Lou 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.