DOMINICK LACAPRA: This is actually drawn from a chapter in a forthcoming book with Cornell University Press that will be out in the spring entitled History, Literature, Critical Theory or these are a few of my favorite things.
The approach to trauma, including its rendering in narrative, has long been accompanied by a paradox or double bind. The traumatic experience is unspeakable, yet calls for endless speech. This uncannily familiar situation is well evoked in the Wittgensteinian subtitle of a book by two French psychoanalysts, the subtitle being "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent," which is of course a twist on the last sentence of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The similarities and differences between not only testimonies but all attempts to address or quote, "Represent traumatic experience in events" are determined, I think, by the manner in which this paradox or double bind is negotiated-- from the operatic gaps and muted signs of seemingly symptomatic performance to the attempts at some articulation or work on and through problems in ways that may intensify or at times mitigate the haunting presence of the past.
It's an understatement to say that this paradox is extensively explored in the text of WG Sebald-- Winnfried Georg, known as Max, Sebald. Sebald is in his own view a member of a generation born later, coming after the perpetration of atrocities and living in the aftermath and the heavy shadow of events he did not directly perpetrate, but for which he nonetheless bears a sense of responsibility if not guilt. Better stated and anxiety-ridden, rather bewildering disquiet that concepts such as responsibility and guilt, as well as more ritualized concepts, such as stain, I think tend to localize, in a questionable fashion.
Recently, the Holocaust and colonialism have been related historically and analytically in various ways. Perhaps most pointedly in the argument that colonialism, especially in conjunction with racism, may have paralleled, and at times prepared for the Nazi genocide. This argument may of course raise doubts about the concept of uniqueness and its analogs when applied to the Holocaust as being overly Eurocentric. They generally emerge from a Eurocentric context.
And for related observations, I direct you to a couple of books. One very interesting yet still very controversial book by Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, the book entitled, Coloniser Exterminer, that translated "Colonize Exterminate." And also the very well-documented book my colleague, Isabel Hull, entitled Absolute Destruction on the genocidal attempt in West Germany against the Herero in 1904, as well as related events. Then you can go into other instances that people have very forcefully argued are genocidal.
Sebald is most insistently affected by the Nazi genocide or Holocaust. The latter term he tends not to use. But his texts also show a concern with colonialism and its aftermath, as well as with the abusive treatment of non-human animals.
And one issue we can go into the very fraught issue of terminology. For example, in quote unquote, "Holocaust Studies." And I think it's an interesting issue. And also the issue of uniqueness is an interesting issue.
Sebald's style has an understated quality, even when addressing issues evoking hyperbole. One aspect of the uncanniness of his text is this subdued, stylistic unsettlement in the face of the excessive and overwhelming. Sebald at time seems to be a student of Kafka, among other predecessors-- notably, at least for my purposes, Flaubert and Benjamin. Someone who's undertaken archival research both in documents and in the recesses of memory.
Sebald may perhaps be seen as representing one crucial, melancholic mutation in the lineage of Flaubert. For example, in terms of experimentation in the combination of formal innovation with actual or invented documentation. Documentation that is at times carried to the disorienting point of a mania, paralleling or even enacting what is seen as the maniacally catastrophic events of history.
One may, of course, mention other figures in relation to Sebald, some of whom he mentions himself, such as Thomas Bernhard. But I'll simply add the name of Thomas Mann. I think Mann is one of the writers whom Sebald attends to and in a sense rewrites.
In his 1999 Natural History of Destruction-- which is the rather strange translation of Luftkrieg und Literatur, which is aerial bombing and literature-- he makes a comment about the reading of Doctor Faustus that has a kind of self-referential twist. Quote, "In Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann wrote a comprehensive historical criticism of an art that was increasingly inclined to take an apocalyptic view of the world, at the same time confessing his own involvement."
These are all very self-referential. Most of his statements about others are also self-referential.
"It is likely that few of the readers for whom this novel was originally intended understood him. The lava barely cold under their feet, they were too preoccupied with the reaffirmation of their higher ideals, too anxious to free themselves of any taint. They did not go deeply into the complex question of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics that tormented Thomas Mann."
I think the latter point brings up the way Sebald is occupied-- even preoccupied-- by ethics, aesthetics, history, and I would add, the question of realism, indeed, traumatic realism, but in relation to formal techniques and various distancing devices, without which literature would not be literary. Yet what may be most interesting, at least for me, is the way a mutual pressure is exerted, at times to the near breaking point between the demands of historical and sociopolitical reality on the one hand, and the exigencies of form and formal experimentation on the other.
Whatever the shifting sands between history and literary form may be in Sebald, the movement is not fixed by a rigid boundary marker or a notion of discrete realms. Sebald employs an associative, at times a dreamlike linkage of fact and fiction. But his conjunctions are never simple amalgamations. And texts that may be weighted in one direction or another will leave the reader off-balance concerning their genre.
