I Am Sending You This from a Crater
“I ask myself, how can I write about it? How could I not?” Easton Smith on the prospect of nuclear war, Arundhati Roy, and Hélène Cixous.
Today I woke with sore jaws. Teeth clenched and achy from another night of nuclear dreams. Missiles, explosions, the stuff of bad movies. The end of the world. My sleep is full of these overwrought melodramas. I am a hero and I have to defuse a bomb before the clock hits zero, before my alarm goes off. Boom! I detonate back into the real world each morning.
There I see another day’s news. Another calm, rational discussion of the mechanics of our apocalypse. North Korea is developing the technology to miniaturize their bombs, they say. My action-movie dreams dissolve to this dry dust, this economization of doom. And these talking heads speak with such surety, such measured anger and confusion. They are their own brand of preachers, placating us with their last rites. But underneath it all there lies a subtext: Let’s all just pray that no one flips that switch.
What are the headlines where you are, my friend?
I try to make some use of it all. I try to channel my anxiety into creativity. I try to write serious articles and clever literary stories about the prospect of nuclear war. But my words spread themselves thin, make a brittle crust over my own horror. I can only find one true word. No. What can I say to a nuclear bomb besides No!? I am reduced to a child’s refusal in its midst. Just No! Indignant, sputtering, No!
I’m sorry to write to you like this. But I can’t wrap my words around the overwhelming girth of nuclear death. I need to write to a thing that’s my same, human size. I need to write to you. Because in a personal letter I can write of the bomb like any other petty grievance. The weather’s getting cold, my local supermarket no longer carries nutritional yeast, and I am afraid that we will blow the world to smithereens. I am afraid. Are you?
When did the Cold War end?
I have been trying to nail down an exact date, and I thought maybe you could help me. The more I look into it, the more I realize that there is no academic consensus on the subject. Was it the year I was born, 1989, or when the USSR collapsed in 1991? Or perhaps the Cold War has been sitting out this whole time. Thawing meat.
Just this morning I heard someone on the news say something about The Russians and nuclear deterrents, which made me think that maybe the Cold War is just now getting thrown onto the grill.
Is this my final induction into adulthood? Santa Claus isn’t real, not everyone thinks you are special, and thermonuclear war could break out at any moment. Maybe the Cold War isn’t even a historical event, but a coming of age. I never got a talk for this, did you? The birds and the bees and the never-ending feud between Eastern and Western imperial powers.
My dad is in town right now, so I asked him.
“What was it like to grow up during the Cold War?” He told me that they used to do drills in school. Sit under the desk, cover the neck. “Because that’s the most vulnerable part,” he said. But how did it feel, I wanted to know. How should I feel about this? “We would run around and play in my friend’s bomb shelter in the backyard,” he told me. A confusing answer, but perhaps he was trying to say that nuclear war was just a prop for childhood games, something that faded into the background rather than looming in the foreground. Which makes me wonder if nuclear war has always been too big to face directly. We can only engage with it from our shelters, behind ten inches of steel. Maybe we have never fully believed that the mushroom cloud was real. Special effects, and crude ones at that.
My father couldn’t give me a straight answer, so I went to my mother. One of my mothers: Arundhati Roy. Have you read her work?
When her home country of India conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1998, and Roy saw her people celebrating the bomb, she knew she needed to issue a response. She wrote an essay that became a short book, The End of Imagination.
It’s a poignant title that gets to the root of my problem, I think. That this Cold War, or whatever we want to call our current nuclear standoff, is so violently unimaginative (“Like a regular bomb but with a bigger boom, and some poison!” said the mad scientist) that it marks the end of our creative faculties. That we are infected by the idea of the bomb, to our very souls. “The bomb isn’t in your backyard,” writes Roy. “It’s in your body. And mine. Nobody, no nation, no government, no man, no god, has the right to put it there. We’re radioactive already, and the war hasn’t even begun.”
Perhaps I can’t write a story or even a proper essay about nuclear war because it’s hidden deep inside of me. Roy saw her fellow Indians embrace the power of the bomb because they thought it would protect them, stave off the threat of other bombs in other countries. And maybe I also embrace it, it’s unimaginative story, it’s dichotomy (yes! or no!), because I need to stave off some other threat, some other story, some harder truth.
