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  • Sterne, Sebald, and Siege Architecture
  • Jonathan Lamb (bio)

I want to begin with some typical reactions to calamity and ruin. First of all, or at least what is first noticeable to readers of scenes of unparalleled horror and destruction, is the failure of language adequately to express what has happened or what it is like to experience an incomprehensible event. Here for instance is H.F., alleged historian of the Plague Year of 1665: "It is impossible to say any thing that is able to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this: that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such as no tongue can express."1 The same embarrassment of language in the face of an immeasurable phenomenon occurs frequently in voyage literature and in the utopias that derive from it, often as a sidelong invitation to the reader to engage with the sublime. But in respect of pestilence, war, starvation, and death, the drumbeat never alters and words seem to attest only to their own futility. The anonymous woman, whose memoir of the first eight weeks of the fall and occupation of Berlin was recently republished, pauses in her account of being raped again and again, to say simply, "Poor words, you do not suffice."2 When Robinson Crusoe sees his one chance of human company lost in the wreck of the Spanish ship on the reef near his [End Page 21] island, not even memory can supplement his inarticulate grief: "I cannot explain by any possible energy of words, what a strange longing or hankering of desires I felt in my soul upon this sight."3

Perhaps it is the familiarity of reactions to what is in itself utterly unfamiliar that prompts W.G. Sebald to be wary of eyewitness testimony of ruin as being inexact and trite: "The reality of total destruction, incomprehensible in its extremity, pales when described in such stereotypical phrases as 'a prey to the flames,' 'that fateful night,' 'all hell was let loose,' 'we were staring into the inferno,' and so on and so forth. Their function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend."4 Sebald makes this point about the language of eyewitnesses in his On the Natural History of Destruction, where he is trying to explain why the reality of the total destruction of German cities by allied bombing never became present to the minds of postwar Germans. He cites Hermann Kasack's The City beyond the River (1947) as an example of what went wrong, a narrative in which bomber squadrons are referred to as "the teeming messengers of death."5 Sebald makes a point that extends well beyond the literature of the Second World War. Nothing is more typical of H.F.'s eyewitness testimony of the plague than a certain formal or automatic extravagance in figuring it. Thus the pestilence came upon the people of London "like an armed man" (120), "Death now began not, as we may say, to hover over every one's head only, but to look into their houses, and chambers, and stare in their faces" (34). To stay in London at this time, declares H.F., was like "charging Death it self on his pale horse" (236). In his memoir of four appalling years in a German regiment on the Western Front in the First World War, In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel), Ernst Jünger uses the same language: "Death with his steel club assaulted our trenches," "Death loomed up expectantly between us," "I had felt Death's hand once before ... but this time his grip was more and more determined."6 And so on, and so forth.

W.G. Sebald and J.M. Coetzee might be regarded as the most thoughtful writers about devastation and suffering during the last twenty years. They have both agreed that the solution to the problem of clichés uttered in the presence of extreme circumstances is to clear [End Page 22] away trite metaphors and personifications and to cultivate instead an austere language, stripped down and fit to deliver things as they are. After all, as Sebald points out, "facts...


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