27 August 2010

"Against the Irreversible" (W. G. Sebald)

When he crossed the border into exile in Belgium, and had to take on himself the Jewish quality of homelessness, of being elsewhere, être ailleurs, he did not yet know how hard it would be to endure the tension between his native land as it became ever more foreign and the land of his foreign exile as it became ever more familiar. Seen in this light, Améry's suicide in Salzburg resolved the insoluble conflict between being both at home and in exile, "entre le foyer et le lontain."
                         - W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction

Sebald's claim of the inadequacy of postwar German literature extended not only to the subject of destruction from air bombings but to the entire postwar experience. For him, the literary world then was characterized by a "huge moral deficit" that was gradually being addressed by a handful of writers slowly emerging from their labyrinths of silence. One of these writers was Jean Améry (1912-1978), the subject of Sebald's third essay in On the Natural History of Destruction. Améry started late into writing about his personal experiences of the war. He entered the literary debate in the 1960s when his essays on "exile, resistance, torture, and genocide" appeared. He wrote from the perspective of the victim, which is to say "the guilty one," guilty for being tortured and silenced and for having the memory to remember it all. Sebald's analysis of Améry's works often relied on role-playing and on the findings of William Niederland, a psychoanalyst. Sebald detected in Améry the "anguish of memory which is partly vague, partly full of a still acute fear of death." One could detect in Sebald's essay sympathy for a writer trying to come to terms with his own failure to memorialize (rationalize) what happened to him in the torture chamber. The attempt to articulate unspeakable emotions through language, Sebald observed, possibly led Améry to adopt the genre of essay in order to embrace the freedom of exposition. This was perhaps the only freedom one can enjoy when expressing the pain of suffering. Sebald quoted a passage of Améry's that exemplified the strategy of understatement (and irony) that the writer used to avoid "pity and self-pity." (Niederland found such avoidance to be typical of the accounts of torture victims.) Because the reconstruction of memory required a set of language which can dislocate the shoulders, the passage had to end in linguistic perversity: "... I had to give up rather quickly. And now there was a cracking and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten to this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology!" This passage Sebald saw as reaching the breaking point of composure, as consciously "operating on the borders of what language can convey." When writing about the physicality of pain, the writer had to become the torturer himself. Torture has "an indelible character," Sebald quoted Améry: "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured." Whoever was killed in spirit, died ever after. And the long delayed terminus was never slow in coming. After writing the essays, which include At the Mind's Limits (1966) and On Suicide (1976), Améry's voluntary death was no twist of fate.


  1. All this talk about destruction and inadequacies and torture and memory I find very interesting. Would Sebald have the same conclusions of post-war Filipino literature? I have to find myself a copy of this Sebald..

  2. Do find a copy, Karlo. It has a lot to say about the literature of compromise in times of war and totalitarian regime. Arguably comparable to the kind of taboo that permeated the nation after the dictatorship.