Denis de Rougemont /// Atomic Homeopathy
Denis de Rougemont was on retreat in Lake George, NY, when the news reached him that America had unleashed its doomsday weapon on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The event prompted a series of letters, to an anonymous friend, published the following year by Brentano’s as Lettres sur la Bombe atomique. We present here, on the 75th anniversary of its writing, a translation of the first of these letters.
August 8, 1945
Lake George, NY
I write to you from the shores of a lake where the spirits of Hawk-eye and the Last of the Mohicans still reside, in the most hidden heart of the woods. The water here is the same blue as in my memories of lakes in Switzerland and the Tyrolean Alps. The large, open porch where I am situated, in the shadow of a curtain of pines—all that separates the house from the lakeshore—dominates a wooden jetty alongside which, from time to time, a canoe draws up silently, carrying a weary oarswoman. You can’t imagine a more cheerful light, or a more peaceful setting. The weather seems to have been every bit as fine the other day in Hiroshima.
Yesterday I brought the paper back from town, and I read almost the whole thing in the course of my walk, despite the pestering little gnats that swarm before your eyes here on hot days. Everyone hurried onto the porch when they heard the news, and I had to tell the story as though I myself was just returning from Hiroshima, as though I were responsible for it.
At midnight we were still talking. The shock had thrown us into a kind of spiraling reverie rather than a state of terror or reflection (a reaction which I fear is likely to be widespread). Each of us made a great effort to demonstrate that the event hadn’t taken him off guard.
“Nothing new, when it comes down to it,” said the doctor, pretentiously, in the same tone he would have used to diagnose an ordinary case of bronchitis. “Nothing more than a mechanical invention permitting the practical application of a series of discoveries made over the past ten years.”
“I knew it!,” declared the captain, with the same exasperating simplicity Sherlock Holmes affects in front of Watson—giving us, in a word, the key to his mysterious disappearances in the Southwest.
One of the girls had read an article on the atomic automobile in Look magazine or one of its facsimiles. The marquise cried out how the idea that we were all going to die in a great explosion had haunted her since childhood (she was born during an earthquake).
“It’s sacrilege,” she added, “what they’ve just done. We’ve touched the deepest secret of the world. We’ve pierced the mystery, right in its solar plexus… It’s going to have its revenge!”
Our surrealist painter2 was willing to interrupt the chess problem he was studying to remark that the bomb confirmed his point of view: science itself is only a mythology, its laws and even its matter are pure myths, containing neither more nor less reality than the rules of this or that game.
“Which doesn’t change the fact that the bomb exploded right on schedule!” the doctor said.
“Proof positive,” replied the painter. “Everything was set up for just that purpose!”
As for the young poet whose first efforts you’ve read (Slow Death), he had vanished into the woods and returned to us an hour later, pale and disheveled, saying that his life made no sense anymore. The girls, at last, seemed touched. I took the opportunity in that moment to talk about homeopathy. It’s one of my pet subjects, as you know.
My thesis is straightforward.
What is homeopathy? The action of a remedy that is materially absent. What is the atomic bomb? The action of a particle of matter suddenly made absent.
I developed this adventurous theory with more assurance than ever, the Bomb authorizing every kind of audacity. Traditional doctors, I said, just like artillerymen and bombardiers, are of the opinion that by increasing the dose of a given medicine you also increase its effects. Ten pills will put someone to sleep ten times faster or ten times more profoundly, ten tons of explosives will cause ten times more damage than one alone. This materialist system doesn’t lead very far. On the twelfth pill, the heart would give out; with twelve tons of payload, the bombardier wouldn’t get his plane off the ground. The homeopath, however, has renounced this exhausting one-upmanship. He doesn’t believe in the virtue of increase but rather in the virtue of contraction. He takes one gram of medicine and dilutes it in a hundred liters of water. Then he dilutes a gram of this solution in a hundred more liters, and so on and so forth until the nth time around when there isn’t a trace of the original medicine remaining—not even a single molecule. There’s nothing left but pure water. And yet, this water is not the same as the water that runs from your faucet. It has been modified by the absence, you might almost say by the memory, of the chemical that’s been removed. It has taken on new properties from the simple fact that a substance which with it had once been intimately mingled has been taken away. You see, homeopathy is not an advance on traditional medicine but a complete overthrow of its basic notions. It is the revelation of a new universe, where the least will produce the most, where potency will no longer depend on accumulation but, on the contrary, on subtlety pushed to the point of disappearance. The same goes for the atomic bomb: it isn’t a perfect weapon, it’s the intrusion of an entirely new way of treating the world in which we live. I find it admirable that the greatest explosion in History was provoked not, quite simply, by detonating the greatest mass of explosives ever brought together in the world, but rather by the schism of the merest point, imperceptible to the most powerful microscope. That is the event, that is what is new about this, and why this is one of the great milestones for our planet: only the very smallest of things has come apart.
The doctor hadn’t waited for me to reach this striking turn of phrase to give off every sign of incompressible irritation. He ended up calling me a littérateur, which in the mouth of a scientist means pretentious imbecile. I replied that the craft of literature includes a method known as analogy, the significance of which eludes vulgar scientism. I added, nastily, that doctors were in no position to look down their noses, since they are notoriously at a loss to explain the common cold, much less cure it. It was a worthless argument, but it was midnight, and the revelers went off to bed, each on his own, each with his own position.
This morning the doctor wanted to make up. We had breakfast together on the pier. Driven, it seemed, by the magnificent, half-naked blond on water skis holding the reins behind it, a motorboat split the wave and swerved right near us. “It’s the anatomic bomb!” shouted the doctor, as a swell of water washed over the pier, sending our plates and fried eggs adrift. “If you pay me a nickel every time someone publishes that joke,” I said, “I bet you a thousand dollars I’ll have you covered in a year.”
Deprived of our breakfast, we tried in vain to perform an etymological analysis of anatomy and atom.
I fear you’ll find this letter frivolous. But the event itself, it must be admitted, goes beyond the limits of decency. It leaves us as though deprived of all reflexes, less worried than excited, in high spirits out of nervousness. And besides, whatever we judge to be the proper attitude to take in its presence, is rendered hopelessly ridiculous by the event itself. May the disappearance of my habitual seriousness convey to you, homeopathically, the gravity of what has just happened. For me, only the slightest hint of it remains.
Translated from the French by Louis Cancelmi