MLN 121.3 (2006) 563-581
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A Natural History of Destruction:
W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a scientific and philosophical revolution that discarded the closed cosmos determined by a hierarchy of values and saturated by a dense web of meanings for the rationalist and scientific embrace of a devalued world of facts. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald rediscovers those sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists, thinkers, and authors such as Albrecht Dürer, Thomas Browne, and Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, who tease the older saturation of meaning out of new rationalist or theoretical approaches, thereby pointing to the lack and insufficiency of mere reason, or who, as Stanley Fish suggests for Thomas Browne's case, artfully employ the "machinery of reason" as "the vehicle of its own abandonment."1 In his attempt to likewise eclipse the bleak light that rationalism has cast on reality, dissecting the anatomy of a world reduced to the schema and the grid, and to tone down the narrative of progress embraced by those who believed they left the age of darkness for enlightened analysis, Sebald reexamines the baroque awareness of human infirmity and transience in a world changing according to unknown designs and rediscovers allegorical indirection as perhaps the more appropriate, if also more fantastic and more fallible approach to the labyrinthine truths of reality.2 Realism, Sebald stated in [End Page 563] an interview, can only function when it "points beyond itself—that is, when it envelops mysterious facets." He continued, "the realistic text has to venture into allegorical narrative."3 The Rings of Saturn explores such allegorical realism with a continual reference to the codes and numbers that for pre-rationalist thought could offer direct access to a hidden reality. Thus, an exhaustive discussion of Sir Thomas Browne's The Garden of Cyrus and Hydriotaphia: or Urn-Burial—treatises that were jointly published in 1658 and, akin to Sebald's own technique of digressive association, set up the contrast between life and death, stability and volatility as nexus,4 forging oddities, rarities, and the mutually exclusive into unexpected links sustained by a highly digressive and involved rhetoric—provides the frame for the apparently incidental reference to an episode from the sixth book of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's picaro novel Der Abentheurliche Simplicissimus Teutsch (1668).
In the sixth book or the so-called Continuatio, Simplicius encounters Baldanders, an imaginary figure whom Sebald's narrator professes to have come across in Borges Libro de los seres imaginarios. The figure's complex allegorical and poetological nature, however, secured Baldanders a fame in Grimmelshausen criticism that the critic Sebald must have been aware of. Personifying the mutability of all worldly concerns, Baldanders can assume just about any form and shape, be it that of a writer, a pig, dung, a flower, a mulberry tree, or a silken rug. Simplicius first encounters him as a life-size statue with the air of an old German hero and clad like a soldier. The military appearance points to the fact that the vicissitudes of Simplicius' turbulent life are set during the Thirty Years War, that he himself serves as a soldier, and that Grimmelshausen's novel reconsiders the general contemporary concern with transience specifically for times of war. In fact, Simplicissimus Teutsch can also be read as a war novel5 and Sebald's many references to warfare and strife in the Rings of Saturn take up this thread: the airwar (52, 232), the atrocities during World War II [End Page 564] (80, 121–122), the Anglo-Dutch navel wars of the seventeenth century (94–96), the disastrous destructions of World War I (116–119), the battle of Waterloo (150–152), the fights for Irish liberation (159 and 256–257), the uprising of the Taiping and the opium war in China (169–176), and the Cold War (276). Just as the remnants of Cold War military institutions strike Sebald's first-person narrator as if they were an ancient temple or pagoda (282...