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Sebald, Uncomfortable Modernist

Over at the Green Integer Blog there is a thought-provoking post in which the author tries to come to terms with his irritation upon reading W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo.  (Curiously, the essay was posted July 10, 2009, but it concludes with a writing date of December 23, 2001, about 18 months after Vertigo was released in the US.)  At first, the author of the post senses an internal contradiction within Sebald’s work, perhaps even a fatal failure:

In short, there is a sense of angst to Sebald’s world, and the writers he features, Stendhal and Kafka, share his feelings of displacement. It is as if Sebald were a high modernist who has discovered himself in a postmodern world, and he is not at all happy about that fact. He often seems to be working at odds to his own tales, as if all the disconnections, accidental photographs, and odd peregrinations he recounts were an expression of his failure to create a more coherent whole.

He points to one example in Vertigo (the rape scene involving the hunter Schlag and the barmaid Romona) where, he feels, Sebald “was purposely withholding information, refusing to reveal any logic in a world where he has painfully determined to be utterly mystifying.”  This leads the author to his final conclusion:

It is this desperate search for coherence under conditions where memory and significance are so vague, I believe, that draw so many readers to Sebald’s books. Like Sebald, they feel utterly ill-at-ease, even sickly, when they face the inexplicably dangerous terrain standing before them. I simply do not share the great dis-ease, and am somewhat irritated for having to endure it.

I think it is absolutely correct to say that Sebald was an uncomfortable modernist, especially in the sense that one of his basic concerns was epistemological: how do we know the past?  At the same time Sebald was deeply skeptical of modernism, having traced its true history from Napoleon through Hitler’s Germany.  As Sebald showed, modernism’s inherent belief in human progress was overtly false.  Only technology progressed, the very technology that made it easier and easier to enslave and murder millions, all the while hiding the truth behind a shimmering veil of lies.  In his conversion from pure academic to prose fiction writer, Sebald was venting his frustration with the limits of traditional scholarship to get at larger truths and, it seems to me, he dedicated himself to the task of trying to find a better way.  What Sebald did then was rather curious.  He borrowed some of the techniques of post-modernism – embedding photographs and the like –  and, in effect, smuggled them back across the border, brought them back through time, and he employed them in what was a very modernist enterprise.  I don’t imagine that Sebald ever had a desire to completely leave modernism behind, for modernism is, if anything, based on the firm belief that, at its very core, it is an undertaking of a very high moral order – as opposed to the seeming amoralism of the post-modernism.

Several times Sebald shows us his despair at his possibly Sisyphean task, and he does this most clearly in the final pages of Vertigo, where the narrator sits in a London train among a “defeated army” of commuters, reading Samuel Pepy’s diary, only to suddenly have a dream of walking through the Alps to come to the edge of a bottomless chasm.  Sebald briefly describes a post-human vision where “not a tree was there to be seen, not a bush, not even a stunted shrub or a russock of grass; there was nothing but ice-grey shale.”  The scene then shifts back to Pepys and another apocalyptic vision: Pepys’ description of the Great Fire of London.  The ending to Vertigo make me think of nothing so much as the conclusion of Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is just about as post-modern as any true modernist novel ever written.  In the end, mankind is nothing in the larger scheme of this universe.  Nothing.  (Perhaps Sebald was the last true artist of Romanticism.)

Caspar David Friedrich wandererCaspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

The writer at Green Integer states a preference for a post-modern author like Javier Marias, who “is far more like a kind of amateur sleuth, who will gladly take on his adventures, but is more often just has happy to find no apparent answer.”  That’s the very premise of post-modernism – that there is no single answer, no single viewpoint.  In a funny, round-about way, this leads me back to my previous post on the exhibition at the Tate Britain called Altermodern.  Maybe it is time we defined something to supplant both modernism and post-modernism, something that can be committed to truth and history all the while knowing there is no single perspective.  It strike me that this is, in a sense, what a hologram achieves.  Every point of view is absolutely true and absolutely different from any other, yet it all adds up to one coherent image.  But I can’t bear the idea of calling this new ism “holomodernism.”

[Green Integer, in case any reader of Vertigo doesn’t know, is an essential modern publisher dedicated to “Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least.” So says their website.  Go visit and buy books.]

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Maybe it is time we defined something to supplant both modernism and post-modernism, something that can be committed to truth and history all the while knowing there is no single perspective.”
    A multiperspectival worldview nonetheless grounded in truth and history is arguably supplied by Phenomenology. Description and an awareness of perspectivalism would thus allow one to approach truth, but not a truth that would reside in completeness, but rather in unending profiles, whose precise description offers truth.

    It is also worth pointing out that the writer at Green Integer shares with his characterization of Sebald a certain confusion regarding his own commitments. The preference for Javier Marias, suggests, as you say, a postmodern sensibility. However the impression that Sebald might be purposely “withholding information, refusing to reveal any logic in a world where he has painfully determined to be utterly mystifying” would seem to indicate a deeper belief in the possibility of Modernism. To accuse Sebald of withholding would be to say Sebald has access to the complete picture, but chooses not to reveal all, thereby setting up a postmodern house of cards. But by that logic, postmodernism is devalued, since the problem to which it was the answer, vanishes. The recourse to postmodernism only functions if Sebald genuinely does not have access to all the details, rather than simply withholding. Thus Terry, I think your description of Sebald’s relationship to the ‘isms’ is rather more accurate than Green Integer’s.

    July 14, 2009
  2. But to say that “In the end, mankind is nothing in the larger scheme of this universe. Nothing.” This is a statement made by a human. Man’s nothingness is a thought by a man; it doesn’t exist anywhere else. What does he know about the larger scheme of the universe? How can he speak for it?
    This is a thought in his own mind, a language creation; & if the language creation of a thought, is true, then it tautologically is meaningful, so essentially to assert man’s nothingness or meaningless is tautologically meaningless. The very nature of language statements, if they are true, is that they be meaningful. The very word “meaningless” should give the game away- it’s a meaningless notion.

    July 16, 2009

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