Greatness

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“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– or so claimed Thomas Carlyle, who also claimed that “No sadder proof can be given of a man’s littleness than his disbelief in great men.” The nineteenth century philosopher, Hegel, could not help but behold the “World Spirit” in Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who, as Hegel saw, “reaches out over the world and masters it”. Friedrich Nietzsche later claimed, like Carlyle, that “the goal of humanity lies in its greatest specimens.” What Carlyle called a ‘great man’, Nietzsche would later classify as an ‘ubermensch’.

In the twentieth century the sociologist Herbert Spencer would provide the de facto refutation of Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, succinctly summarised in his phrase, “Before he can remake society, first society must make him”. Such a thought was in fact implicit in Hegel, who, though recognising the existence of great men, saw them as the result of a myriad of historical and social factors that just so happened to result in the great man himself, through no volition or force of will of his own. For Carlyle, outside circumstances and influences meant little.

Traces of Carlyle’s idea managed to creep into Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which was inspired by Carlyle’s A History of the French Revolution, (Carlyle’s friend- and mentorship would earn him a tribute in the opening pages of Dickens’ Hard Times). When, in Two Cities, the mob outside the Bastille is finally moved to violence, Dickens uses the character of Madam Defarge to drive the action. Historically, the violence was perpetuated anonymously. By inserting Defarge, Dickens takes a historical reality and presents it through the lens of a singular ‘hero’ (however inappropriate that word seems here) who drives the fated event to its bloody conclusion. According to some critical circles, Defarge is said to be represent one of the Fates from Greek Mythology; essentially, she is one member of a cabal of entities that can influence the flow of history.

Defarge later rouses the mob to murder a French official: “give us the blood of Foulon, rend Foulon to pieces!” This has serious and long-lasting implications, and Defarge represents the bloodlust of the Revolution, with the rioting mobs merely a tool for her vengeance. Carlyle appreciated the character, calling Dickens’ novel “wonderful”. However, Dickens, though a Carlylian acolyte, never proselytized the Ecclefechan Prophet’s teachings – Defarge, though a driving force, conquers nothing, and is eventually felled by a bullet from her own gun. Still, Defarge’s actions and their consequences in the novel follow Carlyle’s theory that people of great force can direct the flow and ebb of life, and not the other way around.

Despite the character of Defarge, Carlyle himself was not one to attribute women with great qualities. Great Men are the epitome of masculinity, power and nobility. Women were simply considered to be lesser beings. But they did have their champions. In her poem Aurora Leigh, E.B. Browning stages a debate between the titular character and her cousin on the merits of women and their potential for greatness. Browning had been ruffled by Carlyle’s “praise for dumb heroic action” at the loss of finer qualities – qualities, like chivalry, that Browning argued men of her age had lost. “The world’s male chivalry has perished out, but woman are knights-errant to the last,” she wrote. Women are teachers of the world, and even if “women do not think at all, they may teach thinking.” Carlyle read Aurora Leigh, and though he admired Browning’s talent, he surmised that, “[T]his Lady ‘hath a good utterance of speech;’ but as to the thing said with it, one asks: is it a thing at all?”

Whilst Browning denied that men had any chivalry about them, Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre, didn’t deny its existence, but was clear that she found overabundant masculinity, such as that found in a Carlylian ‘great man’, to be simply uninteresting: “had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape,” says Eyre of the helpless Rochester, “[I] should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.” While women have no place by the side of Carlyle’s great men, Jane Eyre is drawn to Rochester because he needs her; Bronte understanding that a man and a woman can complement one another. Additionally, where Carlyle characterises a ‘great man’ as one who “willingly devotes his life to the divine and inner truth and shares his vision with the rest of the world,” Bronte warns that “The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted”.

Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory is almost Biblical in that it sees history as a narrative led and understood through singular figures, i.e., Moses, Noah, and Christ. This is perhaps a remnant of his religious upbringing – the hierarchical, duty-bound Calvinism and its belief in a preordained “chosen people”. Such notions were of course thrown into disarray and panic by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which contained his theory of evolution through natural selection. Great men, then, were the result of generations of biological refinement. Carlyle had bemoaned the mechanisation of labour that was occurring during the Industrial Revolution, and Darwin’s book, in Carlyle’s eyes, seemed to mechanise mankind himself whilst also extinguishing his soul and severing his connection to the Divine (and greatness) altogether. As he was with E.B. Browning, Carlyle was dismissive of Darwin. “I have no time for these gorilla damnifications of humanity,” he said. Darwin could only shrug, “As far as I could judge, I never met a man with a mind so ill-adapted for scientific research.”

