In 1798, an unknown curate named Robert Thomas Malthus published the essay that would give his name to a new breed of anxiety. He argued that the growth rate of the population would always exceed the growth rate of the food supply, inevitably reducing every country to the brink of starvation, and turning the world into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: crowded, chaotic and cruel.
It was a unique, and uniquely grim, theory. For centuries, apocalyptic scenarios had been the sole purview of God, the price he would exact in exchange for sorting out our souls. Malthus demonstrated that not only did humanity possess the divine’s capacity for destruction, but also that the engine of this destruction could be as innocent an act as procreation. Friedrich Engels, joining a chorus of criticism, called it “the most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship.”
I wonder if Malthus knew he had discovered a new species of despair, and if he himself was affected by it. If he was the neurotic type, he must have struggled to suppress an uneasy foreboding at the sight of a festive crowd, a teeming market, or his own grandchildren. If he sought comfort in rural solitude, I doubt he found it. I picture him struggling to wave away a dismal image that his imagination was superimposing over a bucolic field, the muddy slum that he predicted it would become.
Malthus might have recognized himself in the narrators of W.G. Sebald. On seemingly every page of Sebald’s four novels, his narrators struggle to repress a feeling of horror at the most innocent scenes. For them, it’s the past that is always superimposing itself. This depressing tendency is so pervasive as to become almost absurd: when the narrator of Vertigo wakes up in Venice the beautiful stillness of a peaceful morning only reminds him of other, unpeaceful mornings: “How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of traffic, with a mounting sense of panic.” He concludes with some choice words about humanity’s penchant for annihilation.
Sebald might seem like an odd choice to associate with Malthus. He is typically described as pioneering a new literary approach to the Holocaust, a tragedy synonymous with active human cruelty, not deterministic growth rates. In fact, it’s hard to associate any novelist with Malthus. Malthusian tragedies have not fared well in fiction. Global warming is the most empirically sound Malthusian threat that humanity has ever faced, but no good, let alone great, novel about global warming has yet been written. It’s not hard to see why. Try to see the world through the lens of global warming, and you experience a kind of narrative inversion. On the one hand, the physical reality of a warming planet makes your personal stories, the ones books are written about, irrelevant; acts of charity, love, or adultery don’t lower carbon emissions. On the other hand, the events that make up the forgotten background of your day-to-day—eating a meal, taking a plane, heating your home—take on a tragic significance. Look around and you will see a million tiny but irrevocable contributions toward an impending catastrophe.
A writer who succeeded in fictionalizing this unnatural dynamic without becoming unmarketably morose (already a tall order), would still struggle to avoid being misread. We don’t like to think our favorite writers are forsaking us. We don’t want the authors of beautiful phrases to be at the same time, as Engels said, striking down all those beautiful phrases. No matter how dark and depressing the prose, we like to claim it’s “redeemed” by the author’s “deep humanity,” as if the act of writing at all implies that a William Faulkner or a Cormac McCarthy cares about our happiness.
This kind of false redemption has been the fate of W.G. Sebald. His novels create precisely the narrative inversion I described, but this achievement of his, which points the way for a literature of climate change, has been overlooked, in part because of Sebald’s reputation as a Holocaust writer, but in larger part because we don’t like to acknowledge the hopelessness of Sebald’s vision, or to acknowledge it as the strength of his writing.
No one would say Sebald is an optimist, but many of his proponents have argued that a leavening agent exists in his prose, something that tempers the lugubriousness of his narrators, whether it be Sebald’s genuine sympathy for suffering or the sheer beauty of his sentences. For James Wood, who helped popularize Sebald among English-speaking readers, this leavening agent is comedy. In his most recent appraisal of the German author, Wood argues that an undercurrent of playful humor can be found in Sebald’s works, especially in moments when the repressed horror seems most exaggerated, like in this description of a defrosted fish the narrator is served in The Rings of Saturn:
The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.
Wood claims this passage, with its sense of disgust barely concealed behind pedantic language, is worthy of Evelyn Waugh.
