Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008)
NOTE: A more recent version of this paper appears as Chapter 12 of: Gerry Coulter. Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert or the Poetics of Radicality. Intertheory Press, 2012. To obtain the book please see: http://intertheory.org/gerrycoulter.htm
The Novelist of Memory and the Catastrophe of Images: Sebald’s The Emigrants and the Thought of Jean Baudrillard.
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop's University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada)
1. Sebald, The Emigrants (page 27).
Every photographed object (in its silence) is merely the trace left by the disappearance of everything else – the state of the world in our absence (Baudrillard, 1999:130-31, 136).
We shall never know whether Nazism, the concentration camps or Hiroshima were intelligible or not, our amnesia is the amnesia of images (Baudrillard, 2002a:17).
2. Sebald, The Emigrants (page 3).
W. G. Sebald’s 1 novels are unusual in that they include found images (usually old photographs) which the author imbeds at frequent intervals in the text. These images are seldom mentioned directly in the text and are not accompanied by subtitles. It is assumed that the reader understands that these images are strategically placed to stimulate the imagination and that they are not actual photographic representations of characters or events described in the text. The reader is put to work in an active manner as s/he must interpret the images to determine their possible meaning(s) and how their presence might influence our reading of the text (see Appendix One for a sample page from The Emigrants).
The presence of images in Sebald’s novels is also a point of intersection with contemporary theory of the image – especially the writing of Jean Baudrillard. An investigation of Sebald’s The Emigrants, attentive to Baudrillard, points to important intersections between art (literature) and contemporary theory. Before turning to Sebald’s novel I begin with an outline some of Baudrillard’s thought on the image.
II. Baudrillard on the Image
Every image is an ephemeral vanishing act, in its countless contemporary forms, its only magic is the magic of disappearance, and the pleasures it gives are bloodless ones (Baudrillard, 1990:67).
Baudrillard alerts us to the “vital illusion” – the problem that we have never know the real – merely the appearances behind which it hides. This ancient but under-acknowledged problem is heightened in our age of high-tech simulation as we are buried ever deeper under images. Efforts to give or take meaning from history, never easy, are now deeply problematic. For Baudrillard the strong lesson of contemporary simulation is that the old relationship between sign and referent have become reversed. Among the thought provoking patterns he points to includes Disneyland which he says is set in hyperreal America to preserve a sense of the reality of America: “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the... real America that is Disneyland” (2002b:23). This is not unlike the view we derive of prisons from reading Foucault (they are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). In Baudrillard’s example it is Los Angeles and the America surrounding it that now belong to the order of the hyperreal and simulation. In an age of simulation, Disneyland ironically has an important role in preserving the reality principle (1994:12-13).
Baudrillard maintains that we do not get closer to the reality of a thing or an event by burying it under layer upon layer of images. Indeed this takes us further away from the vital illusion to the point where any firm distinction between reality and representation tumble over the abyss of hyper-simulation. These ideas sit well alongside contemporary understandings of media and advertising which are understood to lead us to acquire things not due to real needs, but due to desires that are constantly manufactured by the images which keep us one step removed from the reality of our bodies and the world around us. Whatever relationship the image and reality may have been said to share in historical time is now stretched beyond credulity in the era of CNN and real time (Baudrillard, 1992:90). Baudrillard marks our passage from the ever problematic “real” of the vital illusion to the hyperreal, where simulation engulfs the real. Here simulacra move toward the force of reality, although this is not based on any counterpart in the real world – it is experienced as being more real than any reality.
As we began moving deeper into the hyperreal during the 1990s Sebald crafted a novel in which about 10 percent of its pages are occupied by images. These images are very powerful in their stillness and silence. Sebald attempted to make us aware of the problem of the image in reference to writing about historical time in our era of real time. Sebald’s understanding of the image is not, as it turns out, so very different from Baudrillard’s.
III. Sebald Through a Baudrillardian Lens
Reading Sebald with an eye on Baudrillard allows us to see his use of photographs as a problematization of the role of images in our time – especially for writing about history. Today, images are not only interesting because they work as mirrors, representations, or counterparts of a “real”, but also when they “contaminate reality and to model it” (Baudrillard, 1987a:16). It is the very reference principle of images that now must be subjected to radical doubt.
It is precisely when it appears most truthful, most faithful and most in conformity to reality that the image is most diabolic – and our technical images, whether they be from photography, cinema or television, are in the overwhelming majority much more figurative, realist, than all the images from past cultures... the immense majority of present day photographic, cinematic and television images are thought to bear witness to the world with a fine resemblance and a touching fidelity. We have spontaneous confidence in their realism. We are wrong. They of seem to resemble things, to resemble reality, events, faces (Ibid.)
