From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens
From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens
Susanna and the Elders, 1904 by Franz Stuck (1863-1928)
The Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1550 by Jan Mandyn (c. 1500-1559)
Dream Child 5 by Bang Sangho
Susanna and the Elders, 1621 – 1622 by Anthony van Dyck (1617–1641)
From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens
Susanna and the Elders, 1938 by Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
Untitled (Poster in a Hallway), 1970 by William Eggleston (b. 1939)
Untitled, 2012 by William Eggleston (b. 1938)
Fox and Wolf (1953/1960) by Munakata Shikō (1903-1975)
Thursday, July 20th.–A drive yesterday afternoon to a pond in the vicinity of Augusta, about nine miles off, to fish for white perch. Remarkables: the steering of the boat through the crooked, labyrinthine brook, into the open pond,–the man who acted as pilot,–his talking with B—- about politics, the bank, the iron money of “a king who came to reign, in Greece, over a city called Sparta,”–his advice to B—- to come amongst the laborers on the mill-dam, because it stimulated them “to see a man grinning amongst them.” The man took hearty tugs at a bottle of good Scotch whiskey, and became pretty merry. The fish caught were the yellow perch, which are not esteemed for eating; the white perch, a beautiful, silvery, round-backed fish, which bites eagerly, runs about with the line while being pulled up, makes good sport for the angler, and an admirable dish; a great chub; and three horned pouts, which swallow the hook into their lowest entrails. Several dozen fish were taken in an hour or two, and then we returned to the shop where we had left our horse and wagon, the pilot very eccentric behind us. It was a small, dingy shop, dimly lighted by a single inch of candle, faintly disclosing various boxes, barrels standing on end, articles hanging from the ceiling; the proprietor at the counter, whereon appear gin and brandy, respectively contained in a tin pint-measure and an earthenware jug, with two or three tumblers beside them, out of which nearly all the party drank; some coming up to the counter frankly, others lingering in the background, waiting to be pressed, two paying for their own liquor and withdrawing. B—- treated them twice round. The pilot, after drinking his brandy, gave a history of our fishing expedition, and how many and how large fish we caught. B—- making acquaintances and renewing them, and gaining great credit for liberality and free-heartedness,–two or three boys looking on and listening to the talk,–the shopkeeper smiling behind his counter, with the tarnished tin scales beside him,–the inch of candle burning down almost to extinction. So we got into our wagon, with the fish, and drove to Robinson’s tavern, almost five miles off, where we supped and passed the night In the bar-room was a fat old countryman on a journey, and a quack doctor of the vicinity, and an Englishman with a peculiar accent. Seeing B—-‘s jointed and brass-mounted fishing-pole, he took it for a theodolite, and supposed that we had been on a surveying expedition. At supper, which consisted of bread, butter, cheese, cake, doughnuts and gooseberry-pie, we were waited upon by a tall, very tall woman, young and maiden-looking, yet with a strongly outlined and determined face. Afterwards we found her to be the wife of mine host. She poured out our tea, came in when we rang the table-bell to refill our cups, and again retired. While at supper, the fat old traveller was ushered through the room into a contiguous bedroom. My own chamber, apparently the best in the house, had its walls ornamented with a small, gilt-framed, foot-square looking-glass, with a hair-brush hanging beneath it; a record of the deaths of the family written on a black tomb, in an engraving, where a father, mother, and child were represented in a graveyard, weeping over said tomb; the mourners dressed in black, country-cut clothes; the engraving executed in Vermont. There was also a wood engraving of the Declaration of Independence, with fac-similes of the autographs; a portrait of the Empress Josephine, and another of Spring. In the two closets of this chamber were mine hostess’s cloak, best bonnet, and go-to-meeting apparel. There was a good bed, in which I slept tolerably well, and, rising betimes, ate breakfast, consisting of some of our own fish, and then started for Augusta. The fat old traveller had gone off with the harness of our wagon, which the hostler had put on to his horse by mistake. The tavern-keeper gave us his own harness, and started in pursuit of the old man, who was probably aware of the exchange, and well satisfied with it.
Our drive to Augusta, six or seven miles, was very pleasant, a heavy rain having fallen during the night, and laid the oppressive dust of the day before. The road lay parallel with the Kennebec, of which we occasionally had near glimpses. The country swells back from the river in hills and ridges, without any interval of level ground; and there were frequent woods, filling up the valleys or crowning the summits. The land is good, the farms look neat, and the houses comfortable. The latter are generally but of one story, but with large barns; and it was a good sign, that, while we saw no houses unfinished nor out of repair, one man at least had found it expedient to make an addition to his dwelling. At the distance of more than two miles, we had a view of white Augusta, with its steeples, and the State-House, at the farther end of the town. Observable matters along the road were the stage,–all the dust of yesterday brushed off, and no new dust contracted,–full of passengers, inside and out; among them some gentlemanly people and pretty girls, all looking fresh and unsullied, rosy, cheerful, and curious as to the face of the country, the faces of passing travellers, and the incidents of their journey; not yet damped, in the morning sunshine, by long miles of jolting over rough and hilly roads,–to compare this with their appearance at midday, and as they drive into Bangor at dusk; two women dashing along in a wagon, and with a child, rattling pretty speedily down hill;–people looking at us from the open doors and windows;–the children staring from the wayside;–the mowers stopping, for a moment, the sway of their scythes;–the matron of a family, indistinctly seen at some distance within the house her head and shoulders appearing through the window, drawing her handkerchief over her bosom, which had been uncovered to give the baby its breakfast,–the said baby, or its immediate predecessor, sitting at the door, turning round to creep away on all fours;–a man building a flat-bottomed boat by the roadside: he talked with B—- about the Boundary question, and swore fervently in favor of driving the British “into hell’s kitchen” by main force.
Colonel B—-, the engineer of the mill-dam, is now here, after about a fortnight’s absence. He is a plain country squire, with a good figure, but with rather a heavy brow; a rough complexion; a gait stiff, and a general rigidity of manner, something like that of a schoolmaster. He originated in a country town, and is a self-educated man. As he walked down the gravel-path to-day, after dinner, he took up a scythe, which one of the mowers had left on the sward, and began to mow, with quite a scientific swing. On the coming of the mower, he laid it down, perhaps a little ashamed of his amusement. I was interested in this; to see a man, after twenty-five years of scientific occupation, thus trying whether his arms retained their strength and skill for the labors of his youth,–mindful of the day when he wore striped trousers, and toiled in his shirt-sleeves,–and now tasting again, for pastime, this drudgery beneath a fervid sun. He stood awhile, looking at the workmen, and then went to oversee the laborers at the mill-dam.
A Maze of Death, first DAW printing, 1983. Cover art by Bob Pepper.
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, first Timescape printing, 1983. Cover artist uncredited.
I still regret that I failed to pick up this tattered copy of Clans of the Alphane:
Seriously though, these tasteful covers are pretty boring. Compare/contrast:
This is Part 2 of my post on Adorno and Sebald’s Austerlitz. In Part 1, I talked about Sebald and Adorno’s (negative) aesthetics, and challenges the latter presents to the former. Here, I discuss quotational technique as a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.
It may seem like an obvious observation, but Sebald must disguise and compensate for authorial arbitration. The goal of liberating content from such arbitration, Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, is a necessary & impossible fictional standpoint the philosopher must take for the sake of resistant thought (MM 247). Both he and Adorno share the desire to reclaim for their subjects the capacity for experience, but an Adornian mode risks segregating Austerlitz from the present and thereby fixing him into the past and hence foreclosing that very capacity. We will return to the “Finale” of Minima Moralia shortly, but I would first like to talk about the emergence of history as coincidence in the opening passages of Austerlitz.
Coincidences, the unplanned contact between two mutually exclusive objects which does not promise meaning, are enigma’s second cousin, and enable the emergence of history to appear natural because they are especially adept at disguising arbitrary decision. Coincidences don’t occur in literature, but they are engineered to happen.
La Huida (The Flight) by Remedios Varo (1908-1963)
This is part of a conference paper I presented in the spring. I’m dividing it up into two posts. I’ll post the next part tomorrow.
This section establishes the connection of Sebald’s Austerlitz to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. It proceeds to argue that the text’s Adornian valences, both aesthetic and ethical, present problems for Sebald. It also introduces Patrick Greaney’s work on quotational technique, and sets up Part 2 as an analysis of it as Sebald’s clever workaround for Adorno’s impossible demand to witness but not to rehearse.
In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, W.G. Sebald describes the need to represent the Holocaust as a practically impossible necessity. Sebald’s investment in first-generation Frankfurt School aesthetics, especially Adorno’s and Benjamin’s, is well-documented in his early work across his myriad reviews and essays. How do we square this interest with Sebald’s creative pursuits when Adorno’s aesthetics are so forthrightly opposed to positivist representation? Located between a narrative art and a document of witness, this Adornian mode in Austerlitz reveals an irreconcilable conflict between concealment and the difficulty of representation. This conflict forces Sebald to find means of convincing the reader that the novel is defined by, yet not confined to, the Holocaust. Using techniques of dislocated narration that find their strongest effect in the mode of quotation, Sebald pursues a method of simultaneously presenting and re-presenting events that renegotiate the negative terrain set out by Adorno. Ultimately, what is drawn out by Sebald is not the Holocaust, nor simply the poverty of representing it, but the inability to represent and reclaim experience in a narrative that draws its significance from that poverty.
Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory that the “real possibility of utopia converges with the possibility of total catastrophe.” The material possibilities of utopia are everywhere in popular media, and underneath our fingers – possibilities which are still repressed under the culture industries. Such apocalyptic images (and technological means), Sebald says in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, “militate against” the capacity for “discursive thinking,” and enable the unconscious subject to abet the continual destruction of her environment. Sebald’s project of approaching the verboten past is an ethico-aesthetic attempt to return to the reader a capacity for a specific aesthetic experience that unchains her from the machinations of destruction, what Ranciere might call a redistribution of the sensible. Though, in that same interview, Sebald contends “it’s practically impossible to do this,” a notion that James Wood echoes in his introduction to the English edition of Austerlitz. The novel’s attempt to restore to the eponymous character the individuality of his name and experience is foreclosed, argues Wood, and the challenge Sebald sets himself with the practical impossibility of the literary witness of European historical trauma is to be ethical, to refuse the sentimental commitment of mere witness, mere reproduction, and model in literature what actual experience might be for Austerlitz in the ecology of absent-minded media.
Sebald’s technique of dislocated narration collapses the moments of presentation and representation through quotational coincidence, a means of re-presenting that, in the same moment of destroying original context, presents the phenomenon of that moment of destruction. In Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art, Patrick Greaney argues that
[Quotational texts] indicate the repeatability of the moment of emergence of the original, the moment of the original’s origination … Quotation repeats this authoritative, authorial act and thereby indicates the possibility that this coming-into-being could have been different and could be altered in its repetition (6).
Quotational ethics are impelled by Adorno, but underwritten by Benjaminian technique – moments of the past are wrenched and re-placed in the present in order to dialectically realize untapped potential in the former, endowing it with new meaning in the present. Thus quotational power is allegorical; Benjamin writes in the German Tragic Drama that allegories present precisely that which is not there, and mean precisely what they do not present to us (296). If the ethical demand is to witness but not to rehearse, Sebald’s Adornian aesthetics hit a brick wall, as he must perform precisely that which is impossible. He is forced to contend with an inescapable authorial sovereignty and its complicity with forgetting. Faced with the impasse of Adornian aesthetics, Sebald then leans on the messianism of Benjamin to suggest that the emergence of history in the midst of an apocalypse of experience is one of realizing the extent of one’s loss of experience in a history of humanity that has still not happened yet.
The goal to liberate content from arbitration betrays a desire to maintain the critic’s sovereignty. It is this irreconcilability that plagues Adorno’s concept of the enigma and his thesis of the negative artwork in Aesthetic Theory. Enigmas invite yet defy interpretation, or at least obfuscate their enunciation. An enigma could have some, none, or all of the meanings the viewer is struggling to project onto it. When Adorno writes that enigmatic artworks are picture puzzles to be solved (AT 121), he privileges the form of the enigma over its ostensible content. Composition of content is largely irrelevant to a puzzle – the interpreter (or the one who completes the puzzle) doesn’t need to know how the original was composed in order to complete her task.
Yet so much of Aesthetic Theory is seemingly dependent on a hyper-deliberate content – I’m arguing that it’s a hyper-deliberate arrangement of content, the situation of content (The section “Situation” in Aesthetic Theory focuses on the socio-cultural contingencies of modern art). The form of an enigma, on which the crux of Adorno’s argument stands, is posed as an irreconcilability as a means of disguising the positivism of negative artworks, something they are supposed to resist. Enigmatic form delays positivity and obscures Adorno’s logic. A metaphor is used to symptomatically define the undefinable metaphor “enigma.” Too, Greaney’s book on quotational technique focuses on arrangement and context in contemporary trends in conceptual poetics and visual art. Both Adorno and Greaney, however, seek to critique the contingencies inherent in the tethering of content to a linear-progressive idiom of history.
Maintaining this ambivalence is necessary for Adorno, for not only does the enigma help stall the dialectical synthesis of Enlightenment, it also preserves the negative relationship to the social, a crucial condition of Adorno’s thesis. The ideal Adornian artwork presents a negative yet refrains the social meaning from ever being naturalistically represented in the artwork; the form must re-route the viewer or reader outside into the Social. There is, then, a stark delimitation between Art and the Social via the cracked mirror of the enigma.
This enigmatical separation—between subject and object, form and content, the past and present—has ethical consequences for Sebald. If we remember Adorno’s infamous claim about poetry, the enigmaticalized referent of the Shoah must remain firmly in the past, lending itself too easily to the maintenance of a melancholic haunting that precludes any form of resolution, ethically negative or not. The Adornian goal is always to expose the violence inherent in the social formation via the negative, and Adorno’s thesis is the key. Someone must decide on the irreconcilable conflict, and his argument ends up preserving the sovereignty of Adorno’s decision more than the autonomy of the artwork. It allows Adorno to have his cake and eat it too, and greatly challenges those who are influenced by his thought.
This is perhaps more of a failure of Adorno’s aesthetics than Sebald’s, and I am aware that the jury is still out on whether or not Sebald should be read more as an Adornian (recall that Adorno was not receptive to Sebald’s scholarly work) or a Foucauldian. Despite this seeming irreconcilability, I think it is still worth thinking about Sebald’s work as deeply tied to the legacy of the Frankfurt School. Both Foucault and Adorno offer little to no practical remedies for the social disorders they analyze and diagnose. To me, favoring a discursive analysis ignores Sebald’s dialectical style, and his debt to Benjamin’s style.
In Part 2, I discuss how quotational technique is a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.