Many a time, at the end of a working day, Janine would talk to me about Flaubert’s view of the world, in her office where there were such quantities of lecture notes, letters and other documents lying around that it was like standing amidst a flood of paper. On the desk, which was both the origin and the focal point of this amazing profusion of paper, a virtual paper landscape had come into being in the course of time, with mountains and valleys. Like a glacier when it reaches the sea, it had broken off at the edges and established new deposits all around on the floor, which in turn were advancing imperceptibly towards the centre of the room. Years ago, Janine had been obliged by the ever-increasing masses of paper on her desk to bring further tables into use, and these tables, where similar processes of accretion had subsequently taken place, represented later epochs, so to speak, in the evolution of Janine’s paper universe. The carpet, too, had long since vanished beneath several inches of paper; indeed, the paper had begun climbing from the floor, on which, year after year, it had settled, and was now up the walls as high as the top of the door frame, page upon page of memoranda and notes pinned up in multiple layers, all of them by just one corner. Wherever it was possible there were piles of papers on the books on her shelves as well….Once when I remarked that sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Durer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction, her response was that the apparent chaos surrounding her represented a perfect kind of order, or an order which at least tended towards perfection. And the fact was that whatever she might be looking for amongst her papers or her books, or in her head, she was generally able to find right away. – from W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn.
It seems to typical of Sebald to lovingly and at great length describe the total dissolution of his colleague’s office only, in the end, to insist that there is an abiding order of some sort. This, it seems to me, is one of the central dualities of Sebald’s work: behind our apprehension that life, history, and nature ceaselessly cascade into chaos, Sebald continually searched for order and for ways to adequately describe the patterns that he saw.
On a sporadic basis I have read more than halfway through the essays in W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History, edited by Anne Fuchs and J.J. Long. Mary Cosgrove’s Sebald for our Time: The Politics of Melancholy and the Critique of Capitalism in his Work is the first essay to really capture my full attention. With Dürer’s etching Melancholia I (1514) as her centerpiece, Cosgrove describes Sebald’s subject in The Rings of Saturn and his other works as “the interdependence of human and natural history and the extreme difficulty of developing an adequate temporal sense for grasping this ‘world history’ intellectually.” In my words then, a main motive in Sebald’s enterprise is to somehow overcome the human inability to have perspective on time and space. Durer’s image suggests to Cosgrove that melancholy is “a problem specific to the intellectual” because it is “a basic problem of knowledge and understanding,” and she points out how many melancholic intellectuals we encounter in The Rings of Saturn, which she views as an “epistemological framework that would somehow capture the interconnectedness of persons, regions, and events across space and time and that would explain…the place of mankind in the late twentieth century.”
…the starting point for Sebald’s temporal framework [is] the beginnings, through travel, conquest, exploitation and profit, of the Western world’s expansion into an increasingly domineering, interdependent and integrated global system.
In the core section of her essay, entitled The Natural History of Capitalism, Cosgrove ties together numerous threads that are woven throughout Sebald’s works, making a strong case that Sebald represents “history as an ambitious attempt to communicate the strange tempo of capitalism’s espansion.” I’m with Cosgrove on the importance that capitalism plays in Sebald’s work, but I still don’t feel that capitalism was the holy grail for Sebald, or, as Cosgrove puts it, the “unifying perspective.” The history of capitalism doesn’t fully explain (to me, at least) the two men who loom so large (albeit mostly unseen) in Sebald’s work: Napoleon and Hitler.
All of this made me think of Richard Sheppard’s remarkable essay Dexter – sinister: Some observations on decrypting the mors code in the work of W. G. Sebald (Journal of European Studies 2005). Ostensibly a book review of W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion, edited by Jonathan Long and Anne Whitehead, Sheppard’s text cuts a wide and intelligent swathe across Sebald’s work. But the brief quote I want to pull out is this:
But [essayist Greg] Bond demonstrably gets it wrong when he claims that Max sees the Holocaust as the point when ‘everything began to go downhill’. In an interview of August 2001 that was published ten days after his death, Max explicitly dated that juncture as ‘spätestens mit Napoleon’ (‘with Napoleon at the latest’). In Max’s view, colonialism and the technologically driven excesses of the twentieth century were latter-day aspects of the Napoleonic ‘Traum, aus diesem sehr unordentlichen Kontinent Europa etwas viel Ordentlicheres, Geregeltes, Durchorganisiertes, Machtvolles zu machen’ (‘dream of turning this very disorderly continent of Europe into something much more orderly, rule-governed, thoroughly organized, powerful’) (Pralle, 2001). In making this point, I am not just correcting a factual error. Rather, it seems to me that Napoleon came, in Max’s mind, to personify the Symbolic Order that governed modernizing Europe and that Max spent his entire life as a writer of academic and fictional work in conflict with its allegedly repressive, totalitarian and exploitative nature. Once this point is understood, yet another reason becomes clear why Max gave his last major work the name of a battle that Napoleon decisively won.
To be honest, I sense that Sebald treated these larger than life protagonists in history more as ahistorical characters, not as products of imperialism or capitalism but almost as natural disasters.Even though the shadows of Napoleon and Hitler loom over nearly every page Sebald wrote, they never really appear in their own right and he never attempts to “understand” them in any fashion. And maybe this partly answers why I have always felt that Sebald was ultimately pessimistic, for while we might be able to sense patterns and reasons for capitalism’s failures, history-shaking figures like Napoleon and Hitler are ultimately as unpredictable, uncontainable, and apparently inevitable as a volcanic eruption.