Just this month, Kevin Barrett wrote about our cultural breakdown through the prism of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Also at Unz, Mike Whitney began his article about the Covid vaccines with a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell; And in the lowest deep a lower deep, Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide, To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
These middle-aged gentlemen are a dying breed. With miseducation militantly pushed, there is no common heritage to ground any conversation, so forget Dostoevsky, Milton and all other greats.
A striking phrase, “myself am hell” evokes Swedenborg’s personal hells and heavens, as well as Sartre’s idiotic “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Only a man in hell would think that’s witty. In Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” there’s this stanza:
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
Since language is everything, a civilization that sneers at its own is already dead.
Thinking about this, I started to reread W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. An odd masterpiece, it’s neither a memoir, novel, travel book nor history, though it has elements of all those genres. Inspired by Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, it is a meditation on mortality, personal and civilizational.
Thomas Browne is not exactly devoured on park benches and subway trains these days. In the late 18th century, Samuel Johnson could already see his flaws, “This poesy may be properly applied to the style of Browne: It is vigorous, but rugged; it is learned, but pedantick; it is deep, but obscure; it strikes, but does not please; it commands, but does not allure: his tropes are harsh, and his combinations uncouth. He fell into an age in which our language began to lose the stability which it had obtained in the time of Elizabeth; and was considered by every writer as a subject on which he might try his plastick skill, by moulding it according to his own fancy.”
Despite all this, Browne persists. At the end of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he talks of tinkering with “an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.”
The Rings of Saturn begins with Sebald in a state of collapse, “I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages. I can remember precisely how, upon being admitted to that room on the eighth floor, I became overwhelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot.”
Like Gregor Samsa, Sebald painfully dragged himself to his small window just to make sure the world was still there, only to find “the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place. I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there.” Such is illness.
In the rest of the 26-page chapter I, Sebald talks about the lives and deaths of his university of colleagues Michael Parkinson and Janine Dakyns, and the disinterment and display of Thomas Browne’s skull, which leads to a discussion of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with its desecration of Adriaan Adriaanszoon, a petty thief who has just been hanged.
Sebald, “The spectacle, presented before a paying public drawn from the upper classes, was no doubt a demonstration of the undaunted investigative zeal in the new sciences; but it also represented (though this surely would have been refuted) the archaic ritual of dismembering a corpse, of harrowing the flesh of the delinquent even beyond death, a procedure then still part of the ordained punishment. That the anatomy lesson in Amsterdam was about more than a thorough knowledge of the inner organs of the human body is suggested by Rembrandt’s representation of the ceremonial nature of the dissection – the surgeons are in their finest attire, and Dr Tulp is wearing a hat on his head – as well as by the fact that afterwards there was a formal, and in a sense symbolic, banquet.”
A German academic living in East Anglia, Sebald knew well the histories of all countries bordering the North Sea, and beyond, so throughout The Rings of Saturn, we get fascinating reflections on Belgium, the Netherlands and, of course, Sebald’s native Germany, although a certain reticence there is most telling.
Already wandering around, observant and attentive, Sebald struck up a conversation with a gardener in Somerleyton, “When he realized where I was from he told me that during his last years at school, and his subsequent apprenticeship, his thoughts constantly revolved around the bombing raids then being launched on Germany from the sixty-seven airfields that were established in East Anglia after 1940. People nowadays hardly have any idea of the scale of the operation, said Hazel. In the course of one thousand and nine days, the eighth airfleet alone used a billion gallons of fuel, dropped seven hundred and thirty-two thousand tons of bombs, and lost almost nine thousand aircraft and fifty thousand men. Every evening I watched the bomber squadrons heading out over Somerleyton, and night after night, before I went to sleep, I pictured in my mind’s eye the German cities going up in flames, the firestorms setting the heavens alight, and the survivors rooting about in the ruins.”
When this gardener arrived in Germany as part of the army of occupation, he was curious to hear from locals what they had remembered of these horrific bombing raids, targeted specifically at civilians, “To my astonishment, however, I soon found the search for such accounts invariably proved fruitless. No one at the time seemed to have written about their experiences or afterwards recorded their memories. Even if you asked people directly, it was as if everything had been erased from their minds.”
