World's Fair

Preface | Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | (Sidebar 1) | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5 | Pt. 6

Pt. 7 | (Sidebar 2a) | (Sidebar 2b) | Pt. 8 | Pt. 9 | Conclusion

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…continuing from Sidebar 2a (you might read that first before continuing on below)

All of the above (Sidebar 2a) interested me in its own right but truly startled me when set beside a simultaneous set of little essays on-line about Stalin and the bomb. Lawrence Weschler discusses a tale Solzhenitsyn told about applauding for Stalin. At a Communist Party meeting, Solzhenitsyn wrote–and here I abbreviate the longer telling of the story–that everyone stood and clapped at Stalin’s arrival. The communist chief would certainly expect such a reception, a rousing round of applause from his minions. But, at a certain point into this raucous clapping, the crowd had to consider, when will it stop? Who would be the first to stop clapping? Whoever did would appear unimpressed with Stalin. Or so Stalin would be led to believe. Inside the clapping, then, rose the internal tension of the audience members, each slowly becoming aware that there was no way out of this. The applause went on like this for full minutes upon minutes, seemingly endless minutes, until finally, finally after eleven minutes a businessman broke free. In that moment, a moment no doubt of great relief, the rest of the crowd found the space to stop.

Here is the real peak to Solzhenitsyn’s story: The businessman who first stopped was arrested that night and imprisoned for 10 years.


So okay. Fine. A harrowing tale of communist-era horror and control, of the pyschic realities of Stalin’s USSR. But unrelated to any of the above, to Morris and Fenton and the Crimea.

Except, a few weeks later Weschler came back to augment his story of Solzhenitsyn’s story with a post-script. Weschler had gone, as he writes, to the “Chicago Lyric Opera’s premiere of Peter Sellars’s staging of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, with its stunning evocation of the anguished passion of J. Robert Oppenheimer in the hours leading up to the Trinity test at the birth of the nuclear age….” Towards the end of the play, a bomb is hoisted over the heads of the actors on stage who then all gather to face out to the audience, those actors then witness to a scene that the audience cannot see. As Weschler writes it:

The entire cast and chorus, gathered on the raked stage (one minute and counting, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, 10), fall to their knees and then onto their bellies, sprawled out prone facing toward the audience, their heads tucked under their arms, ducking, waiting, waiting, the music throbbing, throbbing to its basso-crescendo (not an explosion, exactly; in fact, not an explosion at all; rather, simply the hugeness of what is happening becoming more and more palpably real), at which point, as their bodies start being bathed in this unholy light, they lift their heads in awe. We do not see what they are seeing….

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The audience apparently watches the cast and chorus experience the meaning of the moment for themselves which, I take it, adds a somewhat profound artistic element to the experience — that is, the audience watching this half visible scene without total knowledge of the stage’s experience. They (Weschler included) cannot see what the actors are looking at. They have to piece it together from what they already know of the play, the music, the stage, and history.

Here’s why Weschler wrote about it. He says:

As the stage darkened, we in the audience could still make out the players up there, prone, staring out at us, and the silence was complete, total, all-enveloping, and it continued on like that, the utter stillness of this terrible dawning awareness, complete pin-drop silence, with us staring at them and them staring at us, it was time to applaud and nobody was applauding, us staring at them and them staring at us, seconds passing in the thickening gloam, minutes–two, three, maybe four, maybe even five…–this incredible hush, no one daring to be the first to applaud.

Well, minutes in, someone finally clapped and upon the release of that huge theatrical tension the whole place erupted in applause.

It was the opposite of Stalin’s applause. Yet the opposite was happening in the play, which is perhaps the more profound insight about the matter, as Weschler gives a quick review of the end of WWII: “impressing Stalin, of course, having been…the true motive behind both that Trinity explosion and the two Japanese devastations that quickly followed.”

That bomb stood at the front door of the Cold War. Seventeen years later other missiles stood at the gates of perhaps the next nuclear war, with Kennedy and Khrushchev, Turkey and the Crimea and Cuba. There is thus an additional kind of symmetry here, one marked by the equal passage of time in different centuries. As I reminded myself in the footnote of the first part of this sidebar and as I sit here now, the Soviet collapse and the full end of the Cold War is now but seventeen years behind. And Cuba’s Castro has finally “retired” here in 2008.

Given all of this, Fenton’s cannonballs (little bombs) look so meek. But how those tiny spherical cannonballs look like the exploded bomb that looks like a drop of mercury or milk.

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There is a key difference of course: the mercury droplets looked spherical and then symmetrically splashing as they descended; the atomic bomb looked spherical and symmetrically dispersing as it ascended. I could speak metaphorically about the water droplets, symmetry, perfection, and chaos. Or, better put, I could say that the droplet-bomb similarity offers a chance for metaphor: Worthington assumed and then found perfect symmetry, perfect order in his taxonomy of nature, only to discover that it was messier, more random, less certain, while Oppenheimer saw the atomic bomb’s blast look quite like a perfect ball of symmetry even as its occurrence spawned chaos and uncertainty for the rest of human history.

Post-script: If you know “In Memoriam, J.F.K.,” the brief history by Borges that begins “This bullet is an old one…,” this would be the place to put it.