- Reading, Walking, Mourning:W. G. Sebald's Peripatetic Fictions
The melancholy fictions of Bavarian-born W. G. Sebald have been described in the terms Walter Benjamin used to convey the effect of reading Proust: "all great works [of literature] found a new genre or dissolve an old one" (Wood, 273). In four literary texts blending memoir, travel narrative, fiction and inventory, accompanied by the "evocative, gloomy photographs" that are his trademark (Schwartz, 8 of 18), Sebald investigates the European past—its landscapes and literature, archives and survivors—in a haunting testament to the unregarded labors of dissolution. In this essay I want to explore Sebald's fictional wanderings with reference to another thinker who, like Sebald, founded a genre in the process of dissolving the parameters of the known, and declared history not to reside in documents and remembered themes but to be written on and by the body whose singular fragility allows the fiction of a common language. This thinker is Jacques Lacan, whose commitment to tracing affect in the form of jouissance or pleasurable suffering through the narrative frameworks of subjectivity—these he calls imaginary or fantasy—to its ends in death forms, like Sebald's fictions, a circular structure mourning an object that is never named, because that object is the subject itself once its affections fail to save it: a lost cause.
Lacan and Sebald might seem a strange combination. Yet Lacan is a consciously literary thinker and Sebald is a writer intimately attuned to the [End Page 304] human suffering that constitutes the psychoanalyst's daily work. Both are fascinated by what language fails to capture as it incorporates the human organism into the field of social meaning, and both take trauma, an instance of profound dislocation, as the structural first cause of subjectivity and history. Exiled from the world of instinctual satisfaction that marks the animal domain, humanity becomes, in both thinkers, burdened with the weight of a history that is unknowable directly but lays down an archive, within each life, of sensations, transmutations and missed encounters (Lacan, 53–64; Gallagher, 11). Manifesting as habits of thinking and being, these missed encounters, belated instances of recognition of a pattern to behavior or a larger meaning, attest to the signifier's passage across the body, severing us from simple need and rendering each impulse—to read, to speak, to write, to wander—alive with unmasterable meanings.
"A [literary] work can never take as its subject the question that sustains it," Maurice Blanchot claims (2003, 201). But nor can it cease to give itself away, to current and future readers, by virtue of that active internal difference that escapes the writer and whose fugitive trace marks the work as the writer's. This strangeness, an inestimable originality of style that the writer herself can only dimly perceive in her work, if at all, is in fact what tethers a writer to history, the sign of her unique unbelonging, the need to come to terms with, and guess at, the temper of the age. This unbelonging is very pronounced in Sebald. He makes the familiar strange with oblique topic angles and long stretches of pedestrian and associative digression, and the strange familiar through his narratives' and characters' eccentricity. As Geoff Dyer notes:
It is the trembling, the perpetual uncertainty, the hovering on the edge of infinitely tedious regress (a yawning chasm so to speak), that generate the peculiar suspense—the sense, more exactly of suspended narration—that makes Sebald's writing so compelling . . . Like The Emigrants, [The Rings of Saturn] held one's interest constantly because any clue as to what was going to make the book work always seemed likely to be hidden in the least interesting passages, the passages one was most tempted to skim. The reader was thereby forced to attend (in every sense) with a [End Page 305] patience-straining diligence that proceeded in tandem with the narrator's weary tramping through the Suffolk lowlands.(1 of 18)
It is this opening up of the reading experience to the peculiar lostness of the wanderer through alien landscapes, where we don't know which signs may turn out to be...