Monday, August 27, 2007

atomic anxieties

A few years ago I was asked to write a few pages that would help students and faculty prepare for discussions of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. Specifically I was asked to describe the cultural aspects of atomic anxiety. The short piece I wrote is here, and the opening paragraph ran as follows:

Some culture-watchers doubted that Americans were as anxious about the prospects of nuclear annihilation as everyone said they were. Was it really the "Age of Anxiety" specifically because of the bomb? The poet Rolfe Humphries, in his introduction to a 1953 anthology of New Poems by American Poets, noticed a distinct lack of such anxiety in the hundreds of poems by young writers he considered including in his book. "In the profession of anxiousness, there is an element of fashion," he noted, "of chichi: how many, I wonder, who feel sure that the Atom Bomb is going to get us all tomorrow, ever dream about bombs, instead of their father chasing their mother with a knife, or vice versa." Leaving aside his apparent naivete about how in dreams we substitute one set of fearful symbols for another, Humphries seems to have missed the point about the larger cultural effects of the nuclear age. People feared the bomb itself, yes - and probably such fears were indeed overstated by officials who wanted every new home to be built with fall-out shelters; and perhaps poets, among others, did not abide what seemed to them hysteria. But it seems also true that the bomb generally made midcentury Americans fear more acutely what they always already feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled.