Certain themes and images seem to echo and reference one another often in The Rings of Saturn, but these connections, whether through a shared history or a turn of phrase are all haunted by the possibility of a coincidence. Many of the inferred references I saw could have been missed by Sebald just as easily as by anyone else, and no direct meaning can be taken from such repeated images as shadows, rucksack, dream, herring, hemlock, and others by themselves. The emerging patterns of such loose and vague openings for connection are contingent upon what stays with each reader. But it’s impossible to avoid a frustrating sense of fragile meaning or an eerie sense of incomprehensibility, when such mysterious patterns undeliberately seep into one’s impression of the narrative. This disorienting experience of chance weighs upon the narrator particularly heavily in one instance, where he learns from his friend Michael’s memoirs that they had both, decades apart, befriended the same reclusive professor, Stanley Kerry, when they were each 22 years old respectively. In response to this coincidence the narrator states,
“No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.” (pg. 187)
This experience is reproduced within the pros themselves. Through faint allusions and associations, memories of previous discussions in the book can be re-awoken within the mind of the reader, and as the complexity of associations increase the further one reads, the more the ideas and subjects of the book melt into one another like fading memories. The momentum of The Rings of Saturn isn’t forward toward its conclusion but backward looking towards it’s own past.
This alienating experience, of chance associations, is more readily accepted in our dreams than in our waking lives, and in the same chapter where Stanley Kerry is introduced, dreams come to the forefront. The narrator describes that, months after getting terribly lost on Dunwich Heath, he returned there in a dream. Lost and tired once again, the narrator comes upon a pavilion that gives him a view of the maze ahead.
“…a pattern simple in comparison with the tortuous trail I had behind me, but one which I knew in my dream with absolute certainty, represented a cross-section of my brain.” (pg. 173)
Here Sebald barely conceals that this dream is a metaphor for the way he navigates his personal thoughts and perhaps the way he navigates his thoughts on the page, a weary wonderer. The narrator knew with “absolute certainty” that the maze represented his mind. Sebald previously noted the sense of clarity that is imbued in dreams and in this dream, he is granted with inhuman perception. As he continues on the next page,
“Although in my dream I was sitting transfixed with amazement in the Chinese pavilion, I was at the same time out in the open, within a foot of the very edge, and knew how fearful it is to cast one’s eye so low.” (pg.174)
The anecdote that follows this dream similarly feels like losing oneself in a dream, as he recounts his friend Michael’s visit back home to Berlin after the war. There is a transition that doesn’t loudly announce itself when the narrator switches from describing Michaels escape from Berlin in third person, to describing his return in the first person. Without quotations, we are reminded that Michaels first hand account of the experience is being retold to us through the narrator and thus denied any sense of immediacy, even in the recollecting. The story is kept in the past, yet since this first person narration, which for most of the book belongs to the narrator, goes on for several pages unbroken by a single “he said” our minds slip into assuming these are the experiences of the narrator himself. Regardless, adrift where he use to call home, Michael is at a loss for words. As Michael recounts his longing for resolution,
“All that was required was a moment of concentration, piecing together the syllables of the word concealed in the riddle, and everything would again be as it once was. But I could neither make out the word nor bring myself to mount the stairs and ring the bell of our old flat. Instead I left the building with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and walked and walked, aimlessly and without being able to grasp even the simplest thought…” (pg. 178-179)
Faced with the immense weight of the past, words fail Michael because he wishes of them what language cannot fulfill. Short of being in denial, his encounter with the past is simply and horrifically indefinable. Sebald directly confronts the fallibility of language when he asks whether writing is perceptive or delusional. In response to his own query Sebald writes,
“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.” (pg. 181-182)
Though Sebald acknowledges the significance of the endeavor to create knowledge, he concludes that, like so many people and places in this book, it is doomed to ultimately fail. And so many times meaning escapes the reader if they depend upon reason alone, but as Sebald demonstrates in dreams, understanding is not interchangeable with perceiving. Furthermore, perceiving is not equitable to rational ways of seeing. For instance, when the narrator asks his friend Anne to call for a cab, she is reminded, by chance, of a dream she recently had. In the dream the narrator had called a cab for her, which became a limousine and she went for a drive. As the narrator retells it,
“The atmosphere through which the car moved was denser than air, and somewhat resembled streaming currents of deep, silent water. She saw the forest, Anne said, with absolute clarity and in meticulous detail impossible to put into words… I have only an indistinct notion of how beautiful it all was, said Anne, nor can I properly describe now the feeling of being driven in that limousine that appeared to have no one at the wheel.” (pg. 190)
Even through streaming currents of air, Anne describes a heightened sense of clarity, one that is beyond words. It seems that throughout the entire book, Sebald makes the gentle argument that perceiving supersedes meaning, and that clarity comes from being lost.