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Undiscover’d Country.5

Barbara Hui’s Litmap for The Rings of Saturn using Google Maps
[See the larger version here]

With this segment of the three final essays from The Undiscover’d Country, I finally come to the end of the most recent anthology on W.G. Sebald, edited by Markus Zisselsberger.  These essays are grouped together under the heading Topographies and Theories, which correctly suggests they have little in common with each other.

Barbara Hui’s Mapping Historical Networks in Die Ringe Des Saturn discusses two types of spatial logic used in The Rings of Saturn: the cosmological view of the Enlightenment and the networked perspective of the postmodern world.  The postmodern reconceptualization of space posits that “our experience of time and space in the late twentieth century has changed…fundamentally.”  Hui refers to the work of postmodern geographers who view the newly compressed world as a series of networks more than as a spatial territory.  “For the first time in history we have the godlike perspective that humanity has always imagined” (i.e., viewing the earth from the air).  But, Hui argues, “it turns out that we have nevertheless come no further in terms of knowing ourselves.”  In The Rings of Saturn, Hui sees a postmodern global network (all of “the local and global histories that he encounters on his pilgrimage in Suffolk.”) that is overlaid with a “project that is local and remains stubbornly so.”  By remaining fixated on Suffolk, Sebald can tell a more cosmological story that rejects “the dilettantism of tourism.”  As Sebald goes about a fairly straightforward walking tour, he recounts how Suffolk was affected by numerous historical events that had their origins around the globe.  The history that Sebald creates “is not a world history but rather a local history that is global in scope.”  Hui uses Google Maps to portray these networks visually.  (In September 2009, I posted a short piece about Hui’s work on Sebald.)  Not surprisingly, Hui relates Sebald’s sense of “the failure of post-Enlightenment Western thought” with his fascination for Sir Thomas Browne, whose “view is mystical and quasi-astrological,” and who saw the world as a unified whole that was subject to a cyclical trajectory through time.

Dora Osborne’s essay Topographical Anxiety and Disfunctional Systems: Die Ausgewanderten and Freud’s Little Hans argues for affiliations between the modelling of topographical and genealogical elements in Freud’s case history and Sebald’s narratives.  “The obsessive recurrence of and return to railway stations in Sebald’s work offers a particularly complex example of this inflection and is a key mode for the oblique referencing of the Holocaust that characterizes his writing.”

The volume ends with Peter Arnds’ essay While the Hidden Horrors of History are Briefly Illuminated: The Poetics of Wandering in Austerlitz and Die Ringe des Saturn.  Arnds says that his essay “will show that travel or wandering occurs within a field of tension in Sebald’s two texts, tension between arboresence, the Apollonian, and lethe as tropes of non-movement, concealment, and forgetting on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the rhizome, Dionysus, and aletheia.  This tension is inscribed into concrete textual moments that reflect how wandering triggers memory and the revelation of concealed truths.”  In his discussion, Arnds calls primarily upon the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger.

I hereby offer my apologies to all of the authors of The Undiscover’d Country for even attempting to describe in a single paragraph what each of them tried to accomplish in their thirty or so pages.  Having authored more than a few academic articles myself, I can sympathize.  However, my goal was to provide a shorthand version of each essay in hopes of directly readers to this remarkably strong anthology.  You can find all of my posts on The Undiscover’d Country here.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Probably preciser to say Browne’s thought grounded in Christian Hermeticism which endorsed the study of the cabala, as well as alchemy , astrology, physiognomy and angel-conjuring etc.

    Perhaps it was from Sebald’s initial discovery, when contemplating his own mortality in a hospital-corridor, to discover a skull replica of a doctor no less and writer, remote in time, who was also preoccupied with mortality, also a melancholic thinker and who also lived in the same City and yet also entertained the notion of an anima mundi or one -World spirit of Platonic thought, that from this accumulation of coincidence and identification Sebald’s interest in Browne develops.

    But it is as much the Norfolk cost-line as Suffolk coast Sebald walks in ‘Rings of Saturn’ in order to recuperate his health. Perhaps with a copy of Browne’s ‘Urn-Burial’ in his ruck-sack!

    January 8, 2011

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