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  • Wandering to Dwell: Heidegger and the Phenomenology of Dwelling in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn

This essay seeks to emphasize the interconnections between wandering and dwelling in the context of Sebald’s ambulatory narrative, The Rings of Saturn (1998). By using Heidegger’s notion of “dwelling,” it seeks to highlight the ways in which wandering, with its origin in the ancient human desire for movement and which seems to negate the impulse to dwell or be emplaced in a fixed location, not only transmutes in the contemporary consciousness into an alternative mode of dwelling but also leads to its actualization.

Men alone, as mortals, by dwelling attain to the world as world.

—Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

Full of merit, yet poetically, man / Dwells on this earth.

—Friedrich Hölderlin, “[In lovely blueness . . .]”1

In Heidegger’s writing dwelling—or the ways in which we live in the world—is suggestive of a unifying phenomenon pointing toward a place where things gather into what I will call an abiding wholeness.2 Abiding wholeness should not be taken to be the equivalent of sedentariness. It does not connote stasis. In other words, dwelling is the opposite of not being at home in the world and is neither akin to the mere occupation of space nor the forceful appropriation of it. Dwelling, as Heidegger suggests, may be actualized through a certain familiarity and intimacy with the space one inhabits and that which derives from a principle of natural openness.3 [End Page 29]

W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, preoccupied as it is with the themes of devastation and loss, seems at first to suggest the impossibility of dwelling per se in the contemporary world and of the human ability to call forth a sense of belongingness in the midst of a landscape dominated by severance and destruction. Sebald’s narrative, aptly subtitled “eine englische Wallfahrt” (“an English Pilgrimage”), is—at least, ostensibly—an account of his journey on foot through the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk in East Anglia. Its rambling facade, connecting (apparently) disjointed topics, reaches far beyond the physical geography it covers to a profound acknowledgment of man’s ineluctable tendency toward destruction. Yet Rings is not about destruction or even the unspeakable horrors of history; it is, on the contrary, about the emancipatory possibilities of wandering, by which man may come to dwell in the world or, as Heidegger describes it, “attain to the world as world” (Poetry 180). The superficial dystopia of the narrative stands substantially vindicated by the possibility of reaching (through walking or wandering) beyond the restrictive spatiality of containment to that of freedom (of the spirit) and involvement. Walking in Rings is a discursive way of speaking about people, events, and things—an opening up to the world, as it were, something Heidegger might have called “deconcealing” (38). Sebald’s prose, like his labyrinthine paths, moves toward a certain openness where things “emerge” or “arise” in their own ways (59). His wanderings through the English countryside, in this sense, may as well be taken to resemble an act of incessant border crossings between different temporal, spatial, and cultural formations. But such journeys, as this essay underscores, are not random, aimless actions but are rooted securely in the wanderer’s (here, the anonymous narrator’s) desire to arrive at dwelling in the world.

In the opening chapter of Rings, Sebald recounts his experience of place—that of a room in a Norwich hospital where he was admitted exactly a year after completing his Suffolk walk—which usefully doubles as a model for understanding the essence of human existence. The tortured identification with Gregor Samsa—the protagonist of Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis—is cleverly manipulated into an acknowledgment of the general human predicament in a world rendered alien by war, reckless commercial exploitation, and the impetuous destruction of nature. Just as Gregor’s transformation into a monstrous bug confirms his alienation from his immediate environment, Sebald’s unexplained illness heightens his (and by extension, the reader’s) consciousness of man’s alienation from nature. Needless to say, it is impossible to dwell in such a place—not merely because it is evocative of the unheimlich, or the uncanny, but because it lacks the very conditions that make dwelling possible in the first place. [End Page 30]

Broadly speaking, the aim of this essay is to show how the everyday practices of dwelling have come to inhere in the act of wandering, so much so that movement (both literal as well as figurative)—not fixation or localization—has, to a formidable extent, come to underlie Being.4 In order to identify and fully grasp the interconnections between wandering and the Heideggerian notion of dwelling as implicit in Rings, it is useful to recapitulate Heidegger’s characterization of the term Dasein. Literally translated as “there-being,” Dasein or Da-sein stands for the distinctive human essence predicated by man’s consciousness of his own being or presence in the world of things (Wheeler).5 Put simply, Da-sein, as Heidegger saw it, can be understood as being-in-the-world in the same sense that dwelling is—the emphasis being not overly on the spatiality of dwelling but rather on a sense of belongingness through which Da-sein comes to be in the world. Thus, Heidegger was more concerned with the meaning of being (der Sinn von Sein)—the understanding of which we are always already in possession of yet are bafflingly inarticulate about.6

On a similar plane, Sebald’s narrative is not just about aimless wanderings in the English countryside betraying an ontological restlessness symptomatic of the dispossessed or the unhoused but is also (albeit, more tangentially) a riposte to the conspiracy of silence over the atrocities of the Third Reich and the subsequent destruction of Germany by the Allies during World War II. In Luftkrieg und Literatur (On the Natural History of Destruction), Sebald draws our attention to the “half-consciousness or false consciousness” characterizing the works of authors and historians in postwar Germany that did not allow the devastating experience of the air raids over German cities to take root in the collective memory of the German people (ix). Quoting novelist Alfred Döblin’s description of a city reduced to rubble by the air raid, Sebald emphasizes how even the relative optimism induced by the postwar reconstruction of the war-ravaged nation resulted in the denial of dwelling itself: “People walked ‘down the street and past the dreadful ruins . . . as if nothing had happened, and . . . the town had always looked like that’” (5). Ruins shelter no one; nobody dwells in the empty shell of the blighted city. It is the site of absent longing. In Rings, the testimony of William Hazel—the gardener of an English manor house—similarly attests to the voluntary obliteration of the past and the memories associated with it. Curious to learn more about the Germans’ experience of the carpet bombings, Hazel made inquiries in Lüneburg and was surprised to find that “[n]o one at the time seemed to have written about their experiences or afterwards recorded their memories” (39). For Sebald, such forceful concealment of the horrors of history makes dwelling uncertain and is, in effect, a negation of it. [End Page 31]

