Marc Estrin


Heidegger was perhaps the deepest, darkest and richest theme that was cut. I’ve been “working on” Being and Time for years, trying to understand and digest its enormity. Its publication date, and the stir it created was just right to impact Gregor‘s life. The subsequent revelations of Heidegger’s Nazi associations would have made his inclusion that much richer and more ironic for the contemporary reader; ditto his relationship with Hannah Arendt. The great chapter on Death fit precisely into Gregor’s suicidal mood at Los Alamos. But, sure, it was too much to burden the novel with as it was gathering itself to its climax. Maybe Thomas Mann could have pulled it off. Here’s the chapter “In the Blackest of Forests” containing my treatise on Heidegger, not in the published version.


In the air, on the less-than-comfortable B-29, he composed a long letter to Leo Szilard detailing his recent adventures, findings and thoughts, and mailed it (c/o Trude Weiss) from La Guardia -- while still outside the censors’ reach. Then another long plane ride to Chicago, and on to Alamogordo Army Air Field, for the bus ride 160 miles north to Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It was the first time he had been in Alamogordo, but it would not be his last. His last would be his last.

It may be worth briefly reviewing the Project Gregor returned to, an enterprise much modified by reorganization around plutonium and implosion design. In July, Segre had established that a gun design for plutonium would not work, and the lab went into crisis. The only alternative would be to solve the immensely complex implosion problem suggested by Gregor and Neddermeyer’s early experiments in the canyon. Enrico Fermi and his family had arrived in August, and “The Pope” was appointed associate Lab director, and head of F-division, a catch-all gang of trouble shooters for interdisciplinary problems. The changes had lifted Lab spirits, though there was still only dim light at the end of tunnel. If there was an end of the tunnel. Bob Bacher took on a newly-created “Gadget-Division” focussing on bomb design, Kistiakowski continued to lead the X (explosives)-division, investigating explosive lenses, Luis Alvarez was developing micro-second detonation systems, and Robert Brode led the development of arming devices which could not trigger while the bomb was still in the airplane. Edward Teller and his stupendous ego continued to be a thorn in almost everyone’s side, but Oppie valued him too highly to let him go. He was appointed leader of a small “Super and General Theory Group” to work on problems not directly related to immediate production.

“Super” was the name for his hydrogen bomb idea -- a fusion weapon with many times the explosive power of anything possible with uranium or plutonium fission. Teller’s beloved brainchild, it was a bomb within a bomb, requiring an atomic blast to achieve the temperatures needed to crush hydrogen together. Gregor found it appalling. The weapon currently being developed on-site was projected to explode with the force of 10 kilotons (10,000 tons) of TNT over an area of 10 square miles, a figure horrible enough. Teller’s calculations for the Super predicted a similar effect over 1.000 square miles: it would require only one superbomb to entirely destroy New York City. Teller and his group did some targeting calculations: serious earthquake-level damage would occur if the bomb were detonated underground or underwater near a continental shelf. Even more exciting was the calculation that if a superbomb burned a 10 meter cube of liquid deuterium 300 miles above the atmosphere, the blast could lay waste a million square miles. Boys will be boys. 

Teller, however, was not the only physicist whose thoughts were tending toward the inhuman. In April of ‘43, Fermi, in Chicago, had proposed the possibility of using fiercely radioactive isotopes bred in an atomic pile to poison the German food supply, a preemptive strike against a similar possible German attack. Such might be an alternative in case a fission bomb proved impossible. Oppie swore Fermi to secrecy -- a secrecy within the overall secrecy of the Manhattan Project -- and the Italian went quietly to work. Oppie discussed Fermi’s idea with Teller, and the two agreed that Strontium 90 might be the best agent, not hard to separate from other radioactive products, and depositing itself quickly and permanently in bone. Oppenheimer, the man dedicated to ahimsa -- doing no harm -- wrote to Fermi, “I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of non-uniform distribution, be much smaller than this.”

Gregor had returned to an enterprise where both the best and worst of men had been caught up in the whirlwind of technical challenge, and had been unpredictably brutalized by their struggle. The new pace was frenetic, the energy high, the collegiality blinding and inspiring. The Germans were losing the war, and though there was still some fear of a desperate Wunderwaffen, it was the Japanese who seemed destined to be the Gadget’s target.


On his second day back, Gregor checked his mailbox. In it, he found a surprise. He had almost forgotten he had written.

365 W. 95th St.

New York 25, N.Y.

20 December 1944

Dear Mr. Samson,

Thank you for your provocative letter. I hope you will have patience with the extended answer I believe such a letter demands.

I must admit I found your auto-da-fe amusing, though not for its slapstick quality. Rather it demonstrates an unfortunately typical misdirection of goodwill: destroying the messenger does not invalidate bad tidings.

We agree, I think, on the message Kafka brings to a misconstructed world: the ancient admonition to “Know Thyself.” The truth of our time must be disclosed or uncovered from within its all-pervasive and seductive trappings. It requires a scalpel as sharp as Kafka’s to do such deep surgery. Modern man stands amidst the confusion of the time and seeks guidance, and Kafka provides not only guidance, but the intellectual momentum for constructive escape.

Let us look together at two of Kafka’s little parables, in some ways contrasting, even contradictory, and in some ways additive. Here is the first:

“He is a free and secure citizen of the world, for he is fettered to a chain which is long enough to give him the freedom of all earthly space, and yet only so long that nothing can drag him past the frontiers of the world. But simultaneously he is a free and secure citizen of Heaven as well, for he is also fettered by a similarly designed heavenly chain. So that if he heads, say, for the earth, his heavenly collar throttles him, and if he heads for Heaven, his earthly one does the same. And yet all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering.”

Even so is the world, a place where freedom and security is protected by chains which, while not seriously limiting earthly activity, keep one from falling off. But Kafka tells us that earthly freedom -- that granted by “the world” -- is not enough. For there is a dimension of other-than-earthly activity which also belongs to any citizen of the world: he is bound also to this transcendent realm, and gives up his citizenship at his peril. That is Kafka’s first great message: not one of limitation, but one of transcendent connection, a connection which also protects from too great immersion in the ordinary. True, there is conflict, tension, even paralysis in this situation, and you, Mr. Samson, may see the protagonist as defeated by his sadistic author. But the protagonist is not defeated. He is actually aware of the possibility that there is no error in the structure, that if deeply perceived and adroitly handled he may be able to bountifully operate within these strictures, as a poet does within the limitations of sonnet form. It is not stubbornness or stupidity behind his analysis. It is the smell of real freedom. 

The second story is this:

“He has two antagonists: the first presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that some time in an unguarded moment -- and this would require a night darker than any night has ever yet been -- he will jump out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other.”

The most obvious level of this tale concerns man embattled between the forces of the past and the imperatives of the given future. It pictures a crushing, suffocating thought-world miraculously evaded. However you choose to interpret the story, Mr. Samson, it again urges corrective action. True, the night will have to be at its darkest -- to provoke, to inspire and to hide -- but such a condition is already a regular occurrence in our dark times. And the man who can dream such a jump, such a discontinuity, such a transformation, that man is more than halfway toward its realization. Let Kafka whisper in your ear, and things may evolve which have never appeared before.

Forgive my presumption in suggesting that you concentrate not on the fetters, or the darkness of the night, but rather on the taut potential for situational metamorphosis. Kafka discloses what our blinded eyes have ceased to see, and such revelation has the power to trigger the springs of action.

