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  • Moths, Photographs, And Emigrants:The Capacity For Transmigration In The Work Of W. G. Sebald
  • Doris Chon (bio)

And since the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature, Browne scrutinizes that which has escaped annihilation for any sign of the mysterious capacity for trans-migration he has so often observed in caterpillars and moths. That purple piece of silk he refers to, then, in the urn of Patroclus—what does it mean?

—W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1995)

Silk is a theme that weaves throughout W. G. Sebald's photograph-lined book The Rings of Saturn.1 However the specificity of its ritual uses in funerary practice arises but twice in the phototextual narrative of a walking tour through the East Anglian countryside of England, at the conclusion of the first and last sections of the book. The purple funerary silk and black mourning ribbons described in these sections remain outstanding because they draw the reader's attention to how this inimitable material has been employed historically to facilitate the passage of human souls into the afterlife. For millennia, Sebald's narrator points out, humans have harvested raw silk from the cocoons spun by the Bombyx mori (silkworm) to undergo metamorphosis into a moth, effectively curtailing that very process of transformation. In this way, one species' transmigration is sacrificed to facilitate that of another. On the final pages of The Rings of Saturn, the author offers a photograph of the sericulture industry in early-twentieth-century India during British colonial rule. The faded black-and-white photograph shows three [End Page 251] young men attending to countless cocoons attached to spiral-shaped wooden frames; the cocoons are silkworms that will soon be harvested for their silk (figure 1).2

The capacity for transmigration, defined most simply as the ability to traverse boundaries both geopolitical as well as between life states, is treated at length in Sebald's third work of prose fiction and emerges as one of his exemplary methods for transmitting violent histories resistant to representation. In this essay, I argue that Sebald employs transmigration both thematically and methodologically to address the ethical challenges of representing catastrophe in a manner that preserves the reader's capacity for remembrance and reflection. Moths, photographs, and emigrants populate Sebald's works of historical fiction, appearing both textually within the narrative as well as in the form of photographic reproductions that interrupt the printed page. These three entities share the capacity for transmigration and become interchangeable with one another. For instance, an account of the metamorphosis of moths reads as a description of the photographic process, just as the recovery of an old photographic portrait becomes a metaphor for the return of a forgotten emigrant across time and space, and the harvesting of silkworm moths in a Nazi-era pedagogical film emerges as a thinly veiled allegory of the Holocaust.

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Figure 1.

W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1998), 295. © 2014 by the Estate of W. G. Sebald and used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

The topic of transmigration arises in the First of The Rings of Saturn's ten sections through the figure of the Norwich polymath Sir Thomas Browne. Trained as a physician and the son of a silk merchant, Browne's treatises cover a broad range of subjects: the geometrical patterns to be [End Page 252] found in animate and inanimate nature, including the quincunx; the physiological mutations among living creatures; and the nature of time and human mortality, and in turn how cultural beliefs about the subject have played out in funerary practices. The topic of transmigration arises in the context of his study of the latter. Declaring that there is "no antidote against the opium of time," Browne remains fascinated nonetheless by those rare examples of animate and inanimate matter that have "escaped annihilation" (R, 26). Indeed, the themes of mortality, obsolescence, and passage recur throughout Sebald's melancholic account of a pilgrimage through the Norfolk region of England.

Among those entities exhibiting this "mysterious...


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