April 14, 2012
After enjoying the recent movie, I reread John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). About halfway through, it suddenly dawned on me the extent to which understanding all of the treachery and duplicity of le Carré’s Cold War spy novel hinge around the central concept of the archive. As George Smiley attempts to discover the identity of the Soviet mole that has been placed in the highest levels of the Circus (Smiley’s apt and marvelous name for England’s primary spy agency), he spends countless nights reading files that his colleagues filch for him from the Circus Archives.
Through the remainder of that same night, the light in the dormer window of Mr. Barraclough’s attic room at the Islay Hotel burned uninterrupted. Unchanged, unshaven, George Smiley remained bowed at the Major’s card table, reading, comparing, annotating, cross-referencing – all with an intensity that, had he been his own observer, would surely have recalled for him the last days of Control on the fifth floor at Cambridge Circus. Shaking the pieces, he consulted Guillam’s leave roster and sick-lists going back over the last year, and set these beside the overt travel pattern of Cultural Attaché Aleksey Aleksandrovich Polyakov, his trips to Moscow, his trips out of London, as reported to the Foreign Office by Special Branch and the immigration authorities. He compared these again with the dates when Merlin apparently supplied his information and, without quite knowing why he was doing it, broke down the Witchcraft reports into those which were demonstrably topical at the time they were received and those which could have been banked a month, two months before, either by Merlin or his controllers, in order to bridge empty periods…he was looking, in other terms, for the “last clever knot”…
Although there is a bit of old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger spycraft in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of the tensest chapters in the book, in fact, follows Guillam in an elaborately concocted scheme to steal some files right from under the watchful eyes of Circus Archives staff (only a small part of which is quoted below).
One girl stood on a ladder. Oscar Allitson, the collator, was filling a laundry basket with wrangler files; Astrid, the maintenance man, was mending a radiator. The shelves were wooden, deep as bunks, and divided into pigeon-holes by panels of ply. He knew already that the Testify reference was 4482E which meant alcove 44, where he now stood. “E” stood for “extinct” and was used for dead operations only. Guillam counted to the eighth pigeon-hole from the left. Testify should be the second from the left, but there was no way of making certain because the spines were unmarked. His reconnaissance complete, he drew the two files he had requested, leaving the green slips in the steel brackets provided for them.
The Circus Archives, neatly, if secretively, cataloged and shelved, are a far cry from the uncontrollable archives that lie at the heart of Kafka’s The Castle (J.J. Long refers to the “shambolic amateurishness of Kafka’s filing cupboard”). Probably more than any other writer, it is Kafka who is responsible for the threatening image of the archive that looms over the twentieth century. W.G. Sebald, of course, continued to explore Kafka’s vision of the role of archives in his four books of prose fiction, but especially in Austerlitz. As Long says in W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, the archive “lies at the very heart of Sebald’s narrative project. His work is profoundly concerned with the material and infrastructural basis of knowledge systems…” Reading le Carré’s description of the Circus Archives made me immediately think of the room described by Jacques Austerlitz and reproduced in a photograph near the end of Austerlitz. “”I came across a large-format photograph showing the room with open shelves up to the ceiling where the files on the prisoners in the little fortress of Terezín, as it is called, are kept today.” These files held data on the inmates of the German concentration camp also known as Theresienstadt, where Austerlitz’s birth mother had been sent.
To Smiley, the Circus Archives represented “a very dull monument…to a long and cruel war.” As he embarks upon his research through the vast Archives he notes that “the files contained only the thinnest record of it; his memory contained far more.” Nevertheless, it transpires that the very thoroughness of the Circus Archives makes it possible for his research to succeed in helping unmask the Soviet mole.
“Operation Witchcraft,” read the title on the first volume Lacon had brought to him that first night. “Policy regarding distribution of Special Product.” The rest of the cover was obliterated by warning labels and handling instructions, including one that quaintly advised the accidental finder to “return the file UNREAD” to the Chief Registrar at the Cabinet Office. “Operation Witchcraft,” read the second. “Supplementary estimates to the Treasury, special accommodation in London, special financing arrangements, bounty, etc.” “Source Merlin,” read the third, bound to the first with pink ribbon. “Customer Evaluations, cost effectiveness, wider exploitation; see also Secret Annexe.” But the secret annexe was not attached, and when Smiley asked for it there was a coldness.
“The Minister keeps it in his personal safe,” Lacon snapped.
