Dunwich Thoughts II

I took the September issue of The Wire to the beach today — it’s the best one in a while I reckon — and enjoyed the serendipity of reading Rob Turner’s review of On Vanishing Land on the vanishing land at Dunwich.

Turner even points to Mark’s distaste for Sebald which I’d only heard about but never read first hand — and which I’ve come to agree with having spent the last week here.

Turner writes of Mark and his hauntological partner-in-crime Justin Barton:

The pair’s wonky tour guide, shifting from nerdy digressions on Brian Eno to enthusiastic riffs on TV horror shows, is a reply to WG Sebald’s celebrated study of the same coastline The Rings of Saturn. In a 2011 essay for Sight & Sound, Fisher described that book as a trudge through Suffolk that entirely failed to look at the place, offering instead “mittel-brow miserabilism, a stock disdain, in which the human settlements are routinely dismissed as shabby”. Here, in apparent solidarity with the humans trapped in this realm, the narrator is gripped by the features of the landscape, reading lost poems of late capitalism in the stacked iron containers of Felixstowe terminal.

It’s a great review and does well to situate this purposefully disembodied work amongst Mark’s music writings (although, as ever, much more needs to be made of Justin’s contribution here — I’d wager his Hidden Valleys is a far richer hauntological text than Mark’s Ghosts of my Life, for what it’s worth.) The main thing I found intriguing here, though, of course, was the mention of the Sight & Sound review of Patience (After Sebald).

I’d urge anyone passing through here to read it now if you haven’t before. It’s not just a film review but an extensive account of Mark’s wrestling with Sebald through the festivities thrown around the film’s premiere in Aldeburgh (which is no more than ten minutes from where I am right now in fact) and how he struggles with Sebald’s “belittling” of the landscape he knows and loves and calls home, but also the strange feeling he has that he’s missing something.

It seems that, for Mark, Sebald was that sort of cultural figure who all of your peers rate and like and who, on paper, you think you should rate and like too, but it just doesn’t connect as it should. (Joy Division were this for me for a long time although I eventually saw the light.) I particularly like the conclusion where Mark writes:

Instead of staining the landscape with his passions — as Thomas Hardy did with Wessex or the Brontës with Yorkshire or, more recently, as the musician Richard Skelton has done with the Lancashire moorland — Sebald used Suffolk as a kind of Rorschach blot, a trigger for associative processes that take flight from the landscape rather than take root in it. In any case, [nature writer Richard] Mabey [appearing on a panel at the premiere] wanted a confrontation with nature in all its inhuman exteriority. He sounded like a Deleuzean philosopher when he talked of the “nested heterogeneity” and “autonomous poetry” of micro-ecosytems to be found in a cow’s hoof print. […]

Patience (After Sebald) could appeal to a Sebald sceptic like me because — in spite of Sebald — it reaches the wilds of Suffolk. At the same time, Gee’s quietly powerful film caused me to doubt my own scepticism, sending me back to Sebald’s books in search of what others had found in them.

It’s interesting to read this now because Mark captures perfectly what is so great and so unfortunate about Sebald. I think the joy of his book for those who don’t live in Suffolk or have never visited it is precisely that the landscape itself needn’t exist in any real sense. It’s a plateau on which his mind wanders further than his body. As a result, it is immediately mythic and what I have always loved about the book more than its tenuous claim to be a particularly innovative travelogue is that I really like getting lost in Sebald’s head. I like being passenger to “a librarian’s listless daydream”, as Mark calls it. And yet, at the same time, Mark makes a good point when he writes that Sebald does not “engage with previous literary encounters” with the landscape, “with the Suffolk where Henry James went on a walking tour, or where his namesake M.R. James set two of his most atmospheric ghost stories.”

Or does he? Wasn’t Henry James’ favourite subject matter the American lost in Europe, bewildered and beguiled just as he was? The perpetual adolescence of the American psyche caught up in the deep time of European lands? Sebald seems to cast himself precisely as a perversion of the Jamesian character (that is, of both Henry and M.R.): the demented (in a literal sense) German caught up in English forgetfulness, haunted inescapably by the recent and not so recent histories of Europe that Britain likes to detach itself from and float above, disparately related unless cast as the hero and saviour of the day. He’s also, like M.R. James, a classist university professor seeing nothing but terror and curses everywhere he looks.

The Rings of Saturn is not an autobiographical text, after all. Much of it is fictionalised. The Sebald in the text is a shadow of the Sebald who wrote the book, but isn’t he also a shadow of those who have come before him in this sense? Treating Suffolk as so many have treated less identifiable landscapes? Wuthering Heights, after all, abstracts the moors on which it takes place, echoing but never naming its real-life counterparts. Perhaps it is in this way that they are able to stain the landscape. The self of Sebald, instead, sinks into the stains of others and comes out tarnished. As soon as he situated himself, he never stood a chance. But I’m left wondering, despite this: is he really so different?

The answer to that question is perhaps a post for another time…

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