Darwin stressed that mankind’s position as the most advanced species on Earth was due to the merits of our every ancestor, rather than the achievements of a few fine specimens. According to Darwin, Man did not advance through history and to the top of the organic scale “through his own exertions”; but he points out that we “may be excused for feeling some pride for having risen” in the first place. “[T]he fact of having thus risen, instead of being aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”

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The Pangs of Remembrance

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“It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.”
~ Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Harriet Jacobs was born two hundred years ago as of 2013. As she flowered from an infant to an older child she realised something was off about her existence. Then she was informed by the people and happenings around her that she was a slave. Suffering under her master Dr. Norcom (pseudonymised as “Dr. Flint” in her written account), Jacobs escaped and spent years in hiding, cooped up in her grandmother’s attic, unable to stand straight, unable to move by day, her only relief being a hole in the roofing that enabled Harriet to watch her (tenuously free) children grow.

Jacobs finally gained her freedom and spent the remainder of her life helping other freedmen adjust to post-Civil War America. A life of darkness and servitude was behind her but, as she notes in the final passage of her book, she could not help but see those early desperate years being illuminated by the memory of her grandmother. That a figure like Lady Sarashina, who lived amidst the wealth and pomp of Heian-era Japan, could look back on her life and claim that: “Many years have passed, but when I think about that sad, dreamlike time my heart is thrown into turmoil and my eyes darken,” I feel that her life, despite its absence of hardship, was ultimately a waste, especially when viewed in the light of Harriet Jacobs and her luminous grandmother.

That’s not to say that I value one over the other, for Sarashina’s life, or at least her account of it, carries a very potent message about withdrawal and idleness, and, though I never knew these fascinating women beyond the page, I do strangely miss them both.

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Forward, Forgetting & Finality

"Aka-Fuji", by Yokoyama Misao (1920-1973).

“Aka-Fuji”, by Yokoyama Misao (1920-1973).

Shingo was silent for a moment. “There’s been something wrong with my ears these last few days, I think. The other night I opened the shutter to let in a little air, and I heard the mountain rumbling. And you were snoring away.”
Yasuko and Kikuko both looked toward the mountain.
“Do mountains roar?” asked Kikuko. “But you did say something once, Mother – remember? You said that just before your sister died, Father heard the mountain roar.”
Shingo was startled. He could not forgive himself for not remembering. He had heard the sound of the mountain, and why had the memory not come to him?
~ The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata, (serialised 1949 – 1954).

“What were we doing at this moment, on this day, a year ago?” I asked a friend recently. He shrugged. I thought for a moment. “Isn’t it weird that that moment is as good as dead?”

In one lifespan we die innumerable times. As Ogata Shingo, an elderly ‘salaryman,’ comes to realise, the loss of memory is the slow ebbing away of the self. Shingo is frustrated by his adult son’s aloofness in regard to his personal relationships (a fault attributed to his youth), but also finds himself somewhat invigorated by his daughter-in-law’s (Kikuko) resemblance to an old love – his wife’s sister, long deceased. Kikuko’s mere presence has an almost epiphanic effect on him: “Shingo’s memories were pierced by moments of brightness, like flashes of lightning.” These moments of clarity are uncomfortable and painful, but just as worrying are the recurring bouts of amnesia. At the beginning of the novel, Shingo struggles with his inability to remember a housemaid who just left his employ: “I can’t even think of her name,” he mourns, “I can’t remember her clothes or her face.” Troubled, he feels as though “a life was being lost” in his forgetting the maid. To Shingo’s son, Shuichi, his father’s forgetful and forlornness “seemed a trifle exaggerated.”

Shuichi is unable to emphasise with his father. When we are young we largely manage to grow and forget our pasts whilst still retaining a sense of our old selves, all without attaining the existential angst plaguing Shingo (whenever we are afflicted, we call it nostalgia). The young, Shingo may suspect, are able to forget themselves repeatedly and carry on because they’re always able to reflect afterwards – no matter what they forget in the present, there’s always the possibility of a future. Think of it as reincarnation. Not as dramatic as Lazarus or the Nazarene’s, but reincarnation all the same. True death is the final fade to black, with no time for reflection afterwards. Shingo is rapidly running out of lives, and unfortunately he knows it. His frequent amnesia is a living death. This naturally instigates his anxiety and regret.

