“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
— T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was already in his fiftieth year, and his third decade of residence in East Anglia, when he began to write of the walk he had taken two years before in the Suffolk country to dispel, he tells us, the strange emptiness which had come to fill him suddenly. Ironically enough, however, the walk soon became distressing as he took in, with ever-growing uneasiness, the traces of destruction reaching far back into the past that locked his gaze wherever he turned. Such was his horror upon return, he would have us believe, that, in due course, he had to be rushed to a hospital in a state of near paralysis. But once there, what the body had lost the mind gained, and before long it was soaring higher and higher with each tilt of the wings to view from above that Suffolk expanse, which, like the Borgesian Aleph, had now shrunk to a single spot, rightly so, devoid of all sensation. And yet, all the eye saw as the mind inscribed the words in its own cell was a colorless patch of sky framed in a window with a black mesh. In time, unable to hold his curiosity any longer, the writer went crawling like Gregor Samsa up to the window, from where peering down at the now utterly alien place, buildings and carparks rose up like fields of rubble or immense boulders to meet him.
Is it at all surprising then that a book which spirals out from under the dark sign of Saturn truly begins with that most tragic (or shall I say, saturnine) of figures in literature—Flaubert—who having spent all his mature life in writing the “real” on page, understood only too late that all writing is, in fact, miswriting? For if words made sense only through classification, how could one know if the “real” hadn’t been lost in that which was left out or had simply fallen off from memory? Perhaps it was the forlorn figure of Flaubert himself sitting in his cottage in Rouen, contemplating a way out of his impasse, which first made Sebald think of the winged figure in Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia, and which out of narrative necessity he was obliged to grant not to the image of the aging master but instead to the Flaubert scholar/friend, who, for his purposes, could well serve as a link to his next figure of interest, Sir Thomas Browne. Just as Flaubert finally divined that all his gods had ever granted him was not the “real” but a mirror of it, and that he would do well to simply transcribe the image, at the same time inviting attention to the very fact of the image, so Sebald openly flaunts throughout The Rings the need of the work to declare its own artifice. Thus, at times, the knots which make up the textual tapestry are too obvious; the links between one event and another, whether near or far in time and space, too tenuous. But then so is memory, where the writing first begins. Similarly, questions of nomenclature are irrelevant, for what does it matter whether the work is a novel, a travelogue, an autobiography, or an account of true events, when passage of time is forever fictionalizing the impressions of the real? Realism, Sebald once stated in an interview, can only function when it points beyond itself, that is, when it envelops mysterious facets, moving out into allegory. Years before, Borges, in his essay “A Defense of Bouvard and Pécuchet,” had spoken about the later release of Flaubert in these words: The negligences or disdains or liberties of the final Flaubert have disconcerted the critics; I believe I see in them a symbol. The man who, with Madame Bovary, forged the realist novel was also the first to shatter it. Chesterton, only yesterday, wrote: “The novel may well die with us.” Flaubert instinctively sensed this death, which is indeed taking place (is not Ulysses, with its maps and timetables and exactitudes the magnificent death throes of a genre?).
The desire to break away with the real into the domain of allegory is what attracted Sebald to writers like Thomas Browne, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, and, closer to our time, Jorge Luis Borges; they are writers who, as Stanley Fish suggests for Browne, employ the very machinery of reason as the vehicle of its own abandonment. If Francis Bacon saw the universe as a labyrinth that had to be deciphered with one’s reason to arrive at the truth, Browne was simply content in discovering the intricacies of God’s designs in the world around him. His fondness for the symbol of the labyrinth, on the other hand, arose from a desire to marvel at the complexity of the divine order and a tendency to dwell upon the human capacity for error, not excluding his own. Much like Swift, Browne saw the life of the mind as an inextricable part of the life of humanity and not simply an attempt to master the problems of nature. Therefore, he wondered whether it was not vanity to waste our days in the blind pursuit of knowledge, to achieve by labor and inquisition that which we could well enjoy by simply sitting down and watching the world. We carry with us the wonders we seek without us, writes Browne in Religio Medici. There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous piece of nature, which he that studies, wisely learns in a compendium, what others labor at in a divided piece and endless volume. Later, in Bungay, Sebald will recall a suffering Chateaubriand, asking himself, at the peak of his life, whether it was not wrong to have squandered one’s chance of happiness in order to indulge a talent; and lamenting this wretched life which is full of nothing but false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory.
Maybe it was this humility and curiosity about the mysteries of nature in Browne that sends Sebald on a quest to locate Browne’s skull, and which in turn provides him with an occasion to launch a discussion of Browne’s life and work. Typical of the narrative, he imagines Browne along with Descartes at the site of Waaggebouw in Amsterdam, where the dissection of a corpse is being undertaken in public by Dr Nicolaas Tulp, later immortalised by Rembrandt in The Anatomy Lesson, now hanging in the Mauritsuis in The Hague. Sebald tells us that the painter scoffs at Cartesian reasoning in his portrait, for he alone sees past the dissected body into the shadows in the half open mouth and eyes of the dead man.