The challenge of interpreting Sebald at the level of his sentences is that the meaning of each sentence is never entirely contained within the words that compose it. In this, his sentences mirror the effect of his novels, which, though we agree are broadly “about” the Holocaust, almost never mention it directly. Rather, they treat it as a kind of negative space, tracing its outline through a series of seemingly miscellaneous travel anecdotes, history lessons, and capsule biographies. The Rings of Saturn, which is framed as a walking tour around England, touches on topics as varied as the destruction of Beijing’s Summer Palace, Rembrandt’s paintings, the decay of British holiday towns, and the melancholy of weavers. What keeps these vignettes meaningful is the way they are linked, not narratively, not even, in a narrow sense, thematically, but associatively, through the repetition of certain words, the symmetries between certain images, and even the way Sebald uses typesetting. All writers use associations, but the density of these links in Sebald’s prose is genuinely astonishing. They create a halo around each sentence, which, though as weightless by comparison, is as essential to its effect as the rings that surround Saturn.
To accurately convey the real effect of the seemingly humorous fish dinner, I have to describe three other passages from the novel that deal with animals. In one, the narrator recounts the Biblical story of Jesus exorcising Legion. The demons he casts out enter the bodies of 2,000 pigs, who run into a lake to drown themselves. The narrator wonders if Jesus didn’t commit a serious error: does “human reasoning, diseased as it is, [need] to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation?”
In another, he describes how silkworms were distributed as educational materials to schools in the Third Reich because they “afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom,” on account of being “docile” and “suitable for a variety of experiments.” The narrator watches an educational video on how the silkworms are raised and ultimately killed: “The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is done.”
Finally, there is a vignette on the mutilating experiments done in the 18th century on live specimens of herring, to test certain absurd beliefs about their mortality: “This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme sufferings undergone by a species always threatened with disaster.” Two grainy photographs bookend this vignette. One is of fishermen standing over a pile of dead herring. The other is of piled corpses in the woods outside the liberated Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
This is how the novel’s associative web is threaded, tying together seemingly unconnected stories using language that we associate with genocide, like “inferior other kinds” or “the entire killing business,” folding suggestions of suffering and forced experimentation into the mention of animals, creating a kind of associative hypersensitivity, the way a horror movie attunes you to the sound of a dripping faucet. So when I read about stabbing a fork into a burnt fish, about the “hideous mess,” and especially the word “operation” (which Wood uses as an example of Sebald’s comically “calm control of apparently ponderous diction”), I experience a hard-to-characterize feeling, like a movement or a crowding in the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye, and if I allow my inner gaze to follow it, I see a single name, unmentioned in the book: Josef Mengele.
Of course, we have hotlines for people who intuit signs in their dinner. There is a paranoid quality to these endless associations and their constant foreboding, which even Wood deems at times excessive: “What the reader might take on faith if encountered in Büchner’s Lenz [a 19th-century novella about the titular character’s struggles with madness, and a favorite of Sebald’s] is a little stagy when it concerns merely an academic who happens to be doing a bit of book research in Italy.” In other words, unlike Lenz, Sebald’s academics don’t seem genuinely crazy, so why do they act as if they are?
Lenz’s insanity offers an interesting comparison, because it actually differs in kind, not degree. There are, for one, examples of healthy minds in his world, if not the dissolute cosmopolitans that Lenz is fleeing, then at least the kind pastor Oberlin to whom he flees, and in whom Lenz believes lies “the way of God.” On his so-called better days, Lenz is able to follow that way, to live in quiet appreciation of the world, but ultimately his disposition proves too extreme. He asks Oberlin to whip him, he obsesses over his sins, he demands of God to bring a dead child back to life. He is one of those people of whom we say, they were too much for this world.
Of Sebald’s narrators, it would be more accurate to say the world is too much for them. The narrator of Rings of Saturn describes only one so-called better day, when he begins his walking tour, “carefree” as he’s rarely felt before. But in the next sentence he admits he was soon overtaken by the “paralysing 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 [East Anglia].” The walk, which triggers the cascading associations recorded in the novel, ultimately results in a nervous breakdown. To call this insanity is too simple. If the patterns of destruction the narrator is confronted by are real, his sensitivity to them puts him in a double bind, one that would be familiar to Malthus and climate pessimists: to ignore the reality of the world, to calmly go about your book research as if you’re not walking atop a stratum of suffering, is delusional, but to look at that reality with any clarity for a sustained period of time is to be horrified to the point of mental collapse. This bind leaves no room for Oberlins. In Sebald’s novels, there are only those who suffer the pain of reality and those who, oblivious to it, ensure its perpetuity.
