W.G. Sebald: Writing around Destruction

I. Destruction and Silence

 

The accounts of individual eyewitnesses, therefore, are of only qualified value, and need to be supplemented by what a synoptic and artificial view reveals.

 

In a series of lectures delivered in Zurich in 1997 (and later published in essay form as “Air War and Literature”), the late German novelist W.G. Sebald decries the “curious blindness” to, and willed ignorance of, the truths of destruction that by any logical reckoning should have come to define life in the fractured wasteland of postwar Germany.

Early in the essay he describes a live report, produced by the BBC Home Service, of an air raid conducted, in the midst of the war, on Berlin. The Lancaster bombers take off, soar in broad arcs over the North Sea; the target is reached, and the lethal cargo is dropped. The report, Sebald concludes ironically, “is rather a disappointment to anyone expecting…insight into the event from some superior viewpoint.”

The perfectly German joke, of course, is that the report, given from the vantage of an aeroplane in the sky, issues by necessity from a “superior viewpoint.” Given the purpose of the raid—to raze and reduce centuries of careful stonework, to ignite beams and plaster, to boil streets and the unfortunate traipsers upon them—there could not be a more ideal viewpoint than an aerial one, from which the extinguishing of human lives is made so morally and practically simple.

But Sebald’s real point is that the assumption that the ideal viewpoint for destruction is also the ideal viewpoint for interpretation—a belief deriving from the fallacious assertion that we will see what the aggressors saw, feel what the aggressors felt—is foolish and naïve. It is an approach that ignores the ineffable alchemy wrought by the act of observation.

For many years after the end of World War II, German writers avoided the war, and the Holocaust, as a subject. Of necessity, their moral culpability was likewise elided. As a result, Sebald asserts, they abetted the collective amnesia that had settled like a pall over the German people. Eventually, however, the pendulum swung the other way. The past was viewed with furious condemnation, and an aggressive push was made to view the facts of the war, and the Holocaust, with complete objectivity—as one would view the ground from an airplane. But for Sebald, this was merely another false step, a flight into rhetoric that, in the final analysis, was merely another facet of aesthetic exploitation of destruction.

Yet Sebald is not entirely immune to the temptation of the aerial view. Much of his fiction can be seen as an attempt to salvage it as a metaphor, as an oblique way of discussing historiography—an attempt, in other words, to determine its true applicability. Hence it’s not without reason that readers of Sebald’s fictions often report experiencing a floating sensation, as though they’re hovering above the events and stories described. The first chapter of The Rings of Saturn is largely taken up by an essay on the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century English writer that Sebald both admired and emulated. Browne, according to Sebald, “sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.” To achieve these “sublime heights,” Browne employed a “parlous loftiness” in his language. Though his sentences are occasionally gummed up by his vast erudition and baroque style, when Browne “does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiraling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air,” Sebald writes, “even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation.”

For Browne, this aerial remove functions counter-intuitively: “the greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity.” When one is looking back at history—when the metaphor is horizontal—this functioning is a commonplace; historical hindsight, we believe, will eventually reveal the truth. But when one views the past aerially—when the metaphor assumes verticality—the paradox becomes clear. Sebald desires Browne’s preternatural magnification—which might constitute the “historical metaphysic” capable of “bringing remembered events back to life” that is sought after in all of his fiction—but it remains a pipe dream. The higher the viewpoint in Sebald’s fictions, the greater the sensation of nausea, of vertigo. All we see is flattened, and objects and structures are robbed of their discreteness: “Such is the dark backward and abysm of time,” Sebald writes. “Everything lies all jumbled up in it, and when you look down you feel dizzy and afraid.”

