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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
“One often wonders why men of Oppenheimer’s gifts do not discover everything worth discovering.…[I]t seems to me that in some respects Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling for the mystery of the universe that surrounded him almost like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel that there was much more of the mysterious and novel than there actually was.…Some may call it a lack of faith, but in my opinion it was more a turning away from the hard, crude methods of theoretical physics into a mystical realm of broad intuition.”
And closing his tribute, Rabi netted the essential man in a qualified benediction. “In Oppenheimer,” he wrote, “the element of earthiness was feeble.”
Haakon Chevalier, Oppenheimer’s Berkeley pal in the later years of the Depression, a professor of French and dallier with Communism whose relations with Oppenheimer would be ground to Paris green at securityhearing time, inhaled the fog of sanctification and supplied the most concise physical description the record contains:
“[Oppenheimer] was tall, nervous and intent, and he moved with an odd gait, a kind of jog, with a great deal of swinging of his limbs, his head always a little to one side, one shoulder higher than the other. But it was the head that was most striking: the halo of whispy black curly hair, the fine, sharp nose, and especially the eyes, surprisingly blue, having a strange depth and intensity, and yet expressive of a candor that was altogether disarming. He looked like a young Einstein, and at the same time like an overgrown choir boy.”
Oppenheimer’s students, in those infatuate prewar days, idolized him even to aping his mannerisms, moving with odd gaits all over Berkeley. Chevalier idolized him too, and so fails to mention the self-inflicted stigmata: the forced insomnia, the ravaged teeth, the extreme emaciation (Oppenheimer, six feet tall, never in his life weighed more than 130 pounds, and in times of exceptional stress would tighten to a cadaverous 113), the caustic martinis thrown on a tender stomach, the chains of smoke wheezed through tubercular lungs.
These were the years of the left-wing movement in America, when Communism was openly discussed and openly avowed on college campuses everywhere. Walking with Oppenheimer in San Francisco one day in 1930, Ernest Lawrence discovered he had not yet heard of the Wall Street Crash. The benevolent mentor, who shared with his students the coauthorship of signal papers and supplemented their diets at the best restaurants in town, learned to his indignation that all his influence could not lever them into nonexistent teaching jobs; and apprehending that, quick study that he was, he apprehended the revolutionary forces the Depression set loose.
The plight of his students exposed Oppenheimer to social injustice, peeled back the insulation of his wealth; the desperation of his German aunt and cousins to escape to America from the eugenic hallucinations of the Nazis, an escape that in 1937 he underwrote, alerted him to fascism. Both intercessions moved him leftward, but the private reason he joined the fringes of the Communist movement in Berkeley was probably emotional adaptation to the rebellious standards of a woman he loved and hoped to salvage, Jean Tatlock, the lithe, chiaroscuro daughter of an anti-Semite Berkeley medievalist. Though he never, like her, joined the party, finding its dialectics less rigorous than his taste, he espoused her cause, read Engels and Feuerbach and all of Marx, attended meetings, tithed. What he earned in return from Jean Tatlock—as, more obscurely, from the woman in Corsica before—was passionate acceptance, and with that acceptance a bolder emotional commitment to humanity, including his own. The woman he married for life in 1940, Katherine Puening, Kitty, who had lost a heroic Communist husband, a Dartmouth man, on the practice battlefields of revolutionary Spain, who dedicated herself now to nurturing and supporting him, sealed that commitment.
Oppenheimer pilgrimaged to the women in his life afflicted with more than diffidence, afflicted with something worse than the stylish Harvard Weltschmerz his detractors thought they saw (his enemies caught its hot scent, though they inverted it and imagined him Machiavellian at least, if not actually diabolic): afflicted with a pathological disgust with himself and a nearly pathological horror of the world. Only once, on the record, did he emerge from stoic privacy to reveal the depth of that disgust—after years of marital devotion had sweetened it, and for an important cause. “Up to now, and even more in the days of my almost infinitely prolonged adolescence,” he told a group of culturally distinguished peers he’d assembled to discuss the possibility of peace, “I hardly took an action, hardly did anything, or failed to do anything, whether it was a paper on physics, or a lecture, or how I read a book, how I talked to a friend, how I loved, that did not arouse in me a very great sense of revulsion and of wrong.” Which is to say more than that his standards were impossibly high: which is to say that he perceived himself worse than a failure, perceived himself a thing loathsome before the world. He realized to his survival, if not his salvation, that the women in his life saw him otherwise: