Early in this first essay, Sebald writes:”…all this even today constitutes for me a system in which, as once in my childhood, I would still like to imagine that everything is arranged for the best”(pp.12/13): how moving, ,and how simple, speaking volumes about Sebald’s nostalgic yearning for a putatively Utopian childhood(putatively because,as even whilst a child, “he would still like{sic} to imagine…”).

He is, at one level, or in one contrapuntal melodic thread, talking of Hebel’s almanacs, whose great detail-of multiplication tables, saints’names, phases of the moon,{much as they still have in some old-fashioned diaries}-reminds him, strongly, of his own grandfather’s almanacs:”…what always draws me back to Hebel is the completely co-incidendal fact that my grandfather, whose use of language was in many ways reminiscent of that of the Hausfreund{Hebel-Sebald’s oft-repeated, affectionately camp name for him; another queer moment!}, would every year buy a Kempter Calender{Kempten Almanac}…”(pp.8/9). Sebald then lists the types of material his grandfather would record in his almanac, with the usual grainy photocopies which at least SEEM to be copies of his grandfather’s actual almanac(I feel more sure that they are, than a copy inserted within an obfuscating voice’s narrative in the “prose fictions”), pp.10-12; and Sebald then goes on to telling how Hebel’s world so re-assured him in its order:”… a world in perfect equilibrium”. Hebel/Sebald(their boundaries are at times blurred)gives examples of stability from nature, (which are set against the  “the blind and headlong onrush of history”{towards destruction in Sebald’s world-view}),”when misfortune endured is recompensed”. Sebald obviously envies Hebel’s “wonderful inner certainty”, and goes onto illustrate his chosen writer’s cosmic(from above the world) viewpoint:”rational thought is stilled and the bourgeios instinct…with its passion for cataloguing everything no longer stirs”(p.14), though we may note the aporia here as, to Sebald, the miniaturization of these almanacs, and their endless catalogues, ironically,concomitantly, represents sanctuary(as he later writes of Walser’s miniscule writing font).But we often get the breaking down of these monodic binaries into sometimes (seemingly)aporic, sometimes complementary contrapuntal lines in Sebald.

Sebald never got over the death of his grandfather, to whom he was VERY attached, especially as he had an absent father, in many ways, who was a former Wehrmarcht(First World War) Officer who then went into the National Socialist government army of Hitler.

So a real, DIRECT personal insight and self-revelation here; before Sebald goes on to talk about Hebel(but also himself, or, at least , himself as a writer, and of his narrators-his “alter egos”, as Self called them in the above cited Guardian article):”..he never takes up a central role as a preceptor, but always positions himself slightly to one side, in the same manner as ghosts…who are known for their habit of observing life from the marginal position in silent puzzlement and resignation”. Again, it could be Austerlitz and his narrator and sub-narrators; it could be Max Ferber. Sebald then pursues his intra-textuality and (self) reflexivity even further:”Once one has become aware of  the way Hebel accompanies his characters as a faithful compagnon, it is almost possible to interpret his remarks on the comet in 1811 as a self-portrait”. Thus, Sebald is commenting on the way Hebel walks ALONGSIDE his characters as a friend AND that, in talking about Hebel, he is also talking about himself too!So, implicitly, Sebald is saying-indeed, has already, OVERTLY, stated in the Hebel/his own grandfather linkeage- that he is walking alongside Hebel, almost a PART of the earlier author, a part doppelganger( again, a recurrent theme in Sebald); or, to put it another way, we have the (again recurrent)object identification theme, be it homoerotic or here the homosocial hausfreund of the hausfreund. This is very touching and involving(in BOTH senses, because of its many layers!). We, as participatory(I stress) readers walk alongside Sebald walking alongside his grandfather, and Sebald concurrently walking alongside Hebel who walks alongside his characters.And I am Sebald’s hausfreund: as involved, participating reader:)

The parallel,between Hebel’s and Sebald’s content and writing style,goes still further. After quoting a very beautiful passage of Hebel(p.15), Sebald says:”both the comet and the narrator{sic; ellided}draw their train of light across their lives, disfigured by violence{sic}, observing everything going on below but from the greatest distance imaginable”. Its as if he is providing a guide to his OWN writing style, and , sometimes, content; not, obviously in a Brodie’s notes student guide type way, but in a self-reflexive, intra-textual enriching manner: a “constellation”(to use Sebald’s own Benjaminesque word; of mirrors reflecting in mirrors; mirrors reflecting back infinite visions, in prose , of beauty.).

Sebald even continues with a description of Hebel’s sentence structures, as , again, reflecting his own. Though he does not, EXplicitly  point this out, it is obvious: “…the language constantly checks itself, holding itself up in small loops and digessions{sic!} and moulding itself to what it describes along the way{a sort of verbal flaneurie!}recuperating{in a benjaminesque remnants/hauntology of capitalism way, redeeming them from commodification}as many earthly goods as it possibly can”(p.16). Sebald comments on Hebel’s reverse syntax, where the main clause of the sentence is often at the end,as indeed it is so with many of Sebald’s sentences(in the High Germanic manner, and yet also, ironically and aporically,following “exactly the word order of Yiddish, which refuses to subordinate itself to the rules of German syntax. This fact alone ought to be enough to refute the primitive Heideggerian thesis of Hebel’s rootedness in the native soil of the heimat”. Here,Sebald attempts to unentangle the aporia of his OWN useage of references to High German culture, which he has often argued was later distorted and corrupted into evil coinages,and the fact that his OWN sentence structures, as an act of contrition,follow Yiddish semantic patterns).

