The Questionable Business of Writing

I only discovered today there is a blog, and a very fine blog indeed, devoted to W. G. Sebald. In its archives I came across a link to this interview, which in its own way is as mesmerizing as some of Sebald’s novels.

Green: Just coming back to restlessness, I wanted to ask you whether you feel that there is a connection between this and one of the other main themes of your work, destructiveness?

Sebald: Yes, in the fear that the ground is being cut from under our feet. And these days, of course, if you are born in parts of Washington or London, you only have nature in a very reduced form. I’m sure that I sense this particularly because I grew up in such a remote part of Germany, and have felt very much over the last thirty years as if machines have been invading. And with the proliferation of machines has gone a proliferation of noise.

Right now we can hear the traffic outside, the noise of the generator, the aeroplanes above–this proliferation just makes rigorous thought that much more impossible. It is impossible to imagine Wittgenstein thinking out a problem in front of an audience today. Impossible.

Green: How do you feel that this growth of noise has affected our perceptual abilities?

Sebald: Enormously so. I received a letter from a librarian after the publication of The Rings of Saturn , claiming that he had seen archival material that said that the Battle of Sole Bay–off Lowestoft–had been heard in London. Newton heard it from Cambridge. This sort of thing is inconceivable today. We can barely even imagine how it was then. It just shows how much we are losing possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever has been before. It has got much worse in the last ten years.

Green: How do you feel about the acceleration of this process?

Sebald: Everything is becoming generalised. I am the only person in the University not to have a computer, and that is regarded as quixotic. It is the only sort of eccentricity that is left. But when I first came here, almost every other colleague was slightly eccentric. That was the whole point–people were different, so they could tell you things from their different standpoints. They have all been eliminated.

[. . .]

Green: Talking about the quantity of objects, I’d like to ask you about your prose. You write in a way which has an obsession with detail–do you feel that part of the problem we face today is that we are putting too much store in nebulous, big ideas, which is blinding us to the detail which actually constitutes our lives?

Sebald: Yes I think so. If you can imagine being a member of an Indian tribe, you would have a much more acute sensorium to what is going on around you. But we have been trained to cut off the detail, in terms of perception and articulation. So we don’t know the names of the trees any more, they are just trees. Whereas an Indian would know much more than just the name of a tree–they would know all of its qualities. But all this is just arcane information to us–problems, actually, to be controlled.

And not just in perception–also in occupation. Jobs have become much more alike. I don’t feel any more that I’m working in a university, I feel that I might just as well be in Barclays.

Green: So the actual detail of what people do is being lost in a generality?

Sebald: Specificity is vanishing all the time. The same is true of language–biodiversity declines very rapidly, both between languages and within each language. What is spawned instead is a curiously mutant form of language, characterised by garbledness and inarticulation. These new forms of language on the machines seem to be very vibrant, but they’re very flabby and have no syntactical form to them at all. It’s a sign of something being taken away, and some substitute being proffered instead.

Ranking Sebald’s Novels

My fascination with ranking artistic works is long-standing. Having finished all four of W. G. Sebald’s novels and had some time to reflect, I venture the following ranking:

  1. Austerlitz
  2. Emigrants
  3. Rings of Saturn
  4. Vertigo

Readers are invited to submit their own rankings, or to explain in detail why mine is correct, in the comments below.