Book #50–“On the Natural History of Destruction” by W.G. Sebald

My “100 Book Challenge” progresses.

Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.

Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).

The latter left me especially shaken.

What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?

Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.

Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.

In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.

Sometimes only a scream will suffice.

We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.



  1. mikecane

    And it continues to this day, with economic horror: fraudulent mortgages leading to families ripped out of their homes, losing their shelter, their center, their security, their sense of what is up or down. Some things just can never be explained, they have to be experienced. And when they are, the usual reaction is: “Why doesn’t somebody DO something?” This is not to equate one thing with another, but trauma is trauma. That’s too easy to forget to begin with.

  2. kendi

    Recently read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankle (phychiatrist and survivor of Auswitz and Dachau…..humbling. interstingly enough he does not dwell the horrors though there are many but on the human response to them..both positive, courageous and despairing, cowardly (if one can use that word here) the capos who became more brutal that the guards, the paring away of all veneer till you only wish to survive and under it all hope, humanity, love,..
    Saw an interivew of Maziar Bahari on the Daily Show whose book “And Then They Came for Me” is about his imprisonment and torture and survival in 2009. (His father was tortured und the Shah And his sister under Khomeini.. can not recommend it as I have not read it yet.. but very thought provoking.
    Words probably are not enough, most of us cannot fully imagine ..what these things are like except from our own experience..and yet what else do we have?

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