01 December 2014

Sebald's art of restitution

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Seven Stories Press, 2010)

"So what is literature good for?" asked Sebald in an essay which appeared in his posthumous collection Campo Santo. He quoted Hölderlin at length before giving a direct answer.

Am I, Hölderlin asked himself, to fare like the thousands who in their springtime days lived in both foreboding and love but were seized by the avenging Parcae on a drunken day, secretly and silently betrayed, to do penance in the dark of an all too sober realm where wild confusion prevails in the treacherous light, where they count slow time in frost and drought, and man still praises immortality in sighs alone? The synoptic view across the barrier of death presented by the poet in these lines is both overshadowed and illuminated, however, by the memory of those to whom the greatest injustice was done.

The answer came at the penultimate sentence of the essay. "There are many forms of writing," he noted; "only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship."

For Sebald, restitution was a delicate function of literature that must be pursued creatively, actively, and at all costs. The object of such restitution was memory ("the memory of those to whom the greatest injustice was done"). As Ruth Franklin wrote in "Rings of Smoke," the penultimate essay in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald: "Art is the preserver of memory, but it is also the destroyer of memory."

This is the final tug-of-war in Sebald's work and the most fundamental one. As he searches for patterns in the constellation of grief that his books record, he runs the risk that the patterns themselves, by virtue of their very beauty, will extinguish the grief that they seek to contain. Sebald's peculiar alchemy of aestheticism and sorrow unwittingly underscores its own insubstantiality. Even as he investigates the roots of memory, Sebald, like the weavers whom he finds so emblematic, continually unravels his own creations.

Unraveling was the fate of Sebald's narrators in their life and in their work, whether artistic or occupational work. This was the "destructive" working method of the painter Max Ferber in The Emigrants. "When memory is lacking, art will suffice," Franklin observed in the tendency of Sebald's narrators to use artworks (paintings) as surrogate or representation of their anguish. "Sebald aestheticizes history, but he never mistakes history for art."

Franklin's inquiry led her to question Sebald's "shocking" "ahistorical" treatment of air war in his controversial lectures about the carpet bombing of Germany in World War II. Sebald did not give a political or moral context to his taking to task the German writers for failing to write about their experiences in the imaginative sphere of fiction.

Sebald's patterning amounts to an aestheticizing of catastrophe, and thus it annihilates causality. We appreciate the beauty of the image that the writer discerns, but it adds nothing to our understanding of why things happened as they did. And this is the great problem with a "natural history" of the bombings [in his "Air War and Literature" lectures]. The air war over Hitler's Germany was not a natural disaster, like the eclipse of 1502. It was not random in its causes or its effects; and so, morally speaking, it was worse than a natural disaster. The bombings may have the physical impact of an earthquake, but they cannot be understood in the same way, because to do so is to ignore the fact that this catastrophe was man-made, a human action, and thus more complicated and more terrible than another inevitable repetition of nature's rich but meaningless pattern of disaster.

Franklin here assumed that the lack of historical context in Sebald's lectures and narratives about man-made catastrophes "adds nothing" to the comprehension of these tragic events. Sebald's use of the "natural history" framework was problematic, according to her, because of the apparent gloss over the moral (human) transactions that accompany wartime disasters. Franklin's literal interpretation of "natural" in natural history excluded human nature which was still part of the "ecosystem approach" to history.

Sebald's ecological philosophy was in fact more complex than she gave him credit for. Franklin's focus on the agency of decision making in man-made disasters failed to recognize how, throughout history, violence was a natural state of humans. Sebald's depiction of environmental disasters, whether natural or man-made (e.g., the declining population of the herring and the powerful hurricane that leveled millions of trees in The Rings of Saturn), was not much explored in criticism about him.

In Sebaldian poetics, environmental collapse was closely aligned with the collapse or breakdown of morals. As he said in an interview, "We're living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we're driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells."

Moreover, the metaphoric use of natural disasters for man-made disasters was closely related with how cruelty and violence were hardwired in humans. The mess produced by wars had the same or comparable destructive impact or effect as, say, extreme weather events. (Even our capacity for self-destruction was more and more evident with the way we influence the climate system to give rise to anthropogenic climate change.) Sebald's "natural history" should in fact be read in terms of his "ecopoetics." Critics have yet to give emphasis, let alone explore, the ecological aspect of his writings.

Franklin went on to question Sebald's tendency to equate gap in literature with gaps in memory. "Sebald looks to art to fill gaps in memory, and the air war is his own biggest gap," she noted, and later she went on, "But gaps in memory are experience that is forever lost; and art cannot take its place."

Art surely cannot replace memory but it can build or (re)imagine one. If it is successful in doing so then it can bring something tangible or intangible to its readers. It could offer consolation or engender sympathy. Or it could convey simple understanding or suggest hints of recognition. Sebald's essays and stories were in fact an attempt at restitution through the recreation or preservation of memories. So that the individual stories would not simply vanish in smoke.


  1. These have been great. Franklin's argument is quite serious, but I think I am more on the side of your counter-argument. Still, there is always a risk of using one form of violence to excuse another, which makes the rhetoric tricky. But that's why Sebald's books are written the way ther are.

  2. "Art is the preserver of memory, but it is also the destroyer of memory."

    This is such a great topic to take on in a book or an essay or a blog post, so I appreciate you sharing this even though I'm not yet the Sebald fan that you and Tom and many other fine, trustworthy readers are. Like Tom, I tend to prefer your "counter-argument" to Franklin's--at least as represented here--but I'll try to keep this framework in mind when I return to Sebald for book #3 with him. Great post.

  3. – Tom, the violence to excuse another form of violence was also mentioned by Franklin and she was critical of Sebald's apparent "insensitivity" considering that he may be accused of "moral equivalency" by readers confused by his lack of context.

    – Richard, I think the opposite was truer in Sebald. "Memory is the preserver of art, but it is also the destroyer of art." The idea is central to his work. And it is best tested by dipping into both his fiction and essays.