The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in W.G. Sebald's Die Ausgewanderten

by Stefanie Harris
The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in W.G. Sebald's Die Ausgewanderten
Stefanie Harris
The German Quarterly
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HARRIS Northwestern University

The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in

W.G. Sebald'sDie Ausgewanderten

WG. Sebald's Die Ausgewanderten be- gins at the end, with a photograph of a cem- etery in the shadow of an enormous tree.' Encountering this image, the reader may initially assume that the photograph per- haps presents the location in which the nar- rative will unfold, and this assumption ap- pears to be reinforced when within the first ten lines of the work, the narrator refers to "einem Rasenfriedhof" (A 8)and its trees.2 However, one soon finds that the graveyard is only peripheral in furing the location of the narrator's eventual destination. No scene will be explicitly set in the graveyard, thus leaving us to wonder at its inclusion. As we continue to read, we may conclude retrospectively that the photograph had provisionally announced the subject mat- ter pursued thematically in the book- namely, the deaths of the four men whose biographies will follow, and more broadly those of all who perished in the Holocaust. The photograph would thus serve to pre- pare us for the text, to underscore perti- nent themes, and to illustrate abstract ideas. Examining the picture more closely, we note the visual details: the tombstones are askew and the grass is overgrown, pre- senting a scene of neglect, of a cemetery that has been forgotten. This quality of ne- glect certainly resonates throughout the pages of the text, for example in the de- scriptions of the run-down English estate in the first section or the accumulating de- bris and disintegration of the city of Man- chester found in the fourth section. Fur- ther, the photograph is later doubled in the

images of an overgrown Jewish cemetery that the narrator visits toward the end of the work (A 334-36). In a work that in- cludes so many photographic images- seventy-eight in the German edition-we must ask, however, do they merely serve to illustrate the narrati~e?~

Alternatively, is their function only that of introducing a mode of factuality into a narrative that might otherwise be read as fiction? Or is there something in the nature of photogra- phy, in the temporal and spatial frame of the photographic image, that presents a particular relationship to death and to mem- ory that exceeds the symbolic mode of the linguistic text in which the images are em- bedded? Sebald will include visual images not because they underscore the written narrative but because they present the reader with that which the text alone cannot.

In a recent interview, Sebald addresses the question concerning the difficult clas- sification of his books by saying: "Facts are troublesome. The idea is to make it seem factual, though some of it might be inven- ted" (Atlas 282).Here, Sebald seems to ac- knowledge the problematic position of aes- thetics in relationship to the representa- tion of the Holocaust introduced at least since Adorno. Seen in this light, one could conclude that Sebald employs photographs in his works not for their pictorialvalue but only their referential character-in other words, the photographs verify something in the world, or to borrow from Roland Barthes, they are the "certificate of pres- ence" for the thing that has been there

The German Quarterly 74.4 (Fall 2001) 379

result, the book is difficult to classify in terms of traditional genre, but is rather composed of heterogeneous elements, a hy- brid of non-fiction and fiction, fact and imagination, photographs and text, biogra- phy and autobiography. Indeed towards the beginning of the section on Paul Berey- ter, the narrator criticizes the potential for flights of fancy and the faculty of the imagi- nation in his reconstruction of the past:

Solche Versuche der Vergegenwktigung brachten mich jedoch, wie ich mir einge- stehen mul3te, dem Paul nicht naher, hijchstens augenblicksweise, in gewissen Ausuferungen des Gefiihls, wie sie mir unzuliissig erscheinen und zu deren Ver- meidung ich jetzt aufgeschrieben habe, was ich von Paul Bereyter weil3 und im Verlauf meiner Erkundungen iiber ihn in Erfahrung bringen konnte. (A 45)

In a sense, Sebald's entire work is a self- conscious examination of this problem of the narrator's "wrongful trespassn-how does one tell the story of the past, an- other's past, without lapsing into senti- mentality, or worse, distorting any com- prehension of the past alt~gether?~

(We note, for example, that at least one of the stories is explicitly written in reaction against an obituary which had ignored this same narrative demand). How does one, as the author regrets toward the end of the novel, adequately represent the subject of the narrative after having recognized "die Fragwiirdigkeit der Schriftstellerei iiber- haupt" (A 345)? These are, of course, not questions being raised for the first time in response to German literature that enga- ges a re-examination of the past and more specifically, German-Jewish relations be- fore, during, and after the Holocaust. How- ever, in Sebald's text we find a provocative strategy whereby the language of the nar- rative is complemented by and juxtaposed with photographs-photographs of cities, buildings, graveyards and people. What follows will not be an argument that Se- bald valorizes the photograph over lan- guage in the representation of the past, but rather he employs the two media in tandem precisely in order to address ques- tions of representability more generally.

