Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative

Walter A. DavisDeracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative.  Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.

This is a book bristling with ideas and theories including theories of artistic cognition, of tragedy, of historiography, of modern Western history, of the Western psyche at the core of which lies an insight I first learned from Richard Wright’ s Native Son: that the key to psychodynamics in modern society lies in what Wright calls projective identification, whereby one’s own sense of inadequacy is projected onto others, who are then endlessly and brutally punished in a vain attempt to eradicate it.  This key insight becomes in Davis’ s hands a keen diagnostic tool with which to examine the pathology of Western society from its emergent reflection in Kantian philosophy up to the horrific decision to use the atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The significance of this tool was brought home to me not long ago when Australia was facing a key decision about placeless boat people,’ refugees from Indonesia, landing on its shores: would they be welcomed as immigrants, or brutally rejected as threats to Australian integrity?  Sadly but predictably, they were rejected and imprisoned.  Precisely because the (European) Australians themselves had been placeless boat people’ at one time, they identified with the Indonesians, but instead of welcoming them in recognition and empathy, they rejected their own sense of placelessness as incarnated in the Indonesian Others, and denied them sanctuary.  In Davis’ s terms, an embracing identification based in Eros (empathy, welcome) failed in the face of a projective, negating identification based in Thanatos (rejection, punishment).  And indeed, he argues that Thanatos has reigned triumphant in all the key Events of modern Western history, a triumph epitomized in the atomic bombings of defenseless Japanese civilians in August, 1945.

The Bomb is a crucial exhibit for one thing because of what it reveals about the ways history can be understood and written.  Official historiography about the decision to use the Bomb has refused to face the horror of the Event and simply rationalized it: historiographical narrative functions to cover over the pathology at the heart of the Event.  The existential-psychoanalytic historical method Davis counter-proposes here requires us on the contrary to face the horror squarely, to dwell in the suffering and anxiety it evokes, to fully engage ourselves existentially, and to learn from it: such is the tragic imperative, as Davis defines it.  One kind of history-writing mobilizes what Davis calls the system of guarantees of Western humanism to reassure the triumph of reason and righteousness; the other descends to the depths of the Western psyche to discover the real motives for such a horrendous act.

The Bomb for Davis represents the dramatic culmination of a syndrome first registered with characteristic rigor and clarity but without conscious awareness in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  Davis’ s astonishing psychoanalytic interrogation of Kant’s treatment of the sublime lies at the heart of his entire argument, and at the same time exemplifies the process of deracination whereby the sham humanistic guarantees used to conceal and suppress traumatic Events are exposed as such and then disposed of.  The trauma that Kant calls the sublime is the experience of being dwarfed and overwhelmed by forces larger than the self and its mental faculties.  Such experience is often triggered by encounters with Nature (ocean storms, towering mountain ranges), but the forces of Nature, Davis shows, serve as objective correlative for forces within the self what Freud called the Id that threaten to subvert or overwhelm the rational faculties of the ego which Kant is committed to protecting and championing.

More specifically, the imagination whose function in the psyche for Kant is to help reason master experience is unable to grasp the enormity of the forces of Nature and the Id, and so in order to assure the triumph of reason and the ego, Kant invokes the mathematical concept of infinity: natural forces may appear overwhelming to the imagination, but they are in turn dwarfed by the rational concept of absolute infinity.  In a wonderfully succinct turn of phrase (one of many throughout the book), Davis sums up the Kantian cover-up thus: ‘nature is prized in its magnificence only so that its smallness when compared to reason can be established. A world that might otherwise distract us from the designs of reason bows before it’ (74).  An experience that could and should provide insights into the traumas underlying human subjectivity is instead belittled and dismissed as a poor facsimile of the power of reason.  The smallness and inadequacy we experience in the face of the overwhelming forces of Nature and the Id is projected back onto the outside world and punished there by mathematical and later technological reason: this is the dynamic at the heart of both the ecological crisis in general (91) and the use of the Bomb in particular.  ‘Since the object of hatred is one’ s own inner nature’ [inadequacy], the only way an implosive turning of the subject back upon itself can be avoided is by investing one’s hatred in objects.

That is what the vaporized people of Hiroshima represent.  They are everything small, contemptible, sneaky, japanese’ in the psyche. This is sublime genocide’ (96).  The Bomb thus becomes a privileged image of historical study for Davis not only as the supreme example of the mathematical/technological mastering of the sublime forces of Nature, but also as another desperate attempt to expunge and annihilate human weakness in the face of those forces, a weakness projected in the Event onto the defenseless civilians of Hiroshima.  Only deracination of the sublime logic behind the Bomb, as Davis argues, can explain why it was used in precisely this way, and not for example against Japanese armed forces (or simply exploded for dramatic effect over an empty ocean).

Davis’ s extraordinary accomplishment in Deracination raises two important questions – and since this volume is the first in a trilogy, Davis may already be planning to answer them.  The more pressing of the two involves the precise status of the sense of inadequacy motivating the egocentric, rationalistic cover-up that constitutes the pathology of Western culture, according to Davis: for he provides three distinct sources for it.  One source is the overwhelming power of Nature, as represented by the Kantian sublime; another is simply contingency itself (see p. 200 & passim), which so often defies egocentric attempts at absolute control; a third is interpersonal (and ultimately maternal) cruelty leading to what Davis calls ‘soul-murder.’   In a work based explicitly on the principle that ‘everything is historical and must be submitted to history for its determination’ (242), taking man’ s innate cruelty toward fellow-man as a point of departure seems disturbingly ahistorical, and risks substituting a psychological explanation for a truly historical one: under what socio-historical conditions, I want to ask, does cruelty become not just one of several but the determining dynamic in psychic and social life?

The second question involves the end-result of deracination and the tragic imperative to engage with and learn from the dreadful anxiety that for Davis lies at the core of human existence: on most occasions, such engagement ‘drives [the] subject inward…. Anxiety is no longer the signal for flight and the employment of defenses, at whatever cost to the possibility of knowledge, but the call to engage the process of taking action within oneself‘ (168, emphasis added); yet on other occasions, Davis suggests that such engagement drives the subject outward, and that ‘to know is to plunge oneself into the world‘ (172, emphasis added).  If cruelty is an inevitable psychological given of human existence, the inward turn to live anxiety authentically is perhaps the most we can hope for; and given Davis’ s debts to both psychoanalysis and existentialism, it is no surprise that this is where his emphasis lies.  But if the reign of cruelty and soul-murder is somehow bound up specifically with ‘our’ culture and ‘our’ history, as Davis sometimes suggests it is (pp. 50, 79 & passim), then an outward turn to transform the socio-historical conditions fostering cruelty and the egocentric flight from cruelty might be preferable to tragic endurance of those conditions, in however noble and authentic a form.

Reviewed by Eugene W. Holland
Ohio State University

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