The World Changed Forever After Hiroshima

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"Our end drifts nearer," wrote poet Robert Lowell. "The moon lifts/radiant with terror."

From his precarious Cold War perch, in the poem "Fall 1961," Lowell caught the defining horror of the age in that compact image. Even the moon, under the threat of man's nuclear devastation, takes on a luminous vulnerability. Anything, everything might be destroyed -- and thereby becomes more desperately cherished. Mary McCarthy called the dawn of the nuclear era the "hole in human history," the glittering black heart of modern consciousness.

Sixty years ago this week, with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, history was pulverized. Time stopped. The doomsday clock began to tick. The planet has churned on since then, past other wars and new world orders, presidents and prime ministers, the thawing of the American-Soviet freeze and the metastasizing of terrorist cells.

But like the cloud of radiation that billowed from that first impact on Aug. 6, 1945, the bomb and the threat of ultimate destruction it carried lingers on in uncountable, unfathomably complex ways. It shapes our connections to each other and our descendants, to politics and the Earth, to meaning itself. It looms, in Robert Jay Lifton's telling phrase, over "the future of immortality."

In the arts, the culture's deepest pools of meditation, rage, grief and transmutation, the legacy of Hiroshima may have its most enduring hold. "The artist is a prophet of forms," as Lifton writes. By making Armageddon a plausible reality rather than a Biblical portent, Hiroshima altered both the character of human life and the apprehension of the future. The artist -- not the scientist -- became our most invaluable witness, the prophet, ironic celebrant and grimacing clown of profound uncertainty.

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