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3 Anselm Kiefer’s Lot’s Wife: Perspective and the Place of the Spectator Sebald and Sodom In his narrative poem After Nature, W. G. Sebald describes a photograph of his parents, taken in a public garden in Germany on August 26, 1943. This photograph is the first entry in a chronicle that leads forward to a story of his own origins and backward to the hallucinatory interruption of an early modern painting: On the 27th Father’s departure for Dresden, of whose beauty his memory, as he remarks when I question him, retains no trace. During the night of the 28th 582 aircraft flew in to attack Nürnberg. Mother, who on the next day planned to return to her parents’ home in the Alps, got no further than Fürth. From there she saw Nürnberg in flames, but cannot recall now what the burning town looked like or what her feelings were at this sight. On the same day, she told me recently, PAGE 76 76 ................. 16422$ $CH3 04-17-07 12:51:24 PS Anselm Kiefer’s Lot’s Wife 77 from Fürth she had travelled on to Windsheim and an acquaintance at whose house she waited until the worst was over, and realized that she was with child. As for the burning city, in the Vienna Art-Historical Museum there hangs a painting by Altdorfer depicting Lot with his daughters. On the horizon a terrible conflagration blazes devouring a large city. Smoke ascends from the site, the flames rise to the sky and in the blood-red reflection one sees the blackened façades of houses. In the middle ground there is a strip of idyllic green landscape, and closest to the beholder’s eye the new generation of Moabites is conceived. When for the first time I saw this picture the year before last, I had the strange feeling of having seen all of it before, and a little later, crossing to Floridsdorf on the Bridge of Peace, I nearly went out of my mind.1 Lot’s wife is absent from this passage, as from the painting by Altdorfer it describes, or so it seems (plate 5). This absence, according to a logic now familiar, is not absolute, and the principle of destructive spectatorship embodied by Lot’s wife is essential to the poem. Altdorfer, like Artaud’s cherished mannerist painter long thought to be Lucas van Leyden, and like Corot, represents what Lot’s wife cannot see: the destruction of the cities. If the painting reveals the sight of the burning cities, a spectacle available only to imaginative retrospection, Sebald’s poem represents a retrospection that has erased the memory of the sight. Sebald establishes a pattern of seeing and forgetting. His father has no memory of the beauties of Dresden, his mother has no memory PAGE 77 ................. 16422$ $CH3 04-17-07 12:51:24 PS 78 Forgetting Lot’s Wife of Nürnberg in flames. In a pattern familiar to post–World War II German culture, the parents’ failure of—or resistance to—memory leaves the child with what one can mildly call, following Freud, a ‘‘disturbance of memory.’’2 Sebald recalls his parents’ experiences by recalling Genesis 19; he recalls the biblical passage through the experience of the women in the story. In the poem’s figural logic, his mother is an amalgam of Lot’s wife, who looks back at the burning city, and Lot’s daughters, who, in the aftermath of catastrophe, conceive races who will bear their burdens.3 By the same figural logic, Sebald himself appears as a Moabite, cursed by the circumstances of his birth. Altdorfer’s painting takes the place of memory. Just as the logic of memory is disturbed here, so the logic of Sebald’s poem moves, not ungrammatically but also not exactly logically, from ‘‘Nürnberg in flames’’ to the painting by Altdorfer. ‘‘As for the burning city . . .’’: this clause might lead to discussion of the wreckage of Nürnberg but, instead, Sebald moves to a description of the destruction of the city in Altdorfer’s painting. What is this burning city? Nürnberg, Dresden, Sodom? The shifting referent recalls the logic of my last chapter: every city is, potentially, Sodom. The selective retelling of Genesis 19 also recalls Artaud, who, like Sebald, describes the burning city in a painting of Lot and his daughters as though he does not know the city’s name and, also like Sebald...


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