In the growing critical literature on Se- bald, surprisingly little attention is given to a detailed examination of the photographs that are interwoven with the text. The pho- tographs are thus generally subordinated to a reading that addresses only its lin- guistic cues. In these otherwise thoughtful analyses, the photographs serve merely to "illustrate" the stories narrated linguisti- cally (Parry 418) or model the ambivalent status of fact and fiction in the texts (Schlank 225). Although Arthur Williams briefly foregrounds the photograph in his essay, it is only within the context of Se- bald's "post-modern aesthetics" (85). Here too,however, a discussion of the photographs inevitably serves to highlight Sebald's prose through which the meaninglessness of the photographs is ultimately "transcen- ded" (Williams 87). In other words, mean- ing would not only be possible but fully at- tainable in the prose alone. Sebald's com- plex work resists the inherent duality of this reading, however. We might instead borrow Andreas Huyssen's description of "twilight memories" to better formulate the stakes motivating the mutual play of the two media in Die Ausgewanderten:

The twilight of memory, then, is not just the result of a somehow natural generati- on of forgetting that could be counterac- ted through some form of a more reliable representation. Rather, it is given in the very structures of representation itself. The obsessions with memory in contem- porary culture must be read in terms of this double problematic. Twilight memo- ries are both: generational memories on the wane due to the passing of time and the continuing speed of technological mo- dernization, and memories that reflect the twilight status of memory itself. (3)

Sebald will explicitly address the struc- ture of representation, proposing an alter-


native to either image or text in isolation.

"So also kehren sie wieder, die Toten" (A 36). Thus concludes the first of the four stories of which DieAusgewan&rten is com- posed. Although we may read this statement in many different ways, that the dead re- turn to us by way of our memory of them and their continued presence in our emo- tional lives, or that they are made present to us again in our minds by our recounting of stories past, this statement is, not least of all, to be read quite literally. For here the statement refers to the cadaver of an old friend of the protagonist of the first story, a mountaineer who disappeared into an Al- pine crevasse at the outbreak of WWI, and whose body was "released" from the gla- cier some seventy-two years later, almost to the day: "die aerreste der Leiche [...I vom Oberaargletscher wieder zutage ge- bracht worden waren" (A 36). As this corpse, only provisionally buried, announ- ces, the dead are never put to rest, never re- deemed. The dead do not only return in the form of bones discharged by glaciers, how- ever, but also through photographs:

Einmal ums andere, vorwarts und riick-

warts durchblatterte ich dieses [FotoIAl-

bum an jenem Nachmittag und habe es

seither immer wieder von neuem durch-

blattert, weil es mir beim Betrachten der

darin enthaltenen Bilder tatsachlich

schien und nach wie vor scheint, als kehr-

ten die Toten zuriick oder als stiinden wir

im Begriff, einzugehen zu ihnen. (A


The narrator's insistence on this motif the return of the dead and our relationship to the dead, which can be read simulta- neously as the relationship to the past- informs the discussion that follows.

In Picture Theory, his study of the rela- tionship of words and images, WJ.T. Mitch- ell works to replace the binary construc- tion that typifies most theorizations of that