The inserted, seemingly documentary, black and white photograph or graphic is the most blatant instance of the archival artifact in a Sebald text. But its function is never simply documentary. And the reading of text and photograph may create both a sense of mutually informative signification and a puzzlement, at times evoking Vertigo, to use the title of his first long prose work, published in 1990.
Sebald states that 90% of his photographs, at least in The Emigrants of 1992, are authentic. But that makes the reader uncertain about the other 10%. As you may recall, The Emigrants begins with a photo of a cemetery and then turns without transition to a description of an old overgrown country house, in which Sebald with a Sebald narrator and his partner, Clara here-- his wife was actually named Ute-- rent an apartment.
The book ends with a precise description of three women in the Lodz ghetto working at a loom-- analogized to the Parcae or Fates-- but upsets expectations by providing no photograph. So a crisis here without photograph. The self-implicating Sebald narrator-- who we're told stands in the exact same spot as the photographer did, taking this photograph-- wonders what were the names of these women, who the reader assumes were Jewish and did not survive the genocide.
The Emigrants, I think, might be read as a rejoinder to Edgar Reitz's epochal TV series of 1984, in that Sebald focuses not on the [GERMAN] of ordinary Germans-- for whom Jews and their existence were a marginal or marginalized concern-- but rather on the desperate after life of traumatized emigrants, notably Jews. Unfortunately, I don't have time to go into anything like an analysis of The Emigrants, including the one non-Jew, interestingly, given a fictitious name, but Sebald's great uncle-- who like some of us here today, committed himself to an insane asylum in Ithaca, New York.
Not only because of the graphic elements, but also the frequent, at times abrupt segues and detours, the eye and the mind, confronted with a page of Sebald does not know where to settle. And the reader is both fascinated and distracted by various modalities of juxtaposition.
Narrative flow is disrupted. Shards of often enigmatic, at times traumatic actuality are inserted. And here, one may recall, I think, one of the most disturbing, for me, images of Sebald, in Sebald, is in The Rings of Saturn, where you have this incredible heap of herring, surrounded by a group of men, which evokes all sorts of connotations. And the reader's train of thought, like Sebald's, may wander along associative paths and the byways of essayistic ruminations evoked by traces of the past, with closure becoming all the more elusive.
Another semi-autobiographical comment Sebald makes about the appeal of photographs is worth quoting, since it offers, I think, non-reductive insight into his orientation towards the past and its debt. And this is, I think, a rather-- this comes from The Emergence of Memory, which is a really interesting book, collection of essays on and interviews with Sebald. Emergence of Memory, which I think is really something that would fascinate any reader. Here's a quote.
"Death entered my own life at a very early point. I grew up in a very small village, very high up in the Alps, in Bavaria, about 3,000 feet above sea level. And in the immediate post-war years when I grew up there, it was in many ways quite an archaic place.
For instance, you couldn't bury the dead in the winter because the ground was frozen, and there was no way of digging it up. So you had to leave them in the woodshed for a month or two, until the thaw came. You grew up with this knowledge that death is around you.
And when and if someone died, it happened in the middle or center of the house, as it were. The dead person went through their agonies in the living room. And then before the burial, they would still be part of the family for possibly three or four days.
So I was from a very early point on very familiar, much more familiar than people are nowadays, with the dead in the dying. I've always had at the back of my mind this notion"-- which is quite recurrent in Sebald-- "that of course, these people aren't really gone. They just hover somewhere at the perimeter of our lives and keep coming in on brief visits.
And photographs are for me, as it were, one of the emanations of the dead. Especially these older photographs of people no longer with us. Nevertheless, through these pictures, they do have what seems to me to be some sort of spectral presence.
And I've always been intrigued by that. It's got nothing to do with the mystical or the mysterious. It's just a remnant of a much more archaic way of looking at things."
Hence, for Sebald, the heralded indexicality of the photograph is itself ghostly but presumably not mysterious or mystical. For it emanates from the dead and is the medium of a spectral absent presence. I would say just as in the case of the Sebald narrator, a kind of photographic negative, with respect, especially to Jacques Austerlitz, for example.
Austerlitz, his last, long published work, which came out in 2001, and he was killed in an automobile accident in December of the same year. In Austerlitz, the unnamed, spectral, seemingly Sebald-like narrator has the closest proximity to Austerlitz, whom we accidentally meets a number of times over the years, to whom he attentively listens, and whose story he empathically recounts, punctuated by Austerlitz's traumatic discovery or recovery of his Jewish background and the fate of his parents at the hands of the Nazis.
At least one prominent role played by Sebald as writer is that of the witness. The witness simultaneously to history and to the contemporary challenges and possibilities of literature. His writing is not restricted to bearing witness and giving testimony but is nonetheless compellingly called and even caught by the insistence of the real, both the historically real and the less determinant trans-historical Lucanean real, the presumably decentering, shattering void at the center of existence.
He's also more than mindful of the times playful possibilities and pitfalls of his calling as writer. I'd also maintain that in his text, the witness does not stand in for the dead god or sublime seer and assume a prophetic or modern-like voice. His writing, what he termed simply a form of prose fiction, tends to be difficult to classify, I think notably in terms of the opposition between the secular and the religious or even in terms of the more recent notion of the post secular.
