Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It is really no more than a gesture sketched to banish memory

In W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, he comments on the 'rather unreal effect' of the eyewitness reports of the fire-bombing of German cities towards the end of the Second World War -- an unreal effect that suggests to him the workings of 'rumour-mongering and invention'. He analyses the clichés:

The reality of total destruction, incomprehensible in its extremity, pales when described in such stereotypical phrases as 'a prey to the flames', 'that fateful night', 'all hell was let loose', 'we were staring into the inferno', 'the dreadful fate of the cities of Germany', and so on and so forth. Their function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend. The phrase 'On that dreadful day when our beautiful city was razed to the ground', which Kluge's American investigator encountered in Frankfurt, Fürth, Wuppertal, Würzburg and Halberstadt alike, is really no more than a gesture sketched to banish memory. (p. 25)

It is as if the over-use of this second-hand language is the one thing that assures the speaker or writer that they have at last found an approved expression against which the inexplicable peculiarities of their own experiences might be elided.

Far be it from me to doubt that witnesses of the time remember a great deal, and that it can be brought to light in interviews. On the other hand, the records of such interviews run along surprisingly stereotyped lines. Among the central problem of 'eyewitness reports' are their inherent inadequacy, notorious unreliability and curious vacuity; their tendency to follow a set routine and go over and over the same material. (p. 80)

Via Steve at The Cosmos Zoo, I came across Daniel Mendelsohn citing the instance of a bereaved mother who declares on the local news network her almost meaningless but presumably heartfelt desire for 'closure' after her child was shot accidentally during a drive-by shooting.

It could only be that the cliché is the first thing to hand -- the one that you can cover yourself with quickly -- but one with the additional benefit that it still connects to ideas so seemingly grand that your job in finding words to match the immensity of an occasion can be seen to have been done thoroughly and well.

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