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Posts from the ‘Undiscover’d Country’ Category

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Barbara Hui’s Litmap for The Rings of Saturn using Google Maps

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.

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[[Photo: Iain MacFarlaine on]


I am still plugging away at the recently published book of essays Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel.  The third triogy of essays deal with Sebald’s relation to other writers: Bruce Chatwin, Adalbert Stifter, and Joseph Conrad.

Brad Prager’s Convergence Insufficiency: On Seeing Passages between W.G. Sebald and the “Travel Writer” Bruce Chatwin deals with two complex writers that have been relegated in the popular imagination to the genre of travel writing.

Neil Christian Pages’ essay Tripping: On Sebald’s “Stifter” (which has, alas, nothing to do with travel) focuses on Sebald’s two early critical essays on the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, making the case that these two essays helped move Sebald from the genre of literary criticism to a more complex and personal kind of writing.  These essays form “the bases for another kind of storytelling that becomes operative elsewhere in Sebald’s work.”  He sees Sebald becoming a more creative reader for whom reading (and writing) is often a form of restitution, giving new life to a series of overlooked authors with whom Sebald connects deeply.  “Sebald unpacks Stifter’s formidable body of work as a series of perspectival layers that remind us of the dizzying possibilities of perceiving – at once – different levels of significance.”

My favorite of this trilogy was Margaret Bruzelius’ Adventure, Imprisonment, and Melancholy: Heart of Darkness and Die Ringe des Saturn.  By coincidence, I had just experienced the mysterious wonder that is Heart of Darkness for the umpteenth time, listening to an audio version on board a recent flight.  “Both Conrad and Sebald create tales permeated by an acute consciousness of storytelling as a process that leads nowhere….the return [to home] leaves the hero retelling a history whose purport is unclear.”  Bruzelius ponders critics traditional discomfort with the influence of the romantic adventure on the “serious” novel.

Other posts relating to this volumes of essays can be found here.

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[Film still from Alain Resnais, L’année dernière à Marienbad]

The second triptych of essays in The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel uses the heading Textual Excursions, Expeditions, and Adventures to focus on some narrower aspects of Sebald’s writings.

The best essay of this section, in spite of its title, is Alan Itkin’s “Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt”: Katabasis in Austerliz, which examines Austerlitz within the tradition of epic literature, notably Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, showing how Sebald structured Austerlitz as a venture in the underworld.  Itkin makes the case that Austerlitz is Sebald’s most novel-like work of prose fiction and that with this book Sebald broke the pattern in which he had formerly used the trope of travel.  In his first three books of prose fiction, Sebald’s model of travel writing was to “demonstrate that it is the uncanny position of the modern subject never to be sufficiently lost.”  But with Austerlitz, he returned to something more closely approaching the classic model of  travel writing in which the narrator loses his way, then finds it again.

Itkin sees Sebald making the case that National Socialism was inextricably linked to “the senseless expansion of the bourgeois age” that preceded it.  The dark side of progress is “an equally strong compulsion to destruction,” a theme that weaves in and out of all of Sebald’s books.

The remaining two essays are exercises in diminishing returns.  Each left me feeling that the needles I finally found in these haystacks were blunt and only marginally useful.   Martin Klebes’ essay If You Come to a Spa: Displacing the Cure in Schwindel. Gefühle and Austerlitz, looks at two of Sebald’s travelers and their visits to spas.  He looks at the Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva section of Vertigo and at Jacques Austerlitz’s trip to the spa at Marienbad.  Each man undergoes a transformation at the spa that has nothing to do with the expected “medical regimen” function of a spa.  Instead, “Sebald’s narrative strategy is to ‘renew’ his protagonists at the spas …through intertextual references that reveal the split within each of them not as a feature of their psychological constitution but rather as a division visible on the textual surface itself.”  What does this mean?  Well, in both of the situations that Klebes cites, Sebald creates uncertainty and tension surrounding the identity of the protagonist, both of whom echo characters in other works of art.  In the Vertigo example, “Dr. K. both is and is not ‘Franz Kafka’.”  While in the Austerlitz example, Sebald overlays references to characters from Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).

