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"What a Synoptic and Artificial View Reveals": Extreme History and the Modernism of W. G. Sebald's Realism

From: Criticism
Volume 46, Number 3, Summer 2004
pp. 341-360 | 10.1353/crt.2005.0011

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"What a Synoptic and Artificial View Reveals":
Extreme History and the Modernism of W. G. Sebald's Realism

The War Event

On the eve of World War II, when Georg Lukács published his celebrated study of the historical novel, the "war event" had changed radically from what he describes as the social and historical condition of possibility for the rise of the genre in the first place.1 The historical novel, Lukács argued, was the product of a particularly nineteenth-century sense of history wherein the revolutionary class struggles and social transformations endemic to national and world history were linked to a certain mode of conducting warfare. The beginnings of the genre can be traced to the period stretching from the French Revolution to Napoleon's collapse in 1814, a time in which the modern war event first emerged. Unlike the "wars of absolute states in the pre-Revolutionary period, [which] were waged by small professional armies [and . . . ] conducted so as to isolate the army as sharply as possible from the civilian population," warfare in the early nineteenth century had become a "mass experience" dictated by the need for nations to "create mass armies" (HN, 23). Lukács continues: "The inner life of a nation is linked with the modern mass army in a way it could not have been with the absolutist armies of the earlier period. . . . Whereas the wars fought by the mercenary armies of absolutism consisted mostly of tiny manoeuvres around fortresses, etc., now the whole of Europe becomes a war arena" (HN, 24). This had the social consequence of razing estate barriers and eliminating the separation of the army from the people, something that in turn evoked new waves of national feeling across Europe as well as new investments in social and human progress. The revolutionary [End Page 341] upheavals of mass war provided the historical basis upon which the historical novel arose.

The task of the historical novel (whose birth, Lukács points out, can be given, far from fortuitously, as 1814, the year of Walter Scott's publication of Waverly) does not consist in "the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality" (HN, 42). Scott presents history realistically in order to evoke the crises, popular struggles, and social circumstances in which his characters live. Importantly, the historical novel does not in any way compromise the distinctions between fact and fiction, history and literature, but rather it places imaginative characters in historically real settings and thus depends on its readership to know the difference between real and imaginary events. Tolstoy's War and Peace represents a further development of Scott's historical novel for the ways he depicts "the real conditions of life in this transitional period" through its "popular character" and "emphasis on popular life as the real basis of historical happenings" (HN, 86), depending, once again, on his readership to distinguish between fact and fiction. In every case, it is the new social and political realities of conflicting forces, of nation- and class-based antagonisms, and the historical reality of the war event that not only spur the struggles at the heart of the historical novel but also the conditions of possibility for the genre itself.

In the 1820s, during the early period of the historical novel, Karl von Clausewitz, the greatest theoretician of warfare, composed his magnum opus, On War. In this uncompleted treatise Clausewitz attempted to articulate the nature and theory of modern warfare, with a particular emphasis on the logistics of conducting offensives and staging defenses in the new theaters of war. He describes the "character of the modern battle" as follows:

What do we usually do now in a great battle? We place ourselves quietly in great masses arranged next to one another and behind one another. We deploy only a relatively small portion of the whole, and let it fight it out in a musketry duel which lasts for hours, and which is interrupted...