Sebald’s untranslated interviews

Only recently did I become aware of Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis, an anthology of interviews with W.G. Sebald, edited by Torsten Hoffmann. Who knows why it isn’t translated? Beyond offering insight into Sebald’s early concerns, his sometimes surprising sources, and his manner of composition, it gives much to consider for writers inclined to reckoning with disaster and tragedy, but hopeful of sidestepping the sanctimonious kitsch and self-regard that often thwart the longing for gravitas.

Most interesting for me were the frequent references to natural history: concerning Karl Kraus, Sebald speaks of the “corruption of society as an almost natural-historical phenomenon”; the same goes for the degradation of syntax and grammar between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly of the conception of mankind:

What a Roussea produced in a single day in correspondence alone, composed in consummate French! For us today, such a thing is almost impossible, and I have the feeling that our weakening grasp of language across the course of time is a generalized, almost natural-historical phenomenon.

Mankind does not consist, as we still hoped in our liberal daydreams in the 19th century, of emancipated, autonomous individuals. It constitutes an at times heterogeneous, but in principal homogeneous mass. This mass has a molecular structure – that is, individuals – which may transition into another aggregate state. The more one heats a mass, the faster the molecules move, and all at once, the point is reached at which the fluid of mankind takes on a gaseous form.

… the individual, the lone autonomous essence, the superordinate, that is a mere dream we have elaborated in our bourgeois epoch. In fact, man is a collective phenomenon…

Regarding his method, Sebald speaks frequently of bricolage and of the need to foment coincidence, by travel and by an intimate engagement with primary source materials (an aspect of Sebald’s work seemingly lost on his legions of imitators):

This is a form of aboriginal labor, of pre-rational thinking, in which one rustles about in casually accumulated debris until a pattern somehow emerges.

On the importance of the material in his work: Things have a mute history… in objects, something like a mute, wordless history is condensed.

On Kafka: he experienced his own life as illegitimate.

He dwells as well on the diminished meaning of place-names in a time of unrelenting progress, of the relation between architectural monumentalism and paranoia, the evocativeness of black-and-white photography, the distinction between melancholy and depression, but I ought not quote too much here. The most painful and also most poignant impression the book leaves me with is Sebald’s sense of the transitory nature of the human perspective, which emerges as the outgrowth of overdetermining organic processes and will vanish, despite the delusion of individual sovereignty, at those same processes’ behest, leading one to wonder to what extent the longing for suicide inspired by the unfathomable magnitude of life on earth is actually a form of nostalgia…

NB: The translations here are approximate and should not be quoted.


Selfies, Contemporary Literature, and the Presumption of Interest

Epidemiology offers a fruitful perspective to consider the malignancies evident in much contemporary writing. My perceptions here are far from universal, first because no one can get a proper grasp on what is happening in literature everywhere, and second because I am not an especially voracious reader. Yet more and more I am seeing not just the usual badness, but a particular and I think new kind of badness in the books I come across, which I doubt can be divorced from the documented rise in narcissistic traits in so-called Western countries – a real trend, even if most of the writing about it is vague, tawdry, and alarmist –  and from the peculiar distortions effected on subjectivity, not only by social media, but by the compulsion to identity that appears a part of our Zeitgeist.

The cardinal feature of the badness in question appears to be the presumption either of inherent interest or of a claim on others’ interest independent of the aesthetic virtues of the text in question (the word aesthetic is marked off here because in certain cases, other putative virtues appear to displace, substitute for, or supersede aesthetic value). Dividing the two is a thorny task: in general, one might say that exemplars of the first tend to enjoy the favor of some already extant mediator of regard or privilege, while those of the second seek to exploit some aspect of their alienation from said mediators as evidence of a reprehensible exclusion from consideration.

In books of this kind, though the author may believe himself to have produced something of value, the actual burden of generating interest is passed off onto the reader, who, if he fails in this task, is subject to one of two sorts of opprobrium: the age-old charge of philistinism, if the author is established, or that of bigotry, if the author is excluded, subaltern, or what have you. In either case, the predominant feeling for the reader who is aware of, but has not succumbed to, advance praise, browbeating, or the obligation to enjoy, is boredom, exasperation, and vague, persistent irritation.

