The Promethium Sky Over Hiroshima
Excerpts from “Kill A Buddha On The Way”, the tenth chapter of PROMETHEUS AND ATLAS, with a focus on the metaphysical and metapolitical significance of Japanese anime.
The deepest currents of ‘Eastern’ thought converge in Japan, which is also the place where a unique synthesis of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism, namely Japanese Zen, encountered the intellectual heritage of the Greeks in the most deliberative and devastating way. Despite his concern that Eastern traditions not be adopted blindly and in an uprooted manner, Martin Heidegger was very interested in East Asian spirituality. He was influenced by dialogue with Asian thinkers both early and late in his career, and his Japanese students became the leaders of the Kyoto School before and during the Second World War. The period of intense intellectual and spiritual encounter between Western and Japanese thought in the first half of the 20th century culminated in traumatic atomic bombings, which, I argue, represent an even deeper metaphysical confrontation and one that, on account of the period of preparation, and the unique character of Zen, effected a Promethean/Atlantic metamorphosis of the Japanese psyche.
Leo Strauss, in his “Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism”, claims that only Heidegger was aware of the dimensions of the problem of forging a genuine world society in the face of the worldwide development of modern technology towards a unification of mankind based on the lowest common denominator. Strauss notes that every genuine human society has had a religious basis and he thinks that we can only hope to redefine our alienating and destructive relationship to technology through the advent of a world religion. The groundless ground of the latter can be found through descending into the primordial origins of Philosophy where, in figures such as Heraclitus, we also had something like what has of late come to be seen as the ‘Eastern’ understanding of existence, but we had it at the fountainhead of the spiritual trajectory that led to technological Science…
The Japanese ultimately arrive at this Heraclitean ethos as well, but by a circuitous and treacherous route. The naïve disregard of the need for sovereign authority in early Taoism, which is one of its points of greatest divergence from Heraclitus’ metaphysics of war, was based on a faith that human beings, like other animals, have a species being or nature that they all share in common and, moreover, an essentially peaceable nature that will tend toward harmony when it is not tampered with. This conception of an inherent human nature was deconstructed by the Buddhist metaphysics of no-thing-ness or the emptiness of everything, including the ‘self’, on account of the dependent origination of all phenomena. The latter is an understanding of Nothingness very different from Descartes’ concept of a Nothing that is the polar opposite of Being. The ethically anarchical bent of Taoism in turn deconstructed the moral code of orthodox Buddhism and placed an emphasis on ordinary everyday practical activity, and the various techne that this involves, over speculative theoria of the kind found in Indian cosmology. While this two-way deconstructive encounter already began in Chinese Chan, it was not until Chan reached Japan that the vacuum of serious sociopolitical thought became a problem for it. In China, where statecraft was dominated by Confucian ideology, Chan remained a largely monastic phenomenon that could afford to eschew political responsibility.
When, however, the Japanese began to adopt a Buddhist-Taoist hybrid as their new national religion, Chan also had to develop a working relationship with the knightly ethic and political realities of Japanese feudalism. The Zen militarism that was born of this fusion was radically nihilistic and intensely practical. Although it tended toward an affirmation of conservative conventions, this was, among the philosophical and political elite, recognized to be a matter of mores or decorum, quite literally, grounded on No-thing. It is because this development had already taken place in the Japanese psyche that it was uniquely prepared to assimilate the Greco-German intellectual heritage when it voluntarily and aggressively began to do so in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Despite their outward conservatism, on an intellectual level Japanese thinkers already understood their own culture as a construct lacking any essential foundation – not even the putative “human nature” still deluding many intellectuals in the West. The atomic bombings drove this understanding deeper than the intellect and blew apart the façade of traditional Japanese culture. It was, for these prepared minds, a direct encounter with the essence of techne.
