Posts Tagged W G Sebald
W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).
In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image. This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving. But:
‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version. In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)
The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.
The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however. A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here. There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.
The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings. Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.
Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944
Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers. Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.
Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.
Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals. Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.
Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work. He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.
Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague. After Krasa and many of his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film. Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.
Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed. Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son. Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.
“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”
Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog reviews a fascinating and important new study of W G Sebald by Helen Finch.
Originally posted on Vertigo:
Part of the disorientation of Sebald’s characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.
Helen Finch’s new book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life is an ambitious, thin book that contains a dense, closely argued “queer reading of Sebald’s work.” The result is one of the most important books on Sebald to date. I am sure that there are a number of Sebald readers, casual and otherwise, who will look askance at a queer reading of his work, but, as Finch demonstrates, the clues – both obvious and coded – are there in plain sight.
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Intensely fascinating or tedious twaddle. Given my propensity for enigmatic French nouveaux romans and their cinematic equivalents you can guess which side I come down on.
Visually it is stunning, in a chilly way. The ornate mirrors and labyrinthine corridors, that extraordinary garden, the statues, Delphine Seyrig herself. The music is intense and overpowering, the acting stylised and static. The setting is a hotel, or a spa, possibly, but not certainly, in Marienbad. They – X and A – met here last year, or have never met before.
Alain Robbe Grillet, who wrote the screen play, describes the film thus:
The whole film … is the story of a persuading: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words. And if his persistence, his secret conviction, finally prevail, they do so among a perfect labyrinth of false trains, variants, failures and repetitions. … In this sealed, stifling world, men and things alike seem victims of some spell, as in the kind of dreams where one feels guided by some fatal inevitability, where it would be as futile to try to change the slightest detail as to run away. (Introduction to the screenplay, p. 9)
This is very much in keeping with the Robbe-Grillet manifesto. For him the text is the world, not a description of the world. The notion of a novel or a film having ‘something to say’ is profoundly boring:
When a novelist has ‘something to say’ they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. … They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this’. (Paris Review, spring 86, no. 99, interview with Shusha Guppy)
However, the director of the film is Alain Resnais, whose films have plenty to say. In Night and Fog he worked with the poet Jean Cayrol, whose powerful closing words, a call to awareness, would seem to be the antithesis of Robbe-Grillet’s approach. He fuses memory and imagination, and in the labyrinth of barbed wire, searches for and confronts the Minotaur, the monster, hiding in its heart. Hiroshima mon amour deals with the viewer’s reaction – ‘some of us see nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing. Others see everything. Everything. That is the point’. A whole sequence of films deal with trauma and memory and whilst others may seem more directly to address political or ethical concerns, Last Year at Marienbad does see ‘some of the concerns and tropes of Resnais’ earlier engagements with trauma, pain and death return … in various transposed forms.’ (Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, p. 85).
Perhaps the tension between the two Alains is at the heart of Marienbad’s enigmatic power. The viewer is invited by Robbe-Grillet to let themselves be carried along by the extraordinary images, the voices of the actors, the soundtrack, the music, the rhythm of the cutting, the passion of the characters, and describes it as a film ‘addressed exclusively to his sensibility’ rather than turning to ‘clumsy systems of interpretation which machine-made fiction or films grind out for him ad nauseam’ (Robbe-Grillet, p. 13). However, whilst it is certainly possible to be swept along by the the film in the way he recommends, it is almost impossible not to start trying to solve the puzzle. After all, a repeated motif in the film is that of games, and the winning of games, and the game of interpretation is too tempting to resist. And Resnais himself summarises the film with a question – ‘qui a raison?’. For Resnais, the protagonists in his films are real beings. They have their own lives, ‘latent, mysterious’ (Kline, p. 86). But realism doesn’t exclude ambiguity – what Deleuze calls a cinema of undecidability.
It’s difficult, knowing how far apart the writer and director were in their conception of the film (despite some of Robbe-Grillet’s statements on the subject), not to read the film in the light of this. When the images on screen often contradict the usually authoritative sounding voice-over, perhaps what we are seeing is Resnais asserting his vision of the film against the screenplay, which was so minutely detailed as to seemingly leave Resnais little room to manoeuvre, intruding on his territory with instructions on camera movement, lighting, etc. Robbe-Grillet describes the film as ‘in fact the story of a communication between two people … one making a suggestion, the other resisting, and the two finally united , as if that was how it had always been.’ However, Resnais has introduced into that narrative ambiguity that would seem to undermine that clear resolution. We do not see X and A leave the hotel at all, let alone together. They seem to meet, at the appointed hour, without speaking to each other, barely looking at each other, and walk very slowly and stiffly away from the lobby and out of view. Neither has any luggage though the voice-over has told us previously that she ‘packed a few things’. And if they do leave the hotel, it is only to get lost, forever, in the garden, alone or together.
The two Alains did not work, strictly speaking, together (ARG wrote the screenplay with minimal intervention from AR, and AR did the filming without intervention from ARG), and do not see the film in the same way. One intriguing sidelight on this is that AR used a recording of ARG reading his screenplay to guide the male actors. But not Delphine Seyrig. ARG himself has said that Resnais is A (Seyrig’s character). Certainly, there would seem to be a link between A and Elle (the woman in Hiroshima mon amour), both appearing to be traumatised, repressing memories.
X speaks in imperatives – Come here. Come closer. Follow me. Listen to me. Remember. I’ve come to take you away. You know …. that we are going to leave. A pleads, denies – No, it’s impossible. No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t know what happened then. No! You’re making it up. I don’t know you. No, it’s too far… Please. Let me alone… please… For pity’s sake! He is insistent – possibly to the point of rape. She seems traumatised, fearful. Her pose is characteristically with one arm across her body, her hand on her shoulder – a defensive posture, which at moments is almost cowering.
He asserts his memories, but increasingly doubts them, questions his own recollection – ‘no, that can’t be right’.
Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay calls for a scene where A is raped by X. Resnais refused to film this. The rape is suggested in X’s voice over – ‘I took you, half by force’, and then denied – ‘Probably it wasn’t by force’, but without complete conviction. He is trying to persuade himself as much as her here, that he did not use force. The question hangs in the air. Certainly he is forceful and she is afraid. She keeps her distance, ‘as if on the threshold, as if at the entrance to a place that was too dark, or too strange …’ She seems to show the classic symptoms of trauma, the continual reliving of the wounding experience.
So, how do we interpret this strange film? Are they all in fact dead, and the hotel is a sort of ante-room to the afterlife? Is the hotel peopled by automata, and X alone has autonomy, memory, and perspective? Does he have to seize the moment when the automata are able to move, to betwitch A into life, identifying/creating a past for her? Or is X aware of his status as a character in a film, imprisoned in the screenplay? Thus he starts to direct A, rather than merely describing things to her. He rejects one scenario (where she is shot) as ‘not the right ending’. Paradoxically, as Luc Lagier says in his documentary, we have a film that is closed in upon itself, but open to a seemingly infinite number of interpretations.
My own particular interests focus on trauma and memory, on the labyrinth which is such a powerful motif in the films and novels of the postwar period (Resnais’s labyrinths of barbed wire in Night & Fog, or the corridors of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Toute la memoire du monde; Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth amongst other works, and of course Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps…), and on W G Sebald’s engagement with the film, and the place, in Austerlitz, and in his poetry. In ‘The Year Before Last’ he writes:
The match game
was meant to decide everything.
The gleaming parquet floor
stretched before us. All round us
were mirrors, guests, motionless -
and in the middle you
in your feather boa. Hadn’t
we met once before?
In a taxus maze?
On a stage? The perspectival
prospect, pruned hedges,
little round trees and balustrades,
the palace in the background?
So, having been tinkering with this blog post for months already, I am pretty certain I’m not yet in a position to leave Marienbad. Bleston, all over again.
Tess Jaray, A ‘Mystery and a Confession’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn/Winter, 2002/3), 137-9
T Jefferson Kline, Screening the Text (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)
Luc Lagier, ‘Dans le labyrinthe de Marienbad’ (documentary featured on Marienbad DVD)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, interviewed by Shusha Guppy, Paris Review, 99 (spring 1986)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, trans. Richard Howard, Last Year at Marienbad: a cine novel (London: John Calder, 1962)
W. G. Sebald and Michael Hamburger, ‘A Final Poem: Marienbad Elegy’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn-Winter, 2002/3), 125-32
Freddy Sweet, The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais (UMI Research Press, 1981)
Emma Williams, Alain Resnais (Manchester UP, 2006)
cities@manchester on Manchester, the original shock city
Originally posted on cities@manchester:
by Brian Rosa, PhD candidate in Geography
Manchester is a city of superlatives: it was the prototypical “shock city” of the Industrial Revolution, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s model for everything that was abhorrent in the industrial capitalist city, and one of the birthplaces of the labor and women’s suffrage movements. In its heyday, Manchester was depicted in literature of Engels, Alexis de Toqueville and later the paintings of L.S. Lowry, as an uninterrupted, chaotic anti-landscape of chimneys and smoke, strewn across a featureless topography. Its unprecedented configuration invoked equal parts awe and dread, moral panic, and tempestuous visions of the future. In 1833, Toqueville described the crowded conditions, poorly constructed housing, hulking factories, and environmental degradation of Manchester: “From the foul drain the great stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold…
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Yesterday, on a quest to explore Sebald’s links with Alain Resnais’ L’Année derniere à Marienbad (for another blog), I noticed in Austerlitz the name Marie de Verneuil. She is the friend with whom Austerlitz has been in correspondence since his time in Paris, and who invites him to accompany her on a visit to Bohemia, to do some research on the spas of Europe (thus Marienbad). It would not have struck me the last time I read Austerlitz, but Marie de Verneuil is the heroine of Balzac’s first non-pseudonymous novel, Les Chouans, a historical romance based on the counter-revolutionary rebellions in Brittany.
Marie is a spy, in the employment of the revolutionary national government, whose mission is to identify and entrap the young leader of the rebels, the Marquis de Montauran. They fall in love, and the vicissitudes of their doomed romance mirror the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the opposing armies as towns change hands over and over again. This is not the Balzac of the great Comedie Humaine novels. Heavily influenced by both Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, its interest primarily lies in the way in which Balzac personifies and mythologises the landscape of Brittany as disorientating and treacherous, savage and primitive, and the way in which despite fairly obvious Republicans sympathies he enlists our emotional sympathies with Marie and the Marquis and their cause, as doomed as their romance.
But what does all of this have to do with Sebald? Balzac has an important role in Austerlitz: ‘the fifty-five small volumes of the Comedie humaine bound in carmine red’, in one of which, Le Colonel Chabert, Vera finds two small photographs, possibly placed there by Agata just before the Germans marched in. And Austerlitz, seeking respite from his frustrating and obstructed searches in the Bibliothèque Nationale, begins reading Balzac, starting with Le Colonel Chabert.
Chabert is a ghostly figure, left for dead on the battlefields of Eylau, recorded as dead in the histories of those wars, and now returned, ‘risen from the dead, so to speak’, to reclaim his identity, his inheritance, his wife. Chabert introduces himself as ‘Colonel Chabert, who died at Ehlau’, and tells of the pit of corpses in which he had been thrown after the battle and from which he clawed and tore his way out. For Austerlitz the book ‘reinforced the suspicion … that the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think’.
When I first read Chabert, I thought of the deportees returning home from the camps, appearing on the streets where they had once lived but now as ghosts, revenants, shocking and uncomfortable presences amongst the living and, as revenants so often are, goads to their consciences (think of Banquo, or Jacob Marley).
Chabert, whose memories are shadowy and often confused, still hears at night the groans and sighs of the wounded and dying, just as the deportees, returned to life, brought with them the nightmare that they had escaped. And the dubious welcome he received was shared by some who found their apartments now occupied by neighbours – who sometimes justified their continued occupation on the grounds that the sole survivor of a deported family would not now need all that space.
But what of Marie de Verneuil? Pure coincidence? The only reference I can find which acknowledges the source of the name simply says that Les Chouans is never mentioned by Sebald. So did Sebald recall the name from his reading of Balzac without it having any particular significance to him? That seems improbable. Every name, every place, every reference in Sebald carries the weight of so many connections that I cannot believe this carries none. And yet it’s hard to see the link.
Maybe if I return to Marienbad, I might find something there.
I’ve written previously about the relationship between Bleston and Manchester, and about the links between Butor and Sebald, and I’ve just been exploring the fascinating collection of essays on Sebald in Melilah, the Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies, alerted by Helen Finch’s recent blog about Sebald’s Manchester. It’s good to see the link with Butor explored a bit more, but I would have to take issue in some respects with Janet Wolff’s article, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, which I think fails to fully identify the deeper connections between the two writers.
I would agree that Passing Time is not about Manchester in a straightforward way but I think Wolff takes that too far when she says that ‘none of this is about an actual city’, and that Revel’s diatribes against Bleston are ‘the ravings of a neurasthenic, whose debilitated psychological state produces monsters in the environment’. (p. 52) This is not a new charge – reviewers have in the past diagnosed Revel with depression or schizophrenia. But I’d argue that rather than alerting us to an unreliable narrator, the mismatch reminds us that Bleston is not just Manchester, not just any particular city. It contains many cities, real and fantastical.
But it is based more upon Manchester in its physical reality than on any other city, and contrary to Wolff’s statement that ‘there are no physical descriptions at all (quite unlike the Manchester of ‘Max Ferber’)’, there are many descriptions of Manchester landmarks, as J B Howitt has shown (in his article ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, even though Butor takes and uses those features which are relevant to him, and changes or ignores those that are not.
What interests me most, however, is Wolff’s argument that the Manchester of The Emigrants fades into insignificance in relation to ‘another geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence’.
My studies of Butor are concerned precisely with identifying that presence in Passing Time. More anon.
- Janet Wolff, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, in Melilah, 2012 Supplement 2, Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald. (Guest editors: Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff)
- J B Howitt, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottm French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
Fantastic to know that through my blog one other person has read this extraordinary book! Watch this space for a fuller response to Decayetude’s commentary…
Originally posted on Decayetude's Blog:
I found this novel both exasperating and rewarding. It is the ultimate in self-reflexive, self-aware, postmodernist writing. I do not want to perpetuate that further by writing in a labarynthine, periphrastic style(heaven forfend!), in an attempt at a further layer of self-reflective exegesis, but just to “bulletpoint” some main themes/concerns:
1.TIME: it is contrapuntal(or an attempt thereat) and circular, traipsing(it FEELS like traipsing!) back and forth laboriously, BETWEEN times- in a vain attempt of the narrator, Jacques Revel, to catch up on himself and his year in this alien town, Bleston. This is a comment on the verticality of time(past, present and future contained in the present, particular moment)and, ultimately, the unconquerability and unredemptiveness of time; and also, of course , at the doomed attempt at writing itself to recapture time(the narrator keeps forgetting bits of his-backdated-story!). It is profoundly irritating but wonderful: we are subjects, held prisoner in the book/narrative as Revel…
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It’s Refugee Week. Every year a time to consider what drives people to leave everything behind and throw themselves on the mercy of a world that is often indifferent, suspicious and hostile. Every year a time to consider what our culture has gained from those who’ve sought sanctuary here, and what it’s lost in those who never made it.
Two very different refugee stories that I came across in the last few days:
Occursus told the story of Pauline, whose family came to Sheffield from Ukraine, and were part of the Jewish community in the slums around Scotland Street. There’s a multiple loss here – of the original home in Novograd-Volynsk, of the area where the 19th century Jewish emigrants settled, and the family home on Allen Street, but also of the connections to that past, and those lost places. Pauline was discouraged from exploring her family history, and now pieces together what she can from fragments and guesses, and sensory memories – smells and sounds. And the Guardian featured Carmen Bugan‘s memories of her father, a dissident in Ceausescu’s Romania, and the family’s escape from oppression. Carmen’s memories have been enhanced in an unexpected way – by the secret police files which she’s now been able to access and which shed a weird light on the years of surveillance and suspicion, imprisonment and torture, but also gave her back a story she’d written as a child and the endorsement of her father’s love for his children in the words of an anonymous watcher.
These stories chimed for me with reflections on Storying Sheffield’s 2012 exhibition, from Matthew Cheeseman’s Einekleine blog, talking about the sensibility of loss, the fragmentary past, memory appearing as traces. He says that the work in the exhibition ‘makes one marvel at all that is not there, at all that is truly gone, erased forever.’ It offers ‘a field of stories so deep, so potentially endless, it induces vertigo, a sense of terror at what has gone before and what will be left behind. … Within this vertigo is a response to the finality of Derrida’s traces: more will come, more will happen. Traces will be replaced by traces, all dying, all corroding, but giving into others, in a protean, quantum-field of experience which is not only filled with loss but also, seemingly at least, a generative, life-affirming push. Speech and stories may be fragile and delicate, but they are replaced and revived by their own action. ‘
There are many, many lines of flight from here. Reading history in the gaps, the absences, the lacunae. Ghosts and revenants, walking the streets of our cities. Themes for future blogs – but in this specific context, a reminder of the field of stories from those who, like Pauline’s parents, and Carmen’s, left behind lives that are unrecoverable now, and made new lives in unfamiliar places. Every refugee has these two narratives – the life before and the life since. And the former interweaves itself with the latter, consciously or unconsciously – Carmen lives on the border between France and Switzerland, where her husband works at CERN: ‘I think I belong on the border. I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’. Another line of flight – borders, frontiers, liminal space…
The refugee story is our story too. Not just in the sense that it could be any of us, though of course it could be – but because how we, our community, our city, our homeland, respond to the strangers who turn to us for sanctuary is a compelling story too, on every level from the most personal to the global political. The refugee story told by some of our newspapers is a travesty of the truth, a mean-spirited, mendacious, xenophobic narrative of a Britain already full up, being taken for a ride by workshy foreigners with sob stories about persecution and spurious appeals to human rights. I would be fairly startled if anyone reading this blog subscribed to that set of views. But because it’s so pervasive, the counter-narrative needs to be robust, and to establish both facts (the laws around asylum, the benefits and entitlements of those seeking it, the numbers involved) and principles.
For Derrida, ‘ethics is hospitality':
‘Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others. Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality’. (Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness, p. 16-17)
He goes beyond this assertion to recognise the possibility that hospitality can entail appropriation, control and mastery, and to explore therefore the idea of cities of refuge, an idea that goes back centuries, but raises issues of state sovereignty and law which he acknowledges are obscure and difficult. There’s no simple way of enshrining that simple principle at national and international level, but without that, the fate of the exiled will always be precarious. Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s study of cosmopolitanism, subtitled ‘Ethics in a world of strangers’, defines it as ‘ universality plus difference”. Based on this, we should offer hospitality to the stranger because of the former – because what we share is more important than what we don’t. That difference may be the first thing that strikes us, and Julia Kristeva sets out a shockingly stark polarity of responses: ‘I’m at least as peculiar as this other, and so I love him/her’, says the observer , or ‘I prefer my own peculiarity, and so I kill the other’ – more recognisably, fascination or rejection. Kristeva’s analysis is complex and problematic on many levels and certainly doesn’t offer – any more than Derrida or Appiah – a programme of change. But it offers some powerful images of what it is to be a stranger – in a state of permanent transience, one’s space ‘a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping’, torn between here and elsewhere, belonging nowhere. The stranger loses their language and their place in the community – they count for no one, no one hears them.
W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz came to Britain on the kindertransport. Sebald explores the “effects political persecution produces in people 50 years down the line, and the complicated workings of remembering and forgetting that go with that”. He is interested in the long-term effects on émigrés who “may appear well adapted but, especially as they move towards old age, are still suffering from having been ostracised, deprived of country, family, language. There are damages to people’s inner lives that can never be rectified.” In The Emigrants too, he explores the ‘great time lag between the infliction of injustice and when it finally overwhelms you’.
Derrida rejects the option of giving examples of individual refugees in his text, ‘for there are too many; and to cite the best known would risk sending the anonymous others back into the darkness (mal) from which they find it hard to escape’ (p. 6). There’s truth in this – but the refugee risks losing past, history, identity and language when they uproot themselves to find safety amongst strangers, and every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.
Refugee Week is obviously about more than telling the stories. It’s about campaigning, to end destitution for refused asylum seekers (Still Human, Still Here), to change practice on the treatment of gay and lesbian asylum seekers, for asylum seekers to be allowed to work. It’s about fundraising to provide resources and support for refugees. It’s about raising awareness and understanding, refuting and challenging prejudices and misconceptions. There are many organisations working in this field, at the local and national level, some of which are listed below. I choose to support Refugee Action, for which my brother has worked for a number of years, and for whom I will be fundraising by participating in the Great Yorkshire Run in September.
Julia Kristeva, Etrangers a nous-memes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness (NY, Routledge, 2001)
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (London: Allen Lane, 2006)
‘Silence is not nothing. It is not the null set’. Music in performance exists between two silences – the expectant pause before the first notes and the instant before the applause. Music and silence are in dialogue, mutually dependent. Silence is inscribed in the music, like its breathing. To put it another way, sound echoes silence, puts into words or music what was implicit, and the two bear traces of each other.
In 4’33”, John Cage’s best known and possibly most important work, the composer developed a ‘fully positive concept of silence’ (Visscher, p. 259) which required openness to the integration of all possible sounds. For Cage, silence is temporal and spatial. It’s the place where sounds appear, ‘made up of all the sounds that exist in permanence (=life) and which surround us (=place).’ (Visscher, p. 262). Cage explained that ‘we call it silence when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds’, i.e. the ambient sounds that are constantly present. 4’33” is a way of experimenting with one’s relation to the external world, silencing music in order to hear the world. For Cage, ‘it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life’. (Visscher, p. 264).
Cage’s piece invites us to hear all of these ambient sounds, and those that drift in from outside – sirens, wind and rain, traffic noise – or from the building – the air conditioning, the creak of floorboards – not as intrusions but as the work itself. It’s as difficult as any of the ‘difficult’ 20th century composers, and it bothers people. The commonest responses are either that it is a joke (yes, the way it challenges audience preconceptions is funny, but at heart it is serious, as Cage’s statements make clear) or that its acceptance in the musical canon (at least its avant-garde experimental subset) is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that the piece is essentially empty of meaning but given spurious significance by critics.
And even if one disagrees, it is an unsettling work. Where we expect to hear a performer and (apart from the performer’s footsteps, the creak of the piano stool or lid, the turning of the pages) instead hear ourselves, our neighbours, the building we’re in, we are uneasy. We know that in a concert hall we are expected to be still, to minimise the rustling, shuffling, and throat clearing sounds that we perversely become desperate to make as soon as it’s taboo to do so. We suffer agonies of embarrassment if a coughing fit can’t be held back, our stomachs rumble, or we applaud at the wrong moment, and we turn judgemental glares on those whose mobile phones ring.
Silence is a weighty thing for an absence. It fills with everything that isn’t being said, all of the sounds that aren’t being heard. Recently researchers from the Australian National University have tuned very sensitive light detectors to listen to vacuum – a region of space that was once thought to be completely empty, dark, and silent until the discovery of modern quantum theory and have discovered that vacuum has virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appearing and disappearing, giving rise to omnipresent random noise.
If Cage’s concept of silence was positive, our experience of it, our associations with it, are often more problematic. Collective, imposed silence, for longer than a few heartbeats, tends to create physical, visceral tension and anxiety, rather than a tranquil meditative state. And as soon as one considers the notion of collective silence, one encounters other, more troubling associations.
Silence became one of the dominant metaphors for the Occupation, a blanket of silence over all kinds of enquiry, an emptiness that filled up with fear (Butor described the feeling that ‘nothing was happening, but that this nothing, at the same time, was bloody’). Silence here could betray or protect, could be resistance (as in Vercors’ Le Silence du Mer) or (active or passive) collaboration. And when liberation came, the imposed silence was replaced by a chosen silence, as a generation (because of guilt, or horror) chose to regard the Nazi era as a nightmare that could be put to one side as an aberration. Thus for Butor, silence is something to be fought against – he sees writing, words and music as resistance, every word or note a blow for life.
For Sebald too, silence carries a terrible weight of complicity and conspiracy. Schlant has described West German literature since the war as ‘a literature of absence and silence contoured by language’. Sebald’s fiction has been characterised as presenting us with a ‘Holocaust in absence’ – ‘the edge of darkness that Sebald’s fictions repeatedly bring us up against: a place and a time in which the ordinary constraints of history give way to an immense penumbral continuum of human suffering, exile, and “silent” catastrophes that take place “without much ado.”’ (Anderson, 121). His references are often oblique – in After Nature, Sebald imagines the clouds into which ‘without a word the breath Of legions of human beings had been absorbed’ (96), and in the first of his ‘Poemtrees’, when the landscape that you pass in a train ‘mutely … watches you vanish’ (p3), because it’s Sebald, we think of the trains that crossed Europe, taking their passengers to annihilation. As Ian Galbraith says, ‘Sebald’s landscapes are never innocent’ (p. 189), citing the references to Landsberg and Kaufbeuren in ‘Cold Draught’, and to Turkenfeld in ‘Somewhere’ (Across the Land and the Water, pp. 57, 135)
As George Steiner writes, the points where words fail have traditionally been seen as the points where music begins, or where we fall silent in the presence of the divine, but there is a more recent phenomenon, where ‘language simply ceases … The poet enters into silence. Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night’ (46). Is this silence, a ‘suicidal rhetoric’, nevertheless a valid and moral alternative when ‘the words in the city are full of savagery’?
Mark M Anderson, ‘The Edge of Darkness: On W. G. Sebald’, October, 106 (Autumn, 2003), 102-21
Michel Butor, Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)
Thomas Clifton, ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, Musical Quarterly, 52, 2 (1976) 163-81
Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990)
Jean Guéhenno, Journal des années noires, 1940-1944 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)
Florence Rigal, Butor : la pensée-musique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004)
Florence Rigal, ‘De la polyphonie à la monodie: Butor, une voix politique’, L’Esprit Créateur, 47, 2 (Summer 2007), 33-42
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence. West German Literature and the Holocaust (NY; London: Routledge, 1999)
W G Sebald, After Nature (London: Penguin, 2002)
W G Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (NY: The Modern Library, 2004)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, Atheneum, 1982)
Eric de Visscher, ‘”There’s no such a thing as silence…” John Cage’s Poetics of Silence’, Interface, 18 (1989), 257-68
Originally posted on Vertigo:
A few seconds after the title of Grant Gee’s film fades, a subtitle appears that tells us what the next 84 minutes are going to be about: “A Walk Through The Rings of Saturn.” Patience (After Sebald) is a tour through a book rather than a visit to a place or the story of a life. Gee does, at times, show us locations referred to by the words of the book, but, as several interviewees say, it’s foolish, really, to follow in Sebald’s footsteps. So, like a good reader, Gee follows Sebald’s words.
Patience is a layered, often leisurely film, content to linger on images or, in one instance, plunge the screen into blackness for a few moments. The film begins and ends with the opening and closing words of The Rings of Saturn, wonderfully read by the actor Jonathan Pryce, whose uninflected, almost monotonous voice has the…
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