First unveiled in 1912, the panorama of the Battle of Waterloo, on an immense 110 m. long by 12 m. high circular painting portraying scenes from the battle fought on 18 June 1815. A central platform places the visitor in the very thick of a reconstructed clash between life-size infantrymen and cavalry brought vividly to life by the skilled use of perspective by the artist, Louis Dumoulin, and immensely realistic foregrounds. Quadraphonic sound effects make this unique panorama even more lifelike and impressive. [Belgian Tourist Office website]
In the essays that comprise the first section of Undiscover’d Country called Departures, the three essayists explore the strategies that Sebald used to go against the grain of traditional tourism in search of a more authentic experience. In these authors’ eyes, Sebald is pilgrim, a wanderer at the periphery, and a willfully inattentive traveler. Christian Moser’s Peripatetic Liminality: Sebald and the Tradition of the Literary Walk differentiates between tourism and a pilgrimage.
Whereas the pilgrim seriously contemplates the objects of adoration, the monuments and relics of the history of suffering and salvation, in order to tap a mine of spiritual meaning, the tourist is given to the fugitive consumption of commercialized sights and souvenirs – superficial signifiers that refer to nothing substantial beyond their own semiotic status as touristic ‘markers.’
To Moser, the wanderer-narrator in The Rings of Saturn “searches for the traces of a silent catastrophe that constitutes the obverse of modernity and its history of progress.” Moser gradually leads up to the insight that Sebald rejected the totalizing view of history, the aerial view, if you will. He points to the moment when the narrator is standing in the Waterloo Panorama, which tries to convey to tourists the totality of the famous battlefield where Napoleon lost. At that point Sebald writes:
This, then, I thought as I looked round me, is the representation of history. It requires the falsification of perspective. We as survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.
Sebald’s solution, then, is to seek “a view from a standpoint on the margin” – the liminal perspective as opposed to the aerial one. Moser also argues that Sebald should not be viewed as someone “trying to become one with nature.” Instead, “in the liminal zone, Sebald’s walking subject is confronted with his own divided nature.” Here, Sebald finds only guilt and he “experiences his self as hopelessly split.”
J.J. Long continues Moser’s theme in his essay W.G. Sebald: The Anti-Tourist by distinguishing between a traveler and a tourist. “While the traveler is the intrepid collector of the unique and authentic experiences, the tourist is nothing but the pampered unit of a leisure industry.” Long delves into the various strategies by which Sebald sought out more authentic experiences, and one of his points is that Sebald could not always successfully escape the trappings of modern tourism. Sebald turns to photography as “anti-tourist performances that compensate…for the failure of anti-tourism in actuality.”
…the quantitative predominance of photographs whose function is to document the narrator’s visits to peripheral places, and the grainy nature of the photographs themselves, begin to appear not as a sovereign assertion of a subjective experience of place, but a symptom of a certain anxiety about the very possibility of authentic travel experience.
In her essay “A Wrong Turn of the Wheel”: Sebald’s Journeys of (In)Attention, Carolin Duttlinger suggests that in a world of “habit and routine,” “travel offers a training ground for attention.” But, she notes, this “renewed attentiveness can also have an unsettling, destabilizing effect.” She reflects on the frequency with which Sebald suffers from the “dehumanizing effects of modern travel.” His response is to be inattentive to the playbook of modern travel and wander off in unknown directions, which “enables him to experience his surroundings in a new, intensified way.” Duttlinger also dwells at length on the parallels between certain of Kakfa’s texts and key sections of Sebald’s books The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo.
I hereby apologize for even attempting to convey the complex arguments of these authors into bite-sized snippets. My only goal is to encourage potential readers to find reasons to get Undiscover’d Country, published by Camden House, for themselves. I have three more sections to read and summarize, each containing three essays. It’s becoming clear to me that I will not achieve my goal of finishing in October. You can see my collected posts on Undiscover’d Country here.