Issues in and around the religious, the spiritual, and the post secular are seriously or playfully broached. But the approach remains tentative, exploratory, and at times ironically inflected. Indeed, Sebald often explicitly resists religious or quote "mystical appropriation."
It's interesting. In one interview, he does say that he is very interested in metaphysical questions. And he thinks this is what differentiates his work from that of historians. He also says, interestingly, that he really doesn't see himself as a writer. He sees his work as obsessive and devotional, which, again, is very interesting as a self description.
Sebald has been taken in post secular directions, notably in Eric L Santner's On Creaturely Life. In reading Sebald, one can sense the appeal of this approach and in general value the sustained attentiveness evident in Santner's insights, a quality he himself values highly in Sebald. Even if one questions, as I would, a perhaps be overly restrictive linkage of Sebald with the German Jewish tradition, importantly including Franz Rosenzweig for Santner, a tradition that had an evident appeal for Kafka, Benjamin, and Santner, himself. Rosenzweig is really not, I think, a reference for Sebald.
Without in any sense denying the importance of Kafka and Benjamin for Sebald, I nonetheless reiterate the point that as Santner well realizes, the forces bearing on Sebald's work render it overdetermined, including the role of a great many non-Jewish writers, some of whom I've mentioned-- Flaubert, Mann, you could add Nabokov, you could add Borges, you could add a number of others-- as well as of historical phenomena, notably the Nazi genocide, colonialism, and such diffuse processes as rampant destruction, victimization, and abuse, including the treatment of animals.
Moreover, the evanescent, epiphanic moment or opening in Sebald often seems to be the tenuous accompaniment of a sense of extreme disempowerment and near fatalistic melancholy, at times bordering on despair. The source of this prevalent sense or mood is what Sebald takes as the entropic course of history, that subsides via its mounting ruins into the cycles of nature. Here, it would be Benjamin's angel of history, seen as a traumatized, bewildered, immobilized witness, propelled by the blowback of a catastrophic history, a post-traumatically disordered spectral spectator, more than the messianic intimations, the momentary attempts to redeem the commodity, and the problematic intersections with Jewish mysticism that would appear to be Sebald's saturnine muse.
Here, it would be extremely interesting to compare and contrast in the old formulation Sebald with Jane Bennett, who was mentioned yesterday, especially in The Enchantment of Modern Life. Similar problems in and around the post secular, very divergent directions. That's something we might talk about, because it is interesting.
To recur to another Benjaminian [INAUDIBLE], ruins-- or perhaps, better, rubble-- not romantic ruins but rubble from catastrophes form the incline path from history or culture to nature that is also ruined. Or as Sebald himself puts it in a rather deflationary decidedly non-prophetic passage, "I think Benjamin at one point says that there is no point in exaggerating that which is already horrific." This is not nice, but somebody might tweet that to [INAUDIBLE]. At least--
At least on my reading of remnants of Auschwitz. "And from that by extrapolation, one could conclude that perhaps in order to get the full measure of the horrific, one needs to remind the reader of a beatific moments in life. Because if you existed solely with your imagination in the [FRENCH], then you would somehow not be able to sense it. And so it requires that contrast. The old-fashionedness of the diction or the narrative tone have, therefore, nothing to do with nostalgia for a better state or an age long gone, but is simply something that as it were heightens the awareness of that which we have managed to engineer in this century," unquote.
In his interesting essay on Sebald, in "Inner Workings," literary essays 2000 to 2005, JM Coetzee debatably states that quote, "The Rings of Saturn of 1995 comes the closest among Sebald's books to what we usually think of as nonfiction. It's written to tame the paralyzing horror that overtakes its author, that is to say its I figure, in the face of the decline of the eastern region of England and the destruction of its landscape." Sebald taught for some 25, 30 years at University of East Anglia and lived in that area in England.
Coetzee goes on to point out parenthetically "That of course the I in Sebald's books is not to be identified with historical WG Sebald. Nevertheless, Sebald as author plays mischievously with similarities between the two, to the point of reproducing snapshots and passport photographs of Sebald in his texts," unquote. It's noteworthy that of course dismisses simple identification is followed immediately by a nevertheless. I think Coetzee here points to the proximity or perhaps what you might call the distortive similarity but not the identity of author, writer, and narrator, even at times character. Not only the shifting first person Sebald narrator in The Rings of Saturn or The Emigrants but the somewhat more differentiated Jacques Austerlitz, from whom the Sebald narrator nonetheless often seems to have the minimal distance of a diaphanous medium.
One might perhaps read the title The Rings of Saturn in terms of an endless journey or ambulatory writing pilgrimage that circles melancholically and at times dizzyingly around the ruins of history and its sediments of contemporary life. He even says at one point interestingly that as a kid, he thought that rubble was the natural state of cities.
