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  • Getting Under Your SkinSebald on Chatwin and Flaubert
  • Patrick Ffrench

The melancholic turn of W.G. Sebald's prose has been a recurrent feature of critical commentary on his work: an early critical volume names Sebald the "Anatomist of Melancholy" (Görner), as if to suggest that Sebald is pursuing the legacy of Robert Burton; through its title alone The Rings of Saturn consecrates the melancholic temperament as the dominant mood of the writing; Dora Osborne remarks of The Emigrants that the nomadic tendencies of Sebald's protagonists are "resisted by the overwhelmingly melancholic force of traumatic history, which ultimately determines the course of Sebald's narratives" (Osborne 106); Greg Bond notes Sebald's confessed affinity with the seventeenth-century English writer Thomas Browne, who, in The Rings of Saturn is accredited by Sebald with the view that "On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation" (23–4, cited in Bond 39); Eric Santner, in the extraordinarily rich study On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald, sees in melancholy the driving force of Sebald's work, and explores the deep ramifications of this insight, extending from the affective tonality of melancholy in the writing itself, into the politics and sexuality of the "creature," whose subjectivity, and whose very posture, is defined by subjection to a rageful Other. To some extent, as he confesses, in investigating the "vicissitudes of melancholy" Santner is merely following a "well-beaten path"; yet in the course of his study melancholy undergoes some quite startling metamorphoses and begins to resemble something more akin to aggressivity, closer to the kind of rage against internalized fantasy objects encountered in the writing of Melanie Klein than to the crepuscular mood one might have supposed (Santner 43, 45).

A good example of this is Santner's focus on the image of skeletons and skulls in Austerlitz when the eponymous protagonist is discussing the excavations of London; Santner links this to the narrator's commentary on Rembrandt's painting of the anatomy lesson in the same book, and points to the recurrence of the motif of flayed skin at the end of the novel when Austerlitz visits a museum of veterinary medicine at Maisons-Alfort in Paris. Looking at the encounter with Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson, and at the incidence in the Maisons-Alfort museum of "truly horrific creatures consisting of little more than a scrap of skin, a crooked wing and half a claw" (373), among other similarly monstrous exhibits including the flayed [End Page 273] horseman, I am prompted to suggest that Sebald's melancholic mode often makes itself felt as an assault on the body and in particular on the integrity of the body, on the corporeal envelope of the skin. This thought has provoked the hypothesis, which I interrogate in what follows, that there is a strong association in Sebald's writing, and in particular in his engagement with other writers, between writing and the skin, and that this is an expression of an aggressive turn of melancholy. A fruitful consequence of this idea may be an adjustment to the often hagiographic and mournful critical mood in which Sebald's texts are approached, an adjustment occasioned by an account which sees their melancholy as the disguise of a rageful and destructive urge and which often takes the route of a vampiric incorporation of other writers or artists.

If the world supposed by Sebald's writing seems to have fallen entirely under der Schatten des Objekts—the shadow of the object—to paraphrase Freud's rendering of melancholia (Freud 179)—to be a world suffused by loss, Klein's account of the terrain left in the wake of this shadow presents it instead as a war zone. In key essays such as "The Psychogenesis of Manic Depressive States" Klein intensifies what Freud expresses as the ego's impoverishment and self-beratement, finding in the psyche a rageful aggressivity against and on the part of bad objects, and a paranoid defense of good objects, which also exact their own punishments. To bring Sebald and Klein together is to begin to draw out the violence and aggression inherent in Sebald's texts. Klein's account of the...


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