Tag Archives: W.G. Sebald

Marginalia, no.332

The gap between our longings and our rational strategy for living…

~ W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country

So much of life is captured in that half sentence. The human heart is apparently insatiable. I may be perfectly grateful for all that I have and all that I am, but I would like the opportunity to be more grateful still.

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The Eloquent Bones

I recently found myself at a little shop in north Berkeley pondering a drawerful of worn beaver incisors and a jar of coyote ulnas. The latter, I read, were discounted at three dollars each for purchases of one hundred or more. This seems a bit steep, but I don’t pretend to have a handle on the ulna market. Before leaving the store – a natural history museum cum wunderkammer supply outlet – it somehow became necessary for me to buy a splendid black springbok horn. It rests now on a shelf of my bookcase next to volumes by Borges, Calvino and W.G. Sebald.

For a bit more money I could have left with something quite different. Moving from the front of the shop to the back I pressed by flocks of pinned insects and Lucite-encased birds and amphibians. I glanced with alarm at buckets of antique doll parts and a gallery of detached alligator heads. I stopped short, however, when I saw, suspended from a wooden beam by bolts drilled into their skulls, three “fully articulated” human skeletons. Not casts, mind, but actual human skeletons.

On the avenue outside on that particular summer’s day I could have counted any number of young women dressed in less than adequate clothing, but it’s a rare thing to see anyone so terribly naked as these three were. It need not be so rare. There’s no lack of people about and every one of them is capable of producing a skeleton that might, one way or another, get left lying around. War or famine could supply the dearth, I suppose, but in the regular order of things we don’t meet dead persons. Not in the suburbs anyway.

If I hadn’t felt so queer just then I might have liked to ask the proprietor some questions. I would have asked him, for instance, if the resurrectionist’s trade was really still thriving (so to speak) lo this many years after Jerry Cruncher’s heyday? And how does one legitimately come by skeletons anyway? And were these produced domestically or were they imported? For any hope of an answer, I might have posed some questions to the bones too: “Tell me, was it a lifelong ambition of yours to make a career as a memento mori? And on the day you signed your corporal donation papers, did you ever imagine your ivories going for retail at prices like these?”

However chummy you may be in theory with the idea of mortality (even your own), a practical encounter with an actual dead person can still rattle. If you were ever tempted for a moment on a nice Saturday afternoon to doubt the facts of the matter, here are the eloquent bones to set you straight. Bones which formerly belonged to formerly living persons who formerly walked around and jabbered and sulked and wondered at things in the same (or roughly the same) manner you do now. Bones just like the ones you’ve never got a good look at but always suspected of playing hide-and-seek beneath your own flesh and muscle and fat. What these bones are saying, friend, is that you are going to die. And if it becomes really necessary then I guess I will too.

Vacationing at the coast this past week, I spent my mornings with a cup of tea and a hardback copy of A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne’s brief, grateful prayer to pleasure and the path of least resistance. In the biographical note at the end I learned that Sterne died a month after publishing the book and that his body was dug up a day or two later and sold to a professor of anatomy. This anatomist, the story goes, knew Sterne personally and was half-way through dissecting the corpse when he finally recognized his old pal and blushingly returned him to the churchyard.

Sterne narrated A Sentimental Journey in the character of Tristram Shandy’s Reverend Yorick – supposed descendent of Prince Hamlet’s reticent conversation partner. He might have liked the irony of his disinterment. An even more Yorickian fate was famously endured by Thomas Browne, whose skull made an eighty-year tour of the Victorian and Edwardian eras after it was removed from his tomb for no very good reason in 1840. W.G. Sebald – who himself died several years ago but keeps printed-and-bound watch over my new springbok horn – makes Browne’s posthumous tour matter for meditation in his Rings of Saturn.

We like to think that what’s left of us when we’re gone can still belong to us somehow. One of my wife’s uncles, for example, had it written it into his will that his sons may inherit his house only on condition that they not sell it: it would be too painful even in the grave, he felt, to lose out on the low tax rate the property currently enjoys. As the author of Ecclesiastes could have reminded him, ownership even of our homes and bodies is only an accidental and temporary fiction. What we have and what we are is an inheritance for strangers.

Whatever a person may be, it seems he must be more than his material parts. It’s a popular notion of high school biology class that we are physically constituted of different stuff at different stages of life, adding and shedding matter constantly until, in the end, we’re made up of almost nothing that we started out as. Each of us is Heraclitus’s river, different each time it’s stepped into. Atom by atom, we borrow ourselves from plants and animals and stones of near and distant ages, and from burst stars and interstellar gas clouds of inconceivable hoariness. In geologic time to come, in a peculiar mode of afterlife, our constituent parts are repurposed into infinite successions of new and varied forms.