This repetitive circling with the narrator often in a twilight state between waking and dreaming, has no dialectical impetus or movement of overcoming, much less redemption. It's at most broken by uncanny, evanescent epiphanies, such as that provided by the momentary appearance of a duck, of rays of sun quote "making a fan shape pattern as they descended, of the sort that used to appear in religious pictures, symbolizing the presence of grace or Providence," or even the almost supernatural apparition of a pimp in a white suit, wearing gold frame eyeglasses and a ludicrous Tyrolean hat.
But the differences are momentary or may even seem like parrotic pop-ups, sort of pop-up epiphanies. There in an instant and gone. And you're wondering, was this really an epiphany?
And a state of grace or a providential presence is at best a thing of the past, whose modern residues do not come trailing clouds of glory. The writer's own textual labor is analogized to the torturous activity of the silk weaver or even the silk worm, which is discussed in manifold ways, from the ruthless cruelty of the Dowager empress Tzu-Hsi of China, who had daily blood sacrifices offered to the gods of silk, to the use of silkworms by the Nazis, including their snow-white relation to the best and cleanest of all possible worlds and the extermination of the worms in a killing operation by suspending cocoons over boiling water for upwards of three hours.
At one point, the narrator observes that quote, "My rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency." And in post-traumatic fashion, he approximates the disorienting feeling of numbness to that of repetition, wondering whether repetition is some kind of anticipation of the end, a venture into the void.
Animals make frequent appearances in Sebald. But I think they are for the most part treated as aspects of a consuming vision of ecological disaster, both man-made and quasi fatalistic. And when they appear in more discrete and relational terms, it's often in a deranged or demented state, brought about by human abuse.
Prototypical here is the captive obsessive compulsive raccoon, of which the Sebald narrator near the beginning of Austerlitz remarks, "The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own."
I've intimated that Sebald's own narrative practice might at least at times be seen as analogous to that of the raccoon. In light of its seemingly compulsive, repetitive descriptions of hopeless scenes, from the perspective of a contemplative yet disconcerted bystander, listener, or onlooker. In a sense, a benumbed, incapacitated witness at the dilapidated, even shell-shocked zoo of history.
And I know that captivity in zoos is one problem that eats away at Sebald, including his account in The Natural History of Destruction of the effect of bombing on animals in zoos, which is really dreadful. This impression of transfixed-- transfixed, often horrified witnessing-- is intensified by the juxtaposition on facing pages of two photographs enframing large animal eyes, seemingly a racoon's and an owl's or maybe two types of owl, with one set of eyes strangely much larger than the other. And along with this, two sets of clipped human eyes. One apparently Wittgenstein's, and the other of an older man, presumably Jan Peter Tripp, a friend of Sebald and a very well-known painter.
Wittgenstein repeated the proverbial saying that the eyes are the windows of the soul. And here, the eyes seem to reflect nothing. Yet Sebald's descriptions of animals are hauntingly compelling. And they may well evoke an empathic response in the reader or even induce the reader to see other animals not as mere objects of use or even as abject recipients of divinely delegated, at times merciful, human dominion but as making both demands for non-abusive treatment and claims for justice that have typically gone unheeded. And Sebald's own stylistic repetition of repetition of course introduces variations that are not simply symptoms and may even counteract compulsiveness, at least to a limited degree.
With reference to Jan Peter Tripp, I'll make a brief detour to note that in the essay, "An Attempt at Restitution"-- and interesting that he uses the word [GERMAN] in German. It's not something like [GERMAN], he actually uses this word, restitution-- included in an essay in the collection Campo Santo, a very interesting collection, came out in 2003 posthumously. Sebald provides this fascinating insight into what he calls his method of procedure, which of course, you may question in certain ways. Here's the quote.
"In May, 1976, Jan Peter Tripp gave me a present of one of his engravings, showing the mentally ill judge Daniel Paul Schreber with a spider in his skull-- what can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying in our Minds? Much of what I've written derives from this engraving, even in my method of procedure-- in adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things, in the manner of a still life," unquote.
You can question a number of aspects of this book. You can certainly find the necessity of qualifying the reference to a still life, by pointing out the role of repetition, with its relation to belated temporality, trauma and its aftermath that is so pronounced in Sebald's treatment of time and narrative. Or as he puts it interestingly in an interview, "When the narrative is finished, its beginnings show up in a new light. I mean, after the talk becomes tick again," which would be a great title for a book or an essay, "After the Talk Becomes Tick Again," a narrative procedure.
In the writing of The Rings of Saturn, one may be reminded of the later Flaubert. But it's Joseph Conrad, especially in his relation to Roger Casement, who inter alia receives extended treatment. Sebald apparently feels an affinity not only with Flaubert but also with the Pole, who wrote in English and retained a Polish accent and had an uncomfortable relation to both his quote, "native" and his adopted cultures, as well as an apprehensive sense of a quote, "Guilt-ridden colonial enterprise." An implication in an addled history that Sebald seems to understand as similar to his own relation to the Nazi past.
