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.