Such writing finds its analogue in the perplexing phenomena of social media: the selfie and particularly the status update. In an essay on Ben Lerner and Teju Cole for Uwe Schütte’s Über W.G. Sebald, I used the term “literary selfie” to describe these writers’ work, which is less concerned with the places, circumstances, or persons described therein than with the authors’ prominent visibility against the backdrop they provide. A recent study in Toronto by Dr. Daniel Re, et al. concluded that “Selfies may therefore produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot,” and found that “Selfie-takers generally overperceived the positive attributes purveyed by their selfies.” I have the sense that similar illusions obtain in the literary selfie: that authors who believe they are conveying probity, sagacity, and acumen in general manifest obtuseness, inconsideration, and intolerable self-regard.

As these traits come to predominate, writing suffers in interesting ways. Plotting, traditionally the source of tension, becomes slipshod and piecemeal, because the presumption that the reader is always already interested strips it of urgency, and the rationale for a given incident’s presence in the text is often vague. Repetitions abound, because the author, like a friend who insistently posts photographs of his meals or of drunken nights out with friends, has lost sight of the possibility that he might be boring. In Leaving the Atocha Station, for example, there are forty-seven references to the narrator’s fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, eighteen to taking pills, thirty-five to drinking coffee, fifty-three to cannabis, twenty-three to the narrator’s “project,” and fifty-eight instances of the word “whatever.” Less than plotting, in the traditional sense, or character development, such iterations privilege a view of the subject as an accumulation of self-perceptions or “status updates.” This may account as well for the preponderance of adverbs in many books of this sort, which qualify non-falsifiable gradations of emotion.

The trouble with such writing, beyond its obvious complicity with the self-commodification increasingly requisite for literary success, and the abominable nature of a world in which the enticement of embodying an image or a product eclipses the temptation to be, is its vast incuriosity, its retrograde supposition of the fixity of the self. Even at its most brooding, it seems affected, more concerned with the lineaments of meditation than with its mechanics or the strange shores it might lead to, as though its representatives, starting to cramp from the unnatural posture, are already rankling, ready to post their update and move on.

Hegel, art, freedom


FullSizeRender-2.jpgI recently found a page of notes on Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics in an old notebook I was tearing pages out of. It begins with a note on Alberti. Whether the sculptor or the poet is meant, I have no idea, and strangely, I have no memory of reading either. The notes seemed interesting, so I have transcribed them below.

  1. As in Alberti, the notion that the significant difference between art and craft is achieved through freedom of action.
  2. Art represents at once the fracture effected by the progress of the mind and the mind’s attempt to remediate that fracture, which comes to appear, in a certain way, as a form of distress.
  3. In fact, it is the perception of freedom, of intention, that separates one’s understanding of artistic as distinct from natural beauty, and provokes the special sort of attunement we reserve for art objects.
  4. The an-und-für-sich Seiende  in Hegel must be the primal perception of another being experienced in its twin possibilities of menace and object of conquest (be it violent, erotic, domesticating) – these are our most basic modes of understanding other beings… [This drifts into notes that are partly illegible, and incomprehensible where they are not.]
  5. In terms both of form and content, art is constrained by its relation to the spirit. The nature of every genre of creative act (art, science) is defined by the specific limits that demarcate its realm of action from that of pure freedom.

Rainald Goetz, Büchner Prize 2015

Rainald Goetz doing his thing

Rainald Goetz doing his thing

It was announced yesterday that Rainald Goetz had won the 2015 Georg Büchner Prize, joining the storied ranks of Paul Celan, Friederike Mayröcker, and Elias Canetti, among others. The choice is a somewhat controversial one: Shigekuni, who knows more about German literature than I do, declared Lutz Seiler and Marcel Beyer of more merit, while the equally knowledgeable Katy Derbyshire, whose post about her ill-fated choice to go to a Rainald Goetz reading would make a lovely short film, hints that he may be a men’s writer (this is particularly worth noting since women seem in general to get short shrift at the Büchner, winning around 12% of the time).

Though the word “deserve” is almost meaningless and the idea of awarding literary performance a highly suspect one, particularly given the well-documented behind-the-scenes chicanery among literary prize juries and the dismaying degree to which prize money goes to further refining the snobbish indulgences of writers who are already well-off instead of helping those who need to buy food and pay rent, I admire Goetz’s work and feel it is particularly relevant for our time.