Heidegger used the metaphor of witnessing the lightning flash of being in the essence of Technology, but for the Japanese, this lightning flash was all too real – in fact, it redefined the “real.” Certain Heideggerian Japanese thinkers of the Kyoto School, such as Nishida Kitaro, had already seen the World War as a means whereby a new religion of the world society would come about, one that remedies our uprooted relationship to technological development by understanding the latent spirituality of scientific practice itself. Except that Nishida thought that the Japanese imperium would be the catalyzing agent of this new world religion and that the convergence with the West would come through Russia and its “Dostoievskian” mysticism. Instead, Japan was to play the passive role and the fusion with the West, a fusion that leads beyond ‘the West’ and points towards my envisioned Atlantic Civilization, came through a decisive confrontation with the socio-political antipode of Russia, the United States of America. Careful attention to obsession with atomic radiation in Japanese anime and manga after Hiroshima and Nagasaki reveals, in stages, a mutation of the Japanese psyche and the morphogenesis of a new cultural vanguard… The American conquest of Japan epitomizes the world-colonizing power of Atlantic Civilization to restructure the psyche of traditional peoples around the aesthetic ideas of Prometheus and Atlas – the arch divinities of the religiosity that Nishida intuited to be intrinsic to scientific practice.
In World War II, the Japanese were prepared to resist defeat until the bitter end. They were spurred on by Zen masters such as Daiun Sogaku Harada (the main source of Philip Kapleau’s popular Three Pillars of Zen), who prepared the masses for a possible American ground invasion by teaching that Zen discipline demanded the entire Japanese nation be prepared to die rather than allow the emperor to be defeated. What they were not prepared for was the atom bomb. In a study of postwar Japanese popular culture one is immediately confronted with a thinly veiled psychological obsession with atomic radiation and its power to cause mutations.
At first this manifests itself fairly crudely, in the Gojira mythos. The word Gojira is a fusion of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale”. Godzilla is a mutant born of a sea-based nuclear test and makes his first appearance in an attack on a fishing boat – clearly a reference to the United States Operation Castle Bravo thermonuclear test on islands near Japan, which accidentally irradiated the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuyu Maru. The Castle Bravo bomb had the highest yield of any ever exploded by the US. Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo in the original 1954 film is clearly an allegory for the destruction wrought on Japanese cities by the American atomic bombings. The monster is hardly visible in many scenes of destruction, signaled only by radioactive flashes of his fire-breath. Conventional weapons marshaled by the Defense Forces are no use against this unexpected destructive force, so an inventor’s dangerous device is brought to bear.
By the 1980s, with the arrival of a new postwar generation, this crude physical embodiment of the transformational force of the atom bomb began to be set aside like a child’s transitional object. With the arrival of the Akira (1982) manga of Katsuhiro Otomo, and its anime adaptation (1988), we see a recognition that the Japanese psyche is the real subject (I wouldn’t say ‘victim’) of the mutation brought about under the promethium sky of Hiroshima. Akira takes place in the futuristic dystopian metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, which is built after a Third World War that is sparked by the destruction of the Tokyo of today by what appears to be an atomic explosion. That ‘atomic’ explosion is the striking, opening scene of the Akira anime. However, we come to learn that the explosion was not actually triggered by a nuclear device. Instead, it was an uncontrollable burst of psychic energy released by Akira, a boy who is the most powerful member of a group of ESPers. The Espers are test subjects of a secret government scientific research program aimed at understanding and developing ESP and PK abilities.
In other words, Akira is grounded on an image that perfectly captures… the splitting of the atom as a symbol for the Promethean theft of the deadly lightning of Zeus, the thunderbolt that roughly translates into the Buddhist vajra. Seeing as a radioactive element that is very similar to the tritium used in nuclear weapons has been named promethium, I cannot have been the first person to make this connection. In the manga and anime, apocalyptic cults worship the Esper boy Akira as a god, and the directors of the classified government program wonder whether they are dabbling with a power that mankind is not meant to master. As I suggest… the splitting of the atom – which, in the original Greek is, by definition, “the uncuttable” – represents the triumph of the power of technological praxis over metaphysical schemas that try to construct the world out of ideally indestructible building blocks. Models of the ultimate nature of reality that are based, in one way or another, on such mathematically predictable objects – even if they are ‘hidden variables’ in Quantum Theory – are models with no place for irrational psychic phenomena, such as the ESP and PK that feature so prominently in Akira.
Through the lens of the interpersonal struggle amongst a group of very well developed characters, Akira explores the social and political consequences of humanity’s arrival at a scientific knowledge of these latent psychic abilities. The consequences are potentially catastrophic, but they also promise an evolutionary leap if we are ready for it – a mutation of mankind into a superhuman condition. The atom bomb can be seen as a symbol for a Science that gets a handle on the irrational in Nature without rendering it entirely predictable, a Science liberated and empowered by the promethean realization that techne is more fundamental than theoria. Just because you cannot rationalize how something could exist does not mean that it does not exist or that it must remain a forbidden object of mystical reverence. Even if a phenomenon resists being fit into an airtight building-block schema, one can still develop a fine working knowledge of it.
