The second year after my husband's death, my son and his girlfriend came that Christmas. I was in a foul mood, depressed for days before they ever came. I was so depressed that I was ready to explode. I went all the way. I drank a whole bottle of brandy and started on the whiskey. I dropped down, passed out. Everything went around. I tried to raise my head up and I couldn't. I was gone. I did another stupid thing, I took the sleeping pills with it.

("Downwinder" Berta Williams, quoted in Carole Gallagher, American Ground Zero)


I said "hello" into the phone, but it went silent and then the flash hit. A plastic Simpsons cup melted sideways on the counter; the black plastic frame of the TV softened its edges and began dissolving. I looked at my hand and saw that the telephone was turning to mud in my palm, and I saw a bit of skin rip off like strips of chicken fajita. And then the pulse occurred. The kitchen window blew inward, all bright and sparkling, like tinsel on a Christmas tree, and the blender crashed into the wall and the Post-it notes on the fridge ignited and then I was dead.

(Douglas Coupland, Life After God)

The first shot, Smoky, was August 31, 1957. It was ... 44,000 tons of TNT. The tower seemed so close, and you could count the light bulbs on it. It looked like a Christmas tree.... The wind was blowing at 150 miles an hour, peppered the hell out of us and everything went flying, everything you could hold on to. There was nothing to hold on to.

("Atomic Veteran" Russel Jack Dann, quoted in Carole Gallagher, American Ground Zero)

You see the earth as a bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament in the sky. It is so small and fragile.

(Astronaut Russel Schweikart)


Preamble

Initially, a disclaimer. Assembled here is a vague outline of a rough draft of a work in progress. Taking Lyotard at his word, we make this fundamental working assumption: Cultural Studies scholarship is most useful not when it offers prepackaged, predigested propositions, but rather when it explores disseminated cultural phenomena or trends, hurling out provocative observations and speculations, hypertextual musings in celebration of what Todd Gitlin calls "the exuberantly unfinished"....

All we ever publish is rough drafts

(Jean-François Lyotard)

We are guided, gently, by what Jacques Derrida identifies as the orienting principle of nuclear criticism; "giddy incompetence." Incompetence, in this regard, defined as the rejection (or avoidance, anyway) of the Humanities' and Social Sciences' normative historiographical standards, methods, and assumptions. Incompetence, in other words, with an emphasis on the prefix "in" as simultaneously a negation, an absence, and the gravitational implosion of the academic reality principle....

Academic discourse has exhausted itself.
You have to start looking for new ways to encode the culture.

(Sandy Stone)

As a result, our methodological approach is more artistic than it is academic, more expressive than analytical, in keeping both with the giddy incompetence of nuclear criticism and the Nietzschean ideal of "creative historicism." Also in keeping with the somewhat scandalous proposal we intend to proffer as our starting point ("Ground 4: Oublier Hiroshima")....

... criticism is literature or it is nothing. Not amateur philosophy or objective analysis, it differs from other forms of literary art in that it starts not with the world in general but the world of art itself, in short, that it uses one work of art as an occasion to make another.

(Leslie Fiedler)

······

Our ruminations revolve around the semiotic nucleus of an ecstatic implosion; Christmas at Ground Zero. (Father) Christmas and the Bomb, then, as primal event-scenes of Late Capitalist american culture, warping quantum history, approaching critical mass, promising fusion yet threatening fission, arcing across time and space leaving contrails of ozone, frankincense, and mulled incandescence.

You will note we are discussing "american" culture, not "American" culture. In this event-horizon, the initial "a" is lower case, not capitalized, connoting a nexus of key politico-cultural indicators:

This paper is a rereading (which is to say, a creative rewriting) of "Christmas," illumined by the afterglow of a trinity of silent, white hot flashes, burnt into cultural ROM like those outlines of Hiroshima victims "photo-graphed" on concrete and stone precisely where people - shadows of their former selves - were vaporized on the quiet, clear morning of August 6th, 1945. We are moved by a decade's worth of cultural histories of nuclearism, beginning with Paul Boyer's seminal By the Bomb's Early Light. [1] At this critical juncture, Boyer's study helps us understand why it is only now, after the (so-called) end of the Atomic Age, that we can begin to fathom nuclearism:

I have been repeatedly struck ... at how uncannily familiar much of the early response to the bomb seems: the visions of atomic devastation, the earnest efforts to rouse people to resist such a fate, the voice seeking to soothe or deflect these fears, the insistence that security lay in greater technical expertise and in more and bigger weaponry. (xix)

In other words, in 1985, and until the "end of the Cold War," we were quite simply too close to nuclearism to have any sense of perspective. Our strategies for living with the Bomb had not changed substantially in four decades, since the very earliest days of August 1945. And they would not change, could not change until - as Stephen King's postapocalyptic gunslinger Roland of The Dark Tower series would certainly say - "the world moved on."

Well, the world has indeed "moved on," and in these early days of the end of the Atomic Age - which is to say, as the Atomic Age Closes - Boyer's advice regarding reports from the beginning of the Atomic Age still rings true. You will find that Christmas at Ground Zero follows this advice more or less to the letter:

Perhaps the best way to convey a sense of the earliest days ... is not to impose too much order or coherence on them retrospectively. Out of the initial confusion of emotions and welter of voices, certain cultural themes would quickly emerge. But first, the event.... (4)


Images of Christmas at Ground Zero

First, then, "the event"; or, in our lexicon, the "event-scene." To get us in the right frame of mind, perhaps (and these are all speculations) a few samples, moments, instances of what we mean when we refer to the conflation of _X_mas (as Christmas is often [portentously] called) and the Bomb. In other words, some images of Christmas at Ground Zero, as a way into Christmas at Ground Zero.

