A Man Marked by an Image
May 22, 2009
I written several times before about some of the parallels I see between the art of W.G. Sebald and Chris Marker. Recently, Afterall Books began issuing a new series of books (distributed by MIT Press), each of which is based on a single work of art, such as Hanne Darboven’s Cultural History, 1880-1983 (owned by the Dia Foundation) Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind Is a Muscle, and Marker’s La Jetée. Reading Chris Marker: La Jetée byJanet Harbord only convinced me further that their work has much in common.
As Harbord notes, La Jetée “tells the story of a man marked by an image rather than a memory.” This is a pretty good description of Sebald’s enterprise of discovering the history he did not experience through images, object, and walks; and this seems particularly true of Austerlitz, in which Jacques Austerlitz tries to uncover a family history he that had been kept from him most of his life.
The broken statues and half-demolished buildings that populate many of La Jetée‘s images suggest the very incompleteness of both experience and memory. At the same time, this sense of incompleteness “allows our own supplementation, our own interpretive creations, to take root.” Sebald, whose real topic can be said to be history, turned to narrative fiction precisely because he felt that only an act of the imagination could bring us closer to experiencing other times and other people’s lives. Not surprisingly, the characters in Marker’s film and Sebald’s books frequent museums. The museum provides each artist with a complex commentary on the tangled relationship between history and the artifice that is memory. It serves as both a starting point in one’s exploration of the past, as well as a dead end.
When Harbord writes of Marker’s work on Alain Resnais’ 1955 Holocaust film Night and Fog, she notes that “the [film's] narration articulates questions of memory as place…Place is the retainer of traumatic memory if we know how to look.”
In one of the final images of the film the camera moves across the surface of a ceiling in a chamber. The narrator says this: ‘The only sign – but you have to know – is this ceiling, dug into by fingernails.’ The sentence hangs in the air in its ambiguity, or its fullness of meaning – ‘you have to know’ inferring that you need to be told for the nail marks to become legible….you need to bear this knowledge from the past. The question of what we can bear to know of the past, and of what this means for the future, is laid before us in this moment. At the centre of this circle of questions is the place of images, their ability, or not, to retain and pass on ‘facts’, trauma and meaning – in short, to deal with the ineffable.
This, of course, was the challenge for Sebald and it remains the challenge for us who try to come to grips with the success or failure of this aspect of his work. Can evidence ever become experience? The quote from Harbord immediately above reminded me of the ending of Austerlitz, where Sebald refers to another book – Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom. Here’s what I wrote previously:
Toward the end of Heshel’s Kingdom, Jacobson comes across evidence of a totally different kind. This is evidence left by Jewish prisoners being held in the infamous Fort IX in Kaunas, originally designed to protect the country from invaders, but used by the Nazis to terrorize and eliminate Lithuanian and European Jews. It is with this event that Sebald ends his book Austerlitz. In the bowels of the fort, where many thousands of Jews from all over Europe were held, tortured, and slaughtered, Jacobson comes across names and dates scratched into the walls between 1941 and 1944. “Max Stern, Paris, 18.5.44″, one says. Another reads “Nous sommes neuf cents Francais.” We are nine hundred Frenchmen. As evidence, these stark scratchings seem minor in comparison to the visible horror of the photographs Jacobson has seen, but he suggests that these simple attempts to be remembered, to be human, have a chilling veracity and authenticity far more powerful than documents made by the killers of these same people.