In fact, a working knowledge of such abilities featured in Siddhartha Gotama’s teachings concerning the mind-expanding effects of various types of meditative practices at even the earliest stages. The more subtle states of mind attendant to more advanced types of meditation are so ethereal that there may be a danger of self-delusion with regard to what stage of the path to wisdom one has really attained. A good litmus test for the trainee is to see whether he or she has developed miraculous abilities or superpowers (siddhis) that are supposed to arise fairly early on in the practice of meditation, including adoption of the moral disciplines. Unless one has developed such magical powers, which are comparable to the ‘miraculous’ feats of Moses or Jesus, one is nowhere near the higher jhanas or dwelling in the four bases beyond them.
In Gotama’s view, these powers are not miraculous and they do not necessarily involve divine intervention even though the gods in general have these abilities to a greater degree than earthlings do. Rather, these are mental powers attendant to an increasing refinement and disciplining of the mind. While the aspirant should not seek these parlor tricks for their own sake, become fixated on them, or intoxicated by wielding them, the abilities themselves (or lack thereof) do provide the trainee with a very concrete benchmark for his or her spiritual progress. These abilities include: telepathy (reading and knowing other minds intimately), clairvoyance (seeing anything anywhere at a distance), clairaudience (the same type of extrasensory perception except with hearing), precognition, telekinesis or psychokinesis, including extreme forms of this such as walking through walls, bi-location (bodily presence in more than one place at once), and levitating to the point of being able to fly through the air.
Mahapurusha or “Superman” is an epithet used in early Buddhist literature to refer to Siddhartha among others who had attained siddhis. The advanced aspirant is also supposed to be able to have total recall of his or her past lives, as well as be able to know the past lives of other persons and see their karma at work even precognitively. Yet the practice of orthodox moral disciplines of right action that are essential to the Eightfold Path – such as pacifism, perfect honesty, and abstaining from sex and alcohol – were taken by Siddhartha and early Indian Buddhists to be a necessary and enduring prerequisite to the attainment of such abilities. The ways in which the Zen mentality moved beyond both the Taoism and Buddhism that shaped it, played a part in preparing the Japanese for the ruthlessly pragmatic insight that this, like the ‘law of karma’ as a whole, is an unjustified moralistic prejudice. Zen was a necessary condition for such an insight, but without Hiroshima it remained an insufficient one.
Nuclear imagery also plays a prominent role in the most celebrated and most controversial work of Japanese animation, Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion series (1995-1996) that canonically culminates in the cinematic masterpiece End of Evangelion (1997). Like the explosion of psychic energy in Akira, First and “Second Impact” are primarily spectral events that superficially manifest a similarity to nuclear detonations. Extensive use is made of tactical nuclear weapons referred to as “N-2 mines”. Like Godzilla, the genetically engineered EVAs cannot be fought by a military with conventional weapons and tactics. With their towering stature and prehistoric appearance they are a clear evolution of daikaiju such as Godzilla, except that now their genesis is a result of deliberate design rather than reckless accident and there is a human pilot ensconced in their heads, endowing the would-be mindless beasts with exceptional intelligence.
This is terribly significant from a psychological perspective. We can read it as a sign that the Japanese psyche has identified with, and taken control of a transformational force that was at first so monstrously horrifying that it had to be externalized and fought from without. Moreover, the EVA pilots are a reaction against the Zen ideal of kamikazes rendered faceless through their absolute devotion to duty. Evangelion is structured around their complex inner struggles to come to terms with the personal traumas of their lives, to define themselves as individuals, and develop meaningful interpersonal relationships. The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was code named “Little Boy”, and it is not an accident that these prodigies, each freakishly unique, are all precociously underage; they represent the emerging postwar generation’s rebellion against the traditional Asian values that crystallized in wartime Japanese Zen.
