The closing chapters of the Second World War sent a shockwave through modernist thought that would eventually result in deconstruction and postmodernity, beginning with a renewed questioning of critical assumptions. When the Frankfurt School cultural theorist Theodor Adorno returned to Europe after the war he contemplated the agony of Europe and concluded that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno was thus moved not simply by horror but because, intellectually, the death camps brought the project of civilization into question. What might the canon represent, what values remained if human reason and human genius could devise such inhumanity? Paradoxically, scepticism of the canon came to pervade texts we might consider central to the Cold War canon. In John Hersey’s Hiroshima, we are told that “in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” The culture of the Cold War would be increasingly suspicious of itself: metatextual, self-reflexive and deconstructivist.
Adorno may have felt that poetry was inappropriate to the aftermath of war, but he was nevertheless inspired to publish volumes of criticism. With the loss of faith in science as an absolute good came a further, philosophical dilemma. Human history was demonstrably not a grand narrative of eternal progress. Indeed, Adorno maintained that:
Universal history must be construed and denied. After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it. Not to be denied for that reason, however, is the unity that cements the discontinuous, chaotically splintered moments and phases of history — the unity of the control of nature, progressing to rule over men, and finally to that over men’s inner nature. No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. It ends in the total menace which organized mankind poses to organized men, in the epitome of discontinuity. It is the horror that verifies Hegel and stands him on his head. If he transfigured the totality of historic suffering into the positivity of the self-realizing absolute, the One and All that keeps rolling on to this day—with occasional breathing spells — would teleologically be the absolute of suffering.
If we focus on the single affirmation, that “no universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb”, then we can see the philosophical rupture caused by the detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We can also see the significance of Hersey’s textual transmission of this dilemma in his extended essay, Hiroshima.
Hiroshima brought a human dimension to the devastation of the atomic bomb. In a cool, understated, and for that reason all the more poignant style, he recreated the Hiroshima bombing form the standpoint of six survivors. Hersey did what no one else had done: he converted the Japanese enemy into recognisable himan beings.
Hiroshima is a novel that grapples sincerely with a problem many other writers in various ways have sought to minimize, even explain away: namely how do we think of ourselves as citizens, as people, on a planet over which hover all manner of weapons whose control, much less inner workings, partake of a complexity that makes anachronistic older notions of accountability?
Hersey’s skill as a war correspondent was used instead to humanise the ‘faceless Asian horde’, to present the decision of high command as arbitrary and cruel; yet Hersey managed to retain a sense of detachment. Yavenditti characterises Hersey’s work as a masterpiece of understated realism, the “contrast between the apparently objective simplicity of his prose and the enormity of the phenomenon he described made Hiroshima all the more graphic and frightening for most readers.” Both the objectivity and simplicity are demonstrably more “apparent” than actual. Hersey’s choice of subjects, for instance, presented the American audience with sympathetic characters: doctors, priests, mothers. Hersey had found his interviewees through missionary contacts, so the sample is more accidental than intentional. Still, the sample was as opportune as much as it was opportunistic. The structure of Hiroshima was also intended to elicit an empathetic response: the mundane details of six lives are interrupted by an eruption, clinically described, followed by a surreal sequence of flight and survival and a period of feverish recovery and sickly regrowth of weeds and keloid.