Sebald refers a few times to Conrad by his anglicized name but then turns in a telling alienation effect to the Polish Korzeniowski. He asserts that the madness of the whole colonial enterprise was gradually brought home to Korzeniowski. He adds that during his journey, Korzeniowski began to grasp that his own travails did not absolve him from the guilt he had incurred by his mere presence in the Congo, which may, I think, downplay the involvement and the relative lack of active political resistance in Conrad's relation to a nonetheless criticized Belgian colonialism. He was a supporter of British imperialism, of course.
Sebald notes as well that quote "Back in Leopoldville, Korzeniowski was so sick in body and in soul that he longed for death. What was to be another three months before this man, whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth to alternate with his writing, was able to depart homeward from Africa." And this, again, is self-referential. Sebald typically had breakdowns between his periods of writing.
Roger Casement may be and even more pronounced object of Sebald's empathic interest if not identification. His depiction of Casement is strongly etched and forceful, stressing the importance of Casement's trenchantly critical report on the Congo and his good unconditional partisanship for the victims and those who had no rights. He also stresses Casement's espousal of the oppressed, not only in Africa but in Britain, with respect to the quote, "white Indians of Ireland."
He notes that Casement's homosexuality, which was an embarrassment for many Irish partisans, may well have quote "Sensitized him to the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement, and destruction across the borders of class and race of those who were furthest from the centers of power." Sebald concludes his own discussion of Casement by noting dryly that Casement was, as expected, found guilty of high treason and hung. And the remains of his body, exhumed from a lime pit in 1965, were presumably scarcely identifiable any longer.
Earlier in this section, Sebald asked with respect to the dead in the Battle of Waterloo, evoked by the Lion monument in Belgium, "Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much vaunted historical overview from such a position?"
Perhaps an even better candidate for the status of nonfiction in Sebald is the collection of critical essays in the book translated as The Natural History of Destruction. This bitterly elegiac history in the mode of endless lament, most approaches a muted concept of working through the traumas and disasters of the past in its discussion of Alexander Kluge. Closest to some notion of working through the past in the discussion of Alexander Kluge, only to swerve away from Kluge in an insistence on the futility of hope and the irreparable nature of history. And I quote again, and he's referring here to Kluge's [GERMAN].
"Despite Kluge's ironic style, the prospect suggested here of an alternative historical outcome possible in specific circumstances is a serious call to work for the future, in defiance of all calculations of probability. A very powerful formulation. Central to Kluge's detailed description of the social organization of disaster, which is preprogramed by the ever recurrent and ever intensifying errors of history is the idea that a proper understanding of the catastrophes we're always setting off is the first prerequisite for the social organization of happiness. However, it is difficult to dismiss the idea that the systematic destruction Kluge sees arising from the development of the means and modes of industrial production hardly seems to justify the principle of hope," unquote.
One might ask why Sebald refers to the principle of hope, the term of Ernst Bloch, or even the somewhat sinister social organization of happiness, when defiant determination against the odds would seem more in keeping with his own account of Kluge's thought. Later in the text, Sebald seems close to Peter Weiss, whom he discusses at times in a participatory if not projective manner, emphasizing more than Weiss himself the lavish Jewish background and insisting on quote, "the endemic perversion of cruelty inherent in the history of mankind that cannot be redeemed in last chapter, since our species is unable to learn from its mistakes."
Arguably paying insufficient attention to the role of resistance, including political resistance, in Weiss, what Sebald detects in Weiss's aesthetic resistance is not only the expression of an ephemeral wish for redemption but an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time," unquote.
Indeed, Sebald's own perspective in The Natural History of Destruction, which at times uses the same, seemingly amalgamating terminology of annihilation-- [GERMAN]-- and disaster for the German victims of aerial bombing and for the Jewish and other victims of the Nazi genocide, however much open to question on the level of historical and critical analysis-- as I think it is-- may be understood as the way the past might well be subjectively experienced by a German born later, whose inclination was to align himself with the victim.
Here, I note that in one of the strongest critiques of Sebald's work, Ruth Franklin finds in it is the aestheticization of history, the elision of the causes of phenomena, the confusion of human action with natural processes and, in The Natural History of Destruction, the conflation of German suffering with that of Jews, in a way that creates quote, "The suspicion of moral equivalency." And I'm referring to her essay, "The Rings of Smoke," first published in the New Republic in 2002 and then also collected in this volume, The Emergence of Memory, edited by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, coming up rather recently.
"There are indeed elements of fatalism. Or, I think it's correlative, the role of chance and coincidence. There's always a tendency to collapse natural processes and human action in Sebald."
I think you could ask whether there is a similar tendency on a microbiological level in the recent, prevalent notion of autoimmunity as applied to human societies. We could go into that, if you like. Whether the notion of autoimmunity also is a quasi fatalistic microbiological conception of society, often in insufficiently mediated ways.