As it has not yet appeared in English, and would be difficult for a non-native speaker to penetrate, I imagine you have not read BEING AND TIME, the important work of my friend and teacher, Martin Heidegger. It is impossible to summarize this complex work, but let me alert you to its existence, and hope you will spend some time with it when and if it is translated. To whet your appetite, let me simply mention that a key node in the work concerns the experience of “Angst”, a word with no English equivalent, approximately rendered by “uneasiness” or “malaise,” a feeling of non-normality occasionally experienced by reflective and serious people, perhaps you yourself. Common things may seem uncanny, odd or unfamiliar, as if from some other planet. Heidegger argues that Angst is a crucial experience in pushing beyond the “they-world”, a blinding, deafening, stultifying continuum of idle talk and stereotyped expectations. One who is transformed by Angst is given the space to escape such a world -- by seeing how strangulating it really is. Kafka’s heros are characterized by nothing so much as Angst,and are therefore given an opportunity to transcend denied to most people. Inasmuch as the reader identifies with these characters, they too, are asked to see the world as unheimlich -- uncanny, but also etymologically “not-at-home”, and themselves as no longer unquestioning members of the “they”. Kafka’s animals are the supreme metaphors of potentially redemptive self-alienation. The animal metamorphoses you mention -- into “apes, dogs, moles, mice -- even insects” are not simply “regressions” -- these characters are adventurers out of the “they-world” into the the possibility of other experience and deeper understanding. There may be many “unresolved interpretive furies” and “unproductive hypotheses”, but Kafka’s writing would not be “true” were it otherwise.

You may be interested in Heidegger’s understanding of the fruits of Angst, painful as they may be. Angst draws out, e-ducates, the authentic self, which then interacts with an authenticated world via Sorge,or care, both caring-about and caring-for. 

Again, again at the risk of being presumptuous, let me say that you seem to be a caring person, perhaps just by nature, or perhaps after having experienced some kind of transformative Angst. My counter-suggestion to you is that you be the one to re-evaluate this extraordinary prophet and teacher, and to engage him not as an enemy, but as a friend. “An enemy,” as the Russian proverb says, “will give in, but a friend will argue.” Kafka never does give in, does he?

I remain yours sincerely,

Hannah Arendt

What a nice, thoughtful letter! Gregor was not half so interested in re-evaluating Kafka as he was in seeing what this Heidegger was about. He realized Professor Arendt had been unaware of his native tongue, and had assumed he could not read the text. But surely he could -- if only he could find one. Like Kafka, Gregor had trouble giving in.

Book emergency! Realizing he had little chance of finding the German original in Santa Fe, or, for that matter, anywhere in German-hating America, G brought an announcement over to the Daily Bulletin Office that very afternoon:


Next evening, returning from work, he found a note in his mailbox:


A curious note, but there it was. Whatever one may say about the Los Alamos community, it did not lack high European culture.

Vicky Weisskopf was an Austrian theoretician, a longtime resident of Germany, who, fleeing the Nazis and the war, had emigrated through Copenhagen (with Bohr), Zurich (with Pauli), and had finally taken up citizenship in the United States, teaching at Rochester and Stanford. In 1943 he was recruited for Site Y by his old friend from Göttingen days, J. Robert Oppenheimer. When Gregor came knocking, he and Ellen invited him in for the book -- and a glass of wine.

“So, my friend, you’ve got the urge for mystical Teutonic death-deviltry?”

“No -- I just got an interesting letter from a woman who recommended the book.”

“Who is that?” asked Ellen.

“Professor Hannah Arendt. Do you know her?”

“Of course we know her,” Weisskopf said. May I see the letter?”

“I have it at home. It was an exchange about Franz Kafka. But she mentioned Sein und Zeit, and I though I would look at it.”

“Well don’t look too hard. What did Nietzsche say? -- “When you look too long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” 

“Yes. ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’ And then that line about the abyss. But what has this to do with Heidegger? Professor Arendt thinks he holds the key to Kafka and to life.”

“To her life, perhaps. Hannah Arendt was his lover.”

“How do you know that?”

“It, as they say, is well-known in German university circles.

“She didn’t mention that.”

“I’m sure.”

Ellen, a Dane without her husband’s immersion in academic politics, took off for the kitchen to prepare a snack. Weisskopf got up to fetch the book. 

“Well, there you go. It’s yours. Keep it. Take it away.” He handed the black book over.

“Thank you. What did you mean in your note about it being a gift in the German sense?”

Gift. Das Gift. Giftig.

“You mean poison? Poisonous? I thought Kafka was poison.”

“Like unto like.”

“How so?”

