Sebald And The Angels Of History

Truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense.
— W.H. Auden, “New Year Letter”

Walter Benjamin spoke of an “angel of history” in his unpublished-at-the-time essay, “On The Concept Of History,” writing that —

His [that is, the angel’s face] face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin’s definition of ‘the angel of history’ enables us to look a little bit more closely at the function of the symbol and the idea of ‘an angel of history’ in The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. It’s also in discussing both Walter Benjamin’s angel and The Rings of Saturn that we can discuss Wings of Desire and take note of how the three engage with the other.

There are literal connections and all but literal connections that can be drawn between the three texts: in the library scene in Wings of Desire, per the screenplay, one reader studies Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” which is referenced by Walter Benjamin in relation to “the angel of history” (and which prompts the above-quoted paragraph), which itself serves as a point of intellectual reference in The Rings of Saturn.

Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history — blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled (orig.: aufheben) … The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.

The Rings Of Saturn is manifestly aware of an oppressed past and the notion of “blast[ing] a specific era out of the homogenous course of history.” The text is aware of how frequently it looks upon a “wreckage,” so aware that the voice of the text frequently slides upward into a register filled with hauntings — but not just Gothic-styled hauntings pegged to a specific object, i.e., a single ghost haunting a single house because of a single terrible act committed one generational leap back into the past.

Sebald pursues a different path: when the reader ascends to a certain level in the text when one might feel a more ‘direct’ encounter with a ‘ghost,’ i.e., that space between a pile of herring and the bodies of those murdered in the Holocaust as defined by the implicit metaphor, we also share an intellectual space with thinking over of what generational trauma means while also operating in the middle of an encounter with ‘place.’ (The narrator can be expected to only accomplish so much, being human, after all.) The book has names for the things that have produced that “wreckage” — imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and fascism; and the book traces their evolution well — but merely indicting a large ‘-ism’ isn’t where the mission of The Rings Of Saturn begins or ends.

Sebald the narrator seeks out a saint in Nuremberg. An angel seeks to become human in Berlin. Each are on an analogous path and make use of similar tools. In a small essay called “Why Do You Make Films?” written in 1987, Wim Wenders remarked that “The camera is a weapon against the tragedy of things, against their disappearing.” Sebald himself was quoted in an interview flagged by the podcast Backlisted as saying that “The photograph is meant to get lost somewhere in an attic — a nomadic thing that has a small chance only to survive,” making their survival — and the act of ensuring their survival — all the more striking. And, more often than not, both Sebald and the angel seek to commune with nominally empty spaces.

To explain what occupies this emptiness requires us to talk for a moment about what we mean when we use words like trauma, collective trauma, and generational trauma.

With all three, there’s a rough feeling that lingers with us where we can say that we know it when we see it, feel it, or hear about it. We know it when we keep friends safe in the middle of the night, telling them over the phone to breathe in and breathe out. We know it when we hear a blues song scratchily emanating from the side of an open and otherwise quiet car mechanic’s garage late at night. We know it when we read a book like The Body Keeps The Score and we know it when we watch a television show like Watchmen.

Now, there’s a DSM-5 definition we can break out — which talks about “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” — but that doesn’t incorporate a thousand other things that are part of the landscape of trauma.

There is also a certain level of complexity in tracing generational trauma from one generation to the next at the level of biology. As of 2018 — insofar as this writer can make out — no studies exist that follow the trauma a mother might have before she conceives a child, how that trauma changes the genetic make-up of an oocyte (a cell in the ovary that changes to form an ovum), and how that link between the trauma established before conception and the trauma felt by the child is established after the child has been born.

That difficulty doesn’t mean the investigation into generational trauma is illegitimate. In 1966, Vivian M. Rakoff, a Canadian psychologist, described the children of parents who survived the Holocaust as suffering more acute psychological symptoms than their parents. In the 1990’s, as Rachel Yahuda and Amy Lehrner note in World Psychiatry, as technology developed, time passed, and more investigations were made —

… offspring of Holocaust survivors were more likely to show HPA axis alterations associated with PTSD, such as lower cortisol levels and enhanced GR responsiveness … Subsequent investigations documented that maternal and paternal PTSD were associated with different biological outcomes. A post‐hoc analysis of cortisol circadian rhythm data indicated that lower cortisol levels in adult Holocaust offspring were associated with maternal, but not paternal, PTSD.

The HPA axis refers to the connection between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. GR responsiveness refers to glucocorticoid receptors, which are found throughout the body and play a role in regulating the genes that control development, metabolism, and immune response.

Looking at these results suggests that it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to offer up the reductive assertion that lower cortisol levels and enhanced GR responsiveness means that someone is both hyper-sensitive and might not feel the stress that the body should otherwise feel if it were in a ‘flight or ‘fight,’ trauma-inducing situation. In other words: the children exhibit the symptoms of the traumatized.

