This essay is about Rousseau’s exile on this small island, pursued as he was by backstabbers and infighters, and where he felt the happiest in his life. What insights do we get about Sebald HIMSELF in here,and which instances of the themes that concern him?

Well, Sebald opens with a self-description of a first sight(in 1965) of Rouseau’s ile “flooded with a trembling light”(p.39); then his actual journey there in 1996 is described(pp.39-41). Again, Rousseau’s exile reminds Sebald of himself:”..how far I had  come meanwhile from my place of origin”(p.41)-Germany and even East Anglia, where he didnt fully feel-ever- at home; he was like an ever migrating bird which finds only a temporary home.(In fact, Sebald’s psychogeographical place of origin is very moot; the wandering, malaise-ridden narrators or {part} putative “narrators” give testimony to the author’s OWN rootlessness).So, again, the choice of writer, like Keller, is always pertinent to Sebald’s own psychology and emotions and political convictions.

Sebald turns effortlessly to Rousseau himself and refers to how Rousseau(“Fifth Promenade” in “Reveries of the Solitary Walker”)describes that, on the isle, he was “happier than in any other place”, so the same process of self-referentiality and citationality(therefore, knowing) is taking place.

On p.45, Sebald writes of Rousseau’s being pursued, his feelings of shame , and his misfortune and of the earlier writer saying, at the start of the last book of his Confessions:”‘Here commences the work of darkness, in which, for eight years past,I have been entombed, without having been able,in spite of all my efforts, to penetrate its frightful obscurity'”(p.45). The eerie resonances, with Sebald’s OWN remarks(or as paraphrased by Paul Hamburger), that in his life everything had become enigmatic or unspeakable{http://decayetude.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/what-happened-to-sebald-in-marienbad-conjecture-and-poemby-steven-benson/}are startling; this visit to the Isle was made in 1996, Hamburger is talking re 2000.

Sebald next speaks of a “temporary refuge{being} vouchsafed”{East Anglia?}; there is talk of “his chronic abdominal complaints and various other illnesses and ailments which plague him”(p.46, cf start of “The Rings of Saturn”, and the narrator’s PHYSICAL paralysis after a back injury or some psychosomatic manifestation thereof. We even have an intra-textual reference to Cosmo, in his oriental garb{in “Ambros Adelwarth”, “the Emmigrants”}; here of Rousseau in his “Armenian garb, a kind of kaftan”.)

We have a Sebaldian idyll, on page 48:the isle is to Rousseau, and hence to Sebald himself, (so closely intertwined and blurred are their identities and cast of mind through much of this essay; and Sebald also writing so often of such places of escape from the vicissitudes of capitalism and the destruction wreaked by history and mankind):-the isle is, I say, to Rousseau:”…a paradise in miniature in which he might{sic; doubt?}believe he could collect himself in a stillness…”(p.48). Rousseau is recorded as saying he could spend “all eternity” there{Sebald’s words, p.49}.Then there is a DIRECT passage of piercingly poignant self-revelation about Sebald’s OWn psychological and emotional needs for safety, refuge and rural idyll:”that at least is almost exactly{sic} how I felt when, retiring at dusk from my walk on the first evening of my stay…inside I was lapped in the warm glow of a lamp”(p.50). There is no intervening,mediating  narratorial voice here(as in the prose fictions); AT ALL.This is Sebald’s cry from the heart about his own exile and need to belong.

The next paragraph has, as its key concerns,the exemplar of Corsica-of a society where there was , in Rousseau’s eyes,”the potential for putting into practice an order in which the evils of society in which he felt himself trapped could be avoided”, and “All forms of hierarchy were to be avoided by means of a legal system administered through rural communities and based on the principles of equality..”pp.51/2). Sebald then comments: “The whole Corsica project outlined on the Ile de Siant-Pierre is thus a utopian dream in which bougeois society, increasingly determined by the manufacture of goods and the accumulation of private wealth is promised a return to more innocent times”(p.52.) Startlingly,the next few sentences enter typical Sebaldian territory of melancholy: an almost self-defeating submission to political/social forces and, perhaps,pointing to something much more personal,(of which, other than Hamburger’s reported quotation/paraphrase of Sebald’s words of 2000-see this linkhttp://decayetude.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/what-happened-to-sebald-in-marienbad-conjecture-and-poemby-steven-benson/,we can otherwise , at this stage anyway, only speculate).