“It is not for me to tell you how to understand it. But I can give you some facts. Do you know anything about Herr Martin Heidegger?”

“No. I’ve been away from Europe since 1920.”

“And it’s true these things don’t seem to concern the American press. I understand. That came out in ‘27, I believe. George Placzek brought it to my attention, gave it to me.”

Gregor examined the volume in his hand: Jahrbuch für Philosopie und phänomenologische Forschung, Band VIII. 

“I tried to read it several times at the end of the twenties,” Weisskopf continued, “but it was hard, and there wasn’t enough time to really study it. I knew only a little about Heidegger then, but I soon found out more than enough: The man is an absolute Nazi.”

“Why, what...?”

“I was living in Berlin in ‘32 and early ‘33. The bands of brown-shirted students were roaming the streets, beating up Jewish students -- or anybody that looked Jewish. My office looked out on the university courtyard -- a front row seat. The police didn’t interfere, of course, and more than once I had to pull a Jewish student into my office so he could escape through the back door. Heidegger was put up for University Rector, but the faculty resisted. The students took them on -- these same violent Nazi students, clamoring for their man, Heidegger. I’m not sure how many of them knew exactly his politics, but he was a young, radical professor, extremely popular with all those students fed up with academic conservatism. They wanted to ask the big questions, to overthrow traditional thought. Heidegger’s lecture notes were being circulated in mimeograph -- they seemed truly revolutionary. The more the faculty was threatened, the more the students were for him. And he was for them, demanding active participation at all times -- active participation from all militant philosophy students! Discipline. Service. He was actually appointed by the Minister of Education, but he turned it down because of faculty resistance, and took up the rectorship at Freiburg. In May of ‘33 he gave his Inauguration Address -- so important it was printed in the Berliner Tageblatt -- and we knew where things stood.”

“What did he say?”

“I can’t quote you chapter and verse, but it became the bible of Nazi university reform. It was about self-determination of German universities, and need to develop leaders to bring Germany to its spiritual destiny -- the German radical students who were already marching. So-called academic freedom had to be expelled because it was, he thought --- I remember this phrase -- ‘no more than taking it easy, being arbitrary in one’s inclinations, and taking license in everything.’ This is academic freedom! The most extremist students must lead the faculty to discover its real destiny in service to the state. He ended by quoting Plato: ‘All greatness stands firm in the storm...’ The language was Nazi language -- stupid and obsequious, heroic nationalism, the general, empty raving of a party hack in power. This, from the genius author of Sein und Zeit! ”

“What did he do as rector?”

“What did he do? He expelled all the Jews on the teaching staff, he made every faculty member fill out a questionnaire on his racial origins and take an oath about his racial purity, he made the Nazi salute obligatory before and after class, he organized a University Department of Racial Matters directed by the SS, he took all financial subsidy away from Jewish students and gave it to SA and SS militants, he set up mandatory classes on racial theory, on military science, on German culture... Let’s see...What else?”

“Thank you. That’s enough.”

Ellen brought in a plate of crackers and cream cheese, but G was too upset to eat them, and took his leave as soon as was polite, his “gift” trembling in his claw. The mid-January sky showered him with cosmic rays as he made his short way home from Weisskopf’s, placed the questionable book down on the table, and lay down in the straw to think. 

For all of Weisskopf’s vehemence, Gregor was still curious. More than curious: he could swear he felt a definite force, pulling him toward the black object on his table. How could he reconcile the two opinions of Weisskopf and Arendt? Vicky was one of the most widely educated Europeans on site, a gentle man of culture, an excellent pianist. She was a major thinker -- he had heard of her. Maybe she was his lover back in her student days, when, in the twenties? Why would she be still so enthusiastic now, after his Rectorship, in the light of his Nazism? He had to at least look between the covers. He opened the book at random: “67. The Basic Content of Dasein’s Existential Constitution, and a Preliminary Sketch of the Temporal Interpretation of it.” Better start at the beginning.

