THE contemporary scientist, when he seeks to communicate the great discoveries of the past half-century to the layman, must find himself in roughly the same position as a translator preparing the works of Shakespeare for an audience which understands only pidgin English: the more he tries to do justice to his subject, the less intelligible he becomes.
One cannot read Atomic Quest (Oxford University Press, $5.00) by Arthur Holly Compton and Atoms and People (Harper, $4.00) by Ralph Lapp without sensing that the necessity of dealing with scientific points in, so to speak, pidgin English has prevented the authors from conveying more than a suggestion of the awesome difficulties, the heroic struggles, and the fantastic quirks of the atomic drama. What they do convey, however, is fascinating and highly enlightening; and one must be grateful to them for not overtaxing the layman‘s puny powers of comprehension. While both their books are readable enough, they are poles apart stylistically. Dr. Compton‘s is sober and dignified; Dr. Lapp‘s is written in the bouncy idiom of the slick magazines, and it has irritating touches of vulgarity.
Arthur Holly Compton, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927 at the age of thirty-five, was one of the handful of scientists who initiated and carried through the wartime atomic project. His book is therefore a toplevel narrative of the development of the bomb — the fullest authoritative account tha we have had to date. The main lines of the story are by now familiar. What is particularly intriguing is the firsthand documentation of many arresting episodes or sidelights in the atomic “quest” — for instance, Dr. Oppenheimer‘s discovery, in 1942, of the principle of the hydrogen bomb, which suggested the danger that an atomic bomb would trigger an explosion of the hydrogen in the ocean and possibly of the nitrogen in the air; the use of half a billion dollars‘ worth of silver from the U.S. Treasury to build an immense magnet for the separation of uranium isotopes at Oak Ridge; the fact that if an anonymous engineer from du Pont had not insisted on making the Hanford reactor larger than the scientists thought necessary, the production of plutonium would have been stalled and the bomb would not have been ready by 1945.
Dr. Compton, a humanitarian and a man of deep religious feeling, is convinced that the use of the bomb against Japan was a tragic necessity; and he marshals a cogent body of evidence showing that a Japanese surrender was out of the question without resort to the new weapon. The last part of his book discusses the implications of atomic energy in international relations, in education, in the treatment of disease, and in the sphere of human morality in general. To those who have argued that science committed a monstrous “crime” in releasing the atom’s energy, Dr. Compton gives a forthright answer: “Developments such as [this] represent, as I see it, an aspect of evolution. They are part of the life of human society that follows from the endowment that man has been given by his Creator. We are destined ... to try out new things, new ideas, new ways of living. ... If our civilization is to survive, it will do so by developing to the utmost the possibilities that the search for new knowledge can bring.”
Dr. Ralph Lapp, a former student of Dr. Compton’s, worked on the A-bomb project and was later associated with the War Department and then with the Office of Naval Research. In 1949 this column reviewed Dr. Lapp’s Must We Hide? which developed what seemed to me the mischievous and nonsensical thesis, then dear to the military establishment, that the atom bomb was just another powerful weapon– nothing to get desperately alarmed about. Dr. Lapp, who is no longer connected with the military, now talks in diametrically opposite language and is a scathing critic of the brass hats’ handling of atomic energy.
The first quarter of Atoms and People chronicles the quest, for the atom bomb; the remaining 200 pages might roughly be described as a sequel to Dr. Compton’s story. They cover a wide area which embraces, among other things, Super bombs and tactical atomic weapons; atomic espionage; the development of nuclear power plants and the cost of atomic energy in the immediate future; the vital problem, not as yet satisfactorily solved, of disposing of the radioactive waste products of fission; the possibilities of adapting nuclear propulsion, already used in submarines, for guided missiles, for aviation, and for other forms of transportation; the problems of harnessing hydrogen power (currently being explored by Project Sherwood), which would provide a limitless source of energy without radioactive waste.
This survey brings to us a large fund of much-needed information, which ranges from the grim report that the fall-out of H-bomb tests, if they are repeated often enough, threatens to poison mankind with radioactive strontium, to the dizzying fact that one pound of nuclear fuel is the energy equivalent of a quartermillion gallons of gasoline, and to news of the valuable ways in which radioactive materials are already being used by one thousand U.S. industrial concerns.
