May 6, 2010
The Rings of Saturn: Silk
The final chapter of The Rings of Saturn began with our narrator describing the various subjects that Sir Thomas Browne wrote about in his papers. They included the "Musæum Clausum," a catalog of curiosities that were likely products of Browne’s imagination. Sebald proceeded to itemize some of the objects mentioned in this "register of marvels." The last item he mentioned was a bamboo cane containing silkworm eggs that two Persian friars smuggled from China during the reign of Emperor Justinianus in Byzantium.
From this moment on, Sebald began to describe the science of sericulture: the anatomical and biological traits of Bombyx mori, the species of moth responsible for spinning the fine silk thread; the white mulberry tree that harbors the silkworm; the propagation of silkworms and the art of silk-making in China during the time of Emperor Huang Ti; the spread of silkworm culture from Greece, the Aegean islands, Sicily, Naples, Piedmont, Savoy, and Lombardy. It later spread to France through the initiative of Olivier de Serres who became the counsellor of Henry IV.
Sully, Henry IV’s prime minister, saw a competition in ascendancy from de Serres, so he opposed the idea of silk worm cultivation in France and published his arguments in his memoirs of 1788, a volume of which was acquired by Sebald at an auction. Sully’s objections were ignored and silk cultivation progressed in France, in part because of the Edict of Nantes (1598), which promoted tolerance of Huguenots, the people mainly responsible for the cultivation of silkworms.
England copied France’s example. James I began to establish the rearing of silkworms by planting mulberry trees in Buckingham Palace. The silkworm industry in England reached it peak following Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, when Huguenots fled France and settled in England to continue their work on silk-making. Sebald reflected on how silk weavers, with their backbreaking work over the complex patterns they create, resembled scholars and writers in that they are all prone to melancholy and the evils associated with it. He also observed that, notwithstanding the despair and mental illnesses of the weavers, the beauty and variety of materials that they produce were truly incredible, "like the plumage of birds."
The Germans also attempted their hand at silk husbandry. By 1822, however, Seybolt(!) – a master dyer and employed as "Keeper of the Silkworms and Superintendent of Carding and Filature") – told the Director of the Royal Gardens that in spite of the thousands of mulberry trees planted, only two survived, the reason being the "despotic manner in which German rulers attempted to force [silk cultivation] along." The compulsory measures and stiff penalties of the silk laws were eventually revoked upon the death of the duke of Bavaria, Karl Theodor.
In 1811, silkworm cultivation in the German borders also failed due to environmental conditions. Despite this discouraging state of the industry, the Bavarian Counsellor of State Joseph von Hazzi campaigned for the continuation of sericulture. In his book (1826) he emphasized the lessons learned from past mistakes, the inculcation of "virtues of order and cleanliness" to the lower classes by way of silk cultivation, and thus the imperative to continue sericulture as the thing that would eventually lead to the "moral transformation of the nation."
It will be one hundred years more before German fascists put into effect Hazzi’s vision. Sebald knew this from a film on German silk industry: "In contrast to the dark, almost midnight tonalities of the herring [fisheries] film, the film on sericulture was of a truly dazzling brightness. Men and women in white coats, in whitewashed rooms flooded with light, were busy at snow-white spinning frames, snow-white sheets of paper, snow-white protective gauze, snow-white cocoons and snow-white canvas mailing sacks. The whole film promised the best and cleanest of all possible worlds." According to a pamphlet on the film, Hitler announced at a party rally that the nation must strive for self-sufficiency in all material aspects. Thus, silk cultivation was taken as a matter of policy for economic reasons and also to usher in the "dawning era of aerial warfare."
The pamphlet further contained several strategies to involve young students with silk cultivation. It outlined the steps involved in planting mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. According to the pamphlet: The silkworms "could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and essential measures … to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to pre-empt racial degeneration."
The film demonstrated the systematic hatching and feeding of caterpillars, the cleaning of frames, the spinning of silk, and lastly the killing by suspending cocoons over boiling cauldron: "The cocoons, spread out in shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is complete."
The book ended on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 1995, with Sebald contemplating the events that coincided on that day from previous years. It was the day, for example, that the Edict of Nantes was approved by Henry IV, 397 years ago. On the same day, 253 years ago, was the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was also the very same day that the father of Clara, Sebald’s companion, died in hospital. It occurred to him that black silk was previously worn by the upper classes to mourn for the dead. And there was once a practice in Holland, according to Sir Thomas Browne, of draping black ribbons over mirrors and canvases to enable the soul to travel peacefully on its final journey.