- Destruction and Transcendence in W. G. Sebald
For all the Saturnine pessimism of W. G. Sebald's application of Walter Benjamin's view of historical process (an attitude toward history expounded upon at length in an influential work by Susan Sontag), the author's sense of irony about the human predicament is irrepressible. 1 Human beings seem destined to remain prisoners of various paradoxes—they both create and destroy, they are capable of acts of love as well as bitterness and hate, they make efforts to document and communicate, but at the same time they tend to forget and are given to suppressing the truth, they are driven by ideals, yet remain hobbled by imperfection. Art and music, passed on from generation to generation, seem to be the most common way that human beings transcend the strictures of their imperfections, inadequacies, and their finitude. And to the extent that art indeed survives over time, and continues to be perceived and appreciated by beholders, the aesthetic enterprise succeeds. However, ultimately, as the Book of Ecclesiastes and Shelley's "Ozymandias" remind us, all human endeavor is in vain, and, to assume the perspective of physical cosmology for a moment—and in this regard Benjamin's cosmic vision appears painfully accurate—our speck of earth, dwarfed by a vast universe the true immensity of which has been revealed by the Hubble Telescope, will one day be ground to dust and debris like the rings of Saturn, and our sun will exist only as a burned-out hulk. But such a future world, devoid of beholders, and devoid of creators and their artifacts, is not Sebald's primary subject, even though it clearly forms the teleological backdrop for his third novel, The Rings of Saturn (1995, English version 1998). Rather, Sebald pursues his art in spite of a terminal prospect that will ultimately confront our [End Page 395] planet and solar system. His primary subject, the effect of trauma on individual and collective experience, is instead closely linked with the passing of Europe as a tradition, as an idea—as an idiosyncratic and innovative, but inherently corrupt contributor to cultural history. In the course of his narratives he also addresses the redemptive role of art in memorializing the past and attempting to capture the passing present. In both respects he attends to the humane and the sublime as well as the tragic and the grotesque.
Paraphrasing the art historian Svetlana Alpers, one early reviewer of Sebald's novel Austerlitz (2001) points out the self-contradictory nature of preserving the transient moment in art:
Why create visual art at all when everything on earth must be represented in its inexorable transitoriness; why paint earthly scenes with such incredible care and precision as if they were permanent? 2
The care and precision of the painter's craft (in this case, the Dutch still-life painter David Bailly) are devoted to the representation of a scene that is by its very nature transient and even tenuous—like the scenes of sublime beauty in Sebald's fiction, the artist's depiction "courts and admits" its own fragility. What Bailly does visually, Sebald attempts in words. Take, for instance, the following passage from Vertigo, Sebald's first novel, which was titled in German (with considerably more irony) Schwindel. Gefühle 3 :
At a hairpin bend I looked out of the turning bus down into the depths below and could see the turquoise surfaces of the Ferstein and Smaranger lakes, which, even when I was a child, on our first excursions into the Tyrol, had seemed to me the essence of all conceivable beauty.(p. 176)
The author has already prepared the reader for this moment of awe by remarking on the otherworldly "slow-motion quality" of the waterfalls descending from the mountain cliffs and on the boulders in their screes spreading downwards into the wooded hillsides, "screes which reached from the mountains down into the forests like pale fingers into dark hair . . ." (p. 176). Examined closely, the passage in question suggests both the enduring power of natural beauty and, especially with its precise reference to an automobile long since out of production and unfamiliar to...