A-Bomb Dream #2 – 2004 review of “100 Suns” by Michael Light in Nthposition.com

A-Bomb Dream #2 – 2004 review of “100 Suns” by Michael Light in Nthposition.com

Nuclear angst was a staple for those who were old enough to be aware of the oft-trumpeted apocalyptic threat in the 1980s. In the 1990s it became a lot less real, and even the current revival of Coldish War between the USA and Russia has not, it seems, made the nuclear nightmare quite as vivid as it was. In the previous post I resurrected my review of Stephen Walker’s “Shockwave” about the Hiroshima bomb and the events leading up to it.All the undeniable technical and logistical brilliance ultimately came down to the dealing out of terrible deaths by the thousand. “100 Suns” was an even more vivid illustration of the reality of nuclear weapons. There is an absorbing gallery of the images at Michael Light’s Site

100 SUNS: MOTH/2 Kilotons/Nevada/1955


100 suns

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

“Nagasaki destroyed by the magic of science is the nearest man has yet approached to the realization of dreams that even during the safe immobility of sleep are accustomed to develop into nightmares of anxiety.” – JG Ballard, The Terminal Beach


San Francisco photographer Michael Light has assembled 100 photographs of United States atmospheric nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and various atolls in the Pacific from 1945 to the relocation of such tests underground in 1962. Many of these images have been until recently classified. The title comes from Robert Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita, on seeing the successful test of ‘Trinity’ in June 1945: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One… I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer could have evoked Yeats’ “a terrible beauty is born”, for “terrible beauty” is the term for these majestic images of barimaginable destructive power.

100 SUNS: TRINITY /21 Kilotons/New Mexico/1945

There’s something about the scale of the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons that beggars the imaginative faculty. The beauty of 100 Suns is a numbing one, image after image of gigantic explosions, of fierce red sunsets that promise apocalypse. The mushroom cloud was naturally co-opted by Andy Warhol for one of his silkscreen reproductions of mass-produced images of disaster, 1965’s ‘Atomic Bomb’. The images in 100 Suns resensitise; this is a glimpse into the inferno, the blood-red sunrises and sunsets of the Pacific tests teaser trailers for the last day of human life. We realise again what nuclear weapons mean.

The most incredible images are those in which human beings share the frame with the fireworks; the US military wanted to assess the ability of combat troops to carry out operations in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike – thus an initially banal image of helicopters flying towards the horizon takes on new significance once one realises that they are flying towards the debris cloud of a nuclear explosion. We see troops huddle in trenches, showered by sparks from the detonation of ‘Simon’ before “ground and air shockwaves will toss them like dolls, then fill their mouths with radioactive dust.” We see strange, almost bleached images of military brass viewing, clad in eerie protective goggles. Another image simply shows five GIs staring open-mouthed at the ‘Dog’ test – significantly the only named individuals to appear in the photos. Light’s selection manages the seemingly impossible – humanising the moment of nuclear detonation.

Most of the images were taken by the Air Force 1352nd Photographic Group based at Lookout Mountain Station, a secret Hollywood facility which utilised the latest photographic technology for the military. The scale of Lookout Mountain’s activity can be appreciated by the fact that 1946’s ‘Baker’ test at Bikini Atoll was filmed and photographed to such a degree that a world wide shortage of film stock ensued for a number of months.

The tests were given bland – ‘Stokes’, ‘Hood’, ‘Sequoia’ – or facetious – ‘Little Feller’ – names, (and why have military operations now been given names like ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as opposed to the cryptic domestic objects and fauna of yesteryear?) almost comically at variance with the literally apocalyptic seriousness of the operation.

Light’s closing essay and concluding captions for each photo ain much fascinating, terrible information. Phrases like “an explosion greater than all those of World Wars I and II combined” recur with numbing frequency. In their dry way, with their litany of desert towns ravaged by tumours, islanders relocated and official deceit and denial at every turn, the captions illuminate the lunacy that surrounded the whole nuclear enterprise. The victims of nuclear testing – the town of St George, Utah; the still uninhabitable Bikini Atoll; the Japanese trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru; John Wayne, Susan Hayward and other members of the cast and crew of The Conqueror – their fate is one which once (and now again?) seemed to threaten us all.

Of course, there would be a place for a Soviet and indeed Chinese 100 Suns, with their own catalogues of casualties and cover-ups. The publicity material for the book claims “one of the virtues of the book is its emphasis on data not on argument”, implying that this in a way a sober, “value-free” presentation of images. This is true up to a point; there are no rending images of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Light’s essay is sober and powerful, and concludes with the fervent and (I would hope) incontestable invocation: “May no further nuclear detonation photographs be made, ever.” However, it can hardly be a coincidence that the chronology that concludes the book includes the accession of George W Bush, and that of no other President. Not when the chronology later observes, in its entry on the February 2002 publication of the Nuclear Posture Review, that “not since the first term of the Reagan Administration are nuclear weapons so emphasised in US defensive strategy”

And of course merely presenting these images, without any comment of any kind is a far from “value-free” act. This is the reality of nuclear testing. Light observes that the transfer of testing underground brought cultural invisibility and secrecy. “Photographs only tell us about the surface of things, about how things look. When it’s all we have, however, it’s enough to help understanding. It exists. It happened. It is happening.”

