Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Trauma Obscura: Photographic Media in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Trauma Obscura: Photographic Media in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Article excerpt

Informed by Cathy Caruth's discussion of trauma theory, Peter Brooks's notion of narrative desire, and Roland Barthes's investigations into photographic viewing, this essay examines photography in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz as a locus of trauma rather than as a transparent device of historical testimony.


Anglophone critics of the late expatriate German writer W.G. Sebald have puzzled over and continue to deliberate the status and function of photography in his translated "novels." Initially, critical response to this material focused on its tendency to destabilize genre (Pyrah 3-4). Baffled readers expressed reluctance to classify Sebald's texts within the aegis of the novel (see Eder; Kakutani; Wood). James Wood writes that "even the sad photographs, the most elegiac ones, have a kind of cheekiness, an amusing impertinence, as they sit there in their careful novelty on the page, quietly ensuring that Sebald's work can belong to no known literary genre." His last "novel," Austerlitz, like the three that came before it (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn), also resists such neat categorization. Sebald's writing seems to occupy an undefined (indefinable) space vis-a-vis travel writing, history, fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography.

Indeed, any reductive synopsis of the thematic content of Austerlitz would inadequately convey the nuances of Sebald's narrative project, but for the sake of orientating this critical exposition I will offer a brief abstract. Over a period of several years, Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian, travels from London to continental Europe ostensibly to conduct research for an academic project. During many of these expeditions he meets an unnamed narrator with whom he engages in an extended dialogue that plumbs his fractured history and reveals his identity as a Holocaust survivor evacuated from Prague at an early age.

Complicating this intricate and digressive account are captionless photographic images of indeterminate provenance which, as Eric Homberger argues, engender a "suspicion that they were something more (or less) than an illustration of the story" (2). As such, they paradoxically reinforce and undermine the credibility of the accounts offered and recorded by Sebaldian characters (Homberger 2; Falconer 4; Franklin 3; Lewis 3; Lockwood 3). This ambiguity regarding the illustrative and documentary capacities of photographic documents has provoked recent critics to explore the provisionality of these images and their radical resonances. Sebaldian photographs disturb. They manifest the disparity between the catastrophic events of history and the ability of human memory and archival technology to accurately recall them. This essay proposes to examine photography in Austerlitz as a locus of trauma rather than as a transparent device of historical testimony.

In the introductory section of her seminal work, On Photography, Susan Sontag describes one fundamental application of the photograph: "photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photo of it" (5). The power of the photograph's claim to truth rests on the technology of its production. She writes: "a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)--a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be" (Sontag 154). John Berger echoes this observation in his book, About Looking: "photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened" (57). Both Sontag's and Berger's view that photography "stencils" a particular moment in the past follows Barthian logic (Sontag 154). In Camera Lucida, Barthes explains that "the photograph is literally an emanation of the referent." As an emanation, the photographic object therefore retains a tangible "trace" of the photographic subject. Thus, in his estimation, the photographic record of the past is unique amongst those of all other media because it is founded on a chemical process that makes it "possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object" (80). …

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