Campo santo, p.6
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       Campo Santo, p.6

           W. G. Sebald
 
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  sufficiently known to have dealt primarily with “personal matters” and the private feelings of its protagonists, is of relatively slight value as a source of information on the objective reality of the time, more particularly the devastation of the German cities and the patterns of psychological and social behavior affected by it. It is remarkable, to say the least, that up to Alexander Kluge’s account of the air raid of April 8, 1945, on Halberstadt, published in 1977 as Number 2 in his series of Neue Geschichten (“New Stories”), there was no literary work that to any degree filled up this lacuna in German memory, which is surely more than coincidental, and that Hans Erich Nossack and Hermann Kasack, the only writers who attempted any literary account of the new historical factor of total destruction, embarked upon their works in that vein while the war was still in progress, and sometimes even anticipated actual events. In his reminiscences of Hermann Kasack, Nossack writes: “At the end of 1942 or the beginning of 1943 I sent him thirty pages of a prose work which after the end of the war was to become my story Nekyia. Thereupon Kasack challenged me to a competition in prose. I didn’t understand what he meant by that; only much later did it become clear to me. We were both dealing with the same subject at the time, the destroyed or dead city. Today it may seem that it was not too difficult to foresee the destruction of our cities. But it is still remarkable that before the event two writers were trying to take an objective view of the totally unreal kind of reality in which we had to spend years at the time, and in which we fundamentally still find ourselves, accepting it as the form of existence allotted to us.”4

  The way that literature reacted to the collective experience of the destruction of whole tracts of human life and—as some of Nossack’s writings anticipating the documentary style show—the way it could have reacted will be illustrated here by Kasack’s novel Die Stadt hinter dem Strom (“The City Beyond the River”) and Nossack’s Der Untergang (“The End”), which was written in the summer of 1943.

  Kasack’s novel, published in 1947 and one of the first “successes” of postwar German literature, had almost no effect on the literary strategies which were formed against the background of political and social restoration in the late 1940s.5 The reason was probably that the book’s aesthetic and moral aims largely corresponded to the ideas developed by the so-called internal emigrants, and thus to the style of that time, which was already obsolescent in the year of the novel’s publication. The determining feature of Kasack’s work is the contradiction it presents between the utter hopelessness of the present situation and an attempt to subject the remnants of a humanist view of the world to a new if negative synthesis. In its concrete details, the topography of the city beyond the river, in which “life, so to speak, is lived underground,” is the topography of destruction.6 “Only the façades of the buildings in the surrounding streets still stood, so that a sideways glance through the rows of empty windows gave a view of the sky.”7 And it could be argued that the account of the “lifeless life” of the people in the limbo of this twilight kingdom was also inspired by the real economic and social situation between 1943 and 1947.8 There are no vehicles anywhere, and pedestrians walk the ruined streets apathetically, “as if they no longer felt the bleak nature of their surroundings.”9 Others “could be seen in the ruined dwellings, now deprived of their purpose, searching for buried remnants of household goods, here salvaging a bit of tin or wire from the rubble, there picking up a few splinters of wood and stowing them in the bags they wore slung around them, which resembled botanical specimen tins.”10 There is a sparse assortment of junk for sale in the roofless shops: “Here a few jackets and trousers, belts with silver buckles, ties and brightly colored scarves were laid out, there a collection of shoes and boots of all kinds, often in very poor condition. Elsewhere hangers bore crumpled suits in various sizes, old-fashioned rustic smocks and jackets, along with darned stockings, socks and shirts, hats and hairnets, all on sale and jumbled up together.”11 However, the lowered standard of living and reduced economic conditions that are evident as the empirical foundations of the narrative in such passages are not the central constituents of Kasack’s novel, which by and large mythologizes the reality as it was or could be experienced. But the critical potential of the type of fiction developed by Kasack, which is concerned with the complex insight that even those who survive collective catastrophes have already experienced their death, is not realized on the level of myth in his narrative discourse; instead, and in defiance of the sobriety of his prose style, Kasack aims to present a skillful irrationalization of the life that has been destroyed. The air raids which caused the destruction of the city appear, in a pseudo-epic style reminiscent of Döblin, as transreal entities. “As if at the prompting of Indra, whose cruelty in destruction surpasses the demonic powers, they rose, the teeming messengers of death, to destroy the halls and houses of the great cities in murderous wars, a hundred times stronger than ever before, striking like the apocalypse.”12 Green-masked figures, members of a secret sect who give off a stale odor of gas and may be meant to symbolize murdered concentration camp victims, are introduced (with allegorical exaggeration) in dispute with the bogeymen of power who, blown up to more than life size, proclaim a blasphemous dominion, until they collapse in on themselves, empty husks in uniform, leaving behind a diabolical stench. In the closing passages of the novel, an attempt to make sense of the senseless is added to this mise-en-scène, which is almost worthy of Syberberg and owes its existence to the most dubious aspects of Expressionist fantasy. A venerable Master Mage sets out the complex preliminary doctrines of a combination of western philosophy and eastern wisdom. “The Master Mage indicated that for some time the thirty-three initiates had been concentrating their forces on opening up and extending the region of Asia, so long cut off, for reincarnations, and they now seemed to be intensifying their efforts by including the West too as an area for the resurrection of mind and body. This exchange of Asiatic and European ideas, hitherto only a gradual and sporadic process, was clearly perceptible in a series of phenomena.”13

  In the course of further pronouncements by the Mage, Kasack’s alter ego is brought to realize that millions must die in this wholesale operation “to make room for those surging forward to be reborn. A vast number of people were called away prematurely, so that they could rise again when the time came as a growing crop, apocryphally reborn in a living space previously inaccessible to them.”14 The choice of words and terminology in such passages, speaking of the opening up “of the region of Asia, so long cut off,” of the benefit of “European ideas,” and of “living space [Lebensraum] previously inaccessible” shows with alarming clarity the degree to which philosophical speculation bound to the style of the time subverts its good intentions even in the attempt at synthesis. The thesis frequently held by the “internal emigrants” that genuine literature had employed a secret language under the totalitarian regime is thus proved true, in this as in other cases, only insofar as its own code accidentally happened to coincide with Fascist style and diction.15 The vision of a new educational field proposed by Kasack, as it also was by Hermann Hesse and Ernst Jünger, makes little difference to that fact, for it too is only a distortion of the bourgeois ideal of an association of the elect operating outside and above the state, an ideal which found its ultimate corruption and perfection in the officially ordained Fascist elites. When it seems to the archivist at the end of his story, then, “as if a sign formed in the place that the departed spirit had touched with its finger, a small stain, a final rune of fate,” we are looking at an example that can hardly be surpassed of the tendency developing in Kasack’s work, against his narrative intention, to bury the ruins of the time under the lumber of an equally ruined culture once again.16

  Even Hans Erich Nossack’s description of the destruction of Hamburg, Der Untergang, which, as we shall see, gives a much more exact account of the real features of a collective catastrophe, lapses here and there into the mythologizing approach to extreme social circum
stances which had become almost habitual since the time of the First World War, when realism gave up the ghost. Here too the writer resorts to the arsenal of the apocalypse, speaking of peaceful trees transformed in the beam of searchlights into black wolves “leaping greedily at the bleeding crescent moon,” and of infinity blowing at its will through the shattered windows, sanctifying the human countenance “as the place of transition for the eternal.”17 Nowhere in Nossack, however, does this fateful rhetoric, obstructing our view of the technical enterprise of destruction, degenerate to the point where he compromises himself ideologically as a writer. It is undeniably to his credit that in his thinking and in the writing of this piece of prose, which in many respects is exceptional, he largely resists the style of the time. The view of an immemorial city of the dead which he presents is thus much closer to reality and has a value qualitatively different from the account of the same theme in Kasack’s novel.

