The Complex Good: Thoughts on W.G. Sebald’s Vision



Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. Modern Library, 2002. 304 pp. $13.95.

The Rings of Saturn,  – , trans. Michael Hulse. New Directions, 1999. 296 pp. $14.95.

The Emigrants,  – , trans. Michael Hulse. New Directions, 1997. 238 pp. $13.95.




                                                            Let knowledge grow from more to more,

                                                                 But more of reverence in us dwell;

                                                                 That mind and soul, according well,

                                                            May make one music as before,


                                                            But vaster.



The first generosity is exalted distraction. This gift occurs in a curious boredom, a boredom, I imagine, that left as many of Sebald’s pages folded down to be returned to later, as those finished by the reader. This boredom unfolds into a faith: in periphery: of the eye, of the mind. The next gift is evanescence. Evanescence graces us with patience in motion—a world that withdraws at the same pace we try to apprehend it. The last gift is not conclusion. It is not reflection. The last gift is expansion.




To better understand W.G. Sebald’s vision, I begin not by looking into his four novels, but in order to keep myself more honest to his vision, I begin by looking away.


Charles Abbot, an English vicar at the turn of the 18th century, kept a diary one October. Abbot, an avid naturalist, recorded in his diary the wondrous daily. The wondrous happens in time, but betrays time. Five minutes could be an hour. True attention extends a moment into eternity, an October into a patient lifetime. Of course, the attention breaks. On October 21 Abbot brought a handful of live flies to throw into the web of a fence-rail spider in his yard. Among the intricacies of her own design, the spider sat, or rather stood, legs extended on silk. But despite the thrashing of the flies, the spider did not move. Most of the flies escaped the web. The others, I imagine, buzzed and writhed, and their buzzing and writhing only stuck them faster to what they’d escape.


As Abbot was changing position to get a better view, he “felt a slight stinging sensation on the end of my nose, and waving my hand involuntarily before my face, I found myself cabled, in a flimsy way, to the fence and the branches of the tree nearest me. A spider, nesting in the tree, had selected my hat as the support of some new webbing, and had fastened a hundred cables to it, selecting my nose as an additional support.” Abbot’s intense focus on the spider in front of him allowed him to be woven into another web of which he was not aware. The gazer became the gazed upon. The enthusiast of webs became a web himself—and only knew so when he broke the hundred silken cables that anchored him onto that other life. One attention killed another. And on leaning close to the first web, to see, finally, why the first spider did not leap and feast upon the flies—to see so that his destruction of the other spider’s work would not be all in vain—he saw the fence-rail spider was but a shell, and nothing alive.


Abbot studied a ghost. His flies vibrating panic on lines informed nothing. But Abbot’s own breath shook the silken web of which he was part and prey.


Why do I hear Sebald here? Behind the web, so to speak, or stuck in it himself? Why do my eyes on his pages vibrate those black lines with such attention? What spider anchored one silken strand in my mind, so that my thinking has disclosed me here, to this page, tying my web to Sebald’s web? What feast am I to what, unseen and silent, nears, on silk, to listen, release, or bite?




Sebald’s books, in a certain light, can be seen as a consideration of silk and tension. The Rings of Saturn traces the proliferation of silkworm breeding from the Dowager Empress of China to Hitler’s German self-sufficiency campaign that included silkworm breeding. This is not mere history. Sebald’s acute vision is not the accuracy of a timeline. A truer attention than the historian’s prevails. It is a silkworm’s attention.


A silkworm’s cocoon is constructed of one single strand of silk. The single strand, potentially hundreds of feet long, is coiled around the pupa within, and what emerges, the imago, is winged. But to harvest the silk, the cocoon is put into boiling water, the pupa killed, and the cocoon by virtue of heat unraveled. That single line of silk echoes an easy history. My childhood came before my adulthood. A precedes B precedes C…


But the line in coil, in cocoon, is complex. For in that coil the worm weaves around itself, the coil within which an imaginative transformation occurs, A no longer is followed by B. In that coil A can attach to F, to Q, to 13, to Swinburne, to an orphan from Eastern Europe, to the madness of an acquaintance, to a friend’s life that suddenly becomes your own. Memory is not linear, not coherent.