Yet it is not a simple rejection of this native spiritual tradition. Rather, the End of Evangelion deals at great length with the philosophical idea of how Shunyata need not be viewed as the negation of personal identity. All beings may indeed be inherently empty of any permanent essence, but what Shinji Ikari learns in the course of his rejection of “Instrumentality” is that this ontological nothingness should not be viewed as an escape from oneself or a refuge from the evanescent – but real – joy and inevitable pain of interpersonal relationships built on trust. In a world where Nothingness is ultimate rather than God, and where any really existing gods are acknowledged to be technological artifacts, we are even more compelled – perhaps condemned – to freely define our own character and build a life together with the others without whom we would all find ourselves maddeningly alone.
This can be a sickening realization, as it is for Asuka, as she lays under Shinji in the final scene of End of Evangelion. Ikari is torn between loving her and strangling her to death as he succumbs to shudders of profound sorrow and ineffable pleasure. This is the same realization that causes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to fall ill when he realizes that the superman cannot exist alone and must “go under”; it is the existential “nausea” referred to by Sartre, and what Sartre meant by crafting an inescapable “hell [that] is other people” in No Exit. The kind of existential humanism that we see in Evangelion is as mutually exclusive to belief in God as it is incompatible with the traditional Buddhist idea of Nirvana. Nothing can guarantee us an abode of safety beyond the creatively destructive play of Nature, which wells up even from within our own angst-ridden psyches and thereby inescapably individuates them. Technology is apocalyptically dangerous insofar as we believe – as the SEELE cabal did – that it could instrumentalize human being in such a way as to take the place of this absent God, and thereby deliver His promised paradise of perpetual peace.
Evangelion creatively appropriates Abrahamic mythology and turns it against itself, responding to the cancer of ‘Revelation’ from out of the essence of Asian spirituality – an essence that has in turn been distilled in the crucible of a Promethean-Atlantic self-critique that takes the virginity of Taoism and sheds the husks of Buddhist dogma. Gendo Ikari’s reply to the Western SEELE cabalists who are trying to use him as a tool is a critique of both the nihilistic Zen Japanese equation of life and death, and the Abrahamic glorification of death as a path to an unearthly, static paradise. Gendo knows that his attempt to clandestinely use NERV against the cabalists, to battle the angels and hold back the apocalypse, will inevitably fail. He fights anyway, because each and every day that Humanity’s independence is defended is another day for individuals to decide their own destiny by meaningfully crafting their own lives. There could not be a more compelling expression of the tragic Greek spirit. NERV evinces a crafty Promethean technological prowess as it out schemes SEELE’s “divine plan” to use it as a pawn, while Gendo is an emanation of King Atlas: the world-bearing sovereign in a godless world – or rather, a world where God and his servile gods are plotting the demise of mankind. In Neon Genesis Evangelion we see the Atlantic mentality seamlessly coupled with the Promethean ethos. The underwater structure at Yonaguni is a distraction to those yearning to find a ‘Japanese Atlantis.’ It is Tokyo-3, with NERV at its center, that instantiates the aesthetic idea of embattled Atlantis.
Together with our Japanese allies, we must struggle against those nationalistic traditionalists who stand in the way of the transformation of real-world Tokyo into the New Atlantis envisioned by the generation of Neon Genesis Evangelion. We also cannot allow economizing technocrats to cobble Japan together with a dozen other neighboring countries into a Chinese-dominated Asia-Pacific Commonwealth. What shared cultural values could such an organization possibly reflect? Personal character effaced in favor of filial piety and clan interest? The dynamic creativity and spontaneity of individual genius sacrificed to disciplined collective planning?
For 60 years now, the Japanese people have been boldly moving beyond these ‘Asian’ values. It would be the height of irresponsibility to allow a regress. The horrific suffering that culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot have been in vain. The spectral significance of the promethium sky over Japan in those days of devastation cannot be forgotten. It was not just physically destructive, but also psychologically de-constructive. The Japanese psyche was torn apart and restructured around the aesthetic ideas of Prometheus and Atlas. We must see to it that the metamorphosis then set into motion is irreversible. It is not a question of sustaining American military occupation of Japan, but of understanding the gravity with which the Japanese cultural vanguard has been captured by the spiritual orbit of Atlantic Civilization. Moreover, at least insofar as this vanguard is concerned, the Japanese role in Atlantic Civilization is by no means subordinate. It is in Japan where, unburdened by the Judeo-Christian heritage, visionary artists have most crystallized transformative images of the coming metamorphosis of the merely human being into a more diabolically daring and dynamic superhuman race destined to liberate a capriciously ruled cosmos and conquer the inner space of latent psychic powers.