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What do French poetry, the Olympic games and the atom have in common?

I have been enjoying his succinct and elusive poems of French Poet Rene Char over the last year. He published his first poems in the 1920’s became a part of the surrealists movement before moving on to be develop his unique expressions of nature of reality, the profoundness of things and our relationship to each other and the world especially nature. He was a French resistance fighter during WWII and kept a diary of his experiences during this period published under the title The Leaves of Hypnos. He was an anti-nuclear activist in the decades following the war and is often quoted as saying only a partial freedom was won with advent of the atomic age.

With the focus on the Olympics in Tokyo where less lethal forms of combat take place in a myriad number of sports, its timely to remember the history Japan has overcome to become a dominant force in technology while maintaining their traditions and culture. The 6th and 9th of August marks the 76th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This devastating event began the era of the atomic age and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

A contemporary of Char, philosopher and fellow French resistance fighter Simone Weil wrote an essay 3 years before the dropping of the bomb discussing the advances in science in particular the theory of relativity and Planck’s constant. The essay was prompted by a publication by Maxwell Planck.

Planck’s Constant was a formula developed in 1901 by Maxwell Planck which provides a scaffolding for measuring the energy of light called photons and is integral to the development of quantum physics. Essentially Planck’s ground breaking formula changed the understanding of energy from a continuum of volume with no limits to discrete packets of energy ie quanta. The development of this mathematical tool allowed further advances in technology such as development of computer chips and fibre-optics and the nature of reality at the subatomic levels.

Weil’s essay was a critique of the evolution of mathematics and science from ancient Greece to classical period ie Newton to the atomic age ie Planck and Einstein. Weil discussed how previous modes of science over the centuries maintained a connectivity to the reality understood by the ordinary person ie time for harvesting or using levers and pulleys to lift a stone or even knowing movement of stars. However, with the advent of atomic age Weil considered science was building its own universe and language to describe the physical world and by doing so atomising and flattening reality rather than reflecting the complexity of our existence. She was also concerned about the primacy of mathematical language supplanting that of the spoken word and ultimately disciplines of philosophy to describe or provide conceptual insights of our reality.

It would have been interesting to read her thoughts on the dropping of an atomic bomb, but she passed away a year after writing this essay at the age of 34. She had strong moral themes in her writings with particular personal interest in religions. Her conclusions ultimately lead to encouraging any human endeavour to strive toward the good; the good being underpinned by a faith in god or higher order of values.

Char published a book of poetry called Hammer with No Master in 1934, a title he may have intended to be both personally meaningful in terms of his break from the surrealists. The title is also reflective of the disconnect between technology and previous ages of human participation in the world it had been thrust into particularly during the tumult of that era.

Nuclear technology, the ultimate hammer without a master is an apt metaphorical description to my mind.

Fission reactors have created their own notable events of Chernobyl and Fukiama and are responsible for producing materials for weapons proliferation. The slow burn of human induced climate change is bringing focus on changing to more renewable forms of energy but we rely heavily on large baseload energy particularly in high density urban populations. Nuclear technology is able to provide this energy at low carbon emissions but overall its use comes at too great a cost IMHO.

Nuclear fusion, the magnum opus of nuclear energy production, attempts to replicate the sun’s capacity to produce energy by merging hydrogen atoms into helium resulting in energy. This process however is fraught with significant engineering challenges and while deemed safer than current nuclear fission reactors, it still relies on finite resources with consequential pollutants.

Even after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the death of 100,000’s civilians nuclear weapon testing continued in the into the 90’s in the south pacific. As a teenager in the 80’s I remember being more aware of the threat of nuclear war and the protests against installation of Nuclear reactors in Australia and testing in the South Pacific. Probably due to listening to Midnight Oil and watching Madmax which is set in post nuclear war dystopia showed its pervasiveness in the psyche during that period.

To see a country like Japan move on and become the nation it has after such a devastating event 76 years ago, an event with a thought to Char’s sentiments stole back the dearly bought freedoms won by ending of WWII.

The modern Olympics ethos is to promote peace among the various continents hence the emblem of the 5 rings, and encourage elevation of the mind and spirit for the betterment of humanity. There is a lot to ponder in the convergence of Tokyo, the Olympics and French poetry and the answer to the question at the beginning is war and peace.

If there has to be hammer without a master what sort of hammer should it be?

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute monitors nuclear armament and disarmament. There is a link which shows levels of nuclear weapons and the nations who have the most nuclear armaments. With climate change and more acutely covid dominating the psyche and general discourse, ever present in the background is the power of the mighty atom and our quest to rule the stars and their relentless warring.

As an aside before you enjoy the poem, I think Hunstman spiders would take gold in Sport Climbing!

The Inventors*

They came, the foresters from the other side, the unknown to us, the hostile to our ways.

They came and they were many.

Their host appeared at the line dividing the cedar woods

From a field long harvested that even now rose fresh and green

The long march had warmed them.

Their caps broke over their eyes, and their tired feet foundered somewhere


They caught sight of us and halted.

Clearly they had not thought to find us there

On the land where the soil was easy and the furrow close,

Quite heedless of an audience.

We raised our heads and beckoned them to come on.

The most fluent among them came over, then a second, likewise rootless and slow.

We have come they said to warn you of the imminent arrival of the storm, your implacable foe.

What knowledge we have of such things, we have as you do,

Only on hearsay and from what our ancestors have confided.

Yet why is it we feel so inexplicably happy in your presence, and so suddenly like children?

We thanked them and sent them once more on their way.

Yet prior to this they had drunk, and their hands trembled and their eyes laughed at the edges.

Men at home among trees and with axes, able to stand their ground before some terrible fear, yet unfit for the channelling of water, or the alignment of a building, or its coating with pleasant colours,

Of the winter garden they would know nothing, nor of the economy of joy.

Undoubtedly we could have convinced and conquered them,

For the anguish before a storm is deeply moving.

And yes the storm was shortly to appear.

But was that really something to be talked about and to disturb the future for?

At the point we have reached, there are no urgent fears.

*Translation by Mark Hutchinson

Rene Char Les Matinaux (The Dawn Breakers) 1950


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