James Martin’s essay Campi deserti: Polar Landscapes and the Limits of Knowledge in Sebald and Ransmayr examines the middle section of Sebald’s long  poem  Nach der Nature (After Nature) and Ransmayr’s 1984 novel Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), which I wrote about earlier.  In this section of After Nature, Wilhelm Georg Stiller joins the Great Northern Expedition of 1741, led by Vitus Bering (of the Bering Sea and Strait).  Martin sees Sebald making the point that these polar expeditions represent “the limits of the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge” and “the extreme limits of the knowable world.”  Like some of the essayists in the earlier section of Undiscover’d Country, Martin sees Sebald rejecting a totalizing view of history: “Science in the Enlightenment takes a totalizing character as a system for understanding the world under the banner of an unwavering belief in progress and rationality.”  In After Nature and elsewhere, Sebald seems to completely reject this belief.

Other posts relating to this volume are here.

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Waterloo Panorama, 1912 [detail]

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.

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Camden House kindly sent me a review copy of The Undiscover’d Country: W.G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel, edited by Markus Zisselsberger, who teaches at the University of Florida.  It contains twelve essays (divided into four sections), plus Zisselberger’s Introduction and a previously unanthologized text by Sebald.  My plan is to read the book slowly over the course of October and post some thoughts as I finish each section.

In this first brief post I thought I would make some introductory remarks about the book, beginning with the cover image drawn from artwork by Jan Peter Tripp called Das Land der Lächelns, 1990 (the land of smiling), a title taken from a Franz Lehar opera about the difficulty of assimilating to a different culture.   The book’s title, Undiscover’d Country, comes from a 1972 essay by Sebald, The Undiscover’d Country: The Death Motif in Kafka’s Castle. The book itself arose from a panel held at the 2006 Modern Language Association annual meeting.

In his Introduction, Zisselsberger uses an untranslated essay by Sebald from 1987 Die Kunst des Fliegens (the art of flying) as his starting point and he proceeds to explore the way in which Sebald blurred the distinction between real and imaginary landscapes, between real and imaginary travel.   Surveying all of Sebald’s writings – poetry, prose fiction, and literary scholarship –  Zisselsberger sees travel as a unifying “aesthetic strategy” for Sebald.  Sebald’s hybrid writing style and his “extremely multifarious material” could only be bound together through his use of travelogue as a narrative structure.  More importantly, Zisselsberger distinguishes between tourism and the kind of travel that Sebald undertook, which he likens to a pilgrimage.

…he emphasized that the place [he traveled to] must be carefully chosen from among those ‘that no one else goes to.’  This demand for solitary travel implies an anti-touristic itinerary by a ‘cultured’ traveler who seeks out places on the periphery and is capable of experiencing and looking at them other than in terms of sightseeing.

Zisselsberger goes on to discuss at length more specifically why he feels it was important to Sebald to seek out such liminal sites and what exactly Sebald hoped to gain by exposing himself to such places.  Zisselsberger is an attentive and nuanced reader of Sebald – and he is skeptical when required – and he sorts through some of the stickier issues surrounding Sebald’s literary enterprise.  I hope this bodes well for the rest of the volume.

The second prefatory piece in the volume is the essay by Sebald that forms the centerpiece for Zisselsberger’s Introduction, Die Kunst des Fliegens, albeit only in German (my only complaint so far).

In scholarly writing, it is typical to quote the German versions of Sebald’s books, even in volumes that are otherwise English language.  Here, I was very pleased to see, unlike some other books on Sebald, all quotations in German are immediately followed by the same quotation in English.  For those of us with weak or perhaps non-existent German, this is a great help.

You can find all of my posts on Undiscover’d Country here.