16 August 2010

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

On the Natural History of Destruction is W. G. Sebald's first collection of literary criticism to appear in English. (A few more essay collections of his are scheduled for release in the next two years.) The first essay, called "Air War and Literature," is an edited version of a lecture first delivered in 1997, the so-called "Zürich Lecures," which was published in German magazines and in book form in 1999. Its controversial subject polarized its readers and listeners.

Sebald's criticism is primarily directed against the German writers and their inability to write about air bombings in WWII Germany. Sebald is concerned about the interplay of memory and history, the role of writers in times of crisis, and their moral/ethical obligation to bear witness to destruction.

"Air War and Literature" is written from the perspective of a literary writer and a German citizen. It is a condemnation of a kind of literary silence hanging over the German literary scene in the post-war years. Sebald's poetics abhors the willed forgetfulness of writers who did not produce literary works on the subject of bombing raids and the total destruction of several German cities. He partly ascribes it to a form of cultural defect, not only of writers but of readers as well (from the foreword):

[W]e Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition. We do not feel any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilization … [W]hen we turn to take a retrospective view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of those writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited.

* * *

The trick of elimination is every expert’s defensive reflex.

The essay's epigraph came from Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude, a novel consisting of introductions to non-existent science fiction books. In the context of "Air War," it implies a discourse on fake or unwritten literature, those existing solely in the mind of the author.

The irony of illustrious writers (the "experts") withholding information is not lost here. Sebald is highlighting the grave sin of omission that the experts committed by neglecting to produce lasting works of art that flesh out the plight of the German victims. For Sebald, it was tantamount to the erasure of history, or a cleansing of the past collected in a silence that was as deafening as the detonation of bombs. Sebald points out the glaring gap between literature and historical truth that constitutes an undeniable ethical and moral failure of individuals and the nation.

Heinrich Böll's novella, Der Engel schwieg (translated as The Silent Angel by Breon Mitchell) was singled out as a rare exception to a handful of works that focused on carpet-bombing. It was only published 50 years after it was written, presumably because its gloomy subject was not suitable to the time.

(Note that there are notable non-German works which depicted the same subject. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five contains a harrowing aftermath of the air raids in Dresden. The entire book treated the subject in a metafictional solution that was itself a symptom of its inability to confront hard reality unless a certain authorial distance or narrative playfulness was adopted. The air war was also touched upon in one of the volumes of memoirs by the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (collected in Gathering Evidence). He gave a powerful, if brief, description of air bombings during his childhood.)

Other writers and historians have written on the subject but Sebald found their efforts incompatible to the gravity of the subject. Their documents and studies “did not alter the fact that the images of the horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness” (p. 11).

The trick of elimination: The publications “seemed curiously untouched by the subject of their research, and served primarily to sanitize or eliminate a kind of knowledge incompatible with any sense of normality.” Skewed normality is yet another by-product of the “order-loving minds” of the Germans. But why? Why do German writers, almost wholesale, held back their human stories? Isn’t it uncharacteristic of wronged peoples to keep silent and endure their suffering and still emerge from the “war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment”?

(To be continued)


  1. I'm not convinced Max was right about this subject entirely; Nobel-prize author Gunther Grass never avoided this subject as his 1959 novel Der Blechtrommel ( The Tin Drum) demonstrates.

  2. Interesting sounding essay, Rise. I'm afraid that my one attempt at reading Sebald was cut short because he wasn't exactly vacation reading material (I was exhausted more than anything else and too tired to read much of anything), but I'll probably give Austerlitz another go before the end of the year. Your book of essays by him shows a lot of promise, I think!

  3. Hydriotaphia, Grass and The Tin Drum are conspicuously absent in the essay. I haven’t read The Tin Drum. It's possible that Grass’s aesthetics is not what Sebald had in mind when he was decrying the lack of German epics.

    There’ a critical essay that Max wrote on Grass that was collected in Campo Santo. I have yet to read it too.

    Richard, yes. Sebald is hardly a beach read. Not the usual picker-upper read but nonetheless a writer’s writer. I haven’t read Austerlitz; my copy is begging to be read. The present book of essays is a constant provoker of thoughts. Though I wish I’ve read some of the writers he’s talking about.