Walter Benjamin writes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
[Progress] was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. […] progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism. However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that they have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.
Disputing the myth of progress goes to the heart of linear time, that frame of reference which serves as the main banner of Western imperialism. Benjamin’s notes move towards an alternative non-chronological way to think about time, one bound with revolutionary action and the revolutionary classes. Thus “the French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate.” These sorts of explosions or expressions link together those historical moments when shit really popped.
Sebald’s RINGS OF SATURN is as explosive and replete with revolutionary violence as a walking tour thru the county of Suffolk can be. It’s a quiet meditation on how linear time can disintegrate right before us. i was almost always disoriented as a reader. It would’ve helped if i had any kind of geographical knowledge of Britain, but the multiple participles employed in each ultra-long paragraph threaten that homogeneous stable time — the kind of practice that im comfortable linking to the aesthetic postmodern bc of Ermarth.
In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk to the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to best us under the sign of the Dog Star. 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.
It’s easy to read but it also foregrounds the doubling that every text has — that of the internal narrator remembering a past event in the present event, which is also past. He goes on to talk about how the horrors of history may have gotten him hospitalized, which is where he puts these notes down. The first of Sebald’s embedded photographs is a view through the hospital window.
This is a work of fiction, but are these images supposed to hold a claim to the real, that these are an accurate index to the flesh-and-blood Sebald’s experiences? He meets some interesting folks in the present, but they are fabricated. Unlike a conventional non-fiction book, these images lack captions, and only rarely does the narration explicitly refer to them. They sort of jump out at the reader, which maybe reproduces the rupturing effect that Benjamin’s revolutionary time yields.
Innocuous objects like a railway bridge will launch long historical expositions on the atrocities that structure history: colonization by the British and Dutch, the Bosnia crisis, the Industrial Revolution. Every burst of progress for civilization has its underside of exploitation and massacre. Some sections are overwhelmed by the past — in chapter V the only present moment is the narrator falling asleep while watching a BBC documentary, the rest of the chapter concerning Joseph Conrad’s real-life journey in the Congo. The tone is cool and melancholy, which fits the drab and dreary coastal landscape and the post-war malaise Sebald was so admired for defining: like we’re just walking through the ruins of a bloody century, like the angel novalis looking on at the wreckage as we’re blown forward. Everybody knows this can’t last forever; if we wont collapse this system then climate change will — but still it feels permanent. Chapter VI details the byzantine power struggles with China’s dowager empress before the 20th century, which was bloody beyond belief for most of the far east. After a slew of assassinations of would-be rulers, she finally dies after an indulgence of crab apples in clotted cream:
Looking back, she said, she realized that history consists of nothing but misfortune and the troubles that afflict us, so that in all our days on earth we never know one single moment that is genuinely free of fear.
The historical content of SATURN is all violence, entropy (we see lots of ruined buildings crumbling into the sea, pitiful hotels, and homes in decay), and environmental degradation both human-caused and natural. Why can we not see much beyond violence in history? It’s a question that so thoroughly plagues historiography and representation that it’s almost banal. But Sebald gives us an interesting moment in an eerie sequence on Orfordness, a bleak sand split where military testing was done. The narrator gazes on the little concrete domes where “hundreds of boffins had been at work devising new weapons systems,” resembling “the tumuli in which the mighty and powerful were buried in prehistoric times.” The facilities look like “temples and pagodas.” Maybe modernity only seems violent because it’s close to us, and id feel the same way if i were blogging in the wake of the Black Death or the crusades. But the more interesting question Sebald poses here is “what does our modern society really hold to be sacred?” It’s only become easier to answer, with the white-power mass shooters and anti-abortion terrorists in the US.
History is “but a long account of calamities,” he writes. But you knew that already. Why read THE RINGS OF SATURN if it’s just some dude showing off trivia, without any pinnacle of transcending meaning (another pomo strategy)? The meaning doesn’t arrive at any discrete point, but comes through in Sebald’s careful, cool prose, the characters the narrator meets and discusses historically. The itinerary is through the mind.
The central metaphor of Saturn’s rings also precludes a point. These are historical fragments in orbit. Any mass of material that spins gets flattened out. It’s the case with planetary rings, the solar system, the galaxy, and pizza dough (in order to most crucial for existence). That being said, i only mildly liked this one. i was so adrift a great deal of the time, and the free-form associations kept the energy level really low. ill have to read THE EMIGRANTS to get a real sense of what Sebald can do.