relationship with a dialectical picture, or what he calls "the figure of the 'imagetext"' (9). By focusing on what he calls "textual pictures" (109) and "pictorial texts" (2091, Mitchell provides an alternative to the tra- ditional view of a division of labor between images and texts which has generally in- volved a clear subordination of one medi- um to the other. Thus for example, in a text with illustrations or photographs the im- ages generally serve to illustrate, exempli- fy, clarify, ground, or otherwise document the text (the initial assumption perhaps of the reader of Sebald's work); and in a book of captioned pictures, the texts serve to ex- plain, narrate, describe, label, that is to speak for the otherwise illegible images. Mitchell turns his attention specifically to the relationship of language and photogra- phy in a detailed analysis of four examples of what he calls "photographic essays" (281). As opposed to a division of labor, the formal requirements for the "photographic essay" are predominantly marked by the interrelationship of the two media, thus neither is merely illustrative of the other but rather photographs and text areas James Agee already stated in the introduc- tory text to his own photographic essay, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (19391, pro- duced in collaboration with the photogra- pher Walker Evans- "coequal, mutually independent and fully collaborative" (qtd. in Mitchell 290). Mitchell's justification of this compound term, as opposed to, say, photographic narratives or, more broadly, photographic texts, is pertinent to how one might talk about the relationship of these two media in Sebald's text. For the photo- graph and the essay are linked by some common attributes, including their rela- tionship to a common referential reality, the emphasis on a private point of view and their necessary incompleteness. If Mitch- ell's primary question is: What is the rela- tion of photography and language? My question is, more specifically: How is this particular relation employed in the repre-

HARRIS: The Return of the Dead

sentation of memory, and particularly traumatic memory or a memory of loss? Through the juxtaposition of media, Se- bald's hybrid novel raises questions about the role of photography in the mediation of private and public mem~ry.~

However, be- yond this, the photographs suggest an al- ternative model of cultural memory itself.

My reflections of an author's use of pho- tography in a work that addresses trau- matic memory is made within the context of a tradition of photographic theory in which photography is explicitly linkedboth to a modern "loss of experience," as evi- denced by Walter Benjamin's comparison of the production of the photographic im- age, and more specifically its temporal structure, with the disruptive and trau- matic shock described by Freud (Benjamin, "Motive"), and to a reformulation of his- tory that involves the evacuation of tradi- tional conceptions of meaningfulness and coherence, as in Siegfried Kracauer's work. Kracauer's essay, "Die Photographie" (1927), for example, contrasts the photographic im- age and what he terms the "Gedachtnis- bild" on the order of their relationship to the referent and to time (Kracauer 25):

Die Photographie bewahrt nicht die transparenten Zuge eines Gegenstandes, sondern nimmt ihn von beliebigen Stand- orten als raumliches Kontinuum auf. Das letzte Gedachtnisbild uberdauert seiner Unvergerjlichkeit wegen die Zeit; die Pho- tographie, die es nicht meint und faRt, md3 wesentlich dem Zeitpunkt ihrer Ent- stehung zugeordnet sein.(28-29)

If, for Kracauer, the memory image main- tains its significance through its attach- ment to a transparent truth value--or what he will ultimately call a person's "Ge- schichte" or "Monogramm" (Kracauer 25- 26, Kracauer's italics)-the photograph in- terrupts this unifying force. As a result, this lack of temporal or spatial context on the part of the photograph leads to the "Vorlaufigkeit aller gegebenen Konfigura- tionen" (Kracauer 39). In this sense, the caption that Sebald's character Paul Be- reyter writes on the back of a photograph of himself, shirtless and in sunglasses, bask- ing in the light, would seem to pertain to all photographs: "zirka 2000 km Luftlinie weit entfernt-aber von wo?" (A 83). In Kracauer's descriptions, photographs are ghostly, "unerlost[el" images (32) in their presentation of a past which was at one time present:

Nun geistert das Bild wie die Schlorj- frau durch die Gegenwart. Nur an Orten, an denen eine schlimme Tat begangen wor- den ist, gehen Spukerscheinungen um. Die Photographie wird zum Gespenst, weil die Kostumpuppe gelebt hat. [...I Die schlimme Verbindung, die in der Photo- graphic andauert, erweckt den Schauder. (31-32)

Seemingly ripped from the clutches of death because of the manner in which time is immortalized in the photograph, "in Wirklichkeit ist sie ihrnpreisgegeben" (Kra- cauer 35).