Take another example of Sebald’s alleged playfulness that Wood elaborates on. It comes from Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants, in which Wood claims the narrator “lovingly seizes on” British contraptions after emigrating to Manchester. One such contraption is a teas-maid, a kind of physical portmanteau of an alarm clock and a tea-making machine that starts boiling the water right before it wakes you. It is given to him by his hotel manager. The narrator says it looks like a “miniature power plant,” a “weird and serviceable gadget,” whose mere presence keeps him “holding on to life” in a time of deep isolation.
Reading Wood’s essay, I felt a vague suspicion that Sebald would never compare anything good to a power plant. The Emigrants is the most narrative of Sebald’s novels; the narrator investigates and retells the life stories of various emigrants who fled the turmoil of Europe. Among them, there is Paul Bereyter, the narrator’s grade school teacher, who ends his life by laying his head on train tracks. The narrator learns that Bereyter had taken great solace in trains his whole life, had hung up train schedules all over his apartment, and had even given over a spare room to a miniature train set. Bereyter’s friend describes this train set as “the very image and symbol of Paul’s German tragedy.” There is also Henry Selwyn, who shoots himself in the heart with a rifle he once brought to India to keep himself safe from wildlife. There is Dr. Abramsky, driven insane by his years of administering electroshock therapy, whose curative promise he clung to after losing his father. And there is Max Ferber, who becomes ill from the coal dust born of his obsessive artistic production.
Trains, guns, shock therapy, and coal, all industrial symbols, like the “miniature power plant,” and all, like the teas-maid, offering pyrrhic comfort to solitary emigrants, whose troubles reflect another of Sebald’s preoccupations, the unsuspecting support that many Jews offered to the project of German industrialization. When I reread the passage about the teas-maid, it began to seem like the image and symbol of some impending British tragedy. And, most uncannily, as the shadows of these other emigrants flickered behind his words, the narrator seemed to see the glimmer of that coming betrayal. But what could he do? Smash the teas-maid? His only choice is repression. Wood claims the narrator describes this incident with “mock-solemn gingerliness,” but I see nothing mock about it. In the pedantic expressions and torturously construct sentences, I feel the strain of the narrator trying to repress that glimmer, to hide it beneath layers of abstracted, unfeeling prose.
Of course, like all repression, it’s doomed to failure. Every path he follows, every story he collects, and every word he writes only retraces the indelible outline of the unmentionable. That’s why you can take seemingly any sentence from a Sebald novel, no matter how innocent or playful, like (another of Wood’s examples) the teapot in The Rings of Saturn that emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine” and offers the narrator a moment of distraction, and if you pull on the associative thread—which leads to the steam-powered toy train that the Empress Dowager used to distract her son while she starved her country, the same Empress who wished her subjects were docile like silkworms, the insects that schools in the Third Reich were so fond of—you will discover that even this stray sentence forms a part of that outline.
Sebald’s obliqueness, the way he hides the worst of the Holocaust from view, is crucial to this effect. If he had, for example, in The Emigrants, described the amount of power needed to operate the gas chambers or the conditions of the cattle cars that took Jews to Auschwitz, it would perhaps be clearer that the teas-maid and the miniature train set represent echoes of these terrible events, but it would also allow us to maintain our sense of proportion, our ability to distinguish what is actually evil from what merely reminds us of evil. Instead, we hear only the echoes, which, without their source, grow louder and more disorienting. Everything in any way related to industry becomes equally suspect.
That would all too obviously be the goal of a novel about global warming. It’s less obvious, however, why Sebald was bent on applying this technique to the Holocaust. The answers he offered are unsatisfying. In one interview, he said the Holocaust could be approached only “by reference rather than by direct confrontation…to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible.” It makes a good quote, but it would be news to Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann, and H.G. Adler. Many great works of art confront the Holocaust directly. Furthermore, many of Sebald’s allusions, like the pile of shoes outside an Italian kindergarten, would be meaningless to someone who had never seen pictures of the camps. Sebald relies on readers having made a direct confrontation.
The real reason, I believe, is that Sebald actually saw the Holocaust as a Malthusian tragedy. This suspicion is raised by his fiction, and is confirmed by his academic writings. Before he wrote novels, Sebald was a professor of literature, and he produced a number of largely Marxist critical works that dealt with the history and literature of the Holocaust. These works have been ignored in discussions of his fiction, in part because they remain for the most part untranslated. English readers can sample them only through academic volumes like Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt’s Saturn’s Moons, or, more readily, through the excellent overview, titled “On Misunderstanding W.G. Sebald,” published by James R. Martin in the Cambridge Literary Review.