The key to Sebald’s thoughtful use of images is that he has a similar understanding of this Baudrillardian insight and he wants to use it to problematize images while inserting them in his fascinating stories. As Sebald’s stories allude to events surrounding the Jews in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s – he deploys his found photographs from this period to make allusions to specific characters in his novel which in turn raise vital questions. Sebald shares Baudrillard’s mistrust of the image and this is precisely what allows him to use it so masterfully. Sebald, like Baudrillard, may not have liked our contemporary circumstance and found it almost intolerable, but he did embrace the challenge of his time as far as images are concerned.
I am not convinced that Sebald has been given sufficient credit for his understanding and his ability to play with and against our contemporary media saturated society. This does not prevent his use of images from being necessary, beautiful, or sublime – or stop him from attaining other goals as a writer – indeed it is what makes it possible. Sebald knows that while we cannot trust the image we simultaneously thirst for them (and who more so than Sebald?) He understands that people’s memories are obliterated today by artificial memories which in turn obliterate people from memory (the actual historical people for whom the characters [simulations] in The Emigrants stand in). Here Sebald plays a real-time game with images from historical time in a powerful manner. He creates artificial memories in an effort to make us remember something (we can never know or remember) that is increasingly buried beneath images – the holocaust.
History is a very serious problem for us today living in the world Baudrillard describes. Seldom is the problem more painfully evident than when we deal with negationists such as Robert Faurisson who deny the holocaust. The ironic role played by Faurisson and his ilk is to raise the question: how do we know the Holocaust? For my generation, and younger people, we know it mainly through the movies or television images or the many simulations of an increasingly popular holocaust tourism.
Contemporary theory (Baudrillard and others such as Giorgio Agamben), remind us that we cannot trust even (especially) the news, and both give the example of the massacre at Timisoara, Romania which was faked for the international news media – a simulated massacre 2. Similarly, The Emigrants is a simulation of history and so Sebald uses images for a readership thoroughly familiar with the problem of screens. Each photograph in The Emigrants opens a virtual screen on the past which is dependent upon, but entirely separate from, the text. Sebald knew that we have passed a point where we can tell each other histories and as such novels are as important as narrative histories – both are simulations – we cannot trust images yet we feel we must remember – it is who we believe we are as a species. These are of course very problematic waters to negotiate when your subject includes the holocaust.
IV. From the Historical to the Mythic
A common and unfortunate feature among many commentators on Sebald is the way in which his use of text and images is understood as somehow taking us closer to the events of the holocaust. Sebald is well aware that the images he uses do not take us closer to the real event – indeed, his images deliberately keep us at a distance from it as though he recognizes the value of images in creating an artificial depth of field between event and interpretation that is stronger than text alone can provide. Sebald also understands that his novels cannot take us closer to these events because of the problem of image uncertainty in our time. The Emigrants demands memory at a time when we are losing direct contact with the event as the last survivors are passing and the event is now known to billions only through images (including film and television) 3. His allusive use of images from historical time, often found in antique shops, alongside of his fictional text, participate in the same levels of simulation and uncertainty as does a film like Holocaust 4. Sebald does this without showing the kind of contempt for the image that kills the imaginary – indeed he positions his images in such a manner as to stimulate our imagination as readers. They are like traps set for us to fall into and we find pleasure in them. Sebald’s contempt, implicit in his novels, is reserved for a reader who wishes to remain passive.
Sebald appears to have been well aware that both images and text exist beyond the reach of a shared meaning. He also seems to have understood that his text would be stronger for the presence of images – not simply for reinforcing the text (which they do not necessarily do), but by doing what historical images do best – serving as strange attractors drawing us more intently to the events to which the text alludes (Baudrillard, 1999:132).
Baudrillard’s assessment of images takes us to the core of the problem Sebald is negotiating as an author who uses images to accompany writing about events from historical time while living in the image saturation of real time:
…where the holocaust-deniers are plainly absurd and wrong is when they themselves espouse realism and contest the objective, historical reality, of the holocaust. In historical time, the event took place and the evidence is there. But we are no longer in historical time; we are now in real time, and in real time there is no longer any evidence of anything whatever. The holocaust will never be verified in real time. Holocaust denial is, therefore, absurd in its own logic, but by its very absurdity it sheds light on the irruption of another dimension, paradoxically termed “real time” – a dimension in which, paradoxically, objective reality disappears. ...and this is indeed the undoing or defeat of thought and critical thought – but in fact it is not its defeat: it is the victory of real time over the present, over the past, over any form of logical articulation of reality whatsoever (Baudrillard, 2002a:108-109).
Reality, says Baudrillard, has “preferred to disappear behind the perfect alibi of images” (1990:181). Images become very important because they stand in for reality now, their magical status possessing something of the radical illusion of the world (the fact that we do not know the real but the appearances behind which it hides, 1999:140). In Sebald’s novel we have a vivid example of what Baudrillard means when he says “the intensity of the image matches the degree of its denial of the real” (Ibid.:130). Many of the photographs Sebald selects do possess something of a magical status as images in that they possess something of the radical illusion of the world.
While Sebald deploys images from historical time he does so in a manner which is entirely contemporary in its ironic understanding of the circumstance Baudrillard delineates. There is no question in my mind that Sebald’s use of images in The Emigrants is based on an appreciation of a contemporary fact that, as Baudrillard would have it: “between reality and the image, exchange is impossible” (1999:147). This insight is precisely the one which allows Sebald to use his found images not to support the text, but to challenge it – in the sense of constantly reminding us that we are partaking of a fiction – but a fiction devoted to remembering (against those like Faurisson who would like us to forget). While writing about the events leading to the holocaust Sebald refuses the desperate effort to recreate an historical time which has passed into images – indeed even the images he uses from historical time are used in the same creative manner as those of contemporary image makers. For example, Sebald does not use any recognizable or “stock” images. Further, his use of images to represent people have no direct relationship with the character in the novel. The photograph will be of a person say, dropped into the text at an appropriate point, who we, the reader make into that character through our own creative imagination (see my example from page 94 of The Emigrants in Appendix One). It is remarkable how well this approach works and it works because Sebald understands that we attempt to be thoughtful in our thirst for specific images today – despite our very distrust of them.
Sebald’s use of images around something so political as the holocaust is of course political, but it is so in the contemporary sense of the word, as he recognizes that politics has taken on new shapes and meanings – many of which are unrecognizable. Baudrillard calls this the transpolitical – our time in which the medium and screen exempt us from social realism (Baudrillard, 1998:86). Baudrillard also refers to Elias Canetti’s understanding that we have passed a point [of radicalized uncertainty], after which, we do not know with confidence what is going on (1987b:113). Sebald understands himself to be a powerful contemporary simulationist (beyond written text) who understands that within our current situation, the image (whether true or false), still maintains its power to provoke memory. Sebald and Baudrillard, each in his own way, challenges the reader to see that the other side of not wanting a truth of the future (a programmed future), also means working without a truth of the past. For Sebald, not unlike Baudrillard, the world becomes ever more enigmatic and, most ironically where the holocaust is concerned, this uncertainty is necessarily a happy one. Undeniably there is a joy in the images we find in Sebald’s novels that one would not normally associate with his subject matter. It is the joy of the happy coincidence of image and text – each retaining something of its singularity. Sebald’s The Emigrants is a good example of both the problem of appearances and the joy of images (Baudrillard, 2001:10). His allusions work.
Sebald understood that his novel would be the site of the disappearance of meaning, of the simulation of lives of the holocaust generation. He gives us that simulation – simulated memories in the place of memory – because he understands our time as one which knows only simulation. Of course we cannot trust Sebald but trusting Sebald or television or cinema is not the important question in a time when we cannot trust anything. Sebald does not expect us to believe but he wants to force us to ask questions. Sebald knows that we know his stories (he chose the medium of the novel after all), are simply stories. He also knows we are human and as such want to remember. Even though he knows we know we cannot trust his story, he also knows that if we will allow him to force those questions [and that is all a simulationist can do in times of simulation and image saturation], he will have attained his purpose.
Sebald is not in the reality business and he is well aware that things are seldom as they seem and this is what he most wants us to probe. [Faurisson, or a novelist of his ideological ilk, could use the same photographs to tell the story of the holocaust that never took place, just as Sebald uses them to tell us stories orbiting the one that did]. Sebald proves himself to be a novelist fully aware of the implications of contemporary theory and the net result is a group of four stories in The Emigrants which use both images and text to profoundly make us feel what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”. In a time when novels are as useful to knowing history as are the works of historians, Sebald hallucinates a simulation for us in the place of history in an effort to make us ask questions of memory – where did the Jews of the towns like Steinach go? What happened to their houses? Who lived in them after 1945?