This evocation of "Spukerscheinungen" and "schlimme Tat[enIv and the "Schau- der" they evoke is not only a response to a past that can no longer be retrieved but simultaneously the manner in which the photograph announces the immolation of the subject pict~red.~

To some extent, Se- bald evokes this shudder with all the im- ages reproduced in his book of those who will, whether tangentially or directly, be victims of the Holocaust. As Marianne Hirsch states in Family Frames-a rich and subtle investigation of the relationship of photography, memory and anamnesis- the power and silence of family photos of Holocaust victims is particularly acute in that nothing on the surface of the pictures themselves "reveals the complicated his- tory of loss and destruction to which they test@" (13). We note this, for example, in the shy smile of Bereyter's girlfriend Helen Hollaender (A 71) who along with her


mother was likely murdered at Theresien- stadt, or Aurach's parents murdered at Riga (A 325, 326). The traumatic effect of the photograph is not limited to a function of the specific image that it presents, how- ever, but is an essential component of its temporal structure.

The relationship of the photograph to death and mourning is echoed in both Andr6 Bazin's and Susan Sontag's compar- ison of the photograph to a death mask (Bazin 14; Sontag 154). But it is perhaps most explicitly pursued in Roland Barthes's meditation on the ontology of photography in his short book, Camera Lucida [La cham- bre claire, 19801. Through his reflections on photography, staged first through a general examination of the medium and then more particularly as an attempt to speak of his mother's death through a photograph of her, Barthes opens up the problems both of how to represent history and the peculiar relationship to death announced by the photograph. For as Barthes states (and Se- bald's narrator echoes), there is a "terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead" (Barthes 9). Barthes's initial question is: What essen- tial feature distinguishes photography from the community of images? To this he an- swers that because of its unique relation- ship to the referent, a photograph is the ab- solute Particular, the sovereign Contin- gency (and thereby, outside of meaning). Therefore, although one may examine a photograph, one cannot speak of the photo- graph, whereby his initial question con- cerning a general theory of photography appears to be invalidated. Two things emerge from this conception of photogra- phy: one, the manner in which the photo- graph serves to authenticate an existential singularity, or a non-repeatable event; and two, the manner in which this singularity, or absolute particularity, resists our abili- ties to talk about a photograph in an ab- stract way because each photograph bears a distinct and unique message. In other words, the essential feature of photogra- phy complicates the very possibility that writing, or language more generally, can address its specific referentiality. Further, the relationship to the referent suggests an inherent contrast between language and photography, in that language is fictional by nature due to its arbitrary relation to the referent, whereby a photograph does not invent but is "authentication itself" (Barthes 87). Thus there is always some- thing of the photograph that is in excess of narrative, something that elides the scru- tiny of the observer, for it is uncoded and therefore arrests interpretation or the abil- ity to name itBarthes's punctum. The punctum, offered by chance, is that which interrupts the gaze, breaks or punctuates the studium (general field of interest).

As distinct from memory or imagina- tion, the inimitable feature of photography is the that-has-been. However, as Barthes maintains, "by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surrepti- tiously induces belief that it is alive [...Ibut by shifting this reality to the past, the pho- tograph suggests that it is already dead" (79). In other words, the past is made pres- ent as in Kracauer's ghosts. An equiva- lence emerges between the absolute past of the photographic pose and death in the fu- ture. Photography's "certainty" results in an "arrest of interpretation" (107), there- fore one cannot "penetrate" the photo- graph (106), a quality of the photograph that Barthes refers to as "flat death" (92) and that, as Elissa Marder has shown, is a depiction of a death that can never be as- similated, transcended or put to work. Due to the peculiar status of the photograph with relation to its referent, the that-has- been attached to all photographs suggests an implicit trauma because of its irretriev- able "past-ness" and the mourning of that loss. However, a photograph does not merely cause us to mourn the loss of a past that can never again be recuperated but si- multaneously announces our own death,

HARRIS:The Return of the Dead 385

as Sebald's narrator also recognizes: "als stiinden wir im Begriff, einzugehen zu ih- nen" (A 69).

As Kaja Silverman suggests in The Threshold of the Visible World, this recog- nition, particularly as a function of the unintelligibility of thepunctum, may open up the possibility of an ethical relationship between the viewer and the photograph. The "prick" of Barthes's punctum results from the eye looking from a position that is not assigned or culturally validated in ad- vance, whereby "an otherwise insignifi- cant component of the screen comes into contact with one's own mnemic reserve" (Silverman 182). This is not to suggest, however, that one recuperates the photo- graph for one's own ends but rather pro- poses that through this contact we might "be given the psychic wherewithal to par- ticipate in the desires, struggles, and suf- fering of the other, and to do so in a way which redounds to his or her, rather than to our own, 'credit"' (Silverman 185). The photograph is thus neither captured by the viewer as voyeur, nor is it integrated into the story of our own cathartic redemption, but confronts us and touches us with the specificity of loss.

