Tuesday, June 30, 2009

W Geology

A couple of useful comments posted on my Austerlitz blog.
Giovanni takes issue with my saying that in this book W G
Sebald wants us to understand one thing above all: that the
entire human race, in a sense, died in the Holocaust
between 1933 and 1945. Giovanni says he tends to recoil

when Europeans or descendants of Europeans
make the Holocaust humanity's crime, as if the
Chinese or the Indians or the Maori had
anything whatsoever to do with it and with the
logic that produced it...

I see how it was people who did it, so it did
redefine what being a person can mean. But
making it a cosmic crime as opposed to a
historically and culturally specific event can
actually impair its understanding.


It’s a fair point, and it leads directly to asking yourself if
the German people were uniquely iniquitous in human
history at that time or if no man is an island etc. I don’t
necessarily disagree with Giovanni—I was just trying to
represent the author’s position—but it seems to me that
Sebald’s saying or suggesting that most of us on this
planet have yet to come fully to terms with what these
particular members of our species did 70 years ago; that
none of us can go forward from there until all of us have
grasped it; and that his lifework was to keep reminding us
of it.

Tim Upperton cites Lavinia Greenlaw’s remark that Sebald
displayed a 'connoisseurial approach towards the idea of
ruin' that she finds disturbing, and says he can see exactly
what she means. So can I. Reading a Sebald book is like
spending the day in an overgrown graveyard contemplating
faded epitaphs and then going home to leaf through your
grandmother's photograph album while feeling vaguely ill.
But in a world where ideas of progress and newness are
constantly talked up, and the wheel keeps being reinvented,
personally I could do with a lot more ruination. In our rush
to the future we seem to have left too much past unlived.

7 comments:

Giovanni said...

In our rush to the future we seem to have left too much past unlived.

That is beautifully put, and it's truly a core belief of mine. But we (and I'm not unaware of how complicated "we" is) need to be careful to own and live our own past, and not make it somebody else's, or everybody else's for that matter.

If I had to sum up the attitude to our Fascist past of my country, it would be "the Germans did it". That is unhealthy and wrong for so many reasons, not to mention a big part of what landed Italy in its current mess. "Humanity did it" is another out. That doesn't make Sebald's work any less relevant or important, it has more to do with the way I try to read him. (Or even Primo Levi, who is my all time hero - but he too draws lessons about human nature that I'm not always comfortable with.)

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