Book Reviews: On the Natural Destruction of History

The last writings of the last German writer

by Doug Roberts

Tue 25th Mar, 2003 [last updated Thu 6th Oct, 2005]
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On the Natural History of Destruction
W.G. Sebald
Hamish Hamilton, 2003
205 pages

Whether a man who writes writes well or badly can be discovered at once, but whether one who writes nothing but sits silent does so because he is sensible or because he is ignorant no mortal can discover.
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, Notebook D, #49

Reality is far less powerful than what enables it. When a book is finished, the true writer forgets it and writes another book. In doing so, he proves himself far more powerful than his work.

Reality itself is helpless, lacking in purpose, managing only to exist. What or who enables reality some writers, and some people, regard as God. Other writers, and other people, prefer to think that reality enables itself. They try to forget that something had to begin at the beginning.

Whatever the understanding, 1945 was real, and also enormously terrible. For the millions who began the year dead. And for the living Germans too.
A textbook accounting obscenely simulates the unstoppable falling from the sky: More than a million tons of ordnance dropped on Germany. One hundred thirty-one towns and cities attacked—many almost wholly leveled. Seven and a half million people left homeless and only slightly fewer killed. If anyone in that mayhem had sought the odd solace of measurement, they would have found 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every inhabitant of Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every one in Dresden.

That was the physical damage. According to some repulsively aesthetic arguments, the other damage was much worse. The temples of art were leveled. A whole near-thousand-year-old tradition was razed to its very foundations.

In aftermaths, the periods of reflection after utter disaster, ideas and words are rubble, as irretrievable as exploded homes, schools and places of worship. Words—mostly adjectives: “unknowable,” “unrecognizable,” “indescribable”—lay fragmented, twisted descriptions trapped under upended stone and metal. Ordnance was dropped on houses as ordnance was dropped on what a house means, its representation. Massively destructive ordnance was dropped on the house of German literature—the house that Goethe built, the house that Sebald had hoped to inherit.

When all the houses are destroyed, the idea of a house receives a wound. The idea and its word acquire a measure of experience, the weight of new shadows. And soon everything is necessarily rebuilt—the foundations set firm again, the plaster reapplied. A dark rear porch is attached, a new roof tacked on at an awkward slope.

But floors, walls and roofs are easier to rebuild than meanings. An aesthetic and the words of its expression are longer-term projects, and nails and wood aren’t enough. What was German before 1945 was now German only in name. Its house was hemmed in and then divided, some east, some west, all of it artificial and nowhere. And everything old began to die.

There are still some possible Germans living, emigrants who left before or soon after the war, scattered throughout the world. They have probably assimilated enough to allow kitsch into their memory. However, like the aesthetic that defined his nationality, the German writer is now absolutely dead.

The German writer was ultimately a victim of vehicular homicide, in England in December 2001. He was 57. A requiem mass was served in his memory at the great and painstakingly reconstructed St. Someone that was undoubtedly empty except for tourists. And the pamphlets were in every language except his own. He is survived by insipid pan-Europeanism and a decimated heritage.

The idea of the German writer—the Platonic German writer, years older than its departed incarnation—still exists, and will probably exist as long as Germans or writers or readers do. And the words “German” and “writer” will stick around, though probably for longer in this form, in English, than in any other (except maybe Mandarin). And a name for one of these Germanwriterthings, the very last of them, is reproduced here: W.G. Sebald, who writes this of his definition:

In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past, as people like to put it, it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking tradition. We do not feel any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilization, of the kind universally perceptible, for instance, in the culture of the British Isles.

The only reason Sebald can write “we Germans today” is because he lived most of his short life in those British Isles. While he was alive, everywhere he wandered either physically and intellectually—his small home in East Anglia, his university, anywhere—was the last patch of earth deserving to be called “Germany.” Sebald’s Germany is a nation for which Nazism was a logical (and insane) stop-off in German history, not its death and its rebirth.
And so, predictably, in the order of modern German writers, Sebald is the Struwwelpeter, the unwanted offspring, the last son of the king exiled into some lost Grimm tale, wandering off the page and never mentioned again. His accidental compatriots—Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll most notable among them—were not landsmen. They all wrote in German, but not in the same language.

This posthumously released volume of lectures, in German entitled Luftkrieg und Literatur (Air War and Literature), interpolates firsthand war reportage with essays on postwar writers. The thesis of the first section: No one writes about the destruction of Germany. German writers—that is to say (and to say nothing more), writers in the German language—have maintained an inexplicable silence surrounding the wholesale swallowing and unrecognizable regurgitation of their nation and its identity.

In the second section, Sebald swallows again and revises his thesis: This subject is mostly ignored, and when it isn’t, the result is dishonest literature. Some writers, most notably Alfred Andersch and Peter Weiss, tried and failed, due to sins of omission. (Andersch, the worse of the two, wrote that a decadent hero of his partied “bis zur Vergasung [until he was gassed].” This is German vernacular, and the irony was probably overlooked.)
But having made the pronouncement, Sebald obliterates it through his own sins of omission. He gives no initial reason for the predominant silence, and no reason for the wanting quality of those who attempted to break it. He refuses to prosecute or sentence; apparently, the accusations should suffice. Like everything else in postwar Germany, these writers were guilty until proven innocent. Sebald may be the pot, the kettle or the blackness they share; he isn’t around anymore to account for his own inexplicable silence.

A nation with an ethos, an aesthetic, will eventually destruct along with the ethos and aesthetic. A nation without an ethos or an aesthetic will exist eternally. There is nothing to destroy. It’s not that there’s no stirring; it’s that there’s nothing to stir. Now that Handel is known to most EU-happy Germans through the options menu of mobile tones and Schopenhauer is thought to play forward for Bayern Munich, the Fatherland will live forever.
This ignorance, this inability to express self-pity, is an awkward ellipse in a nation of mandatory Holocaust education and near-faultless sensitivity. Maybe all this sensitivity has ransomed Germany’s fire, its heritage and potency. Maybe the Marshall Plan paid several installments too far.

Sebald implied in his novels that the future of German literature was a eulogy. Like life, a funeral has to end sometime. The world will allow Germany a tear or two. America or England might even provide handkerchiefs, with appropriate logos. And after the funeral, everyone heads to the house of the deceased, to relieve themselves of memories. The house is easily apparent. It’s the only house still standing. Sebald’s idea of tradition, the shrink-wrapping on tradition itself, slowly rots in the padlocked pantry of that house, the last house left standing in the last nowhere town after the last murderous night.

There are two ways to understand dialectics, a dualism that must have kept Hegel awake long into the deep German night. One is that the dialectic provides a foundation for the evaluation of an idea. The other way is that the idea is had in order to provide for the dialectic. The inhabitant of that redeemed house is the modern German (read: non-German) writer. He is Lichtenberg’s silent sitter. Regardless of what enables it, sense or ignorance, he is mute among his mortally displaced neighbors. He hungrily stares at the locked pantry he will never open. He silently discovers himself halfway from past to future. He is thankful his house was spared. And that salvation shames him.