J.J. Long suggests that “the self-understanding of modernity itself is based not on a pervasive sense of epistemological chaos [referring to the slovenly archive of Kafka's The Castle], but on an unbroken faith in the rationality of the archive.” What le Carré and, to some extent, Sebald both show, is that the obsessively maintained archives of modern bureaucratic states creates a kind of rationality that can also be leveraged against those that created and maintained them. The Circus Archives held the clues that led to the identity of the Soviet mole, just as Nazi-created archives permitted Jacques Austerlitz to learn more about the fate of his mother. As le Carré’s wry description of file names implies, any agency that ruthlessly archives its customer evaluations and special financing arrangements is just asking for it.
The Cold War of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a desultory and hollow competition amongst faded empires in which men and nations pursue the false memory of nostalgia with tragic results.
October 20, 2010
First unveiled in 1912, the panorama of the Battle of Waterloo, on an immense 110 m. long by 12 m. high circular painting portraying scenes from the battle fought on 18 June 1815. A central platform places the visitor in the very thick of a reconstructed clash between life-size infantrymen and cavalry brought vividly to life by the skilled use of perspective by the artist, Louis Dumoulin, and immensely realistic foregrounds. Quadraphonic sound effects make this unique panorama even more lifelike and impressive. [Belgian Tourist Office website]
In the essays that comprise the first section of Undiscover’d Country called Departures, the three essayists explore the strategies that Sebald used to go against the grain of traditional tourism in search of a more authentic experience. In these authors’ eyes, Sebald is pilgrim, a wanderer at the periphery, and a willfully inattentive traveler. Christian Moser’s Peripatetic Liminality: Sebald and the Tradition of the Literary Walk differentiates between tourism and a pilgrimage.
Whereas the pilgrim seriously contemplates the objects of adoration, the monuments and relics of the history of suffering and salvation, in order to tap a mine of spiritual meaning, the tourist is given to the fugitive consumption of commercialized sights and souvenirs – superficial signifiers that refer to nothing substantial beyond their own semiotic status as touristic ‘markers.’
To Moser, the wanderer-narrator in The Rings of Saturn “searches for the traces of a silent catastrophe that constitutes the obverse of modernity and its history of progress.” Moser gradually leads up to the insight that Sebald rejected the totalizing view of history, the aerial view, if you will. He points to the moment when the narrator is standing in the Waterloo Panorama, which tries to convey to tourists the totality of the famous battlefield where Napoleon lost. At that point Sebald writes:
This, then, I thought as I looked round me, is the representation of history. It requires the falsification of perspective. We as survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.
Sebald’s solution, then, is to seek “a view from a standpoint on the margin” – the liminal perspective as opposed to the aerial one. Moser also argues that Sebald should not be viewed as someone “trying to become one with nature.” Instead, “in the liminal zone, Sebald’s walking subject is confronted with his own divided nature.” Here, Sebald finds only guilt and he “experiences his self as hopelessly split.”
J.J. Long continues Moser’s theme in his essay W.G. Sebald: The Anti-Tourist by distinguishing between a traveler and a tourist. “While the traveler is the intrepid collector of the unique and authentic experiences, the tourist is nothing but the pampered unit of a leisure industry.” Long delves into the various strategies by which Sebald sought out more authentic experiences, and one of his points is that Sebald could not always successfully escape the trappings of modern tourism. Sebald turns to photography as “anti-tourist performances that compensate…for the failure of anti-tourism in actuality.”
…the quantitative predominance of photographs whose function is to document the narrator’s visits to peripheral places, and the grainy nature of the photographs themselves, begin to appear not as a sovereign assertion of a subjective experience of place, but a symptom of a certain anxiety about the very possibility of authentic travel experience.
In her essay “A Wrong Turn of the Wheel”: Sebald’s Journeys of (In)Attention, Carolin Duttlinger suggests that in a world of “habit and routine,” “travel offers a training ground for attention.” But, she notes, this “renewed attentiveness can also have an unsettling, destabilizing effect.” She reflects on the frequency with which Sebald suffers from the “dehumanizing effects of modern travel.” His response is to be inattentive to the playbook of modern travel and wander off in unknown directions, which “enables him to experience his surroundings in a new, intensified way.” Duttlinger also dwells at length on the parallels between certain of Kakfa’s texts and key sections of Sebald’s books The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo.
