Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The cowardly temptation of rereading

As it has been well over a year since I last posted here, it's probably not surprising that I feel the weight of it immediately at my neck as I dare, now, to write in this place again. And yet it's not as if I haven't been typing onto my computer screen the whole time -- typing material that fails to end up here. But let's break the imagery into bits: I'm not exactly typing onto this tilted white slab even now, because in the same moment that rigid little banners of words are shifting themselves into parallel rows as I drum on the plastic squares below them, I can also sort-of believe that somebody else, really, is stitching them into place... how easy it is to trick the self out of its fears through this sense that somebody else is furtling around in the glazed box of the internet instead.

Meanwhile, outside that box, I have succumbed to the comfort and (I should admit) cowardly temptation of rereading -- and so have come across what I might have been looking for all along: the section in which the narrator, in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, describes the exact same "torpor" of the mind I have been fighting with -- a torpor that the narrator's acquaintance (can we ever call them friends?) had fallen into when, after years of following minutely obsessive paths, his inner and then outer voice sank into an airlessness and then stopped being able to stir. I've often thought of Sebald as the champion of such voiceless voices: of the kinds of voices that disintegrate into the brown-edged pages of the books that survive him -- and (further) into the grains of the images he sets among the overly spaced out lines of his prose and which look, especially now, so entirely appropriate to my no-longer-so-crisp, early millennial editions of his works that have dust furring their upper edges (which is an only apparently sad predicament for them since, as the character Max Ferber tells the narrator of The Emigrants, a soft enveloping in dust is something utterly desirable for inner things -- and how I would love to believe him!).

And yet what of Sebald himself? What of the writer-narrator, who wraps the outer casing of the telescope -- or, for him, the more furtive periscope -- of his writing around the infinitely receding periscoping of multiple voicings? James R. Martin has reminded us of the other Sebald-writer-narrator -- the one who, in his early academic work on the fatal connection between the bourgeois framing of the assimilation of the Jews during the Enlightenment and the genocide of the Holocaust, used to be criticised for his crudely combative polemic. All of which makes me want to ask: is it this irascible figure's exhausted and, usually, pain-ridden ghost whose cuffs I've been trying to catch onto each time it slides out of the rooms of the later prose works? The narrative persists in pulling us away from this figure (no -- not there -- over here it keeps saying), and yet, in the course of my rereading, I've found myself all the more fascinated by the mostly unnarrated chasm that seems to be propelling this figure around and in past the edges of its subjects. In fact, I have been wondering whether it is just the bakelite-era translucence of the narrator-voice -- its readiness to receive and imprint onwards whatever shadow it receives -- that succeeds in turning the dense not-to-be-spoken-about nothingness of its individual pain into that characteristic but deceptive glow of empathic distraction.

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