Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hiroshima Transfigured

August 6, 2009
Hiroshima Day

To observe "Hiroshima Day" is to acknowledge a critical fact of our existence as human beings: we have invented the means to destroy ourselves. In the glow of Hiroshima the moment of total annihilation is fully imaginable as an 'anthropogenic' after-effect of our brilliance, our capacity for invention. To acknowledge this day, then, is to acknowledge the new form or dimension of Evil that is our unprecedented capacity to wreak destruction on our entire planet and species. In using this quaint and venerable term Evil I mean to identify the invention and deployment of nuclear weapons with the much deeper human capacity to inflict pain or harm, to overpower and destroy. On this Hiroshima Day I want to invoke the specific responsibility we bear as Americans for the destruction of Hiroshima, of Nagasaki, of Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden, for all the incinerated civilians (ONE MILLION of them between Jan. and Aug. 1945, says James Carroll in yesterday's Globe).

On Hiroshima Day we accept this Evil as our legacy. In this respect we are the spiritual descendants, let's say, of Ghengis Khan and the Mongol horde, of Huns and Visigoths, of Romans, crusaders, conquistadores. Heirs, just say it, to the Third Reich. (Not, of course in many essential ways, but in the specific way of industrially-scaled destructiveness, yes.) On Hiroshima Day we acknowledge our kinship with the Serbians, the Hutu, the Khmer Rouge. In the one million civilian deaths we answer for in 1945 and the millions more since, in Vietnam, in Iraq and elsewhere, we measure the depth of our Fall as human beings.

When I confront matters as weighty as this day raises, I often refer myself to the Christian gospels (as seen through a left-wing Anglican lens). In that tradition I observe that, as if by some dark prophecy, August 6 has long been observed as the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day that celebrates the bizarre anecdote recorded in all three synoptic gospels when Jesus ascends the mountain and is ... irradiated. Taken up, that is, by God-force and visibly seared with other-worldliness. You see him thus, in Raffaelo's rendition above, and in so many spectacular icons of the Transfiguration, a figure of luminous transcendence.

It is surely a scandalous fact that these observances of Hiroshima and the Transfiguration should coincide. It is perhaps true that the silhouettes of the incinerated residents of that city, radiographed onto the streets and sidewalks and preserved to us in that iconic form, bear a macabre resemblance to many of the Transfigured Jesuses you will find in Christian iconic tradition. But can the imagery of Evil and Good in their (dare I say) absolute forms be in any way conjoined? What are we to make of this outrageous coincidence?

I want to suggest that there are two ways to read Hiroshima Day as Transfiguration. One way, not mine, would understand the Bomb, and the human drive toward annihilation more generally, to represent our passage toward the biblical Apocalypse, the fulfillment of God's Plan. Hiroshima in this view prefigures the consuming fire--whether atomic, climatic, or some other catastrophe--with which we will all someday be aglow. I reject this interpretation from Rapturists and End-timers and such, in that it seems to align God absurdly with Evil. But another way is to understand Hiroshima Day as a challenge for us to transcend ourselves, to climb the mountain, to become a transfigured people. In this vision the memory of the atomic holocaust renews us in our determination to live peaceably and work together to avert or mitigate the worst effects of our destructive technologies. If we understand Hiroshima Day in this way, we can see ourselves in it, aglow with the demand for peace with justice.


At November 16, 2009 at 6:32 AM , Blogger muzuzuzus said...

I am against all war, but Hiroshima....!

Hiroshima and others that had nuclear bombs dropped on them totally wiped out the very web of life of the area. It is a crime against nature, reality!


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