If we consider the novel as an instrument of social analysis, lumping in, albeit clumsily, Balzac, James, Dickens, and contrast this to the novel of introspective reflection, it can be averred, to my mind, that the former has suffered greatly since the beginning of the twentieth century. Particularly in America, when I see these gargantuan kitchen-sink monstrosities that appear every few years with promises of greatness, inevitably accompanied by fanfare declaring that the author has learned Armenian, read ten thousand pages of classified documents, or penetrated the world of underground knife-fighting in the course of his research, I cannot help but think of the necessary compenetration of ego and ambition. Tom Wolfe is not a fashionable writer anymore, but his reviled essay Stalking the Billion Footed Beast remains important reading to the extent that it dissects not only Wolfe’s own artistic failures, but those of countless writers who have come after him, up to and including Franzen, who yammer about “stories” and “real life” and “moral complexity,” contemning both the recondite artifices of “experimental fiction” and the aw-shucks simplicity of the popular novel.

In a beautiful passage of Bowstring, Viktor Shklovsky recollects a scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up where a group of students is playing tennis. The sounds, the sights are real, but there is no ball between them. For Shklovksy, this is a metaphor of the anti-novel or meta-novel, a form that, for him, has already exhausted itself in less than a century. “Return the ball to the game,” Shklovsky says. There is something true in Shklovsky’s adjuration: after so much reading, and without disparaging their brilliance, there is just not enough meat in Perec, in Bernhard, or in Christine Brooke-Rose to sustain one over the course of a life. And yet I am sure Shklovsky would not agree with the philistinism of Wolfe and Franzen. The vices of so-called experimentalism do not sanction the endless mechanical excretion of novel after novel about generational misunderstanding, clashing cultures, domestic discord, shameful family secrets, integrity in the face of corruption, or the triumph over adversity, irrespective of how much research goes into them.

It is here where I think Rainald Goetz is important. Over the course of thirty years, in formats ranging from theater to collage to techno music to blogs, Goetz has trained his eye on many of the signal phenomena of the present day; but the concept of research, as handed down from Balzac and Flaubert, has been foresworn as an arrogant pretense in favor of a self-abandonment within the confines of the subculture the author is attempting to approximate. This is a difference not so much of method as of posture: certainly, when Goetz writes about the art world, about music or finance, he is well-versed in the subject matter, but the idea that any aspect of culture can be understood from without is abandoned as mere arrogance. As Goetz states in Celebration:

Intellectuality remains a class destiny against which revolt is possible.

Goetz received doctoral degrees in psychiatry and history before embarking on his first novel Irre, an exploration of madness that could be described as a punk-rock reimagining of Goffman’s famed work on asylums. His guiding light is the famed social theorist Niklas Luhmann, who analyzed cultural phenomena as complexity reducers whereby the chaos of unprocessed life is reduced to comprehensible and manageable symbolic values within closed systems. Goetz’s recognizes that the symbolic values encompassed by the numerous worlds into which contemporary society is divided (art, music, finance, and so forth) are not inhabited by, but are rather generative of, distinct types of subjects, and that any understanding of these worlds is incomplete without some sense of the feeling of being inside them.

A criticism that has been leveled against Goetz, particularly during the publication of the various volumes of the project Heute Morgen, is a lack of analytical distance: what if this guy’s just doing coke, hanging out with DJs, and having a laugh at our expense? My sense is, on the one hand, that Goetz’s project of undermining the author’s role as analyst, of calling into question the potential of analysis as typically conceived, precludes the distance some readers might find comforting; and on the other, that distance is already presumed in the act of reading, and that Goetz trusts the reader to take his writing at something more than face value.

In any case, while I personally am indifferent or even hostile to many of the phenomena he describes (I would happily throw Jeff Koons in a gulag, for example), Goetz’s engagement with popular culture is far more interesting than the embittered boilerplate about the world going to hell in a handbasket that is the specialty of so many men of letters.

Goetz is little translated: his books are hard, and a lot of them deal very specifically with German public figures that other countries don’t care about. His play Jeff Koons is out in English, Irre was published in French but is out of print, the really cool-looking Dutch press Leesemagazijn has picked up a few of them, and Sexto Piso is bringing out Irre in Spanish.

[Update: I will be translating Goetz’s Irre for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book is due out in Fall 2017.]