Journeys to the Self
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Not long after Austerlitz was published in 2001, W.G. Sebald was killed in a car accident, robbing modern literature of one of its most distinctive voices. Critics hailed his work, which became more popular in America and Britain than in Germany. Susan Sontag asked, “Is literary greatness still possible? What would a noble literary enterprise look like? One of the few answers still available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.” Like Günter Grass, Sebald explores the political despair, social chaos, and individual guilt of post-World War II Germany, especially as individuals attempt to come to terms with loss and search to find explanations for the crimes perpetrated against Jews. Like Kafka, Sebald offers us portraits of outsiders living in exile continually trying to find their way into the castle or beyond the gates of the law. Like Proust, Sebald explores the halls of memory but interrogates its facility to be a repository of truth and examines its power to distort. Like Stendhal, Sebald exploits autobiography and twists it into fictional narratives. Like Borges, Sebald playfully manipulates the borders between truth and imagination.
In his four “novels,” The Emigrants, Vertigo, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn Sebald explores themes of exile, memory, identity, history and truth, beauty and transience, and exile. Sebald questions the boundaries of realism by weaving photographs, real people’s names, and fictional characters in his “novels.” His writings in many ways resemble Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge with the narrators observing the activities of a variety of characters, including themselves. The narrators of Sebald’s books, who are often doubles of himself, find themselves wandering through various urban and rural landscapes in search of themselves and their identities. Often, though, they end up circling and circling, wending their way down torturous paths to self-identity. Outsiders, they circle through time and space in search of themselves and for some kind of home. As Austerlitz, the narrator of the novel of the same name, observes, “It seems to me then as if all moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last . . . we also have appointments to keep in the past…and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time.” In various ways, all of Sebald’s books explore the nature of identity and the function of memory.
Sebald’s books resemble most closely those of Kafka, and indeed in his essays Sebald writes often about Kafka’s influence on him and the ways that Kafka echoes Sebald’s interest in spirit presences in humans. Although Kafka’s writings do not evoke traditional theological themes, they are nonetheless theological, especially his letters, journals, and many of his parables. Of course, stories like “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” and “The Hunger Artist,” among others also explore theological themes such as community, alienation, redemption, and hope. Kafka’s interpreters, most famously Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, concluded that Kafka’s writings revealed his theology, though it was not the theology that focused closely on doctrinal content.
In much the same way, Sebald’s writings clearly contain theological themes, though his writings do not explicitly deal with the doctrinal content or ecclesiastical topics of traditional theology. Sebald’s writings provide a distinct understanding of the nature of revelation. The traditional doctrine of revelation posits a revealer and a receptor of that revelation. Thus, in its classical formulation, God reveals God’s self to humans, and humans must somehow respond in faith to God’s disclosure. Such revelation is static and does not allow either for human creativity or the continual unfolding of revelatory activity. Sebald’s writings illustrate revelation in process, an unfolding that discloses to individuals not only meaning about their worlds but also self-identity.
Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is one of the best illustrations of Sebald’s notion of the idea of revelation. Much like his previous novels, The Rings of Saturn is a diary of a wanderer. Unlike his previous novels, though, this novel focuses on one narrator—who again at times appears to be Sebald himself—and his journey through eastern England. Like much of Sebald’s other work, the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life are porous and permeable. Memory plays a major role here, as it does in Vertigo and Austerlitz, especially as the narrator looks to the distant past for models of individuals looking for the transformative power of Nature. As he ambles through the countryside, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the narrator feels a joyous sense of freedom in Nature but also a sense of revulsion when he encounters destruction in Nature, primarily from the bombings of World War II. He recollects his own search for the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, with whom the narrator feels a close kinship. Like Browne, he is captivated by the idea that nothing of the human remains after death. For the narrator, life is simply the metamorphosis from one form into another. Browne’s poem about burial urns reflects humans’ attempts to somehow mark this transformation from the living to the dead. As he continues on his journey, he, like the Ancient Mariner, recognizes the organic unity of all life and starts to understand the ways in which transformation can be destructive and the ways that destruction can be transformative. In a stream-of-consciousness of his reveries and dreams, the narrator reflects on the dust and ash that surround him from the destruction of the war. The rings of Saturn are particles of ash and dust remaining after the destruction of one of its former moons, the ashes to which Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) refers in his Urn Burial (1658). They signify for the narrator the waning of human civilization. Saturn also plays another role in the novel, for both the narrator and Browne were born under the sign of Saturn.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Joyce’s Ulysses, among others, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn depicts a journey or a quest to find one’s way back home or to move out of a mysterious stage of life into a place where new directions for life are revealed. As the narrator learns, however, the journey toward transformation and revelation is never-ending.
The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, 1999)
Austerlitz (Modern Library, 2001)
Vertigo (New Directions, 2001)
The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.