Both Lapp‘s book and Compton‘s remind us that the record of American scientists, in the matter of security, has been virtually flawless; and the former points up sharply the damage done to U.S. science by irresponsible “loyalty” probers. The harassment of scientists has made science — despite the unprecedented rewards it now offers — seem so hazardous a career to the present generation that in 1955, whereas Soviet advanced schools turned out 80,000 graduates, the corresponding number in the United States was 37,000.
The secrecy complex of the Atomic Energy Commission also receives some telling knocks from Dr. Lapp. He reports, for instance, that Soviet scientific papers presented at the 1955 Geneva Conference released material which the AEC still classified as “secret”; that the Russian physicist Kurchatov, in a lecture delivered in England, revealed much more about Soviet research on the harnessing of H-powcr than U.S. scientists working for the government are allowed to reveal to the U.S. scientists privately engaged in similar studies. It is hard to resist Dr. Lapp’s conclusion that the present secrecy policies of the AEC exceed the limits of common sense and may seriously hamper our progress in nuclear research.
One man’s meat
Edmund Wilson’s new book is perfectly described by its title: A Piece of My Mind (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $4.00). Within the compass of a medium-sized volume, Mr. Wilson has given us a piece of his mind on — I cite the chapter headings — Religion, The United States, War, Europe, Russia, The Jews, Education, Science, and Sex; and he winds up with an essay about “The Author at Sixty.”
Though I have a very high regard for Mr. Wilson‘s gifts, the present volume (or at least a considerable part of it) struck me as a rather distressing affair. The form in which W ilson is working here — the short “think-piece” about a large subject — is one which has the unfortunate effect of giving the fullest possible play to his shortcomings: a streak of arrogance or (in his own phrase) “intellectual intolerance.” and a philistine cockiness about subjects outside the range of his sympathies. The essay on religion often sounds like the effort of a brash sophomore proudly announcing that he is too smart to fall for all dial bosh about God and the “soul.” The piece on Europe is a compound of ignorance and insensitivity what apparently impresses Wilson most about France is the moderately-priced champagne and crisp pommes frites– and of archaic isolationist prejudice, which goads Wilson into glaring contradictions. In this chapter, he berates Europeans for exaggerating the importance of cultural tradition and affirms that he, personally, has found American bathtubs more civilizing than cathedrals; in other pages, he boasts that he hasn‘t much use for modern gadgetry and stresses the vitalizing aspects of cultural tradition. The disquisitions on war and sex are commonplace, and the former provides Wilson with another opportunity to strut his stereotyped isolationism and petulant Anglophobia. (It was a dog-in-themanger attitude on the part of the British, Wilson implies, not to let the Germans dominate Europe and put an end to its national divisions, since the British were not willing to do that job themselves.)
There is better stuff in the pages on the U.S.A., Education, and the Jews — Wilson has clearly found his study of the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls broadening and bracing. And he is in excellent form in the concluding autobiographical fragment, with its well-drawn sketches of his parents and his early background, and its picture of his present return to his roots. The overall weakness of the book stems, I suspect, from the fact that much of Wilson‘s thinking and feeling is arrested in the mood of the twenties. He often seems unaware that opinions and prejudices which would have made a dashing essay thirty years ago are today rather trite.
Byron and Byronism
“Ay me! what perils do environ/ The man that meddles with Lord Byron.” The latest biographer of Byron is a woman, Eileen Bigland, but she has not escaped the perils referred to by the anonymous rhymester. It would be difficult to turn out a biography of Byron that suffers from dullness, and this Miss Bigland has certainly not done. She has, however, succeeded in doing something more difficult — namely in composing a biography of Byron, Passion for Excitement (Coward-McCann, $5.00), which very nearly conceals the fact that he had an urge to write poetry and that the writing of it played a considerable role in his life.
