Monday, July 16, 2012

Sebald on the totality of things

In comments Beatrice Trotignon writes:

I'm trying to contact Tommi Uschanov, in relation to his translation of Guy Debord, as I am part of the organizing committee of a translation conference in France. I've tried his tuschano mail, but my message doesn't seem to have reached him. I hope this might be more successful?

I'm very glad that this blog functions as a point of contact between people and a place to share news, as with the Iceland conference (still no word, I'm afraid) and the workshop in Pennsylvania on Cavell and Rhees that I somehow seemed to hear about before many other people. I hope Tommi gets the message.

Another thing the blog does it to present a version of me to the world, and I sometimes worry about this. Will trivial posts make me seem like a fool? Might avoiding all trivialities be pretentious? Will making public what Reshef Agam-Segal calls "notes and half-thoughts" (although his are far more than half-thoughts) make me look stupid, or reveal my stupidity, or waste the time of those who bother to read them? Well, these are my half-thoughts. I hope they combine to present a more or less accurate picture of me but, more importantly, I hope they have some value for someone else. The following falls in the possibly-a-pretentious-waste-of-time category though. You have been warned.    

One thing I sometimes do is try to introduce myself to the work of two new poets each summer. This summer it looks like being W. G. Sebald (some of whose poetry I've already read, so this is cheating) and Michel Houellebecq (whose prose I know, so this is only almost cheating). I was disappointed by the Sebald collection, and this review by Ruth Franklin does a pretty good job of explaining why. Sebald's translator, Iain Galbraith, suggests that there are hidden meanings in the poems, so that when a German place-name is mentioned it can be important to know that this was the site of a concentration camp or some other Nazi business. Franklin then complains that the references are impossible to track down in their entirety. Sebald mentions lots of places, things, and people, both implicitly and explicitly, and includes words and whole sentences in other languages as well. Are we supposed to understand all these (how good is your Dutch?)? Must we read all the footnotes to get the poems, and when is the footnoter's work complete?

This, or something like it, is Franklin's main complaint. If Sebald really wants to refer so much to the Nazi past then perhaps Galbraith should have translated the title as "Over the Land and the Water" (instead of "Across..."), as this is more suggestive of the original Über, with its hint of Über Alles, which is not far from the title of the book, after all. Another complaint I might have made about the poems is that, unless Galbraith has done a really bad job (I don't think he has), then Sebald uses clichés quite a bit, which are not much fun to read. I think he does this because his poems are like collages, collections of found objects, and a cliché is a found bit of language or non-thought. Because of this, I think it's necessary to add a third poem to those identified as being in some sense key to understanding the collection by Galbraith and Franklin.

The first key, and the first poem in the book, is this:
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.
I like this poem, but it seems a bit like (little more than) a clever trick: instead of you watching the landscape vanish, it watches you. But there are at least two other ideas here (as well as elements other than ideas, of course): it is very hard to understand the landscape, and it is watching you. The land and water are inscrutable and omniscient, a bit like a kind of God. The mute watcher feels like a judge. But it is both mute and very hard to understand, so we don't know what judgment it makes of us, if any. This is part of Sebald's conception of the world (it seems to me).

The second key is highlighted by Galbraith, in his introduction to the collection, and by Franklin, who quotes both Sebald and Galbraith:
“Somewhere / behind Türkenfeld,” a small town in southern Germany near Sebald’s native village, there is “a spruce nursery / a pond in the / moor on which / the March ice / is slowly melting.” The Nazis built a subcamp of Dachau behind Türkenfeld; the trains to the camp passed through the station. The ice melts slowly indeed to reveal this history.
“Our first unknowing reading of the [Türkenfeld] poem,” Galbraith writes, “and with it the poem’s own translation of an unruffled, apparently unremarkable landscape ‘mutely’ watching us ‘vanish,’ points to the perilous consequences of our loss of cultural memory.” 
There probably is something to this, and it is worth keeping in mind Sebald's concern with cultural memory and the guilty secrets of the landscape. His understanding of what history means comes out in another poem in which he writes that, "this ground / is steeped in history / they find corpses / every time they dig.” History = corpses. But I don't think his view is as simple as that, which is why the reader's job is not as impossibly hard as Franklin seems to think. We don't need to keep working to make out the meaning of each word, each line, each poem.

Here is a poem that (as I recall) Franklin doesn't mention, except in passing:
The Secrets
of the Universe, 
Patriotic Tales and 
A Germanic 
Hall of Fame, 
The Neudamm 
Forester’s Primer, 
Register of 
Protected Species, 
Social Hygiene 
in Hamburg, 
and The Mushrooms 
of Our Region— 

all informative 
works assembled 
by chance 
in the display 
of a junk shop 
near a railway 
underpass in 
Oldenburg I 

think or Osnabrück 
or in some 
other town
If we want to find Nazi-references there is presumably one in "Social Hygiene in Hamburg," but beyond that what we have is a chance assembly of junk in an obscure part of some barely remembered town. Such are "the secrets of the universe"--random, half-forgotten, some innocent-sounding, some not. However guilty we might feel about the past of our culture or our failure to remember it properly, to own it, as well as the guilt there is incomprehension and incomprehensibility. The world as we find it is not a totality of intelligible facts but a totality of things. The origin and history of the rubble that makes up the rings of Saturn is unknowable, but the rings are beautiful all the same. Perhaps only beautiful because we cannot know the history. The town may be unmemorable, but the names of the books remain. The particular stands out (almost free from space--because we don't understand the landscape--and time--because we forget--and so almost like a work of art as Schopenhauer understands it). And if we laugh at a book called The Secrets of the Universe, shouldn't we perhaps laugh at ourselves as well if we think that we know such secrets to be unknowable or non-existent?

We know nothing. But we can still live a moral and aesthetic life, still appreciate particular things (good and bad), and still find something to laugh about amid the haze.


  1. I got the message about my translation of Debord's Society of the Spectacle (the only other philosophical book I've translated besides Wittgenstein's Koder diaries), and replied to it just now. My address hasn't changed for 17 years - I merely had an urgent commission to deal with.

    That said, two comments on this post:

    1) I'm not at all sure that even native Germans will get all of Sebald's references. For instance, I myself have done some reading in my time on Nazi Germany and related matters, but I don't remember ever hearing the name Türkenfeld anywhere until now. So, used in the expectation that the references will be got, they're rather pretentious. And if they're not expected to be got, they're no longer references in any recognisable sense.

    2) Trivial posts won't make you seem like a fool. Nobody who thinks the contrary deserves to get to read your non-trivial posts anyway.

  2. used in the expectation that the references will be got, they're rather pretentious. And if they're not expected to be got, they're no longer references in any recognisable sense.

    I agree. Putting the point so clearly makes it seem obviously true, in fact. And, even though it wouldn't have been obvious otherwise, I suspect that Sebald would have realized this. So then either he was pretentious (or, perhaps we could say, ambitious), or else he was up to something else. It seems possible that the references are meant to range from the recognizable to the utterly obscure, with some in between. What we remember is not sharply distinguished from what we don't remember, and what we recognize is not sharply distinguished from what we don't. Some things ring a bell or seem vaguely familiar, but nothing more. This hazy horizon seems to be something he wants to bring to attention. But his novels and longer poetic works might do so more successfully than his short poems.

    Trivial posts won't make you seem like a fool. Nobody who thinks the contrary deserves to get to read your non-trivial posts anyway.

    Thank you!