Poisoned Apple by Roberta Tocco

The Poisoned Apple: the dialogue between Religion and Science and the formation of the modern world-view.

Image courtesy of Roberta Tocco Photography

Over a series of posts I will engage in an extended meditation on the dialogue of Religion and Science and the way that the relationship between the two has been crucial in the formation of the modern world-view.

Astrology and Psychotherapy (alongside Existential and Spiritual concerns) will be brought to bear on the analysis both as a perspective for understanding but also as part of the subject matter.

So, for example, astrology will provide perspective through analysis of birth charts, and themes of history through transits as well as being the subject of analysis itself; for example the differing ways that religion and science have attempted to engage with or deny astrology and its precarious status in the modern world.

Part 1 - Apple for Teacher

“Late that autumn of 1925, Robert did something so stupid that it seemed calculated to prove that his emotional distress was overwhelming him. Consumed by feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, he ‘poisoned’ an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and left it on Blackett’s desk… Fortunately, Blackett did not eat the apple; but university officials somehow were informed of the incident. As Robert himself confessed to Ferguson two months later, ‘he had kind of poisoned the head steward. It seemed incredible, but that was what he said.’”

The Robert in question is J. Robert Oppenheimer and Blackett was his head tutor during his time at Cambridge who had pressurized the already anxious Oppenheimer with the need to do more laboratory work. The practical side of physics was anathema to the brilliant young polymath and his resistance to experiment, combined with his desire to impress his tutor, led to this bizarre take on leaving an apple for teacher on his desk.

Whilst not expelled (which rather belies Oppenheimer’s later claims that it was a cyanide laced apple) he was forced into regular analysis;

“A Freudian psychoanalyst diagnosed dementia praecox, a now archaic label for symptoms associated with schizophrenia. He concluded that Oppenheimer was a hopeless case and that ‘further analysis would do more harm than good.’”

A scientist friend present at that time observed, “he looked crazy at that time…He was sort of standing around looking like he might run or do something drastic…I asked him how it had been. He said that the guy was too stupid to follow him and that he knew more about his troubles than the doctor did, which was probably true.”

That a brilliant young scholar, far from home, and in the pressure cooker environment of a top university physics department, might have a ‘moral crisis’ is understandable. Many young people with far less expectation on their shoulders have panicked at university. In my own private psychotherapy practice I have been involved in helping one young man reduce dependence on a plethora of anti-depressants and anxiolytics that he had been on for over a decade since he had a panic attack whilst watching the movie Vanilla Sky in his final year at university. Relationship anxieties and a fear of betrayal stirred by the lack of moral compass in the film precipitated a panic that tore like a hurricane through the young man’s world.

The panic was catching and after a period back at home anxious parents sent him to a clinic in London from which elephantine quantities of medication were prescribed. Medications, which over a decade later, with virtually no remaining symptoms beyond a fairly reasonable anxiety about the ‘severity’ of the past crisis, were still unquestioningly prescribed – one imagines the doctor of old who actually knew his patients and community handling the situation with greater serenity and perspicacity!

So I am not a person and practitioner unsympathetic to youthful anxieties. I went through enough of my own at a similar stage. Oppenheimer was on the edge: of suicide on a walk in Brittany; of mental collapse under the strain of failure of his intellectual life which was so crucial to him; of the pain of unrequited love and desire; and most fundamentally of his capacity to live up to his own promise.

This all too human struggle is lucidly documented in the source of all the above quotations; American Prometheus: the triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The title of their biography brings in the mythic dimension to the life of Oppenheimer and they compare him to the Titan who stole fire from the gods for one central reason: J. Robert Oppenheimer was the mercurial and visionary leader of the Manhattan project where he presided over the team of physicists who would successfully plan and build the world’s first nuclear device.

In his book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom, explored the impact of previous writers on the individual endeavouring to forge their creative life, an issue clearly prominent for physicists as well, and somehow in the mind of a brilliant young student desperately wanting to make a name for him-self and impress his tutor, this became an act of sabotage. One that if it had not been discovered would have led to an actual act of bodily harm on the very figure that he looked up to: the oedipal connotations are direct and savage.

