A Never-ending Chain of Meaningless Moments

Sebald’s Rings Around Saturn ends with a fascinating, if frightening, image and ties together one of the central themes of the story:

If today, when our gaze is no longer able to penetrate the pale reflected glow over the city and its environs, we think back to the eighteenth century, it hardly seems possible that even then, before the Industrial Age, a great number of people, at least in some places, spent their lives with their wretched bodies strapped to looms made of wooden frames and rails, hung with weights, and reminiscent of instruments of torture or cages. It was a peculiar symbiosis which, perhaps because of its relatively primitive character, makes more apparent than any later form of factory work that we are able to maintain ourselves on this earth only by being harnessed to the machines we have invented. That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. 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.

It’s scary that workers in the Industrial Age are chained to machines they thought would free them from the hardships of the past. It may be even scarier that those not directly chained to the machinery, those who merely contemplate the effects of such machines, can be caught in the same web of melancholy and despair, haunted by the realization that our industrial age might not be a solution to our problems, but yet another cause.

Why do scholars and writers suffering from such melancholy continue to write? Why can’t they free themselves from the bonds of such obsession?

For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. 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.

While I’m sure neither you nor I dear blogger writes out of mere habit or merely to gain the attention of each other, I do know that as I examine an issue it seems to become more and more complex until I realize I it’s impossible to fully understand its causes.

Perhaps, as Sebald suggests, we write about the past because we have to:

But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in
some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is! – so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.

Though most of us don’t want to confront our own failings, failure to do so can only lead to more failure. Our nation wanted to forget Vietnam and what happened there rather than truly analyzing and learning from it, and look where that’s gotten us: with the same good-old-boys back in power once again promising to make the world safe for democracy while they make it less safe. It’s easier to blame bosses if you get fired than to confront your own failings, but that’s not going to help you keep the next job you get.

Many people have questioned my love of Thomas Hardy’s novels and modern literature in general. There’s no denying that the ending of Jude the Obscure is depressing, but understanding the social forces that trapped Jude and destroyed his life gave me perspective on my own life and helped me to avoid the same pitfalls. I’m convinced that my exposure to depressing existentialist literature prepared me, as much as one can ever be prepared, for my experiences in Vietnam and helped me to cope with them.

Burn, Baby, Burn

If it wasn’t bad enough learning how virtually everything man does is touched by greed and the exploitation of workers or slaves, we also learn that the destruction of the sea and land continues unabated, threatening the very existence of the natural world we all depend on.

Early on we learn that one of the reason that fishermen on the shore so seldom catch fish is that the herring, one of the most basic sources of nutrition in the ocean are being destroyed:

Out on the high seas the fishing continues, at least for the present, though even there the catches are growing smaller, quite apart from the fact that the fish that are landed are often useless for anything but fish-meal. Every year the rivers bear thousands of tons of mercury, cadmium and lead, and mountains of fertilizer and pesticides, out into the North Sea. A substantial proportion of the heavy metals and other toxic substances sink into the waters of the Dogger Bank, where a third of the fish are now born with strange deformities and excrescences. Time and again, off the coast, rafts of poisonous algae are sighted covering many square miles and reaching thirty feet into the deep, in which the creatures of the sea die in shoals. In some of the rarer varieties of plaice, crucian or bream, the females in a bizarre mutation, are increasingly developing male sexual organs and the ritual patterns of courtship are now no more than a dance of death, the exact opposite of the notion of the wondrous increase and perpetuation of life with which we grew up. It was not without reason that the herring was always a popular didactic model in primary school, the principal emblem, as it were, of the indestructibility of Nature.

As if it’s not enough to show how man is incidentally killing off the herring, Sebald points out a historical example of how a scientist tortured fish to better learn under what conditions they can or cannot survive:

Again, the inspector of the Rouen fish market, a certain Noel de Mariniere, one day saw to his astonishment that a pair of herring that had already been out of the water between two and three hours were still moving, a circumstance that prompted him to investigate more closely the fishes’ capacity to survive, which he did by cutting off their fins and mutilating them in other ways. This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme of the sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster.

Such research techniques might bring to mind Japanese whaling in the name of “research� to ensure that all the whales have been killed off, not just a few.

Am I the only person who’s offended when I go to a prestigious museum of natural history and observe a stuffed Ivory-Billed Woodpecker? I wonder to myself, was this the last one, or just the mate of the last one? Ah, yes, but relatively unimportant if we know what they looked like.

Though it comes quite a bit later in the book, one wonders if the deforestation of the English shores hasn’t contributed to the decline of the fish as it has contributed to the decline of the salmon along the Pacific Coast of America.

I’ve long known that the consumption of energy, almost any form of energy, has negative side effects, but I’d never really thought of that idea in quite the way Sebald suggests:

It had grown uncommonly sultry and dark when at midday, after resting on the beach, I climbed to Dunwich Heath, which lies forlorn above the sea. The history of how that melancholy region came to be is closely connected not only with the nature of the soil and the influence of a maritime climate but also, far more decisively, with the steady and advancing destruction, over a period of many centuries and indeed millennia, of the dense forests that extended over the entire British Isles after the last Ice Age. In Norfolk and Suffolk, it was chiefly oaks and elms that grew on the flatlands, spreading in unbroken waves across the gently undulating country right down to the coast. This phase of evolution was halted when the first settlers burnt off the forests along those drier stretches of the eastern coast where the light soil could be tilled. Just as the woods had once colonized the earth in irregular pat- terns, gradually growing together, so ever more extensive fields of ash and cinders now ate their way into that green-leafed world in a similarly haphazard fashion. If today one flies over the Amazon basin or over Borneo and sees the mountainous palls of smoking, hanging, seemingly motionless, over the forest canopy, which from above resembles a mere patch of moss, then perhaps one can imagine what those fires, which sometimes burned on for months, would leave in their wake. Whatever was spared by the flames in prehistoric Europe was later felled for construction and shipbuilding, and to make the charcoal which the smelting of iron required in vast quantities. By the seventeenth century, only a few insignificant remnants of the erstwhile forests survived in the islands, most of them untended and decaying. The great fires were now lit on the other side of the ocean. It is not for nothing that Brazil owes its name to the French word for charcoal. Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. 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. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread.

It’s disheartening to believe, but it’s certainly possible that the time I spend on my computer is contributing to the deforestation that I often protest on my site. Can it be true that everything I buy, no matter how green it might seem, may well contribute to the loss of my beloved forests?

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?

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.