The graveyard in the first photograph of Sebald's work is not the only necropolis or city of the dead that we find pictured in these pages. Manchester, the setting of the fourth section, is described as a city of sin- gular desolation-isolated, empty, still, de- caying-and in this way, reifies the descrip- tive modifiers found throughout the book as a whole: deserted, overgrown, neglected, decaying, empty, rundown, a wasteland, hollow to the core, abandoned-"ein Gebiet von tausend Quadratkilometern iiber- ziehende, aus unziihligen Ziegeln erbaute und von Millionen von toten und leben- digen Seelen bewohnte Stadt" (A 221).Al

most one quarter of the photographs in the book are of the exteriors of buildings or their interiors, in which no living person appears. A large portion of these are mas- sive structures such as hotels, that are seemingly on the verge of collapse. Others are marked by broken windows or the over- grown vegetation obscuring their view. As such, they present us not only with an im- age of decay but also prompt us to ask: Where are all of the souls who once inhab- ited these structures? One is reminded, here, of the photographs of the early twen- tieth century French photographer, Eugene Atget, of whose images Benjamin once wrote: "Nicht umsonst hat man Aufnah- men von Atget mit denen eines Tatorts ver- glichen" ("Kleine Geschichte" 385). Although we might pursue the "criminal" el- ement to be traced in the photographic images that Sebald includes, more inter- esting in this context is Atget's self-pro- fessed motivation behind the selection of his images, namely to create a photogra- phic archive of precisely those elements of the old Paris that were disappearing under modernization. Indeed he was occasionally known to attach a note to his photographs stating: "will disappear" (Eugene Atget, Pantheon). As such, the photographs bear witness to a past that is about to be erased from the topography of the cityg

Sebald uses photographs not only for what can be shown but also to give evi- dence of that which can no longer be seen. In other words, they provide an image of a past that has been cleared away or covered up. Two examples which highlight this most strongly are found in the fourth sec- tion of the work. The first is an aerial view of the city of Manchester (A 232) on which can be seen the ordered grid of streets and row upon row of houses-that is except for the gaping blank space in the center of the image, the former Jewish quarter that had been a center for Manchester's large Jew- ish community during the inter-war years before those who lived there later moved to

the suburbs. In this vacated zone-another lacuna or "lagoon"-almost all traces of the former houses which had occupied this space are gone. Only the perpendicular streets framingopen space and a single row of empty houses remain, as if to give wit- ness to a past that has been swept away. This space that is left unfilled is perhaps less distressing to the narrator, however, than his experience upon visiting the town of Bad Kissingen, the home of Max Au- rach's mother during her adolescent years. Intending to visit the synagogue, he learns that it was destroyed during the devasta- tion of Kristallnacht and the rubble even- tually removed. In its place now stands an undistinguished municipal office building, a photograph of which is reproduced (A332). The photograph cannot, however, be consid- ered merely a photograph of this building but is simultaneously a photograph of the absence of the synagogue which can never again be photographed. In other words, it is a photograph of an irretrievable past and an irrecoverable loss, a photograph of a past consigned to oblivion. The narrator concludes this section, remarking:

[Ich] spurte doch in zunehmenden Malj, dalj die rings mich umgebende Geistes- verarmung und Erinnerungslosigkeit der Deutschen, das Geschick, mit dem man alles bereinigt hatte, mir Kopf und Ner- ven anzugreifen begann. (A 338)

This cleaning up must be understood as a loss of material specificity. Looming be- hind this statement, however, is the threat that the narrator's text itself would "clean up" the uncodable specificity of the event that the photograph, by contrast, continu- ally asserts.