In his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Heidegger etymologically traced dwelling to its Gothic root wunian, which means “to be at peace, to be brought to peace, to remain in peace. . . . To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving” (Poetry 147).7 The denial of the historicity of things, events, and (human) experience is therefore a denial of dwelling itself since by abnegating the past one not only fails to conserve “each thing in its nature” but also to preserve it from impairment. In Rings, Sebald seems to have set himself the task of reconstructing the past through wandering, but not only that; part of his endeavor (and a substantial part, for that matter) is also focused on a far more complex inquest: if dwelling is the manner in which man comes to be in the world, how does dwelling unfold as a mode of being against a history of violence, oppression, and destruction? Alternatively, Sebald’s concern hinges not so much on a realistic representation of the past as on how one may be able to know the past as it really is. This is especially significant since the human past, according to him, is a prior moment in a continuous flow of events that, when viewed as a continuum (as opposed to intermittence), comprise the story of humanity.

In Rings, however, Sebald’s analysis of the nature of human existence in space and time is implicit in the sense that even though he does seem to cast in a postimperial and postmodern frame the question of being and dwelling in a globalized or postglobalized world, he seems to do so circuitously by drawing parallels from nature and natural history. For instance, in the third chapter of Rings, the narrator—while passing through an anglers’ colony south of Lowestoft—drifts off in contemplation of the nature of existence and dwelling, moving subsequently onto a reflective discourse on the North Sea herring. As much as the narrator’s description of the everyday life of the fishermen accords a certain ontological distinctiveness to lives lived in the periphery (“They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness” [52]), the reflection on the herring seems to be poised delicately between an essentially Foucauldian biopolitics and the (somewhat equivocal) ethics of representation. The power of man over nature—visually invoked by the photograph showing a group of fishermen proudly exhibiting a mammoth catch—is certainly not all that there is to the narrator’s allusion to the perilously overfished herring. Although man’s subjugation of nature, powered by purely utilitarian goals, comes across, in a way, as a familiar figuration through the narrative, it also points toward an apocalyptic erosion of the natural equilibrium—doubly dangerous because it not only heralds disorder [End Page 32] but also deformity. While for the latter, the herring’s “bizarre mutation” (53) stands by as a pertinent analogue, the disintegration of the natural equilibrium is generally implicit in the violent histories of colonial exploitation, political oppression, and war. Moreover, the reflection on the herring—specifically, the pictorial representation of the dead fish—assumes a far more complex character when viewed in relation to the imminent photograph of the (Jewish) corpses at Bergen-Belsen.8

While the dead herring both anticipate and visually evoke the calamity of the Holocaust, their juxtaposition with the perished Jews—as noted by Jonathan Long—raises issues pertaining to the ethics of representation. Long argues that “the text itself offers no criteria according to which either of these events—the killing of the herring for food and the murder of the Jews—can be privileged over the other” (144). This kind of pairing—as Anne Fuchs has similarly noted—conjures and indirectly critiques an essentially Cartesian approach to nature and the physical world per se.9 While this Cartesian reduction of nonhuman life-forms to purely mechanistic systems signals the insidious workings of a utilitarian biopolitics, its devaluation of human life implicit in the callous objectification of the dead Jews in Bergen-Belsen can—just as amenably—be viewed as man’s increasing alienation from nature. According to Fuchs, “Sebald’s daring juxtaposition of the story of the herring and the corpses of Buchenwald underlines the common denominator of both stories of destruction: a cold and objectified biopolitics which disregards the value of life by means of a reductive interpretation of nature” (173). Sebald’s reflection on the herring thereby legitimately evokes the unheimlich—a world rendered strange and unfamiliar insomuch as dwelling fails to occur in it. It is important to note here that both the North Sea herring and the Jews who perished in Nazi concentration camps across Europe anticipate a global unworld overseen by the rapid proliferation of science and technology and—along with it—a severely altered, distorted and fragmented relationship between man and his immediate environment.10 Sebald’s landscapes are, concomitantly, much less faithful renditions of the external world than carefully formulated spatial constellations pointing toward the ontological anxiety that signals the absence of dwelling. Their relationship with the global unworld is, by and large, metonymic, which is also to say that the representativeness of landscape in Rings is a key issue for the phenomenological understanding of space and, consequently, of the dwelling that occurs in it.

