WRIT­ING DOES NOT FREE THE IN­DI­VID­UAL FROM SO­CIAL BONDAGE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson Miriam Cosic

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

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