"I never said 'The superman exists and he's American.' What I said was 'God exists and he's American.' If that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments' consideration, then don't be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane."
– Dr. Milton Glass
(in Watchmen’s America, 1959.)
If Damordred's Dr. Manhattan is a proficient description of who he is, I hope the following will be an equally proficient description of what he means, especially in regards to the symbolism of the watch, and by extension, Deism and America’s place in the wheel of history.
While it is difficult to call any of the dramatis personae in Watchmen the protagonist, it is relatively easy to say that Dr. Manhattan is the central character. Nearly all of the events in the story (as well as its very title) are influenced by his presence on Earth. The hyperbolic version of the Cold War that exists in Watchmen’s alternate history—the principle arc of the story—is caused by Dr. Manhattan’s presence.
Dr. Manhattan’s near-omnipotence, and America’s “omnipotence-by-association,” is what causes the Cold War to crash through the dubious failsafe of Mutually Assured Destruction, and onto the threshold of World War III. And due to his other superpower, a non-linear perception of time, Dr. Manhattan cannot change the progression or outcome of such a catastrophe. To him, everything that will happen has already happened, or more precisely, is currently happening . Thusly, it is not Dr. Manhattan’s omnipotence that drives the story, but his impotence.
That even the most powerful being in the universe is unable to alter the course of human events is the principle thematic element of Watchmen, as well as a tenent of Deism. The “god-as-watchmaker” paradigm is literally all over Moore’s graphic novel; watch and clock symbolism permeates every facet of the work. However, nowhere is this more apparent than in Chapter IV, aptly titled “Watchmaker.”
In this Chapter, Dr. Manhattan narrates his own origins from the surface of Mars
. We quickly learn that Jonathan Osterman, the man Dr. Manhattan once was, was born the son of a watchmaker and yearned to continue in his father’s trade. However, after the bombing of Hiroshima
, Jon’s father insisted he become a nuclear physicist
instead. Jon quickly makes a name for himself in the field, and falls in love with a fellow Gila Flats scientist, Janey Slater. On a date, Janey’s wristwatch falls off and is stepped on by a “fat man
.” Later, Jon fixes the watch, but leaves it in his lab coat inside the intrinsic field test chamber, where he is accidentally disintegrated
. Reassembling himself with his new-found superpowers, Dr. Manhattan says (over a panel depicting watch-parts) “it's just a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence...” We later see that Dr. Manhattan has “The Persistence of Memory
” hanging in his house. He picks up a copy of Time Magazine
with a destroyed wristwatch on the cover, frozen at the moment of the Hiroshima
blast. The Martian palace he builds is made of hourglasses
and watch-hands. Finally, the chapter ends with this quotation of Albert Einstein
“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of
thinking...the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If
only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
More important than the raw images of clocks and watches, is the way in which all of them come together in Dr. Manhattan’s narration. He conveys all of this information to the reader in the present tense, because he simultaneously perceives all of the events in his life . Everything is inexorable. The fat man’s feet are “heavy with destiny” as he will inevitably step on Janey’s watch. The scientists are powerless to unlock the test chamber, and so all must watch the timer tick away the seconds until Jon is irradiated. Most importantly, despite the efforts of the righteous, the world (it seems) is on a clockwork path to nuclear holocaust.
This overt allusion to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock is telling of the emotional tenor of the real America in the mid-1980s. The 1984 bulletin put the clock at three minutes to midnight, which was closest the minute hand had stood since 1953, when it stood at two. (For comparison purposes, the clock stands at seven minutes to midnight as of February 27, 2002. The furthest it has been from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991). The concept of inevitable human disintegration on a global scale was not just the stuff of comic books and movies, it was a day-to-day concern. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, indeed!
These three motifs, clockwork, nuclear war and the smiley face with blood in its eye, combine in Watchmen’s climax. The bloody smiley is the symbol of The Comedian, and is by far the most ubiquitous image in the book. It represents his nihilism; his understanding that the world is on a fixed path to destruction, and his amusement at the contortions that people will go though to futility attempt to change their fate. .
Ozymandias, in reaction to the Comedian's nihilism, devises a plan to avert World War III based on Dr. Manhattan’s ability to teleport. However, because this plan involves partially destroying New York City in a terrorist attack under the guise of a staged alien invasion, he must keep it a secret. Using the deus ex machina of tachyons to elude Manhattan, and his being the smartest man in the world to elude everybody else, the plan goes off without a hitch at 11:35pm, November 2, 1985. Ozymandias patiently informs the heroes of their tardiness at three minutes to midnight, as news reports flood in that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. will begin to focus their destructive efforts on space invaders instead of each other .
The inability of Dr. Manhattan to stop the murder of 10 million is deism’s answer to the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? The fact that he and the other heroes must remain complicit in Ozymandias' scheme by protecting his bloody illusion answers the converse: why do good things happen to bad people? Of course, terms like “good” and “bad” are meaningless in a universe in which God only sets life into motion and is disinterested in the results. Fittingly, Dr. Manhattan’s last words include his intention of creating life in “galaxies less complicated,” as he dissolves into a mushroom cloud inside Ozymandias’ orrery .
In the end, Dr. Manhattan is the character that epitomizes Moore’s droll double-entendre title. The superheroes are indeed watchmen in the traditional sense. But they are also watch-men, powered by cosmic clockwork and unable to change their own fates or the fate of the world they wish to protect.
Moreover, the fact that this deist God is an American reveals Moore’s ultimate point about America’s place in the world. Dr. Manhattan’s failure to prevent Kennedy’s Assassination is our first understanding that he is more impotent than omnipotent, as well as another tacit condemnation of Manhattan’s causation of the impending nuclear war. As Ozymandias is revealing his plan he quotes Kennedy’s intended speech from that fateful day:
“We in this country, in this generation, are by destiny rather than choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”
It is ironic how relevant these words remain, nearly 20 years after Watchmen was written, especially considering our new Cold War was largely instigated by a terrorist attack on New York City. It is also somewhat ironic that, despite half a century’s efforts in nuclear non-proliferation, the Doomsday clock’s position at seven minutes to midnight is the same as when the clock was invented in 1947.
As Dr. Glass might say again today, “We are all of us living in the shadow of Manhattan.” And all we can do is watch.