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Posts from the ‘Werner Heisenberg’ Category

“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.”

Sebald’s Sonthofen (Digressing into Werner Heisenberg)


There is a brief but curious exchange about W.G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction on, of all places, the U.S. Army in Germany website where several retired Army personnel have posted reminiscences of being stationed in Sonthofen, Germany in the early 1950s. Sebald’s family moved some 19 kilometers or so from Wertach im Allgäu to Sonthofen in 1952 when he was about eight years old and he recalled the town still bearing scars from Allied air raids:

nothing seemed as fascinating as the presence of areas of waste land here and there among the rows of houses… On February 22 and April 29, 1945, bombs had been dropped on the totally insignificant little market town of Sonthofen [page 74]

In 2004, as several retired soldiers posted their recollections of Army life in Sonthofen, one wrote:

A matter of some interest to me arose this past year: a book, entitled, “On the Natural History of Destruction”, by an Allgaeuer from Wertach (near Sonthofen), W.G. Sebald, who was only one year old when the war ended, came to Sonthofen in 1952 and saw the “ruins” of two aerial bombings that occurred on February 22 and April 29, 1945. I was dismayed by the (what I thought to be) serious misstatements of fact. We were told, in 1950, that only one bomb was jettisoned onto the town and hit the Brewery which, in any part of Germany, was a major catastrophe.

Herr Sebald was killed in an automobile accident recently and can’t be questioned about what he saw in Sonthofen, but can any of the Constabulary people confirm or deny his statements. I’d love to hear about it. I contacted the USAAF Archives at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, but they have no record of such a “raid” on either of those dates, but they said it may have been an RAF happening.

Unfortunately, the few responses that this post elicited don’t do much to resolve the question of how significantly Sonthofen was bombed in the final months and days of World War II.

burg-sonthofen.jpg Burg Sonthofen, location of the U.S. Army base

However, in trying to discover a little more about Sonthofen, I discovered that physicist Werner Heisenberg was traveling by bicycle and train through the region around Sonthofen and the Allgäu during late April and early May 1945. In his diary Heisenberg reports on almost daily air raids as the Allies closed in on the collapsing German war effort. Here is part of what he wrote on April 20, 1945:

Shortly behind Leutkirch appear large convoys of American bomber planes accompanied by fighter planes up above. From a sheltered spot near a little chapel I watch the destruction of Memmingen. Huge plumes of smoke and waves of detonation; thus I am glad not to have gone via Memmingen. In Krugzell in the Iller Valley a decent meal in a diner, then a long nap under trees on a glacial hill, about 9km north of Kempten. From there one can see all of the Allgäu Alps, especially the mountains surrounding Sonthofen, where I had been in boot camp seven years ago with the mountain troops. 5pm departure in the direction of Kaufbeuren. Cloudless skies all the time. Since I have been going for 50 km already this day, I have trouble ascending from the Illertal. Around 8 pm arrival in Kaufbeuren, fight for a glass of tea in the overcrowded waiting room at the station, I am hungry and am now feeling the exertion of the last days. 10pm the train leaves for Schongau, there pacing from 1am to 5am in the waiting room filled with a horde of half grown boys in SS uniform, probably from the Balkans. I don’t dare sleep, fearing for bicycle and luggage. At 5am departure of the train for Weilheim. [See Note below.]

Memmingen, which was destroyed before Heisenberg’s eyes, lies less than 40 miles north of Sebald’s home in Wertach.

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.”

But, back to my digression with Heisenberg’s diary. On April 22, fifteen days before the surrender of Germany, Heisenberg reports that his wife and “Mrs. Linder have baked a cake, the children are playing out on the terrace in the sunshine, thus we are celebrating the Sunday as if it were total peace time.”

For me, the most curious entry comes on April 29 (one of the dates that Sebald claims Sonthofen was bombed). Heisenberg and his wife were in Kochel (south of Munich) to buy provisions. The town was full of “loitering” SS and foreign laborers, all waiting the inevitable “occupation” by the Allies, when Heisenberg sees a train waiting in the station “with prisoners from Dachau who look terribly starved and pale”. Since the liberation of Dachau (more than 40 miles to the north) was underway that very day, where could the train seen by Heisenberg have been heading?According to what I read, the last train into Dachau, the so-called Death Train, arrived there on April 26.

[Note. At the time during which this post was written (October 2007), portions of Werner Heisenberg’s diary were posted on the Nuclear & Particle Physics Group section of the University of New Hampshire website at, but there is currently no reference to this any longer at the UNH website. The connection had to do with the fact that Heisenberg’s son Jochen was a Professor in the Physics Department there. (See February 2022]