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Traces of Trauma – part 2

Osborne Trauma

In my second post on Dora Osborne’s new book Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr, I will look at her chapter called “Blind Spots: Austerlitz.”  As I noted in my first post, Osborne chooses to use theories of trauma from Freud, Walter Benjamin, and others as the lens to look at Sebald and Ransmayr.  In Austerlitz, she is concerned in the “questions that Sebald poses in his engagement with the fundamental concerns of postwar, post-Holocaust literature, with what it means to write of the trauma of another or others.”

This chapter examines the blind spots in Austerlitz, showing how they are symptomatic of trauma and of moments when the difficulties inherent in trying to represent traumatic experience.  They indicate moments where the protagonists insight into his past is screened by the realization that his own fate and the fate of his family are bound to the fate of millions.  This is replicated on the level of narrative where the confrontation with Austerlitz’s traumatic past is also a confrontation with genocide and the rupture of civilization which this signals.  Moreover, the blind spots in narrative are indicative of Sebald’s struggle to see from his belated, non-Jewish perspective how individual experience can be remembered without being overwhelmed by history writ large.

Osborne sorts through the dense, maze-like mass of symbols, inter- and intratextual linkages, and other hints created by Sebald in his attempt to give resonance to Austerlitz’s difficult task of recreating his lost life history.  She posits that the numerous images scattered throughout Austerlitz implicate the reader in the process of understanding their meaning, much as Austerlitz is struggling to understand his own past.  “By looking at the images we adopt the position of witnesses, but are always trying to view events that are irrevocably past.”

In his final prose narrative, Sebald brings together the concerns of his project in highly complex ways; his eponymous protagonist is made the vehicle for a huge historical, conceptual and intellectual load, and at times Austerlitz seems to reach the limits of what it can meaningfully show.  In particular, the narrative preoccupations with vision and images (photographed, remembered, dreamed, imagined) shows the scope of Sebald’s project, but it also shows its blind spots.  Despite the many images in Austerlitz, the vision of the protagonist, narrator, and reader is repeatedly obscured or compromised.  The blind spots in Austerlitz mark the traumatic traces of the protagonist’s experience of loss and separation, but they  also screen the traumatic realization that his individual experience is linked to the fate of millions, and that the narrator can never fully comprehend either the personal trauma of Austerlitz or the collective trauma of the Holocaust.  Given this narrative impasse, Austerlitz seems to develop a traumatophilic attachment, returning compulsively to the multiple points of rupture in the narrative.

Sebald seems to have thrown everything he had into Austerlitz, almost to the point of overburdening the book, and this makes it correspondingly difficult for Osborne to unpack the book in s single concise chapter.  If I’ve quoted Osborne so much in this post and added so little of my own commentary,  it is because her reading of Austerlitz is very densely argued and it’s tough to generalize her position.  I will also confess that I’m not much of a Freudian and so I don’t always agree with some of her conclusions.  Nevertheless, she brought countless things to light about The Emigrants and Austerlitz that I am extremely grateful for, and I know I’ll never read either of these books again without saying a silent “thank you” to Osborne for opening my eyes to a new way of looking at them.

Dora Osborne, Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr. London: Legenda, 2013.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Let me say how grateful I am for your guide to Sebald through Osborne and for your saying — let me say “outloud” — ” I am extremely grateful for, and I know I’ll never read either of these books again without saying a silent “thank you” to Osborne for opening my eyes to a new way of looking at them.” I note this sentence because so much criticism lacks gratitude for the text in view, as if the critic’s role was always to unmask or expose flaws or to put into play some elitist critical machinery, leaving the reader either chuckling and cheering the expose or, as in my own case, wondering why the critic even bothered to take up an object so flawed. It’s important to be exposed to a criticism of appreciation, gratitude and praise that preserves and passes on what a sensitive critic finds worth in the life of books and art. Your blog does this, and your willingness to thank a writer is a wonderful gesture too little encountered.

    June 8, 2013
  2. diebitterentränen #

    Thanks for calling the attention to this new book. I also count myself amongst those thankful for Dora Osborne’s insights, her article “Blind Spots: Viewing Trauma in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz” was particulartly helpful during my reading of Austerlitz, although I agree with you that some of the Freudian elements are to be taken with a pinch of salt.

    June 9, 2013

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