Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Emigrant as Witness: W.G. Sebald's Die Ausgewanderten

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Emigrant as Witness: W.G. Sebald's Die Ausgewanderten

Article excerpt

W.G. Sebald's texts combine words and images, fact and fiction, documentary gesture and first-person narration in ways that have led critics to proclaim them a new literary genre that is well suited to the representation of historical violence.1 Die Ausgewanderten has been hailed as a book that balances the claims of memory with the injunction against Holocaust representation, and the desire to understand the victims with the necessity to avoid a facile identification with them. Ernestine Schlant praises Die Ausgewanderten for transforming the silence of avoidance characteristic of so much postwar German literature into a silence of tormented victims. Ann Parry argues that the book manages to "break through the unrepresentability of the Shoah and provide a continuing testimony to its unsayability" (427). And finally, Stefanie Harris shows that the photographs in the text preserve in their punctum (Roland Barthes) a singularity of experience that resists verbalization. In this essay, I develop these readings further by analyzing a literary motif that both embodies and structures Sebald's circumspect approach to history and memory: emigration. More precisely, I explore the analogies between Sebald's literary commemoration of German Jewish emigrants and the use of the emigrant as a privileged figure of witness in contemporary trauma theory, especially in the work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

The significance of spatial movement in Sebald has not gone unnoticed. Susan Sontag writes that "journeys of one kind or another are at the heart of all Sebald's narratives: the narrator's own peregrinations, and the lives, all in some way displaced, that the narrator evokes" (43). This observation about the omnipresence and multivalence of displacement holds true for all of Sebald's literary works, but is particularly salient m Die Ausgewanderten. Indeed, the book begins with the depiction of a journey whose exact purpose remains vague, despite the precise markers of time, place, and motivation in the description: "Ende September 1970, kurz vor Antritt meiner Stellung in der ostenglischen Stadt Norwich, fuhr ich mit Clara auf Wohnungssuche nach Hingham hinaus" (7). Here the narrator mentions facts about his life and his current trip as if they were well known to his readers, yet they are not: what kind of job is he about to begin, why in this city, and who is Clara? The reader is never provided the answers and, in fact, does not need to know them because they turn out to be irrelevant to the rest of the story. By beginning with this vague scene of departure, the book establishes displacement as both the subject and the condition of writing. The effects of this strategy can perhaps be best seen in "Max Aurach," the richest and most complex story of Die Ausgewanderten, which reconstructs the life of a Jewish painter who emigrated, still a teenager, from Germany to England in 1939. As I will argue, the text can be read as a series of impossible returns and missed encounters. First, Aurach is unable to read the memoir in which his mother recollects the life of assimilated German Jews at the turn of the century. Then, the narrator's visit to Germany fails to provide the desired confirmation of the life of Aurach's family. Finally, the narrator's story never reaches the person whom it was meant to reach, Max Aurach. Yet if the speakers and addressees described within the text can never quite connect with each other, their "missed encounters" establish the possibility of literary testimony, like contemporary theorists of trauma, Sebald suggests that the possibility of textual transmission emerges from the impossibility of knowledge and dialogue.

The interest in testimony as a literary genre in recent years has altered the debate about the "unsayability" or the "unrepresentability" of the Holocaust. Originally concerned with the question of how human language could ever furnish words for this unique act of mass destruction, the debate has shifted toward the insight that the Holocaust has disrupted not so much the referential function of language but its ability to address. …

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