The portrait of Sebald that emerges from the pages between is not that of a unique individuality, but a romantic caricature of what Sontag called the ‘artist as exemplary sufferer’, a kind of secular saint driven almost to madness, in this case by the weight of history.
I thoroughly enjoyed this review of Carole Angier’s biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence, written by Ryan Ruby for the New Left Review. It is scathing, in parts, about Angier and Sebald both, but it is intriguing to me that, on Twitter, Ruby has clarified his love of Sebald nonetheless. He writes: “As for my fellow Sebald stans, I remain one of you, but I had an ulterior motive for tweeting this out a few days ago”, pointing to a Nietzsche quote posted on his birthday: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!”
I can relate to this sentiment, especially in the context of Sebald. I can’t think of a book I’ve read more time than Rings of Saturn, but I had my own reckoning with him a few years back, whilst finishing my book Egress on the Suffolk coast (where Sebald’s book is set). This was, in part, because I had always wanted to retrace Sebald’s footsteps, but I was there with Mark Fisher in mind — and Mark also wrote and made work about that stretch of coast, On Vanishing Land most famously.
It was strange to experience that landscape with Mark Fisher’s internalised voice in my ears and Sebald’s photographic sensibilities before my eyes. These two hugely dominant influences on my writing went to war over that long weekend. Though one might expect Fisher to like Sebald — if only by dint of the Caretaker’s involvement in the documentary Patience (After Sebald) — Mark seemed to find Sebald’s vision of his adopted home offensive and one day dreamt of “producing a pulp modernist riposte to Sebald’s mittel-brow text.”
Having been there and walked the walk for myself, it is not difficult to see why. Sebald comes across like a prejudiced curmudgeon and a classist old man rather than a wandering Romantic on Suffolk shores today. His interiority, which he welcomes you so seductively to inhabit, becomes a myopic lens through which to view the cultural ghosts of Suffolk proper. (The same is true of M.R. James as well, of course, whose fear of agricultural Suffolk seems flecked by his toff’s perspective from civilised King’s College, Cambridge, but he is arguably at more of a distance from us — his haunted Suffolk does not exist today and is all the more potent for that, having been eroded by the sea, but Sebald’s is still recognisably post-industrial and modern.)
I was reminded of this strange literary tug-of-war, experienced internally back in 2019, because it is what Ruby navigates so deftly in this piece, and which Angier seems to struggle with. Indeed, he notes, for Angier,
‘The sense of another time that pervades his books—through the dated, formal language, the ancient guidebooks, the Renaissance paintings—is no accident, but crucial to their power.’ ‘Realism and modernity’, she goes on to say, are ‘dangerous’ for his ‘particular art’. She praises Sebald for resisting the impulse to ‘introduce modern life’ into his writing, by cutting a reference to a Virgin Atlantic T-Shirt from an early draft of The Rings of Saturn—a rather careless observation about a book whose narrator describes people as ‘shopping in order to survive’, watches a bbc documentary on a tv in a run-down motel, eats French fries at an Amsterdam McDonalds, refers to gas stations and shopping malls, drinks a can of Cherry Coke, reports a complaint about Brussels’s agricultural policy, visits an abandoned Cold War defence installation, compares the Dome of the Rock to the newly built Sizewell nuclear reactor, and looks on with dismay as an excavator clears away a forest felled by a hurricane.
It is precisely the shadow of the contemporary that disturbs Sebald’s Romantic surface, in ways that are clearly ironic and often humorous but also occasionally reactionary — and ignoring this does the work a disservice. “Contemporary literary and political events are rarely allowed to impinge upon Angier’s account of his life,” Ruby continues, “though a full picture of the external world is just as important to understanding a writer as a portrayal of his inner life.”