3. Sebald, The Emigrants (page 209).
In forcing such questions Sebald’s writing does not bring us any closer to the holocaust as an historical event, indeed it acts as a filter that takes us further from it as all simulations do. In Baudrillard’s terms:
...the whole of our reality is filtered through the media, including tragic events of the past. This means that it is too late to verify and understand those events historically... the tools required for such intelligibility have been lost. … What is actually occurring – collectively, confusedly, via all the trials and debates – is a transition from the historical stage to a mythical stage: the mythic – and media led – reconstruction of all these events… The Heidegger affair, the Klaus Barbie trial, and so on, are just so many feeble convulsive reactions to this loss of reality – which is now our reality. Faurisson’s claims are a cynical transposition of this loss of reality into the past. The statement ‘It never existed’ means simply that we ourselves no longer exist sufficiently even to sustain a memory, and that hallucinations are the only way we have left to feel alive (1993:90-93).
Sebald’s concern for the holocaust preys upon our fascination with it in a remarkably more subtle manner than the way the media play with our fascination with images of disaster – repeating the planes hitting the tower. Sebald’s use of images is nothing short of brilliant and in The Emigrants the vast majority of the images he uses [there are approximately 80 of them] are placed in such a manner that we read them into the text. His use of images deepens the fascinating tales he tells us of Dr. Selwyn, and Max Ferber, achieving a powerful effect in the manufacture of the stories of Paul Bereyter and Ambros Adelwarth. Sebald’s images haunt his written text and they haunt us as readers. Three examples of this haunting are worth mentioning at this point. The first is Kasimir’s story (the uncle of the narrator), of his life as a Jew in late 1920s Germany. This is one of those tremendously poignant moments we experience reading Sebald – the moments in which he intensifies the injustices being lived by the people who characters like Kasimir represent from Germany in the 1920s:
…people like us simply had no chance in Germany. Only once, when I finished my tinsmith apprenticeship ... did I get work, in ‘28, when they were putting a new copper roof on the synagogue in Augsburg. The Jews of Augsburg had donated the old copper roof for the war effort during the First World War, and it wasn’t till ‘28 that they had the money needed for a new roof (Sebald, 1996:80-81).
4. Sebald. The Emigrants (page 81).
Here Sebald combines an actual image of workers on the roof of a synagogue with the fictional character “Uncle Kasimir” telling of a gift that was actually made but returned only with hatred and contempt.
A second passage of this kind occurs in the story of Max Ferber when we are reminded that perhaps a third or more of the population of places like Steinach (near Bad Kissingen, not far from Wurzburg, Germany) had populations that were Jewish in the 1920s. What happened to all of those Jewish families such as this one wearing lederhosen in this photograph:
5-6. Sebald, The Emigrants (pages 217-218).
One is also taken back at this point to the story of Paul Bereyter where he is recalling newspaper reports of schoolchildren in the town of Gunzenhausen helping themselves to chocolate cigarettes, coloured pencils, fizz powder and many other items in the shops wrecked the night before – Kristallnacht (Ibid.:54). These are only three of countless examples of poignant moments in The Emigrants where the understanding of the banality of evil overtakes the reader.
What Sebald’s novel does with images is rather like what movies about the holocaust do – they tell us a story and they make the point the producer, the director, or in this case the author, wish to make. For Sebald it runs something like this – he poses a question, without directly asking it – an unavoidable question: what happened to the houses of the Germans sent away to their deaths? He forces us to answer it – Germans families were moved into them. What troubles Sebald immensely is not only that is own people could have done this, but that they could have so quickly repressed the events, occupied the houses, and continued on as if no great event were taking place. As Sebald writes words spoken by the narrator in Max Ferber:
I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and with the efficiency with which they cleared everything up, were beginning to affect my head (Ibid.:225).
Forgetting is an important part of the violence.
And so, as at a movie, or watching a television show, as I read the novel, the words and images pass by and I am reminded of an event I will only know through the words and images of others. Sebald’s way of working with this problem is, like Borges – to remind us that memory is vital – we are our memories. Baudrillard and Sebald each point out for us a very stark fact concerning great events of the past to creatures who “are our memory,” that we have none beyond well crafted simulations. Memory is a social construction just as is its forgetting in those small German (and Austrian) towns which serve as backdrops to the stories in The Emigrants.
Sebald’s novel is beautiful – “sublime” one reviewer wrote. Sebald’s use of images haunt the desire (and the Nietzschean need) to forget. But alas, his use of text and images takes us no closer to being able to repudiate the holocaust deniers than does the made for TV movie. In the age of images we can forget about a lot of things including authenticity. These are, as Baudrillard tells us – inauthentic hyperreal times and we are, I think, some of us anyway, coming to live with this seemingly intolerable circumstance (and here we feel the depth of the pain of the early loss of Sebald). For Baudrillard and other contemporary theorists all we can do with theory now is use it as challenge – as a challenge to the real to expose itself as illusion. In Sebald we have a gifted writer who illustrates for us the problem to which Baudrillard points, as the novelist creates very precise documentation using photographs he has collected that have, we are certain, no relation to the lives of the fictional characters he is writing, yet represent very (historically) real things, people and events. Along the rails of a contradiction between historical and real time Sebald’s novel glides smoothly.
V. Conclusion: Art and Contemporary Theory
Sebald writes his way through what is for Baudrillard the intolerable circumstance in which we find ourselves – “the revolution of our time is the uncertainty revolution” (Baudrillard, 1993:43). Baudrillard is very distrustful of images from our past and present. Sebald reminds us that we may not be able to trust our past – but neither we can hope to live without it. In a world where the Faurisson’s flourish with their hallucinations – I am happy to have Sebald and his. I do though, wish to give him full credit for the weight and import of his ideas and their relevance to contemporary theory. Sebald’s novel and Baudrillard’s thought overlap in such a way as to serve as one more powerful illustration of the coming together of art (literature) and theory in recent years.
Sebald embraces the problem Baudrillard elucidates and then proceeds because he wishes to compete for our memory against those like Faurisson. As Baudrillard says: “Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself” (1987:23). Sebald’s image laden novel has become part of the process of the extermination of this extermination as clashes of the World War II era continues on, but now as a conflicts between memory and negation.
7. Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald (1944 - 2001).
Appendix One: Sample page (94) from Sebald’s The Emigrants
had to fetch more money, said Aunt Fini; and then on the
third evening, when he broke the bank again, Cosmo won so
much that Ambros was busy till dawn counting the money
and packing it into a steamer trunk. After spending the
summer in Deauville, Cosmo and Ambros travelled via
Paris and Venice to Constantinople and Jerusalem. I cannot
Tell you anything of what happened on that journey, said
Aunt Fini, because Uncle Adelwarth would never answer
Questions about it. But there is a photo of him in Arab
◊ 94 ◊
Gerry Coulter is the founder of IJBS.
Jean Baudrillard 1987). The Evil Demon of Images, Sydney: Power Institute Publications.
Jean Baudrillard (1987b). “Forget Baudrillard: An interview with Sylvere Lotringer”, In Forget Foucault – Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (1990). Cool Memories I. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (1992). The Illusion of the End. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Jean Baudrillard (1993). The Transparency of Evil (1990). New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation, (1981) Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm, New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (1999). Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). Impossible Exchange (1999). New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2002a). Screened Out. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2002b). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.
W.G. Sebald (1996). The Emigrants (c 1992) Harville Press.
1. He published three other books in English translation: The Rings Of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz). For an obituary see: The Guardian “German writer shaped by the ‘forgetfulness’ of his countrymen after the second world war” (December 17, 2001): http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,6109,619971,00.html
2. For Agamben “Timisoara is “…the Auschwitz of the age of the spectacle: and in the same way in which it has been said that after Auschwitz it is impossible to write and think as before, it will no longer be possible to watch television in the same way”. As Baudrillard expresses the problem of Timisoara: “...this Romanian affair, and the artificial heaps of corpses… Never again will we be able to look at a television picture in good faith…” In this, and elsewhere, the writing of both Agamben and Baudrillard is refreshingly devoid of mediated platitudes about the roles of Europe and America in the world. Agamben sounds quite like Baudrillard when he speaks of a “Europe… whose catastrophe one can already foresee”. (See: Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000:24, 82; and Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford University Press, 1994:60.
3 . Holocaust deniers (negationists) such as Robert Faurisson (France) have seized this moment to claim that the gas chambers never existed. On Faurisson see Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:92-93; and Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002a:18-19.
4. For Baudrillard’s thought on this film see: Seduction (1979), Montreal: New World Perspectives Press, 1990:160; Cool Memories I, New York: Verso, 1990:230; Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:49-51; The Evil Demon of Images, Sydney: Power Institute Publications, 1987:23 ff.; The Transparency of Evil (1990), New York: Verso, 1993:91; Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (Edited by Mike Gane), New York: Routledge, 1993:69, 160; Paroxysm, New York: Verso, 1998:29; and Screened Out, New York: Verso, 2002a: 17, 109.