Space, as far as the current analysis on Sebald’s representation of it in Rings is concerned, is differentiated into place—the setting forth into the ontological determination of the world.11 This facet of [End Page 33] Sebald’s writing, occasioned by his preoccupation with the idea of place (along with its problematic) as the potential structural enabler of human dwelling, shares a keen affinity with Heidegger’s notions of place and situatedness. Both Heidegger and Sebald ask the same question, though Heidegger’s inquiry is more straightforward: what is dwelling (in the world)? Sebald’s approach, on the other hand, more indirectly focuses—more or less exclusively—on the challenges of dwelling in a world beset by the destructive forces of biopolitics, cataclysmic conflicts, exile, and panoptic surveillance: what, in the global unworld, might approximate dwelling? Yet one is likely to detect echoes of the late writings of Heidegger in Sebald’s reflection on being and dwelling—especially in the latter’s perennial quest for the place of being or what might simply be called home. The dystopia conjured by Rings conveys the innate homelessness of man, which, in turn, throws into sharp relief the essential equivocity of dwelling in the global unworld. This aspect of Sebald’s writing has a clear precedent in Heideggerian thought. As Heidegger writes, “It requires reflection, whether and how (ob und wie) there can still be homeland in the age of the technological equi-formed world-civilization” (qtd. in Young 188).12 In Rings, one finds Sebald circuitously asking the same question: can contemporary man be at home in the world?

From the very beginning of his narrative, Sebald thoughtfully differentiates between place that is merely occupied and place where one feels at home—that is, the place where dwelling occurs. While the former can effectively be compared to an empty or impoverished shell that fails to supply the ontological security necessary for the vindication of a ubiquitous feeling of homelessness or a sense of not-belonging, the latter may be described as a site to which one’s rootedness can be naturally traced. The global unworld, as Sebald envisions it in Rings, is a plainly dystopic realm inasmuch as it resists the idea of dwelling by encouraging the insidious machinations of modern technocratic civilization to perpetuate man’s oblivion of his Being.13 For instance, it is by manipulating the constructedness of one’s subjective world or one’s embeddedness in place that dominant political groups often assert their supremacy, wherein the assertion of power almost certainly involves the marginalization of the powerless not just by driving them out of their Heimat (homeland) but by robbing them of their ontological security.14 Sebald refers to the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by the Croatian Ustasha during the Kozara offensive of 1942 in order to underscore the fact that the oppressor’s violence was all the more grievous for the fact that it completely expunged the possibility of experiencing dwelling: [End Page 34]

Of the children who were left behind, twenty-three thousand in number, the militia murdered half on the spot, while the rest were herded together at various assembly points to be sent on to Croatia; of these, not a few died of typhoid fever, exhaustion and fear, even before the cattle wagons reached the Croatian capital. Many of those who were still alive were so hungry that they had eaten the cardboard identity tags they wore about their necks and thus in their extreme desperation had eradicated their own names. . . . Like everyone else they learnt the socialist ABC at schools, chose an occupation, and became railway workers, salesgirls, tool-fitters or book-keepers. But no one knows what shadowy memories haunt them to this day.

The above passage is an obvious precursor to the story of Austerlitz—the eponymous protagonist of Sebald’s 2001 prose work. The expunction of authentic memory—in Austerlitz’s case, through the deliberate erasure of archival information concerning his real identity (by his foster father Emyr Elias)—as the alternate fate of those who escaped the Shoah forms one of the major preoccupations of Sebald’s prose work and, to a great extent, that of European and North American literature following World War II.15 This is also what Sebald’s readers are primarily confronted with—a crisis of modernity, whose lexicon can finally be accessed through an initial loss of language and its surprising retrieval in another tongue (as Austerlitz does) in the domain of the putative Other. The loss of language in Austerlitz (symbolically presented in Austerlitz’s sudden aphasia) is consequently symptomatic of its protagonist’s alienation from both space and time—the ultimate convolution of his notions of history and of place (or its absence) therein. If language is perceived as the structural enabler of one’s subjectivity and the primary presupposition behind the constructedness of one’s identity, then Austerlitz’s sudden and unexpected debility represents a denial of dwelling itself since this loss of language is a belated enactment of a cataclysmic loss of both home and being. For one to feel at home a certain spatial orientation is imperative, which is also to say that dwelling or being-in-the-world cannot be accomplished without a concurrent notion of an originary orientating place—one that can be variously described as Heimat, homeland, or home. While the disquieting lives of the displaced Bosnian children (as alluded to in Rings) anticipate the personal narrative of Austerlitz, they also seem to call our attention to the traumatic experiences of marginality and estrangement. The erasure of subjectivity—as these untold narratives of marginalized individuals seem to suggest—generates a disequilibrium leading to [End Page 35] the complete annulment of dwelling, a condition that, in accordance with Heidegger’s philosophy, can be legitimately articulated as the shattering of the “fourfold” or the confluence of the earth, the sky, divinities, and mortals (Poetry 148).16

Although the spatial orientation of beings to a certain vital place presupposes the existence of an originary or umbilical site, this metaphorical umbilicus is by no means suggestive of land alone. Instead, as Young persuasively argues in his enunciation of Heidegger’s notion of dwelling, “Place, dwelling place, is not land nor people, not space nor time, not past nor present nor future. It is, rather, all of these together” (202–03; emphasis added). To Young’s discerning list one may add the lived experiences of the body.17 We live in a “somatic society,” writes Bryan S. Turner, which can be defined as “a social system in which the body, as simultaneously constraint and resistance, is the principal field of political and cultural activity” (12). Concomitantly, in such a society, the primary political or personal problems are not only problematized within the body but are also expressed through it. In Rings, Sebald’s treatment of Roger Casement routes the question of dwelling through the lived experiences of the body. Casement, Anglo-Irish by descent and a British consul, was instrumental in exposing colonial atrocities in the Congo and the Putumayo rubber plantation in Peru. He was knighted by King George V in 1911 and later tried and executed for his treasonous involvement in the Irish nationalist uprising. Although widely lauded for his patriotism, Casement was censured and indicted for his homosexuality, which, in the words of Sebald’s narrator, “sensitized him to the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement and destruction, across the borders of social class and race, of those who were the furthest from the centres of power” (Rings 134). Interestingly, Sebald links Casement’s homosexuality to his heightened sensitivity toward oppression and state-mediated aggression (colonialism and its affects), ironically tracing his persecution to his own admission and—following the divulgence of the contents of his diaries—to the state’s knowledge of his purportedly deviant sexual behavior.

