The first shot of Hiroshima Mon Amour is the lovers’ bodies, headless, entwined, clutching at each other under a black rain of fall-out ash. It’s beautiful. But also desperate and cloying. It sets up the films metaphorical play with war and love, of unspeakable national histories with unspeakable personal histories. Of the illusion of forgetting and remembering.
Still locked in embrace, the two lovers, (known only as ‘She’ and ‘He’) begin a poetic dialogue about the atomic bombing in Hiroshima on August 6th 1946.
“You saw nothing in Hiroshima” ‘He’ tells her, positing the impossibility of second hand witness or witness without experience.
‘She’ insists that she has seen, that she can see and understand what has happened to this city. The audience sees too in a composed sequence of flash-card-memory.
The editing is an extra voice in the conversation. Shots of the city as it was in the late fifties as well as images from August 6th 1945 are spliced into the composition.
'She' has seen photographs that make tourists weep.
"You might feel scorn but what else can a tourist do but weep?” ‘She’ says.
Later ‘She’ will weep to leave her impossible love affair. As though she is not only a tourist of death, a war tourist, but also a tourist in love – soaking up the impossible experience and weeping for it’s perceived inautheticity, morning its disappearance, first into memory and then into the forgotten.
Like ‘She’, I’m currently in Hiroshima, attempting to engage with the town as both text and a place in which I have to live. Like ‘She’, I’ve visited the museum, watched the school children and the tourists in peace square. I have wept and forgotten and attempted to reach some kind of textual symbiosis through unsatisfying metaphor.
‘She’ is there to make a film “about peace, what else in Hiroshima?”
I am here to write about annihilation and atomic text.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is less about war than about memory and its twin, forgetting. As a child ‘She’ railed against forgetting in the midst of a war. ‘She’ is a French teenager who takes a German lover. When he dies ‘She’ refuses to forget the injustice. Disgraced, ‘She’ is locked in the cellar. Her parents shave her head. Her fingers become bloody from scratching at the stone walls. ‘She’ refuses to forget the intensity and the injustice of her love. She is made its object, as a victim is made the object of a sudden and inexplicable catastrophe. In its aftermath, when no-one will afford her empathy or understanding she drives herself mad with hate.
‘She’ shares this story with her Japanese lover in Hiroshima, and in the telling, a consensual metamorphosis occurs in which her Japanese lover and the dead German are identified as one man. The first world war and the second world war also fuse and forgetting them becomes both integral and impossible.
“My dead lover is the enemy of France, someone says I should be paraded through town,” ‘She’ remembers.
Again, the editing is incredibly associational, creating a symbolic collage. We have seen the placards of the Hiroshima peace parade. Marchers holding up photographs of burn victims, people deformed by the bomb. They are paraded through town. They become symbols of consequence.
The people I’ve met who live in Hiroshima have mixed feelings about peace and memory. Many are (at least partially) drawn to the place because of its history. But they are also sick of talking about, marching about, holding placards and writing poems about peace. I wonder if they are also bored of remembering. One argument says that it is the responsibility of Hiroshima, the first site of demonstration of technologies which make possible the total annihilation of humanity, to continue to remember and testify. Another argument simply asks, why? To whom is Hiroshima responsible?
I recently read yet another polemic arguing that if you have no experience of a thing, then your opinion is less balanced or even admissible. The article was titled (twee-scandalously) ‘Thank God for the Atom Bomb’ (author Paul Fussel’s capitals, not mine). It used factual prediction to prove that more people would have died (especially soldiers and civilian-soldiers) had the atom bomb not ended the war in the pacific.
This may be true. It also bores the shit out of me and is a pretty offensive proposition to the people who survived nuclear attack.
Whoever spread the maxim ‘write what you know’ should amend it to include ‘you should always try to know more stuff, even though knowing anything is impossible’. Responding to vast texts (those of war, of annihilation, holocaust) is something that every human being left standing is able to do. Response and translation allow us to live in our world even beside the horrors of war.
Margerrite Duras, who wrote Hiroshima Mon Amour has this advice:
“Reverse everything, including analysis and criticism.”
She is trying to make a feminist point about interpretation with this statement. She is ascribing the very act of metaphoric production and the interpretative gesture as something belonging to a feminist worldview.
In Hiroshima Mon Amour the female character insists on her ability to interpret, while the male character tells her that this is impossible.
‘She’ was not there. ‘She’ can not know.