Speaking of hard truths, have you ever seen the hole that a nuclear explosion leaves in the ground?
There are plenty of these craters at the Nevada Test Site. That’s the place where the US government conducted the majority of its nuclear tests between the years of 1951 and 1992 (maybe these craters tell the real timeline of that Cold War). The official count of nuclear devices detonated in the area: 1,021. A lot of them exploded underground, but others left these giant pockmarks on the earth, absences filled with the presence of the possible. Omens.
I haven’t seen them, but my partner has told me about them. She grew up downwind of the site, in St. George, Utah. She has seen the craters and the cancer that come along with them. There was nowhere to hide from the nuclear fallout. No drills to conduct at the schools. Under the desk, on the toilet, in the bed, the toxic air was still there. No one could cover up their lungs (that other most vulnerable part). The bomb is actually inside of her.
And this is where I get most confused. My metaphors are eclipsed by the real. The bomb possesses my language, not the other way around. The poetry gets sucked up into the vacuum of destruction, becomes a fact: the bomb is inside of us. Maybe this is what Roy means when she writes, “there’s nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons.” Humans could write a million poems about the simplest object, a rose or a beautiful pair of eyes. But nothing more about these metal cylinders of death.
Roy wrote a book anyways. She didn’t want to. She is the author of The God of Small Things. She didn’t want to give anything this transcendental position in the world; to say there is regular war and death, and then there is this other War and Death. She’s not the type to capitulate to big things. The brute. The blunt. The stuff of bad novels. But write she did. “Those of you who are willing: let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play.” That’s how Roy put it.
None of us want to act in these old plays, but here we are. And still, I am missing my script. How about you?
What apocalypse were you raised on?
Was it some Old Testament fire and brimstone? The spectre of poverty maybe, or the literal encroachment of violence from some father or some war?
As for me, I was raised on nuanced apocalypse: climate change and cyber-dystopia. I am used to measuring Armageddon in the inches of our brimming sea, the degrees of our rising temperature. I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school. My apocalypse was complicated, but also rational, scientific. We could stave off the end of the world through ethical consumption and the planting of trees. So I was taught.
Yet, I always retained a theists disposition. I knew that for all the scrubbing of our souls, the buying green and voting Democrat, we were still sinners all of us. I knew that we could never do enough to save ourselves, to outweigh the pollution we spewed, and that one day some larger force would rain down from the sky. It wasn’t such a hard belief to hold given the series of extreme weather crises and international conflicts that came of age alongside me.
And like any human, I adapted to my circumstances. I made a deal with death, so that I wouldn’t have to think about it constantly. The world will die, I decided. But it will die slowly enough that I’d have time to fall in love with it (all those predictions for climate disaster in 2030 felt a lifetime away). I found a lusty solace in rusted post-industrial waste, like a wilting flower, like a decaying gothic mansion, like a heartbreak. The friction between life and death sparked, caught fire even, made magic. Have you made any deals like this, friend? Do you have your own beautiful tragedies?
For me, it was a fragile defense, this nihilism. Just enough to keep hope alive. But it’s not working anymore. I watch as two dictators taunt each other, egg each other on to destroy the world in an ugly flash, as if to say to me “not so quickly young lad, our death will be meaningless yet!” There is no fatal grace in nuclear war.
Roy’s final lines in The End of Imagination:
“If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: we have the power to destroy everything that You have created. If you’re not (religious), then look at it this way. This world of ours in four thousands, six hundred million years old. It could end in an afternoon.”
Look, even Roy, the master of subtle tales, resorts to fear. Stark terms, stern consequences. Or else. The bomb pulls us down to its level, to its apocalypse, makes sterile storytellers of us all.
But it’s not the end of Roy’s book that most saddens me. It’s the beginning. Her dedication: “For Marmots and Voles and everything else on earth that is threatened and terrorised by the human race.”
Roy writes her essay at humans (You imbeciles, you should be ashamed, more or less). But it’s written for rodents. I imagine Roy, at the end of the essay, trying to conjure a human being humble enough to put on her dedication page. But instead, she thought: We are all just a little bit responsible. Rodents are much better beasts.