Yet on the level of what Franklin sees as causes, Sebald obviously believed, I think correctly, that the nature and extent of the bombing of German cities at the end of the war was far in excess of what was necessary to defeat the Nazis. And as Franklin intimates, it's difficult to accuse of moral equivalency-- a confused term in any case-- someone who addressed the atrocities or the aftermath of the Nazi genocide at times in elusive, conflicted or confused ways, as in The Natural History of Destruction but often in an explicit, extensive, and even obsessive fashion.
And it's also interesting that in responding to critiques that were made of his initial delivery of certain lectures at Zurich, in the book Luftkrieg und Literatur, he also goes to the opposite extreme of saying that we Germans brought the bombing of our cities on ourselves, which really is the other extreme.
In commenting on the final image of the Parcae or Fates in The Emigrants, Franklin-- a child of Holocaust victims and survivors-- observes that one young woman in the photograph quote "Could have been my own grandmother, who was blond and whose family owned a textile factory in Lodz." In a matter that may create the impression of an underestimation of blankness as an aesthetic strategy or even of a movement towards sacralization and taboo-- I think reminiscent of Claude Lanzmann-- Franklin accuses Sebald of substituting an artistic image for a blank space, where the blankness is however closer to the truth.
Her analysis ends with a curious comment that may seem to repeat the kind of amalgamating terminology with respect to the Holocaust that she justifiably criticizes Sebald for employing. "The art he created is of near miraculous beauty. But it is as fragile and as ephemeral as a pearl of smoke." A rather strange analogy when you're criticizing amalgamating terminology with respect to the Holocaust. Sebald's work, almost unbelievable beauty and like a pearl of smoke.
However, with Ruth Franklin and others, one could make the case that a focus if not a fixation of Sebald's work is the apprehension of what is to come after history, as the world subsides in seemingly fatalistic fashion into the post-Histoire, brought about by massive destruction, be it that of aerial bombing of German cities or the Nazi genocide and annihilation of Jews and other groups. Indeed, Sebald's perspective combines extreme precision with respect to historical details and a transhistorical sense of a vortex-like consumption of history in a movement or retrovirus of devastating catastrophe. What might be seen as the plummeting of historical reality into the black hole of the traumatic Lacanian real. And this is not unique, Sebald. He
Sebald might even be seen as rewriting Walter Benjamin's Trauerspiel book with mourning explicitly and insistently becoming impossible and even looping back into endless, interminable melancholy. Precision of detail would almost seem not to invite but instead to foreclose the type of specificity that might both test transhistorical apprehensions and at times even indicate, as he himself intimates in the discussion of Kluge, the possibility of locating or generating alternatives to the one-way journey backward of the Angel of History.
I've referred to Sebald's momentary epiphanies or beatific breaks in the clouds, which-- however much read against the grain-- may facilitate his appropriation for postsecular readings that insist on the pervasiveness of trauma, catastrophe, haunting, and compulsive repetition, yet also point to the messianic chips of time, that fleetingly and accidentally present themselves in an altogether aleatory fashion. Acts of grace are gratuitous acts that might themselves be seen, from a less ecstatic or more doubting perspective, not only as necessary points of contrast but also as symptomatic complements of despair and disempowerment. The latter estimation would seem close to Coetzee's, when he notes towards the end of his essay that Sebald's discussion in his long poem, "After Nature," of a painting, Altdorfer's Battle of Arbela, discloses a panorama of slaughter on a huge scale, rendered in detail of hallucinatory, vertigo-inducing minuteness. Indeed, the painting ought to precipitate another of his melancholic collapses. Instead, it leads to the rather unconvincing transcendence, with which the poem ends. Clouds opening, and so forth, son.
Here Coetzee seems to see unconvincing transcendence as an empty utopia. It is, of course, consubstantial with the accidental, aleatory epiphany that it appear utterly arbitrary and comes miraculously, like a certain form of divine grace-- when it will, not when we will. It may never seem convincing. But it may be compelling to a certain kind of melancholic, messianic sensibility, which I think is more the exception than the rule in Sebald, at least in terms of the messianic.
My severely truncated account-- which I'm sure is starting to seem very long, but I assure you, it's very truncated--
My account implies that it would be a mistake to see Sebald simply as a melancholic bricoleur, despite the importance of melancholia and parataxis in his approach. And I think this is often, for example, the very interesting and good book of Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question, which I'd recommend. He, I think, is maybe too summary in his judgment that Sebald seems interested only in the psychology of melancholic entrapment and ultimately seems to become a traumatophile. And that hurts to be called a traumatophile. And I would simply note that the emphasis on melancholia often comes with an aesthetic of the sublime. And I would say that in Sebald you find something like an aesthetic of sobriety. I'll use the term that Franz Hofer has employed, a kind of critique of an indiscriminate aesthetic of the sublime.
The complexity of Sebald's understanding of melancholia and his critical orientation to dubious-- not all-- conceptions of mourning and working through is particularly evident in what might be seen as a key text not only concerning its extensible objects but also with respect to Sebald himself. And the text to which I'm referring is included in the book Campo Santo and entitled "Constructs of Mourning-- Gunter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer."
