Saturn, Circles, and Orbis Tertius
“What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?” Pg 80
My impression is that, for Sebald, an illustration of the present can only be complete when taken in relation to the whole of time and space. His method of utilizing fact and fiction manages to achieve, if not a “true” picture of reality, then an accurate representation of it, something that simple “truth”, with all its temporal trappings, is unable to provide.
“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?” Pg 125
Part of the problem here is, as Sebald says, a problem of perspective. In this case, I believe it is the human perspective which is faulty, more than the historical. In some stranger-than-fiction kind of way, all ground, every hill is indeed a “mountain of death”. All soil is composed of things that died long ago, gave their lifeforce up to be reintegrated. Life and death hold specific space in the human mind, one can only assume, as a result of our individuated perspective on our “selves.” The very reason we use to puzzle these things out is the very thing that causes us to look at our own impending “personal” mortality as something tragic, something inescapable, and at the same time, as something that might in some way be avoided, if one can only think, believe, say, or do the right thing. Our reason may even tell us that this pursuit is logically flawed, that there is no escaping death. And yet, this only serves to motivate mankind to try to approach the problem of death from a different angle. Perhaps, we say, this finite “Me” character can be made infinite through glories achieved, or through one’s children. But these are living legacies in themselves and persist only as long as language, speech, art, and man himself continue to persist.
“No last sigh, no last words were to be heard, nor the last despairing plea: Lend me a looking-glass; if that her breath will mist or stain the stone, why, then she lives. No, nothing. Nothing but dead silence. Then softly, barely audibly, the sound of a funeral march. Now night is almost over and the dawn about to break. The contours of the Sizewell power plant, its Magnox block a glowering mauseoleum, begin to loom upon an island far out in the pallid waters where one believes the Dogger Bank to be, where once the shoals of herring spawned and earlier still, a long, long time ago, the delta of the Rhine flowed out into the sea and where green forests grew from silting sands.” Pg 175
Time unravels everything, undoes the majority of man’s works in this life. The remnants may stand for some time, may hint at the splendor and grandeur of mankind, but in the end, neither his grand works or his greatest acts of destruction will remain for long. Time washes everything clean, and comes back around for another go at it.
One must ask: for what do I continue to toil, for what holiday, to what day of rest is my work heir? And again, to what end? What “glowering mausoleum” will stand for my tired bones and weary arms, my grand, impossible imaginings that have so consumed my limited life on this earth? What strange games will remember me, whose soft thoughts will swaddle my errant soul once this charade has come undone? If there is nothing lasting in the world, is any of it worth a damn?
The supposed objectivity of man’s reason and the subsequent fallibility of his perspective result in a confused and possibly misinterpreted impression of reality. For Sebald, the things that last are those things which come back around in their orbits, those things that have a sort of resonance which both attenuates to a higher vibration and simultaneously spells their doom. The only real things, he seems to say, are those which are supremely finite, harried by mortality.
”Perhaps there is in this as yet unexplained phenomenon of apparent duplication some kind of anticipation of the end, a venture into the void, a sort of disengagement, which, like a gramophone repeatedly playing the same sequence of notes, has less to do with damage to the machine itself than with an irreparable defect in its programme.” (Pg 187-188)
Circles, spheres, orbits, suggest to us an infinity. And yet, it may just be that idea of the eternal which makes life seem so unbearable, so painfully boring at times. But how to reckon time, if not by progressive circles, iterative orbits? The fact that our circles intimate an end, or at least a change of significant magnitude could be precisely this “defect” in the programme of life itself.
From Borges perspective, this is illusory and meaningless, just as so many terrestrial observations are, owing to the propensity of humanity to attempt to compartmentalize experience and objects through classification.
“They [Tlonians] know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of them.” (Borges, 25)
This is so much mysticism to us as westerners, who find our perspective on ourselves finitely anchored in individual pockets within a greater universe of objects, and yet it must be even more so when comparing our terrestrial understanding of the universe as a “system” to that of the inhabitants of Tlon, whose temporal/spacial beliefs preclude the idea of linear time as a reality and of a universe of “things”.
“On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.” Pg 23-24
Sebald, through his revolutions, is divining the nature of the universe, and, in Tlonian style, realizing himself to be an inseparable part of an immutable whole, the boundaries of which can only ever be suggested, but never truly fathomed. The eye cannot see itself.
Circles, infinite circles, speak of the doom of time, the downfall of cities, of cataclysm and the slow burn of an entropic sun. The clutch of time, the fear of time, are what excite our mortal tendencies and our perspectives. And yet, it must be recalled that in the fabled country of Tlon there is no such thing as time, no such thing as other, and the only reason to speak is solely for the renewal of wonder.
1. The Rings of Saturn
By WG Sebald
1998 The Harvill Press
2. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
by Jorge Luis Borges
Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings