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rough notes

Excerpts: W.G. Sebald and Theodor Adorno

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W.G. Sebald is known for his unique narrative style, and his untimely death. The German emigré to the UK died in a car accident in December, 2001, not long after the publication of his last novel, Austerlitz. The academic-turned-writer wrote in his original German tongue, but found fame in several languages, largely on the part of his translators who maintained Sebald’s ability to frame one story around others in his texts. Reading Sebald can be difficult at times, due to his lack of punctuation and meandering digressions. But listening to Sebald’s text (i.e. read aloud, or picturing yourself actually becoming a part of the novel’s interior audience) is always an incredible experience.

Much of Sebald’s works are concerned with human destruction and war, and our decisions to reconcile or ignore the calamities of our collective past; Austerlitz is no exception. Crafted as an execrise in one’s discovery and remembrance of a past life assaulted and interrupted by the Holocaust, the text is often lauded as a worthy example of art which can speak of the social experiences and consequences of the Second World War. It is in this vein that critics have been apt to suggest that Austerlitz firmly rejects Theordor Adorno‘s famous statement that art and poetry – mental exercises in aesthetics – cannot properly exist after 1945. Adorno’s statement, written in the late 1940s (quoted below, for your edification), is memorable in that it encapsulates the incredible change in humanity after the Holocaust and the War – we are no longer innocents.

The problem with using Adorno’s dictum to speak out holocaust literature (if it is fair to call Austerlitz that, but I’m not quite certain) is that Adorno himself backed away from the statement twenty years after writing it. The critic acknowledged (also quoted below) in the late 1960s that the pain and guilt of man has every legitimate right to sing its song and be heard as the beautiful and the harmonic does. Sebald’s Austerlitz does not reject Adorno’s works then, but reinforces it a beautiful expression of “perennial suffering.”

Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society”. Prisms. Tr. Samuel and Shierry Weber. London: Neville Spearman, 1967. 17-35.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (34).

Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Tr. E.B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

“Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living – especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living” (362-363).

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Tr. Anthea Bell. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002. 244-254.

For months, said Austerlitz, I tried in vain, through the good offices of the Imperial War Museum and other agencies, to find any clue to the present location of that film, since although I had been to Theresienstadt before leaving Prague, and despite Adler’s meticulous account, which I had read down to the last footnote with the greatest attention, I found myself unable to cast my mind back to the ghetto and picture my mother Agáta there at the time. I kept thinking that if only the film could be found I might perhaps be able to see or gain some inkling of what it was really like, and then I imagined recognizing Agáta, beyond any possibility of doubt, a young woman as she would be by comparison with my today, perhaps among the guests outside the fake coffeehouse, or a saleswoman in the haberdashery shop, just taking a fine pair of gloves carefully out of one of the drawers, or singing the part of Olympia in the Tales of Hoffman which, so Adler says, was staged in Theresienstadt in the course of the improvements campaign. I imagines seeing her walking down the street in a summer dress and lightweight gabardine coat, said Austerlitz: among a group of ghetto residents out for a stroll, she alone seemed to make straight for me, coming closer with every step, until at last I thought I could sense her stepping out of the frame and passing over into me. It was wishful fantasies such as these which cast me into a state of great excitement when the Imperial War Museum finally succeeded, through the Federal Archives in Berlin, in obtaining a cassette copy of the film of Theresienstadt for which I had been searching, I remember very clearly, said Austerlitz, how I sat in one of the museum’s video viewing rooms, placed the cassette in the black opening of the recorder with trembling hands, and then, although unable to take in any of it, watched various tasks being carried out at the anvil and forge of a smithy, in the pottery and wood-carving workshop, in the handbag-making and shoe-manufacturing sections – a constant, pointless-to-do of hammering, metal-beating, and welding, cutting, gluing, and stitching; I saw an unbroken succession of strangers’ faces emerge before me for a few seconds, I saw workers leaving the huts when the siren had sounded and crossing an empty field beneath a sky filled with motionless white clouds, a game of football in the inner court of one of the barrack buildings, with hundreds of cheerful spectators crowding the arcades and the galleries on the first and second floors, I saw men under the showers in the central bathhouse, books being borrowed from the library by gentlemen of soigné appearance, I saw a full-scale orchestral concert and, in he moat surrounding the fortified town, kitchen gardens neatly laid out where several dozen people were raking the vegetable beds, watering beans and tomatoes, searching brassica leaves for Cabbage White caterpillars, whilst at the end of the day others were sitting on benches outside the houses, apparently in perfect contentment, letting the children play a little longer, one man reading a book, a woman talking to her neighbor, many of the just taking their ease at their windows, arms folded, ina w ay once common at the onset of dusk. At first I could get none of these images into my head; they merely flickered before my eyes as the source of continual irritation or vexation, which was further reinforced when, to my horror, it turned out that the Berlin cassette inscribed with the original title of Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt had on it only a patchwork of scenes cobbled together and lasting some fourteen minutes, scarcely more than an opening sequence in which, despite the hopes I had entertained, I could not see Agáta anywhere, however often I ran the tape and however hard I strained to make her out among those fleeting faces. In the end of the impossibility of seeing anything more closely in those pictures, which seemed to dissolved even as they appeared, said Austerlitz, gave me the idea of having a slow-motion copy of this fragment from Theresienstat made, one which would last a whole hour, and indeed once the scant document was extended to four times its original length, it did reveal previously hidden objects and people, creating, by default as it were, a different sort of film altogether, which I have since watched over and over again. The men and women employed in the workshops now looked as if they were toiling in their sleep, so long did it take them draw needle and thread through the air as they stitched, so heavily did their eyelids sink, so slowly did their lips move as they looked wearily up at the camera. They seemed to be hovering rather than walking, as if their feet no longer quite touched the ground. The contours of their bodies were blurred and, particularly in the scenes shot out of doors in broad daylight, had dissolved at the edges, resembling, as it occurred to me, said Austerlitz, the frayed outlines of the human hand shown in the fluidal pictures and electrographs taken by Louis Draget in Paris around the turn of the century. The many damaged sections of the tape, which I had hardly noticed before, now melted the image from its center or from the edges, blotting it out and instead making patterns of bright white sprinkled with black which reminded me of aerial photographs taken in the far north, or a drop of water seen under the microscope. Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow-motion version. In a brief sequence at the very beginning, showing red-hot iron being worked in a smithy to shoe a draft ox, the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the sound track of the Berlin copy had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depth, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended. None of the words of the commentary could be distinguished anymore. At the point where, on the original Berlin copy, a male voice, in high-pitched, strenuous tones forced through the larynx, had spoken of task forces and cohorts of workers deployed, as circumstances required, in various different ways, or if necessary restrained, so that everyone willing to work – jeder Arbeitswillige! – so Austerlitz interrupted himself – had an opportunity of fitting seamlessly into the production process, at this point of the tape all that could now be made out, Austerlitz continued, was a menacing growl such as I had heard only once before in my life, on an unseasonably hot May Day many years ago in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris when, after one of the peculiar turns that often came over me in those days, I rested for a while on a park bench beside an aviary not far from the big cats’ house, where the lions and tigers, invisible from my vantage point and, as it struck me at the time, said Austerlitz, driven out of their minds in captivity, raised their hollow roars of lament hour after hour without ceasing. And then, Austerlitz continued, towards the end of the film there was the comparatively long sequence showing the first performance of a piece of music composed in Theresienstadt, Pavel Haas’s study for string orchestra, if I am not mistaken. The series of frames begins with a view into the hall from the back. The windows are wide open, and a large audience is sitting not in rows as usual at a concert, but as it they were in some sort of tavern or hotel dining room, in groups of four around tables. The chairs, probably made especially for the occasion in t
he carpentry workshop of the ghetto, are of pseudo-Tyrolean design with heart shapes sawn out of their backs. In the course of the performance the camera lingers in close-up over several members of the audience, including an old gentleman whose cropped gray head fills the right-hand side of the picture, while at the left-hand side, set a little way back and close to the upper edge of the frame, the face of a young woman appears, barely emerging from the black shadows around it, which is why I did not notice it at all at first. Around her neck, said Austerlitz, she is wearing a three-stringed and delicately draped necklace which scarcely stands out from her dark, high-necked dress, and there is, I think, a white flower in her hair. She looks, so I tell myself as I watch, just as I imagined the singer Agáta from my faint memories and the few other clues to her appearance that I now have, and I gaze and gaze again at that face, which seems to me both strange and familiar, said Austerlitz, I run the tape back repeatedly, looking at the time indicator in the top left-hand corner of the screen, where the figured covering part of her forehead show the minutes and seconds, from 10:53 to 10:57, while the hundredths of a second flash by so fast you cannot read and capture them. – At the beginning of this year, Austerlitz finally continued his narrative, after lapsing, as so often, into deep abstraction in the middle of it, at the beginning of this year, he said, not long after our last meeting, I went to Prague for a second time, resumed my conversation with Vera, set up a kind of pension fund at a bank for her, and did what else I could to ease her life at the Šporkova. When it was not too cold out of doors we called a taxi driver, whom I had engaged to be at Vera’s disposal should she need him, to take us to some of the places she had mentioned and which she herself had not seen, as she put it, for an eternity. We looked down at the city again from the observation tower on Petřín Hill, watching the cars and trains crawling slowly along the banks of the Vltava and over the bridges. We walked for a little while through the Baumgarten by the river in the pale winter sunlight, we sat for an hour or so in the planetarium on the Holešovice exhibition grounds, repeating the names of those heavenly constellations we could recognize, first in French and then in Czech or vice versa, and once we went out to the game park at Liboc where, surrounded on all sides by lovely meadows, there is a star-shaded house built as his summer residence by Archduke Ferdinand of the Tyrol, which Very had told me was a favorite destination of Agáta and Maximilian on their excursions out of the city. I also spent several days searching the records for the years 1938 and 1939 in the Prague theatrical archives in the Celetná, and there, among letters, files on employees, programs, and faded newspaper cuttings, I came upon the photograph of an anonymous actress who seemed to resemble my dim memory of my mother, and in whom Vera, who had already spent some time studying the face of the woman in the concert audience which I had copied from the Theresienstadt film, before shaking her heard and putting it aside, immediately and without a shadow of a doubt, as she said, recognize Agáta as she had been. – AgátaDuring this part of the tale, we walked from the cemetery behind St. Clement’s Hospital all the way back to Liverpool Street. When we took leave of each other outside the railway station, Austerlitz gave me an envelope which he had with him and which contained the photograph from the theatrical archives in Prague, as a memento, he said, for he told me that he was now about t go to Paris to search for traces of his father’s last movements, and to transport himself back to the time when he too had lived there, in one way feeling liberated from the false pretenses of his English life, but in another oppressed by the vague sense that he did not belong in this city either, on indeed anywhere else in the world.

You are commodified.
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