WRITING DOES NOT FREE THE INDIVIDUAL FROM SOCIAL BONDAGE
cosmopolitans and exiles: even those who, like Robert Walser, hardly left home.
Mainly though, these are letters of admiration and even love, addressed to subjects (Tripp apart) who cannot receive them. Sebald writes of his ‘‘ unwavering affection’’ for these authors: for their dogged refusal to cease writing, even when the results met with silence, censure or outright mystification, and for the exquisite stylistic effects they achieved. The introduction makes this connection explicit, quoting lengthily from an interview Sebald gave to a newspaper in the final months of his life: The influence [on the rhythmic nature of his prose] came, if from anywhere, from 19th century German prose writing, which also has prosodic rhythms that are very pronounced, where prose is more important than, say, social background or plot in any manifest sense.
This idea, of the precedence of prose ‘‘ over the mechanisms of the novel [which] dominated fiction writing elsewhere, in France and in England, notably, at that time’’ is a startling piece of news in relation to Sebald’s writing. territory and resources, embedding ever more sophisticated rationales in culture and religion. The evolutionary payoff has been immense.
‘‘ Clearly those beings with evolved capacities of co-operation, solidarity, and empathy have a much greater chance of survival when faced with war,’’ Lefebvre points out. ‘‘ But, of course, that’s not the end of the story. For What initially struck English-speaking reviewers as a radically new approach on the author’s part — a nudging forward of latemodernist prose — turns out to be determinedly old-school. The antiquarian register, the endlessly elongated sentences, the reluctance of narrators to place themselves at the centre of events: much of it emerges from these antecedents.
Take Sebald’s passion for things. His works are filled with descriptions of redundant objects, unvisited museums, household kitsch; his pages include reproductions of postcards and bric-a-brac, scribbled notes and dusty prints. Then consider the following lines, from his essay on Keller: . . . as always when Keller has the opportunity of indulging his love for all things antique, there follows an incomparable description of all the outmoded, useless and arcane objects piled high on top and in front of each other, beds and tables and all kinds of assorted implements . . . here an ornate rococo clock and there a waxen angel lead a quiet and as it may be posthumous existence.
‘‘ In contrast to the continual circulation of capital,’’ Sebald concludes, doffing his cap to the Marxist-inflected thought of another influence, German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, ‘‘ these evanescent objects have been withdrawn from currency, having long since served their time as traded goods, and have, in some sense, entered eternity.’’ For the author of these lines there is something infernal about commodity capitalism, a sense that we have become trapped in an endless cycle of production and consumption. These objects gesture towards a world beyond it. There is something glorious in their inutility.
This is not simple nostalgia on Sebald’s part. Rather he outlines a survival strategy for those souls tormented by the effects of industrial modernity. In a chapter devoted to the German romantic poet Eduard Morike, for example, Sebald writes of how the ‘‘ ideal world of the Biedemeier imagination is like a perfect world in miniature, a still life preserved under a glass dome’’: Everything in it seems to be holding its breath. If we turn it upside down, it begins to snow a little. Then all at once it becomes spring and summer again. It is impossible to imagine a more perfect order.
And yet, Sebald continues, society doesn’t simply protect its members. It also organises, channels, and deploys their aggression. It wages war.’’
‘‘ Sociability,’’ he writes elsewhere, ‘‘ transforms war into a permanent but manageable problem for the species.’’ Weapons of mass destruction may not make it so manageable in the future.
‘‘ on the other side of this apparently eternal calm there lurks the fear of the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control’’. In the context of Morike’s life, chaos refers to the recent turmoil of European revolution, ‘‘ while the terrors of the new age of industrialisation are already silhouetted on the horizon’’. Sebald, Germanborn, raised in the rubble of a Germany destroyed by the end result of such technological and political developments, merely writes through the other end of history’s telescope.
It is not only style and content that Sebald borrows from his predecessors, but also a philosophical framework. The admiration that colours his piece on Rousseau, a work in which the ‘‘ paradise in miniature’’ of the Island of Saint-Pierre points towards Morike’s Biedemeier dome, is partly ecological in character — it was on the Ile Saint-Pierre that Rousseau produced his Corsican project, a ‘‘ utopian dream’’ in which the Mediterranean island would abolish money and return to agriculture — and partly concerned with the very impulse to write.
So how to break out of the ever more deadly cycle? Bergson also posits that love is a better motor than reason for universality. He is not talking about the partial love that motivates us to fight to the death for our kin. His love — an undirected emotion, like joy — is indiscriminate. It operates similarly to the way that when people are happy they will do kind things impulsively: say ‘‘ keep the change!’’, run to help someone who falls over in the street, or share good luck with everyone around.
Bergson does a disservice to Kant: Kant too said there is no higher good than a goodwill, than benevolence without expectation of reward. But we can see where Bergson is going. His universal benevolence is not commanded. It comes from the heart, not the mind, and so can radiate inexhaustibly outwards, crossing borders and creating an environment in which human rights will flourish.
Lefebvre draws this outlook back to the individual by showing how a genuine concern for human rights reflexively opens the soul. Other-directed love can be a form of self-care, giving the person who feels it a sense of purpose, security and quiet happiness in an unpredictable but unrestricted world.
This is no flaky new form of self-help. Closer to an Aristotelian notion of ‘‘ the good life’’, it requires ongoing and rigorous self-appraisal. Lefebvre calls this work ‘‘ spiritual exercises’’,
Rousseau represents an object lesson in the difficulty some writers face in freeing themselves from what Sebald calls ‘‘ the exigencies of literary production’’. So driven was Rousseau to continual literary creation, to novels and pamphlets, essays and memoir, that in the end his occupation came closer to a pathology than an inspired inscription of mental toil. If man is really a noble savage, as Rousseau argued, only fallen into corrupt society, then writing does not free the individual from social bondage. Every word only binds them more tightly to an unjust and increasingly destructive world.
Seen from this perspective, writing is a ‘‘ disease of thought’’ of which the author is an incurable sufferer. And each production from the writer’s pen is one more proof of Benjamin’s famous dictum: ‘‘ There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’’
It is these disquieting ideas that link Rousseau with Sebald’s penultimate subject, the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Walser was also afflicted by a compulsion to write so great that it drove him mad. The man whose early stories were publicly declaimed by an approving Franz Kafka, died alone in a field of snow near the mental asylum that had long been his home.
Though Sebald acknowledges a kindred obsessiveness in Walser, as well as a similar penchant for solitary walks, he places a more redemptive spin on the latter author’s need to produce. Yes, writing became an increasingly wearying business for the Swiss, to the point where, following his initial incarceration in a mental hospital in the 1930s, Walser reduced his already tiny handwriting to micro-scripts a millimetre high. Sebald call these the ‘‘ coded messages of one forced into illegitimacy ... documents of a genuine ‘ inner immigration’ ’’.
For Sebald, it is as if Walser was preparing for the coming historical calamity, smuggling a message of ineradicable human decency through those dark years, just as the sculptor Alberto Giacometti (another Swiss) carried his vastly reduced sculptures around in a matchbox during World War II. And when Sebald calls Walser a ‘‘ clairvoyant of the small’’ it is hard to forget the many celebrations of the miniature that appear in his books; hard, too, to shake the feeling that Sebald was also venturing in his work to protect some seed of humanity, some tiny generative potential that might survive fresh chaos to come. a term usually associated with the Jesuits — neither his world view nor his subject’s. (Bergson, by the way, turned down the offer of special treatment in Vichy France and queued up, on principle, to be registered as a Jew.)
Lefebvre’s argument is more technical than this precis may imply. (Disclosure: this reviewer is a former student of his.) He writes so engagingly, however, that an interested lay reader will not get lost. He filters Bergson’s thought through his own open-minded concerns, and through writers as diverse as philosophers Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, primatologist Frans de Waal and novelist JM Coetzee. When referring to other philosophers, he explains clearly the ideas he brings into play.
As wars based on moral conviction are waged ever more indiscriminately, with civilians collateral, even deliberate, damage, and as prosperous nations such as ours rethink hospitality towards economic refugees, victims of war and political asylum-seekers, we need to consider carefully what aid we can and should extend to outsiders.
Thinking like Lefebvre’s, channelling Bergson, can help jump the needle out of the deepening grooves of party-political discourse.
Henri Bergson in 1910