Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Lost Time and the Heterotopic Image in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Lost Time and the Heterotopic Image in W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Article excerpt

W.G. Sebald's treatment of time, remembrance, and photography in Austerlitz recalls Marcel Proust's theory of involuntary memory and Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history yet lacks their redemptive thrust. This essay considers Austerlitz's divergence from the theories of Proust and Benjamin, and employs Michel Foucault's notion of heterotopia to elucidate the book's irreconcilably fragmented depiction of time.

The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.

--Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, since its publication in 2001, has spawned an impressive body of criticism. Certain aspects of the book's structure (narrative voice, interaction between text and photographic image) and major themes (memory, trauma, history) have proven irresistible to scholars from a variety of disciplines. Most critics who theorize the role of photography in Austerlitz tend to focus on the "mnemonic properties of photographs" (Griffin Wilson 50), often arguing that the protagonist, Austerlitz, is able to regain or at least come to terms with crucial elements of his forgotten childhood by engaging with photography. Sue Vice, for instance, states in "'Yellowing Snapshots': Photography and Memory in Holocaust Literature" that Austerlitz's "attitude to memory and the past in general" affirms "both can be retrieved" (301). Critics such as Jens Brockmeier and Richard Crownshaw have turned to Walter Benjamin's notion of Jetztzeit--translated as "time filled by the presence of the now" ("Theses" 261) or "'time of the now'" (263)--in order to explain the unconventional, nonlinear representation of time that is critical to Austerlitz's interaction with photography; Brockmeier argues that Sebald's narrative achieves "what Benjamin called the timeless now, the moment in which present experience, mental representations (Vorstellungen), and memories become indistinguishable" (361, emph. Brockmeier's), while Crownshaw claims that photography in the book is able to capture the messianic elements of time central to Benjaminian historiography (228), thereby allowing Austerlitz to "illuminat[e] his past photographically" (235). Whether or not they invoke Benjamin, critics have frequently seen in Austerlitz an at least partly redemptive collision of past and present in which forgotten experiences are suddenly illuminated through contact with photographs or other objects from the past.

While Austerlitz inarguably includes several moments of sudden remembrance or epiphany, it is also important to note--alongside critics such as Karin Bauer, Carolin Duttlinger, Samuel Pane, Alexandra Tischel, and Lynn L. Wolff--the many ways in which photography fails as a mnemonic tool in the narrative. Far from invariably generating a situation of Jetztzeit in which the past is awakened or remembered through the sudden emergence of what Benjamin calls a "dialectical image," Austerlitz's contact with objects from his past more often fails to assist him in recalling, understanding, or coming to terms with forgotten experiences. In this essay, I would like to suggest that Sebald deliberately establishes the expectation that the past can been redeemed by employing the Proustian (and, as Maya Barzilai has noted, Freudian) metaphor of the mind as a dark room replete with photographic images (memories) waiting to be developed; invoking this trope, however, only works to highlight Austerlitz's despairing inability to develop or definitively retrieve (that is, remember) these latent images. In addition to examining the ways in which Proust's and Benjamin's redemptive theories of memory and history are ultimately incompatible with the depiction of time in Austerlitz, I would like to propose a new conceptual lens through which to view the relationship between past and present in the text. …

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