Nthposition review of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes, 2004

 One of the most memorable books I reviewed for nthposition. I have written before that time has modified some of my judgments, usually tempering enthusiasms a little. The years since have not, I think, changed the relative positions of Einstein and Freud all that much in the intellectual firmament. Here’s an article on their 1927 meeting from a Slovene website…


The invisible century

Richard Panek


by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

The first thing that surprised me about this book was that it existed at all. Richard Panek, who has been a science writer for the New York Times and Esquire, has written an exciting, fast-paced account of how Einstein and Freud, the two Jewish titans who would be expelled from the pure corpus of Aryan science by the Nazis, exploded our view of ourselves.

For while Einstein’s status as a demigod of science is unchallenged, despite some carping biographies and his refusal to accept the possibility that God might play dice, Freud is barely regarded as a scientist anymore. Einstein has become the archetype, the literal icon (what a pity that wonderful word icon is now so grossly overused, describing footballers and 10-day wonder pop singers) of 20th century science. The title of one of the many books written decrying Freud alone point to his loss of status, ‘Freudian Fraud’, epitomises many people’s feelings about Freudianism. At best a waste of time, at worst a sinister quasireligious pseudoscience – this is the widespread view of Freudianism.

Freud has been steadily attacked over the 66 years since his death. As his papers and correspondence have continued to be published, ethics questionable by the standards of any day and a cavalier dogmatism have become documented. As psychiatry and clinical psychology become more and more driven by the need to be “evidence-based” and the concomitant drive for efficiency, the long-term treatment that is psychodynamic psychotherapy is often derided as a timewasting “therapy for those with deep pockets”, the ‘YAWIS’ (young, attractive, wealthy, intelligent, successful)

Thus, to encounter a book which treats Einstein and Freud as equals is something of a surprise. Panek deals well with the many and varied criticisms of both. However, the general tone of the book is one of admiration. These men revealed the hidden universes of relativity and the unconscious, proving the truth uttered by Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of your philosophy, Horatio.”

Panek begins with the one and only meeting between Freud and Einstein, during the New Year’s Holiday season of 1927. Freud was staying with one of his sons in Berlin, and Einstein called on him. As Panek writes, “Freud and Einstein shared a native language, German, but their respective professional vocabularies had long since diverged, to the point that they now seemed virtually irreconcilable.” Freud wrote to a friend afterwards that “he understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

This meeting is the starting point for six breathlessly exciting chapters. It is one of the best explications of Einstein’s thinking in a historical context that I have read. The story of the exhaustion of late-19th century physics is well-known; the apparent belief that all that could be known was known suffuses the physics of the day. The difficult, daydreaming Zurich patent clerk would change all that.

What is less well remembered is how deeply it was felt in neurology and psychiatry – from today’s perspective, disciplines nascent in extremis – that the end of psychology was in sight. With a good enough microscope, the brain would yield up its secrets as easily as the rest of the body had once anatomy began to proceed in a scientific manner. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace wrote in the late 1700s that “an intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motion of the largest bodies of the world. Nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present.” Laplace’s idea was taken up not just by physicists grappling with the mechanics of the “largest bodies of the world” but by the new psychologists also.

Panek traces the development of 19th century neurology, its splendid achievement in identifying so many neuroanatomical and indeed neurocellular structures, and its corresponding failure to achieve a Laplace-like understanding of the mind. The neuron was not the end of psychology. Freud, it is often forgotten, trained as a neurologist and always claimed a rigorously scientific worldview. Seeing himself as a researcher first and foremost, he was forced to take up lucrative clinical practice to support his wife and family. This practice would be the research that secured Freud’s fame – or infamy – forever. He began to explore the defence mechanisms of the people who came to consult him, their resistance to exploring certain topics or to express certain thoughts, and that very resistance became the stuff of what psychoanalysis would become.

Panek tells his story superbly. The chapters rattle by. Freud once wrote that the years of struggle, in retrospect, are the ones that fill a man’s heart most, and both of these parallels lives are dominated by the years of (relative) obscurity. This is perfectly proper in a book about the ideas of these two men rather than their lives, and makes a refreshing change from some scientific biographies that concentrate at great length on the later, public figure, and skimp over the early breakthroughs that made the subject worthy of attention in the first place.

