Friday, June 08, 2007

Archive of the Day/Armageddon

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan linked to a stunning video of nuclear tests set to music. (He got it from 2 Blowhards, which I've been meaning to add to the blogroll -- so now I have.) I'm putting the video below. But first, since it seems highly appropriate, a passage from my favorite novel, The Brothers K by David James Duncan, in which one of the brothers, Peter, at high school in the early '60s, watches a film about a nuclear test. I've elided some of the section, because it's quite long as is. But I think it's a perfect lead-up to the video. Enjoy?
On August 6, 1945, Edward Conze -- arguably the greatest Buddhist scholar of this century -- was riding in a train through England when he opened his morning paper and read of Hiroshima, and of the world's first nuclear attack. He later wrote, "I have a very deep stomach, and normally cannot be sick. But on this occasion I vomited straight out the window. This was prophetic insight. For at that moment, human history had lost its meaning."

Two decades later, in the fall of his junior year of high school, Peter was forced in a class called Modern Problems to watch a film about a possible solution to the modern problem roughly known as "Russia." This film was a black-and-white documentary, produced by the Pentagon. Its subject was one of the late-Fifties' aboveground H-bomb tests in Nevada.

The military technicians who engineered the test may not have been the most artistic filmmakers of their day, but they were far from unimaginative. They recognized, for instance, that in blowing up an expanse of uninhabited desert there must be something more than miles of barren sand and sagebrush for the cameras to film and for the viewers' minds to grasp. They therefore decided (rather like the third of the Three Little Pigs) to build a little brick house, to situate it exactly one mile from Ground Zero, and to make it the poignant, underdog star of their show, first by stocking and furnishing it with an array of animate and inanimate items that might be found in any American home at the time of a Russian nuclear attack, and then, of course, by attacking it.

Surrounded as it was by miles of scrub desert, the Pentagon's house turned out to be a forlorn and lost-looking little abode. But in my Father's house are many mansions, Peter thought as he watched. And no one could fault the Pentagon technicians' thoroughness in stocking this one: they carted in fresh and refrigerated foods, a pantry full of canned goods, a freezer full of meats and vegetables (I go to prepare a place for you, Peter thought)...

They didn't recruit a family -- though with their budget and powers of propaganda they no doubt could have. But they did the next-best thing: they built one. ... The Army really had constructed four lifelike, white-skinned 100%-patriotic dummies -- a Daddy, a Mommy, a Little Boy and a Little Girl. "The Last Supper!" one of Peter's pals cracked as the camera finally drew away. But no one laughed...

With that, the camera zoomed in on the four happy, lifeless faces, and the narrator counted down, Five, Four, Three, Two, One . . . But at Zero, nothing happened. Seconds passed. The house remained standing. The Dummies kept smiling. "Gee, Wally! That wasn't so bad!" said the boy who'd made the "Last Supper" crack, and there were a few snickers. "Better light another one," someone said, and half the class began to laugh.

Then the family simply vanished. It was not at all dramatic. The little lost house and everything in it disappeared in a flash of such pure and silent whiteness that Peter thought the film had broken. But then they began to perceive movement within the whiteness. No one, least of all the Pentagon narrator, could describe what they were seeing, but there was clearly a billowing, an erupting, a majestic swirling of heat and light pouring toward them and through them and far, far beyond them. It was mesmerizing. It was even beautiful. And it went on for a long, long time.

Finally, the screen darkened, there was a stasis, and the Modern Problems students sighed, thinking the Dummy Family, though deceased, was at least at rest. But they were wrong. The billowing not only resumed, it reversed direction. The first wind, Peter realized, had been the ex-plosion (I go to prepare a place for you) -- everything blown effortlessly aside as when a boulder lands in a pool and crushes the water away in all directions. But the second wind, the reversed wind, was the im-plosion (and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself...) -- the melted molecules of brick and insect and appliance and desert all rushing like water back into place, after the thrown boulder has sunk.


Anonymous Steve Tally said...

Wow, not only was that excerpt powerful, but the writing! That was humbling.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline said...


9:23 PM  

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