Looking at photographs of my younger self, I know that we no longer share a single cell, atom, or thought – but yet, it’s me. And I can look at you, and any photograph or recording of yourself as a child, and I can say, “that’s you”, and we’ll both agree – but we can also agree that you presently are no longer the figure in the photograph, physically or mentally. These sort of Theseusian paradoxes have often been applied to shipsweaponrytools, and so forth. They tend to perplex or delight us when considered in inanimate contexts. Applying them to ourselves normally leads to feelings of nostalgia, and perhaps even a sense of achievement if we feel that we have improved ourselves. Though I am no longer the child or teenager I once was, I still share a unique relationship with those prior incarnations collectively known as ‘myself’ – I know what they knew, and I know it exclusively; whatever they have forgotten, we forgot together. And that’s not generally troubling when we have time, good health, and a long life on our side. Shingo has none of these things left to console him.

He had reached an age when most of his friends were dead. It was perhaps natural that he should dream of the dead.
Neither the old cabinetmaker or Aida had appeared to him as dead, however. They had come into his dreams as living people. And the figures of both, as they had come in the dreams, were still vivid in his mind.

What Shingo finds most worrying is that not only is he running out of ‘reincarnations’ as he grows into old age and his body becomes frailer, not only is he hurtling towards that final death, but that with each passing day the many disappointments he has suffered, buried, and forgotten over the decades begin to resurface. No prior incarnation of himself has ever been truly happy, and this sad, frail effigy of his former youth has inherited a lifetime of regret and doubt. There is no future to offload onto. Shingo must live in the rapidly deteriorating present. These troubles are represented in the novel as the spectres of people Shingo had known throughout his life, but are now dead. Others, perhaps representing both his deteriorating past and future, appear as hypnagogic figures to whom he is unable to put a name or even a face. “It’s not very pleasant dreaming of dead people,” his wife remarks. “Maybe they’ve come for me,” Shingo replies.

“Toriyama was being taken to the grave, not knowing,” the novel reads at one point. “For the wife, left behind, it was all in the past.” The elderly widow is then compared to her husband, “Probably she too would go to the grave unknowing.” A small sad affirmation that our memories are continually stripped and clumsily relatched until there’s nothing left of us but the pip.

“Let’s see if we remember this moment a year from now,” I said to my friend, novel aside, and we agreed to test ourselves in the future, even though the memory had already started the long process of dying.

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Fragments of a Forgotten Life

" If even the bottom of the mountain could scare me, how much more terrifying it became as we made our way ... going higher and higher until we were stepping on the very clouds!"

“If even the bottom of the mountain could scare me, how much more terrifying it became as we made our way … going higher and higher until we were stepping on the very clouds!”
~ ‘Lady Sarashina’, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.

The past is largely anonymous. Very few members of the human race have managed to stand tall among the remaining dust of their contemporaries; for every Julius Caesar or George Washington or Alexander the Great are great swirls of ash: the formless remains of forgotten artisans, poets, city planners, tradesmen, ship builders, tree fellers, stone haulers, city officials, soldiers, weavers, wanderers, brawlers, milliners, farmers, and commoners. Modern estimates calculate that over 108 billion humans have been born in the last 50,000 years. A glance at history reveals that we have only managed to preserve the names, appearances, and memories of a select few – and even then, the facts are contentious.

The inclusion of a Caesar or Alexander into this ‘pantheon of history’ needs little explanation or justification. Even non-conquerors, like the diarist Anne Frank, find themselves providing Posterity with a window into one particular period of time. What a loss we would suffer had we been denied The Diary of a Young Girl. But what about other sparse, surviving accounts from history? What do we gain from the anonymous Japanese author (dubbed ‘Lady Sarashina’ in the centuries since her death) of As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams?

