Sebald's Apparitional Nabokov.
--Levinas, Totality and Infinity
However fleetingly, various incarnations of Vladimir Nabokov materialize within the four segments of W. G. Sebald's hybrid 1992 work, The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten). To begin with some details: Nabokov appears photographically in the Henry Selwyn section of Tim Emigrants (Figure 1) in which Dr. Selwyn presides over a showing of glass slides, an activity which itself echoes a chapter in Nabokov's Speak, Memory (1967); when Lucy Landau first meets Paul Bereyter, she "had been reading" precisely "Nabokov's autobiography" (43); Ambros Adelwarth, following his self-incarceration in an Ithaca, New York sanatorium (a city where Nabokov once lived), is preoccupied with the apparition of "the butterfly man" (a title Nabokov might bear) who acquires for him a totemic significance; Max Ferber recalls being restrained from a self-destructive impulse on the Swiss peak Grammont by a man "carrying a large white gauze butterfly net" who becomes the subject of his agonized, unfinished painting, "Man with a Butterfly Net" (173-74); finally, embedded in the diary of Ferber's mother, Luisa Lanzberg, is her recollection of "a boy of about ten who had been chasing butterflies" during a youthful encounter, whom she retrospectively characterizes as "a messenger of joy" (214). (1) Nabokov is named only once (in connection with the photograph, which is ambiguously designated), and after that, the apparitional "butterfly man" is never directly identified. The purposes of these individual moments are not immediately legible, nor are these appearances suggestive of any obvious cumulative or retrospective understanding. What, then, do these details mean?
While a number of critics have explored dimensions of this question, I'd prefer to locate those dimensions in a broader synthesizing and philosophical framework. (2) Sebald's inclusion of Nabokov as a sequence of textual details, I would suggest, is more than just a clever homage to Speak, Memory, the work which, in its fusion of autobiographical and fictional elements, its incorporation of photographs, its obsession with exile and memory, and its prefiguring of such episodes as the showing of glass slides, undoubtedly exerted an enormous imaginative and formal influence on The Emigrants. (3) Nor is it enough to presume that Nabokov's textual intrusions are primarily meant to destabilize the realist dimensions of the text in favor of more postmodern, constructed understandings of subjectivity and history--though, to be sure, these should be counted among their narrative effects. Certainly of some importance is the way that Nabokov is chiefly incarnated indirectly as "the Butterfly Man" or "Man with a Butterfly Net," language which reminds us of his lifelong obsession with lepidoptera at the same time that it exploits the butterfly's numerous resonances for Sebald's text: from the evocation of the processes of metamorphosis and migration that speak to questions of emigre subjectivity; (4) to the capture and preservation of the fleeting, which corresponds to The Emigrants's obsessive quest to see and to know the past; to a refiguration of the medium of photography, the butterfly's linkage to which is made most conspicuously in Speak, Memory through an emphasis on the butterfly's mimetic powers, and through the ways the butterfly's metamorphic form residually preserves, like photography, both spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, as Barthes describes it in Camera Lucida.
But Sebald's engagement with Nabokov is still more profound than this inventory of connections would suggest. To begin with, The Emigrants fundamentally revises the career of the detail in Nabokov's Speak, Memory, and its complex relations to ideas of totality--that state, associated with coherence, primal unity, wholeness, order, harmony, plenitude, and community, that is, as Martin Jay articulates it, typically opposed to alienation, fragmentation, disorder, conflict, contradiction, atomization, and estrangement (21). (5) The figure of Nabokov, translated into what we might call the migratory detail, remains a strange emigre in Sebald's textual and imagistic world who, like the other figures who populate The Emigrants, is forever departing from his native narrative soil--here, Nabokov's own Speak, Memory predominantly--while never achieving seamless textual integration into Sebald's text. Instead, his migration to The Emigrants leads to an interrogation of the relations between part and whole, self and other, detail and totality, the effects of which deepen the forces of anachronism in the novel (a phenomenon not incidentally connected to photography, as well as to the temporal divisions integral to photography's predominant affect, nostalgia).
Nabokov's textual and imagistic migration into The Emigrants revises not only the meanings and functions of the detail, I argue furthermore, but also those of the memorial site (Pierre Nora's lieux de memoire); and his presence conscripts the reader into those self-other relations whose internal disjunctions have been so suggestively described by Emmanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity (1961), relations acquiring an escalating ethical force in Sebald's novel. The spectrum of disjunctions that Sebald contrives--from the detail and memorial site to self-other relations--has a broader, epistemological aim: to give voice to revisionist forms of historical narrative and private memory that collaboratively undo a reductionist and totalizing historiography. For Sebald, such totalizing historiographic methods have rendered invisible or unspeakable a wide swath of subjects, events, and experiences that remain crucial to an understanding of the traumatic dislocations of the two World Wars, in Europe and beyond. In place of this reductionism and totalization, The Emigrants strives to bring to visibility the very momentary, migratory being of those forms of otherness routinely elided by that historiographic lens.
I begin in Part I by focusing on the smallest order of part-whole relations as they are incarnated in Nabokovs and Sebald's divergent representations of the detail before refocusing, in Part II, on a larger order of those relations constituted through what Pierre Nora has called les lieux de memoire--sites of memory--and the historical and memorial networks they potentially conjure. Whereas Nabokov, I argue, employs the detail in Speak, Memory nostalgically to evoke organic totalities, Sebald's The Emigrants unceremoniously shatters a series of totalities in turn: the type of detail-as-totality that metonymically stands for wholeness, which it deconstructs and disperses; the memorial site, which the novel reorients from public to private space and renders in newly untraceable, reconfigurable networks; self-other relations, the internal discordances of which it highlights (in a seeming paradox) in the service of ethical relations; and the historiographic imagination broadly, the totalizing tendencies of which it strives to revise by restoring to its reductionist vision the invisibility it otherwise elides. Finally, The Emigrants fractures the photographic image, including the one through which Nabokov is most directly incarnated in the novel, seeking to multiply and dialecticize its formal and substantive meanings. At stake in each of these instances is not simply an epistemology that finds nearly all categories of knowledge suspect, though certainly the novel strives to recover and reconceive the substance of the arbitrarily designated members of such categories outside of conventional structures of intellectual containment. Fundamentally at stake, beyond any formalist or procedural goals, is the formulation of an ethics intent on articulating the conditions through which we may come to see and know historical others--an ethics with profound implications for Sebald's vision of historiography. I turn to Emmanuel Levinas's description of the terms through which we can approach and possibly glimpse otherness as a fruitful model for understanding Sebald's representation of such encounters with previously invisible historical subjects and sites. From a Levinasian perspective, too, we may begin to conceive of the varied uses Sebald makes of Nabokov in the novel as an exemplary encounter with such historical otherness--an encounter whose flickering ephemerality emblematizes the larger problematic of knowing and instrumentalizing the past.
