Skimming Waterlog 1 – The Essays
The rich bounty of historical, literary, geographic, scientific, and other motifs and allusions in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn makes it a particularly fecund source for artists. My copy of Waterlog – Journeys Around an Exhibition has just arrived from London. This is the monograph that has emerged out of Waterlog, the recent British exhibition inspired by The Rings of Saturn. In the Foreword, co-curator Steven Bode writes:
What the ‘Waterlog’ artists share with Sebald is a unifying sensibility: elegiac, enquiring; understated, almost hesitant, for all its seriousness of purpose.
Waterlog is a nicely produced stand-alone monograph that seamlessly blends works from the exhibition with newly commissioned writings. It also reprises Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald), a lengthy poem by George Szirtes first published in 1999, and British artist Tacita Dean’s photo and text piece from 2003 simply called W.G. Sebald.
In addition to a Foreword and an Afterword by, respectively, Steven Bode and Jeremy Millar the co-curators, the volume contains two essays: Brian Dillon’s Airlocked and Robert Macfarlane’s Afterglow, or Sebald the Walker.
Dillon’s short but suggestive essay Airlocked reflects on air and atmosphere as literary and artistic metaphors in Sebald’s writings and as a key element in much of the art in the Waterlog exhibition, drawing on a wide range of other writers and artists from John Donne to Pierre Huyghe. Air, he suggests, “is a kind of allegorical adhesive for Sebald,” whose constant use of weather as an outward manifestation of the “downcast vision” of his narrators made him “the ultimate exponent of the pathetic fallacy.”
It is as if [Sebald’s] books were rather weather systems than agglomerations of words, such is their reliance on meteorological imagery.
Robert Macfarlane’s essay offers a glimpse into his own ongoing project of walking in Sebald’s footsteps, somewhat in the spirit of biographer Richard Holmes, who turned biography into a literal pursuit of the past that included retracing the wanderings of his subjects, including, most famously, the poet Shelly.
I am turning Sebald’s own methods back onto him; walking where he walked, seeing what emerges, what ‘phantom traces’ or afterglow Sebald himself left.
Sebald may have been a “traverser of ground,” Macfarlane writes, but in his mind Sebald does not seem to fit any of the current taxonomy of walking. Macfarlane recalls an entry from Kafka’s diary that seems more appropriate:
Walked in the streets for two hours, weightless, boneless, bodiless.
Macfarlane sees Sebald operating as a kind of biographer, suggesting that he ‘walked his subjects back into life,” using walks to find traces of the past. Ultimately, Macfarlane settles on the word nachglanz to represent the haunting, ephemeral nature of the traces Sebald sought and exalted in, using the word – which means afterglow – to suggest “a vision of absence”. (Curiously, Macfarlane credits Sebald with coining the neologism nachglanz, which can’t be true; a simple Google search turns up usages well before Sebald had written a word.)
What has Macfarlane learned so far by mimicking selected walks from Sebald’s four main books? First: that Sebald’s prose works are not literal accounts of his walks; he distorted places, events, and time continually. This we knew, but it will surely help the record to know more about where and how Sebald toyed with facts. Second: that “following Sebald, strange things occur.” The examples Macfarlane offers of this phenomena simply suggested to me that any hyper-alert person pursuing Sebald’s trail would undoubtedly encounter strange – even Sebaldian – images and occurrences.
Both authors hopscotch through broad swaths of Sebald’s work and much more in the course of a handful of pages, making both essays seem tentative, unfinished. Macfarlane, to be fair, is working on a book about Sebald and this is little more than a sneak preview. Still, Dillon and Macfarlane arrive at similar conclusions, both suggesting that walking, for Sebald, was not an earthbound activity but one that led him – and his prose – to feel weightless and bodiless. Macfarlane cites a passage from Austerlitz in which Austerlitz encounters a barrage of moths attracted to a light and realizes that he cannot see the moths themselves, “only the light flares they incite.”Like many other readers, I, too, feel that Sebald the writer constantly disappears behind the endless flares he incites.
In future posts of Skimming Waterlog, I’ll talk about the artists and the poets included in the book.
Waterlog (London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2007).