Sebald's preference for Hildesheimer is unmistakable. But his reasons are simultaneously historical and literary, perhaps ethical and political as well. He views Grass in terms similar to those he applies to others in the so-called [GERMAN], Group 47, particularly Alfred Andersch, whom he scathingly treats and implicitly contrasts with Jean Amery. And he actually discovers this fortress of Breendonk, which is so important in The Rings of Saturn, as he's working on Amery and locates the place where Amery was tortured.
It's a very interesting aside to people who may not know this. You can find it by looking up Alison Fraser, who has written a very interesting article on Machiavelli, pointing out that just before he wrote The Prince, Machiavelli underwent the same torture as Amery, with your arms tied behind your back and being brought up until your muscles gave way and your bones cracked.
Sebald did not know of Grass's belatedly acknowledged participation as a very young man in the Waffen SS. Still, Grass for Sebald obscured quote "The real aspects of the story of the Danzig Jews in his 1974 Diary of a Snail. Most significantly, Sebald observes in "Constructs of Mourning" that Grass's quote "snail-like theme of melancholy" functions as an alibi, to counter the problematic intention of mourning, which would be necessary to engage the history of Danzig's Jews.
So here, one has a realization of the limitations of melancholy and the stress on melancholia and in the historiographical, ethical, and political defense of mourning for victims, a critical, theoretical defense, which is neither redemptive nor primarily psychological. I would add, a perspective on mourning that I share. And I'd also add that unlike melancholia, mourning-- while of course having an effective dimension-- is not primarily an affect or a mood. You might argue that melancholy is an affect or a mood, but mourning is not primarily an affect or a mood. It's a social and even a ritual process, possibly with a political side as well. and that's something one could go into, which is I think too infrequently recognized.
And with respect to mourning, one might include the laughter of the wake as an important form, if not prototype of gallows humor. And I would say there's a lot of interesting humor and gallows humor in Sebald, which I don't have time to go into, that Santner does discuss in his own way, in On Creaturely Life.
By contrast, Sebald reads Hildesheimer's Tynset of 1965. Tynset-- T-Y-N-S-E-T, a place name. He reads Hildesheimer's Tynset in 1965 as an allegory of the Nazi genocidal treatment of Jews and finds in its experimental, paratactic techniques the echoes of post-traumatic effects. Hildesheimer, not a Holocaust survivor, was Jewish and interestingly a translator at the Nuremberg trials.
Sebald even finds that Tynset quote "Seems to have been created from the heart of mourning itself." And he pinpoints in the text-- which Hildesheimer refused to call a novel-- rituals poised between melancholy and mourning that provide some relief but not release or salvation-- rituals such as the narrator's nocturnal reading of telephone directories and timetables, as well as his dreams of a country beyond Durer's sea of Melancholia. Sebald notes that the first person narrator of Tynset's lengthy monologue is quote, "never clearly perceived as a character, only as a voice" and that following trails of complicity and fellow traveling that emerge from his random telephone calls, he conveys to upright fellow citizens messages so urgent that they leave home in haste. And the obvious thing here, he is telling them about their past, things they don't want to hear.
Sebald doesn't make the seemingly obvious point that the directories and timetables may also be repentantly read by the insomniac, ambulatory narrator, to note and commemorate what had been murdered, mutilated, destroyed and distorted in the Nazi past. Sebald insists that quote "we are dealing here with something far from nihilism in the usual sense. It's more like an approximation to death, to which melancholy clings," quoting Tynset, "like the fat weed that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf." A provocative gesture of resignation.
Comparing Hildesheimer to Kafka, he adds that the area that melancholy thus sets out to explore stretches out before us in the castle in Kafka's The Castle as a snowy, frozen landscape. And its exact counterpart is Tynset, a place in the north of Norway that the narrator ventures to visit.
Tynset is the penultimate stage on his journey. After it comes Roros-- R-O umlaut, R-O-S, Roros-- which, quoting Tynset, "lies like the last camp on the way to the end of the world, before that way is lost in inhospitable regions, a territory so incalculable, so menacing that its exploration has been postponed, year after year, until the camp has become the eternal autumn quarters, inhabited by aging explorers, who have lost sight of their goal or forgotten it and now look vaguely for the geographical origins of the melancholy. Origins that they have long been seeking, but on which they can never lay hands." I think something that could conceivably be read as an allegory or commentary on the contemporary left.
I'd add that it is appropriate if ironic that Roros may be very close to the Svalbald-- not the Sebald, but the Svalbald Global Seed Vault or doomsday vault, near the North Pole in Norway, which is the post-apocalyptic, multinational repository of seeds that presumably may restart vegetation in the wake of a world-destroying catastrophe. Sebald himself, in this essay in Campo Santo resists the almost overwhelming temptation to embrace fatalism and melancholy but instead traces the unfixed interactions between a marked saturnine response, which for many has become his distinctive signature, and its intricate links to forms of mourning that do not bring either closure or redemption but nonetheless have a necessary but not sufficient role in working through the relations between past, present and future.