Miss Bigland alludes, of course, to Byron’s greatness as a poet. But consider the following passage about Byron at Newstead Abbey in 1811: “He could not ride as he had sold his horses ... he could not shoot as he had given away his sporting guns.... lie could only try to fill the empty days with the writing of verse.” Here and elsewhere, Miss Bigland conveys the false impression that Byron turned to poetry as a last resort, only when he was utterly bereft of more congenial occupations. And when she is chronicling the years of Byron’s “last attachment,” the liaison with Countess Guiccioli, the abundant and magnificent poetic output of this period just does not figure in the story.
With Byron, to be sure, poetry was not an end in itself. His ideal was to pursue greatness through action, and to him poetry was a by-product of action. But for all that, his poetic creation was a decisive element in the pattern of his life; and it was an expression of inner strengths which account, in part, for the legendary power of fascination he exercised over men and women. Miss Bigland’s failure to give due emphasis to Byron’s genius and to his work leaves her with a maimed image — with a distempered amorist; a frustrated, seemingly unproductive Romantic, whose life is largely a chronicle of melancholy, waste, and shame. This incomplete image Miss Bigland presents to us in sharp strokes and vivid colors; and her thorough documentation of the most controversial facet of Byron‘s life— his passionate relationship with his half-sister, Augusta– is a solid piece of work. Her biography conveys a partial truth, and it is eminently readable; but a closer approximation to the whole truth would present a decidedly different picture. The Byron who emerges from Miss Bigland‘s pages could not possible be the author of the marvelous letters, which are so full, as Jacques Barzun has observed, of “concentrated mind and high spirits, wit, daylight good sense, and a passion for truth"; he simply is not the great poet who rightly said of himself, “All convulsions with me end in rhyme.”
Before the must
In 1938 there were still fifteen vessels entirely propelled by sail engaged in carrying grain from the South Australian wheat belt to Europe by w ay of Cape Horn – a roundtrip passage of some 30,000 miles which took, on the average, 110 days each way. The 1038 — 39 voyage proved to be the concluding chapter in the history of commercially operated square-riggers; and now a fine account of it has been written by Eric Newby – The Last Grain Rare (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00).
Mr. Newby had gone down to the sea only in books when, at eighteen, he quit his job in a London advertising agency and signed up as Apprentice Seaman on the four-masted barque, Moshulu. Though he is nothing if not modest, it is clear that Newby must have been an extraordinarily tough, courageous, and adaptable young man. His initiation was in keeping with the most rugged traditions of seafaring: before he had even changed out of his street clothes, the first mate ordered him into the rigging he had never been aloft before — and up to the very cap of the royal mast, a fearsome 198 feet above the keel. It was an appropriate introduction lo life aboard a squarerigger. The work was always hard, and some of it was loathsome. The food was often appalling. The polyglot crew — Swedes, Finns, a Lithuanian, a Dutchman — were a primitive lot who, out of no particular malice, made things rough for the alien Englishman, the “rosbif,” until he picked a fight and bloodily proved himself a “strong;body.” And periodically there were shattering battles with the elements in which Newby, on at least two occasions, came close to losing his life.
On the return journey from Australia, the Moshulu, loaded with 4875 tons of grain, ran into awesome storms in the Southern Ocean and later was becalmed north of the Equator. But she reached Queenstown, Ireland, in 91 days, thereby winning by two days the last Grain Rare.
Writing with a sharp matter-offactness and a fine sense of the comic, New by has given us an intimate and altogether convincing record of the miseries and occasional splendors of life before the mast.
The Lost Steps (Knopf, $3.75) is the first book to appear in the United States by Alejo Carpentier, who was born in Cuba, has lived in many countries, and has explored the upper reaches of the Orinoco, which in part serve as the setting of his novel. It has received the prize for the best foreign novel published in France in 1955.
Mr. Carpenticr (whose book has been capably translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis) has tackled the Rousseauist theme that man has been corrupted by civilization and that he must return to primitivism to recapture his original virtue. Carpentier’s hero is a disillusioned intellectutal of our lime living in some unidentified metropolis. His marriage has lost all meaning, and he is soured with the phoniness of his mistress and her circle of friends, who slavishly follow the latest highbrow fashions. The core of the story is a trip made by this narrator into the hinterland of Brazil, to which he has been sent by a university to study the origins of primitive music.