Despite the standard poststructuralist privileging of the particular over the general waged through a theoretical critique of totalizing meta-narratives, the detail, as Naomi Schor has taught us, historically has been viewed with suspicion in the West, having been charged with the "dismantling of Idealist metaphysics" (3) through its perceived deformations of so-called "universal" knowledge. But there are really "two religions or two cultures of the 'detail,'" as Derrida has characterized them, two "techniques or systems of knowledge" (Right 125) through which Nabokov and Sebald are dialectically wedded. The first, which 1 associate here with Nabokov, "becomes adept at enlarging or magnifying the minute and discrete element" from which "it becomes possible," Derrida explains, "to idealize it, to dematerialize or spiritualize it, to charge it with significance." In this synecdochal model we find the detail reimagined as totality, a reimagination that, I should note, revises the detail's intermittent historical associations with triviality, ornament, and decadent excess--qualities that may be presumed to compromise both the imagination and perspective. That the optical effects of "enlargement" and "magnification" which Derrida cites inevitably evoke photographic technologies should occasion little surprise, since photography has often been heralded as the art of the detail. But these optical enhancements lead not to a more intimate empirical knowledge--details of the detail, if you will--but to the detail's apotheosis out of its concrete materiality into other dimensions (a trajectory which may recall Barthes's spiritualization of the detail through the punctum). Alternatively, in the second model, best exemplified, I suggest, in Sebald, the detail may give rise to what Derrida calls a "process of fragmentation [faire piece]" of "abyssal synecdoches" that "never deliver the whole" but "leave only traces" (125-26). Whereas the first model is able to deliver knowledge precisely by dematerializing its object, the second model, or what we might call the detail-as-fragment, insists upon the partial character of knowledge--in the sense both of its incompleteness and situatedness. The very proximity of the detail-as-fragment to the concrete, material object necessarily compromises its perspective of wholeness.
Of the many instances of the detail-as-totality in Speak, Memory, let me focus on just a few exemplary cases, each of which tellingly highlights optical effects. Of the ruby and diamond ring worn by his mother, Nabokov writes, "within the limpid facets ... had I been a better crystal-gazer, I might have seen a room, people, lights, trees in the rain--a whole period of emigre life for which that ring was to pay" (81); of a meerschaum penholder, he writes, it had "a tiny peephole of crystal" through which "a miraculous photographic view of the bay ... could be seen inside" (151). These details project worlds through a kind of imaginative optics that recalls Bakhtins chronotope--a concept of "time-spaces" (84) that insists on the inseparability of temporal and spatial realms. That the detail-as-totality is a passport to alternative spatio-temporal locations is reiterated in Nabokov's description of a particularly memorable sunset which "had the peculiar neatness of something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. There it lay in wait, a family of serene clouds in miniature ... remote but perfect in every detail ... my marvelous tomorrow ready to be delivered to me" (213). Whether facilitated by jewel or crystal peephole or inverted telescope, Nabokov's imaginative optics serve as time-transport devices that lead to new mnemonic connections. The detail-as-totality emerges therefore as affectively rather than materially metonymic--an element of the migratory imagination which, light and transportable as the traveling bag that accompanied Nabokov's mother through thirty years of displacements (143), enables a unique continuity across disparate textual landscapes.
The photographic equivalent to such moments is the putatively unposed 1929 image of Nabokov taken by his wife, Vera, which captures him writing at a table in a hotel room surrounded by an array of significant objects (Figure 2).
Nabokov provides extended commentary on this photograph, whose numerous details--the novel he is writing, the identity of the hotel, the chessboard-patterned tablecloth, his brand of cigarettes (Gauloises), the presence of family photographs, the history of his penholder, and the barely visible moth setting boards--Nabokov revisits in turn, concluding that "seldom does a casual snapshot compendiate a life so precisely" (256a). Although at first glance the photograph seems to operate differently than the detail-as-totality because it brings together so many details so concretely, if we understand the photograph itself as a single image focalized (like the jewel, crystal, and telescope) through optics, then its array of individual details, derived from many different moments and places in Nabokov's history, once again combines to incarnate a (lost) world or chronotope charged with spiritual rather than material significance.
Nabokov's practice in these instances should be distinguished from the mise en abymc, a miniature replica of a text embedded in the text, since the world the detail-as-totality incarnates exceeds the mise en abyme's fractal or reiterative logic through the will to "idealize," "dematerialize," and "spiritualize." Propelled, to use Nabokov's words, by a "syncopal kick" (250), the detail-as-totality aspires, in other words, to overleap the real to reach imaginative locations within and beyond the text. This aspiration raises questions about the details capacity, in text and in image, to project an otherwise lost totality--be it the unified version of self that autobiography conventionally conjures, the Russia of Nabokov's childhood before its Soviet reinvention, or a sense of history as seamlessly continuous rather than subject to the traumatic ruptures in which "every synthesis is the thesis of the next series" (275) as Nabokov puts it, invoking Hegel. (6) Arguably, genuine totality occurs only in the details--and in their aesthetic disposition--making of those details so many imaginative resolutions of otherwise irresolvable subjective, national, and historical fractures.
The detail should also be distinguished from the fragment--the former, a consequence of focalization and perspective, the latter, a consequence of incompleteness or rupture--although the two are closely allied in Speak, Memory. Such an alliance, Schor recalls, is proposed in Hegel's organicist theory, according to which "there exists a relationship of 'double synecdoche' ... between detail and fragment.... To the extent that both are distinct parts referring to the same totality, they are equivalent. At the same time, however, detail and fragment are in a hierarchical relationship, because it is the equal distribution and high density of purposeful details that insures the [fragment's] integrity" (28). We can see both the affiliation and hierarchical ordering of detail and fragment in the final pages of Speak, Memory, where Nabokov describes his son's discovery of one of those "slightly convex chips of majolica ware ... whose border of scrollwork fitted exactly, and continued, the pattern of a fragment I had found in 1903 on the same shore, and that the two tallied with a third my mother had found ... and with a fourth piece ... that had been found by her mother" (308). It's the detail of the scrollwork border that allows the majolica shards to be fitted together across time and space, and to create a cross-generational totality.