Like me, Duras is both a feminist and a romantic (as in someone engaged in the interpretation and creation of texts about love), two ideologues which are often hard to simultaneously uphold.
Like ‘She’, Duras, was misunderstood and brutalized by her family. Duras grew up an outsider, which is a state of constant grappling with understanding the other (as in understanding The Other, and understanding your own Otherness). In French occupied Vietnam, Duras grew up as a kind of tourist and it could well be this position as much as her gender which informs her political opposition to pinning down meaning.
On the screen, ‘He’ chases ‘She’ through the black and white streets of Hiroshima.
“What appears in my films is the language of women, the action of women. The men are forced to follow. They do it the best they can but they already lag behind. It’s already the beginning of an inverted world… Men don’t translate. They begin from a theoretical platform that is already in place” says Duras.
As a feminist of her generation she seems unable to or uninterested in getting away from binaries but still, if we want to criticize Hiroshima Mon Amour it would be from this very platform. We would say that making metaphor for love and madness from the horrific realities of nuclear war is too simple, wrong-headed and ‘female’.
But what’s the alternative? To make another docudrama? To create another tribute to the faded discourse of ‘peace’? How very dull.
An academic friend insisted that people’s reasons for visiting Hiroshima would make an interesting investigation. He posited the question of whether there could be some ethical argument for or against the existence of Hiroshima as a tourist destination. He was so (academically/ devil’s-advocatty: a super-male position that often makes me sick to my balls) enthused about this tangent that I was taken with it too. I considered asking every person I met. Later I realized that the answers people would be comfortable to give as to why they come were likely to be as ubiquitously uninteresting as I generally find any polemic on ethics (we wanted to learn about the war/ wanted to understand this great tragedy/injustice/blah).
We don’t really know why we visit these kinds of places, we just do. Perhaps part of it is to justify the great excess of tourism with a little ‘education’. But mainly, the experience of being at a place where catastrophe occurred appears to promise a visceral experience - a kind of embodied empathy. Even if situating yourself at the point of collapse fails to move you, you still come and you still look around and you still feel whatever you feel. Then you talk about it. You interpret. It all goes into the soup of you. It softens your bones. When you visit a site like Hiroshima there is always a hint of some indefinable feeling which can easily be compared with love.
Love is a challenge, an active state of being that is in constant flux and requires a continual movement of interpretation, between self and other, between text and meta-text. Following Duras’s argument we could say that love is a ‘female text’ or that ‘male logic’ will fall short in a reading of love (this is not to extend and say men fall short of love).
Annihilation too might be a ‘female text’ for Duras, in that its existence as a text defies the ‘male’ authoritative position. The reality of annihilation however, the totalizing finality of it ends all attempts at reading. Annihilation itself cannot be interpreted or analyzed from the first-hand expert-position. It can only be examined by the living Other. The meaning of annihilation can only be created and interpreted by those left standing. Here is the reason why we have to remember and translate in any way we are able to. In war people suffer and survive or suffer and die. In nuclear war the threat that the suffering will be ended completely, that there will be no stories left to tell is the most frightening.
After telling the story of her horrific first love and descent into madness ‘She’ becomes inconsolable, wracked with grief and despair at the notion of forgetting the emotionally annihilating forces of love, the brutality of nationalism and war, the injustices inflicted on people by people.
She begins to think once more of the setting of the story, Nevers in provincial France, she begins to remember it as a place of home as well as a signifier for trauma.
Nostalgic memory (as an adult has for childhood or a lover for lost love), once corrupted, can no longer be revisited without extreme pain and anguish. The place of ‘home’ cannot be returned to. It is gone. It’s deformed and mutated into a place of horror. Forgetting is horror, remembering is horror. Nostalgia is all that is possible. Pain is all that is possible.
“Devour me. Deform me.” ‘She’ says, “You’re destroying me. You’re good for me”.
For ‘She’, love - like the horrors of history - exists in this impossible, painful territory between the need to forget and the need to remember. Love is a lost home like Nevers or an eternally destroyed city, like Hiroshima.
“I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetting. I’ll think of this story as of the horror of forgetting.” ‘He’ tells her.
After the act is over and dawn breaks, the lovers must part. Cities and towns must continue in commerce and industry and the everyday. All horrific memories must be reconciled with the world of the living,
“I consign you to oblivion” ‘She’ says, giving up. Wising up. Preparing to catch the next train.