In Austerlitz, Gerald’s Great-Uncle Alphonso is an avid naturalist. He observes and what he observes he paints. When he paints he wears a pair of spectacles that, instead of lenses, has gray silk within the frames, a better lens than accuracy, for it shows “that everything was fading before our eyes, and that many of the loveliest of colors had already disappeared, or existed only where no one saw them, in the submarine gardens fathoms deep below the surface of the sea.” Alphonso sees through silk the world beshrouded.


The shroud does not mask death so much as imply memory. Memory is of what has happened. Memory is not a timeline. It is a cocoon made of one strand of silk. A book is made of one strand of ink. To read is to put paper in the lenses of your spectacles. Sebald sees, we see with him, the moth escape the cocoon. Imago, the adult insect, is related to image—that which appears to the vision. Imagination is a process of transformation on scale with the worm becoming winged. The level of art knows that when the silkmoth flies it too flies into a web; a web, curiously, of its own weaving, so that at one and the same time, we can imagine, the web vibrates with the song we both sing and listen to at once. 


The Fates weaving behind Sebald’s pages know intimately how one life’s strand is part of the whole shroud of life. George Oppen, a poet not in Sebald’s pages but who could easily appear in them, writes: “One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands, / He must somehow see the one thing; / This is the level of art / There are other levels / But there is no other level of art.” I have heard, when the bow is pulled across taut strings, a violin become the voice of everyone’s mourning. I have walked through woods and found webs abandoned, the morning dew the only tenant now. Both are my song.




Time, Simone Weil says, doesn’t exist—and our torment is to live in time. I find it too easy to subscribe the truth of that statement to the allure of its paradox. Sebald does not record but writes in the full complexity of our relationship to time. It is that relationship that leads his work to deal so exclusively with memory. Memory betrays time in the same gesture with which it relies on it. The past comes out the cocoon winged in the present. It is but an image, winged. We live in time. We grow into an ever-increasing awareness of our own approaching death—it is a distance we note between our childhood wonder and our mortal wisdom.


And yet, like a planet in retrograde, we remember, we cycle back against the whole pull of mortal gravity, and we live anew, so it seems, that life which passed away. We see through the gray silk of memory’s lens our loved ones return, briefly, but vivid. And then time resumes.


Sebald’s vision, though, is more complex. For if time does not exist, our access to Memory is not bound by the limit of our own life’s experience. If time crumbles our consciousness in time crumbles with it. And that decay, that complex decay, is the finest Good. It expands the narrow self into the wider universe of human experience. Sebald, as Keats said of Shakespeare, possesses Negative Capability, that capability of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Not reaching after fact? Sebald’s work is everywhere, to the detriment of many readers’ lively attention, filled with facts. These facts though, are of a different species.


Keats writes, describing the nature of the poet, “When I am in a room with People if ever I am free of speculating on creations of my own brain, then not my myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated.” The poet becomes what the poet gazes on. The border of the self is a dashed line, and other lives intersect our own, not as knowledge, and not as acquaintance, but with the immediacy their lives become our own.


Sebald, on his walking tour through England in The Rings of Saturn, visits the poet Michael Hamburger. Hamburger, a German living in England, moved into his house because the water pump in the garden bears the date 1770. 1770 is the date of the German poet Hölderin’s birth; Hamburger’s birthday is two days later than Hölderin’s own. 33 years after Hamburger, Sebald moved from Germany to England. And like Hamburger, Sebald too is thinking of giving up teaching, is “distrustful” of his own work, and suffers an allergy to alcohol. “But why it was that on my first visit to Michael’s house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain. All I know is that I stood spellbound in his high-ceilinged studio room with its north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau at which Michael said he no longer worked because the room was so cold, even in midsummer; and that, while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me, as if were not he who had abandoned that place of work but I, as if the spectacles cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacle cases, my letters and my writing materials.”


Sebald’s life is anchored by a silken strand to Michael Hamburger’s, and Hamburger’s to Hölderin’s before his . . . a spider anchors its web to a branch and then leaps into nothing, landing where the wind takes it.


