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Strange Company

nietzsche-1882Lou Salomé, Paul Ree and Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882

There is a fascinating article in the Spring 2009 issue of World Affairs (unfortunately, this piece is no longer online) in which Adam Kirsch uses three more or less recent novels as a prism to explore Nietzsche’s idea of The Last Man from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, along with its more modern echo in books like Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 The End of History and the Last Man.  The three novels Kirsch chooses are Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles (1998),and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995).  Strange as this trio may sound, Kirsch pulls off an interesting thesis.

Three more different writers could hardly be invented. Which makes it all the more suggestive, I think, that their portraits of the spiritual state of contemporary Europe are so powerfully complementary. They show us a Europe that is cosmopolitan, affluent, and tolerant, enjoying all the material blessings that human beings have always struggled for, and that the Europeans of seventy years ago would have thought unattainable. Yet these three books are also haunted by intimations of belatedness and decline, by the fear that Europe has too much history behind it to thrive. They suggest currents of rage and despair coursing beneath the calm surface of society, occasionally erupting into violence. And they worry about what will happen when a Europe, gorged on historical good fortune, must defend itself against an envious and resentful world.

Kirsch sees Sebald’s book as “a Scheherazade of destruction” and “because Sebald the wanderer almost never encounters another person, he manages to produce the eerie sense that England itself has been abandoned, that he may be the last man left to catalog its ruins.”

The answer proposed in The Rings of Saturn is that grieving for the dead has become so overwhelming a task, for the European inheritor of twenty centuries, that it leaves room for nothing else.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. lucas green #

    I wonder, often, why many American artists ignore the work of mourning. Even Philip Roth’s “Everyman” seems to be more about life, about vitality, than about death. And a book like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is, well, simply unspeakable.

    What would an American “Rings of Saturn” look like? There have been twenty centuries here too, twenty centuries and more.

    April 11, 2009
  2. I’m not sure whether or how this fits in here, but I’ve just come across Sebald and his “Rings of Saturn” when browsing the catalogue to the London exhibition ALTERMODERN at Tate Britain (Tate Triennial 2009).

    Curator Nicolas Bourriaud describes Sebald’s writings in his introductory essay as one of two important starting points for the conception of the exhibition, the other one being the idea of the archipelago, with the two of them not necessarily mingling but representing the paths he (Bourriaud) followed when doing his research. He sees Sebald’s writings as “wanderings between signs”, unfolding into labyrinths of associations in space and time. For him, the term “altermodern” suggests a “multitude of possibilities”, a “positive experience of disorientation through an art form exploring all dimensions of the present. The artist turns cultural nomad.”

    There was a second time when I came across Sebald in London recently, also in an exhibition. In Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s fascinating “TH.2058” (at Tate Modern this time) London is literally going under incessant rain, and the turbine hall of the Tate functions as a shelter for Londoners, where they can lie down on bunkbeds and read books by Ballard and other writers. Can it have been coincidence that I, an old Sebald fan, stumbled upon his “Luftkrieg und Literatur” after my very first steps in there?

    April 18, 2009

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