A Study in Melancholia

It may turn out to be one of those happy coincidences that I read Hesse’s optimistic Siddhartha before immersing myself in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Considering we’re in the 24th day of rain and looking at more rain as far out as they can forecast, I daren’t predict what dire disaster might have befallen me if I hadn’t begun this novel in a good mood.

I’m not sure why Sebald didn’t include Dürer’s Melancholia engraving in his book since he includes several other pictures and does refer to it rather prominently on page 9, but it seems to take on added significance as one delves into the novel.

Contemplating Dürer’s engraving while playing Van Morrison’s “Melancholia? from Days Like This in the background

seems to provide the proper atmosphere for contemplating this melancholic essay on the history of man’s corruption.

It struck me that this may have been the book Ezra Pound was trying to write when he wrote The Cantos, a damning account of man’s greed throughout history and how that greed debases everything it touches, humans, the environment, the arts.

Perhaps the stream-of-conscious narrative approach triggered my own thoughts, but the narrator reminded me of the obsessed Quentin Compson in Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury and later of the gnomic Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Like both these characters, the narrator seems haunted by the past and, in turn, paralyzed by his thoughts.

At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.

It’s certainly as challenging to follow the thoughts of Sebald’s narrator as it was to follow the thoughts of those earlier characters, which may explain why I started this book several months ago but set it aside. Fortunately, having to admit that I hadn’t read it to Jonathon in my comments finally forced me to pick it up and begin again.

I finally decided not to try to tie everything together and try to remember all the historical facts Sebald threw at me. Hell, I didn’t get that many facts in the year-long European history class I took in college, and I never could remember specific details when it came to exams. Instead, I highlighted an awful lot of passages that seemed important and stuck sticky notes to mark pages to return to later rather than getting bogged down as I read. Luckily, once I finished it no longer seemed necessary to understand every leap of thought to understand the book as a whole.