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  • The Angel's Enigmatic Eyes, or The Gothic Beauty of Catastrophic History in W. G. Sebald's "Air War and Literature"
  • Julia Hell

I have drunk too deep of the black blood of the dead.

Jules Michelet

W. G. Sebald thought of his 1997 lectures on "Air War and Literature" as his essay on poetics. These lectures first attained a certain notoriety because of Sebald's assault on postwar authors for having turned Germany's bombed-out cities into a "terra incognita."1 For those of us interested in Sebald's own authorship, the lectures merit attention for a different reason: they include a passage on the aftermath of the bombing raids on Hamburg in 1943 authored by Sebald himself. This passage, Sebald's own literary text on the bombings, tells us about the central concerns and constitutive conflicts of Sebald's postwar authorship. I explore here the question of Sebald's authorship by focusing on the Hamburg part of the lectures, but taking as my point of departure the iconic image, Benjamin's angel of history, that Sebald evokes at the conclusion of his lectures.

I am certainly not proposing yet another reading of Sebald through the lens of Benjamin; on the contrary, I would like to find out what this cultural icon of the (academic) Left—by now so worn out, so terribly fatigued—might be glossing over, if not concealing. At stake in this political-aesthetic repetition with a difference is the angel's "enigmatic gaze" and the anxieties about what this gaze might be confronting.2 In "Air War and Literature" Benjamin's angel allegorically embodies a theory of history (Sebald's natural history of destruction), it thematizes a political project (to look at and make visible what has been hidden from view: the burnt bodies in the streets of bombed-out German cities), and it symptomatically expresses the aporias of an aesthetic project that involves the confrontation, if not fascination, with what was hidden. Sebald's angel thematizes at [End Page 361] once the author's/historian's gaze, the object of that gaze, and the representation of both object and gaze—and thus helps us to reflect on Sebald's dictum that the aesthetic representation of catastrophic history demands a "synoptic and artificial view" (AL, 26). Sebald's angel takes us right to the core of questions about how literature writes history, questions of mediation and immediacy, of distance and immersion, of knowledge and desire—and thereby to the very core of fantasies of reenactment.3

The Gothic Imaginary of Postfascist Germany: History as Catastrophe, or Benjamin's "Luckless Angel"

"We see railroad tracks somewhere and inevitably think of Auschwitz," Anselm Kiefer once remarked.4 When Gunter von Hagen brought his BodyWorlds to Berlin in 2001, he chose an abandoned train station as the site for his exhibit. The "plastinated" corpses were carefully aligned along old railroad tracks. With this particular arrangement, von Hagen tapped into the visual archive of post-Holocaust Germany, one of mass murder and destruction, and mobilized a gaze with very specific historical memories, desires, and anxieties.5 Exhibited in a German train station, BodyWorlds inevitably partakes in a psychosymbolic order that makes the aestheticized display of dead bodies more than just a scientific exhibit for the lay public.6

In von Hagen's BodyWorlds we take a walk among the dead. This is a rudimentary plot structure that we find again and again in the (post)war period, from Sartre's Les jeux sont faits (written 1943; filmed 1947), Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1949), and Hans Erich Nossack's "Orpheus und . . ." (1946) to Heiner Müller's "Bildbeschreibung" (Explosion of a Memory, 1985) and Wolfgang Hilbig's Alte Abdeckerei (Knacker's Yard, 1989). In this text, Hilbig's protagonist stumbles across abandoned railroad tracks, endlessly circling around an eerie, decrepit place, the ruin of a former slaughterhouse, now Germania II, which disappears from the earth in an apocalyptic scene of baroque dimensions. In this postfascist nightmare, people flee across a land consisting of mass graves, across a leaden soil littered with bones thrown up by plows; their language is one of "vowelskulls" and "consonantbones."7

Sebald too confronts...


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