This whole final section of the essay is a joy and maybe one of the best things I’ve ever read about Sebald to date. I’m left wanting to reproduce it here with little abridgement and annotate it… On this point of external events informing an inner life, Ruby continues:
The Eichmann Trial and the Frankfurt Auschwitz hearings are mentioned, but their broader impact on German culture goes undescribed. May 68 is deployed proleptically in a discussion of the intellectual climate of the University of Freiburg, as a signifier of the ‘flow of history’ toward the ‘new reform spirit’ Sebald and his circle of friends are said to have embodied, but when les évenements take place, Sebald is on vacation in Yugoslavia and we hear nothing further of them. … The two historical episodes dealt with at greatest length—the 1970s oil crisis and Thatcherite neoliberalism—are important, as we will see, but along with Britain’s accession to the European Union, Angier treats them only with regard to their effects on teaching conditions at UEA. Of decolonization, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Cold War: nothing. Even within the confines of her interpretation of Sebald primarily as a writer of the Holocaust and the firebombing of German cities, potentially relevant events such as the German Autumn, the 1980s Historikerstreit, the development of Erinnerungskultur, the reunification of Germany, the genocide in Rwanda and the NATO bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia are passed over in silence.
Nor does Angier attribute any significance to the fact that Sebald’s four major books were published between 1990 and 2001; in other words, that his literary career coincides almost perfectly with the ‘Long Nineties’, the so-called End of History. Far from being the anachronism Sontag and Angier make him out to be, he is one of the period’s most representative writers. Neither the signature features of his influential prose style—the ‘metaphysics of coincidence’ and the melancholy tone—nor the reception of his work in the Anglosphere can be accounted for without reference to it. The ‘End of History’ is taken, of course, from the title of Francis Fukuyama’s National Interest essay, published in summer 1989 … right around the time Sebald was putting the finishing touches to The Emigrants. Among boosters and detractors alike, the phrase has proven to be a remarkably durable label for capturing the distinctive mentality of the period, especially in the West. But just as the End of History did not mean the end of historical events, the fulfilment or collapse—they amount to the same thing—of Enlightenment-era grand narratives of political, moral, economic and scientific progress did not mean the end of attempts to create meta-narratives to make sense of them. Like so much else in the period, these narratives, which had functioned as collective myths to legitimate and orient the ways of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain, were simply privatized. It was now the task of each individual to locate whatever patterns could be found in the chaotic proliferation of information and recorded events, and impose a necessarily artificial coherence on them.
What I find interesting about this observation is that it peels Sebald out of the “Holocaust Studies” pigeonhole quite explicitly. Indeed, this task left to the individual, in locating “whatever patterns could be found in the chaotic proliferation of information and recorded events”, is arguably the real task drilled into us by the Enlightenment itself and, even more notably, German art history since then.
I’ve been writing on Albrecht Dürer recently and reading Erwin Panofsky’s biography of him. The biography’s introduction is fascinating in that, despite the fact it prefaces a loving and almost surgically detailed analysis of Dürer’s life, art and historical context, it is initially scathing about German art history as a whole. But in skewering what may sound to us like the very flaws of postmodernism, it reveals just what makes German cultural history so interesting and, in this wider Sebaldian context, what it must be like for a man so utterly German who nonetheless feels adrift in Continental Europe — not simply because he is a post-war German writer but perhaps because he is a German writer full stop.
Echoing the anachronistic smorgasbord of Sebald’s melancholically psychedelic prose, Panofsky writes:
The evolution of high and post-medieval art in Western Europe might be compared to a great fugue in which the leading theme was taken up, with variations, by the different countries. The Gothic style was created in France; the Renaissance and Baroque originated in Italy and were perfected in cooperation with the Netherlands; Rococo and nineteenth century Impressionism are French; and eighteenth century Classicism and
Romanticism are basically English.
In this great fugue the voice of Germany is missing. She has never brought forth one of the universally accepted styles the names of which serve as headings for the chapters of the History of Art. German psychology is marked by a curious dichotomy clearly reflected in Luther’s doctrine of “Christian Liberty,” as well as in Kant’s distinction between an “intelligible character” which is free even in a state of material slavery and an “empirical character” which is predetermined even in a state of material freedom. The Germans, so easily regimented in political and military life, were prone to extreme subjectivity and individualism in religion, in metaphysical thought and, above all, in art. “I have to take into consideration,” Dürer says, “the German mentality. Whosoever wants to build something insists on employing a new pattern the like of which has never been seen before.”
