SEBALD AND “PARLOUS LOFTINESS”:QUEER OR CAMP?BY STEVEN BENSON

Sebald said, of Thomas Browne’s style in “Urn Burial”:”his only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavour required was a parlous loftiness{sic}in his language…constructing labarynthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness…When he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose..{then} even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation”(Chapter 1, “Rings of Saturn”; also mostly used as the preface to New Directions edition of “Urn Burial”{originally pub. 1658}).

So,Sebald is obviously talking about his OWN stylistic devices and tropes(rhetoric, translatio, for example; and this selfsame parlous loftiness); and, of course, this very sentence (above) is itself an expression of parlous loftiness in its attempt to take flight whilst , perilously, being at severe risk of being dragged down to earth in its own rhizomatic peripharasis, both of subject matter and of clausal construction.And, Sebald is being playful here, with this little but effective touch of self-reflexiveness and inter-textuality; nay citationality, because it is knowing!.

So:

1. parlous(adj.) “full of danger/uncertainty; precarious(adv);greatly or excessively”.

2. loftiness: a. of imposing height; b.(metaphorically)grandeur of style; c.elevated in character; d. exalted{sic, thus transcendental}; BUT also e. AFFECTING{AS IN POSING AS }grandness and pompousness.

So, in one sentence,(!) “parlous loftiness”, in the Sebaldian sense, would seem,to me,to be a style of writing which precariously upholds a quality on the right side of bombast(just!)-though it may use rhetorical tropes, for instance-which is CATACYSMICALLY grandiloquent, reflecting, in turn, Sebald’s belief in the world’s unstoppable movement towards (self) destruction, a world full of this very uncertainty and danger; but which-sinuously in its winding clause style-also(again, precariously), to some degree(but not wholly by any means)undermines its own grandiloquence in its, sometimes, doleful dead- pan humour at itself. The adverbial useage “greatly or excessively”, though technically redundant(because loftiness is an abstract noun) can also be included for this complex, multi-toned working definition.

Of “loftiness” in especial,the metaphysical( and sometimes PHYSICAL, vertiginous heights-Naegeli on the mountains in “Henry Selwyn” section of “The Emmigrants”) reach of Sebald’s style-periphrastic, translatio-using,dense in the way of German language essays of earlier centuries(to which he acknowledged his debt: for example, in the interview with Michael Silverblatt, a few days before his death, recorded in 12/01)-DOES indeed enable the prose (or poetry in “After Nature”) to take flight, to an awe-insiring elevation and GENUINE, non-pompous grandeur. The sentences are, thus, certainly elevated in content and stylistic techniques; never mind in their concomitant attainment of the heights in philosophical insights, and in their striving towards, and sometimes reaching, some kind of ineffability(cf. Adorno’s deity-framed “The Name of the Name”).

Here is the rub….”affecting{sic} grandeur;pompous”; well, yes, occasionally: for example, in the entombed fish scene in the B and B in “Rings of Saturn”; here Sebald is being dolefully and knowingly playul, and indeed camp(in the sense that the mismatch of grandiose hyperbolic{lofty} language with the content equates to a sort of REVERSE camp; reverse because, in camp, serious content is often undercut by bathetic campy style; here the content undercuts the STYLE-of {mock} parlous loftiness). Its a kind of REVERSE translatio.

I think it is really important to differentiate accurately between these styles: yes, Sebald CAN be playful in style(and content) but it IS occasional; his weighty subject matter necessarily needs a grand but not bombastic style, with a maze-like sentence structure(though I am unsure of the effect this has on the readability of the texts because  I first read Sebald whilst under the effects of a sleeping tablet and , after a few pages of getting used to his style, it just flowed effortlessly , however long and multi-claused the sentences!). Despite Sebald’s reparation of marginalized characters,the majority of whom are homosexual and/or Jewish-and camp is especially associated with homosexuals as a mode of affect/style and politics in a heterosexually normativizing world-this is a part of what I would more designate  Sebald’s overall queerness, for the reason I have given above.

