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“Aesthetics is not a value-free area”

Continuing my prolonged reading of Saturn’s Moons, I turn to Luke Williams’ essay “A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald.”   Williams piece deals equally with Sebald the teacher and Sebald the writer, since Williams studied for a Creative Writing MA under Sebald, and his essays adapts some of his class notes from Sebald’s final, unfinished seminar in the fall of 2001.  Two themes stood out for me: Sebald’s arguments for a “documentary” approach to the novel and his brief, but tantalizing allusion to Werner Heisenberg.

But first, here’s the explanation for the title of Williams’ essay, taken from his class notes of December 5, 2001, less than two weeks before Sebald’s death.

At one point I stopped looking at the faces of my classmates and instead watched Sebald.  He was leaning back in his chair.  His legs were stretched out in front of him, his body a long diagonal.  His eyes looked up at the ceiling and the round glass of his spectacles reflected the light strip.  Both his hands were placed on the back of his head; together his arms made a coathanger shape…He was wearing a watch on each wrist.  On his left wrist he wore a cheap digital watch, face up.  On his right an analogue watch, its face turned round the underside of his wrist.  The rain continued.  Sebald talked on.  But I wasn’t following him.  I kept looking at the watches on his wrists.  Why two watches?  Why one digital and one analogue?  Why was the analogue watch face down?  I didn’t know.

Here are a few choice excerpts from Williams’ class notes.

Sebald’s point, it seemed to me, was simple.  That precision in writing fiction – especially in writing fiction – is an absolutely fundamental value.  He summed up by saying that if you look carefully you can find problems in all writers, or almost all (Kafka being an exception; especially, he told us, if you look at the reports he wrote for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute!).

How do you surpass horror once you’ve reached a certain level?  How do you stop it appearing gratuitous?  He answered himself.  Let me get this right.  You (he was addressing the whole class) might think that because you are writing fiction you needn’t be overly concerned to get the facts straight.  But aesthetics is not a value-free area.  And you must be particularly careful if your subject concerns horrific events.  You must stick absolutely to the facts.  The most plausible, perhaps even the only, approach is the documentary one.  I would say that writing about an appalling state of affairs is incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.

In the twentieth century we know that the observer always affects what is being said…writing that does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator is an imposture, jaded, even dangerous.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this last comment, which alludes to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Oddly enough, I previously wrote about the unlikely coincidence that Heisenberg spent some of the last days of World War II some forty miles from where a very young Sebald lived at the time.  In fact, Heisenberg witnessed the bombing of some of the towns that Sebald mentions in On the Natural History of Destruction.  Four and a half years ago I wrote:

It’s curious to imagine the Nobel Prize winning author of the Uncertainty Principle alternately napping on a mountainside and watching Allied bombers over the valleys where one year-old Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald lived at the time.  I wonder what Sebald would have thought of Heisenberg’s often-quoted line: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. WH #

    This blog goes from strength to strength.


    January 14, 2012
  2. DB #

    Recently I have been reading Sebald’s novels and poetry for the first time. I feel lucky to be doing so. Your blog is a nice companion in all of this. Without having read any criticism on Sebald, I wonder: What did he mean by “documentary”? Does he mean that a good novel should contain or maintain an historical record? He certainly does this. At the same time, his writing feels so personal—I think because his aesthetics help to reveal a temperament that feels like it belongs both to author and protagonist. The personal essay blends with fiction. This is all very fascinating. Thanks for doing this work.

    January 14, 2012
  3. Thanks again for this great blog.

    I hope you don’t mind me posting a notice: Patience After Sebald) is being screened in the UK from I think 27th January. The film’s director Grant Gee will be at Manchester Cornerhouse for a post screening discussion on 29th January.

    January 21, 2012
  4. DB, Thanks for the wonderful question “What did [Sebald] mean by ‘documentary’?” I suspect the answer could lead to a complete book, but I’ll take a stab at something much shorter. Sebald was clearly convinced that literature is the most effective way to fully understand the past and so he chose to write prose fiction rather than history. But as a writer whose topic was often history, he (I think) wanted to be as responsible as possible to the “truth” or to the experience of others. To accomplish this he did his due diligence; he researched, visited, interviewed, witnessed, and so on. We, as readers, are always aware of the writer and/or narrator in Sebald’s books, which gives us a point of reference from which we can either be skeptical or take the leap of faith with him.

    January 26, 2012

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