The Philosophical Odyssey of J. Robert Oppenheimer


(ANALYSIS) Christopher Nolan’s biopic on J. Robert Oppenheimer — the “father of the atomic bomb” — has stirred many debates. Some are more relevant than others. 

For example, the issue of how the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, has been depicted for cinematic effect is a subject of much controversy since the film came out late last month.

An intimate scene between Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, and Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh, has sparked public outrage in India, specifically among Hindu devotees, with the country’s Information Commissioner Uday Mahurkar penning a fervorous letter on behalf of the Save Culture Save India Foundation to the director on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter, explaining the importance of the Hindu scripture and its use in this manner being “a direct assault on religious beliefs of a billion tolerant Hindus.”

More importantly, the film explores facets of Oppenheimer’s inner conflict with great detail; his hazy visions as his mind meanders where he sees people as skeletons, turning to ash, with bright and loud sounds, is painful to watch but necessary to understand. The charnel house-like facades during these episodes illuminate his inner turmoil. 

READ: Netflix’s ‘The Chosen One’ Proves (Again) Why We Still Need Faith-Based Films

Dubbed the “American Prometheus” for “stealing fire from the gods” in the Pulitzer-winning biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer was born to a wealthy secular Jewish family in New York City in 1904. He graduated from the Ethical Culture Society School, a branch of Reform Judaism grounded in secular humanism that emphasized the ideas of rationality, service, social and self-improvement and patriotism. Later, he went to Harvard University, where he majored in chemistry but also took physics, Latin, Greek, philosophy, Eastern religion, French and English literature courses.  

His early life and education helped form his religious worldview. His ambivalence towards religion and an inclination toward reason and thought is palpable.

“Though not conventionally religious, Oppenheimer’s life and thought were permeated with themes and ideas of a religious and ethical nature that shaped his adult character and informed his view of the world,” noted C. W. Hart in “J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Faith Development Portrait.”

The pivotal moment when the Los Alamos director met with President Harry Truman after the bombings and said, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” and was called a “crybaby” didn’t help with his disillusionment.  

“Oppenheimer was trying desperately to have that kind of conversation about nuclear weapons,” Bird wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. “He was trying to warn our generals that these are not battlefield weapons, but weapons of pure terror. But our politicians chose to silence him; the result was that we spent the Cold War engaged in a costly and dangerous arms race.”

It is known that Oppenheimer had a somewhat tortured inner life, in part owing to his turmoil regarding the ethical implications of his work on the atomic bomb and its execution but also because of how he was treated during McCarthyism, with his security clearance being revoked due to concerns over his association with left-leaning individuals and groups. 

A once-celebrated man was eventually brought down from a pedestal and to his knees. The highly publicized hearing, as shown in the movie, tested his loyalty and political ideology, eventually taking its toll on him. 

Addressing a university audience in 1946, Oppenheimer described his response to the test of the bomb: “We thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man’s new powers that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it.”

Oppenheimer was surrounded by physicists who took a keen interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality and the metaphysical quality that some of these texts contained — from Albert Einstein to David Bohm, who studied under Oppenheimer at the University of California at Berkeley — and was close to renowned Indian spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti

“I think there is a very high degree of self-consciousness, self-awareness, particularly the way he presents himself to the world,” Nolan said in an interview with The New York Times. “And I think he had an incredible strategic mind. He could be accused of naïveté in a lot of ways, but it’s the sort of naïveté, the mistakes he made were the sort of mistakes that only the most brilliant strategic people could make, because they think they’re smarter than everybody else.”

Throughout his career as a theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer was known to delve into philosophy teachings from the East, particularly the Hindu scriptures like Meghadūta, a lyrical Sanskrit poem by Kalidasa, and the Bhagavad Gita written in Sanskrit that forms a part of the Mahabharata, an Indian epic known for its elaborate battle scenes between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two group of cousins rivaling over dynastic succession. It was compiled by the Krishna Dvaipayana, an Indian sage, also known as “Vyasa,” somewhere between the fifth and second century B.C.  

The Los Alamos director was “really taken by the charm and the general wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gita,” his brother, Frank Oppenheimer, said in the 1981 documentary “The Day After Trinity.”  

In an address at the University of American Philosophical Society held at the University of Pennsylvania, Oppenheimer suggested that the Hindu culture comprised within itself an inherent understanding of human inadequacies and the impact of the “far-reach” that Europe may not be able to comprehend in the same manner. 

Oppenheimer’s use of religious allegory is also of note. He called the bomb testing “Trinity,” alluding to John Donne’s poetry referencing the Christian belief of God as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He named his vehicle “Garuda” after the mount bird of Vishnu. 

At the “Trinity” bomb-testing site in New Mexico’s southern plains, Oppenheimer’s philosophical conundrum was evident as he saw the fireball erupt when he famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The word “death” is “kaala,” which indirectly refers to death through time. A well-known translation of the Hindu scripture by Eknath Easawaran is “I am time, the destroyer of all / I have come to consume the world.”

This dialogue in the Mahabharata between Arjuna and Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, resonated with Oppenheimer, giving him a philosophical framework to structure his moral dilemma. Oppenheimer was not a practitioner of Hinduism and was only interested in it from a philosophical standpoint. He even learned Sanskrit under the tutelage of Arthur W. Ryder while in college. He also found solace in Hindu mythology and philosophy from the essential moral conflicts about his building a weapon of mass destruction. He leaned on an ancient text to justify a devastating action, almost relinquishing his reason.

“I did my job which was the job I was supposed to do. I was not in a policymaking position at Los Alamos,” historian James A. Hijiya pointed out in “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

He added, “Moreover, he occasionally asserted that the book had impressed and affected him in a general way, so there is some direct evidence of its influence.”

After the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he went on to defend his actions in public — but often his morality stood in the way. In several public addresses after the bombings, he expressed guilt and remorse. He became a critic of nuclear weapons and war. 

“We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world,” Oppenheimer said on November 16, 1945, following the bombings. “We have made a thing that, by all standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. By so doing, by our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man, of whether it is good to learn about the world, to try to understand it, to try to control it, to help gift to the world of men increased insight, increased power.”

Oppenheimer remains an enigma with his paradoxical interest in science and spirituality and his public attempts to grapple with his existential crises. In the end, his moral quandaries appeared to be like an albatross around his neck. 

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