Here are the two, consecutive sentences:”Neither Rousseau, nor those who came after him, were ever able to resolve the inherent contradictions between this nostalgic utopia and the inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss.The gap between our longings{which may suggest Sebald’s own personal desires}and our rational strategy for living is clearly illustrated by the fact that Rousseau, who at this time needed nothing more urgently than a safe haven, could not bring himself to move to Corsica”(p.52).

To me, there are a myriad of political, psycho-social and personal issues here, which are stated with a succinctness(never mind the sentence length!) that most critical theorists could only emulate and envy!(All this in what SEEMS to be , primarily, a form of belles-lettres, impresssionistic, essayistic, rhizomatic writing, {with no artificial divide between the academic and subjective/personal}; SEEMS because Sebald does his research and references sources too, verifiable from Caitling’s notes at the end; he does BOTH genres of writing simultaneously):-

1.Sebald’s concern with communitarianism as an alternative to living within the ideology of capitalist accumulation of wealth.

2.The melancholic sense/fear, to Sebald, that this is just a “nostalgic utopia”, which , of course DOES reflect reality(in the actual lack of any alternatives to capitalism and debased command economy communism on a more than microcosmic state of individual, communes and housing co-operatives, for instance); but also the sense, very possibly, of his own slightly depressive psychology or even of something stopping him from achieving full self-actualization(evidence, as such, for this, being that Rousseau is referred to as not attaining that state, in being too cowardly to actually take up his post/role in Utopia{Corsica}; further possible evidence being also that Sebald has deliberately chosen historical figures who reflect back, in their writings, his own, personal emotional,political and intellectual pre-occupations)

3.”…the inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss”(p.52). Well, I have dealt with this with Santner’s freudian (self)catastrophisation theory(in reference to Sebald’s narrators), with an emphasis on how Santner purports that the sebaldian narrators’ inner psychic dislocation is a mirror(ie. operates b0th ways!)of the catstrophisation mankind causeshttp://decayetude.wordpress.com/tag/eric-l-santner/

4.”The gap beween our longings and our rational strategy for living….”(p.52); that says a lot in a nutshell and says it very poignantly.Much of Sebald’s writing is full of longings for times past; on a personal level, his grandfather he loved so dearly (in the Hebel essay); and, again, indubitably with personal resonance, in “Il Ritorno in Patria”(last section of “Vertigo”) for the countryside in which he was born and from which he , for reasons well-explored by others elsewhere,  felt he had to live in perpetual exile; et al.

These themes are all, obviously, interlinked; we can never divorce the “psycho” from the social in Sebald. It is, again, typical of Sebald that he interweaves much critical theory and poetry in just two sentences(within a more free-from long paragraph).

In relationship to point 4 above,Sebald visits Corsica and describes the place where Rousseau would have gone, given the courage, as idyllic: the sea is ” a shimmering blue haze”(p.53);in the  “dappled shade{of the trees}Rousseau could have taken the air with his dogs at his side”(p.53). Again-a sensation expressed by the onomatopoeic Welsh word, hiraeth(only roughly translatable as an aching longing, yearning)-it pierces through Sebald’s writing about(ostensibly)Rousseau. And then the final sentence of the paragraph:”Who can say whether, if he had spent the rest of his life there, far removed from the hubbub of literary business and hypocrisy{a stab, by Sebald, at PARTS of the academic establishement?}he might yet have retained that sense of sanity and proportion which later at times threatened to desert him altogether”(p.53). The parallels to Sebald himself are manifold and obvious: his own struggle, for instance, in his last years, with being feted as a great writer, with all the pressures that entails.

