What Does One Remember in Nagasaki?
( Nov 20 2015 )
Seventy years ago, on August 8, 1945, the city of Nagasaki in Japan was hit by the second Atom bomb; the city, and the destruction it was engulfed in, has forever seared into our memory. What can I recall, and how must I remember as I stand here in Nagasaki for the first time in my life?
As a Nuclear Physicist and as a historian of science, this place has a special meaning for me. It was the lingering horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how as a budding nuclear physicist I might one day be called upon to create such a weapon for my country, that I abandoned physics.
Martin Luther King's words, "We have guided missiles and misguided men" haunt me. Peace is the most profound and necessary act anyone of us can be, and must be, engaged in.
What can we remember in the epicentre of destruction? How ironic it is that at one moment our memory creates a sense of self, and on another it threatens to destroy it. It becomes a source of fierce pain. Then we yearn desperately to forget: a word, a parting, a wound in the heart, a stab in the back, a promise broken, a trust shattered, a humiliation, a 'filial ingratitude'. A trauma.
The great geniuses who created weapon of mass destruction.
"Only if I could forget", we bemoan. Only if there were a pill that would wipe away just that particular memory. A 'delete' button that would purge decisively and surgically a festering memory so we can be whole again. We can be our selves. We can start anew. This longing, and a certain capacity for regeneration are at the heart of nature; they are as crucial as the phenomenon of reproduction and creation. Nature is a healer. Time is a healer. Love is a great healer.
A French film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) by Alain Resnais, presents just such a moment of healing on one night of love between two most unlikely people: a French woman, with aching memories at the end of Nazi occupation of France and a Japanese architect, with seething memories of the destruction of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945.
With the memory of her hair shorn, and of a hundred other humiliations heaped on her by her own countrymen for her romantic liaison with a German soldier during the occupation, the French woman is a woman possessed. And the Japanese architect has his own haunting memories of anger and diffidence. Now an unexpected night between two strangers releases a floodgate of emotions and of memories, of pity and of sorrow, of accusations of barbarism against a merciless world, of piercing pain and relentless meaninglessness. Is this is a possible moment for regeneration, for becoming whole again, for re-membering a dis-membered self?
I think, therefore I am," - Cogito ergo sum - is probably the most quoted phrase in all of Western philosophy. It suggests what might be at the heart of one's being. Whether one believes it to be true or not, there can be no denying that we are always intrigued by what is this thing called "I".
I wonder if the 370-year old axiom should not be turned around: "I remember, and therefore I am." I believe, we remember, and only then we become a self, a name, a being. We remember a face, a friendship, a gesture, whiff of a fragrance, a sweet taste, a disapproving frown, a warm glow. We remember a word of reproach or inspiration. A sign of generosity or cunningness.
A warm spring. A coming storm. The walk through the forest a year ago. The devastating cyclone of last decade. A creeping fear. A premonition of a cold heart. A rejection. A stranger on the train. A friendship. A love gone cold. Memory of our being and becoming. Memory of our ancestors, and their follies and their heroics. Memory of the wet earth. Memory of the silent night. Memory of a raucous night. Memory of the teacher who taught history. Memory of a death. Memory of a kiss. Of the first kiss.
These million, zillion memories, in what treasure chest are they stored? In what ground of being are they buried, and how are they to be excavated? On what ocean floor do they still lie, and what diver will bring them back for us to behold? On what cloud do they float; what rains will bring them down to nourish the earth?
Somewhere in our gullet the words are frozen. Once these words carried the whole world on their wings; they gave shape and resonance to the universe and made it new. But today, like millions of others all over the world, we are "condemned to collect water with a sieve."
What water? What sieve? Words, words, words.
What was once so readily accessible is now so remote, so entangled, so convoluted. What a dread this dementia is in the hearts and minds of millions all over the world.
Without memory there is no self. It is only when I remember that I am. By re-membering the dis-membered scattered universe I make it my own; I give it coherence, a unity, a meaning. And this unity makes me who I am. When this unity is shattered, when things fall apart, I am not I. I have gone mad. I am insane.
If we cannot, or don't, address the pain and memory of the trauma, where do these memories go? Do they stay repressed in some deep dungeons of our being? Do they express themselves as hysteria or some other form of neurosis, and thus create a new self?
For over hundred years, since Sigmund Freud's early theories about repressed memories, we have seen the pendulum swing back and forth, between outrageous fabrications and some semblance of truth. In 1980s and early 90s, there was an epidemic of such repressed memories, all goaded and guided by overzealous psychotherapists, in which adult women, and sometimes men, accused their fathers and grandfathers, and even their mothers, of incestual violations in early childhood, often over many years.
Such distortions and fabrications of memory, on the part of accusers, created false and destructive selves. The memory of that sad and hysterical chapter in the recent history of psychotherapy creates only frightful thoughts. One can say unequivocally that memories make us; they create our self. One can declare: I remember, therefore I am. To re-member the dis-membered universe is our journey; it is how we make things one and whole.