Einstein’s relativity and Freud’s unconscious are revealed as the pivotal events in, not just science in the general sense, but in our own understanding of ourselves. Even if you are utterly dismissive of Freud and all psychoanalysis, or in the less likely circumstance that you are utterly dismissive of Einstein and all relativity, I urge you to continue your argument with this book.

Nthposition review of The Spider’s Web, Joseph Roth

It seems that Nthposition is no more, or hopefully temporarily down (on another note, The Dabbler, which had seemed to have expired, now seems seems to be back) Here is a somewhat random review of Joseph Roth’s novella The Spider’s Web.


The spider’s web
by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]
Some authors have a greater renown in languages other than their own. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe has often been regarded with a fastidious scorn by English and American literati, with Henry James pronouncing with high-minded disdain that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection” and Eliot that “Poe had a powerful intellect was undeniable but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young man before puberty.” The French, however, went loopy for Poe at an early stage, with the Bostonian alcoholic and child-marrier tapping deep into the part of the French collective subconscious that would beget Baudelaire and surrealism. Or the part that dug Jerry Lewis.

Other writers however have their reputations imprisoned firmly within the confines of their language, at the mercy of their translators – and even then how many subtleties, how many interplays of idiom and dialect, can be missed. Joseph Roth, for a long time, seemed to be such an author – highly regarded in the German speaking world, less known without. Perhaps in Anglophone countries his name is too easily confused with both Philip and Henry Roth. (Note to self: I must take steps to doom Seamus Heaney to obscurity. Though I fear it’s a bit late now)

Roth, one of the most famous and highly paid journalists of the Weimar Republic, became the chronicler of the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that extraordinary, almost accidental political institution that saw enormous intellectual ferment, with figures from Wittgenstein to Freud to Adler to Gödel, mixed with the rise of anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic forces such as the Guido von List societies. In novels such as The Radetzky March and Right and Left, Roth chronicled the last days of the doomed Central European culture that flourished under the Empire. Contemplating the subsequent history of the nations that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, monarchy does not seem like such a bad system after all.

This, Roth’s debut novel, follows Theodor Lohse, a personification of the resentments and hatreds of the post war German. He was a lieutenant during the First World War, and now as the novel begins is a law student and tutor to a Jewish jeweller’s son. He lives unhappily with his mother and sisters, who “couldn’t forgive Theodor for having failed – he who had twice been mentioned in dispatches – to die a hero’s death as a lieutenant. A dead son would have been the pride of the family. A demobilised lieutenant, a victim of the revolution, was a burden to his womenfolk. Theodor lived amid his family like some aged grandfather who would have been revered in death but who is scorned because he is still alive.”

Theodor resents the Efrussis, the Jewish family where he serves as a tutor, and the Jewish student who comes top of his class in law school. Theodor comes second by dint of application and dogged persistence, whereas, “the Jew, Glaser, who drifted smilingly through breaks, carefree and headless of books” effortlessly rises to the top. “Glaser’s learning was as dishonestly come by as the jeweller’s fortune.”Lohse lusts after Frau Efrussi, with her violet knickers (how does he know she wears violet knickers? It isn’t terribly clear) and haughty tone, while the women Theodor has are “the barefoot simpleton from the north, the woman with the angular rough hands and the crude caresses, chill to the touch, with sweaty stockings and dirty underclothes.”

“His dream cried out for release like some sickness living invisibly in his joints, filling every blood vessel, which he could no more escape than he could escape himself.” His dream, of course, is simply resentment and hatred mixed with inchoate personal ambition. Lohse’s life changes when he encounters a Dr Trebitsch in the Efrussis house. Beguiled by Trebitsch’s spade beard and stream of talk, Theodor tries to impress Trebitsch by boasting of his service in the regiment of a Prince the doctor has mentioned.

Thus Trebitsch arranges Theodor’s attendance at a dinner with the Prince, after which the royal personage brings Theodor to his chambers and they have a sexual encounter. Trying to wipe this from his mind the next day – for his own tastes run to “girls with wide hips… he loved to find a refuge and a home in women. After the consummation he liked to be mothered by the all-embracing, to lay his head between big, kindly breasts” – he is inducted on the Prince’s recommendation into SII, a cell of right-wing agents provocateurs.

Lohse enters a world of betrayal, of secret societies and public meetings, of beer-hall oratory and mess-room sedition. He infiltrates left wing groups to betray them, and arranges the bloody suppression of strikes. For all his anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-socialist actions, his ambition is his real driving force. Indeed, he makes contact with socialist groups when it seems expedient to do so. He becomes as much a prisoner of events and ideology as their maker. By the end, if he is not doomed utterly, he is unmistakably captured and shacked by the work which seems to have chosen him as much as he chose it.