Casement’s account provides valuable insights into Sebald’s own thoughts on dwelling, as Sebald makes a direct connection between Casement’s sexual orientation and the essence of his being. The so-called Black Diaries—the circulation of which eventually sealed Casement’s fate as they contained scandalously vivid confessional descriptions of his myriad homosexual encounters—bring to the fore the complexity of male homosocial desire and its troubled relationship with the conventional institutions of gendered dwelling. As Sebald shows through Casement’s example, the orthodox matrix of gendered spaces underpinned by the traditional opposition between homo- and [End Page 36] heterosexuality are coded to reject any possibility of atypical dwelling that may inhere within its panoptic and largely sterile domain.18

What specifically emerges from Sebald’s thematization of Casement’s account is the fact that part of the epistemic mastery of traditional institutions of power over individual subjects derives from those institutions’ functional authority to normalize. In this particular instance, the denial of being to the homosexual body may be perceived as the normalizing discourse of the state and its manifest propensity to immediately other—even criminalize—every emerging difference. Throughout Sebald’s writing, the subject of difference is made to convey the echo of violence, however faint, yet its effects are curiously palpable even in the liminal zones of memory. Be it Casement, the novelist Joseph Conrad, the fictional Austerlitz, or Ambros Adelwarth of Sebald’s The Emigrants, the issue of difference—sexual, political, or racial—as the fundamental principle of identity has memorably problematized the question of being. After all, as Sebald makes clear in Rings and elsewhere, and as Heidegger’s thought on the “Being of beings” presages (Poetry 23), the problem of dwelling is never too far apart from that of identity and existence. This is especially significant for the purpose of our current inquiry since, in actuality, dwelling can never free its essence from the truth of (the being’s) difference (from other beings) nor can it meaningfully occur in denial of such difference (if there is any). Thus, it is necessary to consider dwelling (the Being of beings, per se) and difference together, which is also to acknowledge simultaneously the transformative effects that the principle of identity (often powered by a sense of difference or nonbelonging) may have on the everyday experience of dwelling. Concomitantly, as this relation between identity and dwelling reiterates, the criminalization of one’s core identity is naturally and obviously tantamount to the expropriation of dwelling. Through his thematization of marginal lives, Sebald attempts to draw our attention to this characteristic fragility of human civilization that consists in the ultimate vulnerability of man to regimes of despotic power and control.

To consider the issue of dwelling from a different perspective, one may begin by asking the question, “What is not dwelling?” While Sebald does not address this matter with any definitive directness (at least in Rings), Heidegger—in his 1951 lecture “Building Dwelling Thinking”—is quick to dismiss the superficial causality between the shortage of residential buildings (particularly in cities, following World War II) and the “real plight of dwelling” as illusive (Poetry 159). Furthermore, by making clear that “not every building is a dwelling” at the beginning of the lecture, he seems to challenge the ideas that building presupposes dwelling and that dwelling automatically occurs [End Page 37] in all built structures (Poetry 143).19 Even though Sebald does not seem to concern himself expressly with the Heideggerian notion of building as far as Rings is concerned, he does seem to explore the nature of dwelling by an incisive exploration of its absence and the conditions contributing to that end.20 For dwelling—as he affirms through his representation of the ruinous landscapes of Somerleyton, Lowestoft, Dunwich, and Orfordness—does not imply shelter alone or even buildings that merely provide shelter but is suggestive of a specific place where man, by being able to transcend the practical purposes of everyday living (shelter being just one of those), orientates naturally with his immediate environment. By this account, it is not difficult to read into the dystopic field of modernity, which contains the seeds of its own destruction, the melancholy absence of dwelling. Of the ruinous expanse between Woodbridge and the sea—now dotted with abandoned military installations—Sebald writes, “Time and again, as one walks across the wide plains, one passes barracks, gateways and fenced-off areas where, behind thin plantations of Scots pines, weapons are concealed in camouflaged hangars and grass-covered bunkers, the weapons with which, if an emergency should arise, whole countries and continents can be transformed into smoking heaps of stone and ash in no time” (227–28).

Similarly, as Sebald shows, the unheimlich (uncanny, or unhomely) stretch of Orfordness—resembling a Far-East penal colony—quickens the experience of place not as a location gathering the landscape around it into a simple oneness (what may be referred to as an instance of abiding wholeness, or what Heidegger would have called the unity of the fourfold) but as the terrible premonition of death and decay. As an erstwhile research facility of dubious import, together with its implication in a scopic regime of power and surveillance, Orfordness—the ruins of which come across not as sublime but as the quintessentially unheimlich—evokes the “technical-scientific objectivation” of man and nature alongside man in nature (Poetry 46).21 It is therefore that, to Sebald’s narrator, the abandoned buildings of Orfordness—some of which resembled temples or pagodas—on closer inspection appeared to be nothing other than the melancholy remains of an extinct civilization, one whose place on earth has been irrevocably lost.22 Such a place—as Heidegger would have conceivably averred—is destitute because it epitomizes the hubris of a political regime that, in its penchant for complete mastery over man and nature, proved destructive for both. This, certainly, is also the malady of the global and postglobal world where the tyranny of unbridled consumerism coupled with the unmitigated desire for control has led to the reification of man together with his experience of the world and his situatedness in it.23 [End Page 38]