  I saw the faces of those standing beside me in the vehicle as we drove down the broad road over the Veddel to the Elbe bridge. We were like a tourist party; all we needed was a loudspeaker and the explanatory chatter of a guide. And we were all at a loss, and could not take in the strangeness. Where once your eyes met the walls of buildings, a silent plain now extended to infinity. Was it a cemetery? But what beings had buried their dead there and then put chimneys on the graves? Nothing grew there but the chimneys emerging from the ground like monuments, like dolmens or admonitory fingers. Did the dead lying below them breathe the blue ether through those chimneys? And where, among this strange undergrowth, an empty façade hung in the air like a triumphal arch, was it the resting place of one of their princes or heroes? Or was it the remnant of an aqueduct of the ancient Roman kind? Or was all this just the stage set for a fantastic opera?18

  The monumental theatrical scene of a ruined city presented to an observer passing by reflects something of Elias Canetti’s later comment on Speer’s architectural plans: for all their evocation of eternity and their enormous size, their design contained within itself the idea of a style of building that revealed all its grandiose aspirations only in a state of destruction. The curious sense of exaltation that sometimes seems to overcome Nossack at the sight of the devastation in his native city is very appropriate to that observation. Only from its ruins does the end of the Thousand Year Reich that intended to usurp the future become conceivable. The emotional conflict arising from the fact that total destruction coincided with his personal liberation from an apparently hopeless situation was not, however, something that Nossack could reduce to a common denominator. In view of the utter catastrophe, there seems to be something scandalous about the “feeling of happiness” that he experiences, on the drive “toward the dead city,” as something “true and imperative,” the need “to cry out rejoicing: now, at last, real life begins,” and Nossack can justify it only by cultivating an awareness of shared guilt and responsibility.19 These circumstances also made it impossible for him to let his mind dwell on the agents of the destruction. Nossack speaks of a deeper insight that forbade him “to think of an enemy who had done all this; he too was at most a tool of inscrutable powers that wanted to destroy us.”20 Like Serenus Zeitblom in his cell in Freising, Nossack feels that the strategy of the Allied air forces was the work of divine justice. Nor is this process of revenge solely a matter of retribution visited on the nation responsible for the Fascist regime; it is also concerned with the need for atonement felt by the individual, in this case the author, who has long yearned to see the city destroyed. “In all earlier raids I wished clearly: let it be a very bad one! I felt it so very clearly that I might almost say I cried that wish aloud to heaven. It was not courage but curiosity to see if my wish would be granted that never let me go down to the cellar but held me spellbound on the apartment balcony.”21 “And if it is the case,” writes Nossack in another passage, “that I called down the city’s fate on it to force my own fate to its moment of decision, then I must also stand up and confess myself guilty of its fall.”22 Such explorations of the conscience arise from the scruples of the survivors, their sense of shame at “not being among the victims,” and were then to feature among the central moral dimensions of West German literature.23 Reflections on the guilt of survival were probably presented most cogently by Elias Canetti, Peter Weiss, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer, which suggests that not much might have come of the process known in Germany as “coming to terms with the past” but for the contribution made by writers of Jewish origin.24 There is further evidence in the fact that in the years following the fall of the Third Reich, the sense of guilt expressed by Nossack was initially transformed into an existential philosophy which still nurtured a belief in fate and endeavored to face “the void … with composure,” a philosophy with a concept embracing personal failure, in which Nossack also sees “the appropriate way of death for us.”25 The crux of this resolution of the opposition between destruction and liberation lies in the fact that it upholds the promises of Death, which itself appears at the end of Nossack’s text as an allegorical figure coming “through the arch of the old gateway every afternoon,” enticing children out to play.26 The image of death as a companion of the writer’s imagination is a metaphor for the mourning in which the population as a whole could not afford to indulge, as Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich explain in their famous essay on the psychological disposition of the German nation after the catastrophe—for “the mother of the family still has a great deal of work, she does the laundry, she cooks, and she must go down to the cellar from time to time to fetch coal.”27 The ironic detachment here, complementing the melancholy of Nossack’s narrative, demolishes the claim to the superior significance of death that pervades Kasack’s novel, and does not deny those who managed to survive the right to a secular continuation of their existence.

  Although in some of its amplifications Nossack’s text goes beyond the plain facts of what happened, veering into personal confession and mythically allegorical structures, it may be understood in its entirety as a deliberate attempt to give as neutral as possible an account of an experience exceeding anything in the artistic imagination. In an essay of 1961 where Nossack speaks of the influences on his literary work, he writes that after reading Stendhal he was anxious to express himself “as plainly as possible, without well-crafted adjectives, high-flown images or bluff, more like someone writing a letter in almost everyday jargon.”28 This stylistic principle proves its worth in his depiction of the ruined city, in that it does not allow traditional literary methods, which tend to homogenize collective and personal catastrophes; Mann’s novel Dr. Faustus is the contemporary paradigm. In direct contrast to the traditional approach to writing fiction, Nossack experiments with the prosaic genre of the report, the documentary account, the investigation, to make room for the historical contingency that breaks the mold of the culture of the novel. Where Kasack’s book about the city beyond the river, which in its opening passages also tries to maintain the neutrality of an impersonal report, very soon lapses into features like those of fiction, Nossack manages to preserve, over long tracts of his work, the documentary tone that set an example for the later development of West German literature. If familiarity with social and cultural circumstances is the crucial prerequisite for both writing and reading novels, then the attitude of an agency that simply presents a report conveys a sense of reality that appears foreign. That is evident in Nossack’s prose work Bericht eines fremden Wesens über die Menschen (“Account of Mankind by a Strange Creature”), which is also associated with the themes described above and ascribes to the narrator the “strangeness” in the title, but asks the reader whether the reason for the strangeness is not a mutation in mankind that makes the author an anachronistic figure. The wide distance between the subject and object of the narrative process implies something like the perspective of natural history, in which destruction and the tentative forms of new life that it generates act like biological experiments in which the species is concerned “to break its mo
ld and abjure the name of man.”29 As the first sentence of his account tells us, Nossack witnesses the fall of Hamburg as a spectator. Shortly before the air raid on the city of July 21, 1943, he had gone to spend a few days in a village on the Lüneburg Heath fifteen kilometers south of its outskirts. The timelessness of the landscape reminds him “that we come from a fairy-tale and shall return to a fairy-tale again,” which in the circumstances suggests not so much the idylls of Hermann Löns (the poet of that area) as the precarious achievements of the technological civilization that was shortly to return large parts of the population to the hunter-gatherer stage of development.30 From the heath, the approaching destruction of the city appears like a natural spectacle. Sirens howl “like cats somewhere in distant villages,” the sound of the bomber squadrons coming in hovers in the air “between the clear constellations and the dark earth,” the shapes like “fir trees” dropping from the sky resemble “red-hot drops of metal flowing” down on the city, until they later disappear in a cloud of smoke, “lit red from below by the fire.”31 The scene thus suggested, still containing aestheticized elements, already shows that a “description” of the catastrophe from its periphery rather than its center is possible. If Nossack’s text conveys only a reflection of the inferno, his own real evidence begins when the raid is over and the extent of the destruction is gradually revealed to him. Even before his return to Hamburg, he is amazed by the “constant coming and going” that begins with the firemen hurrying to the city’s aid from nearby towns, and continues “on all the streets of the region around … by day and by night” during the throng’s “flight from Hamburg, no one knew where. It was a river for which there was no bed; almost silently but inexorably deluging everything, carrying disquiet along little rivulets and into the most remote villages. Sometimes fugitives thought they could cling to a branch and so get a footing on the bank, but only for a few days or hours, and then they threw themselves back into the torrent to let it carry them on. None of them knew that they carried restlessness with them like a sickness, and everything it touched lost its firm foundation.”32 Later Nossack comments on his impression that the journeying of the countless throng of people who were daily on the move was by no means necessary “to salvage something or keep an eye open for relatives.