There is much more detail at hand here — studies involving GR gene methylation that parallel but don’t explicitly show genetic transmission of trauma, mothers with PTSD who experienced September 11th rating their children as having higher anxiety in the morning than mothers without PTSD, animals exposed to “chronic stress in utero [that led to] increased male, but not female, HPA stress reactivity,” and ‘secondary traumatization’ — but we should zoom the camera lens out to flag the fact that trauma simply makes itself manifest in the day-to-day lives of individuals in a variety of ways. In Bassel Van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps The Score, the doctor describes patients who “felt emotionally distant from everybody, as though [their] heart were frozen and [the individual in question was] living behind a glass wall,” as well as other patients who were “suffering from memories,” and notes that “I [the author] could not be [the doctor of a traumatized group] unless they made me one of them.”

This characterization brings us back to the idea of the lead characters in The Rings Of Saturn and Wings Of Desire encountering nominally empty spaces. At Somerleyton Hall in The Rings Of Saturn, the narrator thinks of how “fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion,” a house where “there are … moments, as one passes through the rooms open to the public … when one is not quite sure whether one is in a country house in Suffolk or some kind of no-man’s-land, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean or in the heart of the dark continent.”

The house is only ‘nominally’ empty because of the action implied by the phrases of “the Arctic Ocean” and “in the heart of the dark continent.” Open up the door of the latter phrase and voices will come rushing through. The alexithymia of trauma located in more than one place — in both the house and the ‘dark continent’ — will find a voice — of exploitation, cruelty, and worse. (Later on, the narrator goes so far as to suggest that the colonial violence of the Belgians in the past makes it manifest in physical deformations in the near-present.)

Consider two scenes in Wings Of Desire. The first is the montage that shows us a glimpse of what happened to Berlin in the war: the camera passes by a destitute man, a domestic argument, and a child screaming for his mother in the street before we transition to the sounds of a bomb siren, see for ourselves the bombs flash bulb across the sky of the city, the shadow of planes and white-yellow search lights, and buildings on fire. Or, as the English writer Thomas Browne puts it in one section of The Rings Of Saturn

The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so … one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn — an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.

The second scene is Peter Falk standing outside a small snack bar in the middle of a muddied expanse. He talks to Bruno Ganz, the angel, and — even though the angel says nothing — they share a moment.

I can’t see you, but I know you’re here. I feel it. You’ve been hanging around since I got here. I wish I could see your face. Just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch something. See, that’s cold. That feels good. Or, here … To smoke. Have coffee. And, if you do it together, it’s fantastic. Or … to draw. You know, you take a pencil, and you make a dark line … then you make a light line. And, together, it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold — you rub ’em together. You see, that’s good. That feels good. There’s so many good things. But you’re not here. I’m here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me, because I’m a friend. Compañero.

It is agonizingly tempting to liken Falk’s voice here to Sebald’s voice in a one-to-one ratio, even in spite of the fairly central role ‘wreckage’ and melancholy play in The Rings Of Saturn, especially if one were to factor in the consistently sumptuous turns of Sebald’s language, i.e., how the scratchy sounds of a transistor radio playing on a beach are “as if the pebbles being dragged back by the waves were talking to each other”; how — instead of a child — one couple in The Hague has an “apricot-colored poodle”; and how — “every now and then” at the Schiphol airport — “the announcers’ voices, disembodied and intoning their messages like angels, would call someone’s name.”

But just before that scene in the film, Falk is seen wandering through a muddied expanse of earth. “Walking and seeing,” he says in voice over. He turns and looks off in the distance to his right (and the lingering background of the shot.) “That must be the station — not the one where the trains stop, but the station where the station stops.”

“The station where the station stops” is a roundabout way of talking about “the zero hour,” the end of history, or the “inclusion of all exclusions,” which is how the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann once described the apocalypse. Falk goes from contemplating the “inclusion of all exclusions” — an enormous collective trauma collectively felt — to talking about simple things with a spirit he can’t see, a spirit who doesn’t feel like it’s part of humanity and wants to be a part of humanity. And Falk wants that spirit there.

Sebald’s narrator has a role in reaching out to the spirits. The angel has a role in reaching out to humanity. Each are working to build a narrative bridge over which those impacted by collective trauma and generational trauma can pass into the story of the present. The aforementioned individuals who felt “emotionally distant from everybody, as though [their] heart[s] were frozen and [they] were living behind a glass wall” might now have a better idea of the path they need to take to unfreeze the heart and come from behind said glass wall. (Or, as it was put in HBO’s Watchmen: “Wounds need air.”)

