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The Butterfly Image

Muriel PicI’ve just received a new book by Muriel Pic called L’Image Papillon suivi de W.G. Sebald: L’Art de Voler.  Here is the blurb from the publisher’s website.

Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald (1944-2001), auteur majeur des lettres allemandes contemporaines, reste encore méconnu de la critique littéraire française. Avec cet essai pionnier, Muriel Pic montre que Sebald, représentant le plus inventif de la théorie critique en littérature, s’appuie sur la pensée de Walter Benjamin pour fonder un matérialisme littéraire. Celui-ci s’impose comme la solution poétique et politique permettant de pallier un déficit des mémoires face à la destruction, et, en premier lieu, de la mémoire allemande. Écrivant dans sa langue maternelle depuis l’Angleterre, voué à l’errance mélancolique, Sebald travaille une prose de l’exil en suivant les traces de Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Kafka, Nabokov, ou Simon. Critique à l’endroit des canons de l’histoire positiviste, l’écrivain en refuse les représentations et désigne un autre lieu de vérité : les images.
Dans cette prose documentaire où le regard suit les circonvolutions du temps, l’image papillon est l’image d’archive à partir de laquelle la littérature invente un récit et s’affirme comme le site d’une mémoire jusqu’alors refoulée. C’est à partir d’elle que s’élabore une histoire naturelle de la destruction : collectionnée et épinglée entre les pages d’un livre, dont elle fait un atlas de curiosités, elle acquiert une fonction allégorique et suscite une méditation sur la mort. Au fil de ces images, la narration mène l’enquête sur le passé en éprouvant l’efficacité poétique et épistémologique du paradigme indiciaire. Ses récits s’imposent comme une contribution majeure à une pratique littéraire en expansion : le montage.
Docteur de l’EHESS, Muriel Pic (née en 1974) enseigne la littérature française à l’université de Neuchâtel. Chercheur associée au CRIA et au CMB, elle a mené ses recherches sur le montage littéraire à l’université libre de Berlin. Outre de nombreux articles, elle a publié Le Désir monstre. Poétique de Pierre Jean Jouve (Le Félin, 2006) et réalisé l’édition de Pierre Jean Jouve, Lettres à Jean Paulhan, (Éditions Claire Paulhan, 2006).

Muriel was kind enough to send me a brief section translated into English:

Fluttering image and slow motion: Literary montage in the Work of W.G. Sebald

In the narrative works of W.G. Sebald, especially Austerlitz (2001) and Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn, 1999), the butterfly is a metaphor of the image itself. As in a childhood memory of Walter Benjamin, it is fascinating that its hunter, a child, a spectator, becomes the object of the chase; the spirit of he who was doomed to die penetrated the hunter:

“When in this way a vanessa or sphinx moth (which I should have been able to overtake easily) made a fool of me through its hesitations, vacillations, and delays, I would gladly have been dissolved into light and air, merely in order to approach my prey unnoticed and be able to subdue it. And so close to fulfillment was this desire of mine, that every quiver of palpitation of the wings I burned for grazed me with its puff or ripple. Between us, now, the old law of the hunt took hold: the more I strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal – the more butterfly-like I became in my heart and soul – the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did, took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence.” [1]

The image catches our looking instead of being caught by the “hunter’s image”.  From the cinematic image to entomologist’s plates to phantom apparitions and intertextuality – with Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka [2] and Virginia Woolf – the butterfly and the hunter are at the heart of Sebald’s work. For this author, the writing is an artistic and literary enterprise of montage whose kinetic strength is that of recollecting. Sebald is watching the imago [3] which is taking him down an especially terrible path of memory.

Pinning down a wing that flutters

In the novel Austerlitz, the butterfly is the metaphor for an image impossible to catch, the epitome of a moving, cinematic image. On a quest to discover his past, Jacques Austerlitz finds out that his mother, the actress Agàta, lived at the Theresienstadt ghetto near Prague, with numerous other Czech artists and intellectuals, before being deported. Thanks to the work of a survivor of the ghetto, the author H.G. Adler, Jacques discovers that a Nazi propaganda film was made at Theresienstadt.[…]