It is with this bevy of concerns that Sebald assumes the task of creating fictions, turning to the practice with a sigh of impotence. The impossibility of pure history, of the reconstitution of memory, is the dreadful and immanent nausea that suffuses his prose, that forces catalepsy upon his narrators and characters. And just as the constituents of time and history become jumbled together, so, too, do the elements of the work of fiction. In an essay on W.G. Sebald, James Wood writes that though “his deeply elegiac books are made out of the cinders of the real world, he makes facts fictive by binding them so deeply into the forms of their narratives that these facts seem never to have belonged to the actual world.” The warp of fiction is braced by the weft of fact, and the resulting tapestry is a talisman aimed at teasing, from the welter of an obliterated past, a representative view of history.

 

***

 

Memory is a human construction. The world (that is, the natural world) is destined and indeed designed to forget itself, and in the struggle against this constant ablation, as Sebald sees it, we have only the bluntest of reconstitutive tools at our disposal: a language whose inner cohesiveness and epistemological efficacy are to be doubted, and a smattering of vague and half-focused photographs that may depict, but more often seem merely to adumbrate.

It may seem strange to discuss the doubting of language with regard to an author such as Sebald, who incorporates antiquarian syntax into the elegant scaffolding of his prose, but aphasia in Sebald is reserved for very specific themes: language may dance around certain subjects, but it may not spring from them. “The construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world,” he writes, “is a process depriving literature of its right to exist.” As other writers and theorists have asserted, there is a moral obligation not to derive aesthetic effect from supreme destruction. As an extension of this claim, Sebald asserts as an epistemological reality that it is impossible to derive aesthetic effect from oblivion.

Despite this weakness, within Sebald’s fiction, language is still the master of appearances, of surfaces, of phenomena. It may be employed, with sufficient effect, to describe spaces, buildings, landscapes, to painstakingly limn their physical relations to one another. Hence there is little doubt embedded in the narrator’s description, in Austerlitz, of the Centraal Station in Antwerp; the spires and turrets and domes are presented as faits accomplis, real and ineffaceable, undoubtable. Otherwise, if uncertainty were allowed to creep into and compromise language’s simplest functions, Sebald’s magisterial descriptions of architectural oddities would collapse beneath an equally grandiose anxiety.

Sebald’s great skill in precisely delineating surfaces, and the power that the framework of his fiction grants to language in this endeavor, sometimes obscures a great, though intentional, failure of his language: It is very nearly incapable of elaboration, of developing images external to the source material or which are not, to some degree, a meditation on ineffability. The black hole of oblivion ever reigns in Sebald’s writing, drawing the fiction into itself and preventing the construction of complex aesthetic effects.

If the typical sentence of Proust—the master of elaboration—is meant to ambulate, to rise and fall in synoptic waves, flirting ever with the achievement of liftoff and gesturing, in these pendent moments, at images outside of the text, outside of language itself, the typical Sebaldian sentence is meant to incorporate and contain—it remains a self-sufficient, closed system. The uncertain tempo of a Proustian elaboration stands in stark contrast to the steady and unrelenting tempo of Sebald’s writing; Sebald’s sentences roll on, devouring details and preserving them in the process, embedding facts (real or fictive) in their elegant, multiclausal construction.

When memory seems merely a cancerous stimulation of oblivion, and language reigns supreme only in the realm of detail, then the main concern of language is clearly dictated. From Austerlitz:

[T]he darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.

Sebald has set himself the impossible task of the metaphysical documentarian, to collect and preserve the entirety of history via the “places and objects” that bear it, and to lathe it all into some manageable form of representation.

There is a very famous sentence in Austerlitz that runs for nine pages and contains an unbearable amount of information about the Theresienstadt concentration camp. What’s remarkable about it is that despite its length, it remains a completely flat sentence, unfolding in segmented regimentation, like a spider testing its limbs. Without devolving into nonsense, and without becoming a mere catalogue, the sentence functions as a precise historical record containing no aesthetic elaborations. It is a beautiful record, but a record still, one that does not attempt to derive aesthetic affect from oblivion, but merely places the reagents of the past in close proximity to one another, in the hopes that, by some obscure process of relation, they will generate an image of the past. The sentence does not so much limn the past as perform the ritual necessary for its appearance (unsurprising, then, that Sebald’s prose is frequently described as “processional”). When a reader of Sebald admits to a feeling of levitation, it is not because he or she has been “borne aloft” by aspiring helices of prose. It is because Sebald has done his best to write flat sentences, which we look down upon in more ways than one, sensing patterns and signs immured within the text.

