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MLN 121.3 (2006) 699-719
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On the Repeating History of Destruction:
Media and the Index in Sebald and Ransmayr
In his essay collection from 1999 Luftkrieg und Literatur (On the Natural History of Destruction in the English translation), W.G. Sebald addresses a decisive gap he sees in the chronicles on destruction in the twentieth century.1 The mass annihilation of German cities by Allied air raids in World War II was a catastrophe of epic proportion, he claims, that has never crossed the threshold of sensory understanding. Bolstering his argument with the words of Alexander Kluge, Sebald concludes with the historian that "[d]ie in der Geschichte bis dahin einzigartige [End Page 699] Vernichtungsaktion . . . ist nie zu einer öffentlich lesbaren Chiffre geworden" (12).2
Throughout the essays, Sebald further elaborates on his central thesis that the lack of overt, legible signs is the real tragedy of the air raids.3 In fact, for him the material destruction of German cities by the British bombers was only marginally as destructive as the German post-war culture that met the ruins with silence rather than speech, with blindness rather than vision, and with denial rather than conscious reflection, a culture that thereby successfully eliminated all readable traces of the annihilation. This erasure played out on multiple levels of the post-war German landscape. The thriving German work ethic, Sebald claims, quickly covered over the visible signs of destruction by rebuilding the destroyed cities; similarly, the post-war German culture of shame and self-censorship (one borne of the sheer shock and trauma of experiencing such destruction) prevented conscious and public acknowledgment of the loss at the psychological level. Finally and most significantly, Sebald concludes, the post-war literary culture completed the liquidation of the past by blocking speech itself: it responded to the events either with complete silence or with accounts so tainted by political, economic, and personal motivations that they failed to provide, and in fact even obstructed, an adequate understanding of the destruction.
According to Sebald's arguments, the gap in the sensory landscape of post-war Germany is ultimately a product of the post-war representations themselves. In his essays, Sebald uses repeated references to sources such as Kluge to argue how the few existing accounts conceal rather than expose the impact of the events. Whether they are comprised [End Page 700] of first-hand sources—such as statistical accounts, British video footage, photographs or memoirs of survivors—or whether they are after-the-fact reconstructions of the events in historical and literary representations, the accounts cover the past atrocities with a subversive erasure of their own. Substituting direct acknowledgement with undecipherable abstractions, these representations complete the erasure of the past and thus perpetuate the cycle of destruction. The essays in Luftkrieg und Literatur present this drive to rebuild and thereby to erase and to silence not only as paradigmatic for the firestorms but indeed for all of World War II's destruction.4 Calling the air war "[ein] Krieg in purer, unverhohlener Form" (27), Sebald suggests that all annihilation in and following war subscribes to the same form. The pattern exhibited in the material destruction that reduced German cities to mere ash and stone reverberates in the rapid reconstruction that destroyed visible signs of the ruins by quickly covering over the rubble. This selfsame cycle of destruction recurs in the representations of the events themselves: they obscure the ruins with new forms that are, however, mere ciphers and in and of themselves unreadable.5
In Sebald's essays, the repeating "form" of destruction is more than the mere object of his rebuke on the silent gaps in literature. In fact, Sebald performs this very act of literary erasure through the repeated references to the destructive representations. Continually pointing to and citing from the unreadable ciphers in a wide range of media, Sebald ultimately uses the references themselves to comment on the forms of destruction as well as to demonstrate and to perpetuate the continuing cycle of...