I hereby apologize for even attempting to convey the complex arguments of these authors into bite-sized snippets. My only goal is to encourage potential readers to find reasons to get Undiscover’d Country, published by Camden House, for themselves. I have three more sections to read and summarize, each containing three essays. It’s becoming clear to me that I will not achieve my goal of finishing in October. You can see my collected posts on Undiscover’d Country here.
February 3, 2009
Several critics have liked J.J. Long’s book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity more than I did, and that’s fine. Scott Esposito’s s recent post at Conversational Reading, How Sebald Explains Modernity, does justice to Long’s complex and dense book and also gives me a chance to prolong the conversation a bit.
Conversational Reader writes “I found all [Long's] cultural studies-type information to be valuable context for understanding Sebald; however, if you do not share my favor for this kind of contextual information and prefer criticism that sticks more to the text [and here he links to my post on Long's book here on Vertigo], this book is probably not for you.” As I tried to say elsewhere, my unease with Long’s methodology is not that he is providing “context” for Sebald, but that I feel Long doesn’t draw a clear line between when he is providing his own “context” and when he is teasing out Sebald’s “text”. I know there is no black and white answer here, that this is a question of where one falls on a spectrum, but trying to negotiate this demarcation throughout Long’s book made me queasy.
There is one place that I would disagree with Conversational Reading‘s reading of Long and that has to do with Long’s “reading of Sebald’s photographs,” which comes in for very high praise. I’ll just throw down the gauntlet here and now and say that “reading” photographs is a parlor game not unlike interpreting dreams; it’s not a suitable academic exercise. Long’s “readings” of some of the photographs embedded in Sebald’s books amount to wish-fulfillment on his part. As perhaps the most egregious example, I would send readers to pages 55-61 of Long’s book where he attempts to tell us what one particular photograph from Vertigo means. As Long notes, Sebald is “strangely inconclusive” about any meaning for this photograph (is Sebald ever “conclusive” about what any photograph means?). So Long proceeds to do two things more or less simultaneously. He places the photograph within a larger historical context (no problem there). And, inappropriately, to my mind, he minutely analyzes the photograph as if it had a clear and fixed meaning.
By coincidence, Brian Oard at Mindful Pleasures has just posted some thoughts upon rereading Austerlitz. Some of his concluding remarks seem relevant.
At the end of the book, we the readers, the narrator and his protagonist are left reading the signs that history has left us, even as they are being erased…And interestingly,the ending might suggest that the written sign, a text in a book, is among the most durable of all. Buildings, as Sebald shows us, can be obliterated. Towns like Terezin can change utterly. But the witness of writing is more tenacious.
March 23, 2008
Anyone who read my recent post on J.J. Long’s new book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity witnessed some of my unease with Long’s approach. There’s too much theory and way too much academic prose for my taste. But a recent post by Dan Green over at The Reading Experience brought into focus one of my other quibbles with Long’s book. In musing broadly on the end of the Litblog Co-op, Dan writes a little about his own disaffection from the world of literary academia:
My alienation from academe was in part a reaction against the prevailing modes of academic criticism, which in my view had essentially abandoned “literature itself” in favor of critical approaches that were mostly just a way of doing history or sociology by other means. I had pursued a Ph.D in literary study in order to study literature, not to validate my political allegiances on the cheap, or to study something called “culture,” an artifact of which literature might be considered but given no more emphasis than any other cultural “expression.”
It is this very tendency (perhaps too mild a word) to push literature over into the arena of cultural studies that bugged me from page one of Long’s book. Perhaps a dozen times I wrote in my notebook “He’s not reading Sebald!”. When applied to literature, cultural studies often seems like a method of decoding texts rather than actually reading them and struggling with them – as texts, not as encoded cultural messages. One of the times that I made this note occurred when Long talks about Museums and Modernity. In one long sentence he summarizes the numerous types of collections that appear in Sebald’s (“Collections of various kinds are everywhere in Sebald’s work: zoos, menageries…”) and then he provides a four-page outline of how “systematic collecting” is implicated in the history of Europe since the seventeenth century (“hand in hand with changes in the relationships between knowledge and power…”) without ever again referring to Sebald or quoting from one of his books.