When Sebald talks of his visit to Nuremberg, nothing is said of the infamous kangaroo trials, but only Saint Sebaldus, Sebald’s patron saint, “During the wedding night, the story goes, he was afflicted with a sense of profound unworthiness. Today, he is supposed to have said to his bride, our bodies are adorned, but tomorrow they will be food for worms.”
As losers, you’re not allowed to remember or speak, and this vindictive proscriptions are still in force today, incredibly, three quarters of a century later.
Even with the best intentions, however, nothing is ever adequately recorded. In Southwold, Sebald reflects on the Battle of Solebay in May 28th of 1672, Even celebrated painters such as Storck, van der Velde or de Loutherbourg, some of whose versions of the Battle of Sole Bay I studied closely in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, fail to convey any true impression of how it must have been to be on board one of these ships, already overloaded with equipment and men, when burning masts and sails began to fall or cannonballs smashed into the appallingly overcrowded decks.”
Rather typically, Sebald wryly observes, “There were eye-witnesses who claimed to have seen the commander of the English fleet, the Earl of Sandwich, who weighed almost twenty-four stone, gesticulating on the afterdeck as the flames encircled him.” The twenty-four stone detail adds a touch of the ridiculous to this appalling scene.
We forget, misremember, clumsily misrepresent and often just lie, and what has taken centuries or millennia to build up, we’ve often erased in an instant.
Just south of Southwold is a disused railway bridge. Its train had been built for the Qianlong Emperor, but never delivered. In 1860, 4,000 British troops spent three days destroying his magnificent Summer Palace. Sebald, “The true reason why Yuan Ming Yuan was laid waste may well have been that this earthly paradise— which immediately annihilated any notion of the Chinese as an inferior and uncivilized race – was an irresistible provocation in the eyes of soldiers who, a world away from their homeland, knew nothing but the rule of force, privation, and the abnegation of their own desires.”
Although it’s an extended meditation on all sorts of death, The Rings of Saturn is an intensely alive book. Immersed in life, Sebald lived well and paid close attention to everything.
One of the most moving passages, to me, is his noticing of a solitary bird in acute distress, “However, on emerging into the open air again, I was saddened to see, in one of the otherwise deserted aviaries, a solitary Chinese quail, evidently in a state of dementia, running to and fro along the edge of the cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it could not comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix.”
Similarly, Sebald sees from his Amsterdam hotel, “Once, when lightning again flashed across the sky, I looked down into the hotel garden far below me, and there, in the broad ditch that runs between the garden and the park, in the shelter of an overhanging willow, I saw a solitary mallard, motionless on the garish green surface of the water. This image emerged from the darkness, for a fraction of a second, with such perfect clarity that I can still see every individual willow leaf, the myriad green scales of duckweed, the subtlest nuances in the fowl’s plumage, and even the pores in the lid closed over its eye.”
We’re all demented Chinese quails or solitary mallards, glimpsed in a flash.
Much more than usual, this article has been an psychic exertion, so I’m going to wrap it up now. I’ve been terribly sick, and for ten days, hardly ate. Weak, yet unable to sleep, I just curled up for days, with bizarre, pathetic thoughts to wear me down. Unable to eat, I somehow thought there was a being in my room that could help me to nibble some chocolate, to help me regain strength.
The construction noise outside my window I somehow interpreted as them building a “poet’s room.”
A desperate thirst for juices, which I had in the fridge, could only be slaked half a day later, since it was nearly impossible to reach them.
My mouth was constantly bitter. I was just gross. My mucus, dandruff, earwax and even smegma proliferate. If only I could just be hell.
At least I didn’t infect my landlady with whatever I had. Cheerfully, she knocked on my door one morning to deliver a package. For the next two days, I anxiously listened to hear if she, too, was coughing.
Heritage must be nurtured. Borges and Sebald built on Browne. Using his own language, Sebald sharpens Browne’s ideas, so that we have one of the finest passages in recent memory, “There is no antidote, he writes, against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.”
Truly remarkable, “Time itself grows old.” Browne himself could only come up with, “time that grows old in itself,” but that’s why we must nurture our collective heritage. We learn from and build on each other’s accomplishment. Otherwise, such a degraded life is scarcely worth living.