Although in the end I think I disagree with Sebald’s view of the world as presented in The Rings of Saturn, we ignore what he has to say at our own peril as he provides ample evidence to support his view.
It is certainly a melancholy view of life that the reader is first introduced through the views of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th Century doctor in Chapter 1:
Much as in this continuous process of consuming and being consumed, nothing endures, in Thomas Browne’s view. On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark. … As a doctor, who saw disease growing and raging in bodies, he understood mortality better than the flowering of life. To him it seems a miracle that we should last so much as a single day. There is no antidote, he writes, against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow.
Much of the rest of the book convincingly develops this thesis in frightening detail time and time again.
The second chapter of the book illustrates this rise and fall, but mostly the fall, in the case of the sea resort at Somerleyton. Though I’ll admit to a similar repugnance for such extravagant displays of wealth, the narrator strangely prefers the decline of the estate to its original state:
How uninviting Somerleyton must have been, I reflected, in the days of the industrial impresario Morton Peto, MP when everything, from the cellar to the attic, from the cutlery to the waterclosets, was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste. And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.
He goes on to contrast this earlier display of wealth with the more natural evolution of the trees as they aged:
The grounds, in contrast to the waning splendour of the house, were now at their evolutionary peak, a century after the heyday of Somerleyton. The flower beds might well have been better tended and more gloriously colourful, but today the trees planted by Morton Peto filled the air above the gardens, and several of the ancient cedars, which were there to be admired by visitors even then, now extended their branches over well-nigh a quarter of an acre, each an entire world unto itself.
I sometimes get a similar feeling when I visit the logging camp at Point Defiance and find trees sprouting up through the machinery and rust reclaiming the iron.
This calm acceptance of time’s reclamation of its own is quickly rejected though when the narrator sees the result the decline has had on the common people who relied on the mansion for work:
Although I knew all of this I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft, for it is one thing to read about unemployment blackspots in the newspapers and quite another to on a cheerless evening, past rows of run-down houses with mean little front gardens; and, having reached the town centre, to fin nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beer from their dark doorways, cheap markets, and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Ocean Dawn, Beachcomber, Balmoral, or Layla Lorraine.
It’s one thing to argue that nothing endures, that decline is inevitable, but something quite different to actually live with the ramifications of that statement. What makes the narrator’s theory bearable is precisely the narrator’s accompanying melancholia. Though perhaps the narrator’s melancholia makes the theory seem even more probable?