Nabokov has written a commentary on how his details function, which helps illuminate more sharply a point of Sebald's intersection with and a departure from Nabokov's detail-as-totality in Speak, Memory. Published for the first time only in 1999, chapter sixteen of Speak, Memory features Nabokov posing as a reviewer of his autobiography, and the chapter makes clear not only how deliberate were his engagements with ideas of totality, but how intimately they inform the largest aesthetic dimensions of the text. (7) The reviewer obligingly explains:
Sebald's Apparitional Nabokov
Thus, toward the end of the book, the theme of mimicry, of the "cryptic disguise" studied by Nabokov in his entomological pursuits, comes to a punctual rendezvous with the "riddle" theme, with the camouflaged solution of a chess problem, with the piecing together of a design on bits of broken pottery, and with a picture puzzle wherein the eye makes out the contours of a new country. To the same point of convergence other thematic lines arrive in haste, as if consciously yearning for the blissful anastomosis provided jointly by art and fate ... and merge, at a most satisfying rond point, with the many garden paths and park walks and forest trails meandering through the book. (250)
The image of the "rond point" recalls a variety of spherical and recursive forms through which Nabokov incarnates the detail-as-totality in Speak, Memory. (8) But his fullest articulation of totality here comes through the conceptual integration of the sphere with the network, via "the blissful anastomosis provided jointly by art and fate." It's worth dwelling a moment further on the term "anastomosis," which describes the interconnection between parts of a branching system. The branching themes of Speak, Memory converge upon its rond point just as the branching veins of the body's circulatory system converge upon the heart; it's a system, that is, with a center--suggesting the significance of the sphere as a privileged image, but also the ways it exceeds its local meanings to become a kind of master image. As this Derridean formulation implies, the presence of a center operates as a certain guarantor of meaning, imposing order upon migratory bodies, texts (such as those from Nabokov's father's library that circulate from place to place ), and meanings. (9)
If Nabokov's anastomosis is best conceived through the centralized networks of the body, Sebald's network in The Emigrants is figured as railway tracks, a centerless system whose borders and limits are fundamentally unknowable. To be sure, a Nabokovian idea of circulation may facilitate our conceptual passage from one text to another, but we must abandon Speak, Memory's fundamentally organic understanding of the network (associated with spheres and garden paths) to grasp Sebald's railway, which remains emphatically mechanical, and retains all the dark meanings that accrue to that technology in post-Auschwitz Europe. The Emigrants is relentlessly crisscrossed in space and time by trains and their lengths of segmented track, which trace routes from the Lithuania of 1899 to the America of the 1970s in dozens of complexly intersecting passages. Sebald's ending of the Paul Bereyter section with the severing of his body into parts by a railway train insists in the most violent terms imaginable on the destruction of the former model of totality on the altar of the new. Indeed, images of division saturate The Emigrants, self-consciously marking their difference from a Nabokovian template. (10) Whereas in the showing of glass slides in chapter eight of Speak, Memory Nabokov celebrates these objects as "translucent miniatures" that capture "neat little worlds" (166), Sebald reimagines them simply as icons of fracture. The narrator describes a glass slide of the Lasithi plateau in the Henry Selwyn section: "We sat looking at this picture for a long time in silence, too, so long that the glass in the slide shattered and a dark crack fissured across the screen" (17). No longer indicative of a world--even the marginal slice of it contained within the slide's frame--the glass slide in Sebald is dominated by an antirepresentational detail, the crack through which meaning and memory "fissure." (11)
We can further observe the collapse of images of totality as Sebald's narrator recalls his first lesson with his schoolteacher Paul Bereyter, who instructs his students in the art of how "an image could be broken down into numerous tiny pieces--small crosses, squares or dots--or else assembled from these" (31); this practice prefigures the deterioration of Paul's eyesight to the degree that "all he could see were fragmented or shattered images" (59). The breakdown of wholes into parts functions as a dystopian ecology in 7 he Emigrants, highlighting the inevitable breakdown of matter, whether through deterioration or destruction, into meaningless components or details--an ecology which draws into itself individuals, buildings, even whole cultures. The process reiterates Derrida's account of the second order of the detail-as-fragment, through a "process of fragmentation" of "abyssal synecdoches" that "never deliver the whole" but "leave only traces." Sebald's narrator stresses the aesthetic dimension of this process through the artist Max Ferber's painterly technique. Characterized by the heavy application and gradual removal of layers of paint, this technique's defining features become particularly acute in his faceless portrait of the "Man with a Butterfly Net," which "had taken more out of him than any previous painting, for when he started on it, after countless preliminary studies, he not only overlaid time and again but also, whenever the canvas could no longer withstand the continual scratching-off and re-application of paint, he destroyed it and burnt it several times" (173-74).These spectral incarnations of Nabokov, dissolved in a "velvety sinter" (161) of particles only a step away from complete invisibility, take their place among the many other provisional versions of him that the text supplies, but importantly, they are deprived of any ultimate prospect of totalization or synthesis.
Arguably, the only viable image of totality in The Emigrants appears in Max Ferber's dream (a form destined to dissolution) of an art exhibit in which a stranger holds a model of the Temple of Solomon on his lap; the model temple may be taken as miniature of the lost totality of the Jewish people, prior to centuries of fragmentation and diaspora, and it occasions Ferber's first revelation of "what a true work of art looks like" (176). Significantly, it's precisely at this point that the text engages in its boldest fusion of different voices, with the narrator's voice picking up from Ferber's without any kind of visible or tonal transition. (In the original German edition there's the visual clue of a line break, but this is omitted by the American publisher.)
Of course, The Emigrants, with its absence of quotation marks, its shared imagery, and consistency of voice across different characters, has affected a kind of collective narration all along, one that intimates the cross-generational labor necessary for reconstructing the past. That historical reconstruction remains a labor signals the anti-teleological nature of an ongoing process, complicating The Emigrants's seeming resort to aesthetic totalization. As I will explore further, the text also resists totalization through its sustained opposition to homogenizing the past, aspiring rather to give momentary voice to what would otherwise remain inarticulable traces. And on a purely formal level, The Emigrants resists totalization through the internal tensions imposed by its hybrid status as memoir/novel. The text's recurrent though unstable appeals to the real render each of its literary effects suspect, since they force the question of whether apparent continuities across the spaces and times of the characters' disparate lives are on the order of coincidence, analogy, or metaphor. The concept of the chronotope through which we might relate these discontinuous continuities exists in Sebald, therefore, only as a utopian potential for unification that, like Benjamin's dialectical images, leaves unsustainable vestiges after they flash and fade. (12) The difference here is comparable to the distinction Foucault draws in The Archaeology of Knowledge between "total history" (9) that "draws all phenomena around a single centre--a principle, a meaning, a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape" (10) and "general history" which "on the contrary, would deploy the space of a dispersion." It's this latter approach to historical representation, I would argue, for which the photograph of Nabokov and its multiple textual avatars serve as icon in The Emigrants. Upon that photograph's fractured temporality, its nostalgic affect, and its status as trace of the real, Sebald may be said to predicate a whole epistemology--one dedicated to "total history's" subversion.
Through a scale of narrative organization orders of magnitude larger than the detail--namely, the memorial site--The Emigrants reiterates the Foucauldian epistemology that rejects "total history" in favor of an alternative "space of a dispersion." Whereas Sebald's detail stages the struggle to represent the past chiefly as a conflict between (imaginative) totality and the fragment, his necessarily more complex memorial sites add historical and thematic layers that re-cast the struggle to represent the past chiefly as a conflict between public and private sites of memory and the forms of collectivity they implicitly reference. And yet Sebald's memorial sites simultaneously preserve the dialectically wedded structural opposition that resides at the core of the detail-as-totality and the detail-as-fragment. Indeed, Sebald's sites of memory can be read as such details writ large. Like the Sebaldian detail-as-fragment, the novel's sites of memory comparably (if more densely) serve as palimpsests that individually and collectively accumulate historical and subjective discontinuities and dispersions (against the detail-as-totality's prospective unity and completeness). Certainly, Sebald's memorial sites lend themselves to any number of traceable affinities, from their recurrent spatio-temporal forms of organization to the sorts of displaced emigre characters that typically inhabit them. However, I argue that the most prominent dimension of those affinities and recurrences, as for the detail-as-fragment, is precisely their resistance to stability and wholeness, expressed both in isolation and through the provisionality of the networks they tentatively form across multiple sites. I take this resistance and provisionality to be a pointed critique of any historiography that would homogenize or reduce the heterogeneous meanings of and relations among Sebald's expressly revisionist memorial sites. To the extent that Nabokov personifies this conjunction of recurrence, provisionality, and heterogeneity, he may be grasped as the apparitional presiding genius of Sebald's method.
Because Pierre Nora's influential essay "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire" (1989) provides such a powerful genealogy of public memory and memorial sites as they have been sedimented into their modern forms, I briefly reprise his account below, toward an understanding of Sebald's critical revision of his implicitly totalizing "differential network" of memorial sites. (13) Nora's genealogy of sites of memory involves not only the sites themselves, but also the emergence of a new form of memory-individual or subject, and thus provides a powerful lens for comprehending these conjoined tendencies in The Emigrants. These theoretical frameworks--the one (Nora's) consecrated to a nationalist ideal of collectivity, the other (Sebald's) affiliated with a post-national poetics of dislocation--help us to understand the otherwise opaque affiliations among sites of memory in the novel, and in particular, Nabokov's haunting occupation of one such site, the Samaria Sanatorium. Because every notion of collectivity arguably recruits and displaces to its interior a model of self-other relations, I then turn to Emmanuel Levinas s ethically engaged account of self-other relations in Totality and Infinity as one well-suited to expose the differences between the relations that inform Nora's and Sebald's respective versions of collectivity, as well as collectivity's related but distinctive conceptual avatar, totality. More broadly, the novel's celebration of the possibilities and discontinuities of self-other relations as the means of conjuring an invented but recognizable past serves to underpin its revisionist historiography--one that remains consecrated to bringing otherwise invisible histories into momentary being.
