By Stuart Mitchner
We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), after the first test, July 16, 1945
The cover photo of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf 2005) shows a man who knew how to create himself — the hat, the cigarette, the challenging look — much as a seasoned movie actor creates a persona.
The man on the cover of Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Doubleday 2012) seems alone in a world of thought. No more the hat, the cigarette, the aggressive stare, the attitude, the sense of a cutting-edge force of genius. This prophet is beyond sadness and you don’t want to know what sort of future he would prophesy.
Fuse the stories behind the photographs and you have material for a fascinating film. My June 1, 2005 review of American Prometheus covers some of the possibilities — from the theoretical physicist who masterminded the Manhattan Project to the horseman who once said his two great loves were physics and New Mexico; from the reader who defined himself through literature to the language scholar who learned Sanskrit so he could read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original; from the student who left a poisoned apple for his tutor to the chain-smoking maker of lethal martinis who told President Harry Truman after the bombing of Hiroshima, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”
The Kafka Connection
After warning the world about the hydrogen bomb and nuclear proliferation, Oppenheimer was the subject of a 1954 hearing rigged by his enemies in order to smear him as a security risk. In American Prometheus, the chapter on the hearing is prefaced by a quote from Franz Kafka’s The Trial (“Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning”). As it happens, the so-called “Father of the Atom Bomb” and his story have qualities in common with the personal writings and fictions of the author of The Castle. Kafka was born 140 years ago this month, July 3, 1883, and although he died in 1924, much of his most prescient work appeared posthumously, including Diaries 1910-1923 (Schocken Books) and The Aphorisms, published last year by Princeton University Press. Both Oppenheimer biographies reveal why the Prometheus of Los Alamos would be responsive to Aphorism 54 (“With the very strongest light, one can dissolve the world”); for both cover
photos there’s Aphorism 76, in which “the answer prowls around the question, peers desperately into its unapproachable face.”
Similarities between the two abound in Monk’s biography and are often reflected in Oppenheimer’s own words, as in a December 1923 letter attempting to explain his “dilettante dawdling” in fiction (he was 19): “I find these awful people in me from time to time, and their expulsion is the sole excuse for my writing….I write to get rid of an ideal and impossible system.”
In June 1913, Kafka, who was 30, refers to “the tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it.”
In the Neighborhood
Although neither biography notes a specific instance where Oppenheimer read Kafka, the author of The Metamorphoses was in the literary neighborhood. Monk recounts a mid-1960s conversation between Oppenheimer and his first biographer, Nuel Pharr Davis (Lawrence & Oppenheimer 1968), who was asking about a certain “undocumented episode” said to be “the turning point of his life.” All Oppenheimer would tell Davis was “What you need to know is that it was not a mere love affair, not a love affair at all, but love.” Davis assumed that Oppenheimer was alluding to his love “for a European girl who would not marry him.” Later Oppenheimer told a friend that the experience in question had nothing to do with a European girl but was rather his reading of Marcel Proust’s A le recherche du temps perdu.
Oppenheimer read Proust by flashlight on a 10-day trek across Corsica in the spring of 1925, during which, according to Monk, he and his two companions talked about French and Russian literature. When the topic of cruelty entered the conversation after Oppenheimer argued that
Dostoevsky was superior to Tolstoy because “he gets to the soul and torment of man,” Oppenheimer surprised both friends by quoting, word for word, a passage from Proust. It referred to one of the book’s central characters, Mlle. Vinteuil, “who would not have considered evil to be so rare, so extraordinary, so estranging a state … had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone, that indifference to the sufferings one causes, an indifference which, whatever names one may give it, is the terrible and permanent form of cruelty.”
The words about evil and cruelty and “the sufferings one causes” resonate in Oppenheimer’s admission in the aftermath of Hiroshima (“I feel I have blood on my hands”). Curious to understand why Proust and this passage in particular represent “one of the great experiences” of his life, Monk finds a clue in remarks Oppenheimer made in 1960 at the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Confessing that he had always been “acutely aware of the worst in himself,” he spoke of his “almost infinitely prolonged adolescence,” presumably including the “poisoned apple” incident at Cambridge: “I hardly took any action, hardly did anything, or failed to do anything, whether it was a paper on physics, or a lecture, or how I read a book, how I talked to a friend, how I loved, that did not arouse in me a very great sense of revulsion and of wrong.” In order to “break out and be a reasonable man, I had to realize that my own worries about what I did … were not the whole story, that there must be a complementary way of looking at them, because other people did not see them as I did. And I needed what they saw, needed them.”
The very field of physics that Oppenheimer mastered is darkly, absurdly, beautifully “Kafkaesque” since it studies, as Bird and Sherwin point out, “that which doesn’t exist – but nevertheless proves true.” In the same context, both biographers quote physicist Richard Feynman to the effect that quantum mechanics “describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense.”
It’s hard not to think of the “secret city” of Los Alamos, also known as The Hill, when you read the opening of Kafka’s The Castle: “The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.”
What most impresses Thomas Mann in Kafka’s novel, with its “strange, uncanny, demonic illogicality, remoteness, cruelty, and yes, wickedness” is “that it is done with humor.” Think what Kafka could do with the black-comedy possibilities of the goings-on in Oppenheimer’s castle, all the intrusive security agents looking after all those genius scientists building a doomsday device they call the Gadget. The bombs that will decimate the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coded Little Boy and Fat Man. Is there a poet the house? Someone who has loved and absorbed literature from boyhood?
By March 1945, thanks to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Hill became the “Trinity Project.” The idea came from a John Donne poem he knew and loved and associated with Jean Tatlock, an avowed Communist for whom he risked leaving the top secret enclave of the Hill to spend a night with in Berkeley (the FBI were actually watching when the lights went out). The poem that actually provided the line is Holy Sonnet 14, which begins, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”
My favorite photograph of Oppenheimer can be found in Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book, a collection of leaping luminaries the photographer put together in the late fifties. The photo shows Oppenheimer performing his jump in front of a blackboard at the Institute. It is at once a spectacularly uninhibited and absolutely, gravely determined upward leap, one arm raised high above his head (his face peering straight up), the jacket of his elegant three-piece suit flying open, his well-polished black shoes well off the ground. Halsman calls the leap “metaphysically spectacular.” It’s nice to know that even after the 1954 inquisition, the director could still reach for the sky.
The quotes by Thomas Mann are from his introduction to the 1940 edition of The Castle. Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated film, opens with a special showing at the Garden Thursday night.