Owing to this individualism German art was never able to achieve that standardization, or harmonious synthesis of conflicting elements, which is the prerequisite of universally recognized styles. But thanks to this very same quality Germany exerted an international influence by producing specific iconographical types and isolated works of art which were accepted and imitated, not as specimens of a collective style but as personal “inventions.”
Just as Dürer is so fascinating, as both the first man of the Renaissance but also the last man of the Middle Ages, a transitory figure straddling the euphoria and melancholy of another end of history, Sebald seems similar, so fixated on the self and its metaphysical existence but also melancholic like the listless, angelic humour in Dürer’s Melencolia I. He has come to epitomise a quintessentially German mode of interiority, which is now all of ours owing to the nation’s subtly pervasive influence. (It is recognisable here in the UK at least…) And, as Ruby notes, this is how Sebald is both so easy to love and easy to criticise — on the one hand, we cannot deny the literary brilliance of his representation of the self, but at a distance from him we can now more easily recognise the political myopia that emerges from it.
Ruby takes this tension and uses it to place Sebald right at the heart of the Long Nineties. On this Sebaldian sense of the end of history, Ruby continues:
In practice, of course, Fukuyama’s view that liberal democracy was ‘the final form of human government’ meant three things. First, the integration of the German Democratic Republic into the soziale Marktwirtschaft of the Federal Republic of Germany. Second, the accession of other Eastern Bloc countries into the European Union, which, rather than the American model, was taken by Fukuyama to be the paradigm case. And third, the unrestrained application to the Russian Federation of the kinds of economic ‘shock therapy’ that had already been applied, for example, to Mexico and Argentina, and which, in turn, had been pioneered by Paul Volcker during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and by Margaret Thatcher during her eleven years as prime minister of the UK.
For those unfamiliar with this idea of the Long Nineties and the amount of political philosophy packed into it — it is an extreme form of short-hand once you start digging into its roots — I’d recommend this article by Lars Bang Larsen for Frieze, which expands on Ruby’s contextualisation here and situates it within a wider philosophical discussion. But what it most intriguing about Ruby’s use of it here is the way he moves from the previous idea of the task facing the postmodern individual and shows how paradoxically it remains at the heart of our idea of the social. Indeed, what Sebald almost seems to prefigure, in his identity-melting sojourn across European history, is a psychogeographic clickhole — he embodies a peculiar tension within processes of individuation that are today synonymous with social media.
But Sebald died in 2001, of course. His exploration of these things is a little more old school. But you’d think, in that sense, we’d be a little more awake to its exacerbation in our lives today. Ruby is, but Angier seemingly isn’t. He explains:
Echoing Thatcher’s famous pronouncement, Angier writes that Sebald’s work ‘is not about society at all, which is why it contains no dialogue.’ The second half of this sentence is true only in the most technical of senses. In Sebald, speech is not interchange presented in quotation marks, as in a typical realist novel, but one of the more common scenarios in his fictions is the narrator listening to people tell long stories in the vein of Conrad, which he conveys with the narrative tagging of Bernhard. The first part of Angier’s sentence is simply false. Sebald’s books discuss, among other things, labour, punishment, psychiatry, the built environment, transportation, tourism, media, scholarship and war, none of which could be thinkable without the social as such.
In fact, that is what is quite so wonderful about Sebald. That Angier seems to suggest that his books are too immersed in history to be modern, this very contradiction of individuation through social processes is a very old problem indeed. In fact, returning to Dürer, he problematised and made use of the printing press in precisely this way: as a new social technology that democratised art and literature, it was nonetheless responsible for spreading the new liberal-Protestant ideal of the Individual. And this is the focus of my research around Dürer at the moment. Though his experience was not ours, his infatuation with and anxiety around new social technologies like the printing press, for the way they paradoxically both embolden and dissolve the individual, echoes our modern era and the rise of the internet in lots of ways.
