We Are Become Death: Cultural Shockwaves of Hiroshima

Open Access
Daniels, Devin William
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Richard Doyle, Thesis Supervisor
  • Janet Wynne Lyon, Honors Advisor
  • Brian Lennon, Faculty Reader
  • Hiroshima
  • atomic bomb
  • William S. Burroughs
  • postmodernism
This thesis, “We Are Become Death: Cultural Shockwaves of Hiroshima,” aims to achieve a greater understanding of what the atomic bomb means and what it can teach contemporary society, rather than to investigate the debates of policy and morality which tend to surround it. Towards this end, I briefly examine contemporary reactions to the bomb and “classically post-apocalyptic” works, revealing that of chief issue behind the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a restrictive and arbitrary idea of what “life” was that did not properly include the Japanese people. Further, the disturbing and nostalgic means through which the bomb is understood, the death view, is explicated and rejected. In search of a superior means of understanding the post-nuclear world, I turn to William S. Burroughs and his word virus theory, which I demonstrate to be explicitly linked to nuclear weaponry and discourse in The Ticket That Exploded, which brands the bomb as a symptom of the word virus, resulting in the provocative idea that the post-nuclear world existed before the bomb and created it, rather than the opposite. Burroughs depicts this world as a reality studio in which the films, representing prior thought formations, must be destroyed. Chief among these prior thought formations is the idea of one god essentialism. Burroughs’s culminating work The Western Lands is then investigated, in which the philosophy of silence is carried out in the form of a pilgrimage to the Ancient Egyptians’ place of immortality. Burroughs means to move us beyond the death view so that we might recognize the arbitrary nature of our languages, our innate ideas, and our fear of death. In doing so, an empowering and positive reading of the nuclear bomb is proposed, albeit one which makes the event itself all the more horrifying: the nuclear bomb serves as an event so immense and undeniable it might wake us up from our slumber, force us to recognize the issues of the word virus and lead us towards the Western Lands.