October 10, 2023, by UoN School of English
Oppenheimer and The Waste Land
Early on in Christopher Nolan’s 2023 film Oppenheimer, there is a whirlwind montage of the young J. Robert Oppenheimer imagining phenomena within quantum physics. We see visions of the universe, atoms and waveforms intercut with shots of Oppenheimer surrounded by art, history, and monumental architecture. It is a kaleidoscopic composition signifying the turbulence of the student’s mind in the mid 1920s as he grapples with new frontiers in science and culture. Most notably, Nolan decides to use an intimate shot of Oppenheimer sat alone studying T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash
The Waste Land is a canon text within the early twentieth-century Modernist movement. This was a tumultuous period of radical departure from traditional art forms whilst responding to modern advancements. These advancements included new political concepts, revolutionary art, mass industrialisation, and theories from Freud and Darwin. Such new ways of thinking led to a need for new ways of expression – this is what Eliot accomplished with The Waste Land.
The poem is distinctly fragmented, with interpenetrating narrators and little cohesion between each voice. This was a destruction of long-established poetic form; Eliot was reshaping literary boundaries within the chaos that he lived. We can relate Eliot’s form to Nolan’s montage of Oppenheimer in his early years. Nolan’s rapid cuts and transitory shots are like Eliot’s use of stanzas – used to switch between thoughts and voices, rarely lingering long enough to explain themselves. Both Oppenheimer and Eliot were teetering on the boundaries of their respective fields, within the emergence of a new age.
Photo by Aperture Vintage on Unsplash
However, this new age was not just about progress, but also annihilation. Eliot wrote in the aftermath of World War One, confronted by a devastated society and landscape: a literal wasteland. Ironically, Oppenheimer’s reading of the poem may serve as a failed warning. It is Oppenheimer’s genius invention that now resurfaces and exacerbates societies destruction: the type of destruction Eliot examines in The Waste Land with ‘what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?’. Life cannot be bred out of war, and Oppenheimer’s creation inevitably gives way to these existential questions Eliot proposed.
Nolan’s use of The Waste Land is not just historically accurate to Oppenheimer’s admiration of Eliot, but it also speaks to the poem’s timeliness. It is ultimately about the disorder of our modern age, more prevalent than ever in a world threatened by its own progression.
 T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems, (London: Faber and Faber, 1961) p.51.
– Hannah Cox, Year 2 BA English
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