Because of the high degree of struc- tural, narrative and visual repetition built into the four accounts, one could profitably engage a reading of any of the four, or, across all four of the sections. However, I will focus the remainder of what follows on the fourth section of Sebald's work, which

Fall 2001

details the narrator's encounter with Max Aurach. The Aurach account is perhaps the most illustrative in terms of questions of representation and representability in both image and text since these issues are explicitly addressed here, not only by way of a description of the painter's method, but also the narrator's own perceived fail- ure at portraying his subject adequately. Aurach, whose character is largely based on the painter Frank Auerbach, is a solitary artist whom the narrator befriends when he first moves to the city of Manchester as a young man. Through a series of meetings over two decades, Aurach's story emerges as a kind of reverse chronology of frag- ments: from his adult life in Manchester, to the story of his emigration from Germany as a child, his mother's memoirs before the birth of her son, and the narrator's own visits to the towns of his mother's youth. As a child, Aurach was sent away from Mu- nich by his parents to the care of anuncle in London, and is later orphaned, his parents victims of the Holocaust. Aurach's recogni- tion of their death is a belated one, how- ever, and in this belatedness takes on the structure of a trauma that is never satisfac- torily incorporated into his psychological life. Initially able to correspond with his parents from the English boarding school to which he is sent, he tells the narrator:

Als die immer muhseliger werdende Kor- respondenz im November 1941 abril3, war ich zunachst, auf eine mir selbst striiflich erscheinende Art, erleichtert. Dalj ich den Briefwechsel nie mehr wiirde aufnehmen konnen, das ist mir erst al1m;ihlich klar- geworden, ja, um die Wahrheit zu sagen, ich weil3 immer noch nicht, ob ich es ganz schon begriffen habe. Es erscheint mir je- doch heute, als sei mein Leben bis in seine aul3ersten Verzweigungen hinein bestimmt gewesen von der Verschleppung meiner Eltern nicht nur, sondern auch von der Verspatung und Verzogerung, mit der die zunachst unglaubhafte Todes- nachricht bei mir eintraf und in ihrer nicht zu fassenden Bedeutung nach und

HARRIS:The Return of the Dead


nach erst in mir aufgegangen ist. (A 285, my emphasis)

This description, particularly in terms of its relationship to temporality, is similar to the model of traumatic experience which Freud delineates in Jenseits des Lustprin- zips. Here, Freud defines trauma as a breach between mind and memory, where- in "das Bewuljtsein entstehe an Stelle der Erinnerungsspur" (25)- a phrase, we will recall, that Benjamin employed in his own discussion of the paradigmatic medium of modernity, namely photography ("Motive" 612f., 629f.).1° The traumatic experi- ence is that which overwhelms memory, that which can never be effectively and fully integrated or inscribed in memory. As such, trauma acts as an interruption of meaningfulness in that the event is never given psychic meaning through incorpora- tion into narrative memory. This, then, is the breach that arises because the trau- matic event is present in the mind as a present time of the present (that is, free floating or uncathected) without being present in memory as a present time of the past. Aurach's description of his own thoughts confirms this temporal problem:

die Zeit [...I ist ein unzuverlassiger Mdstab, ja, sie ist nichts als das Rumo- ren der Seele. Es gibt weder eine Vergan- genheit noch eine Zukunft. Jedenfalls nicht Fur mich. Die bruchstuckhaften Er- innerungsbilder, von denen ich heimge- sucht werde, haben den Charakter von Zwangsvorstellungen.(A 270)

However, as already suggested, this breach or rupture, or discontinuous tem- poral structure, is also consistent with the structure of the photograph. As John Ber- ger describes in his collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, "All photographs are of the past, yet in them an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike a lived past, it can never lead to the present. Ev- ery photograph presents us with two mes- sages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning a shock of discontinuity" (Berger and Mohr 86). Thus Berger asserts that the narra- tive time of a photograph is not identical to that of cinema, nor I would argue is it iden- tical to that of the linguistic text, because the narrative time of the photograph is not "anticipatory" or "moving inexorably for- ward," but is rather "discontin~ous'~ (Berger and Mohr 280). Tellingly, Aurach is not able to integrate this event into his life's narrative, not least of all because of a linguistic loss. "[Es] hhgt [...I mit dieser Einbulje oder Verschiittung der Sprache zusammen" (A 271)- having stopped speaking his mother tongue, the language is buried alive, much like the lost moun- taineer of the first narrative.

