Snake Dance by Patrick Marnham: The self that is known

Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released.

New Statesman
Debris scattered around the sixth reactor building of the Fukushima power plant, whose reactors were built by General Electric. Image: Getty

Snake Dance: Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky
Patrick Marnham
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £18.99

At the dead centre of this book’s snaking path down the friable face of human history stands Aby Warburg, a scion of the well-known banking family and a dilettante scholar at a time – and in a place – when to be so was still intellectually respectable. When Patrick Marnham writes that Warburg “mocked the keepers of academic purity as ‘border police’”, I suspect a strong sense of identification is at work. Michael P Steinberg, the translator of Warburg’s discipline-transgressing monographs on the snake dances of the Hopi, characterised his voice as one of “spiralling and endless mediation, between peoples, between pasts and presents, between the self that is known and the self that is secret”. I suspect that this, too, could be a description of Marnham’s own efforts in this book to which he would assent.

In the 1890s, Warburg travelled from his home in Florence to the American southwest with a view to substantiating theories he had about the endurance of pagan thinking in the Renaissance iconography. While there, he witnessed the snake dance of Marnham’s title, a ceremony in which the Hopi wrestle with live rattlesnakes and then expel them into the desert.

Many years later, in 1921, having sustained a terrible breakdown that Marnham hypothesises was a sort of collateral shell shock, Warburg was confined to an asylum in Kreuzlingen on the shores of Lake Constance. Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released. The subject Warburg chose to lecture on was the Hopi snake dance but the interpretation he placed on it – at least by Marnham’s account – was precursive of the theories of structural anthropology put forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss decades later.

For Warburg, the snake dance was an attempt by the Hopi to master the lightning that struck down from the heavens into their desert lands, the curves of the rattlesnake being an animate symbol of lightning – its flickering tongue the fork; mutatis mutandis, in contemporary culture Warburg identified the same electrical threat but this time from the technology of electrical simultaneity that collapsed the linear chains of causality on which the western Weltanschauung had been founded. But in keeping with Marnham’s desire to link places and peoples spirally, it isn’t simply the gravamen of Warburg’s argument that interests him: it’s the provenance of his research material, for the Hopi reservation where the sensitive scholar witnessed the primal ritual was only a few score miles away from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project scientists, under the direction of J Robert Oppenheimer, designed and built the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Snake Dance is short on “the self that is secret” as against “the self that is known” but its readers will learn at least this much about its author: initially interested in writing a biography of Oppenheimer, Marnham tells us that early on in his research he began to find himself quite viscerally repelled by what he was learning of his subject’s character, with its curious mixture of intellectual arrogance and braggadocio. He decided to pursue a different course – to investigate the genesis and meaning of Oppenheimer’s mind-children through a series of nuclear landscapes; New Mexico, but also the Belgian Congo, where the uranium that made the fissioning heart of Little Boy was mined; and also the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan, following the meltdown after the tsunami of 2011.

Marnham, a veteran foreign correspondent with a distinguished record as both a journalist and a wide-ranging author of books about such diverse subjects as Georges Simenon, Jean Moulin and Mary Wesley, is in many ways the perfect guide for this centripetal odyssey in which all paths loop back towards a grim conclusion about the 20th century’s militarisation of technological advance. His prose is calm and unshowy, maintaining the same steady character whether recounting the terrifying course of an internal air flight in Congo or the toxic long tail that waggled out from Fukushima’s stricken reactor. He took a decade over Snake Dance, a book that is also, in part, a prose libretto for the moody and elegiac film of the same name made in tandem with the Belgian director Manu Riche. The book gives Marnham the opportunity to develop his thesis more thoroughly and less elliptically than the film, but even so it suffers from a form of post hoc reasoning that at times borders on tendentiousness.

The third person around whom Marnham triangulates his argument is Joseph Conrad and lengthy passages are devoted to retelling the story of the novelist’s short-lived career as a Congo River steamer captain and his exposure to the genocidal fiefdom established in Central Africa by King Leopold of Belgium. Marnham’s account, in situating the Belgian Congo as the foundational hecatomb of the 20th century, can’t help but bear comparison with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, which also makes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a choric link between natural devastation and techno-death.

Unfortunately – and somewhat inevitably – Marnham comes out the worse. Not only is Sebald’s lapidary prose, his masterful interfusing of the real and the fictive, superior in tone and feel to Marnham’s writing but his form of documentary fiction is better suited to putting forward a thesis that depends less on logical deduction than a willingness to let drop one’s disbelief in the chains of causality that Aby Warburg saw as crucial to maintaining good mental health in the electrical age. In his collection of lectures On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald also lucidly expounded the thesis that lurks behind Marnham’s text; and this is, put bluntly, that military technology has an ineluctable productive inertia. The Allied bombing of German cities in the Second World War –which many, despite the inauguration last year of a pig-ugly memorial at Hyde Park Corner, still view as a prima facie war crime –was, according to Sebald, undertaken not for strategic reasons, nor simply as a punishment meted out to civilians for their collective culpability in Hitler’s wars and deranging atrocities, but because the bombers had been built, the crews trained and the ordinance manufactured. To justify the expense of all this, something had to be done with it.

Snake Dance applies this argument to the Manhattan Project, which, Marnham demonstrates, was initiated in advance of Pearl Harbor, when the US was still at peace, and further was prosecuted by a secret directorate, answerable to no democratic mandate. Even those who might wish to defend the Hiroshima bombing as essential to end the war (and this is by no means a defensible position: the Japanese were already suing for peace) can hardly claim that it was also necessary to incinerate tens of thousands of people at Nagasaki three days later, before the Japanese government had absorbed the impact of the first use of the atomic bomb.

Although these are urgent and important matters – all the more so because the global gaze, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has turned aside from the ever-present atrocity-in-waiting of nuclear war to concentrate its attention on the convenient and largely chimerical spectre of international terrorism – I’m afraid Marnham’s account, leaning heavily as it does on Richard Rhodes’s monumental The Making of the Atomic Bomb, adds little of substance.

Still, Marnham does have the solid virtue of boots on the ground. He writes penetratingly about the activities of the Belgian mining corporation at Shinkolobwe, speaks to the poor souls who now risk their lives to wrest a livelihood from the uranium workings deep in the jungle; and he is almost lyrical when he turns his attention to the beauty of the “America deserta” surrounding Los Alamos.

Where I found it harder to follow him was in his connection of the civil nuclear energy programme in Japan to the fomenting of the US military-industrial complex. He points out that the US government was the most persistent proponent of Japan’s programme and that the reactors – including those at Fukushima – were built by General Electric, often on woefully unsuitable sites, with the consequences that we have now seen.

In a way Marnham is simply a victim of his own clarity and lucidity: the Sebaldian contention depends for its terpsichorean effects on the numinous quality of the poetic truth that humanity has, for over a century now, been engaged in the mechanical annihilation of the thing that it loves. Put down starkly on the page as an accumulation of facts, this thesis risks being judged with the same kind of bean-counting mentality that enters unthinkingly into modern warfare as the extension of economic growth by other means.