Where the wind takes it, Sebald implies, is different than we hoped. The self, though in solitude, is not solitary. We lie palimpsest over other lives—we become the page underneath us. The 3 Fates, with their shared eye, read one person’s life through the thin veil of another’s. We read ourselves as such, when we are honest. Sebald sees that he is but the warp and woof of a thousand threads that weave together into a self that will unravel into nothing—and that each of those silken threads extends past him into the lives and experiences of countless others, and that the whole shroud of self is vibrating with the winged struggles of all time, all experience, and the lives of those we are not are our own.




In The Emigrants Sebald recounts the life of the artist Max Ferber. Since the late 1940’s, Feber has worked in the same studio, 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. His process seems tortuous. “Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimeters thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world.”

The tension between artist and model is a kind of tension. That tension is the tension of perception in the process of becoming memory. Ferber’s torture, is that the canvas’s memory could be immediately compared to the source. The look in the eyes was always the most difficult to capture. Ferber would scratch from the canvas the paint he has applied, and, up to 40 times, would begin again on the same canvas, now almost destroyed by the sheer effort of the recording. The genuine portrait is the dust gathered on the floor of the scraped off paint. It is a portrait that incorporates forgetting into vision.


The willingness to forget, for Ferber, is the simultaneous need to see more clearly. It is possible, so it seems, that should one have the other-worldly patience to piece together anew every molecule of dust, that every painting, in multitudes, out of the depth of darkest amnesia, would as from chrysalis, reemerge. They will be lost again. The mulitcolored dust accumulated below Ferber’s feet promise that vision does not belong wholly to memory. Memory forgets. Memory includes forgetting as a process of learning.


The mind, like Sebald’s, open to forgetting, is a moral mind. His books recall from other books, from other lives, from other thoughts, the conglomerate thinking that is the undergirding faith by which the world, and we within it, exist. That faith, when honest, sees too that no single mind can grasp the complex whole. The world that vibrates with the experience of countless lives no where solidifies into concrete experience. There is no coherent standing ground; no place to say “I am here, and you there.” Sebald lets, when the last page is turned over and the dark cover remains, the book forget what he so painstakingly painted. He covers up ink with a shroud of ink.




Schopenhauer defines the loss of memory as madness. Sebald redefines.


Schopenhauer tells a story. He describes a young boy “of about eleven” who, living in an asylum, is the prime example of “stupidity.” “He had reason, because he spoke and comprehended, but in respect of understanding he was inferior to many of the lower animals. Whenever I visited him he noticed an eye-glass which I wore round my neck, and in which the window of the room and the tops of the trees beyond were reflected: on every occasion he was greatly surprised and delighted with this, and was never tired of looking at it with astonishment, because he did not understand the immediate causation of reflection.”


I like to think of this recollection as a Sebaldian moment. Of course, the young boy is not stupid. He sees, in the middle of Schopenhauer’s chest, a circle in which the tree outside the window hangs upside down. That circle in the philosopher’s chest must seem the portal to another world. If the boy could enter it, he would climb through the chest of the man judging him, put his back against the trunk, and stare back out into the asylum’s room he just left.


The world is complex. Sebald sees, that like matter, experience and thought are conserved. The imagination is graced with the ability to participate in that realm of human attention which expands into our truest heritage. Life past is open to life present. The book is not a scholar’s tool so much as it is a human one. For in pages, in memory, in the lives of those we’ve encountered in the merest silken strand, we find we are connected to the vast whole. “For each holds all things in himself, each sees all in every other, so that all things are everywhere, all is all and each is all,” as Plotinus writes.


All is all and each is all while we breathe. Sebald writes shrouds. The Rings of Saturn ends recounting a passage in Browne that Sebald can no longer find. It was custom in Holland of the time, “in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all the canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpseof the land now being lost for ever.”


The subtle comfort of the shroud is that nothing is lost. It remains; it is not our own.




Dan Beachy-Quick’s first book is North True South Bright (Alice James Books, 2003). His poems are forthcoming in Interim and First Intensity.