Long, to his credit, seems to recognize at least some limitations to his methodology of applying cultural disciplines to Sebald’s texts. Midway through the book is a short section called The Limits of Discipline where he writes: “Sebald’s work is also, however, abundant in moments that dramatise the limits of discipline.” Having earlier, for example, discussed the role of maps in Sebald’s books, Long now notes an example from Vertigo “that demonstrates the failure of the map” at a point when “Sebald’s map proves completely useless” (in spite of having map in hand, the book’s narrator becomes thoroughly lost in Venice and is mugged).
I’m a product of academia myself and my quibble is not with any kind of cultural studies. But increasingly I think that literature is not well served by a strong-handed cultural approach.
March 17, 2008
W.G. Sebald once praised a book entitled Feuding Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica by his academic colleague Stephen Wilson as a “model study [written] with the greatest imaginable care, clarity, and restraint.” I wonder what Sebald would have thought of J.J. Long’s new book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity. Long’s volume of dense academic prose and critical theory seems to be much the kind of thing that Sebald deliberately abandoned when he turned away from his own career of literary analysis to the writing of prose fiction. Yet there is no denying that Sebald’s works of fiction contain, at least in some minor fashion, a dialogue with certain modern critical theory, notably that of Michel Foucault, with whom Sebald had a sustained engagement “of thoroughgoing ambivalence,” as Long puts it.
Long’s Introduction encouraged me to think that maybe this would be the book that would provide the crystal clear overview Sebald deserves. Largely following Foucault, Long defines modernity as “the seismic social, economic, political and cultural transformations that took place in European societies from the eighteenth century onwards” and he characterizes an “archival desire” as the essential means by which modern societies for the past two centuries or so have extended control and maintained power. By identifying the central topos in Sebald’s writings as the Holocaust, memory, institutions of memory (museums, archives, etc.), photography (yet another institution of memory), Heimat (homeland, more or less), melancholy, and intertextuality, Long makes the point that the “meta-problem” or connective tissue that links Sebald’s four books of prose is “the problem of modernity.” So far, so good.
In the three chapters of Part I (The Collection, The Photograph, and Discipline), it almost seems as if Long tries to shine the light of Foucault on Sebald’s works to see what glows. Here, Long’s strategy is to selectively isolate topics in Sebald’s books (e.g. tortured bodies, sexualized bodies, passports, maps, files, libraries, and so on) and then to locate each topic within a Foucault-like framework as a way of articulating on Sebald’s behalf an extended critique of modernity. What bothered me here was, in part, the ratio of attention: after minimal textual referencing to Sebald, Long often proceeds to devote considerably more space to extracting the related social, economic, political, and cultural implications. This is easier to see in an example. In his discussion of Passports, Tourism, Ethnography, Long in a single sentence refers to the passport that goes missing in Vertigo and which leads the narrator on a meandering, humorous and very Kafkaesque journey to obtain a new one. Long tries to unpack Sebald’s brief mention of a passport into an extended explanation of what the passport says “about the archival practices within the disciplinary regimes of modernity.” True, my familiarity with Foucault has gotten a bit rusty over the years, but as a reader I found that Long’s use of Foucault as a way to filter through Sebald managed to drain every last drop of blood and life out of Sebald’s writing for me.
Thankfully, Part II restored my hope for Long’s enterprise. In the second half of his book, Long spends about twenty pages each on Sebald’s four principal prose works, providing a nuanced and well-argued rationale for his thesis on Sebald’s critique of modernity. I don’t see any point in attempting to summarize Long’s readings of these books, but I’ll mention two of his key conclusions, both of which I find convincing. First, he argues persuasively that Sebald should not be considered a postmodern writer as he is often labeled. With the possible exception of Sebald’s use of photographs, I think Sebald cannot otherwise be construed as a true postmodernist (not that it matters all that much). Secondly and more importantly, Long wants to temper the frequent claim that Sebald is primarily a “Holocaust author.”
I do not diminish the central role played by the Holocaust in Sebald’s work, nor do I deny that in some respects Sebald does indeed represent the Holocaust as a radical rupture in Western history. My argument in this book is not that the Holocaust is a minor issue or an irrelevance, but that the narrow concentration on post-Holocaust remembrance in a large proportion of criticism on Sebald blinds us to the longer history with which his texts are also fundamentally concerned.
I remain convinced that Sebald’s hybrid form of prose narrative will resist being synthesized by any overly deterministic literary theory, and Long’s attempt to create and analyze thematic silos within Sebald’s work fell flat for me. But the rest of the book succeeded at presenting a clear, well-argued, and enlightening assessment of Sebald’s unique literary achievement.