Lady Sarashina (1008 C.E. – 10??) was disadvantageously shy, meek, elegiac and passive. She was also a constant daydreamer and a lover of fancies; whether they were notions, imaginings, or came in the form of ‘Tales’, her favourite being the famous Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. She found herself unsuited for court life, and for socialising in general: “I tried to make myself inconspicuous by staying behind the lady who had first introduced me at court, and in that great throng of people no one got a clear view of me.” She is so anxious when surrounded by strangers during her time there that she “could not sleep a wink” and “wept secretly until dawn”. Sarashina’s life is one constantly interrupted by tears, doubts, and inaction. She has dreams that she considers prophetic, but constantly fails to act on them. When a would-be suitor appears, she routinely (though not deliberately) avoids him. When a festival comes to town, she ups and leaves to avoid the bustle.

Sarashina ends her account by bemoaning the absence of her remaining family. Her final days and destiny go unrecorded. “I had wandered through my life without realising any of my hopes or accumulating any merit,” she says in her elder years. “Many years have passed, but when I think about that sad, dreamlike time my heart is thrown into turmoil and my eyes darken, so that even now I cannot clearly remember all that happened”. Sarashina is, as her final recorded correspondence with a friend notes, “one who finally renounced the world”.

On the whole, we glean seemingly nothing from the account of her life but a picturesque travelogue of the many shrines she has pilgrimaged to. She makes no record of historical events, fails to inform us of the customs of her time, and even neglects to inform the reader of what we would consider to be important details of her own life: a husband crops up from nowhere, as do children. Other family members spring in and out of existence, only mentioned when they have seen fit to cross paths with her. Her father (over whom she seems to dote) apparently dies off-page and without comment. Sometimes her sparse writing has a surprising effect. On one page Sarashina’s sister muses, “If I flew away now all of a sudden and disappeared without a trace, what would you think?” The question goes unanswered, but a page -and apparently, years- later, Sarashina writes, “On the First Day of the Fifth Month my sister died while giving birth to her baby.”

There are also moments of comedy and poignancy, such as Sarashina’s adoption of a cat that she and her sister fancy to be the reincarnation of a city official’s daughter (very few people have names, here).

Once when I was alone she came and sat beside me. I stroked her for a long time. ‘So you are the Major Counsellor’s daughter!’ I said. ‘If only I could let His Excellency know that you are here!’ Hearing this, she gazed at me intently and gave a long miaow. It may have been my imagination but that moment her eyes were not those of an ordinary cat; they seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.

This is as introspective as the Lady gets when dealing with creatures beyond herself; tellingly, the awkward girl shares this brief moment of understanding with an animal, rather than a person. Such scenes are not recorded later in her book. Sadly, the Counsellor’s Daughter soon moves on to another incarnation of life after the cat dies in a house fire.

Such anecdotes reveal nothing about the world outside of Sarashina, and it may be asked why we should bother to preserve such things when there are surely greater  mysteries about the world and its history to be discovered? Perhaps the mere fact that the remembrances of an 11th century Japanese girl are so rare will adequately answer the question. Perhaps by even asking such a thing we are mistakenly and loftily assuming that the present time we inhabit is all-important – but history, as we’ve said, is littered with forgotten statesmen, historians, scribes, generals, and artists. Who’s to say that anyone currently alive will be worth a moment of thought in the far-flung future? In a thousand years to come, when our distant descendants look back to the early internet, they will find no shortage of material to pore over; but what will they find worth remembering?

Ultimately, like the Lady’s life, the book feels sadly incomplete. In one regard this only adds to, rather than detracts from, the overall effect. You get the impression that Time only preserved Sarashina so that she may serve as a warning against the idle and those who fail to seize opportunity.

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Empathy

Winter, 2013.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus Finch in
 To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

I was admiring this snowy view from my kitchen window, which overlooks a wide cobbled alley (some remnant from the Victorian age) when I saw, limping around, a white cat. I had the most immediate, obvious thought: it must be hurt. Then I had the other immediate, obvious, and more fanciful thought: I should help; and not merely help, but adopt the animal somehow, as though I could wander down and up again like a kid returning home with a jar of insects. I already have enough cats at home as it is (and who would all unanimously object to having another feline around) but I at least decided to go down, have a gander, and see if I could help in some way. I leaped into my shoes and headed to the bottom of the stairwell with a box of cat biscuits. The cat, seeing me come out and into the garden, propped itself up, turned its ears towards me, momentarily quarrelled with itself (I imagine), then decided to flee on what I saw were its three legs. I watched it run up the alley and into a disordered set of trees and bushes. I put down some biscuits on the cobbles and went back to my third-floor kitchen window to spy on it. It didn’t return, but my concern and anxiety lingered, even though I’d seen first-hand that the cat was spry enough.

