The Horror of the Bomb

The first chapter of Matheson’s book is devoted to the eruption of the Real into the Symbolic – the nuclear test at Fort Trinity. Matheson leads readers through snippets of accounts from various perspectives of people who witnessed this test, which are extremely detailed until the explosion goes off: “What follows the painstaking construction of this scene in every account is a spectacular failure of language” (p. 26). Humanity had been confronted with the Bomb, which tears apart ordered, symbolized reality, revealing the Real which “resists meaning” (p. 29). When language began to return to observers after a few minutes, the sublime (which uses objects in the Symbolic to stand-in for the experience of the Real) explains why the first type of language people use to talk about the Bomb is religious – like the concept of divinity, the Bomb beckons humanity beyond that which it can control.

The Symbolic order, firstly via religious language, attempts to stitch close the hole blown in it by the intrusion of the Real – this causes “uncanny” metaphors and cathectic investments as the Symbolic attempts to incorporate the Real into its purview. Matheson ingeniously compares the trauma which the human body experiences as it incorporates nuclear fallout to the trauma the Symbolic order experiences as it incorporates intrusions of the Real into its vocabulary (p. 47). These cathectic investments (see the section on the sublime) cause, according to Lacan’s theory of the unconscious, some metonymic connections to become metaphors in the Symbolic order, hiding other metonymic connections and changing the Symbolic order’s “topography” (pp. 45-6).