If there is a criticism to make of this short, beguiling novel, it is that Lohse is too obviously a bad ‘un, so to speak, from the start. He is a little too much the personification of resentment and envy, his hatred of the Jews stems a little too obviously from the circumstances of his own life. It would be interesting to read of a more sympathetic protagonist’s decline into the mire of ultra-nationalism.
The poet Michael Hofmann has done sterling work translating Roth. John Hoare does translation duty here, and the text reads smoothly and clearly. Not being familiar with the original German text, I cannot comment on its fidelity but can commend its fidelity to the atmosphere of the times it describes. The novel ends inconclusively, for Roth himself would not know the full horror of the Reich’s Götterdamerung, drinking himself to death in Paris with perfect timing in 1939.

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.


While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

queen coinwarhol_2348861k

The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.

“Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” Ash Wednesday

“Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” Ash Wednesday


An Ash Wednesday I’ll Never Forget:

Chesterton did not actually say that those of us who don’t believe in God will believe in anything, but he ought to have because it’s true. Between the ages of 12 and 20, before I began my return to the Church on February 17, 2010, I believed in, among other things, Buddhism, vegetarianism, pacifism, gay marriage, Marxism, libertarianism, literary criticism and – most shamefully, I think – the literary merits of Finnegans Wake.

Priests looking for youth evangelisation strategies should note that was only the penultimate item on this list that did me any good, for had I not one day found myself writing a rather dull and pointless essay on Yeats and TS Eliot, I might never have returned to the faith. Perhaps the Catholic Truth Society should do up a neat little pamphlet on FR Leavis. But let me back up.

I was a very pious child who grew up fearing hell with an almost physical intensity. Even the sight of shoulder devils in cartoons could fill me with dread. Yet I also struggled from an early age with very grave doubts. I distinctly remember lying in bed aged seven and thinking to myself: “When you die, there is nothing.”

Fast forward half a decade and I had become one of those obnoxious 12-year-olds who should not be allowed to read books. When my catechism teacher told us that skipping Mass was a mortal sin, I decided that there probably wasn’t a hell or a heaven, much less a God who cared what any of us did with his time on Sundays or any other day of the week.

At some point towards the end of my teenage years I ceased to be a thoroughgoing materialist. (How I unclasped myself from Feuerbach’s dank tendrils and came to believe in Something rather than nothing is difficult to say, but I chalk it up to falling seriously in love for the first time and listening to Van Morrison.)

I then became, or so I like fondly to think, America’s last earnest pagan. I do not mean that I worshipped Zeus or Diana – the closest I ever came was burning lavender-scented incense while reciting from Keats, a practice I would heartily recommend to all students reading English. But I did pay homage, almost literally, to things like grey waves, thunderstorms, autumnal leaves, the faces of beautiful women, the smell of lilacs and the first snow. Whatever was out there, the quaint little story about a Nazarene seemed to me too small for it.

Is it strange to say that I cannot remember anything else about that day in February? I have no idea what I ate for breakfast or how cold it was or whether that afternoon was one of those rare occasions on which I did anything at my Gogolian make-work job in the Office of Financial Aid. All I know is that at some point in the course of working on a literary essay I consulted Eliot’s Collected Poems and happened upon “Ash Wednesday”, which I had never much cared for.

But that day in the library I found myself utterly transfixed by this desperate plea for the intercession of our Mother written by an agnostic. (One of my fondest discoveries of recent years has been to learn how much of the poem is a pastiche of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.) I was especially by these lines from the third stanza:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain


Section 1 of Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Bird feeding mid February

My last “Bird feeding notes”, was from mid November. One of the nice things about bird feeding is the heightened awareness of the passage of the seasons, and how even in the depths of winter new life is awaiting. Based purely on subjective perception of temperature and the how-hard-it-is-to-drag-oneself-out-of-bed factor, I find the “traditional” beginning of Spring on St Brigid’s Day a little implausible, but from the point of view of the natural world it is perfectly right – indeed, possibly a little late.

I have noted before that there are far more collared doves around this winter/spring, although I have noticed slightly fewer of late. There is an abundance of greenfinches, somewhat more than chaffinches with is a reversal of the usual pattern. A pied wagtail which normally was more evident at the front of the house now seems to be a regular at the back (or is this the same wagtail at all?) and a sprinkling of rooks and jackdaws – though, again, slightly fewer it seems.

And still no magpies (thought I will probably see a flock in a few minutes having written this)


From “LA*HWI*NE*SKI: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist” by John Jeremiah Sullivan

That’s what’s so terrifying but also heroic in Rafinesque, to know he could see that far, function at that outer-orbital a level intellectually, yet still wind up viciously hobbled by the safe-seeming assumptions of his day. We do well to draw a lesson of humility from this. It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature. Who knows what our version of the six-thousand year old earth is. It’s hiding somewhere in plain sight. In five hundred years there’ll be two or three things we believed and went on about at great length, with perfect assurance that will seen hilarious to them.