Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437
“The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” subtitled “A Fiction,” presents the story of a theoretical physicist who, in the early 1940’s with the threat of Japanese attack looming, was selected to head a team of scientists to work on atom bomb development, despite his contributions to left-wing organizations. Written in...
(The entire section contains 437 words.)
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“The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” subtitled “A Fiction,” presents the story of a theoretical physicist who, in the early 1940’s with the threat of Japanese attack looming, was selected to head a team of scientists to work on atom bomb development, despite his contributions to left-wing organizations. Written in Oppenheimer’s voice, the poem describes the evolution of his passion for science as well as his justifications for the role that he played in developing the uranium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and the plutonium bomb that decimated Nagasaki.
The speaker describes his shedding of consciousness at Los Alamos, where the bombs were created, as attaining “enlightenment,” where he “threw off the night like an old skin,” and his eyes “filled with light.” The moment that he “fell to the ground” is presented as a spiritual experience. He compares himself to the bomb, describing how “some say” that when he hit, “there was an explosion.” In this identification with the bomb, Oppenheimer shows how much of his life had been consumed by this project, almost as if he had become one with the bomb. However, he also describes how “there was only silence” rocking him “in its cradle of cumulus cloud,” creating a false image of peacefulness after the destruction.
To further justify his participation in this event, the persona of Oppenheimer suggests, “It is better to leap into the void./ Isn’t that what we all want anyway?—” When “we accept the worst in ourselves,” he proposes, we are “set free,” as if to absolve himself of involvement in the project.
The scientist then relates the origin of his passion for science, describing a “ferocious need to know,” as signified by the hypothesis “what if” that all scientists are trained to ask. He asks if readers, addressed as “gentlemen,” have that insatiable curiosity, too—the desire to be “born again and again/ from that dark, metal womb.”
Still, even science is not absolute, the speaker argues, comparing it to a “bed we make and unmake at whim.” “The truth is always changing,” he states, “always shaped by the latest/ collective urge to destroy.” Despite these rationalizations, he is “gnawed down by the teeth” of his nightmares, a guilty conscience that “will not heal.” He takes a cynical approach to nationalistic pride, as typified by “our military in readiness,/ our private citizens/ in a constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride.” “Good soldiers,” he says, “we do not regret or mourn,/ but pick up the guns of our fallen.” In the process, the scientist states, we destroy ourselves “atom by atom,” leading to our ironic “transcendent annihilation.”