Furthermore, the association of the unheimlich with Orfordness is explicitly established through the unlikely comparison of its conical buildings with prehistoric tombs of the mighty and the powerful. The anonymous “boffins” who inhabited such tomblike buildings, silently working to produce weapons for the state, were after all mere automatons (Rings 236). Just like the faceless women mechanically gutting and sorting dead herrings in a film from the narrator’s childhood,24 the boffins—in their palpable vulnerability to control and manipulation—stand in sharp contrast to those “buried in prehistoric times with all their tools and utensils, silver and gold.”25 It is instructive to note in this awkward juxtaposition of images the differential representativeness of death within the metastructure of human experience, for to a later generation, the site of Orfordness—together with its dilapidated contraptions and forgotten workforce—would likely be severed from any signification, haplessly committed to the perpetual ignominy of oblivion. Unsurprisingly, then, this is the real plight of dwelling—that man must, as Heidegger suggests, forever seek to understand the nature of dwelling; that in doing so he must forever learn to resist all external impositions on the human will to forget the essential nature of his being.26

Sebald’s enunciation of dwelling (and its absence) in Rings is thus developed around a few pivotal questions: Can the contemporary man be at home in the world? If so, then how? Is dwelling opposed to wandering in the same sense as, say, heimlich (the homely or familiar) is to unheimlich? What contributes to the failure of dwelling in the global or postglobal age? Contemporary man’s loss of place (and consequently, his failure to dwell or to be in the world) is intricately tied to a number of identifiable factors. Besides a pervading sense of homelessness that defines the general human condition in a trenchantly globalized world, the often implicit violence unleashed by contemporary technology—as Sebald’s narrator in Rings points out in the course of his wandering and narration—comprises the most substantial threat to human existence.27 By dissolving man’s ignorance into the magical crucible of metaphysics, technology produces an infinite surface of knowledge without depth, doing so at the cost of authentic knowledge (that is, the ontological truth) about the nature of man’s being. In this sense, modern technology—rather than “clearing” (Poetry 51) or “opening up” (44) the world28—causes it to retreat into the reductive two-dimensionality of a “productionist metaphysics” (Zimmerman 124).29 In Heidegger’s oeuvre, the term “metaphysics” generally bears a negative connotation as it suggests deep-seated assumptions within the metastructure of the Western episteme pertaining to the true nature of things. This position is reiterated by Young, who claims, “Metaphysics precludes dwelling because [End Page 39] it is, as it were, two-dimensional; it precludes ‘depth’” (195). The tyranny of metaphysics and scientific rationality is implicit in Sebald’s accounts of the herring and the silkworm moth, Bombyx mori;30 the tacit references to the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide; the dissection of Aris Kindt; the Mauritshuis in The Hague; and, of course, Orfordness. All of these—in one way or another—foreground a destructive obsession with exteriorizing, rejecting the “abyss” (Abgrund) for the impoverished infinity of the surface (Poetry 90).31 None of these subsume the fundamental principle of dwelling.

The nature of homelessness as it emerges in Rings brings us back to the initial question: whether or not man can dwell meaningfully in the world. But before engaging with Sebald’s representation of homelessness as the antithesis of dwelling, one may as well ponder briefly the nature of wandering that—counterintuitively and, at least in Rings—is much less an affirmation of (man’s) homelessness than the expression of a certain turning in toward the intelligibility of being. So, what does such turning in likely entail? In what ways does wandering contribute to the constructedness of being and its place in the world and how does it lead to dwelling? Interestingly, Sebald’s appraisal of being-in-the-world and wandering is routed through a complex web of associations (quite random at first appearance but subsequently much less so) linking the narrator; the writer Michael Hamburger, whom the narrator visits at the latter’s home in Suffolk; and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Interspersed in the text are references to Hölderlin’s verse and Hamburger’s translation of it. For instance, the narrator’s arrival in Hamburger’s village is preceded by the following reflection evocative of Hölderlin’s “Bread and Wine”: “Night, the astonishing, the stranger to all that is human, over the mountain-tops mournful and gleaming draws on” (173–74).32 The drift of Sebald’s thinking, his poetic wanderings across oneiric landscapes and rambling digressions, dissolve the reigning incongruity between disparate times and places bringing together people and events into the unity of their common ground. His reference to Hölderlin’s poetry is not accidental; in fact, Hölderlin’s verse—as Heidegger also pointed out—encases important clues as to the nature of dwelling in the world, or “poetic dwelling” (Poetry 215). For Heidegger, “The poetic is the basic capacity for human dwelling” (Poetry 226), and as Sebald so emphatically demonstrates in Rings—through the parallel worlds of Janine Dakyns and Michael Hamburger, for instance—“poetic dwelling” describes the dwelling of those who are at home in the world. While it may not point toward any specific location per se where man achieves dwelling in the world, nor any specific praxis that enables him to master his own presence and being-in-the-world, the provenance of poetic dwelling (as far as Rings is concerned) can [End Page 40] be traced to the sphere where the “Being of being” is preserved in its true nature. In Rings, the provenance of dwelling can be traced to the primordial desire of man to wander—to discover anew a common ground for existence in nature. A globalized world—as Sebald affirms (and as Heidegger prognosticated)—is a curious contradiction: one that banishes distance yet does not essentially heighten intimacy;33 one that stimulates (even obligates) movement yet does not reinforce freedom; and one that focuses on indiscriminate disclosure yet fails to acknowledge, in the process, the natural immeasurability of depth.

