The Natural History of Words
Reading a book like Peter Handke’s 1970 novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, with its frontal critique of language, makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the writing of W.G. Sebald. It is often remarked that Sebald’s structurally complex and word-dense sentences seem to leap right out of the nineteenth century, and in many ways he wrote as if modernism and post-modernism had never occurred. Sebald was exuberant about words and treated them the way a curator in a natural history museum might handle a collection of stuffed birds, many of them rare and extinct. He admiringly took them out of their glass-fronted cabinets, gently dusted them off and caressed them back to life momentarily.
Here’s just one of countless examples that could be found in Sebald’s books. There is a point in The Rings of Saturn when the narrator is pondering the silk industry and the terrible plight of weavers at the peak of the Industrial Age. At the same time he can’t help but be struck by the sheer beauty of what they produced:
… silk brocades and watered tabinets, satins and satinettes, cambletts and cheveretts, prunelles, callimancoes and Florentines, diamantines and grenadines, blondines, bombazines, belle-isles and martiniques – were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds. – That, at any rate, is what I think when I look at the marvelllous strips of colour in the pattern books, the edges and gaps filled with mysterious figures and symbols, that are kept in the small museum of Strangers Hall, which was once the town house of just such a family of silk weavers who had been exiled from France.
I hadn’t read Goalie since it first appeared in English while I was a graduate student, but it still has a shocking intensity. The book opens with a nod to Kafka: “When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he had been fired.” Before he even fully realizes it, Bloch has become unhinged from language. “Everything seemed to have been newly named” and Bloch no longer knew what anything meant. “Every word needed an explanation.” Irritated, he suddenly and inexplicably strangles a woman he has just spent the night with and flees to a small town near the Austrian border. In a casual conversation, a customs guard unwittingly describes Bloch’s problem (and the problem every goalie has anticipating a penalty kick): “You’re always at a disadvantage… All you can ever do is react.”
There are moments in Goalie when Bloch finds temporary relief. On several occasions he manages to lose himself in the moment and he finds he has become articulate. For a second, he’s his old self again: “One sentence yielded the next sentence. And then, and then, and then… For a while it was possible to look ahead without worrying.” At other times Bloch finds himself going in the opposite evolutionary direction, toward a pre-linguistic state: “He saw and heard everything with total immediacy, without first having to translate it into words… He was in a state where everything seemed natural to him.” It is this state of being vis-a-vis language that Handke explored in his play Kaspar, written the year before Goalie. In Kaspar, an uncivilized pre-linguistic being is transformed into a civilized, articulate human. Sebald, who wrote about Kaspar, explains that at the outset of the play “we suspect that the speechless creature, as yet entirely untaught, is in possession of a secret of his own, if not actually in a state of paradisal bliss.” But as soon as Kaspar begins to communicate as a result of “speech torture,” “he loses what might be called his sound animal reason.” The gift of speech, Sebald senses, provides Kaspar with “an arsenal containing a cruel set of instruments.”
This set me to thinking about a pair of post-1968 films that attacked the civilizing impulse, notably François Truffaut’s Wild Child (1970) and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). At the time when they came out, the context in which I saw those films was that of a student whose deep distrust of language originated mostly in politics. Like many of my generation, I blamed the doublespeak of politicians and the “military-industrial complex” for leading the US into its disastrous escapades in Southeast Asia. It’s tempting to think of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now as something of a critique of the wild child/Kaspar Hauser syndrome as we watch Kurtz’s attempt to reverse the civilizing process by “going native” go so completely wrong.
By the way, Sebald wrote about Handke several times: first in an essay on Kaspar that appeared in Literatur und Kritik in 1975 and which is translated in Campo Santo as Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke’s Play Kaspar; and again in his 1985 anthology Die Beschreibung des Unglücks: Zur österreichischen Literatur von Stifter bis Handke, where he reprinted an essay on Handke originally published in 1983. He writes at some length about The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick in the latter essay, which is, unfortunately, not translated into English yet. And in Unheimliche Heimat there is an essay Jenseits der Grenze on Handke’s book Die Wiederholung (translated as Repetition in English).