#1: "I think they'll like it in the heartland"

Near the beginning of the Bill Murray vehicle, Scrooged (1988), IBC network executives are assembled in the boardroom to view the commercial for their annual presentation of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.. The trailer is screened: "Oh my gosh," opines Murray, the youngest network president in TV history, "does that suck.... We have spent forty million dollars on a live TV show. You guys have got an ad, with America's favorite old fart, reading a book in front of a fireplace. Now I have to kill all of you." A junior executive sheepishly observes that the spot is already running nationwide and is getting "a hell of a response." "That's not good enough," bellows Murray. "They have got to be so scared to miss it, so terrified ...," whereupon he screens his idea for the commercial. Over a multiscreen montage of drugs, mayhem, and violence, a sinister voice intones: "Acid Rain.... Drug Addiction.... International Terrorism.... Now, more than ever, it is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Don't miss Charles Dickens' immortal classic, Scrooge.... Your life might just depend on it." This last over a boiling yellow, black, and red mushroom cloud. Concludes Murray, "I think they'll like it in the heartland."

#2: "And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath"

In early 1954, EC Comics started Panic, a sister publication to Mad magazine. The cover of Panic #1 shows a pajama-clad, freckle-faced boy grinning mischievously as Santa, backing down the chimney, steps into a vicious looking bear trap in the hearth. Panic #2's cover features a similarly impish kid in his basement, playing with his Christmas gifts, a chemistry kit and a model train set. Grinning sardonically as he triggers the detonator, the kid is visibly delighted with the home-made mushroom cloud looming over the heart of his tiny model town.

The first story in Panic #1 is a version of the perennial favorite, "The Night Before Christmas." Although the piece is predictable EC Comics fare, panels 25 and 26 merit special attention in light of our controlling theme.

Santa's Toothless

Figure 1: Panel 25

Even amid the semiotic bedlam of "The Night Before Christmas," Figure 1 is disquieting. With his haggard, toothless visage, his hollow eyes, and the huge, crudely stitched gash on his head (echoing his ghastly mouth), this Old Nick is one of two things, both equally telling. He is either a far more accurate (and gruesome) depiction of Victor Frankenstein's "creature" than the Boris Karloff caricature; or, he is a veteran of the global nuclear war of our worst Atomic nightmares, already familiar to the point of banality by February 1954. [2] Or - of course - he is both.

Santa's Minefield

Figure 2: Panel 26

Stumbling through a "minefield" of allegorical signs of the times - to wit, Oppenheimer's depiction of postnuclear humanity as two scorpions trapped in a bottle - this Atomic Santa (Figure 2) explodes through time and space, past the confines of the traditional comic frame, to become the quintessential polyvalent embodiment of Christmas at Ground Zero:

#3: Woops!

It was this 1992 Fox sitcom that got us thinking about Christmas and the Bomb in the first place. A postnuclear Gilligan's Island, set in "the American heartland," canceled mid-season,Woops! revolves around six survivors (two women, four men) of an "accidental" nuclear holocaust.
XXXXXIn the final episode, the Christmas episode, Santa Claus, the only other character in the entire series, shows up at the farmhouse. We learn that Santa was in his shelter underneath the gingerbread house when the bombs fell. Mrs. Claus and the elves perished in the atomic firestorm, screaming, trying to batter down the shelter door while Santa, apparently fearing for his own safety, refused to let them in. Shamefully relinquishing his role as universal ambassador of "peace on earth and goodwill to all men" [SIC], Santa becomes Clem, farmhand and cook.
XXXXXSo, not only has (practically) all humanity been wiped out, but Santa's guilty abdication of his traditional duty represents the death of Christmas and, by implication (again) the death of the human spirit, our second/final/soul death.

But Santa/Clem, a miserable failure at farm life, decides to move on and seek yet a new beginning. Turning to leave he spends several chilling seconds trying unsuccessfully (and with mounting frustration) to open the door, egged on by a rising chorus of exasperated advice and direction. Finally, it dawns on everyone what happened back at the North Pole, especially when Santa flips into "flashback mode," pounding on the kitchen door crying "Mrs. Claus, Mrs. Claus, Mrs. Claus...." Santa didn't let Mrs. Claus and the elves into the shelter, not because he wouldn't but because he couldn't; a "chimney man," he didn't know how to open the door; any door. Santa's guilt is thus expatiated, his Christmas spirit revived, and our essential humanity redeemed. Appropriately enough, the episode (and the series) ends with Santa, back in his familiar red and white uniform, about to embark on his most crucial journey; to seek out other survivors and bring them the best Christmas ever.

······

So, by and by, we arrive at the first of five event-scenes; grounds for thought, if you will; initial points of departure for concomitant explorations of the collision of Christmas and the Bomb as one ürtrope of an Atomic Age open to interpretation, open to speculation, open to suggestion, open to debate, open-ended....


[ON TO GROUND FOUR....]


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Paul Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light (New York: Pantheon, 1985). [BACK]

[2
] Regarding the timing of EC's Panic, it is not insignificant that these were the "golden years" of Atomic panic: The Rosenbergs, Hiss, Burgess and Maclean; McCarthy, Berlin, Korea (and the beginnings of Viet Nam); Oppenheimer's fall, Fermi's death, Einstein's "General Field Theory"; the H-Bomb and the beginnings of nuclear proliferation with British testing and "the Red Bomb." [BACK]

[
3] See Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) for a thoughtful exploration of this key trope of life under nuclearism. [BACK]

[4] Richard Klein, "Nuclear Criticism," Diacritics 14, no.2 (Summer 1984), 1-4. [BACK]