This Ain’t Your High School History Class

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?

5 thoughts on “This Ain’t Your High School History Class”

  1. Sebald is one of my favorite writers, probably precisely because of the melancholy tone of his work, although I’ve yet to read this book. All his books employ this same narrative voice, filled with resignation and a keen sense of the desolation of time. This voice is what draws me to his writing. I suppose that must mean that, unlike you, I share his disposition. The book title that most accurately reflects his subject (in all his books) is On the Natural History of Destruction.

  2. So which of his books is your favorite? On the Natural History of Destruction, andru?

    I suppose I’m generally most in tune with Zen writers. I see the suffering around me and empathize with it, and at times get overwhelmed by it.

    But I’m generally happy just to be alive.

  3. I read The Emigrants this past year, which was the best of his that I’ve read, much better than Vertigo, but I imagine it’s much the same as what you just read. I think The Emigrants makes the connection of his work to the Holocaust almost explicit, much as I believe Austerlitz does. I think you have to think of his work in light of him being a German who survived WWII (he was born during the war). All that stuff about the decay of the old world, the destruction of and the forgetting of the past, goes back to the years and place of his birth.

  4. You quote Sebald on the degradation of Lowestoft, the causes of which, as noted by Sebald, are not caused by the loss of employment from the collapse of Peto’s mansion, but rather the general decline of Lowestoft itself. Your statment then, that “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…” implies a misreading of the book.

    Also, I disagree with your assessment of the theme and mood of this novel. Yes, it is full of destruction and melancholy, but you seem to be neglecting the hopefullness implied by the writing of the book in the first place, as well as the hopefullness implied, here and there, within the text. For example, what else could the narrator be thinking of, other then hope, when he asks, on pg, 26, That purple piece of silk he [Browne] refers to, then in the urn of Patroclus–what does it mean?

  5. I haven’t read Sebald except for the few excerpts I’ve seen here, but I probably should. I’ve been chasing down my family history in German through a list server in what used to be East Germany. It seems that some people who appear to have been my direct line ancestors are buried in the sub-basement of the Pietist edifice. Understanding who they were and what they were doing there requires gaining some serious grasp of the Thirty Years War. An apparent ancestor’s given names alone were considered an incendiary device recently by some of the list members. He was named after the Elector of Saxony during the Thirty Years War, a fellow whose shrewd politics turned a local squabble into a conflagration that engulfed all of Europe. It’s hard to imagine, but the destruction visited on the German states in that war was far more significant than WWII. Except for aerial bomb raids, most of the destruction in Germany in WWII was confined to the last six months of the war. The firepower in the era of the three musketeers was negligible by comparison, but the persistence and ferocity of the participants make the killing fields in Cambodia or Rwanda seem positively tame. Most of the English Civil War, which was a part of that larger conflict, took place in the final stages of that war when the essential outcome had already been determined. The Roundheads and the Cavaliers squared off in a few highly strategic localized battles that were carried out with remarkable flair and civility. It didn’t reduce whole regions to a handful of lucky survivors.

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