February 24, 2013

J. Robert Oppenheimer Questioned The Moral Survival of Mankind

This is an excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Published in 2005 by Alfred A. Knopf: New York. Pg. 428.
"When a congressman asked him if a war fought with hydrogen bombs would make the earth unfit for human habitation, Oppie interjected, "Pestiferous, you mean?" Actually, he said, he was more worried about mankind's "moral survival." He explained his position with an air of utter reasonableness, and though no one present questioned his logic, he left knowing that he had not changed anyone's mind."
In 2005, the San Francisco Opera premiered Science and the Soul: J. Robert Oppenheimer and "Doctor Atomic." The creators talked about the show and J. Robert Oppenheimer at UC Berkeley with a couple of physicists. The video is below. In the panel discussion, director Peter Sellars said: 
"There are not many directors of opera companies who would say 'I want an American Faust and let's commission an opera about Oppenheimer. . . And yet, of course, as we started working on this the Faust image faded quickly because the people entering World War II, really in a race against the Germans, did it in an atmosphere of profound selflessness rather than selfish aggrandizement and search for knowledge. . . Faust for enormous power bargained for knowledge and omnipotence and lost his eternal soul; Oppenheimer went through the same process and at the end discovered that he had a soul.

And this question of this soulful man, this poet caught in the midst of a historical set of circumstances, being both a driver but also driven, being ambitious but also intensely humble in a strange way. As you could hear in those words that Marvin [Professor of Physics Marvin Cohen] played. Something he apparently said to friends later is 'I've never had any accomplishment in my life that was not accompanied by massive self-loathing.' This very intense man who struggled everyday with these questions of another voice in his heart, and a genuine crisis in his soul.

That's I think what Marvin means when he says that actually only poetry and music put together can go to that place. And you don't get it in the memoirs, you don't get it in historical surveys, and when [composer] John Adams sets John Donne's 'Batter my heart, three person'd God; for you, As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, burn, shine, and seek to mend' you begin to touch the place in all of our hearts where all of the most important issues really sit. They're not litmus issues. You're on the left, you're on the right; you're conservative, you're liberal. We are all deeply, deeply conflicted. That's the reality. And the reason we still have art is to remind us that that's the reality. There is no litmus paper. As human beings we're conflicted about almost every single aspect of our lives, and the more important the question, the deeper the conflict goes.

And to actually create a space which is what opera does, which has multiple voices, which has poetry telling you one thing or in the case of John Donne four hundred things, and in the case of the music of John Adams, music that tells you another four hundred things. So you have a minimum of eight hundred things. Plus what the singer is contributing. Plus what the stage director and designers are contributing. Plus what every person in that audience is contributing. You begin to have a level of layering and complexity that almost does justice to what we actually feel, and are searching for and groping towards." [1:28:20 - 1:33:23]. 
J. Robert Oppenheimer quotes from the Bhagavad Gita.

Science and the Soul: J. Robert Oppenheimer and "Doctor Atomic." Source: UCBerkeley.