The word “empathy” is barely a hundred years old, and was a translation from the German term, ‘Einfühlungsvermögen’ (or simply ‘Einfühlung’), which itself was born in the 19th century and coined by German philosopher, Robert Vischer, and later expounded on by fellow German Theodor Lipps. The British psychologist Edward B. Titcher was the translator who brought the word to the English-speaking world in the opening decade of the twentieth century. The term was first coined to explain our aesthetic experiences of art and nature, but Lipps expanded its meaning to incorporate and explain how we experience our fellow beings – animal or man. The differences between empathy and sympathy seem slight, but, as the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy notes, the term ’empathy’ is multi-faceted, and allows for negative feelings in addition to positive ones, which ‘sympathy’ itself does not do. “‘Sympathy’,” it notes, “means a specific affective response such as compassion or pity, whereas ’empathy’ once again encompasses affects in general including negative ones such as anger, fear, or resentment.” The root word ‘Einfühlung’ itself means ‘feeling one’s way into’, and describes the process of how we get under the skin of those we empathise with – we simultaneously project our humanity on to others and invite them and all of their emotional or physical baggage unto ourselves. ‘Sympathy’ is, not to denigrate the word, ‘mere’ compassion or pity, somewhat detached. In the modern day, to say “I feel for you” carries with it a disengagement of sorts, and to say “I pity you” is almost outright derogatory. Empathy also allows us to associate with the pain and misfortune of others, and to feel anger or resentment towards the pain-inflicting agent (be it another person, or animal, or something more abstract like the world at large) as a result. To crudely define them as they now stand; sympathy is to acknowledge plight; empathy is to understand it. In the light of the latter, sympathy doesn’t seem to do much for us, any more.

I keep walking through the house and back to the window to survey that little mound of cat food, to see if it’s been eaten or even nibbled. The snow is heavier now, fast like a rain. There’s a slight chill, even inside. I imagine the three-legged cat huddling in a bush somewhere (those naked, barbed bushes you get in untidy places), feeling afraid, cold, and possibly hungry. I feel guilty for being indoors. I look at my own fat cats (who always look unimpressed) as though they are wantonly ungrateful. Outside the snow will get heavier and the cracks between the cobbles will fill with slush and, piece-by-piece, the little wet lump of food will drift away.

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(Glasgow) There and Back Again

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“The wind soughing down the Howe died away and a little peek of sun came through the hills; the lost, coarse ground where never a soul lived or passed but some shepherd or gillie. You could see them far off, lone and lonesome there in a still, clear day. Maybe so the dead walked in a still clear, deserted land, the coarse lands of death where only the chance wanderer showed his face and the dead lapwings wheeled and cried out against another sun.”
~ Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Last weekend we took the bus to Glasgow -a two hour journey- to celebrate my 25th birthday, and my sister’s 22nd. On the way I made friends with my window and the passing Scottish landscape. I watched the earth zip by while the hills in the distance dragged themselves in parallax. The Scottish Lowlands are generally flat, lumped with hills and rolling with patchwork farmland. It is speckled with the ruins of Medieval edifices or farmhouses, and veined with small trickling burns that wind down from the Highlands to join a greater estuary before being flushed out to sea. The countryside this time of year is dead or dying and all the colours are muted: yellow grass, brown hills, black trees.

After a few hours of window-gazing, Glasgow reared up on the horizon. Great grey tenement blocks crumbling away. A melting pot of Victorian and Stalin-esque architecture snaked with wet pipes and smoking flues. Car dealerships and old factories. Stores with ‘Now Open’ signs, now closed. We pulled around Cathedral Street and my partner, by my side, nodded out towards the trees at one side of the road. “Someone must have died there,” she said. I looked and saw decaying bouquets of flowers rotting in their shrivelled gossamer wrappings.

