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Doctor Atomic: J Robert Oppenheimer

"Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer" by Ray Monk reviewed.

Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer
Ray Monk
Jonathan Cape, 832pp, £30

Behind the mushroom cloud, there’s a face. Wide-browed and skinny with staring eyes, it is handsome but in a disturbing way. It is a face that exudes great intelligence but also denies you access and that, in a nutshell, is J Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant, opaque creator of the atom bomb.

High intelligence combined with opacity is the first way in which Oppenheimer resembles Ludwig Wittgenstein, the subject of an earlier biography by Ray Monk. The second resemblance is that both were products of very rich Jewish families and the third is that neither could quite handle the ordinary human world. Wittgenstein’s entire career can be seen as an attempt to understand the ordinary; Oppenheimer’s as a failure to grasp the way his inner world would be seen by the outside.

Both, in their way, succeeded. Wittgenstein transformed western philosophy and Oppenheimer led perhaps the most astounding industrial venture in history, the Manhattan Project, which reached its climax at 5.30am on 16 July 1945 when the first atom bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert. The test was called Trinity and Oppenheimer later said he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavadgita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was also later to say, in the development of nuclear weapons, “The physicists have known sin.”

He was, from the beginning, awkward. Monk quotes Oppenheimer’s friend Isidor Rabi, who described him as “a man who was put together out of many bright shining splinters” and who “never got to be an integrated personality”. Torn between the easy liberality of American life and his European Jewish ancestry, he chose neither and struggled instead towards a form of patriotism that, to some, looked like treachery.

Oppenheimer never seems to have been a member of the Communist Party but he had communist friends and sympathies in the 1930s. As a result, he was, for decades, treated with intense and angry suspicion by certain key figures in the FBI. It is something of a miracle that he was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project at all. After the war, he made matters worse for himself by opposing the building of the “Super” – the hydrogen bomb – and by responding with tortured answers and even easily exposed lies to, among other institutions, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

He was awkward because, like Wittgenstein, he could not build a bridge between his mighty mind and the minds of others. In youth, this almost destroyed him. He seems to have tried to kill a tutor at Cambridge with a poisoned apple, a crime covered up with talk of psychiatric problems and through the influence of his rich and powerful parents, who were in town at the time. Back in the US, they also cleared up a tricky problem when he crashed a car while trying to impress a girlfriend – they gave her a Cézanne.

In physics he found succour. It was a way into the invisible depths of the world and away from its impossibly complex surface. Yet even here, he made life difficult for himself. He could not make up his mind whether he was a theorist or experimenter and he also tended to back the wrong horses, notably failing to see the full significance of Richard Feynman’s quantum electrodynamics. The truth is that, in any other age, he may have been the leading physicist in the world but, in the century of Einstein, Feynman and too many others, he was second rank.

Yet, for the subject, Oppenheimer pulled off a mighty coup born of his patriotism. He overthrew Germany to make the US the home of the most advanced physics, a title the Large Hadron Collider has recently stolen back for Europe. At Berkeley and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he imported or nurtured the best in the world. In the latter case, this included not only Einstein and friends but also T S Eliot, who was perhaps the one man alive capable of overawing the assembled geniuses.

For all his awkwardness and his apparent disconnection from the world, Oppenheimer’s true destiny was leadership. Like many leaders, he was destined to do just one thing. The Manhattan Project was a staggering achievement involving the deployment of tens of thousands of workers, almost all of whom had no idea of the purpose of the mysterious work they were doing, and the balancing of the egos of the physicists and the demands of the military, not to mention dealing with the poison being poured into the system by the FBI agents who, without any hard evidence, had convinced themselves Oppenheimer was a traitor. On top of all of which was the sin that became burned flesh at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is to scratch the surface of this mighty book, which feels suspiciously like the best biography I’ve ever read. Its primary quality is restraint. Monk accepts his subject’s opacity and does not pretend to penetrate it with easy psychology. He generously leaves the best insight to others. He begins with that moving quote of Rabi’s but ends with one even more moving, one that fully captures the pain and difficulty of being J Robert Oppenheimer.

“The arrogance,” said the diplomat and historian George Kennan, “which to many appeared to be a part of his personality, masked in reality an overpowering desire to bestow and receive affection. Neither circumstances nor at times the asperities of his own temperament permitted the gratification of this need in a measure remotely approaching its intensity.” Weep for Hiroshima – but spare one tear for Oppie.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis