Last summer, I listened to the audiobook version of Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Riffing off Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and channeling the author’s grief over her father’s illness and death, Joyce’s novel is a startling account of the freedom, constraint, self-reflection, and emotional release availed by even the barest of pilgrimage structures, such as the plain desire to walk from point A to point B. Joyce’s title character exemplifies how that unadorned desire can mutely slip into sensed obligation, then curse, and then, just as softly, blessing. As with the Bunyan prototype, Joyce’s protagonist meets a welter of human characters and character types, and each encounter leads him more solidly back to himself, to the family in his memory and his wife still waiting, bemusedly, for him back home. The book comes to resolutions of understanding and renewed commitments, even if everything isn’t easy and beautiful.
The novelist W. G. (“Max”) Sebald also was a pilgrim. But if his writerly encounters guided him into self-knowledge, he never let his readers in on the secret. His fiction books, Vertigo, The Emigrants, Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz centrally involve quest, movement, and transport even as they manage to convey a profound and static sense of place; but the narrator’s accounts of his quests and movements and perceptions of place never rebound to the narrator himself. Sebald’s is a pilgrimage of kenosis, an emptying of self in order better to mirror the encounters, connections, and fraught relationships of destruction that constitute human life and world history.
I re-read Rings of Saturn this fall with/for a friend who now lives out of state. We both struggled to stay the course with Sebald’s text, which might be an easier read in more sanguine times that would counterbalance the book’s dark messages (though this is not what Paul MacInnes claims in his review of the book for The Guardian). “Saturnine” means “melancholy,” of course, and Sebald is decidedly a saturnine pilgrim, walking the English coast at Suffolk but also walking the particulate detritus of history’s relentless destructions. Just as the rings around the planet Saturn are thought to be the fragments of a former moon that was destroyed by ice, so Sebald relates fragments of history and place that can be seen to carry their violent, horrible history with them like a dust storm.
The references in Rings of Saturn move so quickly from place to person to event (each in its uniquely wounded or wounding form) that a reader with mild OCD (i.e., me) will find herself googling constantly in a futile attempt to keep up. Imagine my surprise and delight then, when, on screening Grant Gee’s film about this book, Patience (After Sebald) I am introduced to Barbara Hui, a literary scholar who has crafted what she terms a “Litmap” of Sebald’s pilgrimage. The desire for such a map, at least for my part, is to grasp the structure of Sebald’s journey, the arché of his pilgrimage, as it were, and thus to resolve some general coherence out of its shifting, lattice structure.
Both book and film ultimately frustrate this desire, however. For instance, an astute reader might suggest that silk and sericulture form the linchpin of Rings of Saturn, and such a reader would be both absolutely right and utterly misguided. Like the narrator’s pilgrimage, Sebald’s intricate sets of references are compelling in and of themselves, but their delineation does not add up to, does not unfold, the meaning and identity of the objects themselves; rather, this delineation that is the structure of Sebald’s pilgrimage patiently emits an aura –like clouds of particulate dust– that settles out as the affectscape of natural, individual, and historical destruction. Sebald writes, channeling the words o the 17th century thinker Thomas Browne, “What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world” (19). A few pages later, Sebald adds his own comment, “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” (24).
As one example, Grant includes a reflection by Lise Patt, co-editor of Searching for Sebald, who is struck by Sebald’s inclusion of a large picture of a herring. He has been discussing the overfishing of herring and the odd fact that a dying herring releases a chemical that turns its ordinarily drab skin colorfully luminescent. Patt finds the picture odd because Sebald rarely includes pictures as mere illustration, as simple reference, but uses photographs as affective intensifiers. It is when Patt thinks together four of Sebald’s pictures that a felt sense of their accumulated meaning emerges. These pictures are, first, a group of fishermen standing knee-deep in herring, like trees amid piles of leaves; second, the single herring; third, a picture of a military action at the foot of a hill; and fourth, shockingly, the well-known picture of piles of corpses under trees outside of Bergen-Belsen.
Gee edits Patt’s reflections in a way that clearly shows the patience required of (and that rewards) Sebald’s reader, who needs to to be puzzled, to flip back, to find the geometric resonances between these pictures and draw out their ethical analogies. And Gee also, of course, is showing Sebald’s patience, as he walks step by step along the English coast but also kicks over stones, flips through ancient books, talks to aging gardeners, poets, and caretakers to find the trauma, horror, tragedy, and destruction that lies like fine silt beneath the veneer of today’s ordinary coastal villages.
“It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder” (220). Sebald credits these words to an Irishwoman, Mrs. Ashbury, but they seem to be Sebald’s fundamental disposition, too. Perhaps the saturnine sees only his own melancholy reflected in the world? Or perhaps the world’s relentlessly reflected blunders fall on Sebald with a force that melancholy can barely contain or channel. This readerly/writerly undecidability is not a literary trick but the carburetor for the moral reflection Sebald wishes to ignite.