Human Constructions and Changing Perceptions in W. G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"
High school science textbooks are quick to point out that virtually everything in existence today was at some point formed by the intense heat, pressure and combustion of past stars. All the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are formed in stars and, during supernova explosions, disperse throughout space. The heavier elements go into forming new planets that surround newly formed stars. If new life happens to form on these planets, it does so using preexisting materials like iron, calcium and carbon: the same elements found in our blood, bones and DNA. Science teachers will usually end this lesson by telling students that “we are all made of stardust,” and the class will leave the lab in a happy chorus of oohs and ahs.
Many scientists will agree that this statement, particularly as a concluding point, is heavily oversimplified and little more than a gimmick to get kids involved in their biology labs. Nevertheless, this melding of science and fantasy can be seen everywhere: in everyday conversation and award-winning literature alike, fact and fiction alternately merge and return to their separate realms, weaving in and out to create something as close as we can get to an understanding of the human condition and the world around us. After all, empirical evidence is not the only kind of truth; individual and cultural histories cannot be captured by first-person observation alone, and emotional accounts cannot be verified by tried-and-true experiments. Like the rings of Saturn, the history of the world entire travels in wide, repeating circles and is made up of infinite personal histories, the majority of which are lost and seldom recovered. To this end, the past is simultaneously recordable and impossible to track, the future both predictable and impossible to foresee.
Once we realize our own insignificance, how small a fragment of the rings we represent, we can begin to understand the immensity of the world – all it is, has been, and still stands to be – and also the vast inescapable multitude of our ignorance. At this point, we are faced with the enormity of knowing all there is to know about the world, or even the smallest fraction of all there is to know about ourselves. The greatest truth of the human condition is that, ultimately, we die. But do any of us truly die – in the sense, beyond mere physicality, that we are completely extinguished – when there is so much of each of us left to be uncovered, and an unknowable number of years remaining for the recovery? Just as a deeply buried stone can be dug up and overturned, the sun reflecting off an angle that has never before faced upward, so can past histories be resurrected and, in this sense, lives and stories revived. In this way, investigation, knowledge and literature can serve the same purpose as photographs: eternalizing a single moment, a single history that would otherwise have been forgotten.
In W.G. Sebald’s 1995 The Rings of Saturn, the author and narrator both seem concerned, if not obsessed, with the temporal nature of human beings. Both Sebald’s style and content reflect themes of death and decay. His prose reads the way one might think, succumbing to nonlinear transition from present to recent and even ancient past. As the narrator travels through the English countryside, each new town sparks a personal memory or a seemingly distant (but ultimately connected) history, resulting in an intricate web of tangents. Sebald writes as if every memory, every thought is fleeting and must be penned urgently, should it slip away at the next tick of the nearest clock. The inclusion of photographs and other visual evidence in each chapter adds to this sense of urgency, providing a snapshot of eternity that we consider more direct evidence than a mere representation of an object, person or event. But just as Sebald’s prose is fragmented and prone to digressions, it also displays a clear forward motion, a fluid continuity that seems to come full-circle as images and concepts repeat throughout the novel.
Sebald’s phrases and images wind and connect from one chapter to the next, creating a pattern that repeats in various photographs: from the netting of the window screen on page 4 to the labyrinth on page 173; from the quincunx on page 20 to the cross-grid on page 232. By the middle of the novel, the reader gets the impression that everything Sebald writes is reminiscent of something else he has written, or something he has at least alluded to or briefly considered. This “rings a bell” feeling plays a large role in creating the ever-connected history (though more so one man’s take than an “entire history of the world”) Sebald constructs from many smaller stories – a galaxy made up of many stars.
Recurring images and themes line the length of the novel, drawing comparisons between man and nature, the man-made and the natural, and fantasy versus reality. For instance, the phenomenon of the dead herring glowing can be readily compared to Le Strange’s rather strange appearance after his own death. On page 58, Sebald describes the phenomenon: “Once the life has fled the herring, its colours change...An idiosyncrasy peculiar to the herring is that, when dead, it begins to glow.” On page 64, Le Strange, one of the subjects of Sebald’s many character studies, has a strikingly similar postmortem transformation: “[His] pale skin was olive-green when he passed away, his goose-grey eye was pitch-dark, and his snow-white hair had turned to raven-black.” Further down on the same page, Sebald compares the dead trees lining the English beaches to “the bones of some extinct species,” drawing the reader’s mind back to the mass extinction of the herring just a few pages before.
After the herring phenomenon is introduced on page 54, Sebald explains that herring fishing is “often regarded as a supreme example of mankind’s struggle with the power of Nature,” and goes on to say, on page 57, that “natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life.” This brings to mind the question of time and decay, and whether time itself gradually erodes all things until they disappear or if mankind has an equal hand in the process. For instance, did time inevitably bring the end of the flourishing Taiping Empire, or was the Emperor’s order for mass extinction (and his soldiers’ and subjects’ faithful compliance) more to blame?
Sebald’s narrator seems fearful of time and its ties to the terminal human state. He draws personal parallels to Thomas Browne, known to have been fascinating with time and its connection to the human condition. In fact, the narrator’s deep investigation into the life of the seventeenth-century Baroque writer reveals his own attempted denial of time. Instead, he seems to prefer studying individuals who themselves choose to live outside of time’s constraints. So then, if the galaxy within The Rings of Saturn is made of stars, Sebald aims his telescope at some of the dimmest, least acknowledged in the whole night sky.
During the character studies of people like Michael Parkinson, Thomas Browne and Le Strange, it becomes clear many of Sebald’s subjects have created rich alternate universes within their own minds. Externally, they appear eccentric and reclusive, perhaps even grotesque, but the narrator regards them with a sympathetic curiosity, more drawn to them than dismissive of their oddities. He even seems reverential of the nomadic fishermen traveling the English beaches, painting their picture as one of hope, as they live “in expectation of the miracle longed for since time immemorial, the miracle which would justify all their erstwhile privations and wanderings” (52). He does not write these nomads off as naïve fools, but rather a group of people existing in a sort of vacuum separate from their unreliable, ever-changing surroundings. Though their lives do not have an immediate purpose, they have found a sense of hopefulness that is rare amid the otherwise melancholy human population.
In astrology, Saturn is commonly associated with a cold, flat state of melancholy. Throughout the novel, the narrator examines his own life through others’ histories and melancholies. Though the nomads have no homes nor steady jobs or incomes, these socially constructed measures of success do not render them among the melancholy characters in the text. In fact, perhaps it is precisely their freedom from the man-made that allows them to create a more complete alternate reality. If houses and buildings are the cages we live in, when they are lost or destroyed – as in the decay of several towns described in Rings – we become too tame or otherwise overwrought with expectations to live outside social constructs.
Sebald draws comparisons between the natural and the man-made throughout the novel, often bringing up parts of England or aspects of life that meld the two to the point that one nearly overtakes the other. For example, while visiting Somerleyton, the narrator says that, “in particular, [the manor] was famed for the scarcely perceptible transitions from interiors to exterior; those who visited were barely able to tell where the natural ended and the man-made began” (33). Though Sebald makes no value judgments between the two realms at first, he later mentions that “all of [Somerleyton] interacted in such a way that one had the illusion of complete harmony between the natural and the manufactured,” the word illusion implying that, of course, complete harmony between the two is unachievable (33).
Towards the end of the novel, however, the power of man-made constructions seem to gain significance, as the narrator interweaves various buildings and machines he knows by sight and through research. In his examination of Algernon Swinburne, the narrator finds that Swinburne once claimed that “never before...nor ever since, had anything more beautiful been created than that artificial hill [in Dunwich]” (161).
On page 170, Sebald delves deeper into the notion that nature will certainly outlive machines and the civilizations that create them, no matter how indestructible these man-made objects are intended to be: “Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.” The author’s words throughout the novel are carefully chosen, and here luminescence and glowing carry the reader’s mind back to the image of the grotesque, deceased Le Strange and then to the dying herring – evidence that civilizations can and do (without explicit reason, warning or cause) simply disappear. Somerleyton, coincidentally, is quite degraded from its original state of lavish beauty, having fallen to commercial exploitation by the time the narrator visits the manor.
Sebald also examines “the machine” in an internal, human sense – the driving, unfeeling force within us – as opposed to the external human creations we have built. On page 13, he considers Descartes’ teachings on the internal machine: “Descartes teaches that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension, and attend to the machine within, to what can fully be understood, be made wholly useful for work, and, in the event of any fault, either repaired or discarded.” This brings to mind, considering the narrator’s German origins, the sign that hung at the entrance of Auschwitz and the mentality behind the concept that arbeit macht frei, “work will set you free.” Of course, the differences between Descartes’ philosophy and the slogan behind Hitler’s Nazi regime are extreme – nearly incomparable – and lay in the way each was put into practice.