In "Between Memory and History," Nora defines sites of memory as members of a collection of memorial objects, institutions, functions and symbols that owe their recent proliferation to an emergent culture of the archive, one that has permanently altered the relations between memory and history--notably, to memory's detriment. (14) The essay presumes an historical rupture that leads to the destruction of traditional forms of experience, including the ways in which cultures remember their shared pasts. (15) One consequence of this break, contends Nora, is that traditional memory "has been torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites" (7). For Nora, sites of memory embody the ways a forgetful modernity organizes its past, stepping in and in effect occupying the spaces where social or collective memory used to be (8). Through sites of memory, exhausted cultural frameworks express themselves in compensatory "spectacular symbols" (12), best regarded as the remains of memorial consciousness in a deritualized world that now celebrates the new, albeit with an inescapably nostalgic dimension. Memory transformed by history in this way, Nora argues, has lost its spontaneous, social, and collective character, and has become above all archival. The less memory is experienced on the inside, he suggests, the more it's meticulously reconstituted through material signs; thus, its new vocation is to record or deposit by way of a now compulsive archivalism (13), expressed in a wild proliferation of memoirs, oral histories, and archival research among non-specialists. (16) Cumulatively, these developments are harbingers of "a new consciousness" (14), marked by a shift from social memory to a fully psychologized individual memory, itself a reaction to the new history. Nora writes: "The transformation of memory implies a decisive shift from the historical to the psychological, from the social to the individual, from the objective message to its subjective reception" (15). This new form of memory is "interiorize[d] ... as an individual constraint" (14) that, in effect, requires everyone to become her own historian (15): "The less memory is experienced collectively, the more it will require individuals to undertake to become themselves memory-individuals," governed by the feeling that their salvation "depends on the repayment of an impossible debt" (16)--a debt which Nora conceives in specifically nationalistic terms. Such memory-individuals, in other words, are obliged to take up the burden of their national histories through the individual memory narratives that work to compensate for the loss of traditional memory and its sacred, collective sense of national belonging. (17)
Nora's class of sites of memory extends to libraries, museums, and cemeteries; festivals, and anniversaries; manuals, dictionaries, and testaments; flags, tourist sites, and veterans' associations; places of refuge or pilgrimage; even ideas of lineage or inherited property (12, 22-23). Importantly, his historical rubric conjures a typology of sites of memory whose existence depends upon discerning "an invisible thread linking apparently unconnected objects.... There is a differentiated network to which all of these separate identities belong, an unconscious organization of collective memory that it is our responsibility to bring to consciousness" (23, my emphasis). Nora's invocation of such a network, I suggest, amounts to a fantasy of reconstituting those sites into a coherent series that presumes not only their underlying connection, but a connection that specifically can excavate, if not retrospectively confer, the jeopardized remains of the memorial consciousness that Nora links with national identity and character. That it remains "our responsibility to bring to consciousness" this unconsciously organized collective memory thus strongly implies a totalizing nationalist imperative. This nationalist framing of sites of memory is just the beginning of the ways Nora's and Sebald's sites of memory part ways.
The most important thing to say about the The Emigrants's relationship to sites ot memory is that for Sebald, nearly everything in post-war Europe has been converted into such a site. But Sebald's selection of sites implicitly amends Nora's, if not rebukes it. To recall, Nora's sites--libraries, museums, cemeteries, monuments, festivals, anniversaries, manuals, dictionaries, tourist sites, associations, ideas of lineage and inherited property, and so on-- are public sites, commemorating what we might call the publishable face of social memory. In Sebald, by contrast, sites of memory are reconceived as furtive and fugitive, as the private or unpublishable memory rarely reified in public spaces. When Nora concludes, to recall the end of his essay once again, that "there is a differentiated network to which all of these separate identities [of sites of memory] belong, an unconscious organization of collective memory that it is our responsibility to bring to consciousness" (23), he has in mind a publicly sanctioned and accessible network, the outcome of modern neglect rather than stigma, and this publicity prevails regardless of the secondary task of bringing to awareness what might lie concealed or repressed beneath this public face. The history Sebald's text is devoted to uncovering, by contrast, has never had any but a fugitive and symptomatic public life, having been consigned to the periphery of social knowledge when acknowledged at all. Yet the marginalization of this history and its sites arguably stand in inverse relation to their social power; such marginal sites may be said to haunt Nora's historical vision as unacknowledged spectral presences imbued with the power to expose and undo categorical forms of blindness.
Like Nora's sites of memory, Sebald's, too, enjoin us to discover the "unconscious organization of collective memory" which they cumulatively map, but they must be understood as private, even secretive incarnations of these sites, and therefore, a recondite method of mapping those evanescent traces requires us from the start to associate with the trauma of dislocation. Public sites of memory are by no means absent from the Euro-American landscapes Sebald foregrounds in this novel, but the affective density of those sites is thoroughly eclipsed by the power of their marginal and private counterparts, and indeed, by those privatized dimensions that simply co-exist within them. In The Emigrants we find no festivals marking Jewish emigrations, like Uncle Kasimir's (80), from hostile communities that had been their homes, or the narrow escapes of Jewish children such as Max Ferber through the Kindertransports; no anniversaries held in honor of the pogroms that ultimately destroyed Paul Bereyter's father, Theodor (53); no dictionaries to contain the languages, including his native German, that characters like Max Ferber refuse any longer to speak (182); no tourist sites at the concentration camp where Ferber's parents were lost; no veterans' associations for one-quarter Jews like Paul Bereyter who were so German-identified that they fought for the Fatherland against all logic or moral sense (55-56). Even the ideas of lineage Nora ranks among his sites of memory are thwarted by characters such as Henry Selwyn, who has changed his name from Hersch Seweryn to disguise his Jewish roots (21), just as notions of inherited property are erased through the uncommemorated absorption of Jewish homes by neighbors in communities like Steinach, as we're reminded when Sebald's narrator makes a visit there to trace Luisa Lanzberg's origins in 1991 (194).To the extent that public sites are present, they largely consist in those that either have fallen into neglect (such as the ruined Jewish cemetery at Kissingen [222-25]), have been destroyed (as we find in a doctored photo of the burning of Jewish books--a real event, but ambiguously documented [183-84]), or have come into only a shadowy being as imaginative traces (such as the narrator's dream-reconstruction of the Deauville casino where Cosmo Solomon amassed his gambling fortunes [120-26]).