… Yet I would not like to call it mere curiosity. People simply had no central point … and everyone was afraid of missing something.”33 The aimlessly panic-stricken conduct of the population reported here by Nossack corresponds to no social norms and can be understood only as a biological reflex set off by the destruction. Victor Gollancz, who in the autumn of 1945 visited several cities in the British-occupied zone, including Hamburg, in order to make firsthand reports which would convince the British public of the necessity of rendering humanitarian aid, notes the same phenomenon. He describes a visit to the Jahn Gymnastics Hall, “where mothers and children were spending the night. They were units in that homeless crowd that goes milling about Germany ‘to find relatives,’ they said, but really, or mainly, I was told, because a restlessness has come over them that just won’t let them settle down.”34 The extreme restlessness and mobility to which Gollancz testifies were the reactions of a species seeing itself cut off from its ways of escape, which biologically speaking always lay ahead of it, and as preconscious experience those reactions affected the new social dynamic developing out of the destruction. Böll, who understood the constant movement associated with the war as a very specific aspect of human misfortune, with peacefully settled populations returning to the nomadic way of life, ascribes the postwar West German liking for speed, and the passion for travel which sends people out of the country every year in great droves, to the experiences of a historical period when whole social groups were removed from the last secure factor in their lives, the places where they lived.35 Literature tells us very little more about the archaic behavior that broke through in this way. Nossack does indicate that “the usual disguises” of civilization fell away as if of their own accord, and “greed and fear showed themselves naked and unashamed.”36 The reversion of human life to the primitive, starting with the fact that, as Böll remembered later, “this state began with a nation rummaging in the trash,” is a sign that collective catastrophe marks the point where history threatens to revert to natural history.37 In the midst of the ruined civilization, what life is left assembles to begin at the beginning again in a different time. Nossack notes how unsurprising it seems “that people had lit small fires in the open, as if they were in the jungle, and were cooking their food or boiling up their laundry on those fires.”38 There is not much comfort, however, in the fact that in Nossack’s account the city, now reduced to a desert of stone, soon begins to stir, that trodden paths appear across the rubble, linking up—as Kluge remarks—“to a faint extent with earlier networks of paths,” for it is not yet certain whether the surviving remnants of the population will emerge from this regressive phase of evolution as the dominant species, or whether that species will be the rats or the flies swarming everywhere in the city, instead.39 The revulsion at this new life, at the “horror teeming under the stone of culture” to which Nossack gives expression in one of the most terrible passages of his text, is a pendant to the fear that the inorganic destruction of life by the firestorm which (according to Walter Benjamin’s distinction between bloody and nonbloody violence) might yet be reconcilable with the idea of divine justice, will be followed by organic decomposition caused by flies and rats40 to which in Kasack’s book, too, the river drawing the line between life and death “forms no barrier.”41 Writing from such an extreme situation required a redefinition of the author’s moral position, which for Nossack can be justified only by the necessity of rendering accounts or, as Kasack puts it, the need “to note certain procedures and phenomena before they fall into oblivion.”42 In such conditions writing becomes an imperative that dispenses with artifice in the interests of truth, and turns to a “dispassionate kind of speech,” reporting impersonally as if describing “a terrible event from some prehistoric time.”43 In an essay on the diary of Dr. Hachiya from Hiroshima, Elias Canetti asks what it means to survive such a vast catastrophe, and says that the answer can be gauged only from a text which, like Hachiya’s observations, is notable for precision and responsibility. “If there were any point,” writes Canetti, “in wondering what form of literature is essential to a thinking, seeing human being today, then it is this.”44 The ideal of truth contained in the form of an entirely unpretentious report proves to be the irreversible foundation of all literary effort. It crystallizes resistance to the human faculty of suppressing any memories that might in some way be an obstacle to the continuance of life. The outcast, says Nossack, “dared not look back, since there was nothing behind him but fire.”45 For that very reason, however, memory and the passing on of the objective information it retains must be delegated to those who are ready to live with the risk of remembering. It is a risk because, as the following parable by Nossack shows, those in whom memory lives on bring down upon themselves the wrath of others who can continue to live only by forgetting. He writes of survivors sitting around the fire one night: “Then one man spoke in his dream. No one understood what he was saying. But they were all uneasy, they rose, they left the fire, they listened fearfully to the cold dark around them. They kicked the dreaming man, and he woke. ‘I have been dreaming. I must tell you what I dreamed. I was back with what lies behind us.’ And he sang a song. The fire burned low. The women began to weep. ‘I confess, we were human beings!’ Then the men said to each other, ‘If it was as he dreamed we would freeze to death. Let us kill him!’ And they killed him. Then the fire burned hot again, and everyone was content.”46

 
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