At first, reading about his academic scholarship feels like seeing Sebald’s other face. These works are highly polemic and strict in their judgments, tonally opposed to the later fiction. The central idea underpinning many of them seems to be that all of the so-called scientific, economic, and social progress that followed from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was nothing but a concealed effort by the ascendant bourgeoisie to purge the Other, and specifically the Jewish Other, from Western society. Even Enlightenment concepts of objectivity and human equality were only a way to disarm the Jews of their culture by encouraging assimilation into supposedly “universal” values. In this view, the Final Solution is not a historical anomaly realized by sheer Nazi will; it is the only possible endpoint to a long and violent process that started when humanity began burning coal and looking at things under a microscope. You can argue this is a Marxist take or a Malthusian one, both deal in historical inevitabilities, but it certainly sounds more like a system of despair.
Martin finds it curious that Sebald, given the faith he seems to have had in these theories, never provides, in his novels, “an account of why and how the Nazi genocide occurred.” But all the signs are actually there: the stories of betrayed assimilations, the mistrust of industry, the skepticism toward science, the awareness of modernity’s failures. And, of course, the all-encompassing sense of tragedy. If you believe the vision of history Sebald’s academic writings put forth, if you believe it so deeply that, as it does for Sebald’s narrators, it literally becomes your vision, embedded in how your brain processes visual information, then an defrosted fish really can arouse genuine horror, because it’s the product and continuation of scientific and commercial forces that have caused the most extreme sufferings in human experience.
Accounting for the influence of Sebald’s historical theories on his fiction, apparent as it is, opens Sebald up to a glaring objection, namely that his theories are wrong. They were, for one, received very poorly by the academic community. They have the strange effect of diffusing responsibility for the Holocaust away from committed Nazis and toward modernity as a whole. Sebald’s four novels were published between 1990 and 2001, a time when the reunited German state was peaceful, tolerant, and rich. The Nazis had long ago been vanquished, and not, after all, with scimitars and bows. Was it really fair of Sebald, as even some critics of his novels have wondered, to castigate modernity so thoroughly?
Purists might argue that if Sebald writes a private terror and writes it well then it makes no more sense to ask whether that terror is based in historical truth than it does to ask Franz Kafka whether people really turn into bugs. But the reason, I suspect, that Sebald has resonated with so many readers is not merely because he has captured the private terror of a narrator who sees suggestions of the Holocaust in fish and teas-maids, but because he has captured a precisely Malthusian terror, the terror that may define the 21st century. His narrators embody the submerged paranoia of living with the awareness of global warming. We know that our end is composed almost entirely of small contributions, that every flight, every cooked fish, and every humming appliance, even every day without war, during which we can produce goods more efficiently, all of these make that end infinitesimally less escapable. At the same time, we repress this knowledge, because to admit it would be to see the entire world as a coded message of its own destruction. Sebald’s narrators exist on the cusp of that admission. The cause of their suffering is different from ours, but the mechanics of it are identical.
Aspiring Malthusian novelists should note that Sebald remains the genre’s sole practitioner. While he has been hugely influential, his heirs have by and large applied his formal inventions to narratives that are more clearly individual in scale. Teju Cole’s Open City uses Sebald’s technique of writing associatively around an unmentionable tragedy, but for Cole’s narrator that tragedy is a rape he has possibly committed. In Rachel Cusk’s Outline, it is whatever caused the deterioration of her narrator’s marriage. The personal lives of Sebald’s narrators, by contrast, are insignificant. They are not complicit in the past that haunts them. And yet neither are they innocent. In Malthusian tragedies, individual innocence is an illusion. Like we in relation to the untenable heat of the future, Sebald’s narrators feel implicated in the brutality of the past, not by any moral choices they’ve made, but simply by their membership in a shameful species.
This mirroring of Sebald’s past and our future is not entirely fanciful. I draw it from the lone, oblique reference to global warming that I’m able to find in his novels. It appears in that peaceful morning the narrator describes in Venice, when he’s assailed by memories of waking up in other cities to the sound of traffic. “For some time now,” he says, “I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.” In looking to the past, it was not just the pain that we have inflicted that Sebald witnessed. It was also a reflection of the pain that will be inflicted upon us.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.