(Commentary on the Rouseau essay is fast becoming a paragraph by paragraph exegesis, so I shall continue updating this post till I get to the end of the essay!)


The next paragraph(pp.53-6) further exemplifies Sebald’s gift for belletristic, rhizomatically, yet, oxymoronically, strangely FOCUSSED writing(as I have shown in his repeated concern with huge, pertinent themes). This certainly undermines any thesis that belles-lettres/essayistic writing is devoid of referencing and, generally, of factual insight; but it is,ultimately, to reclaim Lacan’s term for the POSITIVE, an Imaginary; yet one that INTENSIFIES one’s experience of both the people being written about and the apercus of the writer in reference(s) to HIMSELF, often inextricable-particuarly so in Sebald- from the personas of the people being(really and ostensibly) written about.

Sebald now returns to a theme of his introduction to the volume(pp.1-3 of this edition), that is of the “vice of literature”(p.2).Here, in the Rousseau essay, he talks of the “degout”{disgust} Rousseau felt, at the end of his life,with literature: “….something that for him always went hand in hand with the act of writing. In accordance with his{Rousseau’s} doctrine of the formerly unspoilt state of Nature, he saw the man who reflects as a depraved animal perverted{sic!} from his natural state, and reflection as a degraded{sic}form of mental energy”(pp.53/4).These are heavy epithets indeed!Whether Sebald is here talking about  his own disaffection with writing is VERY moot(I know of no direct, ie unmediated by a narratorial voice or protagonist,evidence that he saw it himself as a disease, {though is there an interview to this effect?}).

Rhizomatically but purely serendipitously, I have been concurrently reading Hanssen’s fascinating essay, which forms the introduction to her editorship of “Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project”(2006); the esssay, more than a mere introduction, is entitled “Physiognomy of a flaneur:Walter Benjamin’s peregrinations through Paris in search of an Imaginary”. Well, we know of Sebald’s great love for Benjamin(he is referenced, for example, on androgyny, in a later essay in this volume); yet I was struck by Sebald’s next sentence in relationship to one by Benjamin, which Hanssen quotes. Sebald: “No-one, in the era when the bourgeoisie was proclaiming, with enormous philosophical and literary effort,its entitlement to emancipation,recognised the pathology{sic} of thought as accurately as Rousseau, who himself wished for nothing more than to be able to halt the wheels ceaselesssly turning in his head”(“Place in the Country”, p54).Benjamin:he writes (in “Dream kitsch”, 1927) about surrealism and its freeing-up influence, (via the “intoxication” of, for example, the “opium-eater” and dreamer; and surrealism’s conflation{in a non-binary, image led fashion} of dream and reality): he writes that surrealism was keen to attain a new KIND of revolution, not extinguishing the politico-historical stage, but as an essential extension of it, by means of appropriating the “energies of intoxication for the revolution”(Benjamin, “Selected Writings”, ed Jennings, 1997-2003). An analogy(?development)would  be Halberstam’s idea of queer time and space, which work from a subjective appropriation as part of the self , OUTWARDS to politico-social activism/changehttps://towardsutopia.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/critical-thinking-in-the-form-of-a-poemthe-difference-between-sebalds-spectral-geographythe-abject-subject-and-utopian-gayqueer-geographies/.

Benjamin’s aim was the transforming of “an extreme contemplative position in revolutionary opposition”(Hanssen, op. cit), by means of radical SPIRITUAL freedom, which counteracted the endless discussion of politics and theory. Hanssen then states that Benjamin’s “profane illumination”..”did not just produce the loosening of the I, but it allowed the subject to engage in real political Erfahrung{empirical observation}, free from contemplative over-theorizing or too much speculative theory”{lol; op cit. p.6}

