W.G. Sebald: ‘The Rings Of Saturn’
On W.G. Sebald’s ‘The Rings of Saturn’ and the Englishness of English Art
If I said I was writing about W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn because of his use of Early Modern English collector Thomas Browne, I would not be lying, exactly. There’s lots of good writing about the nature of collection, and Browne himself, that I could highlight here. Sebald’s academic claims about Browne aren’t central to the book anyway, at least in the sense that everything he touches is somehow both central and peripheral at once. The Rings Of Saturn–- translated with close guidance from the author from his own German—is a book that is superficially about a lot of things: Browne, walking the countryside near Norwich, the character of English fishing and its architecture, the decline and fall of the British Empire, what happens in the absence of prosperity, and so on. Like Nikolaus Pevsner, Sebald is an émigré using the gaze that is innate to the character of the outsider to write about the Englishness of the English, and about their art and architecture. Unlike Pevsner, rather than re-iterate the troubling narratives of innate race or geographic definition that both animated the Second World War, and persisted in art history in its aftermath, Sebald looks the beast in the mouth. Like Browne’s own Urn Buriall, Sebald acknowledges human frailty, cruelty, and disregard, but he does so anticipating a world in Adornian ruin.
The tenderness with which Sebald treats his subjects, ensconcing them in references to Borges and Conrad, and buffering his essays with black and white photographs, all goes against the grain of the central trends in Anglophone art history today. The craze for a pretend objectivity, an ecphrastic gaze that is somehow without affect, has lead to a kind of soulless historical positivism at the heart of the discipline. Literature is suspect because it is by definition, not factual. Tenderness, vulnerability, and emotion are not viable modes of knowing in this art history. Yet to write about the ‘Englishness of English Art’ as the Bilderfahrzeugeproject has tasked me with doing, the empathetic devices of the essayist, embodied by Sebald, are as of just as much value as the ‘distance’ of the historian.
Sebald and Pevsner both wrote self-consciously in the wake of the Second World War. Sebald uses his own experience of difference, of being German in England during this fraught time, to promote a kind of radical empathy with his subjects: a single employee at a crumbling 19thcentury pleasure palace, the man who tried to bring to light the atrocities of the Belgian Congo, three older women in a crumbling estate, sewing, and finally even a man who witnessed the bombing campaign on German cities from a garden shed with a carefully delineated map, are all offered up to the reader not for judgment but merely as people. They are whole, complicated, deserving of understanding. Where Pevsner uses the lack of extremities he perceives in the physical English countryside to pontificate on some ur-origin of the English sensibility for say, the perpendicular church, Sebald walks that same countryside and finds difference and nuance.
I am directed by our project’s aim to think about the category of ‘Englishness’, and how it has been problematised by this historiography. At the same time, I follow the example of Sebald here in refusing to step out of my own time, with its entanglements, assumptions, and perpetrated wrongs. I look forward to writing about Browne’s Museum Clausum—a fictional 17thcentury English collection that, just like Borges’ philosophical country of Tlön, a literary device Sebald also uses in his own discussions, contains unexpected fruits as a paradoxical result of not existing. But neither Sebald nor I live in Tlön. I live in this England, where, as I type the kind of economic disparity he saw on the North Sea coast has crept even more deeply into London, this England where a man sleeps near my Tube station in a cardboard box even as the plush flats that ring the capital remain perpetually empty anticipating their oligarch owners. I live in the time of Brexit, or at least perpetual, slow-motion catastrophe with respect to the Euro-Zone. I live in Grenfell Tower England, where a posh-voiced man could be heard burning a cardboard effigy of the destroyed council housing on Guy Fawkes Night, shrieking with laughter. For Sebald, even the then-recent events of the war and the horrors of the Holocaust only made Britain and Europe more closely and inevitably intertwined, more collectively responsible for a better future in which we hold ourselves to moral account.
I want to say the same now, and the Bilderfahrzeuge project as a whole is a testament to the need to somehow articulate our commonalities and differences, but how to do it is the problem. In The Rings Of Saturn, I see a guide, for the ‘Englishness of English Art’ as an aesthetic category is not separable from the ethical questions that underlie it. As the epigraph to the book explains, the rings of Saturn derive from a moon that once circle the planet until it was broken up until tiny pieces by the gravitational tide of the larger mass at the centre. The rings are not less beautiful for being broken—in fact they may be more so—but one just has to know how to approach them, to weave a story from the fragments.