Monday, July 18, 2011

The Elegaic Mode

For W. G. Sebald, the modern world, a composite of contemporary detritus and forlorn nature, is a kind of forme fruste of the historical human condition. Sebald was a past-intoxicated writer, and in The Rings of Saturn a ramble through southeastern England yields disquisitions on Joseph Conrad, herring fisheries, imperial decline, and the silkworm industry. The entropy is inescapable. Here are a few choice quotes:

(On fishermen): "I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the time when the whiting pass, the flounder rise or the cod come in to the shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness."

(On the writer Michael Hamburger): "Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life."

(On Thomas Abrams, who devoted his life to a minute reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem): "In the final analysis, our entire work is based on nothing but ideas, ideas which change over the years and which time and again cause one to tear down what one had thought to be finished, and begin again from scratch."

(On the melancholy of medieval weavers): "It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread."

(On the destructiveness of civilization): "Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away."

If as many say, we now live in the Anthropocene era, in which the activities of Homo sapiens directly affect planet-wide processes, why can't we regard humanity with kindness, as we might regard any natural force? Just as a levee is meant to withstand the flood, one's mourning, indignation, and even resentment are meant to withstand and, if possible, to divert the human flood from that which one holds dear.

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