What Rembrandt sees in the shadows, Browne observes in the white mists rising from a body opened up soon after death, linking them to a strange fog that shrouded large parts of England and Holland on a particular November evening in the seventeenth century. This is the same fog that veiled Sebald himself as he lay in his hospital bed under the influence of an anesthetic, which made the earth look like a black maze and the sky speckled with tiny points of gold, even as he heard the rise and fall of voices around him, free of words, a fluting sound, like a bird call or the song of sirens. In the light of dawn, a smoketrail left by an aircraft is all it takes to transport him back to Thomas Browne. Admittedly, this is one of those weak links that Sebald employs to join two parts of the narrative, which moves in spirals and through associations. Need I say, however, that in the dark depths of the mind ideas do not queue up like sentences mated through conjunctions but stand in a circle, equidistant from the void, around which they swirl and swoon without end. Sebald, it seems, is telling us that history is not only made by wars and revolutions, by repeated formations and dissolutions of social and political order, that the world is not only held together by great works of art and science but by smoketrails in the sky and a swallow’s flight over the openings above the mountains, preserved in the fragile memory of man, which works only through such apparently loose connections. And sure enough, he is soon quoting Browne: all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.
A similar desire of finding patterns and associations in nature made Browne see the quincunx everywhere, from starfish to silkworms, from the pyramids of Egypt to the temple of Jerusalem, from the Edenic Garden to the star cluster of Hyades. Before long, the desire to see the quincunx has infected Sebald too, and it is with a shudder that he makes out the pattern one evening, outside the house of a friend, on the belly of a beetle swimming on its back in a well.
It perplexed Browne to no end that while human reason increasingly demonstrated a system of immutable laws operating in nature, it also failed to account for bizarre physical forms and phenomena occurring everywhere.
The theme of transience and of the ongoing metamorphosis in nature, which Sebald had earlier alluded to in Kafka’s Samsa, he now develops further, by tracking the imaginary character Baldanders (meaning, literally, “soon different”) from Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings into Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel, Simplicius Simplicissimus, among whose major themes, like Sebald’s book, are war and the absurdity of human life. When Grimmelshausen’s hero, Simplicius, lays eyes on him in the forest, Baldanders is a stone sculpture lying on the ground in the dress of a Roman soldier. Before Simplicius’s eyes, Baldanders changes, by turn, into a writer, a mighty oak, a pig, a sausage, a piece of dung, a field of clover, a white flower, a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet. Life is an unending chain of consuming and being consumed, a fact Sebald reckons in the writing of Browne, who being a doctor was no stranger to disease and death. In his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, written in 1658 upon the discovery of certain sepulchral urns in a field in Norfolk, Browne records, in a prose of stirring beauty, instances of this transience in nature and our lives, from which Sebald pieces together the following extract for us to deliver its full impact: On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail into the dark. There is no antidote against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches, and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.
Yet how strange it is, wonders Browne, that while swords crossed and ploughshares passed above them and sky-high castles crumbled into dunes, these delicate clay urns remained intact for centuries just a yard or two underneath.
Sebald, employing Browne here, has opened up the major themes of the book even before setting a foot out of the house. For, like writing, the true traveler never leaves and never returns. A walk that describes not an arc of a hundred miles on land, however, offers thought endless space to swish back and forth across the history of nations and ideas and becomes the very occasion to ponder over questions of senseless death and destruction, metamorphosis and the amorality of nature, human greed and cruelty, the hidden designs of the universe, elective affinities between seemingly unrelated things, the slow turning of chance, the silk-like fiction of our lives, to piece together a picture which shows humanity its own terrible submerged face, decaying and in lament, forever ignoring that which alone holds the gift of release.
Lowestoft, Sebald’s first port of call, already feels like the site of an extinct civilization, where reeds have reclaimed most of the land that was laid waste during the Great War. Neither can he find the white turning sails of the countless windmills that once dotted the country for miles. Time is fast creeping up the walls of Somerleyton Hall, too, like the others he will see later, whose incomparable glasshouse, it was said, once shone on nights, brighter than the palace of Kubla Khan, and where, from quick money made in building rail links through Australia, Argentina, Russia, and Africa, upcoming, swift and ambitious men were able to project their own monstrous designs effortlessly into nature. Later in Southwold, Sebald will recall these very rail links to offer us a peep into the torrid destinies of not only Joseph Conrad and his friend, Roger Casement, but into the lives of those countless wretched dying voices, who gave up their souls in fits and bursts in the dark depths of the planet to build the modern destiny and great riches of Europe, its towering cathedrals and beautiful museums, its universities and trade exchanges, which, however, its rapacious leaders failed to save from the ruin coming from their own hands.
