Good and evil in the Atomic Age

Image from Laurence Hyde, The Southern Cross

Laurence Hyde, The Southern Cross

The title of Laurence Hyde’s 1951 wordless novel The Southern Cross refers to the star constellation that has come to symbolize the South Pacific, where it is visible year-round. In the context of Hyde’s story, it also raises moral questions which, since the advent of nuclear warfare, have become more relevant than ever before.

In 1946, the United States relocated the indigenous population of Bikini Atoll and turned their former home into a nuclear test site. Over the next twelve years, 23 nuclear devices were detonated in the area. The islanders were told that the tests were for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” The resettlement of Bikini’s residents was a failure, and when some were allowed to return to the islands in the 1970s, they became sick from radiation and had to leave again. Today, the Bikini people live elsewhere, mostly in extreme poverty.

Hyde’s novel begins by depicting the islanders' life before the Americans arrive. The bomb, they are assured, will bring peace, like a dove bearing an olive branch. Things take a different turn when a drunken sailor rapes a native woman. Another islander retaliates and kills the sailor. To escape being caught, the woman and her family hide, even though they know they must evacuate the island. Soon we see a bomb being lowered into the ocean. Next comes a grim finger, reaching out like the finger of God in Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of Adam. This finger, however, does not contain the spark of life, but the spark of death. The novel ends with horrifying scenes of the family’s destruction.

The story is imaginary, but for Hyde, Bikini did represent “a microcosm of the world-to-be if civilized humanity, for the last time, failed to live up to its name.” The book’s title, of course, not only situates the narrative geographically, but also references one of the main problems that Christianity and other world religions grapple with: the battle between good and evil. The Christian cross, like the Buddhist principle of yin and yang, signifies that darkness and light intersect in each and every one of us. Sometimes people who are good at heart nevertheless find ways to rationalize evil. Sometimes we go along with it out of fear or ignorance. And sometimes we do nothing even when evil is plain to see and we have the power to stop it. Hyde’s depiction of a giant eye (the only full-page image in the book) symbolizes this problem. Whose eye is it? The islanders’ or ours? If it is ours, will this terrible scene move us to action, or will we close our eyes and remain silent?

Though we can only speculate, Hyde’s Quaker beliefs may have influenced his artistry and message. Unwavering pacifists, Quakers worship God in silence and in plain, unadorned spaces, where they wait for the “inner light” to move them to speech. There are no ministers, since anyone can experience God’s truth directly, and there are no creeds, which might limit individual perception of truth. Instead, Quakers ask questions that foster self-examination. Reading a wordless novel and attending a Quaker meeting have much in common.