Like Vicky, he found the reading hard, even as a native speaker. It was not just that he had been away from the language for many years, and was superficially rusty. Heidegger’s strategy seemed to involve destroying or digging under, around and through an everyday language which formed a concealing crust over the problem he was pursuing. Gregor decided that on first reading he would skip the parts that were too complex to easily follow. Still, and in spite of the noisy party going on at Fuller Lodge, he was able to make a first beachhead in the difficult terrain. Surprisingly, it was for him the most intense of page-turners.

He read of Heidegger’s fascination with Dasein as an object of investigation which might reveal the nature of Being itself -- not the collection of qualities different beings manifest, not the grammatical convention, the empty copula of “The ball is blue”, but “is-ness” itself -- what “is” is -- behind all manifestation. “Reveal' -- in the way that Arendt had used it -- creating a clearing in the world’s “hiddenness” so that pure Being might be experienced. Dasein seemed for Heidegger a specifically human characteristic, humans -- the being that inquires into Dasein -- but he knew it was broader than that, for it seemed to relate even to him. Dasein, there-being. But where is “there”? In some abstract, German philosophical space? No! There is here, in the world. Dasein was all the possibilities he was in all his relationships with people, objects, events in my everyday world. This seemed potentially rich, perhaps even rewarding. Thank you, Doktor Arendt. 

The language was strange, twisted, violently hyphenated as only German can be. There were new, made-up words existing in neither German or English -- like nichten, “to nothing”. He learned that not only he, but everyone, had been “thrown” into the world, so that Dasein was a Geworfenheit, a “thrownness”, into the infinite facets of “thingness” and “factness”, and that because of our deep association with things, and others-as-things, we come not-to-be-ourselves. Gregor’s flesh tingled under his carapace. He read Heidegger’s intense portrayal of Dasein’s self-estrangement in “publicness” in which every kind of spiritual priority is suppressed in a leveling down of sentiment and expression, in which “every secret loses its force” as “something that has long been well-known.” The passivity and even barbarism of the “they”, were just extensions of their everydayness, bearing no moral responsibility and no ethical guilt. 

Gregor needed to take a breather from such searing intensity. He took a five minute stroll under the cool sky. The party at the Lodge seemed to be winding down. He thought of the Daseins inside, enveloped in their small-talk, in the prefabricated flux of conventional sentiment and mindless curiosity, indulging in what Heidegger was now characterizing as “inauthentic life”, an inevitable and distinctive component of “being-in-the-world”. He felt distant from them, and in this distance was aware of his Angst -- a repudiation of his Dasein’s “theyness”. Did he need further alienation from his fellow creatures? Nevertheless, the book called to him, and he returned to its perusal, refreshed. 

“Inauthenticity” -- bad? No, necessary, Heidegger explained, as if preternaturally commenting on Gregor’s recent thoughts about the Fuller partyers. Alienation was positive because Dasein, when made aware of its loss of self, was motivated to strive to return to authentic being. “Fallenness” into “facticity” was a absolutely necessary precondition for the struggle toward true Dasein, toward repossession of self. It reminded him of the felix culpa of the Christians, Adam’s “happy fall” which set up the ongoing drama of human redemption by God. But here, there was no “God”, only a calling to authenticity. 

And then -- there it was -- the term he had been looking for, the condition he had been wanting to know about since reading the letter: Sorge, care. Care seemed to be the relationship between the inauthenticity of being-in-the-world and the striving for Dasein. How tantalizing this was. It seemed it might answer questions that had flitted, ghostly, through his heartmind, never standing long enough to be posed. We feel unheimlich, Heidegger says, “homeless”, “unhoused” in Angst, and Dasein reacts by anchoring into a Dasein-for, Sorge, “care-for”, “concern-for and -with”, a concern for others something like solicitude -- all in moving towards a larger Sorge, a caring-for, an answerability-to Being itself, a Being that transfigures beings. Desire and hope are the reaching out of Care, a reaching out toward freedom. Gregor felt inundated in a newly-discovered reality of his own essence: I care, therefore I am. Care, says Heidegger, is the primordial state of Dasein’s being as it strives towards authenticity. 