Like Kafka’s narrator in The Great Wall of China, Sebald wonders at all the centuries of pointless toil and suffering to erect little other than fleets whose only future lay, with all their loot, at the bottom of the sea. Whole forests have been put to flame simply to sustain the fantasy of human advancement. It is not for nothing, Sebald writes, that Brazil owes its name to the French word for charcoal. He continues, in a prose of elegiac beauty: Our spread over the earth was fueled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artifact we create. The making of fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television program, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread.
As if this was not enough, we then go on and on inflicting cruelties on animals, whether it be the herring, the quail, the pig, or the deer, which unknowingly suffer the vagaries of nature at least as much, if not more than us? Is their suffering not the more noble, precisely because it is innocent of all our foolish pride and certainty? Swooning with disgust, he can only see a two-headed monster in the vulnerable figure of a couple lost in the throbs of passion.
Silk has been on his mind for sometime, when Sebald’s peripatetic travels bring him to the banks of river Blyth. Across the river, he now imagines a slow moving, narrow gauage train, on which he is only too happy to stick the symbol of the dragon, emblem of the Palace in Peking, from where the great emperor, in the midst of fabulous pavilions and arbours, luxuriating in his harem, gave orders in great ceremony for running a kingdom, which by the middle of nineteenth century was already on the brink of collapse; both from the rebellions mounted by hungry desperate masses as well as the Opium Wars declared by the British to seek ingress into the forbidden kingdom. But the ones in power, points out Sebald, soon come to a mutually beneficial arrangement, which, of course, is not without its toll on those who cannot find the means to better their own lives. For the next several years the power-hungry Tz’u-hsi, risen from the ranks of the deceased emperor’s concubines, and who had assumed the title of the Dowager Empress, ruled over the kingdom with an iron hand. Yet, paradoxically, it was in her rule that the manufacture of silk prospered even as her people died of thirst and hunger in multitudes outside the palace walls. In a scathing aside, not lacking a certain black humor, Sebald relates how of all living creatures, the silk worms alone aroused a strong affection in her. These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers. To her, he writes, they seemed the ideal subjects, diligent in service, ready to die, capable of multiplying vastly within a short span of time, and fixed on their sole preordained aim, wholly unlike human beings, on whom there was basically no relying.
These same creatures, however, failed to be of much service to Germany, which in its haste to profit from them subjected its people to impractical laws and regulations that in no time upset the natural order of things, bringing the economy to a state of near breakdown. Is this any different, Sebald seems to be asking, from the manner in which Western powers continue to impose their policies over vastly different economies and ways of life, ostensibly, as a means to lift their people out of poverty?
Walking among the ruins of so many churches and monasteries, across from the river in Dunwich, which is all that remains of such an important European port of the middle ages, Sebald reminisces about the bookish, melancholy days of Swinburne, whose life he tells us was coterminous with the Chinese Empress, and whose appearance recalled to mind the ash grey silkworm, Bombyx mori. It is this desire, like Browne, to marvel at strange coincidences and associations stretching across vast spaces and times, to find elective affinities in nature, which gives him an uncanny feeling of having been in the house of his friend and translator, the poet Michael Hamburger, exiled in England like himself, in an earlier life. And what of the water pump in his garden which bears the numerals 1770, the year of Hölderlin’s birth? Could Borges be correct in his conjecture that Edward FitzGerald, who seem to have been born only for the purpose of rendering in English The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, was really the incarnation of the Persian? And does one write purely from habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything else, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage?
Time, like the sand in Flaubert’s dreams, is gradually conquering the human past in Orford too. Just a century ago, having remained uncultivated and sparsely populated, Orford was a favorite location for recently rich middle-class men to acquire large country estates, where, as Sebald says, they coolly abandoned the utilitarian principles they had always upheld in favor of hunting and shooting. In a haste to legitimize their social position, these men spent large amounts of money earned through their business interests in the colonies on holding grand hunting parties, where, he remarks, the respect that accrued to the host was in direct proportion to the number of creatures killed. Moreover, these hunting preserves were planned over the land reclaimed from poor farmers, who soon had little alternative than to migrate, at considerable expense to themselves and at times as far away as Australia or New Zealand. Their grand designs, however, were cut short by the German zeppelins which came from across the sea and in no time leveled the entire country. After the War, the mansions that were still standing, Sebald doesn’t fail to note, were used by turn as boys’ boarding schools, insane asylums, camps for refugees from the German Reich, and a research centre for the team which developed radar. In nearby Orford Castle and the surrounding martello towers, built to keep a watch on Napoleon’s army, government agencies experimented with weapons of mass destruction until recently. But such was the desolation of the landscape that after the writer had braved a sudden sandstorm he felt he was amid the remains of human civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.
