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Shakespearean Vertigo: W. G. Sebald's Lear

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 1, Winter 2010
pp. 1-24 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0012

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In "Campo Santo" (2003), a posthumously published account of a visit to Corsica, W. G. Sebald ambles through a graveyard near Piana, meditating on the inscriptions:

Regrets éternels—like almost all phrases in which we express our feelings for those who have gone before, it is not without ambiguity, for not only does the announcement of the everlasting inconsolability of the bereaved confine itself to the absolute minimum, it also sounds, if one stops to consider it, almost like an admission to the dead of guilt, a halfhearted request for forbearance made to those laid in the earth before their time.

While Sebald is ostensibly referring to the dead in the hallowed ground of the Corsican cemetery, these sentences capture much of Sebald's attitude toward his own artistic forebears. Usually Sebald identifies them—Chateaubriand, Conrad, Grünewald, Kafka, Nabokov, Stendhal, among others—and invokes them with a devotion worthy of saintly figures. It is as though he were performing commemorative rites for his favorite authors, bringing the past into the present by an act of literary mimesis. In Die Ringe des Saturn (1995), for example, he honors Sir Thomas Browne by imitating his digressive and erudite approach to patterns of cultural and natural decay and by showing a photograph of his purported skull. At other times, Sebald engages with the biographies of his chosen exemplars. In Nach der Natur (1988) we experience Matthias Grünewald's anguish as he paints the Isenheim altarpiece. In Die Ringe des Saturn we ride in the young Joseph Conrad's sleigh into exile, and we tour the abodes of Edward Fitzgerald. Cameo appearances abound: in Die Ausgewanderten (1993) a man with a butterfly net darts by, and we believe we have glimpsed Nabokov. These literary acts of homage distinguish Sebald's approach to exemplarity. Adapting Sebald's remark about the names on the gravestones near Piana, we might describe his exemplars as "messengers from a distant world devised by our higher yearnings, visiting this one only for a brief guest appearance." They descend into his poetry and prose in quasiangelic visitation, troubling the waters of temporality, swirling the past into the present. As Martin Swales puts it, "Sebald acknowledges that past [Herkunft] with no secure sense of exorcism. The past cannot be laid to rest."

Yet, occasionally, Sebald does lay the past to rest, reversing his usual practice of conjuring a world haunted by ghosts. In these instances, he shies away from resurrecting his forefathers, as though he wished to cultivate the ambivalent feelings betrayed by the phrase regrets éternels—a halfhearted profession of inconsolability prompted by guilty malaise. In the case of Shakespeare, for example, Sebald performs mourning rites that safely transfer his troubling presence into the past. The anthropological distinction between commemorative and mourning rites is one that Sebald himself brings to our attention in an early essay on the German playwright Herbert Achternbusch (1988), citing "Le temps retrouvé," the penultimate chapter of Claude Lévi-Strauss's La Pensée Sauvage (1962): "Lévi-Strauss has drawn attention to the crucial difference between mourning rites and historical rites. Historical rites bring the past into the present. . . . Mourning rites on the other hand take the present into the past." As Lévi-Strauss explains, "The commemorative or historical rites recreate the sacred and beneficial atmosphere of mythical times . . . mirroring its protagonists and their great deeds. The mourning rites . . . assure the conversion of men who are no longer living men into ancestors." Disentwining historical and mourning rites in Sebald's oeuvre is difficult, given Sebald's melancholy conviction that history needs to be mourned. However, one mourning rite—the adoption ceremony described by Lévi-Strauss—shows how the dead are converted into ancestors and reduced to harmless memories.

As Lévi-Strauss explains, the aim of adoption rites is "to make the soul of the deceased finally decide to go where it will take on the role of a protecting spirit." The fear is that the deceased might be dangerous. Sebald describes the Corsicans' dread: "They [the dead] were not regarded as beings forever at a safe distance in the world beyond the grave, but as family members still present, although...



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