Sebald’s thesis, though not overtly philosophical, hinges on the problematic of being and dwelling. The act of wandering, one must note, is central to his thesis (and hence, to his discursive enunciation of being-in-the-world) insomuch as he proceeds to link it to the restoration of the dematerialized body of modernity.34 In this sense, wandering can be interpreted as a means (not the only one, however) whereby dwelling may be accomplished, a measure by which the unheimlich of homelessness is resolved into the heimlich of dwelling in the world. Although the issue of homelessness as such receives more unambiguous treatment elsewhere in Sebald’s work (for example, in The Emigrants and Austerlitz), in Rings it belongs to a far more liminal territory, never quite surfacing as a direct concern. Yet, homelessness pervades the narrative inasmuch as it signifies a state of nondwelling impelled not essentially by the experience of migration or exile. Concomitantly, the stories of individual lives that make up the narrative of Rings—unlike those of The Emigrants, for instance—are not about homelessness; instead, they only tacitly address it as a ubiquitous human condition characteristic of the contemporary time. Here, homelessness in its penury is the opposite of dwelling in its plenitude. Quite plausibly, Rings—through its endless repetition of circuitous routes—reiterates, above everything else, the real plight of dwelling: that man ”must ever learn to dwell” (Poetry 159).

The transition from homelessness to dwelling can also be alternatively interpreted as the crossing over from the domain of Erlebnis to that of Erfahrung.35 The predominance of Erlebnis (lived experience in the contemporary world) insinuates a destructive penchant for manipulable experiences—experiences more akin to “machination” (what Heidegger refers to as Machenschaft), those that can be infinitely reproduced by way of generating a superficial and objectified representation of things (Livingston 149). Such formulations are deficient in the sense that they are essentially informative in nature and merely so, which is also to say that their conceptualization as the objectified representation of the world tends to ignore the historical origin of experience per se. Ironically, Erlebnis—although most commonly thought of as lived experience—does not connect with life or [End Page 41] with man’s inner consciousness; instead, with its banal insistence on superficiality, it tends to devalue the true nature of man’s being-in-the-world. In Rings, Sebald further emphasizes the banality of Erlebnis as “the universal category of the ‘experienceable’” (Livingston 157) with the aid of images—black-and-white photographs—that punctuate the text. The relation of these images to the text is dubious at best since instead of corroborating the text, the images (at least, some) disregard the monumentality of the events described by rendering them universally graspable. Despite his engagement with the crises of modernity, Sebald seems hardly eager to speak for the silenced subjects of history and even less so to reduce human experience to any common denominator. For Erlebnis to become reconciled to the reassuring continuum of Erfahrung, the thrill of the hour (which is both prereflection and prethought) must resolve itself into the solidity of genuine experience.

In the global unworld, man is doomed to thrive in the totalizing domain of lived (or immediate) experience, severed from his inner consciousness or, to use Heidegger’s expression, his “ownmost being” (Being and Time 115). And if genuine experience can be taken to lead to ontological security, then Erfahrung, with its acknowledgment of the “inevitable belatedness of memory” (Jay 340) and a genuine zeal to “preserve an allegorical rather than symbolic relationship between past and present,” can veritably signal the actualization of dwelling.36 Sebald’s thesis in Rings is a reassuring gesture toward the possibility of the resolution of Erlebnis into Erfahrung, whereby contemporary man—redeemed in his nature and amidst nature—accomplishes dwelling in his capacity “to read the word ‘death’ without negation” (Poetry 122). As Sebald would have liked his readers to believe, this existential awareness of mortality—the express acknowledgment of which concludes his narrative—forms a coming home to one’s own being as dwelling.

Satarupa Sinha Roy

SATARUPA SINHA ROY <> is an early-career researcher. She received her doctorate in English Literature from the University of Calcutta, India. Her most recent publications include “From Sapore to Sapere: The Gustatory Perception of Elsewhere in Calvino’s ‘Under the Jaguar Sun’” (Antae, 2016) and “Unsettling Landscapes: Landscape and the Entelechies of the Alienating Gaze in Kipling’s The City of Dreadful Night” (Rupkatha, 2015). Her research interests include the writings of W. G. Sebald and travel literature.


1. These lines are from a late poem by Hölderlin which begins: “In lovely blueness blooms the steeple with metal roof.” Heidegger quotes these lines from Hellingrath’s edition of Hölderlin’s poetry (Poetry 211).

2. A building, from a mere architectural structure, becomes a dwelling only when its inhabitant feels at home, is at peace in it, experiences an “ontological security” in relation to it, and is there able to abide in oneness with the surrounding world (Young 189). Ontological dwelling (with which this essay is primarily concerned) is subjective and is thus different from existence, which connotes pure objective presence. [End Page 42]

3. In the architectural sense, such space is closer to Frank Lloyd Wright’s unfolding architecture as opposed to an enfolding one.

4. “Being” (or, is-ness) with a capital “B” is used in the current context to differentiate it from “being” (entity).

5. As Stambaugh informs us in her translator’s preface to Heidegger’s Being and Time, “It was Heidegger’s express wish that in future translations the word Da-sein should be hyphenated throughout Being and Time, a practice he himself instigated. . . . [so that] the reader will be less prone to assume he or she understands it to refer to ‘existence’ (which is the orthodox translation of Dasein) and with that translation surreptitiously bring along all sorts of psychological connotations” (xiv).

