There are baby horned owls nesting in an old oak tree at the end of the road. I tiptoed down to look at them early this morning, so fierce and fluffy. I wish I could post pics. That disapproving frown from a tiny puffed-up owl is enchantment as rebukes go.
In between proofreading a draft chapter I wrote last week — bristling with typos, alas –and marinading chicken drumsticks for grilling later, I have been rereading WG Sebald’s novel Austerlitz.
One of the great writer loves of my life is WG Sebald, best-known for The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. When I found his writing I woke up, although I had not known I was sleeping. In my adult life I had lived through a great social convulsion, the ending of apartheid and suddenly nobody spoke of the past. It had become fixed and frozen, unmentionable. Although racism had not gone away, the history of racial injustice could not be mentioned. We all wanted to forget, to move on, to pretend it had never happened. I had no way of understanding this shared forgetting or breaking the silence, until I read Austerlitz and woke up from the deep dreaming of complicity.
In 1965 Sebald was a German professor of literature who left his homeland and emigrated to the UK and grimy postwar Manchester. He did this because ‘in his view, the German university system was still dominated by a culture of silence and forgetfulness about the all-too-recent Nazi past’.
As a matter of fact there is an interesting parallel between the solving of a crime and the way in which memory works. You try to shed light on something in your mind. Somewhere, pieces of evidence must be lying around under the carpet or in the loft or in other hidden places that offer explanations for the course of your own life. That is why writing is also a forensic activity.
In English red-brick universities Sebald avoided teaching the great German or European writers such as Goethe, Thomas Mann or even Kafka, and instead introduced his puzzled students to outsider voices such as the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck and the Austrian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Jean Améry. In a controversial essay, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, he attacked the popular writer Alfred Andersch on moral grounds for divorcing his Jewish wife during the war. Sebald wrote about the German cities bombed by the Allies. He wrote about the silence and forgetting. Again and again in critical essays and novels, he looked at people’s ability to forget what they do not want to know. It is painful to live with memories. It is dangerous to live without them.
…certainly it is an almost biological fact that forgetting is what keeps us going…So naturally, there is a curious dialectic between forgetting and remembering, and they’re not just two opposed moral categories, one positive and the other negative, but they’re interlaced in an extremely complicated way and in a different fashion in each individual.
In recovery I have battled at times with memory — what to put aside, forget for the time being, or discard like useless debris. The painful uncertain memories of why I did what I did, what role alcoholism played in my life, the guilt-stricken terrors and humiliations, the self-inflicted chaos and the problem of memories that make no sense. Why was I sitting in that hotel room on the outskirts of the city on a windy afternoon with no money and what had made me so suicidal? Why did I decide to walk home from that party all alone and barefoot at 3am? And then there are the memories that won’t leave, the more haunting questions of ‘what if’ or persisting sensations of suppressed love. Many of us who are not in recovery live with this too, old griefs and questions, saying goodbye at an airport, packing up belongings in a house that has ceased to be a home.
Forgetting keeps us going. But I find so often that what I have forgotten I repeat or recreate for myself again and so I must recall what I would rather forget. And forgetting is loss, this too. The unremembered black-outs, the mysterious absence from the self, the disorder of the room hinting at what might have happened the night before. And that self that is now me, running from her past along with so many others in flight, not knowing the past would pursue us through the open door into a future of both possibility and regret.
“…the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power or memory is never heard, never described or passed on.”