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Knowing What Happened

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Christian Boltanski, from Gymnasium Chases, 1991 (3 photogravures)

In an interview with Christian Scholz, published in the new book Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald, Sebald talks about photographs and their role in his books. At one point he speaks about the experience of looking at family albums that one has not seen for decades.

Normally you’ve already leafed through these albums as a child, in complete naiveté; you had no term for history, no concept of history; you didn’t know anything about the Third Reich; you didn’t know what role your parents might have played in this historical phase, what position they had. You just aimlessly leafed through these things. And then you left them in a drawer without paying further attention. When you pick them up again, lets say as a forty-year old, after a period of twenty-five or twenty years, then the whole thing has something of a negative revelation. Because in the meantime you have learned what history is. You know what happened.

You know what happened. What Sebald is pointing to here is not foreshadowing, the hinting at the outcome. He’s saying that we are implicated in history once we know what happened. That he could never look at his family’s photographs – or at his family – the same once he knew what had happened. (Sebald often suggests that portraits and viewers engage in a visual dialogue.) Sebald uses foreshadowing when he begins The Emigrants with a photograph of a graveyard. But by the end of the book, as the four quiet stories each conclude with their own private nightmares of despair and death, the dead are staring back at us from their photographs.

Who the young women are I do not know. The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera…..the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long.

The visual artist that I immediately think of is Christian Boltanski. While his work is frequently in the form of memorials to victims of the Holocaust, his work is also about memory itself. In 1991, Boltanski made a particularly haunting portfolio of twenty-four photogravures published by Crown Point Press under the title Gymnasium Chases. The images depict the 1931 graduating class of the Gymnasium Chases, a Jewish High School in Vienna. Our frisson as viewers comes partly from foreshadowing the fate that awaits these students as we connect the dots between …Jewish…Vienna…1931. But Boltanski goes beyond relying on us to connect the dots. He smudges around with the portraits until their distinguishing features are encased in shadow. The students smile or stare back at us while we helplessly watch their faces turn to skulls, which makes it that much easier for us to superimpose our own features on the face of death as if we were suddenly able to foreshadow and witness our own death at the same moment.

For me at least, a reaction this powerful seems possible only with photographs. Thanks to a casual reference that Alex Ross made recently on his blog, last night I pulled down a CD to play. Steve Reich’s 1988 piece for string quartet and recorded voices called Different Trains struck me as the musical equivalent of the enterprise that both Sebald and Boltanski were undertaking. Reich’s piece, which is a kind of musical documentary, weaves recorded voices of three Holocaust survivors into the train-like sounds of the strings. Remembering childhood train rides in America between his divorced parents, Reich says: “I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.” Different Trains is a strong piece, but for me the effect of voices could not compare with the chilling effect of photographs. Maybe this is simply that our culture privileges the visual or maybe it is something deeply rooted in being human.

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This is the first of what will be several posts as I slowly – and rather randomly – read Searching for Sebald, the new 632-page book that is a goldmine to anyone interested in Sebald.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. SD #

    what a fine post. i especially like how you thought to put the reich cd in your stereo; the link is really inspired. can’t wait to get to ‘searching for sebald.’

    December 20, 2007
  2. nm #

    An interesting post on an impressive blog. I always enjoy it when things I like, in this case Steve Reich and Sebald, come together unexpectedly.

    December 20, 2007

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