6. In Being and Time, Heidegger describes “Being” (while acknowledging, at the same time, its indefinability in terms of traditional logic), in the following words: “’Being’ is the self-evident concept. ‘Being’ is used in all knowing and predicating, in every relation to beings . . . and in every relation to oneself, and the expression is understandable ‘without further ado’” (3).

7. “Building Dwelling Thinking” was originally delivered as the 1951 lecture “Bauen Wohnen Denken” in the Darmstadt Colloquium II on “Man and Space.”

8. The photograph referred to here is without a caption, and although Sebald mentions Bergen-Belsen on page 59, neither the Holocaust nor the photograph is discussed at any length, the interrelation being purely implicit. As Long rightly observes, “the thematisation of the Holocaust in [Sebald’s] work goes hand in hand with a profound concern with the longer history of modernity” (Image 3).

9. Sebald’s pairing of the dead herrings with the corpses of Bergen-Belsen and his penetrating enunciation of Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson can be read as a trenchant critique of a disturbingly anthropocentric world view (Fuchs 167–83).

10. Heidegger writes, “The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home” (Poetry 43). Therefore, in the global unworld (Unwelt), the worlding of the world no longer takes place. According to Ziarek, in the “global unworld, humans come to be the undead—or, more precisely, the undying, no longer open to or capable of being towards death. They flee mortality not simply into religions or atheism, into moral stringency or relativism, into asceticism or pleasure, but also into the technicist visions of undying existence by way of perpetuated electronic downloads of consciousness and informational undeath” (226–27).

11. While the notions of “space” and “place” are often used interchangeably, it is important in the current context to remain alert to their intrinsic difference and also, paradoxically, their relatedness. Tuan summarizes both their difference and relatedness in the following [End Page 43] words: “In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. ‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ . . . The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause” (6).

12. For a detailed exposition of the notions of “dwelling” and “place” in Heidegger’s writing, see Young.

13. For Heidegger, technological production involves “formless formations” (Poetry 110)—a somewhat extreme objectification of the world leading to its final dissolution. He quotes from a letter of Rilke which sums up this very idea in its indictment of American materialism. Heidegger further writes: “In self-assertive production, the humanness of man and the thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value of a market which not only spans the whole earth as a world market, but also, as the will to will, trades in the nature of Being and thus subjects all beings to the trade of a calculation that dominates most tenaciously in those areas where there is no need of numbers” (Poetry 112).

14. The German word Heimat has no exact semantic equivalent in English. According to Peter Blickle, the idea of Heimat “unites geographic and imaginary conceptions of space” (1). Commenting on the difficulties of defining the term in other languages, Blickle notes: “The difficulties Heimat poses when it comes to describing its referent or referents become clear, however, when one puts the question to [native] German speakers. They tend to acknowledge at once that there is more than one Heimat—they know that the word has become a relative term—and yet, somewhat uneasily and without being able to define it exactly, they will admit to reserving a place for Heimat among such terms as self, I, love, need, body, or longing” (4).

15. Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960), Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Jean Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits (1966) are just a few examples.

16. According to Heidegger, man is at home—that is, he dwells “on earth, under the sky, before the divinities,” and among mortals: those “capable of death as death” (Poetry 148). The fourfold refers to the underlying unity of earth, sky, divinities, and mortals. “This simple oneness of the four,” writes Heidegger, “we call the fourfold. Mortals are in the fourfold by dwelling.”

17. This is different from the notion of Erlebnis discussed subsequently in this essay. In the current context, the lived experience of the body refers to one’s experience of one’s own subjectivity and not to the shock experiences of everyday life that Erlebnis originally involves.

18. In the current context, I personally prefer the word “atypical” to “deviant” mainly because the former does away with the moralistic intelligence often associated with the latter. Sebald’s characterization of Casement, as this essay suggests, is less concerned with the [End Page 44] analysis of any aberration in the fundamental character of Casement’s being than it is with the exploration of Casement himself as a marginal figure, his marginality being an unfortunate yet conventional function of his sexuality.

19. Heidegger goes on to add, “Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings; railway stations and highways, dams and market halls are built, but they are not dwelling places” (Poetry 143). As Heidegger suggests and Sebald seems to imply, dwelling neither presupposes nor abides by the logic of built structures alone. Just as not all houses are homes, similarly not all buildings are dwellings.

20. Heidegger’s formulation of the notion of building is structured in terms of a “letting dwell” or a “letting-appear” (Poetry 157). He characterizes the nature of building in the following words: “Building accomplishes its nature in the raising of locations by the joining of their spaces. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.”

21. Heidegger attributes man’s alienation from place (and, by extension, his inability to dwell) to the “technical-scientific objectivation” of nature (Poetry 46). According to Heidegger the functional aspect of technology is its revealing nature, which threatens to upset the natural balance between man and his immediate environment. Warning against the dangers of the overuse of technology, Heidegger writes, “It [technology] causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction. This destruction may herald itself under the appearance of mastery and of progress in the form of the technical-scientific objectivation of nature, but this mastery nevertheless remains an impotence of will” (45–46).

22. One is but tempted to read into this unusual description of abandoned buildings the antithesis of Heidegger’s Greek temple (see Poetry 40–41). However, the so-called “temples and pagodas”—echoing Hölderlin—are empty and godless and, in their deceptive likeness to the site that presides over the unity of the fourfold, are merely sterile symbols devoid of any signification. See especially Hölderlin’s “Patmos,” which, according to Richard Sieburth, is the poet’s “greatest meditation on the deus absconditus” (20–21).