Yes, I am beginning to see Sebald IS queer; in the sense of upholding(to the light) the marginalised lives of abjected people and peoples: those gaps in/alongside the fabric of hegemonic grand narratives; yes he IS queer in the sense of unearthing characters’ idiosyncrasies, in his periphrastic(style), digressive(content)exploration of forgotten byeways(though they are usually, in a complex manner, linked together back to their root). But Sebald’s writing , except in rare instances like the entombed fish scene, is NOT camp; playful yes but he, generally, does not undercut his own -mainly very serious-subject matter with a bathetic style. I say that as a gay man , who believes strongly in the power of camp(to be political as well as amusinghttps://towardsutopia.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/camp-is-political-and-subversive-by-steven-benson/). I LIKE camp, I want to see camp even where it is not, or is only in MY version of camp(?Eric Coates)but Sebald’s precariously, delicately poised, dangerous, grand, vast style IS just these things: it is momentous yet strangely underplayed(sometimes) , mirroring the overwhelming seriousness of his vision: the human remorseless trajectory towards (self) destruction( mankind and, sometimes, individually), particuarly his take on the twentieth century and its atrocities, but, for instance, in Germany from the Biedermeier period onwards(which I shall explore shortly in a post on “A Place in the Country”, trans Caitling, 2013). And ,as such, it WORKS; it is a CONSIDERED apocalypticism of style; it is appropriate; and it levitates and elevates physically, psychologically, emotionally and metaphysically.

So Sebald’s style is queer but is not, usually, camp. I read Sebald,primarily, to be deeply moved; he has perceptibly changed my perspective on life in many ways;and also, significantly, given me faith that a non gay-identified writer can speak with insight and depth about bisexual and homosexual men; this is EXTREMELY rare. I can think of very few other examples, outside the seperated out(whatever the authors may protest, it is a -{mainly}sad-fact caused by hegemonic divide and rule ideology)world of gay men writing re gay men (solely , or amongst other characters); yes gay men can write endlessly and well re opposite sex orientated people but straight male writers write little or it is pejorative,token or weak; the empathy doesnt work both ways with straight male writers. WOMEN writers:well, I could reel off hundreds who write with empathy about lgbt people . If you Know of any exceptions to this rule, besides Sebald, of straight-identified male authors who write with warmth and empathy and a roundedness of character about gay men characters, please tell me in the comment box!(and I am obviously excluding closeted gay/bisexual men from this, where we can read the code/subtext if we are in the know).

So, parlous loftiness; it is the essence of Sebald’s style and content; and it works

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About decayetude

ENTHUSIASMS: CLASSICAL MUSIC, ESPECIALLY OBSCURE ROMANTIC COMPOSERS; BACH/HANDEL LITERATURE, ESPECIALLY THOUGHTFUL, WELL-WRITTEN(STYLISTICALLY)NOVELS W G SEBALD WALTER BENJAMIN THEODOR ADORNO(JUST BEGINNING!) AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY GAY MEN'S WRITING;QUEER THEORY STIMULATING DISCUSSIONS(EMOTIONALLY AND INTELLECTUALLY) GOOD RICH THICK ESPRESSO MICHAEL PONTI SPRITUALITY/LIFE'S "AURA"(BENJAMIN), WHATEVER TRANSCENDENTAL THING YOU WANT TO CALL THIS MEMORY-the elusiveness thereof. LOST TIME AND AN ATTEMPT AT ITS REDEMPTION(NON THEISTICALLY/RELIGIOUSLY)
This entry was posted in camp, gay, gay literature, parlous loftiness, queer, Sebald, translatio, tropes, Uncategorized, working outside hegemonies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to SEBALD AND “PARLOUS LOFTINESS”:QUEER OR CAMP?BY STEVEN BENSON

  1. decayetude says:

    Thankg GIll, nice to know someone reads these verbal peregrinations :P. love, Steve

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