That this man was a hopeless case for whom “further analysis would do more harm than good” is a somewhat ridiculous pronouncement from an old school analyst who almost certainly was less flexible mentally than his patient. However clearly Oppenheimer was crucially unbalanced in some way that indicates, at the very least a latent aggression, alongside unstable primary relationships and a fear of losing control: symptoms that originate from a powerful unresolved and, crucially, unconscious narcissism. This was a man who would go on to become one of the most powerful men in the world during the crucial period of America’s entry into the second world war and the bombing of Nagasaki that brought it to its final end. A man who, however brilliant and admirable, under stress, handed the teacher he admired and craved approval from, a poisoned apple.

The apple has a long history as a symbol, one that we will go on to explore in numerous contexts throughout this themed series of posts. In the history of science alone though it plays a considerable role, not least because of the spontaneous insights that flooded into the mind of Isaac Newton when he saw an apple fall from a tree in his garden. Newton was twenty-three years old at the time, only a year older than Oppenheimer was when he gave his strange gift in the university that Newton himself had attended.

The apple and the garden are of course a central motif of the Christian myth of Eden. In which the apple was from the Tree of Knowledge. This profound and complex story will occupy us in later posts but we can observe now that the apple is loaded with both scientific and religious symbolism and significance; to poison in and to offer that poison to your teacher is an act of petulant rage that seems to transcend the narrow confines of an anxious time at university and stretch it outwards into the realm of the mythic. That it should come from the one man whose name is most associated with the origin of the complex legacy of nuclear weaponry seems almost unbearably loaded.

Chart Analysis: J. Robert Oppenheimer. 22 April 1904. 8:15 am. New York, NY.  Rodden Rating DD, conflicting, unverified.

For reasons of brevity as well as depth most of the charts analysed in the Poison Apple series will be based on the Evolutionary Axis as explained in Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes in which the Pluto and Uranus placements give a depth perspective to the nodal axis of the Moon, its rulers and any planets squaring the nodal axis.

Cleary Oppenheimer’s chart reveals a profound evolutionary challenge and conflict as it has both the Pluto placement (19 Gemini in the 12th house, conjunct the Ascendant) and the Uranus placement (29 Sagittarius in the 7th house conjunct the Descendant) square the nodal axis of the Moon.

In Healing the Soul as well as in a talk (the Fork in the Road) I have explored the planet squaring the nodal axis as representing a dilemma or challenge (square) to the personal evolution and purpose (Nodal Axis of the Moon).

Pluto is the most significant planet that one could have squaring the Nodes and it symbolizes a core struggle within the individual with regard to the evolutionary intentions as expressed by the Nodes. Pluto square the Nodes, indicates a power struggle within the individual as to their real nature. The individual with this placement is wrestling with their personal power; including potentials that might be buried deep within their unconscious. The nature of this struggle with power is linked to whether such power and potential within the individual is utilized for personal, even selfish ends, or whether it can be offered to the community or humanity at large. It simple terms, at the fork in the road symbolized by the Pluto square to the Nodal Axis, one faces a dilemma between the lower and the higher paths; between ego and soul.

With Pluto in Gemini in the 12th house clearly the power of the intellect and the private life of the mind are critical concerns within Oppenheimer, as is the dream of achieving greatness. Here we see a clear link between the intellect, its organization and competency and the deep security of the individual.

The idea of deep security I relate to Pluto and what I have called the Pluto Complex. Deep security (Pluto) is different from personal security (Moon) as it comes from deep unconscious structures including karmic patterning that transcends the current life. Moon security (when Pluto is not in Cancer or the 4th house, in stressful aspect to the Moon or the Nodes are not in Cancer-Capricorn) is a product of the specific conditioning of the current life, predominantly through the experiences of the early home-life (parents, type of early schooling, cultural mores). Pluto security relates to areas of primary concern within the soul; or the transpersonal core of the being. In relating to the soul’s purpose Pluto brings with it an anxiety based on subtle attachments that may have been present in some form for millennia.

The Pluto Complex then forms around the concerns of the deep being. Whilst the deep being, or soul, always seeks to grow, transform and express its true potential, the nature of being human is to seek the familiar (literally Moon/Cancer, family) in order to feel secure. Subtle versions of this process of familiarity remain even within the transpersonal psychic life of the soul or deep nature. Individuals have memories of lifetimes of expression of a particular deep purpose that it is hard to move past. The soul within is attracted to the new, to that which will allow it to evolve the being, and yet the trace memories of that which is known to the being exert a powerful pull towards the past. The resulting conflict forms the Pluto Complex. We are attracted to something or someone because of how the experience will transform us and then this very potential to be affected becomes problematic and we seek to push away from it. The same reason we were attracted to something becomes why we wish to move away from it; because it might transform us in some deep way.

