Today marks the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima, which resulted in at least 70,000 immediate and direct fatalities (an additional 40,000 were killed outright in the bombing of the historic city of Nagasaki three days later—40,000 more died there in the following months from injuries). To commemorate this occasion, I am reproducing a response by André Breton to a question about the meaning of the atomic bombings. The exchange below took place in an interview which appeared in Le Litteraire on October 5, 1946. The full text of the interview can be found in Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. The translation is by Mark Polizzotti.
The writer Breton mentions, Denis de Rougemont, was a scholar and proponent of European unity. Lettres sure la bombe atomique was published in the U.S. in 1947 as The Last Trump, in a translation by Parmenia Migel.
Breton’s interlocutor, Jean Duche, was a journalist, historian, and novelist.
Jean Duche: The bombing of Hiroshima affected everyone. Do you think it can help man to leave behind his “desperate condition in the middle of the twentieth century”? Or rather, will it give unexpected meaning to the famous statement, “Here begins the era of the finite world”? What do you anticipate from this death blow—our extermination or our salvation?
André Breton: Yes, the shock was a rude one: the citizens of Hiroshima were not the only ones to suffer from it. Were it not for the human mind’s inexhaustible and unfailing resources of insouciance—note that I consider this insouciance consonant with life, that I’m grateful for it as I am for the wild grasses that so quickly take over the ruins, getting a jump on any war reparations that might be undertaken—I don’t know how we could recover; how any of us could still, without immediately feeling ridiculous, that we were freely able to commit to anything.
When I left New York four months ago, agitation with respect to this subject had reached a fever pitch: it brooks no comparison with the much more passive emotion I’ve seen here. Over there, atomic disintegration was widely held to be the most important discovery since fire; no one hesitated to make predictions about it, however romantic (ultrapessimistic or ultraoptimistic, depending on one’s nature). But what struck the keenest minds, what for them constituted the great new fact was that man, realizing for the first time that not only was his own life endangered, but that of his entire species as well, suddenly lost the perspectives (whether selfless or cynical) that until then had conditioned his own thinking, and, in the best case, had justified his actions. Despite everything, the individual framework of birth and death had remained open until that point. Suddenly, however, a radical and well-founded doubt was introduced into the world’s future, closing the old framework shut. Everything we’d entrusted to a distant tomorrow; for want of seeing it happen in our own lifetimes—but which implicated us nonetheless—now became futile; the great blue thread snapped in the eyes of our children. As for art and literature (I’m still speaking of America), professional psychologists said that a profusion of works “made from pure despair and pure insanity” was unavoidable and just around the corner.
The intellectual situation created by the explosion in Hiroshima remains critical, and the reflections this event has inspired are still taking a dizzying turn. It goes without saying that we should do everything in our power, for as long as we can, to keep might on the side of life, to ward off and overcome this major scourge. In this regard, Denis de Rougemont’s Lettres sure la bombe atomique [Letters About the Atom Bomb], written in such a lucid tone that it deliberately eschews any ringing of alarms, constitutes a healthy and exemplary act. The concrete suggestions it contains deserve to be debated and to bear fruit. This, of course, must in no way makes lose sight of certain facts, and in particular does not absolve us from knowing whose hand governs the use of atomic energy in the United States (there are many details on this subject in the September issue of La Revue Internationale, from which the appropriate social conclusions can be drawn).
We are forced to concede that our role here is only to propose, while others dispose; be that as it may, it is the strict duty of intellectuals to denounce the progress of a murderous folly that no longer knows any limits. Small as it may seem, every time the irresponsible powers get their comeuppance, and every time seduction and hope raise their heads, something is won. The use of atomic energy, as the irrevocable conquest of man, plants him dumbstruck at the intersection of two roads: one road leads to collective suicide, the other to a greater good of the most unexpected kind. For man to choose the latter will require all his capacity for refusal, all the audacity and genius he can muster. He’ll have to shake his habitual laziness, shatter the old frameworks, and then proceed to an overall recasting of ideas that have now become clichés, not one of which can be counted on.
Given the urgency of this choice, such an undertaking might seem fanciful. Nevertheless, a fundamental dissatisfaction is smouldering beneath the most varied and incompatible forms of conformity, not to mention a growing discontent, which might soon bear fruit.