And since I am just-- I have something else to add, if you give me a few more minutes, which is sort of interesting about reception. It's very-- it's not very, but it's brief. And it's interesting, I think, about reception. It's on a different note as an ending.
The reception of Sebald's texts in different contexts, including the English-speaking world, where they have often been celebrated. If you read the comments, I mean the comments are just mind-boggling. Indeed, seen by some, more than some, including Susan Sontag, as sublime. This question of reception is beyond the scope of my analysis. Still, I'd like say a couple of things.
I'd note that-- Max Pensky who was in the audience just gave me a very interesting article he's published recently on Heidegger, Benjamin, and Sebald, which I'd strongly recommend. I'd note that in the German context, Sebald's orientation may seem untimely, more reminiscent of important currents in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, culminating in certain respects in the heated historians debate in 1986.
These currents resisted the normalization of the Nazi past and the neoconservative forces with which normalization was often allied. Instead, they emphasized the way the Nazi genocide had to remain an open wound. Or if it allowed for any significant healing, mourning, or working through, the process had to resist closure and to eventuate at most in scars that were not only visible but insistently pronounced and even disfiguring. In important ways, certain views expressed by Jurgen Habermas epitomizes orientation. And I think you'll also find it in the recent work of Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews.
In the more recent past, different problems have arisen, notably with respect to the German context, that have arguably changed certain terms of the debate. While extreme neoconservatism and even neofascism are not simply things of the past, still the post-Historikerstreit generation has seen the prevalence of both commemoration and memory work, even leading to debatable concerns about a surfeit or excess of memory and a transnational trauma or victim culture, concerns that I think are at best overblown. We can talk about that, if you like.
One resulting problem is how to approach the Nazi past in a manner that continues to raise questions for, while not overwhelming or impugning guilt to a generation born much later, that however well-informed may be either confused by or feel distanced if not detached from a past that nonetheless refuses to pass away. And one available response is of course, this has nothing to do with me, let's turn the page, let's walk away. And I've heard this, I must say, more than once from younger people from not only Germany but other areas.
To the extent the foregoing brief analysis is pertinent, it might be taken to indicate one possible set of reference points for the elaboration of Sebald's own concerns. One could, for example, point to an aesthetic of sobriety, quite different from an indiscriminate aesthetic of the sublime. One could also point to the insistence on documentation that along with an aesthetic of sobriety Sebald shares with advocates of the memory site, as a place of informed, critical reflection.
Embodied in the Berlin site, The Topography of Terror, especially with respect to members of Sebald's own generation, including the important historian Reinhard Rurup-- R-U umlaut, R-U-P, Rurup-- and Dieter Hoffman Axthelm-- A-X-T-H-E-L-M-- Dieter Hoffman Axthelm. The latter a very early advocate of drawing attention and critical awareness to the gestapo galena in Berlin that had been abandoned, largely forgotten, and left in rubble at the end of the war. I'd also note that Hoffman Axthelm, as an architectural historian, interestingly shares the profession of Jacques Austerlitz. On The Topography of Terror, I direct you to Franz Hofer's soon to be submitted dissertation on memory sites in Berlin and Tokyo.
The preceding analysis might also indicate how a writer may indeed be untimely and not resonate directly with prominent contemporaneous tendencies, even within intellectual or literary elites but in certain ways remain close to concerns of older generations, including, to some extent, people I've mentioned, such as Kluge and Weiss.
In another sense, however, Sebald's orientation bespeaks the role of repetitive temporality wherein what was once prominent may nonetheless return with modifications, be linked to heightened awareness or sensitivity about still active possibilities-- such as neofascism and victimization-- and have the power of address or interpolation when formulated in ways that convey an ability to disturb and provoke. Even when one is inclined, as I am, take issue with one or another aspect of Sebald's literary or intellectual practice-- such as I would add to earlier cautions, his seeming inattentiveness to prejudicial treatment of Islamic and in particular Turkish "Gastarbeiter" in Germany, which you would think would be a focus, given his concerns-- I think one might still be affected by this ability to disturb and provoke.
And one may justifiably stress the crucial point that Sebald's skillful and effective deployment of stylistic devices-- such as repetition parataxis, segues and careful framing-- enable him to trace and render other than narrowly quote "rational processes" that escape the confines of a restricted documentary reserve, that you may find in, for example, many historians and other commentators.
OK, I thank you for your somewhat flagging attentiveness. But thank you nonetheless.
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In his much-discussed texts, W. G. Sebald engages the classical double bind of a posttraumatic situation, particularly a situation in which one lives in the heavy shadow of atrocities one did not directly "perpetrate" but for which one nonetheless bears a sense of responsibility if not guilt.
Sensitive to both historical and formal problems in the writing of literature, this lecture explores the stylistic and substantive ways Sebald works his way into and at times through this double bind whereby one feels constrained endlessly to speak of the unspeakable.
Dominick LaCapra is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies and Professor of History and Comparative Literature at Cornell University.
This lecture was sponsored by the School of Criticism & Theory.