17 August 2010

"Air War and Literature" (W. G. Sebald), 2

In "Air War and Literature," Sebald was trying to account for the unexplained disengagement from reality of the works of German literary writers right after the second world war. Self-righteousness, pedantry, insensitivity - these can be leveled against this attempt to recover some forgotten memory, soul, or conscience that was left in the ashes of ruined shelters and buildings. Why bring out to the surface what has been safely kept from sight? Given Sebald's high standing in contemporary literature - achieved through the publication of a series of radical novels which broke new genre grounds while essaying the stories of melancholic survivors of history and atrocity - his arguments cannot be easily dismissed. His persistence on the matter brought discomfort and provoked a critical examination of literature that has so far come out in Germany in the past half-century.

Sebald identified some consequences of his perceived literary self-censorship and selective amnesia. One is the lack of masterpieces. There is a clamor for the “great German epic of the wartime and postwar periods.” The economic miracle in Germany is another possible consequence. As if the citizens became conscientious traders and miracle workers to cover for their ruined livelihoods.

Whereas recounting “truthfully” is an activity that requires soul-searching, it is still not antithetical to hanging one’s own head in guilt. A neat explanation is impossible. Should the victims insulate their selves or express open grief? Sebald was right to refer to psychoanalytic explanations of the mental stress experienced by victims, but it is such a confounding phenomenon that his quotations are hardly definitive. One of the implicit causes of the breakdown of collective memory is the legacy of an unorthodox worldview. The assumption is that forgetfulness is a fruit of fascism: a lewd legacy of totalitarian regime.

A potential weakness of Sebald’s line of thinking is a pedantic critique of trauma and guilt as originators of desensitized mental state. One of the causes he gave is the shared guilt by the Germans to the holocaust. They cannot complain of massacre because their kind has done similar terrible crimes. This is the default “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle which in this case cannot be easily abstracted for its complex psychological nature. The causes and the effects of violence, cruelty, and evil may be so interchangeable that one does not know where one begins and the other ends. This is the bane of modern humanity.

* * *

Sebald decried the lack of German masterpieces yet failed to mention the novels of Günter Grass, notably The Tin Drum (as Hydriotaphia commented on the previous post). This novel is widely read and considered a masterpiece. It also contains scenes of the aftermath of bombings, as the critic Ruth Franklin pointed out. This elimination of Grass by Sebald speaks volumes. It can only mean that he does not subscribe to Grass's aesthetic representation of suffering.

Grass himself was critical of Sebald. He said in an interview with The New York Times that he welcomed books about the Allied bombing such as the one written by Jörg Friedrich (Der Brand, or The Fire):

But he agreed less with W. G. Sebald's essay, "Air War and Literature," published [in Germany] in 1999 and in English [in 2003], in a collection called, "On the Natural History of Destruction." Mr. Sebald, who died in 2001, argues that postwar German writers ignored German suffering during the war. "The novels of Henrich Böll and Wolfgang Koeppen deal with these things," Mr. Grass said. "If I had met Sebald, I would have asked him, 'Why don't you write a book about it?' "

The novelist did write something. In "Air War" itself, he provided a summation of what happened during that time. His problematique begins with a sweeping diagnosis: The Germans have abdicated their role to provide a credible witness to history’s errors. To correct this, the novelist has to produce his own version of the events with graphic details culled from the diaries of survivors. The novelist maintains that a synoptic and artificial view of the bombings are needed because eyewitness accounts are either unreliable or clichéd. In producing his own synopsis of the bombing, the novelist is reliving an un-witnessed carpet-bombing, enacting his own repressed history, reading the silent documents from the archives, and ultimately satisfying his own hunger for truth. He is lighting a new fuse, creating another possibility, and surviving his own firestorm. His means are his ends.


  1. Looks like you've stumbled upon a literary rivalry. Interesting !

    But what's this ! No acknowledgment to Hydriotaphia for pointing out to you a book you base your critique upon which you've not read!

    Naughty boy Rise !

    The Tin Drum is faithfully adapted into film if little time to read it !

  2. Faithfully adapted up to a point - the film simply omits a large chunk of the novel.

  3. Ah! Duly corrected, Hydriotaphia.

    I aim to read it sometime. The movie may be harder to find than the book.

  4. That's true Amateur reader. Sorry, I had forgotten that! The film is only three-quarters of the book, but as Gunther Grass was consulted and collaborated with the screen-play I still maintain its a faithful adaptation.