This reminds me of a recent poll that I read. It claims that twenty-eight percent of Americans favor a “nuclear response to any attack by the North Koreans on the United States or an ally of the United States.” Another twenty-four percent are not sure what they think about blowing up hundreds of thousands of North Korean civilians, starting a cross-pacific nuclear war. That leaves only a minority of us who firmly opposed the apocalypse.
I bet at least ninety percent of rodents are against nuclear war.
Where do you stand on the issue?
I guess it doesn’t really matter. Nuclear fallout is indiscriminate. Pacifist, soldier, whatever, it will get into your lungs. There will be no justice in the ruin. Less. There will be an anti-justice. Those war-profiteers will be hiding in their bunkers, deep underground. In North Korea, in the United States. In China and Russia and India and Pakistan. The voles will die in droves.
Now I know why Arundhati Roy was most angry at her fellow Indian citizens. It was the fervor, the celebration, which made her write, “my world has died. And I write to mourn its passing.” Is this the deeper truth that hides beneath my simple No!? That what I am saying No to is not just the bomb, but its people, my people, the world?
To disavow nuclear war, we must abandon the world that created it. We must give up on humans. We must resist this evil in the name of some smaller animals. Maybe I should be writing this letter to a weevil or an ant, to a dragonfly nymph.
Let us die, but please, not the marmots.
My Old Comrade,
How do you keep hope alive?
I’ll admit that I don’t know the method of my own persistence. It feels utterly aimless: one moment I am inspired by some act of protest or some piece of art, and the next moment I find myself in my bed, unable to stand. What’s the thread between these moments? Even at my most forlorn, I get bursts of momentum. I push my feet to the ground, my pen to the paper. Almost as if I am driven to write about the very thing that steals my optimism.
I am reminded in these moments of Hélène Cixous, the novelist and feminist literary critic. She once wrote a book called Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. It’s not your typical how-to-write-well advice book. For instance, the first step on the ladder is Death.
“To begin (writing, living) we must have death. I like the dead, they are the doorkeepers who while closing one side ‘give’ way to the other. We must have death, but young, present, ferocious, fresh death, the death of the day, today’s death. The one that comes right up to us so suddenly we don’t have time to avoid it, I mean to avoid feeling its breath touching us. Ha!”
Ha! She laughs, because she sees me now tumbling into death, heedless, kerfuffled, aimless. Nuclear death, the death of the day. The fresh catch, the one that’s still writhing in its death rattle. Impossible to ignore. I ask myself how can I write about it? Cixous asks, how could I not?
She would suggest that I dive right into this death, into the horror of those statistics, the pit of the crater. That death of my imagination is just the beginning of my writing. “Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us,” she says. Climb into the coffin and stay the night.
So, maybe my question for you should not be about hope, but about loss. How do you grieve your dead, my friend? How do you reckon with your ghosts?
Cixous writes that “to be human we need to experience the end of the world. We need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover that there is more than one world and that the world isn’t what we think it is. Without that, we know nothing about the mortality and immortality that we carry.” And maybe this is why Roy was so insistent on the irredeemable loss of the Indian people. She had to lose her world before she could write about it. She says that “India’s nuclear tests, the manner in which they were conducted, the euphoria with which they have been greeted (by us) is indefensible. To me, it signifies dreadful things. The end of imagination.” It’s at this end that she begins.
Boom! I open my eyes into the post-apocalypse. The bomb has gone off. I have lost my world. Each morning, a new fallout. What story should I tell in this afterlife? What words are worth speaking in a dead world? Perhaps they are the very words that are needed in a living world.
I am sending you this final letter from a crater. I am sending you this letter from a bomb shelter. I am sending you this letter from the post-apocalypse. Because what else is our current era for the tasmanian wolf or the woolly mammoth? I am sending you this letter from the center of an atom, that’s about to be split in half. I am sending you this letter from the pit of a supervolcano that will erupt and kill off the humans before they kill off themselves. I am sending you this letter from cockroach colony 5136, on the day that the sun has finally reemerged. I am sending you this letter from the locker of a curly-haired high school student, whose dramas are in no way diminished by their proximity to the end of human civilization. I send you this letter from a marmot who lives on the Tavaputs Plateau. I send you this letter from the end of my imagination. It twinkles one bright moment just as it disappears beneath the horizon, to haunt the other side of my world.