Well, perhaps Sebald, Rousseau, Hanssen and myself are arguing ourselves out of a role(vis-a-vis being all, to various degreees, literary activists; cf.https://towardsutopia.wordpress.com/about/); but I definitely feel that Sebald is saying that critical thought(and therefore social progress beyond failed/failing/corrupted ideologies)can be limited by exclusion of the “irrational”,or the imagination,or the aesthetic,which can, in actuality, add a further and NECESSARY dimension. To give an example from my (real!) life: being a member of two radical pedagogic peer-learning/teaching groups, (dealing with subjects which are all related to each other , such as  represion/emancipation,capitalism/”Utopian” alternatives,)is an example of PRAXIS not just theory(though theory obviously informs and often is the catalyst for praxis); one of the groups also meets in a radical housing co-operative; and the groups use rhizomatic critical thinking, personal experiences and imaginative process to make links between oppressions and hopes for (further) emancipations; and hopefully provide some clarity towards political action!This, in turn, leads to Sebald’s dream, expressed heartachingly in some of these essays,of new ways of thinking and living BEYOND the restrictive, controlling binary of debased communism and of failing, morally compromised capitalism; towards something respecting of equality in difference, ethical and personally fulfilling.

Sebald himself seems to be striving towards something he cannot quite name, except as a locus of “nostalgic Utopia”, with its implication of something-never/unlikely-to-be-achieved-in-the future but also a never-to-be-recaptured PAST idyll; a sort of interrupted/incompletable (derridean) trace. Again, I cannot wait to read more of Helen Finch’s book for her elucidation of the “queer moments of resistance” in Sebald, because I, personally, yet see a primarily(though not QUITE completely )backwards-facing yearning,a predominantly melancholic vision/world-view; which, yes, NOTES points of (possible) resistance, but where these points, manifested in the characters(like Ambros and Cosmo, Dr. K, and Ferber, for instance)and narrators(for instance the somatised ills of the “Rings of Saturn” narrator):-where these points are forever overridden by “the jackboot of history”(“Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva”, in “The Emmigrants”), observed as history’s VICTIMS, restored from invisibilization indeed(by Sebald’s reparative writing), but who are not, in any ACTIVE sense, a serious challenge to hegemonic and heterosexist power.

Returning to the subject of belletristic, rhizomatic verbal peregrinations{thanks to the Sebald scholar, Dr. Christopher Madden, for the planting in my mind of that particular adjective relating to belles-lettres!:)},we now have the most lovely, poetic diversion as Sebald talks about Rousseau’s botanical writings and then suddenly changes tack to: “A faint aura of unconscious beauty still hovers over these flower collections in which{he gives examples of Rousseau’s pressed flowers}{…the flowers}have survived, pressed and a little faded, from the 18 th century”(pp.55/6). Then back to Rousseau’s  own especial herbarium “{preserved}.. upto the Second World War… in the Botannical Museum in Berlin…”(p.56). Then, in a shocking extension of the idea of the main clause: at the end of the sentence we have this apercu:”… until , like so much and so many in that city, it went up in flames one night during of the nocturnal bombing raids”(p.56).{ Compare here the account of the Bomber Harris raids on Dresden and many other German cities in Sebald’s “Natural History of Destruction”}. Thus does Sebald, rhizomatically and labarynthinely and self-palindromically(in a metaphorical sense)take us on his wheels-within-wheels explorations of his mental territory and the concerns that form the marker posts therein. But instead of a possible disjunct in the flow of the writing,we have an effortless movement from one theme to another, all coming together in a stream, plunging forth in all its diversity of accumulated knowledge and wisdom; a stream which combines poetry, critical thinking, history, melancholia, belletristic links and insights,and much else, not as flotsam and jetsam but as an intrinsic part of its flow; all to provide us with glimpses into the writer under question’s soul and Sebald’s own

After an inserted photocopy of a picture of a pressed flower(p.56),Sebald goes on a ramble.He devotes his next paragraph to a meditation on Jean Starobinski(“Rousseau’s Transparency and Obstruction”, 1988)and the latter’s thesis that “‘The moment of utmost clarity of the landscape..is at one and the same time the moment at which individual existence dissolves at its limits and is dreamily transformed into thin air'”(p.57). Sebald reckons that Starobinski averred that “to become totally transparent {was} the greatest ambition of the inventor of modern autobiography”{viz Rousseau}(p.57). We now enter a web of citational, wondrous plenitude, as the identities of Sebald, Rousseau, Starobinski and one Becher blur and overlap in counterpoint.