That nature is amoral, and that in it we see only the projections of our own hopes and follies is already the theme of Melville’s great book. Let Ahab promise a doubloon to the one who avenges him by nailing the white monster, but what does it matter to the whale whose ferocity is not subject to a just or unjust cause? What did the eternal thunder of the Niagara mean, asks Chateaubriand, if there were not also someone standing at the edge of the cataract conscious of his forlornness in this world? That the heavenly constellations remain unmoved as they watch a hurricane tear apart fourteen million trees in a single night or a strong tide push half the herring in the sea to die on the beach is in itself nature’s reply to our endeavors and suffering.
So much for the aspirations of mankind. Wherever you look, wrote Browne, you see nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn—an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness. What then can man conquer, when his history irrefutably shows him that each victory is already a ruin, that what he builds with so much oppression, exploitation, and destruction is in itself the object to be destroyed? How does human reason and cunning decipher the treacheries of fate and time, which cast their net far and wide, in the most unusual places and things? The silk which pays to educate a Thomas Browne, is also the material used to weave the net for catching fish. And what should we make of all our grand designs, if war criminals like Kurt Waldheim become our representatives in outer space and nuclear reactors look like shrines. Is there a hidden meaning in that the day of The Last Supper was also centuries later the day when Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin, or, a little later, when Warren Hastings became the Governor-General of Bengal, or, later still, when the Anti-Semitic League was founded in Prussia? Amid all this absurdity, is dignity possible only as an exile, like Sebald himself or so many others that he encounters, from Michael Parkinson to Thomas Abrams, who having given themselves over to one or another harmless obsession, have, in so doing, found some measure of peace outside the historic, cataclysmic course of events.
Sebald’s literary worlds not only flow naturally from writers such as Nabokov and Proust, Kafka or Robert Walser, but from the great figures of the Romantic era. Already an exile just across from the German ocean, Sebald’s writing yearns for the old European ethos and temperament, although revealed to us through a Joycean fractured lens. So it will not do to simply shove him in this or that school; to cloak him in Freudian or Lacanian dress. It is in his fierce resistance to such classification that his true appeal lies. His is not a quixotic mission for a clear understanding, which, he believes, is simply unattainable. Forever on the lookout for strange patterns and connections, he attempts to find a way to express things left behind in humankind’s march into the future—the loneliness of early silk weavers in England or the last pangs of that foot soldier who lies half sunken in snow with a rapier in his ribs.
The earlier success of The Emigrants had made certain critics, erroneously I believe, brand Sebald as an author of the Holocaust. They were disconcerted, therefore, to find no mention of it in The Rings. Dare I say, however, that the Holocaust did not descend upon the world like a specter from the open sky but came about, like the rubble of Saturnian rings, from the sheer gravity of centuries of greed and bloodlust.
If The Rings is fiction, it is in the way Saramago’s History of the Siege of Lisbon is fiction, or Browne’s Museum Clausum. There is in Sebald a wish to save from under the name of Conrad the history of the boy Józef who watched his parents wither away in the white wastes of Siberia under Russian tyranny. There is in him an urge to look past the great figure of Stendhal at the dread and misgivings of a young Marie Henri Beyle, tramping behind Napoleon to find his fortune in Italy, on seeing a field strewn with mutilated bodies. And what words won’t do, the black and white grainy pictures will. But maybe they will fail too to freeze the past, and will remain suspended in time, similar to those severed bodies of unknown Serbs hanging in a row like dead magpies at the Jasenovac camp in Croatia.
Style which is at once real and elusive, indirect in speech and discursive in movement, forever alert to transfer the weight of our gruesome past into the present at each twist of a punctuation, yet remaining skeptical of itself, is perhaps the only correct way to record our history, and the gestures and cries which lie buried under it. An “I” that is now Conrad, now Kafka, here Stendhal, there Chateaubriand, is Sebald’s method to show that one man’s suffering is that of all men.
Time and again through his travels Sebald keeps losing himself in labyrinths, both real and imaginary, as if he were not tracing a course in the Suffolk country but circling in a hall of mirrors in which each event reflects another, every memory has its double, where Chateaubriand echoes in Michael Hamburger. Verily, like Borges’s Tlön, his is a carefully constructed world, a minutely detailed orderly planet, and, as Borges would say, a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men. And how does one discover this Tlön, if not with a mirror? But where then is our lost world to be found? That purple piece of silk in the urn of Patroclus—could it mean something?
Aashish Kaul is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, and in the past his fiction and essays have appeared in the United States and Australia in publications including Variaciones Borges, Evergreen Review, and Southerly.
Note: at the author’s bequest, quotations in this essay have been set without quotation marks, though they are attributed in the context throughout.
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