Throughout his journey along England’s coast, the narrator never directly mentions the Holocaust nor does he blame the state of the countryside on the effects of the war in the decades after liberation. However, it is hard to ignore his allusions to the hardworking silkworm when one considers how vital the image of silk is throughout the novel. It serves as another representation of the intricate weaving of one idea, person or history with any other. After the silkworms are first mentioned, the next hundred pages carry repeated images of silk in dresses, robes and ribbons, as well as in the description of the loom weavers on page 287. The more often Sebald returns to a particular theme or image, the more significance the reader is bound to give the matter at hand. Another of the a narrator’s character studies reveals the Empress’ obsession with breeding silkworms during her reigning dynasty: “These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers. To her they seemed the ideal subjects, diligent in service, ready to die, capable of multiplying vastly within a short span of time, and fixed on their one sole preordained aim, wholly unlike human beings, on whom there was basically no relying” (151).
It would be easy to liken the “pale creatures” to the prisoners (also consider sub-human, no more than mere “creatures”) in Jewish work camps during the Holocaust, were it not for Sebald’s later connection of silkworms to a sense of hope. When describing Swinburne, the narrator shares a visitor’s opinion of the strange character as reminiscent of “the ashy grey silkworm...be it because of how he munched his way through his food bit by bit or be it because, out of the snooze he had slipped into after lunch, he abruptly awoke to new life” (165). The possibility for new life, whether for woebegone Swinburne or the overworked, single-minded silkworms, supports the power of story in reviving a forgotten or otherwise lost history. As long as there remains a facet of one’s life yet unseen, there remains an aspect of history to be discovered.
Dying people and civilizations survive not only through the memories they leave with those still living, but also through the memories yet to surface, the mysteries still unsolved, the histories waiting to be recovered. The latter may also be the longer-standing option, as memories must rely on a chain of oral communication or a written record and can often fade if a single link is broken. Mysteries unsolved, however, require only one persistent and willing participant, much like the narrator of The Rings of Saturn. The former requires maintenance while the latter calls for a quest and a certain sense of urgency.
Though never directly addressed, the narrator’s nationality and history (both personal and national) seem to color every perception during his journey. “It has often struck me that when country people set eyes on a foreigner they are quite overawed,” he observes on page 176, “and, even if he has a good command of their language, they find it hard to understand him.” People understand themselves and the world around them only through the lens of what they have experienced and what they already know. When one realizes the immensity of the world’s entire history and thereby the immensity of each individual’s ignorance, one’s perceptions about this world are bound to change. A world-altering event like the Holocaust shatters all perceptions, as every aspect of one’s knowledge, however limited, is destroyed by the inconceivable crimes against humanity. Everyone has some grasp on the notion of diametric opposites: good and evil, right and wrong, happiness and sadness, peace and war, sanity and madness. When such a devastating and unthinkable event occurs, human scales of understanding are tipped so far that many are never able to recover.
As the narrator travels along, viewing the countryside with a foreigner’s eyes and simultaneously eyes that have seen war, inevitable biases show themselves. Looking back on one of the towns he went through, he says, “If I now think back to that desolate place, I do not see a single human being, only bricks, millions of bricks, a rigorously perfect system of bricks...” (179). Readers may guess that the narrator is alluding to the Berlin wall; whether or not this is the author’s intention, the narrator’s bias is clear. He is prone to think in terms of buildings rather than people, of bricks rather than relationships – and when he sees the degradation of towns, he speaks in terms of run-down manors rather than the ruined lives of the people who once lived within. He even muses, when finally outwardly recognizing himself in another, while in a dream: “Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect? How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one’s own precursor?” (182)
By relating to and also removing himself from the character studies he conducts and the past histories he examines, the narrator (and perhaps we can assume Sebald himself) pens an autobiography with no direct mention of the self. As a German in England, he is able to view the landscape as a foreigner, and everything around him awakens his imagination. As he connects the familiar past to the foreign present, everything becomes symbolic – and this is thoughtful symbolism and use of metaphors can be seen in Sebald’s prose throughout. For instance, as the narrator travels through the seedy neighborhood surrounding the Hague, he is more intrigued by the oddities of the neighborhood than the museums and other tourist attractions. The greatest shock, however, comes on page 81, when the narrator steps into a McDonald’s for a carton of chips. Here, in an otherwise foreign place full of potential for novel experiences, he chooses to spend time in one of the most commonplace locations, easily recognizable worldwide. But at the same time, he feels more a foreigner here than at any other point during his time in England: ”I felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit corner” (81).