Clearly with Oppenheimer there are monastic memories – Pluto in the 12th house, south node in Pisces. This is in keeping with his powerful thirst for knowledge. Since the time of Christ, or earlier in eastern cultures, the main way to access an education if you were not a member of a royal family or aristocratic lineage was within monastic life. This has only really changed since the nineteenth century. It explains his private zeal towards the life of the mind as well as his prodigious capacities, evident from a very young age. This also explains the intense level of attachment to his education, it is more than just a doctorate; the essence of his being is tied into the expression of the truth of the mind. In this context the image of the poisoned apple is not just a symbolic echo of the Fall, the accident in paradise, but also perhaps, a deep personal symbol of his own complex unconscious (and karmic) relationship with the tree of knowledge.

With Uranus square the Nodal Axis a profound individuation crisis is revealed: the individual has been too content to follow others; or to follow the dictates of external authority whatever the personal cost. The challenge (Uranus) then becomes can the individual find their own way? Become their inner centre of authority.

As detailed in chapter three of Healing the Soul as well as numerous talks and workshops (including How to Identify and Heal Trauma, and the four parts of Uranus, Trauma and Healing) with Uranus in a stressful aspect (here T-square the Nodes and opposite Pluto) this is also a trauma signature. The subtle mind remembers critical impact events.

Here, with Uranus in the culminating degree of Sagittarius in the 7th house there is some challenge with regard to the truth as seen or perceived by others; some way in which Oppenheimer exaggerated/lied/held a mistaken or heretical view and imposed this on others or the way in which others expressed such views/lies to him and he believed them. Either way (or both ways) a key to his individuation (Uranus) becomes the capacity for personal integrity and honesty in his relationships with others (Sagittarius, 7th house) from which there may have been a pronounced tendency to keep secrets or private distorted views (even maintaining falsehoods for manipulative ends) when we explore the Pluto in Gemini in the 12th house as being a part of a trauma signature.

Pluto within a trauma signature often corresponds to a powerful experience of betrayal that was psychically devastating. This, in our present analysis, becomes a key component in the event of the apple for teacher; somewhere he felt betrayed by the lack of appreciation and support and he enacts that betrayal onto the teacher figure (Pluto opposite Uranus in Sagittarius in the 7th house) that he love-hates.

This complex relationship to authority underlies the “triumph and tragedy” of this “American Prometheus” as the C.I.A. and the state department initially utilize and then destroy their boy wonder. As he was promoted to a degree of eminence unsurpassed for one of his age and relative inexperience and then persecuted as a communist sympathizer and traitor after he had already laid the golden egg for them.

“Little boy”, their ten foot long egg, weighing 10,000 pounds and containing almost all of the processed uranium in existence, exploded on to the world stage on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:16 am. It was detonated at 1,900 feet above the city of Hiroshima so that the down force of the blast would not be soaked up by the ground and instead deliver maximum impact;

“At ground zero, directly beneath the airburst, the temperature reached perhaps 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Everyone on the bridge was incinerated, and hundreds of fires were ignited. The blast wave flattened buildings, a firestorm engulfed the city and a mushroom cloud rose almost ten miles into the sky…” p.51 Command and Control by Eric Schlosser.

Even though the impact was huge, devastating and to use a military metaphor from another conflict, there was unquestionable “shock and awe”, it was all based on only a tiny fraction of the atomic energy within the bomb that the team at Los Alamos had dreamed into being;

“A small amount of fissile material was responsible for the devastation; 98.62 per cent of the uranium in Little Boy was blown apart before it could become supercritical. Only 1.38 per cent actually fissioned…” (ibid)

The people of Hiroshima, if not all of Japan, are ‘fortunate’ that the early science of the atomic project was so inefficient. In fact the Operation Meetinghouse conventional bombing raid on Tokyo in March 6-7th 1945 was the most destructive of the war and killed more people than the atomic bomb. God Bless all.

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