How I Learned To Forget The Bomb

I cannot watch a movie like Dr. Strangelove, which I did last night, and not be reminded of this reprimand to writers from William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech: “There is only the question: When will I be blown up?” It was a question that hung—sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken, but always present—over my entire childhood and young adulthood. Faulkner was right; it is absolutely the wrong question for a writer to ask in his or her work. For that matter, it is the wrong question for a human being to ask in his or her life. Yet we asked it and asked it. How could we not? We had followed science to annihilation, and were startled to find it one itchy trigger-finger away. The end of the world that prophets had been predicting since they knew enough language to predict was now an everyday possibility.

We had hoped, I think, that science would save us by forestalling death with antibiotics, and central heating, and lasers, and refrigeration, but forestalling death is an empty goal, a race you can only lose. Science, it turns out, cannot actually save us from the business of being human, of living every moment with freewill, which is what most people believe they must be saved from, even as they fight regularly for the right to employ it.

I think Faulkner would be heartened to see that humans, even those humans who write, seem to be asking this stupid question less and less now. We could chalk this up to the end of the Cold War, or a shift in global politics, but I suspect it has more to do with the nature of human beings themselves. We may be the only species on the planet capable of suicide, but we are also the only species with an imagination. We imagined The Bomb and made it, but that imagination is now looking elsewhere and asking what life might be if it were something more than merely not-dying.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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