23. Such reification of experience consists in Benjamin’s notion of everyday lived experience, or Erlebnis. Benjamin explores the dialectic between the two forms of experience—namely, Erlebnis and Erfahrung—in the Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940. For Benjamin, Erlebnis encompasses the everyday, inchoate experience of the world that precedes reflection, whereas Erfahrung—with its suggestion of mobility, journey (from the German verb fahren, meaning to travel or drive), and adventure (from the German noun Gefahr, meaning danger)—refers to the shared discourse of experience that, because it can be reflected on, is also specifically communicable. However, even though the notion of Erlebnis, or the mundane experiences of the worker—Chockerlebnis, or the “shock-experience” experienced by the “passer-by” in the crowd, being its [End Page 45] cognate (Benjamin, Art 160)—according to Walter Benjamin embody the crisis of modernity, he does acknowledge that Erlebnis, under certain conditions, may transmute into Erfahrung—as exemplified, for example, by Baudelaire’s lyric poetry.

24. In Sebald, the unheimlich can often be seen to align with Freud’s formulation of the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (123–24).

25. In Heidegger’s view, “What threatens man in his very nature is the view that technological production puts the world in order, while in fact this ordering is precisely what levels every ordo, every rank, down to the uniformity of production, and thus from the outset destroys the realm from which any rank and recognition could possibly arise” (Poetry 114). In Rings, Sebald’s narrator assumes a similar position in his circuitous critique of modernity’s ostentatious engagement with technology.

26. The global unworld is characterized by a ubiquitous “oblivion of Being” (see Poetry 93 and 182–83; see also Letter 257–58 and 262) brought about by man’s subservience to and his ever-increasing dependence on modern technology to the extent that the subjective experience of space and time is no longer possible without making way for its disintegration into mere lived experience (or Erlebnis).

27. In machine technology, as Heidegger indicates, the object disappears into information. He further suggests, “The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth” (Question 28; emphasis added).

28. Heidegger originally used the German word Lichtung (clearing), as in an open space, a clearing in the midst of a forest. Alternatively, “clearing” can also be taken to connote both “to illuminate” as well as “to accommodate harmoniously.” Similarly, “opening up” is defined by Heidegger as an act of “deconcealing” through which the “truth of beings” becomes apparent (Poetry 38). He further expands on this idea to convey a sense of liberation: “By the opening up of a world, all things gain their lingering and hastening, their remoteness and nearness, their scope and limits” (44).

29. Zimmerman explores the complex relationship between human self-hood and modern technology in the works of Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Spinosa. “Dreyfus/Spinosa,” writes Zimmerman, “interpret the emergence of modern technology in accordance with Heidegger’s view that the West’s productionist metaphysics inevitably ends in the era of technological nihilism, when the human subject and its object alike are transformed into flexible raw material for the technological system” (124). [End Page 46]

30. Sebald refers to one Josef von Hazzi’s treatise on sericulture, published in 1826, soon after the collapse of the silk industry in Germany where Hazzi (as Sebald informs us) associates the failure of the silk industry with “authoritarian management” that “endeavours to create state monopolies, and an administrative system which buried any entrepreneurial spirit under a quite risible pile of regulations” (Rings 290). Long describes this as the Foucauldian “exercise of disciplinary power” concerned with rendering bodies “docile” in space (14). According to Long, “Bodies can be rendered docile by voluntary submission to explicit regulations, but in disciplinary power, such regulations are bolstered by a series of other techniques that include the distribution of bodies in space; constant surveillance, observation, registration and examination; and the consequent accumulation of a vast documentary apparatus bearing information about individuals.”

31. “In the age of the world’s night,” writes Heidegger, “the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured” (Poetry 90). The abyss, even though it signifies an absence of ground, presents itself as the seeking of the limitless possibilities of being.

32. David Constantine’s translation of the poem reads, “The astonishing night, the foreigner among humans, lifts / Over mountains, sadly, in glory, shining” (36). Cooke draws our attention to the similarity between the semantic structure of Sebald’s reflection and Hölderlin’s original verse (166–67).

33. Commenting on the paradoxical nature of the modern, technologically advanced world, Heidegger writes, “[T]he frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance. . . . Short distance is not in itself nearness. Nor is great distance remoteness” (Poetry 163).

34. A definite precursor of this would be the body of Aris Kindt—the subject of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, of which Sebald provides an extensive reading in Rings. Sebald’s reading of The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis engages critically with Cartesian rationalism, which legitimized the viewing of the human body as nothing more than a mechanical device. In realizing the shift in focus from discipline to control, globalization nourishes dominions of containment and regimentation that, in turn, reflect the unworld of modern technology.

35. The terms Erlebnis and Erfahrung convey different yet related notions of experience. According to Jay, Erlebnis may be described as “lived experience” which “is often taken to imply a primitive unity prior to any differentiation or objectification” (11). The term Erfahrung, on the other hand, “can have a more public, collective character” (12). Notably, within the narrative context of Rings, the notion of Erfahrung is reminiscent of Kant’s conceptualization of experience as a journey over time that may also be articulated as a holistic narrative of man’s coming to be or dwell in the world. Also see endnote 23.

36. For an insightful exposition of Benjamin’s conceptualization of Erfahrung, see Jay, especially chapter 8 (312–60). [End Page 47]

Works Cited

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Blickle, Peter. Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland. Rochester: Camden House, 2002.
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Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” 1919. Trans. Alix Strachey. On Creativity and the Unconscious: The Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, and Religion. Ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper, 1958. 122–61.
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Young, Julian. “What Is Dwelling? The Homelessness of Modernity and the Worlding of the World.” Wrathall and Malpas 187–203. [End Page 48]
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