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The Obsessive Pursuit of Human Failure

In Regrets Only, Louis Menand’s article on Lionel Trilling in The New Yorker (September 29, 2008), Menand looks back on Trilling’s 1949 book The Liberal Imagination.  (Trilling was not defining a liberal political stance;his use of the term is more akin to what we mean when we refer to “a liberal arts education”.)  One sentence caught my attention.

In Trilling’s view, the faith that liberals share…is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight road to health and happiness.

Using this definition, it is hard for me to view W.G. Sebald as a writer who possessed a liberal frame of mind.  His books repeatedly demonstrate that over the course of history mankind’s biggest “improvements” have come about in our ability to slaughter each other with greater efficiency and to place our ecosystem in even greater risk.

At the same time, though, it is Sebald’s extraordinarily wide-ranging interests – his liberal education, if you will – that gave him the perspective and the authority to be so utterly and convincingly pessimistic about human nature and history.  As anyone who has read even one of Sebald’s books knows, he employs an astounding range of references.  I think what makes Sebald seem so enigmatic at times is this sense that he has placed his fervent curiosity and seemingly boundless energy to the purpose of utterly deflating any sense of hope.  Perhaps we can say that the obsessive pursuit of human failure might be one definition of melancholy.  In The Rings of Saturn, for example, even as the narrator stands in a small museum in Norwich admiring the intricate and beautiful products created by 19th century silk weavers, he cannot help but launch into the devastating human toll of the silk industry.

At no point that I can think of does Sebald ever seem to suggest that human betterment in Trilling’s terms – the road to health and happiness – is likely.


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Two images came to mind for me: Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”, looking at the ruins of the past piling up in front of him as the wind of history blows him backwards into the future; and Flaubert’s comment about how the advance of human knowledge is also the advance of human ignorance (which he put much better).

    Flaubert’s comment does allow for the advance of human knowledge, though, and Benjamin’s vision of the angel of history was embedded in a Messianic sense that a future that makes optimism realistic may be possible.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it seems like Sebald also had that sort of veiled, backhanded hope, perhaps that “shoring up fragments against our ruins,” à la T. S. Eliot, need not be connected to something like Eliot’s own conservative pessimism (and backward-looking High Church Anglicanism). Perhaps it’s time for me to reread Sebald with that in mind.

    October 19, 2008
  2. Sebald read Adorno, corresponded with him and shares with him, I believe a critical stance towards the notion of enlightenment. Enlightenment for Adorno, merely resulted in the dominance of instrumental rationality (thinking about the world in terms of its use value)over Nature and so leads to our estrangement from that very nature – precisely what is at stake throughout The Rings of Saturn. So yes, i think you are absolutely correct in reading Sebald as ‘anti-liberal’. A bleak view of life, but one that the twentieth century bears out.

    On the topic of Benjamin too, its worth bearing in mind that in the same essay, he talks of a dialectical materialism that would ‘brush history against the grain’. By paying attention to the material details of existence one might reveal a history different to that of accepted historians, a history of those oppressed and silences by the authorized versions of events. As such this is similar to Sebald’s fascination with details – for details open up a history that goes against the grain, a history wherein for example, a small steam train in Norfolk could reveal a history of Emperial oppression and British colonialism, or a notice in a shop window reveal the passing of an entire social class out of Irish life.

    October 22, 2008

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