The photograph with which the book opens returns in slightly different guise in the midst of the Aurach section, when the narrator revisits the artist's studio after many years and finds him studying a re- production of Courbet's "Die Eiche des Vercingetorix" (A 268). We as readers can- not help but view the photograph not only as the reproduction of this nineteenth cen- tury masterpiece but also as a visual echo of the first photograph the text presents. As if through a kind of double-exposure, Courbet's oak is now growing out of this overgrown, country graveyard. And Au- rach seems to confirm this when he re- veals:

das Ungluck meines jugendlichen Novizi- ats hatte so tief Wurzel gefal3t in mir, dal3 es spater doch wieder aufschiefien, bose Bluten treiben und das giftige Blatter- dach uber mir aufwolben konnte, das mei- ne letzten Jahre so sehr uberschattet und verdunkelt hat (A 285-86)

-a statement that could have come from any of the subjects found in the book. These hauntings in his memories are pre- sented to us in the photographs found in the text, in his descriptions of his adoptive

city-the necropolis, Manchester-and in his own drawings.

The small room with its "seltsamen Lichtverhdtnisse"(A 236) in which Au- rach works is layered with the material re- mains of the artist's media-paint and charcoal-and decades of dust. His partic- ular method consists of sketchinglive mod- els rapidly and heavily with charcoal sticks, only to rub out the image with a rag and start again in subsequent sittings, until the canvas becomes worn through and has to be patched.

Entschlolj sich Aurach, nachdem er viel- leicht vierzig Varianten venvorfen bezie- hungsweise in das Papier zuriickgerieben und durch weitere Entwiirfe iiberdeckt hatte, das Bild, weniger in der aerzeu- gung, es fertiggestellt zu haben, als aus ei- nem Gefiihl der Ermattung, endlich aus der Hand zu geben, so hatte es fur den Be- trachter den Anschein, ds sei es hervor- gegangen aus einer langen Ahnenreihe mauer, eingeascherter, in dem zerschun-


denen Papier nach wie vor herumgeis-

ternder Gesichter. (A 23940)'~

Aurach's portraits as palimpsests would seem to present an extreme contrast with the instantaneous process of photography -but are perhaps more in keeping with the long exposure time of the daguerreo- type, and not least of all because of the sus- picion of occult practices that surrounded the early medium. In Robert Hughes's monograph of the artist Frank Auerbach, this sketching method is portrayed in forty photographs ofthe progression ofthe draw- ing (200-01). As opposed to time-lapse pho- tography which preserves discrete moments of continuous movement, this series of images presents the gradual capturing of the still model. The image thuspresents the fortuitous elements of its lengthy ex- posure. In his "Kleine Geschichte der Pho- tographie," Walter Benjamin described the effect of looking at a daguerreotype asfollows: Fall 2001

Aller Kunstfertigkeit des Photographen und aller Planmuigkeit in der Haltung seines Modells zum Trotz fuhlt der Be- schauer unwiderstehlich den Zwang, in solchem Bild das winzige Fiinkchen Zu- fall, Hier und Jetzt, zu suchen, mit dem die Wirklichkeit den Bildcharakter gleichsam durchgesengt hat, die unscheinbare Stelle zu finden, in welcher, im Sosein jener lkgstvergangenen Minute das Kunftige noch heut und so beredt nistet, da13 wir, riickblickend, es entdecken konnen. (371)

And so it is perhaps not surprising that Aurach is likened to the earliest photogra- phers when, sitting together in a cafe one day, the narrator notices that Aurach is covered with a metallic sheen as a result of the massive amounts of charcoal dust floating around his studio-and his being covered in dust reminds Aurach of a news- paper article he once read, describing a photographer's assistant, whose body after so many years in the trade had ab- sorbed enough of the silver compounds,

da13 er zu einer Art fotografischer Platte geworden war, was sich [...I daran zeigte, da13 das Gesicht und die Hande dieses La- boranten bei starkem Lichteinfall blau anliefen, sich also sozusagen entwickel- ten. (A 244)

The narrator's perceived failure at his ability to portray Aurach adequately in words takes on the characteristics of the visual artist's own method:

