From Trauma to Paranoia: Nuclear Weapons, Science Fiction and History
Hendershot, Cyndy, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
Focusing on the ahistoricial tendency in much science fiction, and placing it in the context of the political and scientific commentary on the Atomic Age, this essay explores the way that three science-fiction films of the 1950s resorted to paranoid defense-mechanisms in their attempt to deal with the trauma of nuclear destruction.
The Atomic Age immediately perceived itself as a new historical epoch. William L. Laurence, official reporter for the Manhattan Project--the code name for the governmental organizations that developed the atomic bomb--noted that the creation of this bomb "marks the first time in the history of man's struggle...that he is actually present at the birth of a new era on this planet" (164). This self-conscious awareness of the beginning of a new historical age was echoed by the Manhattan Project scientists themselves. For example, in an essay written for the 1946 collection One World or None, J.R. Oppenheimer, physicist and civilian head of the Manhattan Project, called the release of atomic energy "revolutionary" (22). Yet, at the same time that such postwar thinkers appeared to be periodizing the bomb as something unprecedented they simultaneously attempted to take it and its implications out of historical time and place them in mythological and eschatological time. Thus Laurence completed his speculations about "a new era" by adding that we have "full awareness of [the bomb's] titanic potentialities for good or evil" (164; emphasis mine). Similarly, in the course of labeling atomic energy "revolutionary," Oppenheimer described it as "promethean" (22). The bomb and its implications had been historicized only to be ahistoricized as Greek mythology.
This tension between the apparent novelty of nuclear weapons and their apparent connection to continuous, ahistorical forces is one that is equally present in fictional works of this period, including a large number of American science-fiction films from the 1950s which deal either covertly or explicitly with nuclear weapons and their effects. Films such as This Island Earth (1954), It Came From Outer Space (1953), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) explore nuclear weaponry and warfare by using alien invasion scenarios. Other films, such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), use a reawakened prehistoric monster as a metaphor for atomic power, while films such as Them! (1954), The Black Scorpion (1957), and Tarantula (1955) show the horror of nuclear weaponry and testing by depicting a non-human force that gains power in the American desert. What is common to all these films, as well as to works like Invasion of the Body Snatche rs (1956), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and The Forbidden Planet (1956), is the use of familiar mythological forms to represent the new threats present in the Atomic Age.
While this mythologizing tendency has not gone unnoticed by critics of science fiction, what still requires more attention is the way that such ahistoricism constitutes a paranoiac response to the cultural trauma caused by the reality and threat of nuclear destruction, and the way that such paranoia is reflected in both fictional and non-fictional works. Thus in the following essay, I will first briefly articulate a theory of history as the traumatic that needs to be narrativized in order to be expressed, and then go on to show how symptoms of psychic transference/displacement are operative in the mythologizing of nuclear weapons by scientific/political commentators. Turning next to science-fiction films, I will provide an indepth analysis of three representative works of the 1950s: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which depicts alien invasion; 20 Million Miles to Earth, which focuses on pre-historic creatures; and The Monolith Monsters, which features radioactive rocks in a desert setting.
Trauma is that which is painfully experienced but which cannot be adequately translated into language or even translated at all. According to psychoanalysts J. Laplanche and G.B. Pontalis, trauma can be defined as "an event in the subject's life defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization" (465). Trauma, however, can also be experienced at a cultural level, and as Cathy Caruth observes in her introduction to a collection of essays on this topic, trauma "does not simply serve as a record of the past but precisely registers the force of an experience that is not yet fully owned" (151). Thus trauma could be described as a past which is inarticulable as a present reality.
First detonated on 16 July 1945 in the New Mexico desert (see Fig. 1), the bomb and its implications were first experienced as trauma in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to the naked human suffering experienced in those cities, what also needed addressing were the manifold philosophical questions arising from the United States's use of nuclear weapons. Commenting on John Hersey's account of the survivors of Hiroshima, French philosopher Georges Bataille pinpoints a central ethical issue raised by the use of the bomb: "the death of sixty thousand is charged with meaning, in that it depended on their fellow men to kill them or to let them die. The atom bomb draws its meaning from its human origin: it is the possibility that the hands of man deliberately hang suspended over the future" (226). Written in 1947, Bataille's estimate of the victims of the Hiroshima bomb has subsequently been upped to an immediate-death toll of 100,000 and the fatal-injury toll of 50,000 (Lifton & Mitchell xvii). The realization that a human agency could in turn be responsible for the total death of humanity defies the imagination. Discussing nuclear holocaust, psychoanalyst Leon Botstein argues that effective conceptualizing of nuclear war may be impossible: "Total death cannot truly even be imagined; no myth appeared even necessary for Freud. One may, in fact, not be able to create effective psychological myths for the unimaginable prospect which has, only since nuclear weapons, become part of reality, both external and psychological" (301). And it is precisely this trauma--the awareness of the degree to which we (Americans, humans) are responsible for weapons of mass destruction and hold the fate of the world in our hands--that causes our society to, so often, take nuclear weapons outside of history.
Central to this ahistoricism is the translation of the problem into something universal, mythological--or more appropriately, trauma becomes translated into paranoia. The world of the paranoiac is a delusory one in which historical issues are played out as mythic battles between good and evil. In his history of the Cold War, for example, H.W. Brands describes the paranoiac's view of history as one in which the world is divided neatly into good and evil, which enables him/her to conclude that "Humanity's …
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Publication information: Article title: From Trauma to Paranoia: Nuclear Weapons, Science Fiction and History. Contributors: Hendershot, Cyndy - Author. Journal title: Mosaic (Winnipeg). Volume: 32. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 1999. Page number: 73. © 1999 University of Manitoba, Mosaic. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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