But “none of these images penetrated [his] mind, they only flickered  (flimmerten) before [his] eyes like a source of continual irritation.” Between this stream of cinematic images and the hurrying of memory wanting to recollect, the images pass too quickly, like a futile butterfly hunt. Because of “the impossibility of fixing [his] eyes on these images which seemed to disappear as soon as they emerged”, Jacques’ decides to have a “slow-motion copy made [of the twenty-minute existing fragment] which lasts a whole hour.” “And in fact, in this document four times longer, people and things that had been hidden from [him] until then became visible.” In this way, thanks to the slow-motion, Jacques catches an image: “In the course of the performance, the camera lingers in close-up over several members of the audience, including an old gentleman whose cropped gray head fills the right-hand side of the picture, while at the left-hand side, set a little way back and close to the upper edge of the frame, the face of a young woman appears, barely emerging from the black shadows around it, which is why I did not notice it at all at first [4].” Finally caught, the image of the face of Agàta is carefully pinned between the pages of the novel.

Now, the metaphor of the butterfly no longer refers only to the cinematic image, impossible to catch, but also to memory: memory that preserves documents, as the entomologist preserves specimens in his Natural History cabinet. Sebald gives us a long description of this topic of memory [5] in Austerlitz, accompanied by a photograph of a collection of butterflies: “Indeed, Austerlitz went on, there was some kind of cabinet of natural curiosities in almost every room at Andromeda Lodge: cases with multiple drawers, some of them glass-fronted, where the roundish eggs of parrots were arranged in their hundreds; collections of shells, minerals, beetles, and butterflies; slowworms, adders, and lizards preserved in formaldehyde; snail shells and sea urchins, crabs and shrimps, and large herbaria containing leaves, flowers, and grasses.” In the Natural History cabinet, where flora and fauna, aquatic and earth-bound life-forms are collected, each specimen is accompanied by its “obituary”. Stuffed by a conscientious taxidermist, a parrot offers “a pale face that you might have thought was marked by deep grief [6]”. Here a Natural History is built from stills, taken live, a perfect foundation for the “illusion of a universality, a total and definitive reality [7]” manipulated by the Nazis, whose archives supposedly preserved historical and racial truth. And in the photograph of Andromeda Lodge’s butterfly collection, the reader will perhaps notice that the glass is cracked. The long line of a shock which perhaps let a butterfly escape from its name, far out of sight of the entomologist, crossing in its flight before the eyes of the writer. […]

[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected writings, vol. 3, 1935-1938, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2002), 350-351.

[2] See Oliver Still, “Aus dem Jäger ist ein Schmetterling geworden” – Textbeziehungen zwischen Werken von W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka und Vladimir Nabokov, in Poetica. Zeitschrift für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft, n° 29,1997: 596-623.   Adrian Curtin, Maxim Shrayer, Netting the Butterfly Man: The Significance of Vladimir Nabokov in W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, in Religion and the Arts, Volume 9, Numbers 3-4, 2005, 258-283(26). R.J.A. Kilborn, in W.G. Sebald, History – Memory – Trauma, éd. Scott Denham, Mark McCulloh, Berlin/New York, Walter de Gruyter, 2006.

[3] The term “image” comes from imaginem, imago: it means an artificial representation that looks like a person or thing, or a copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance (imitari “to copy, imitate”). In biology, the adult, sexually mature, stage of the insect (butterfly and moth) is known as the imago. In psychoanalysis, the term imago is an unconscious prototype of personae, the imago determines the way in which the subject apprehends others. It is elaborated based on the earliest real and fantasmatic intersubjective relations with family members.

[4] Austerlitz trans. Anthea Bell, (NY, The Modern Library, 2001): 251.

[5] For this question, I refer to Patricia Falguières’ work Les Chambres des merveilles, (Paris: Bayard, 2003).

[6] Austerlitz: 82-83.

[7] Arlette Farge, Le Goût de l’archive, (Paris: Seuil, 1989): 116.

(c) Muriel Pic

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dear Terry,

    For another reference to W.G. Sebald in art, see exhibition of Tris Vonna-Michell at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea (
    Best wishes and Merry Christmas from Peter

    December 24, 2009
  2. Muriel Pic also published in English an interesting essay on Sebald called «Sebald’s Anatomy Lesson: About Three Images-Documents from On the Natural History of Destruction, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz» here.

    January 12, 2010

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