The Heimat:-the corruption of the concept of the German homeland from, Sebald argues, the Beidermeier era onwards, to it evil conclusion in Hitler and National Socialism, with the dictator’s vision of an all-vanquishing “Germania”.

All this blows my mind and is at least as powerful (in its multilayered-thematically and stylistically/poetically-structure) as even the set pieces, for example Dunwich Heath and the ladies’ waiting room, of the prose fictions.

All these essays have a strong anti-capitalist thrust; Sebald is always deeply political, sometimes very overtly(as here and as in the “jackboot of history” remark in “Dr K” in “Vertigo”), sometimes slightly more covertly. He looks back, and therefore, we would hope, forwards, to a communitarian Utopia, where people SHARED; not built on the exchange value and spiralling interest of money. Again, Sebald is political in these essays, beacuse the corruption, to him , of the German homeland, is historically outlined.

And also, he is antihegemonic, with his usual theme of the re-appropriation and attempted reparation of the marginalised in history and society(Hebel is the hausfreund: a little camp, loving touch there for an obviously loving man; Sebald WRITES IN his affection for him. It is a queer moment again, in the sense of a highlighting, and re-writing BACK into history, of people who just don’t “fit” or are victimised; and the inclusion of people who are different, idiosyncratic.)


{Here, again, I cannot wait to read Helen Finch’s book “Sebalds Bachelors”, because this essay on Hebel is definitely a queer moment: Hebel as hausfreund, lovingly recording , and Sebald REPORTING him as recording, the minutiae of domestic detail; and the hope the essay at least hints at : of loving people respecting each other in equality- in- difference:Hebel’s cosmology, as told by Sebald, represents a gap/tear in the fabric of hegemonic society-a knowing reference to the tear in time in the Dunwich heath scene of “Rings of Saturn”. All this is queer, in its broad sense; as is the quirky poetry of the lists in the almanacs.}

Actually, I am overcome, re-reading the Hebel essay and making all these links; I think the DIRECT emotional impact of reading, in an active way, Sebald, is often overlooked( and mea culpa too!)in the attempts to disentangle his labarynthine thematic concerns and his complex style. If you are not crying with grief at the content , or joy at the beautiful poetics of his writing style, you are not experiencing Sebald other than intellectually. And this uncomfortable dialectic between grief and joy is another aporia in Sebald; and, of course, as participatory readers, we inhabit  a disconcering space if we allow ourselves to experience these binaries contrapuntally. This has sometimes been put forward as an(irreconcilable) problematic in Sebald.

“The view from the Milky Way back down to the bleak and blackened ruins of the earth{this is based on post-Apocalyptic “Revelations” of the Bible}spinning in space could not appear more strange{delayed main clause at the end of the phrase this time}, and yet the childhood we spent on it, and which echoes through the words of the Hausfreund seems scarcely more distant then the day before last”(last paragraph p.36). So, Sebald, as well as Hebel, is back in his childhood,from the distance of writing in exile in East Aglia in his 50s. It is too powerful and poignant for words: this is the only author who arouses in me emotions as overwhelming as those of music. Despite his vast academic prowess and knowledge, it is straight to the heart and viscera. And, alongside all this direct , raw emotion,he evokes/invokes politics, and explores,by default, critical theory, history’s disasters, via a complex but effortless (including to read , when you are used to it, which soon happens!)sentence structure and style. The comparison, with standard critical theorists from the Frankfurt School(excluding the marginal figure, Benjamin) to Lee Edelman is that they are laboured; Sebald is effortless; his is truly a precarious but successful levitationhttps://towardsutopia.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/sebald-and-parlous-loftinessqueer-or-campby-steven-benson/.

Who else combines politics, critical thinking/theory, history, natural history,and the most wonderful prose or verse poetics/poetry so seamlessly and polyphonically.?Again, I wonder if he read any Queer Theory(none is extant in Caitling and Hibbit{eds} catalogue of his library); he certainly read Adorno and corresponded with him; he ACTS out deconstruction’s smashing of the concept binary in his contrapuntal writing -in respect of multiple-layered themes and rhizomatic sentence structure. Albeit that Sebald is truly inter-textual and citational, he didnt HAVE to read these authors/schools; he just explored, made links and produced much originality of thought and poetry.

(to be continued; next essay on Rousseau)


About decayetude

This entry was posted in gestalt reading, life mirrors art, parlous loftiness, psychogeography, queer, queer geography, queer theory, Re-envisionning, reader response theory, Sebald, Self-actualisation, Uncategorized, Utopia, working outside hegemonies. Bookmark the permalink.

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