographic record of the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki" (Nagasaki Journey). 

Despite The Manhattan Project Investigating Group's "[f]ailure to find any clinical evidence of persons harmed by persistent radioactivity," Yamahata himself died of cancer twenty years later, probably as a result of the residual effects of radiation exposure at Nagasaki in the aftermath of the bombings.

In "Photographing the Bomb: A Memo," written seven years later, in 1952, Yamahata notes,
Human memory has a tendency to slip, and critical judgment to fade, with the years and with changes in life-style and circumstance. But the camera, just as it seized the grim realities of that time, brings the stark facts of seven years ago before our eyes without the need for the slightest embellishment. Today, with the remarkable recovery made by both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it may be difficult to recall the past, but these photographs will continue to provide us with an unwavering testimony to the realities of that time.

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