Neither narrator in either text can accomplish the project of building this bridge without the other, as is evidenced by the fact that The Rings Of Saturn all but ends amongst a reconstructed Temple of Jerusalem — an appeal to the judgement of eternity — and Wings Of Desire ends with the angel becoming human and falling in love.

There are a few complications that linger along our path: on one level, Sebald’s narrator doesn’t really ‘do’ much of anything. He walks around, has some associative thoughts, and eventually ends up in the hospital. The same judgement could be passed on the angel: he drifts, becomes human, and — for his troubles — ends up with a colorful coat.

But that reading ignores the role of what it means to be a witness.

“A witness is needed in order for the particular narrative to rise from the inundation of universal sound,” Xavier Vila and Alice Kuzniar wrote of ‘the library scene’ in Wings of Desire in the 1992 Spring issue of Film Criticism, and witnesses abound in both Wings of Desire and The Rings of Saturn. Roger Casement is witnessed on television. The gaze of the painter is witnessed in The Anatomy Lesson. The pathway of a Nazi who becomes the head of the United Nations is witnessed from one era to the next. The descendants of the colonialists — as well as what they took — are witnessed. In looking at a bridge crossing the river Blyth, the narrator also performs an act of witness concerning the growth of capitalism and empire in China.

It is this repeated act of witness that lends a shape of characterization to the seemingly unobserved, un-filled-in narrator. In observing this, we observe a man who is quiet, decent, and thoughtful. We observe a man who knows what it means to genuinely ‘live in the moment.’ We observe his silence in the same fashion that the narrator and housekeeper observe the silence of Major George Wyndham Le-Strange after the latter was one of the ones who liberated Belsen.

By contrast, the angels in Wings Of Desire observe things in an earthward direction, i.e., someone reading in a library — or someone dying as the result of a motorcycle accident and seeing their life flash before their eyes —

Albert Camus. The morning light. The child’s eyes. The swim in the waterfall. The spots of the first drops of rain. The sun. The bread and wine. Hopping. Easter. The veins of leaves. The blowing grass. The color of stones. The pebbles on the stream’s bed. The white tablecloth outdoors. The dream of the house in the house. The dear one asleep in the next room. The peaceful Sundays. The horizon. The light from the room in the garden. The night flight. Riding a bicycle with no hands. The beautiful stranger. My father. My mother. My wife. My child.

In each case, we see a deepening of the role of the angel of history as described by Benjamin in his essay. It isn’t just that the angel witnesses the wreckage; it’s that the angel has emotions about the wreckage it wants to share with us. It isn’t just that the storm propels the angel into the future; it’s that the angel has an opinion as to how that wreckage should have conducted itself. The angel of history isn’t about the truth or falsity of history; it’s about who is acknowledged and what it means to share care and concern for those initially lost to history.

The other complication to the arc of this argument is that solely ascribing an interest in the traumatized ‘lessens’ the work of either text — that it strips them of the necessary ineffable mysteriousness that makes art ‘art.’

If that were to hold true — if we were to push our concern with trauma to the side — it still wouldn’t get rid of the fact that there is an emotion we can ascribe to the wreckage of history as described in The Rings Of Saturn. You can’t look at the very end of the book — wherein Sebald notes the death of his father-in-law — and not feel an emotion — that, over the course of history, when a ‘lady of the upper classes’ suffered a grief — which the reader could reasonably read as barely concealed code for ‘a very important woman’ — this is how history would respond (ergo, how we could respond), with …

… heavy robes of black silk taffeta or black crêpe de chine … black Mantua silk of which the Norwich silk weavers … had created … to rape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field …

— but the text doesn’t just stop with the emotion. It begins to move and slides upward to note that these arrangements were done so that —

… the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.

In other words: amidst the wreckage of empire and silk, as you cross from a story about Queen Victoria to fictitious words falsely attributed to Thomas Browne, we realize that a bridge has been built for a dear one close to the narrator’s heart. In fact, all of this is done in the name of building a bridge: the angel bearing witness to the words of a dying motorcyclist in Wings of Desire; Peter Falk (as an ex-angel) bearing witness to an empty space on his way to get a cup of coffee; Sebald’s narrator bearing witness to an empty house or to fishermen on the beach who looked

… as if the last stragglers of some nomadic people had settled there, at the outermost limit of the earth, in expectation of the miracle longed for since time immemorial, the miracle which would justify all their erstwhile privations and wanderings.

The late David Foster Wallace once characterized true heroism as “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” The actions undertaken in Wings Of Desire and The Rings Of Saturn highlight just how much weight the words ‘probity’ and ‘care’ carry over the course of a story, as well as what it takes for someone to actually earn that epithet of praise.

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