I have nothing to say about war at this moment except one thing: war is a significant propeller for art. Like sadness, depression, and tragedy. Like poverty, heartbreak, and fear. In fact, war combines these six things quite well and has been doing so its entire life.
Artists will always reflect on war as long as it still exists. It’s an uneasy relationship to say the least. But it is one that, like war itself, can be described as undeniable.
When the bombs dropped in 1945, an estimated 246,000 deaths from Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined were eventually reported, adding to the estimated total World War II death toll of 60+ million. Many artists were alive to see it.
The art soon followed. Books, films, articles, paintings, songs, music, plays, and performances barreled through, and they continue to do so in 2012. My generation, decades away from conception as the war ended, are still exposed to the artform ramifications of that war and those bombs and probably will for the rest of our lives.
In 1947, one year after Gertrude Stein’s death, this piece of writing appeared in Yale Poetry Review. In my research I haven’t yet been able to find out when it was actually written, either before the bombs dropped or afterward. But considering Stein’s controversial actions, words, and feelings regarding the war, it is another example of the different ways war affects the thought process of a critical and artistic thinker.
Here it is, transcribed for you in its entirety:
Reflection on the Atomic Bomb by Gertrude Stein
They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb. I said I had not been able to take any interest in it.
I like to read detective and mystery stories, I never get enough of them but whenever one of them is or was about death rays and atomic bombs I never could read them. What is the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there is nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about. If they are not as destructive as all that then they are just a little more or less destructive than other things and that means that in spite of all destruction there are always lots left on this earth to be interested or to be interesting and the thing that destroys is just one of the things that concerns the people inventing it or the people shooting it off, but really nobody else can do anything about it so you have to just live along like always, so you see the atomic (bomb) is not at all interesting, not any more interesting than any other machine, and machines are only interesting in being invented or in what they do, so why be interested. I never could take any interest in the atomic bomb, I just couldnt any more than in everybody’s secret weapon. That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless. Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it’s the living that are interesting not the way of killing them, because if there were not a lot left living how could there be any interest in destruction. Alright, that is the way I feel about it. And really way down that is the way everybody feels about it. They think they are interested in the atomic bomb but they really are not not any more than I am. Really not. They may be a little scared, I am not so scared, there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting.
Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story.