But again, this is a contextual similarity more than anything else. We are at the tale end of whatever Dürer was experiencing. As Ruby writes:
It is not that there is ‘no society’ in Sebald, but rather that Sebald was writing at a time and a place—neoliberal Britain—in which all non-economic social bonds were being subordinated to the interests of capital accumulation. … Sebald consistently registers the effects of social atomization, resource depletion, financialization and the loss of revenue from brutally maintained colonial trade markets on the infrastructures, ecologies and peoples on both sides of the North Sea. This lugubrious socio-economic landscape stands in stark contrast to the best-of-all-possible-worlds portrait of the ‘New Economy’ and ‘Pax Americana’ painted by Third Way centrists and the Anglo-American culture industry.
Above all else, the key to Sebald’s prose “is décadence, a prose style fit for a second fin de siècle.” Following Dürer, it might even seem like we’ve lived through 500 years of endings, with moments of prosperity, scattered in between, amounting to nothing more than the volcanic tantrums of humanity’s dying star. As the Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to twelve o’clock, the likes of Sebald feel like the last-last men of civilisation. Ruby concurs, here explicitly echoing the sort of position that Mark Fisher epitomised as well (but also decisively moved away from in the 2010s):
Sebald’s narrators are representatives of the species that Fukuyama calls, after Nietzsche, in the much less discussed final section of his book, the ‘last man’. Fukuyama worried that the ‘widespread peace and prosperity’ secured by the triumph of liberal-democratic capitalism would seem profoundly dissatisfying to the people now tasked with upholding it in perpetuity. True, Fukuyama’s main concern was that ‘man’s’ instinctive thymos—his drive for recognition through subjugation—could be projected out of boredom onto liberal democracy itself, in the form of rightwing backsliding. Although this prognosis might seem to apply better to writers like Houellebecq, Handke and Limonov than to Sebald, Sebald’s characters are no less dissatisfied with life under liberal-democratic capitalism; they have either experienced the horrors of German history directly or internalized its lessons too well to flirt with ethno-nationalism. Their dissatisfactions are introjected and express themselves as a perpetual mourning for the possibilities that have been foreclosed by history.
Yet even in the nineties, to say nothing of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Fukuyamian peace and prosperity proved to be more notional than real; the foremost dissatisfaction with liberal-democratic capitalism was that the disappearance of a left alternative also meant the absence of any mechanisms for actually achieving these goals. ‘The future is in the past’, a 22-year-old Sebald had scrawled on the final page of his journal before embarking on his life as a university teacher in England. This was the sentiment that would animate the books he began to write a quarter-century later, the books whose remarkable success provides the rationale for the publication of an English-language biography. By the time he came to write them, however, the proposition had acquired an unfortunate corollary: the future is no longer in the future. Sebald’s characters may dissent from the materialism of the consumers and the day traders; they may notice the imperial continuities between the old liberalism and the new; but they share at least one assumption with them: there is no alternative. When ‘confronted with traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past’, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn feels ‘paralyzing horror’, rather than motivating indignation. The destruction, as he can plainly see, is ongoing, but he fatalistically watches and waits for the world around him to dissolve ‘into water, sand and thin air’ just as surely as the settlements of Dunwich had done some seven centuries prior, rather than do anything to stop it. What places Sebald’s characters among the last men is that, where they might choose the political, they choose the elegiac instead. For Sebald, too, it proved easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism and that, every bit as much as the traumatic burden of the past, is a source of his melancholy. In this he was—and remains—the Spirit of the Age.
Sebald is the new bannerman, I think, for what Marx once called the German ideology. He is revered because no one articulates our strange interiority better. He carries forward that German individualism, that padded cell, and makes striking artworks from strips of the graffitied walls around him, pulling together not just a patchwork post-war interiority but an uncomfortable post-Enlightenment sense of self, spanning hundreds of years. Our wound is not so recent, he informs us. But where figures like Mark Fisher remain essential, and where challenges like Ruby’s seemingly remain few and far between, is in realising that Sebald’s detailed maps of our insides are blueprints to tinker with and exceed, rather than places to get comfortable. The end is nigh only if we choose to stop and watch the world crumble with them.