The name ‘Glasgow’ etymologically derives from ‘green hollow’, or ‘dear green place’, and derives from the time of Saint Mungo, who formed a religious community by Molendinar Burn in the fifth century. Around what must have been a modest little church grew a town and then a city which would become, over a thousand years after Mungo’s death, one of the major smokey hubs of the Industrial Age. Lewis Gibbon’s Sunset Song laments the rural life dying under the motor wheels of the Industrial Age, which itself culminates in the First World War, where the technological revolution allowed for destruction on an unprecedented scale. Molendinar Burn itself, where Mungo presumably fished and drank and washed and soaked his feet, was covered over in the nineteenth century to make way for pavements, roads, horses, pedestrians, trams, and eventually cars and the nearby Glasgow Necropolis. Over the tarmac where the Burn used to flow now passes the Bridge of Sighs, an algae-marred stone overpass that once led funeral processions from Glasgow Cathedral (built on the site of Mungo’s church and home to his bones) to the Necropolis. I wondered how the ghosts of the dear green place’s ancient monks, abbots, parishioners and field-hands lost and found their way around modern day Glasgow.

On the morning we left great snowclouds had gathered and were pelting the earth with hail and sleet. Rain washed off the roof of the bus. I sat by the window and again watched everything pass by. I saw great stone manor gates leading to nowhere (the manors abandoned and torn down), I saw derelict farmhouses and tractors and telegraph poles canting off into the distance. A Santa Claus scarecrow stood vigilant in his empty white field, frozen to his wooden bones. Rivers were slushing from the mouths of stone bridges and behind all of this were the great sketches of the greater hills and beyond them – mist. At one point the bus went dark as we passed through a copse. The trees were covered in ice and meltwater rained down from the boughs. I noticed that many of the trees had been completely uprooted, as though Gargantua and Pantagruel had tumbled through.

All around me I see the relics of bygone eras and ages; revolutions (industrial or agricultural) turned cold and redundant. In centuries to come, when I’m a stranger to my own descendants, perhaps they will see the bus I journeyed on sequestered away in a museum and will look at it with nothing more than bemusement. Maybe they will travail our roads and cities and watch the sights with detached interest, or maybe they’ll simply sleep their way through passing by. Meanwhile, closer to my time, the winter will pass and the sun will peel back the layers of snow and the grass will breathe and grow, then wither and die, breathe and grow, wither and die, breathe, and wither…

“The folk who wrote and fought and were learned, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted as but a breath, a mist of fog in the hills; but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever…”
~ Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

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The First Few Minutes…

Rare photograph of the "Little Boy" nuclear detonation over Hiroshima, snapped from Kaitaichi, part of present-day Kaita, six miles east of Hiroshima's center.  August 6th, 1945.

Rare photograph of the “Little Boy” nuclear detonation over Hiroshima, snapped from Kaitaichi, part of present-day Kaita, six miles east of Hiroshima’s centre. Taken 2-3 minutes after the blast. August 6th, 1945.

“The detonation was a matter of nanoseconds. In one 10-millionth of a second, gamma rays escaped the core at light speed, followed by a spray of neutrons. Electrons were stripped from every atom of air and ‘a plasma bubble began to form, producing a thermal shock that spiked hotter than the Sun’s core and glowed billions of times brighter than the surface.’ By the time it had slowed to biological time, 3/10 of a second later, the bomb itself was gone. People on the ground were vaporized, their bodies converted into gas and desiccated carbon. Some left thermal shadows, ghosts on bleached asphalt. Away from the hypocenter, death came minutes or hours later. Some died as “alligator people,” skin burned crisp by the flash, some were ripped apart by the blast, still others sickened from radiation poisoning and bled out. A few, miraculously, survived, saved by shock cocoons or mere, capricious chance.”
Joseph Kanon, Washington Post, February 7, 2010

As John Hersey wrote in his 1946 article/book Hiroshima, those people annihilated in the opening flash of the bomb were the luckier ones. For the rest came the firestorms, the nuclear wind, a tour of their scorched landscape, and the sight of those who’d had the skin ripped and seared from their muscle tissue and yet still lived. Others walked the blackened streets with their skins hanging off their bodies like loose, blistered latex. Later came the radiation sickness and, if they survived that, eventual ostracisation from their communities as ‘hibakusha’. Unlike other catastrophic events like the fire bombing of Tokyo, ‘Little Boy’ would linger to poison his victims, their children and the unborn long after the last fires were put out, and ushered in the nuclear age and the 45 year-long Cold War.

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