On the journey up the Orinoco, he meets a simple Brazilian woman, a creature of nature, who brings him a deeper satisfaction than he has known before; and a man, a fugitive from the modern world, who leads him to a remote, secret community of Indians, where life is lived more or less as it was 6000 years ago. Here, freed from the pressures and distractions of civilization, he experiences a revival of his creative impulse and resumes, with a surge of inspiration, composition of the cantata which he had long ago abandoned. The story, however,
carries him to the painful realization that, while it is still possible for some men to retreat from their epoch into the past, this retreat is forbidden to the artist: his role is to create the forms of the future.
Mr. Carpentier’s faith in the virtues of the primitive life is the most dubious aspect of his novel. Since Rousseau’s day, a considerable literature has testified that the “noble savage” is ignoble, and that the miseries of civilization are at least matched by the squalors of primitivism. What is original and exciting about The Lost Steps is the way in which action, sophisticated introspection, and powerfully evoked atmosphere are skillfully integrated. Mr. Carpentier has a remarkably allusive style, which deploys his wide erudition without ever interrupting the intriguing narrative. His publishers are quite justified in claiming that you find in his novel suggestions of Malraux togelher with suggestions of the W. H. Hudson of Green Mansions. It is an odd combination, and the result is a richly textured and altogether unusual novel which — even if one rejects the notion that the age of Enoch was preferable to the age of Einstein — effectively dramatizes pertinent questions about the high price of civilization.
Two novels from Japan are among the better items which have recently come my way: The Setting Sun (New Directions, $3.00) by Osamu Dazai and the Sound of Waves (Knopf, $3.00) by Yukio Mishima. Both books have an evocativeness, a pictorial quality, which I am told is characteristic of Japanese writing. They bring to mind the saying of Théophile Gautier: “Je suis un homme pour qui le monde visible existed.” It would seem that the existence of the visible world and a sense of man’s relatedness to everything around him are felt by the Japanese writer with a special insistency. The characters in these novels have quick, intense emotional responses, but verbal communication between them is, by our standards, slight and curiously inhibited. Consequently much that would be directly articulated in the western novel has to be conveyed obliquely — by inference, by suggestion, by symbolic overtones emerging from a setting or from the meticulous sketching of some trifling incident. Sometimes this results in a sense of vagueness and inconclusiveness. Sometimes the Japanese method achieves effects of a subtlety and delicacy attinned only by the most sensitive of Occidental writers.
Of the two novels mentioned above, The Setting Sun, while it is a somber alfair, is clearly the finer; and it comes to us in a translation by Donald Keene which, insofar as one can judge from the English, is a marvelous piece of work. The author, who committed suicide at thirty-nine in 1948 after life of frenetic dissipation, has depicted in microcosm the post-war decline of the impoverished Japanese aristocracy and the way in which western ideas and western mores have destroyed the traditional patterns of Japanese life. The narrator is a youngish woman called Kazuko, who was divorced six years carlier. After her fathers death, she and her mother have been forced to leave their fine house in Tokyo and settle in a cottage in the country. When her tormented brother, Naoji, returns from the South Pacific, what little money kazuko can scrape together is consumed by his addiction to drugs. Through Naoji she meets a well-known novelist, disillusioned and alcoholic, and falls in love with him. The rest of the tale poignantly puts the finishing touches to the theme summed up in Kazukos concluding observation: “We are victims of a transitional period of morality.”
As students, Kazuko and her brother imbibed, in its broadest sense, the spirit of revolution. Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, and other authors of the West come to their lips as often as The Tale of Genji, and they are more accustomed to western than to Japanese dress. But the old Japan, Dazai discloses with great subtlety, still has a hold on them in the recesses of the heart. And their struggle “to push back the old morality" violates sentiments which are buried but not dead.
Although Dazai’s characters are certainly not “typical,” his novel was acclaimed in Japan as a brilliant representation of contemporary currents and conflicts. It is a book written with beauty, refinement, and force: a work of unmistakable distinction.
