- The Neobaroque in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:The Recovery of Open Totality Countering Poststructuralism
In its opening sentence, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn innocuously presents itself as the retrospective account of a leisurely and picturesque walking tour: “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work” (3). Yet the impression of light distraction is quickly dispersed when, within the first few pages, the skull of English baroque prose writer Sir Thomas Browne comes up by way of an extended scholarly digression. Anchored in local interest—Browne made a living practicing as a medical doctor in Norwich and was buried there—Sebald’s digression opens out to a vast universe of references: Browne’s medical studies on the Continent, including in Leiden, lead to an imaginary scene picturing the anatomy lesson in 1632 in Amsterdam that Rembrandt portrayed in Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a lesson at which, Sebald’s narrator speculates, Browne would have been present. An ekphrastic description follows, concluding with an analysis of Rembrandt’s painting as a covert critique of the “Cartesian rigidity” underpinning modern medicine, as well as of the state violence it is complicit with by taking advantage of the corpse of a petty thief executed shortly before (17). [End Page 683]
Such startling links, across time and space as well as genre, make up the narrative warp and woof in The Rings of Saturn. Part documentary, part fiction, at once a personal memoir, travel literature, a photographic essay, and a wide-ranging and learned cultural history, The Rings of Saturn is a genre-bending narrative that attempts nothing less than a deconstructive critique, and reconstructive poetics, of modernity in the age of globalization. Recalling an aerial view of landscape seen on a flight to England from Amsterdam, Sebald’s narrator envisions contemporary human life on a global scale as “networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine” (91). Sebald’s project in The Rings of Saturn is to recover a vision of open totality for the twenty-first century, after the postmodern and poststructuralist critique of totalization and its celebration of multiplicity, difference, and fragmentation. A number of Sebald critics, including J. J. Long and Eric L. Santner, have discussed the critique of modernity as the centerpiece of Sebald’s work.1 This essay examines the unique, genre-defying model of encyclopedism and universalism presented in The Rings of Saturn, a model at once postdeconstructionist and postpositivist. It is a picture of social totality that is at once carefully localized and uncompromisingly global, equally presentist and historically probing, and one that blends documentary and fictional elements. It is notable that Rings of Saturn fulfills the definition of historical realism according to Georg Lukács: every significant figure in Rings of Saturn is anchored at a precise location within a complex and clearly articulated historical and geographic network. At the same time, Rings of Saturn repeatedly invokes the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, celebrated—like Browne—for his encyclopedic learning, as well as for his fantastic tales that deconstruct the boundary between reality and fiction. In the following, I argue that the neobaroque—the twentieth-and twenty-first-century recovery of the seventeenth-century baroque—provides Sebald with a model for Rings of Saturn’s critical globalism and the inspiration for the bold continuities forged across distances of space, time, and discipline that make [End Page 684] up its encyclopedic poetics. Specific conduits are the work of English baroque writer Sir Thomas Browne as well as the early modern Wunderkammer, or Kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosities), the predecessor of the modern museum.
The Neobaroque: An Alternative Modernity beyond the Logic of Rupture
At first reading, The Rings of Saturn seems a conventional postmodern novel. Its fragmentary form, its labyrinthine narrative and intertextual allusions, and its invocations of Borges’s metafiction questioning the difference between the real and the textual are all hallmarks of postmodern...