The Emigrants, in other words, recasts public architecture and monuments as private sites, and yet they serve memorial purposes that recall Nora's archives, museums, and cemeteries. (18) We see one such exemplary site in the novel's opening pages, when we learn of the house that Sebald's narrator decides to let, called Prior's Gate (a name which suggests both its monastic isolation from the social and public world, and its status as a gateway to the past). A variety of details help us to read the house as a private site of memory. It is "hidden behind a two-metre wall and thick shrubbery"; its "gleaming and blind" windows are both unseeing and refuse an outsider's gaze, ensuring the site's isolate privacy (3-4); and it contains a whole network of secret passageways, originally provided, it's explained, to allow servants to move invisibly about the house (9).The spatial organization of Prior's Gate and its opaque surfaces both symbolize the buried conflict of the estranged couple who were its primary residents, the Selwyns, and model the ways that marginalized or repressed cultural memories resist ready access or surface readability, even as they are contained in the self-same public structures. That this resistance should be associated specifically with historical reading is made clear through another detail: the house reminds the narrator of a second structure he'd once visited, in front of which two brothers "had built a replica of the facade of the palace of Versailles" (4).The reference to Versailles is important for at least two reasons: first, because it models the palimpsestic and chronotopic nature of architectural sites that Sebald will stress throughout his text (Versailles was a modest hunting lodge at the time of Louis XIII, became a royal palace under Louis XIV, and was converted in 1837 to a museum of French history under Louis-Philippe); and second, because Versailles was the site where the Peace Treaty of 1919, signed by Germany and nearly all the victorious allied nations, officially ended the first World War. The reference straightforwardly signals that the historical frame with which The Emigrants will concern itself begins with the First World War (the devastations of which, for example, are responsible for Cosmo Solomon's first breakdown ). But more complexly, the narrator's invocation of Versailles as an incomplete and counterfeit facade suggests the tensions between the public and private faces of social memory: Versailles, the public building, is just a false and flimsy covering for the profoundly private site of memory it conceals--a site which itself commemorates the concealment of Henry Selwyn's Jewish identity (also facilitated by the house's noticeably Christian name, "Prior's Gate"). Significantly, Selwyn himself has relocated to a small structure at the margins of the property, having taken up a vocation as its "ornamental hermit" (5) until his suicide. In its own contained, private sphere, then, Prior's Gate encompasses the memorial functions spanning from the archive to the mausoleum--albeit in a form that sustains from moment to moment their discontinuous particularities. In this way Prior's Gate epitomizes the complexly layered Sebaldian site of memory, whose circumspect, provisional, and potentially contradictory spatio-temporal and subjective meanings stand in pointed contrast to those Nora seeks to recuperate into sites that serve as vehicles for a (reconstituted) sense of national wholeness.
For all that The Emigrants aligns itself with these discontinuities, each site also points us, however circuitously, back to Nabokov, the novel's absent center. One might say that the recurrent apparitions of Nabokov are to Sebald's private memorial sites what Sebalds are to Nora's public sites: perturbations of meaning that haunt the most accessible or visible faces of representation, the psychic import of which is inversely related to their invisibility. The difference is that Sebald deliberately deploys Nabokov for this purpose. To consider the narrative trajectory of one exemplary route to Nabokov (as felt absence) and its implications for the provisional network over which he insubstantially presides: the character who introduces us (anew) to "the butterfly man," the Nabokovian figure who recurrently haunts the memorial site Samaria Sanatorium, describes him as a middle-aged man "holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps" (104)--a description which heralds our own "curious jumps" across the narrative's spatio-temporal divides, and arguably across its spectrum of memorial sites as well. (19) (Indeed, the butterfly net itself reiterates discontinuity with its grids of rope that tenuously conjoin part and whole, presence and absence.) The sanatorium is located in Ithaca, New York, where Nabokov lived for many years. We learn of the institutions existence through the story of the narrator's Great-Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, who for years after his emigration to America served in the household of the affluent Solomon family as the caretaker of its eccentric and depressive son, Cosmo. (Uncle Adelwarth is described by Uncle Kasimir as being "of the other persuasion, as anyone could see" --at once an implied reference to his homosexuality and an intriguing nod to otherness itself.) After Cosmo's second nervous breakdown, Uncle Adelwarth reluctantly commits his charge, by then his intimate friend and companion, to the Samaria Sanatorium, where Cosmo subsequently dies. Following that event Uncle Adelwarth's own world (his cosmos) is sundered, and even his fail-safe of running the Solomon's household abruptly dissolves when the death of Cosmo's father leads to its total dissolution. The narrator tells us, about the period following Cosmo's death, "Looking back, you might say that Ambros Adelwarth the private man had ceased to exist, that nothing was left but his shell of decorum" (99); but this analysis proves inadequate to describe his uncle's later decline, in which the eruptions precisely of his private self are the source of his uncontrollable suffering.
Years later, after Uncle Adelwarth has committed himself to the same sanatorium where he had once taken Cosmo Solomon, the narrator interprets his uncle's intractable depression as the consequence of his infallible but repressed memory, the intermittent and implicitly traumatic access to which has occasioned his barely utterable torments. This rupture of a stoic and decorous public edifice by barely articulable private contents embodies in Ambrose Adelwarth's fastidious person the terms of Sebald's revised sites of memory more broadly. Nabokov, also rendered inarticulable save by sly sobriquet, bookends Uncle Adelwarth's time served in the Samaria Sanatorium in ways that spectrally mark the site. The narrator describes the first of a series of visits to his uncle there, in the midst of which Uncle Adelwarth quite simply identifies the man with the white net: "It's the butterfly man, you know. He comes around here quite often" (104). While the narrator mistakes Uncle Adelwarth's tone for mockery and even a sign of his improvement, alert readers will instead recognize the spectral invocation of Nabokov here as a tear in the novel's spatio-temporal fabric. Sometime later, when Uncle Adelwarth explains why he nearly misses his final electro-convulsive "treatment," he tells his doctor: "It must have slipped my mind whilst I was waiting for the butterfly man" (115). As though Nabokov were his ambassador to those invisible realms discontinuous with the inhabitable present, Uncle Adelwarth completes the treatment and dies the next day.
Some thirty years later, in 1984, the narrator goes in search of the sanatorium and its director, Professor Fahnstock, whom he learns had died in the 1950s. There, out of doors, he encounters Fahnstock's successor, one Dr. Abramsky, who has not taken new patients since the late 1960s, but in whose care the narrator's uncle had died. Much like Henry Selwyn, Dr. Abramsky has relocated himself to the outside of a large and impressive estate. He confines himself to the boathouse and serves as the caretaker of an apiary, while the "extravagant timber palace" (110) that is the sanatorium gradually subsides into a mouse-infested decline, along with (to paraphrase the doctor) its store of unimaginable pain and wretchedness. Like Selwyn's imagined Versailles, the Samaria Sanatorium also relies on a false front, but this one is of the totalizing, ideological variety whose sole purpose is to eradicate the authentic interiority of its patients through convulsive shock therapy. Dr. Fahnstock, we learn, sustained this pretense of scientific knowledge--from faulty diagnoses to the inhumane treatment of suffering--through his own professional vanity and the exercise of his authority on others, including Dr. Abramsky. As he recalls this period to the narrator, Abramsky thoroughly discredits these practices and holds them to blame for Ambros Adelwarth's death.
In his dreams, Abramsky commits the sanatorium itself and its crumbling archive of medical records to a slowly devolving oblivion that reduces it to "a heap of powder-fme wood dust, like pollen" (113)--food, perhaps, for the bees he is keeping.The sanatorium's projected dream-fate is not entirely unlike Uncle Adelwarth's real one: Abramsky reveals his emergent understanding that Uncle Adelwarth longed "for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember" (114). Perhaps, as we consider the similar fates of these architectural and human sites of memory in the novel broadly, the salient point, beyond the certain demise of their totalizing public faces (behind which stand such enormous human costs), is their collective ephemerality, by which they join in the global reduction of wholes into sintery and indistinct material parts. Over these parts, memory--metamorphically personified here by Nabokov--may be said to hover, but in a scarcely recoverable form.
