2008 - 2024

Your second thought after awakening should run: ‘The possibility of the Apocalypse is our work. But we know not what we are doing’. We really don’t know, nor do they who control the Apocalypse: for they too are ‘we’, they too are fundamentally incompetent. That they too are incompetent, is certainly not their fault; rather the consequence of a fact for which neither they nor we can be held responsible: the effect of the daily growing gap between our two faculties; between our actions and our imagination; of the fact, that we are unable to conceive what we can construct; to mentally reproduce what we can produce; to realize the reality which we can bring into being.

☛ “Commandments in the Atomic Age” by Günther Anders, in Burning Conscience New York: Monthly Review Press, [1957] 1961, pp. 11-12. PDF. First published as a separate essay in July 14, 1957 (see below).

[UPDATE–July 29, 2013] Harold Marcuse recently updated the “Publications” section of the Günther Anders Page he has created and still maintains to include a complete PDF copy (53.4MB) of the book Burning Conscience: The Case of the Hiroshima Pilot Claude Eatherly, told in his Letters to Günther Anders (New York/London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961). He has also uploaded a 36-page PDF document (2.9MB) of the letters his grand-father Herbert Marcuse wrote to Günther Anders over the years 1947-1978.

• • •

Compare Günther’s “Commandments” with what Hannah Arendt wrote in the prologue of her book The Human Condition first published in English in 1958:

We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will for- ever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the help- less slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is tech- nically possible, no matter how murderous it is. (London: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 3)

Along with the essay “Über die Bombe und die Wurzeln unserer Apokalypse Blindheit” included in Günther Anders’s Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen published one year earlier1, the “Commandments in the Atomic Age” was part of what Anders qualified as the “first phase of anti-nuclear movements”. In the 1982 introduction he wrote for Hiroshima ist überall2 he explained how the events of August 6, 1945 plunged him into a stupor which took him several years to overcome. When he finally managed to write down his thoughts about the meaning of what had happened, it was mainly to come to the conclusion that we had become incapable of a clear understanding of what we were nonetheless technologically capable of producing. Our capacity of production has overwhelmed our capacity of representation3. I don’t believe this introduction has ever been translated into English. Here’s a relevant excerpt in its French translation:

Comme ce que l’on ne maîtrise pas par la langue, on ne peut le comprendre, non: même pas le signifier, non: même pas le percevoir correctement, je tenais le devoir de formulation pour un commandement absolu. Si ma tentative n’est pas restée complètement infructueuse, elle m’a tout de même coûté des années d’efforts. La stupeur dans laquelle m’avait plongé la fameuse nouvelle radiodiffusée du 6 août 1945, je n’ai pas pu, durant de nombreuses années, la surmonter ou m’en défaire par la parole. C’est seulement au début des années 1950, en 1952 ou 1953, longtemps après être rentré de mon exil américain, que j’ai réussi à franchir un premier pas mal assuré. […] Mais ce que j’ai alors rassemblé, certes d’une écriture fluide mais en traçant le moindre caractère avec hésitation, était à peine plus que la confession de mon incapacité, non: de notre incapacité à seulement nous représenter ce que «nous» avions là mis en place ou produit. […] C’est seulement quelques jours plus tard que j’ai entrevu ce qu’il y a de redoutable dans notre situation, à savoir que la possibilité, non: la probabilité d’un recommencement d’Hiroshima et Nagasaki, reposait justement sur ce décalage entre notre capacité de représenter et notre capacité de produire. (emphasis in the original, Hiroshima est partout, “Introduction de 1982” tr. by Denis Trierweiler, Paris: Seuil, 2008, pp. 36-37)

• • •

Günther Anders’s essay “Commandments in the Atomic Age” was first published as “Gebote des Atomzeitalters” in the July 14, 1957 edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung4. Although the publication is still activite today, its online archive only goes back to 1994. The original German text can nonetheless be found at Texte und Thesen.

In 1959, Günther Anders’s third wife Charlotte Zelka translated the “Gebote des Atomzeitalters” in English so Anders could send the text to U.S. Army Air Forces pilot Claude Eatherly with whom he had just started a correspondence. This correspondence (including the original German version of the essay “Gebote des Atomzeitalters”) was first published in German in 1961 as Off limits für das Gewissen. Der Briefwechsel zwischen dem Hiroshima-Piloten Claude Eatherly und Günther Anders with a preface by Bertrand Russel and a foreword by Robert Junkt (author of Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists in 1958). The American edition appeared the next year under the title Burning Conscience: The Case of the Hiroshima Pilot Claude Eatherly, told in his Letters to Günther Anders 1961 with an added postscript “to the American readers” by Günther Anders himself.

The entirety of Anders’s correspondence with Eatherly ―including preface and foreword― was later included in Hiroshima ist überall (C. H. Beck, München, 1982; see page 191 of the 1995 German edition). The collection was translated in French as Hiroshima est partout (Seuil, 2008): this is where French readers should look for a French version of Anders’s “Commandments in the Atomic Age”.

• • •

1. “Über die Bombe und die Wurzeln unserer Apokalypse Blindheit” was translated in the French edition of Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen as “De la bombe et de l’aveuglement face a l’apocalypse”. Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen has yet to be fully translated into English. However, a short excerpt of “Über die Bombe…” was translated as “Reflections On The H Bomb” in Dissent vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 1956 (pp. 146-155, PDF). At the time of writing, I believe the best way to stay informed about the availability of English translations for Günther Anders is through Harold Marcuse dedicated website: Günther Anders. That’s where I originally learned about the existence of “Reflections On The H Bomb”. ↩︎︎

2. At the very beginning of this introduction, Günther Anders mentions a text published in 1959 titled “Thesen zum Atomzeitalter” (in French the title was translated as “Thèses sur l’âge atomique”). Although this text contains ideas similar to the ones expressed in “Commandments in the Atomic Age” (see Zeit.de: “Zorn der Vernunft” May 20, 2011) they are actually two different essays. ↩︎︎

3. I wrote about this gap before (also quoting Günther Anders): On the threshold of knowledge: Pythagoreans, incommensurability and the experience of modernity.↩︎︎

4. In Letter 3 of his correspondance with Claude Eatherly, Gunther Anders indicates that his “Commandments in the Atomic Age” were first published on July 14. However, in the “Preface” for the French translation Hiroshima ist überall, Jean-Pierre Dupuy suggests they were published on July 13, which is also the date provided by Text und Thesen.↩︎︎

"A dense column of smoke rises more than 60,000 feet into the air over the Japanese port of Nagasaki, the result of an atomic bomb, the second ever used in warfare, dropped on the industrial center August 8, 1945, from a U.S. B-29 Superfortress." Document no 208-N-43888, retrieved from Archive.gov
“A dense column of smoke rises more than 60,000 feet into the air over the Japanese port of Nagasaki, the result of an atomic bomb, the second ever used in warfare, dropped on the industrial center August 8, 1945, from a U.S. B-29 Superfortress.” Document no 208-N-43888, retrieved from Archive.gov

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