 

II. Buildings in Time

 

The noblest claim of modern historiography nowadays is that it is a mirror; it rejects all teleology; it no longer wishes to ‘prove’ anything. All this is to a high degree ascetic; but at the same time it is to an even higher degree nihilistic.

 

History, perforce, is a function of time, and so it is only natural that the characters in, and narrators of, Sebald’s fictions frequently expatiate upon the nature of time. Given the force of materiality in Sebald’s fictions, and the supernatural tendencies ascribed to the agent of time, it’s unsurprising that these discursions typically aim at the wholesale reification of time—a fortiori, they are characterized by the attempt to convert time into a spatial phenomenon.

“I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all,” Austerlitz opines, “only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like.” Time is a wavering image shorn of one crucial dimension by the feeble reach of our minds; it is the projection into our reality of an ungraspable complex.

Thus Sebald’s abiding interest in architectural oddities, in structures that bear time—that manage, even, to function as time itself. Country homes and train stations and vast stone edifices (memorials, monuments, mausolea) abound in Sebald’s work. Oftentimes they are baroque and nearly illusionistic structures, full of sealed-off rooms and curlicue passages that defy our understanding. Always they have lapsed into desuetude: Windows are broken, and dust has settled in a gauzy integument on the inner districts of the home; hallways designed to channel crowds now abide in silence, bereft of the patter of crossing feet; creepers and liana crowd yards in vicious, encroaching skeins.

In a prosaic sense, as monuments, these structures are historical records, but in the Sebaldian sense, they function as structural allegories—they are physical manifestations of the abstruse calculus of time. In The Emigrants, the narrator inspects a country home designed so that “on every floor hidden passageways branched off, running behind walls in such a way that the servants…never had to cross the paths of their betters.” Like the eunomic reticulation of chambers and paths in a termite nest, these passageways go unnoticed by the average viewer. “Often,” the narrator continues, “I tried to imagine what went on inside the heads of people who led their lives knowing that, behind the walls of the rooms they were in, the shadows of the servants were perpetually flitting past.”

It is out of such “hidden passageways” and dim defiles that the past returns to us in Sebald. Conscious excavation is likely to yield no results because there is no precise point of oblivion around which to focus our work; there are no nodes or images that may be cajoled into revealing their essences. Rather, the return of the past functions by whimsy. It is like a door that swings open unexpectedly and beyond which lies a ramified series of hallways, through which images of the living and the dead flit, generating a wind that reaches outward past the threshold, and which alters our world in fey ways. Voluntary memory is incapable of revealing the past. It merely dredges up artifacts that, on their own, are speechless.

There are subtle instances of this phenomenon of whimsy to be found throughout Sebald’s work. In The Emigrants, the narrator reads a journal left by one of his deceased relatives that describes a journey to Jerusalem and the desolation he finds there; in The Rings of Saturn, the narrator describes an elaborate matchstick model of the Temple of Jerusalem, a painstaking reconstruction of the vanished edifice. A quieter example: Austerlitz, who as an adult has studied the history of siegecraft, spies in a square “a peasant woman wearing several layers of coats, and waiting behind a makeshift stall for someone to think about buying one of the cabbages she had piled up into a mighty bulwark in front of her.”

Historical images, and those of our personal pasts, return to us, outsize or shrunken. To borrow Sebald’s description of Browne’s vision, “It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time.” It is to Sebald’s great credit that his fictions, and the sentences therein, function like architectural oddities, which, while not quite grasping the obscure infrastructure of time, manage to approximate it, and facilitate its functioning. Sebald’s sentences are themselves the blueprints of ramified hallways. Like intricate diagrams, they allow for the supernatural resonance of past and present, fact and fiction, memory and oblivion—a resonance that offers life, obliquely, to the misremembered shades of history.