From Priors Gate to Samaria Sanatorium, and across the countless other sites of memory touched upon in the novel, we clearly find loose affiliations of such sites' meanings and purposes, just as they are inhabited by figures so similar that they might initially appear interchangeable. Yet each is also irreducibly particular; indeed, one might argue that the novel's entire ethical project is to disinter, if only for a moment, the particularity of each of its subjects and sites. But just as importantly, these sites are not historically static in their meanings or functions: there is neither a collective national project (following Nora) nor even a single diasporic principle through which to affiliate these emigrants or their fugitive sites. For these reasons, Sebald's sites of memory perpetually resist totalization as a "differentiated network," although we can't know in advance which modes of resistance, including the employment of Nabokov--as butterfly man, memorial icon, or presiding angel--any individual site might depend on to sustain its protean, discontinuous momentum.
The Emigrants, furthermore, brings these private Sebaldian sites of memory together with a new species of "memory-individual" who may be best equipped to read them, something like the "new kind of historian," Nora describes, so "eager to confess his intimate relation to his subject" that "the historian has become ... in himself, a lieu de memoire" (18).Though Sebald's narrator, I suggest, is clearly kin to such a figure, he should nonetheless be distinguished from Nora's newly psychologized subject whose cultural and national memory is "interiorize[d] ... as an individual constraint" (14, my emphasis). It's not merely, I would argue, that
the narrators discernment and sense of historical debt as an expatriated German are more urgently wedded to the project of decoding private or marginalized meanings than Nora's memory-individual might be in his devotion to public sites. (20) The narrators labors to document and interpret a series of diasporic individual histories, including his own, crucially also entail his aspiration to a radical intimacy--a genuine engagement in the ethical project of knowing another in a way that arguably surpasses even those sacred national bonds Nora attributes to an earlier era of collectivity. That project, involving what Edith Wyschogrod has called "the speech and silence of heterology" (165-65), jeopardizes if not explodes Nora's model of individuality in favor of a highly permeable and nascently collectivist form of subjectivity better attuned to the readings of memorial traces. It's this emergent model of subjectivity (the formal expressions of which include the novel's seamless narrative voice and disorienting collapse of temporal divisions) that, as much as its recurrent symbolic motifs, provides cohesion among the four segments of the text. In this light, the faulty or absent memory affecting nearly everyone in the novel needs to be understood, beyond the simple failure of collective consciousness that according to Nora has come to typify modernity broadly, as a specifically traumatic symptom of their dislocation--one that locates these subjects at the ambiguous periphery of any conventional notion of national belonging or collectivity. As we've observed, the occupation of such locations is literalized by Henry Selwyn and Dr. Abramsky, each of whom has abandoned the ideologically overdetermined public site that formerly housed him for an improvised, marginal, private, but nevertheless permeable shelter.
It's through the narrator's interaction with private or privatized sites of memory that his gradual transformation into a memory individual of this kind occurs. In addition to visiting, literally or imaginatively, nearly all the significant architectural sites of memory important to the novel's substantial cast of characters, he collects and studies the many written documents he discovers or is entrusted with (included as excerpts or in their entirety, and sometimes also reproduced photographically--an issue to which I'll return).The novel incorporates newspaper articles, as well as references to texts by writers such as Nabokov and Wittgenstein, and it reproduces the diaries of two characters: Ambrose Adelwarth's Agenda Book for 1913, some of the pages of which are blank (126-45); and Luisa Lanzberg's manuscript documenting the years 1889-1921, written under duress in the Germany of 1939-41 (193-218). The entire text, of course, may be regarded as the documentary undertaking of the narrator, whose subjective presence Sebald increasingly foregrounds. The fact of the narrator's investment in his subjects in itself should not surprise: he has befriended Henry Selwyn, the subject of Part I; was a former student of Paul Bereyter, the focus of Part II; is the grand-nephew of Ambrose Adelwarth, the chief figure of Part III; and is an intimate of Max Ferber, a central figure in Part IV. But the quality of the narrators investments becomes increasingly apparent as the four parts unfold, foregrounding, as it must, the ethical questions of appropriation, voyeurism, and projection implicit in such intimate investigations. In Part II, the narrator feels compelled to defend the propriety of an imaginative enterprise bordering on the voyeuristic, as he conceives his former teacher in settings beyond the purview of an average pupil: "it was in order to avoid this sort of wrongful trespass," he asserts somewhat unpersuasively, "that I have written down what I know of Paul Bereyter" (29). But by Part IV, he appears to have divested himself of the need for the appearance of detachment by the fourth part, when, at the foot of a grave in the Jewish cemetery at Kissingen belonging to an utter stranger (though an engraved quill on her tombstone indicates that she shares his literary vocation), he declares that "I imagined her pen in her hand ... bent with bated breath over her work; and now, as I write these lines, it feels as if I had lost her, and as if I could not get over the loss" (224). The narrator's increasingly visible investments coincide with his diminishing confidence that he can properly know and do justice to his subjects. He describes the historiographic difficulties he encounters in his portrait of Max Ferber, for instance, in terms that evoke Ferber's own creative process, notable for its destructive and fragmentary methods: "By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions" to become "a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched" (230-31). (21)
Such methods and sentiments foreground the broader difficulty of access to the past, a difficulty that, for the narrator, extends even to a past with which he's had some direct involvement. His growing identification with his subjects may perhaps be understood as compensation for his diminished faith in his capacity to represent them. Such diminishment is certainly consistent with Nora's sense of the historical rupture that has divided us from traditional forms of experience. Our relation to the past, Nora argues, may no longer be viewed as a retrospective continuity, with the present perceived simply as an updated past, but must be comprehended as "the illumination of discontinuity" (16), the ruptures of which must loom especially large for a German expatriate in post-war Europe. Fantasies of bringing the past into a palpable, visceral knowability are conceivable, Nora suggests, only in the "regime of discontinuity" (17) that has now taken up residence; as a result of these ruptures the prospect of representing the past recedes, while its hoped-for resurrection steps in as the goal of the new historian.
Yet Sebald, I would argue, is remarkable for choosing neither representation nor resurrection as his historico-ethical path, but rather what might be called, following Levinas in Totality and Infinity, a contingency of the possible that is necessarily predicated on his novel's uncertain fictionality. (22) (While all novels are experiments with the possible, Sebald s subjunctive experiment is sharply foregrounded by his ambiguation of the line between fiction and the memoir.) Levinas defines the possible in opposition to the totalizing tendencies of what he calls "universal history":
The time of universal history remains as the ontological ground in which individual existences are lost.... Inferiority institutes an order different from historical time in which totality is constituted, an order where everything is pending, where what is no longer possible historically remains always possible. (55)
Levinas here envisions rescuing individual existences from historical reductionism via the resources of the discontinuous subjunctive. Understanding that discontinuity to be a property interior to subjects (rather than, or in addition to, Nora's temporal "regimes"), Levinas also defines self-other relations within this rubric, such that those relations are the privileged vehicles through which the subject may remain irreducible to totality. Levinas contends:
A relation whose terms do not form a totality can hence be produced within the general economy of being only as proceeding from the I to the other, as a face to face ... irreducible to the distance the synthetic activity of the understanding establishes between the[se] diverse terms. (39)
If we comprehend Sebald's narrator's growing engagement and identification with his subjects as a method of securing this 'face to face" rapprochement as a moment of ethical recognition--even of those subjects as distant from him as the anonymous writer who inspired his graveside identification, and even in Levinas's decisively "irreducible" terms of engagement--we can redeem his efforts from the clearly compromised relations of appropriation, voyeurism, and projection, the ethical ambiguities of which might otherwise be the cause of great uneasiness in the reader. (23) To this extent, the narrator resembles the poisoned, photosensitive Manchester lab assistant described by Max Ferber who "had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate" (165). Inferentially, the narrator also can be seen to take upon his person, in the most responsive, empathic way he can manage, the presumptive being of the other, while narrowly evading the imperfect translation of that arrogation into the textual and imagistic equivalents that count as representation in the novel (the photographic plate in this analogy is receptive but as yet unmarked). Given the deadly consequences of silver, the analogy with the lab assistant simultaneously suggests the decay of the narrator's own embodied subjectivity. This photographic consciousness, as I'm calling it, becomes The Emigrants's historiographic and ethical ideal. (24) It is in this revised and anti-totalizing sense then, as a sensitized repository for the memory-histories of others, that Sebald's narrator may himself be regarded as a lieu de memoire. Through his offices, or the attentive reading of him as a discontinuous site, we learn the grounds for associating the memory-histories of this otherwise random group of others with the expression of Europe's secret history across the two World Wars.
Coda: photographic paternity
That The Emigrants uses the metaphor of photographic development to describe the process of ethical engagement reminds us that photographs are far more than just another form of archival evidence in the novel. They are also a key vehicle for producing an historically charged model of self-other relations. As Barthes has taught us, "the photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity" (12), and this internal self-other dialectic is just the first of several reasons why the photograph, too, should be regarded as a (Sebaldian) site of memory. The way the photograph combines space and time, furthermore, invites us to link it not only with the text's other chronotopic sites--both its architectural settings and the numerous space-times represented and crisscrossed by The Emigrants' multiple narratives--but also with what Cathy Caruth has described as the fundamental dislocatedness and temporal latency of traumatic experience, experience that can never be accessed directly but only reconstituted in the present through memory work (195-97).Traumatic temporality is as uncannily synchronous with that of the memorial site as it is with the temporality of the photograph. "If we accept that the most fundamental purpose of the lieu de memoire is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting," Nora argues, "it is also clear that lieux de memoire only exist because of their capacity for metamorphosis, an endless recycling of their meaning" (19). Likewise, the photograph is conventionally credited with the capacity to "block the work of forgetting" because its status as an imprint or literal trace of the real helps constitute its credibility as an emblem of the past. While the photograph's attachment to the referent has been perceived as necessarily constraining the otherwise limitless play of meaning associated with iconic images, Margaret Olin has conversely argued (about Barthes's Camera Lucida) that the power of photographic content per se may be overstated: "The immense power of the photograph does not come from that which was in front of the camera, it lies elsewhere. To find it, we can look in the network of identifications that these photographs establish" (66, my emphasis).
It's the chronotopic form of photographic "evidence" that matters, finally, for the mode of signification these images employ in The Emigrants, by which their specific content pales before their power simply to evoke authentic pastness in an evolving present. Still more importantly, this present knowingly includes and is inhabited by the reader. It is precisely by mobilizing readers' diverse "networks of identification"--networks that unpredictably and idiosyncratically add their weight to the meanings that otherwise accrue across the text--that the photographs in the novel acquire their collective albeit necessarily discontinuous and anti-totalizing power. The referents of individual photographs may or may not be verifiable, but these readerly identifications, I suggest, ideally conscript the reader into a momentary, ethical "face to face" encounter with the past. In this way, by mobilizing the resources of what Levinas names inferiority, the reader's collaboration with the novel's photographs may resist yet another form of totalization: namely, the totalizing power of the visible. Levinas contends:
The judgment of history is set forth in the visible. Historical events are the visible par excellence; their truth is produced in evidence. The visible forms, or tends to form, a totality.... The invisible must manifest itself if history is to lose its right to the last word. (243)
To the extent that The Emigrants's photographs, along with its memorial sites, multiple narrative layers, and narrative function as memory repository may be regarded in any sense as a "differentiated network," then, it can only be through the lens of their collective aspiration to bring forward this fragile, momentary, and resistant invisibility--one that remains built upon the fractured foundations of Nora's "regime of discontinuity."
If we revisit the intermittent and spectral appearances of Nabokov across The Emigrants's four narratives in light of these ethical and epistemological framings, it becomes clear that Nabokov should be viewed as far more than a kindred spirit of either Sebald or his narrator as emigre writers superficially separated by space and time. Through his revisions of the detail, the memorial site, and his depiction of intersubjective relations, Sebald complexly engages Nabokov's work, person, image, and influence through a traceable modification of every form of totality--including the totality that would posthumously render Nabokov himself as "a pure loss figuring in an alien accounting system" (56), as Levinas describes the subject after death. If, as for Levinas, "in the totality of the historiographer the death of the other is an end, the point at which the separated being is cast into the totality," Sebald's repudiation of totality may be seen as a critique of Nabokov's metaphysics only in the narrowest of terms. It is precisely this form of an end, over which a totalizing historiography normally presides, that Sebald's text, seeks to redescribe, including its sustained engagement with Nabokov as a beloved literary and historical figure.
Beyond either kinship or epistemology, Levinas's historico-ethical framework also brings into focus Nabokov's role in The Emigrants as an instance of those self-other relations Levinas describes as "paternal":
Paternity--the way of being other while being oneself--has nothing in common with a transformation in time which could not surmount the identity of what traverses it, nor with some metempsychosis in which the I can know only an avatar, and not be another I. This discontinuity must be emphasized. (282)
Undoubtedly, this discontinuous "way of being other while being oneself" exceeds the available language we have for its decisive capture (as it raises questions about its implicit terms of appropriation). But perhaps we may begin to approach Sebald's apparitional Nabokov as a nearly mystic incarnation who presides over the larger ethical question of what it means to engage with and know another. That Levinas calls this relation a paternal one surely intimates a protective and pedagogical role, just as its openly gendered (if unexamined) terms suggest that we include among Nabokov's myriad mercurial roles one that acknowledges him as the ghostly father of Sebald's text. We can at once recognize this form of Nabokov's paternity in relation to the The Emigrants and find it metamorphosing, strange butterfly, into invisibility. As it bursts from the chrysalis of the marginal histories that surround and sustain it, that relation may well momentarily be caught in the loosely woven strands of the Butterfly Man's capacious net, but too quickly it finds an opening and escapes its (and our) fleeting grasp.
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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.
Straus, Nina Pelikan. "Sebald, Wittgenstein, and the Ethics of Memory." Comparative Literature 61.1 (2009): 43-53.
Weston, Daniel. "The Spatial Supplement: Landscape and Perspective in W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn" Cultural Geographies 18.2 (2011): 171-86.
Wolff, Lynn. "Literary Historiography: W. G. Sebald's Fiction." W. G. Sebald: Schreiben Ex Patria/Expatriate Writing. Ed. Gerhard Fischer. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 317-30.
Wyschogrod, Edith. An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
(1.) The narrator, too, implicitly identifies himself with Nabokov when he describes the "period of my imaginary Americanization, during which I crisscrossed the entire United States" (like Nabokov before him) "in a dark brown Oldsmobile" (70).