Years of unadmitted pain seemed to melt away as Gregor reconceived his own story in the bright light of this black-covered volume. This was respite larger than another walk under Orion’s sword, and he plowed on, ecstatic, to Part II, the section on Time, with its central image, the punch-line as it were -- the section on “Being-towards-Death.” His joy-ride came to a screeching halt.

Sein-zum-Tode. Being-towards-Death. According to Heidegger, Dasein can achieve wholeness only when it faces its “no-longer-being-there”, its nicht-mehr-da-sein. There is nothing with more potential for authenticity than one’s own death. No power of “theyness” can take away this fundamental truth -- that all authentic being is a being-toward-its-own-end. Heidegger quotes a medieval homily which Gregor had often heard in Prague: “As soon as man is born, he is old enough to die.” Death is perhaps the identifying phenomenon of life: Dasein cannot “be” without its end. 

The they-world is not unaware of this phenomenon, and has created many evasions of authentic death: euphemisms, social taboos, medical optimism and death-talk. Gregor thought of his friends working in the “Gadget Division”, creating a death machine without equal in the history of the world, yet never -- never! --mentioning the word. No Dead Christ realism here! A true being-toward-the-end, says Heidegger, is one which continually tries to keep in focus its own finitude “in an impassioned FREEDOM TOWARD DEATH -- a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the ‘they’” Freedom. Freedom. Gregor had never felt so strongly the chitinous fetters which bound him. Being-towards-death was the absolute condition of freedom.

And here Victor Weisskopf’s voice came to him, in an I-told-you-so aria on Teutonic death-obsession, images of Dr. Lindhorst, the operating room table, Hans Holbein, the Leiermann, the Liebestod. But even within this morbid miasma he still felt the inalienability of his personal death as a profoundly bracing, even liberating, awareness, and in the uncertain glimmer of the end of night, he read about Dasein’s authenticity manifesting in conscience, summons and resoluteness. In resolutely projecting itself forward toward its own free death, Dasein attains its personal and social destiny. The 7:25 siren reoriented him to everyday space and time in all its fallenness. “Oppie has whistled,” as Fermi was wont to say.


At the 5:30 go-home-for-supper siren, Gregor trudged out of D-Building, the center of plutonium work, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Since West Mess was serving steak that night, he thought he’d eat at North Mess, as it would be a lot less crowded -- and head home to hit the sack. He was just raising potatoed fork to mouthparts when the fire siren shrieked and the loudspeaker cried, “FIRE IN THE TECH AREA! FIRE IN THE TECH AREA!” 

The North Mess crowd went ashen. It was everyone’s greatest nightmare, an event so potentially catastrophic that all except Gregor -- whose job it was -- had relegated it, like Dasein, to the remotest parts of their minds. There was a rush to the coat racks; people bundled up and ran towards C-Shop where the flames were raging, just inside the Tech Area fence. Frantic MPs were struggling to keep the area clear, while children ran under their linked arms. The Administration Building with all its records was right next to the fire. Would it catch? The fire-fighters seemed to be making little headway. Had there been a wind, the whole town might have gone up in flames. The roof of C-Shop collapsed.

Gregor found himself huddling next to Genia and Gaby Peierls. 

“Thank God there’s no wind tonight,” he said.

“All that water doesn’t do bit of good. Perhaps sabotage, you think? Bozhe moy, thank God is not D-Building.”

Though his relationship to the Deity was unclear, Gregor found himself in silent, but fervent Amen.

“Where are the SEDs when we need them?” Gregor wondered aloud.

“Stuck in barracks for goddam infraction of some goddam rule,” Genia answered. “SEDs would be good! Look at the wasting of all that water.”

After more than two hours, the flames flickered and died, and the freezing populace, reeking of smoke, went back to their homes, some chastened by the thought of what might have happened had the nearby plutonium burned, melted and scattered itself on ashes to be breathed.

When Gregor got home, he found a Western Union envelope tacked to his door. 

It was good the censors had already gotten to it, as he might have been too tired to open the envelope. The telegram read WARNER CHOCOLATE CAKE RECOMMENDED STOP LEO. He fell asleep with his overcoat on, pondering its meaning.