The Sound of waves is a tale of young love among the robust peasunts of Uta-Jima, Song Island, where the men fish for octopus and the women dive for abalone. The plot takes shape in accordance with the traditional formula of the Japanese love story. The hero, Shinji, is poor but handsome, sans peur et sans reproche. The heroine, Hatsue, is far above his station. She is the daughter of the local shipowner, a big shot, by the standards of the island; and it is assumed that she will be given in marriage to the son of one of the leading families, Yasuo Kawamoto, who is, of course, fat., arrogant, unscrupulous, and crafty. A plain girl who loves Shinji spots him returning with Hatsue from one of their secret meetings; soon ugly gossip is rife in the village, and Hatsue’s father forbids her to go near the young man. At this point — when one is bracing oneself for the customary double suicide, the lovers’ leap from a convenient cliff — the author ditches tradition and furnishes an ending whose merits it would be hardly fair to discuss.
It is a considerable tribute to Mr. Mishima‘s gifts that, out of the hackneyed ingredients just outlined, he has fashioned a genuinely lyrical tale, affecting in its simplicity and restraint. He makes warmly real to us, in brief and forceful strokes, the life of the fisherfolk — a life that is hard, dangerous, but harmoniously in tune with nature. And nature infuses its colors and fragrance and vitality into the texture of the novel. The pine-clad hills, the peach blossoms in the shrine garden, the clouds crossing the horizon “like ancient gods,” the movements of the sea — all this “visible world” is made a participant in the love story of Shinji and Hatsue.
In the novel, as V. S. Pritchett has said, “new seeing” is what counts and not “new sights.” Nevertheless, freshness of subject matter is undeniably an asset, and one finds it in Louis Auchincloss’s new book, The (Great World and Timothy Colt (Houghton Mifflin, $3.75). Mr. Auchincloss, a lawyer as well as a fiction writer, takes us into an area which American novelists have left, largely untouched — the inner workings of a prominent Manhattan law firm. Unfortunately, Auchincloss’s theme, in contrast to his material, is one which has been overworked by U.S. writers: the disillusionment of an idealist who discovers that, even in a supposedly reputable firm, there is more cynicism and toadying to the client’s dollar than was dreamed of in his philosophy.
Timothy Colt is what Bernard Shaw has called a “downstart”: his father, who was “old New York,” died leaving his family quite impoverished; and Timothy, a brilliant young lawyer, has made his way to the threshold of a partnership in Sheffield, Knox, Stevens & Dale by total dedication to his work. He is married to his college sweetheart, and they live with their two children in a small, shabby apartment; but the hours he keeps at the office leave him little private life and virtually no social life. He is perfectly happy in this exacting routine, working with the acting senior partner, Knox, who fits his ideal of the “philosopheradvocate.” But a crisis brews when he is shunted to Sheridan Dale’s department and given charge of the legal aspects of a business deal which Dale‘s nephew, George Emlen, is putting through, Emlen is a boor and an unscrupulous moneygrubber of the most insufferable kind, and he goads Timothy into an outburst which leaves him no choice but to apologize or resign. When his wife and even his mentor, Knox, urge him to put expediency before pride, he grimly follows their advice — and overnight becomes, at least outwardly, a changed man, a calculating careerist.
Soon he gets his partnership; is assigned profitable clients; and is introduced into the fashionable world by Dale’s lovely stepdaughter, who has fallen in love with him. Eventually, as co-trustee of one of the Emlen trusts, he allows himself to become a party to actual dishonesty. And the conflict between ethics and ambition which now confronts him forms the climax of the novel.
The Great World and Timothy Colt is much more strongly plotted than the author‘s previous novels: ihe narrative drive is well sustained throughout. In other respects, it was slightly disappointing to this reader. Mr. Auchincloss — who is par excellence: a civilized writer at home in “the great world” — has seriously handicapped himself, I feel, by writing over the shoulder of a hero who is a philistine and a social bumpkin. It is a perspective which gives litle scope for the wit and irony which are his most attractive assets. Judging from Auchincloss‘s previous work, his natural stance is a sophisticated semidetachment. In this book, he has let himself be edged uncomfortably close to earnestness.