Many whole books/theses/essays have, I am almost sure, been written on what redemption meant to Sebald; in his reading and answering of questions on this U-Tube footage(the only extant I know of on the net , where we actually see as well as hear him), he refers ro redemption in a “non-religious sense”, but does not expandhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccMCGjWLlhY&list=FLPAXlImLTFAkclTJrTOwWSQ&feature=mh_lolz.

He often deals with the redemption, via his reparative writing, of the marginalised and the invisibilised from history. Yet, also, there is SOMETHING of the spiritual, non-theistic idea of ASPIRING towards or ATTEMPTING to find redemption, particuarly over death(but really knowing it is but a self-delusory attempt thereat); and in this passage it takes the form of “vitrifaction” into crystal, frozen for ever in/outside/beyond time thus somehow, vaguely, outwitting mortality. Sebald seems to HIMSELF be making the statement that “the symbol of this ambition{to become totally transparent} is the crystal”(p.57); but in the next clause he switches to Starobinski, part quoting and part paraphrasing:”…for it is impossible to tell, Starobinski states, whether it is{into direct quotation from Starobinski}’a body in its purest state or, by contrast,a petrified{literally} soul'”(p.57, Sebald quoting Starobinski , op cit).Then Sebald cites Starobinski citing Rousseau citing Johann Becher who claimed that man was essentially “glass and can return to glass”(p.57).

However:”{Sebald speaking in his own voice}This conjecture about the metamorphosis of the body into pure substance, as it were freed from the ephemarality of existence… is,as Starobinski writes,in the final phase of his{Rousseau’s} thought transformed into{quoting Starobinski}’ its negative counterpart, pulverization, which kills the light and reduces human society to a dark, indistinguishable and impenetrable mass…..{Rousseau’s} transparency is solidified, the dark night outside him congealed.. the world{is enclosed} in a web of darkness'”(p.58, Starobinski, op. cit).

This paragraph reminds me of Naegeli(in the Selwyn section of  “The Emmigrants”), Selwyn’s same-sex lover almost turned into the ice of a glacier, perhaps some kind of belated consolation to Selwyn, who, we are told, “knew no greater love”. But we can see Sebald desperately toing and froing between wanting redemption over time and death, WANTING to believe alchemists like Becker,but, simultaneously, undermining his own hope by this negative counterpart that nothing may remain after death, just pulverization into dust.

Of course, it is, to say the least, a perennial theme of many authors; but it is Sebald’s OWN version of Eliot’s Rose Garden(“Burnt Norton” opening; “Four Quartets”) whereby SOMETHING(a soul? we get into metaphysics again!) MAY exist outside/beyond/parallel to lived/living time; be it a beautiful, transfigured Rose Garden or be it the soul frozen in ice or glass forever; or are all these just wishful thinking?(Sebald avers).

The last paragraph recounts the mainly sad tale of Rousseau’s last years, punctuated, at the very end,with typically Sebaldian photocopies of Rousseau’s notebook, an engraving(?) of him reading aloud, and a beautiful picture of the Isle of Poplars, where he is buried(p.63), with a final image(of doubtful provenance-and possibly some kind of montage) of Rousseau’s funeral obsequies/celebrations(p.64); it has an eerie feel.Rousseau is described, in his end days, of experiencing what we would now call bipolar disorder(“His mood oscillates between despondency and exhileration”, p.59).Though it is ill-defined, we get, again,a tinge of Sebald’s OWN last years, as reported to Hamburger, in the sense of seeking peace amidst an “unspeakable{Hamburger paraphrasing Sebald}and incomprehensible world”. Rousseau finds some solace in writing(though still a compulsion) and botanics; Sebald finds his… where?


About decayetude

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  1. decayetude says:

    Thanks Gill; the rest of this essay and commentary on the rest of the book, “Place in the Country” has to be re-written, but i have bought another copy!xx

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