Not long after, the narrator finds himself before the diorama at Waterloo, at which point he once again considers the luxury today’s people have of viewing history in panoramic form: “This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.” He goes on to clarify that perhaps it is not a luxury after all but an unnamed hazard. “We, the survivors, see everything from above,” he says, “see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was” (125). The panoramic view – or bird’s eye view, or even God’s eye view – allows today’s people to be the gods of the past, to see the past’s achievements and atrocities, to judge the past’s heroes and villains. However, as the concept of past, present and future is ever-changing, the past and present itself constantly fleeting, our individual states of godliness are just as fickle. Sebald writes that “still we do not know how [the scene in the diorama] was” and it brings to mind the extinction of the herring. Historians were able to look back on the events leading up to the mass deaths and assume that the fish themselves could not feel pain. “But the truth,” says Sebald, “is that we do not know what the herring feels” (57).
“Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point?” Sebald asks on page 125, evoking, in the fluidity and interconnectivity typical of his style, the image of the artificial hill Swinburne so adored. If the old adage that history repeats itself is true, then humans should be able to prevent great atrocities from occurring, and should similarly be able to replicate successes on an even greater scale with each passing year. However, this panoramic look back on the past comes “too little, too late.” Sebald seems to suggest that there is a certain segment of the human population that is capable of seeing the present for what it is exactly as it (as in the case of character study Roger Casement), are able to see the world through a different lens. As people can only judge “right” and “wrong” through the lens of their own experiences, certainly some people will be more finely tuned to recognize the villains among us as they sit before us, rather than long after they’ve passed us by. The marginalized have experienced atrocities firsthand – whether as a single large-scale case or in minor but constant offense – and can often identify them as they come.
Roger Casement, for example, was doubly marginalized in his time: first as an Irishman serving the English and second as a closeted homosexual. It was precisely through his homosexual encounters with Congolese men that he was able to recognize their similarities and ultimately their humanity. Because he was able to see some aspect of himself in the “other,” Casement was able to speak out against the crimes committed in the Congo, though he was quickly silenced. Those who are marginalized and take a stance on present-day problems instantly create for themselves a second or third level of marginalization: now they are not only “outcasts,” but people who simultaneously live outside the system and speak out against it. Both the government and popular opinion tend not to favor these individuals, and they are often marked as madmen and put to social and/or literal death (sometimes through loss of reputation and more often through loss of life). The circle continues: these men are denounced as villains while men in better circumstances (often simply by birth) are called heroes. After all, Hitler was once considered a villain in his own right; only in hindsight is he irrevocably named one of the greatest criminals against the laws of humanity.
Throughout The Ring of Saturn, the narrator examines people who have been judged in the past (whether by government or society) and, through the retelling of their histories, attempts to give them a new, fair trial. Of course, neither the narrator nor Sebald can claim to be completely unbiased, as both are tainted and informed by their past experiences and varied knowledge. Nevertheless, by recovering lost fragments of the past and presenting these individual histories within a novel, Sebald and his narrator seem to take a certain level of responsibility for their own pasts; that is, both their past experiences and the countless paths they could not take because they were already standing elsewhere. Sebald allows readers to learn what they can from this puzzle-like past and apply it their present perceptions of the changing world.
“Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artifact we create,” Sebald writes on page 170 as he explains both the importance and danger of sophisticated civilizations’ dependence on machines and all things man-made. Combustion, as any high school science textbook will tell you, is what causes stars to explode and elements to disperse and create new planets and, on these planets, new life forms. Combustion, as any high school student who was paying attention in last week’s lab will proudly tell you, is what caused us to be made of stardust. But what else are we made of?
Sebald might argue that we are made of what we’ve done, what we’ve seen, who we’ve met and what we know. Our actions and perceptions are informed by our past experiences and, as the past is fleeting with every passing moment, our perceptions are often difficult to understand, much less communicate to others. But Sebald shows us one way: dozens of small story fragments that, when viewed from a distance, join together to form one smooth, continuous ring of nontraditional histories that you are unlikely to find in any standard high school textbook. These histories serve as triumphs and warnings, offering redemption to both their unsung heroes and their quiet villains; each account is another glimpse into the immensely important and equally inaccessible human condition, another upturned stone reflecting new light.
Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: The Harvill Press, 1998.