(2.) While my reading concurs particularly with two insightful readings of the meaning and functions of Nabokov in Sebald's The Emigrants, it also seeks to recontextualize them within the broader problematic of totality. Leland de la Durantaye stresses that beyond serving as a figure for the intertwining of fact and fiction as well as an emblem of memory's redemptive power, Nabokov's presence in Sebald's work should be read as that of an "anthropomorphic deity" (443) whose panoptic narrative powers Sebald honors but abjures in favor of a more circumspect and leveling optic. Adrian Curtin and Maxim Shrayer argue that Nabokov and Sebald each "were indelibly marked by the events of the Shoah" (259) and that Nabokov provided Sebald with a model for confronting that history with moral and aesthetic integrity. Sebald's own account of Nabokov's presence in the text is unsurprisingly cryptic, and stresses the "haunting, spectral quality" of "virtual presence" (Schwartz 53) with which he hoped to infuse his work, as well as the importance of Nabokov's Speak, Memory, but resists reducing Nabokov's appearances in the text to a single symbolic meaning. For more glancing treatments of the topic less pertinent to my argument here, see also R.J. A. Kilbourn, Lisa Cohen, Jan Ceuppens, and Martin Klebes.
(3.) There are seventy-eight photographs in the German edition of The Emigrants, and seventy-six in the English translation--all unattributed, undated, and untitled.
(4.) With Nabokov appearing as a man of sixty in one section, and a boy of ten in another, Sebald draws attention to the metamorphosis of the human subject.
(5.) For reasons that the remainder of the essay will elucidate, I find the rubric of totality more useful for considering Nabokov and Sebald's narrative strategies together than that of narrativism, an approach, as Kathy Behrendt defines it, that "portrays the self as viewing or actively fitting the events of life into some coherent and meaningful form, pattern, or story" (395). For an argument about where Sebald fits within a narrativist framework, see Behrendt.
(6.) To take up only the first case: when Nabokov says of Sirin--a literary pseudonym and one of the many personae he adopts in Speak, Memory that jeopardize any but an imaginative totalization of the self--that "the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech," he not only suggests that autobiographical stories should not be confused with "real life," but also reminds us that autobiographical subjectivity is itself a "figure of speech" constituted through an illusory "I" (288).
(7.) In this chapter, Nabokov casts his entire childhood in the guise of a detail-as-totality: "He is out to prove that his childhood contained, on a much reduced scale, the main components of his creative maturity ... a miniature revelation of the butterfly that will soon emerge" (249-50).
(8.) In French, which Nabokov knew, "rond point" also refers to a traffic circle or roundabout.
(9.) This reading threatens to understate the degree to which Nabokov's own text is committed to foregrounding the constructed and subjective character of self-representation in terms that are fully legible within a postmodern rubric. For an argument about Speak, Memory as a species of postmodern photobiography, see Laurence Petit's "Speak, Photographs? Visual Transparency and Verbal Opacity in Nabokov's Speak, Memory'.'
(10.) Granted, many of Nabokov's images of totality are shattered, particularly at chapters' ends in which they can be seen "crumbl[ing]" like "frost-dust" (2); but they arguably are aesthetically reconstituted as totalities at larger, thematic levels of signification.
(11.) Sebald's subject, to be sure, is also part of a nostalgic project, what Svetlana Boym has described as "not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into 'local' and 'universal' possible. The nostalgic creature has internalized this division" (10-11).
(12.) Christopher Gregory-Guider analyzes the shock effects produced by photographs in Sebald at greater length in his "Memorial Sights/Sites: Sebald, Photography, and the Art of Autobiogeography in The Emigrants."
(13.) Although the reading that follows stresses the limitations of Nora's framework for the capture of those marginal sites of memory associated with displaced and diasporic subjects, I find his framework and insights invaluable for reconceiving national memory in our contemporary era.
(14.) Daniel Weston has also recently argued that Sebald's work may be seen as a response to Nora's opposition between memory and history, particularly through the vehicle of Sebald's depiction of memory as a spatial and temporal modality (173).
(15.) Nora traces that rupture to the 1930s in France as well as to the emergence of mass culture, but it perhaps may be more widely extrapolated to include the rise of National Socialism and embrace of mass propagandistic forms.
(16.) German critic Andreas Huyssen has essentially re-presented Nora's views in a more contemporary context by stressing millennial amnesia in the West as a new iteration of the ceding of collective memory to historical archivalism, the force of which has been accelerated by the ultimate archive, cyberspace.
(17.) Foucault anticipates Nora's emphasis on archivalism in The Archaeology of Knowledge when he argues for a transformation in the status of the document as a medium of historical record, suggesting that whereas "history, in its traditional form, undertook to 'memorize' the monuments of the past" and "transform them into documents ... in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments" (7). For Foucault, this shift occasions a reorientation of interpretive priorities, from the definition of relations among facts or events within a series (the identity of which was presumed to be known), to the constitution of series as a primary task, a reorientation that leads to doubt about "the possibility of creating totalities. [Instead,] it has led to the individualization of different series, which are juxtaposed to one another, follow one another, overlap and intersect, without one being able to reduce them to a single schema" (8). While Nora clearly shares Foucault's reinterpretation of the document as contemporary monument, it's far from clear that he trains the same skeptical attention upon the ways that series come into being, or upon the totalities they ultimately seem to form. It's this categorical oversight to which I want to draw attention, toward an understanding of Sebald's anti-categorical interventions into the world of memorial sites.
(18.) Sebald's sites arguably raise questions about the degree to which the projects of memory and commemoration should be affiliated--questions Nora takes up negatively in his 1992 article "L'Ere de la commeration"; see Paul Ricoeur's discussion of the issue in Nora's essays in Memory, History, and Forgetting (401-11).
(19.) The narrator makes much of the difficultly he has retracing his way to this emphatically private site, rendered so not least because of the public shame and even "horror" the words "private mental home" evoke in the community (108).
(20.) Sebald was undoubtedly aware of what is now referred to as the German Historians' Debate that began with German historian Ernst Nolte observing in his now famous 1986 article (in conservative German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) that, though the Holocaust was a "past that will not pass on," it did not represent a unique happening in history. In the same year, philosopher Jurgen Habermas critiques Nolte and other historians who drew parallels between the Nazi genocide and the suffering of the civilian population of East Prussia in the wake of the Soviet conquest of Germany. Sebald's essay on the allied firebombing of Dresden first delivered as a series of lectures in Zurich in 1997 and later published in America, in 2003, as On the Natural History of Destruction, might be read as consistent with the views held by some Germans that there was no moral difference between Auschwitz and the allied firebombing, but I believe that view fundamentally mistakes his purpose. Instead, the lectures and later essay seem consistent with Sebald's broader effort to bring to public consciousness a heretofore unspoken, invisible history outside the official, Manichean frameworks that have previously defined it.
(21.) I'm indebted to Katherine Eggert for pointing out the origins of this line in Shakespeare's Hamlet where, in a passage the resonance of which for Sebald should by now be clear, Hamlet contemplates killing the current king while the ghost of his murdered father hovers behind him:
A king of shreds and patches! Save me and hover o'er me with your wings, You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure? (103-105)
(22.) Lynn Wolff makes a similar point, contending that Sebald's narratives "are ones of conjecture; attempts at explanation are prefaced with a provisional 'perhaps,' a tentative 'it seems to me,' or a suggestive 'it might be'" (317), that trouble the distinction between the historiographer and the poet.
(23.) Nina Pelikan Straus identifies a similar Levinasian moment of "face to face" recognition in Sebald's Austerlitz (51). For a thoughtful discussion of Sebald's retrospection and the Levinasian backward glance, see also Julia Hell's "Modernity and the Holocaust, or, Listening to Eurydice."
(24.) J.J. Long provides a relevant discussion of the ways Sebald's photographs reversibly serve the process of postmemory, such that the "psychic processes by which the past is remembered can thus be seen as somehow duplicating the process of photography.... Conversely, the process of photography corresponds to the sudden recall of buried memories after a period of latency" (126).
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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