Dieser Skrupulantismus bezog sich so- wohl auf den Gegenstand meiner Erzah- lung, dem ich, wie ich es auch anstellte, nicht gerecht zu werden glaubte, als auch auf die Fragwiirdigkeit der Schriftstelle- rei uberhaupt. Hunderte von Seiten hatte ich bedeckt mit meinem Bleistift- und Ku- gelschreibergekritzel. Weitaus das meiste davon war durchgestrichen, verworfen oder bis zu Unleserlichkeit mit Zusatzen uberschmiert. Selbst das, was ich schlielj- lich fur die "endgiiltige" Fassung retten konnte, erschien mir als ein miljratenes Stuckwerk. (A 344-45)

They present a loss that cannot be tran- scended and thus put to rest, will not stay buried, but will remain a haunting that gazes relentlessly into the future, that re- turns again and again, that can not be cleaned up or swept away. A past that must be passed on or else be consigned to obliv- ion, but that is threatened in the very act of its communication. In their own collabora- tive work in image and text, John Berger and Jean Mohr suggest that the two media function as supplements:

The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of genera- lisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photographs. To- gether the two them become very power- ful; anopen question appears to have been fully answered. (Berger and Mohr 92)

That the question would be fully answered is, I think, an impossible claim, but that provisional answers must be attempted is, as Sebald demonstrates, a necessity, lest the past become forever consigned to the lagoons of oblivion.


I am grateful to the participants of the MLA

2000 panel on "Sites of Memory," especially

Susanne Baackmann, for their helpful com-

ments on an earlier version of this work.

Page numbers referring to the photographs

from Sebald's text described in the essay are

cited parenthetically (A) throughout.

There are only 76 photographs reproduced

in the English translation, The Emigrants


The combination of photograph and text is

a component of all of Sebald's prose fiction, in-

cludingschwindel, Gefuhle; Die Ringe des Sat-

urn and his most recent Austerlitz, as well as

non-fiction works such as the publication of his

Ziirich lectures, Luftkrieg und Literatur.

"In the English translation, Max Aurach is

Max Ferber.

Fall 2001

'jIn his lecture celebrating "The Centenary of Photography," Paul Valery also refers to the distinction between photography and litera- ture, and more specifically, a split that has cer- tain consequences for a conception of history:

Since History can apprehend only sensi- ble things, being based on verbal testimo- ny relayed through words, everything on which it grounds its affirmations can be broken down into things witnessed, into moments that were caught in "quick ta- kes" or could have been caught had a ca- meraman, some star news photographer been on hand. All the rest is literature. All that is left consists of those components of the narrative or of the thesis that origi- nate in the mind and are consequently imaginary, mere constructions, interpre- tations, bodiless things by nature invisi- ble to the photographic eye, inaudible to the photographic ear so that they could not have been observed and transmitted intact. (Valery 196; Valery's italics).

As I will argue, Sebald's work will inten- tionally complicate this dichotomous transmis- sion of the past, suggesting that history and lit- erature more thoroughly permeate each other than the account from Valery would suggest.

See also, Hirsch and Silverman for a formu- lation of this relationship through different contexts.

RAsPierre Bourdieu similarly notes in his analysis of amateur photography: "[Plhotogra- phy [...I is a matter of capturing the ephemeral and the accidental, as it cannot save the fleet- ing view from complete disappearance without constituting it as such" (191, n.8).

gSee especially, the two letters Atget wrote to Paul Leon, Directeur des Beaux-Arts, in No- vember 1920, in which Atget urges Leon to pur- chase the photographic collection for its archi- val value (Eugene Atget, Aperture 7). For if the photos themselves are not preserved, the indi- vidual geographical sites of Paris will not only have been lost from the physical map of the city but also its public memory. In other words, these corners of Paris will be consigned to ob- livion.

l0For an investigation of Benjamin's recourse to the language of photography in his analysis of Modernity, see especially, Cadava.

"As both reviewers and critics of Sebald's

HARRIS: The Return of the Dead

text have noted, the Aurach character is sub- stantially based on the British artist, FrankAu- erbach. In the German edition of the work, one of Auerbach's charcoal drawings, "Head of Catherine Lampert VI" (19801, is even repro- duced (A240; Hughes 186). Further, the simi- larity between the passages describing Aurach's studio and method are strikingly sim- ilar to the descriptions the art critic Robert Hughes provides in his monograph on Auer- bach. Indeed the degree of textual borrowing here suggests that Sebald collects not only pho- tographs for use in his novels, but also textual fragments.

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