Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ethics of the Melancholic Witness: Janet Frame and W.G. Sebald

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ethics of the Melancholic Witness: Janet Frame and W.G. Sebald

Article excerpt

The vast communication networks that provide the global community with immediate access to traumatic events as they unfold in remote regions has created a phenomenon that is unique to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; namely, a plethora of witnesses to any one local catastrophe, natural disaster, or attack. In the safety of familiar surroundings, members of the global community determine the nature of their engagement with traumatic events, retaining the option of turning off their electronic devices once they have seen enough. In the context of this interconnected global community, how can the witness respond ethically to another person's trauma? In this essay, I examine how two twentieth-century writers, Janet Frame and W.G. Sebald, represent the ethical responsibilities of the witness. Both writers approach their examination of the witness' responsibilities from a specific historical context. In The Carpathians, Janet Frame's exploration of her protagonist's duty to respond ethically to a fantastical astrological disaster is implicitly framed by the wider historical context of colonization. In Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald's examination of the witness' responsibilities is informed by the traumatic events of World War II. For Sebald and Frame, a witness' ethical response to a traumatic past is produced by the witness' experience of melancholia. While it may appear somewhat surprising, and even irresponsible, to present the witness' melancholia as an ethical response to another's trauma--in particular, given the risk that such a formulation poses of prioritizing the witness' trauma at the expense of the victims'--both writers represent melancholia as a condition that constitutes the witness' traumatized subjectivity as first and foremost an ethical response to other people.

Both writers' works have attracted critical readings that use a biographical approach in order to unlock the significance of the melancholic resonances of their novels. In the case of Janet Frame, her own troubled life as a patient in a psychiatric hospital in New Zealand during the 1940s and 1950s--where she was treated with electroconvulsive therapy and was even scheduled for a lobotomy--has spawned an "approach of biographical speculation toward Frame's work," which renders the melancholic quality of Frame's fiction as a reflection of the writer's private turmoil (Gordon 5). In the case of Sebald, his unusual prose style, which interweaves the conventions of multiple genres, including autobiography, has attracted interpretations of his works that are filtered through a biographical lens. Thus, for Peter Morgan, Sebald's eerie prose constitutes the melancholic response of its author, an "exemplary West German, for whose existence Auschwitz is the central defining event" (92). In this essay, I examine a single novel from each author's oeuvre. Both novels contain fewer overt references to their authors' lives than Frame and Sebald's previous works, which opens a space to consider the connection that Frame and Sebald posit between the condition of melancholia and the responsibilities of the witness.

It is important to signal from the outset that Frame and Sebald's protagonists do not fulfil the conventional role of a witness: their protagonists either refuse to recount the traumatic event or lack "firsthand" knowledge of a trauma that they did not directly witness. Both writers thus emphasize that it is not so much what their protagonists see or comprehend that leads to them being witness; rather, their protagonists' responsibility to bear witness originates in a subjectivity that is called into question. In both writers' works, such a subjectivity emerges from melancholia. Representing their melancholic protagonists' affected bodies as witness to a time that unravels beyond the ego's contemplation, Frame and Sebald present melancholia as the witness' ethical response to other people, whereby the melancholic's response rests in being constituted by and host to the needs of past and future generations. …

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