The Hidden Vanishing Point
May 26, 2012
Here is the third installment of my traversal of the essays written for the special W.G. Sebald issue of Journal of European Studies, released last December.
Stephanie Bird’s ‘Er gab mir, was äuβerst ungewöhnlich war, zum Abschied die Hand’: Touch and Tact in W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten and Austerlitz discusses exactly what the title infers. Bird uses touch as a way of exploring “the constellation of suffering, the question of whose suffering is privileged, and how it is represented.” She notes that Sebald uses the sensation of touch to both cause and alleviate suffering.
Anja K. Johannsen’s essay, ‘The contrarieties that are our yearnings’: Allegorical, nostalgic and transcendent spaces in the work of W.G. Sebald, argues that Sebald viewed “natural history as a downward-moving process of destruction” that was every bit as destructive as mankind. She suggests this is apparent most clearly when Sebald writes of cities, which he describes as diseased bodies and strata of buried history and which are forever sinking back into a state of entropy. “Sebald turns the notion of progressive evolution upside down because he feels that Nature’s wildly promiscuous love of experimentation creates nothing permanent and that its mechanisms of destruction are more powerful than its drive towards creative reproduction and self-preservation.” Johannsen pays particular attention to the treatment of Jerusalem as it appears in the diary of Ambros Adelwarth in The Emigrants. Here, unique among Sebald’s works, is a city “completely devoid of any utopian hope in a redeemed future.” For Johannsen, the description of Jerusalem is remarkable for its “concentration of words connoting disgust: one can almost smell the putrefying city.”
I was especially taken with Johannsen discussion of Sebald’s allegorical use of “museum-like spaces” and strange collections. Sebald’s narrators, she argues, are “interested in things only when they have become dysfunctional, transformed into a collector’s item, and testify to both the irretrievability and the secret persistence of time past.” The many collections that appear in Sebald’s writings present us with an inherent conflict between the idealized (and perhaps unreal) past they represent in our imagination and their signalling of a “universal history of decay and destruction.”
Johannsen’s goal is nothing less than to locate the “meta-apocalyptic model of reality that forms the hidden vanishing point of all of Sebald’s literary texts.”
Sebald’s narrators can bear the ruinous state of our world only because their inner gaze is fixed upon a moment of absolute stillness that points away from that world – either backwards, towards an imaginary heile Welt, or upwards, towards the wholeness of icy transcendence. Without these escape routes, Sebald’s texts would constantly be in danger of encountering their own limitations – as happens in the Jerusalem episode of “Ambros Adelwarth.”