A person, by this view, may be imagined as not a material thing or collection of things at all, but rather as an organizing principle, a crook in the stream that shapes the flow (of matter, of consciousness) in a particular way for a particular – and depressingly brief – interval. Then the walls of the channel collapse, the stream overflows its banks, and new channels are cut from the relics of the old.

I am willing to believe that all of this is true – it may even be beautiful – but still we feel there’s something dear about those bones. The material stuff of a life, however arbitrarily procured or prodigally redistributed, is not Nothing after all. It is Something and humanly relevant. There’s a passage from Pragmatism in which William James captures the sense of this. No one, James writes, who has looked in the face of a dead child or parent or friend should fail to sense the basic holiness of matter:

[T]he mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

If this is only sentimentality then only sentimentality is needed for the building of whole cultures and faiths and arts. These are impossible without aid from the beloved dead. Their bones, like their books, serve to humanize the past, the material order, and our own finale. If part of me is tempted to break into that shop in Berkeley afterhours and deliver our skeletal friends to a well-deserved retirement under the sod, another part sympathizes with the Capuchins of Palermo and the New Guinean tribesmen who keep their dead well tended and in fresh clothes because they can’t bear to be parted from them.

To repurpose a phrase from Sterne, “The heart is for saving what it can.”

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Horoscope

I wonder if astrologers down the years have mistaken the influence of the seasons for that of the stars, or if rather than identifying ourselves by place of birth we ought to call ourselves natives of spring, summer, fall or winter.  Perhaps it’s because I was born at the equinox that I feel a sort of homecoming at the entrance of autumn, that melancholy season in the first three months of life having tempered my infant soul to its character.

This past week, during a bit of late summer vacation, we flushed a pheasant from the grass while bicycling in the Bay wetlands.  At the Sierra gold-rush town of Columbia we bowled several frames down a crooked antique lane.  We tried, and failed, to visit Jack London’s former ranch while en route to my parents’ home in Sonoma County, then kept the children up late to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.  Next day we enjoyed a successful afternoon at the natural history museum in San Francisco, where I stared hard into the eyes of the basilisk and managed not to die.

It seems on the surface unreasonable but I never read as much on vacation as I manage during the regular course of work and home life.  This past week I continued my tour of post-war British fiction with Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington and am mid-way now through Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings.  To aid the digestion with some more American fare – and in the interest of philosophical good health – I also consulted Will Cuppy’s Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  Otherwise, two weeks since finishing Anthony Powell’s Music of Time, my shelf of unread recent acquisitions remains untouched.

A common critique of Powell’s books suggests that he relies too heavily on coincidence in the lives of his characters.  Asked about this in a 1978 interview for the Paris Review, Powell offered the familiar observation that real life, in fact, abounds in coincidence even while fiction rejects it.  I recall a morning this past July when I was surprised by reading in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants a description of a scene from Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser which I had just seen for the first time the night before.

I doubt that we are subject to occult manipulation in any of this.  But as my native season comes round again and I see my children discovering some of the same places and enthusiasms I shared at their age, I want to agree that admitting the action of serendipity is simply being realistic.  The cosmos, as we learn, is not really infinite but its expansion and folding back onto itself again is something like a working definition of time.  It is a part of the comfortable poverty of the universe in which we live that forms and ideas are bound to recur if only we keep a look out.

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Marginalia, no.98

I have always kept ducks, he said, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.

~ W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

According to that old parable of Bede’s, we pass like birds through the open doors of the mead hall, from darkness to light and then to darkness again.  The light is the life of sense and memory, the hands and words and sights that shepherd our mortal days.  The darkness is our ignorance of what comes before and what follows – prior to birth, after death.  We make trouble for ourselves when we abstract our minds from the light of the mead hall to peer in from outside, as if darkness shed a light of its own.

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Marginalia, no.76

All moments of time have coexisted simultaneously…

~ W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Late September bluffs its way to a reprise of summer’s dog days.  The weather prophets promise a triple-digit apocalypse tomorrow.  I only hope it will be the Last Judgment and that autumn will arrive near schedule.  Half asleep at midnight I can almost believe in the simultaneity of things.  I hear out-of-season visitors in the willows: the mockingbird, the storm.  By noon I’ve lost my faith.

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Marginalia, no.73

Raverat - Thomas Browne

…Sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness.

~ W.G. Sebald, on the prose of Sir Thomas Browne

I’m reminded of Gwen Raverat’s print, above, in which Death leans over Browne’s shoulder as he writes.  Browne was one of those unaccountable omissions in my formal education.  I was a year or two out of college when I first met him in the form of a bright yellow Anchor Classics paperback with a baroque ornamental cover so lovely I had to bring it home.   But accidental introductions are sometimes best, and some of our happiest discoveries -admit it- come from judging books by their covers.  Why all the morbidity about Browne? Perhaps abundance in language is sometimes more powerful for the final silence it evokes.  “The night of time far surpasseth the day,” he wrote, “and who knows when was the Aequinox?”

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