The Natural History of Destruction

The title, and the concept, belong to W.G. (“Max”) Sebald, who died so tragically young. I suggested in my book A Shoe Story that a literal translation of Luftkrieg und Literatur [‘Airwar and Literature’] would have been more helpful and drawn more readers to what appeared in English as On The Natural History of Destruction.

But the point seems to have been not to advertise a book on the wartime aerial bombardment of Germany by the Allies, over which German literature had long been silent. Readers could turn to other authors for that. The aim was surely to keep the book within the compass of Sebald’s whole semi-fictional oeuvre on how we as human creatures deal with the ruins that are our material present. Our bodies and those of of our loved ones, all the thingly world about us, buildings, cities, churches, railways, everything we love and depend upon, is always crumbling away into the past, through human violence and nature’s self-combustion. The artist Anselm Kiefer has made extraordinary visual work out of German history viewed this way, and Sebald, who died in 2001, was in some sense his literary counterpart. But then Sebald’s remit also took in his self-chosen exile in England, and expressed the writer’s all-encompassing melancholy. It is the essence of his 1995 work The Rings of Saturn (English tr. 1998).

Heidegger was a forefather to both the painter and the writer. That’s what I want to say here. and to press the understanding of Heidegger that I’ve laid out in A Shoe Story. The maligned but hugely relevant German philosopher first properly explored what has been called the psycho-theology of our being material beings in material worlds. Given that we and our worlds pass, what spiritual consolation can we draw from our situation as post-Darwinian creatures? The Heidegger I quote repeatedly in A Shoe Story said

Individual objects get used up and worn out; and with that the practice of using them declines, loses it shine and becomes banal. Something that existed for a purpose now rots away; sinks back into being any old thing. When something that once existed for a purpose declines into purposelessness its reliability [on which we can base our lives] vanishes from sight. (A Shoe Story p.95 and fn 141. The translation is mine – LC)

Heidegger’s words, from The Origin of the Work of Art, 1936, already suggest the aesthetic consolation on which Sebald and Kiefer will build their artistic careers. The importance of the vision underlying these words can’t, in my view, be overstressed. As readers of my book and of the article I extracted from it will know, I crosscrossed Europe with them in mind to write the Shoe Story and to express my own feelings about the rapidity and mournfulness of change from which the forward thrust of capitalism (and the proliferation of heritage sites) do nothing to spare us. Each of us has to work out our own agenda here, with regard to our personal losses and the passing of time. For Sebald ‘natural history’ is nature’s Darwinian way, thriving here, reaching a dead end there, unpredictably and not according to any divine plan that would console us. Nature naturally destroys what it also builds, and we, creators as well as creatures, add to the destruction, as well as succumbing to it. Therefore natural history is also our history, and not one that is as easily redeemed by memory as popular neo-humanist thinking suggests.

Critical theory reads Heidegger, and Sebald, in conjunction with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the radical 1930s German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, and what it has extracted from that rich combination of poetry, theology, philosophy and radical political critique is a sense of the creaturely life. Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer has called it ‘the bare life’. I’ll talk about it here, against that background of our unrelenting material destruction, and the constant pressure of change on our bewildered natures. We as humans are not quite at home in nature, unlike animals, and not quite at home in the worlds we make for ourselves either. Rilke has the line in the first of his Duino Elegies: ‘that we are not reliably at home in our meaning-laden world’. This is my translation, again, not because I am a better poet than Stephen Mitchell, almost everyone’s preferred translator these days, but because Mitchell omits the term ‘verlaesslich’, ‘reliably’, on which Heidegger would posit his own solution to the problem (namely that the reliability was there, if we could only get past the intellectualizing that turns meaningfulness into a barrier to simply being here, on earth, in whatever is our immediate world.)

Human life as also (only) natural history is a view of the world that seems to evolve out of a certain tendency to melancholy, exacerbated, or one might say confirmed, by countless stories of individual fates, and of historical events, and shifts, all amounting to our repeated destruction, and the waste of the things we make to create the worlds we live in. I know it well myself, by disposition, and through my immersion in many stories of exile. I’ve published especially on Russian exiled lives (a history book, The Philosophy Steamer Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia, and, a novel, Anyone’s Game). Some German, and British, equivalents, I’ll be recounting in my next books, both as documentary and as fiction. My immediate subject will be Rilke.

Since the critic Eric Santner begins his version of this twentieth-century turn to psychotheology with Rilke, whose novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is on my agenda, let me flag up here what a marvellous book Santner’s On Creaturely Life (2006) is. Rarely have I come across a study that at any one time encapsulates and carries forward so many of my own preoccupations in writing, concerning exile, transience and the shape of whole lives, and I’m sure my preoccupations are not only mine. So what follows is at once a summary, a tribute and a cry of excitement.

He’s right to make clear that Heidegger actually defends the human as distinct from and superior to the animal. ‘As Heidegger sees it, Rilke’s “creaturely” understanding…blinds him to the true ontological distinction of human being.’ (p.6) Faintly the relationship between the poet and the philosopher from the next generation reminds me of that between two philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Nietzsche, also a poet, wrote that he wanted to move on from Schopenhauer’s melancholy at human destructiveness by establishing ‘a pessimism of strength’. In any case this tension between Rilke and Heidegger is hugely important, if we are to find positive ways of dealing with our humanity subject to the relentlessness of natural history. Those ways of course can’t be self-deluding.

An underlying theme of Santner’s book is how this insight might have some political issue. He seems to say early on (p.9) that Rilke’s extreme limitation in this regard was another source of criticism for Heidegger. Rilke’s poetry was not ‘an event in history’. I’m paraphrasing, but it wouldn’t be wrong to recall here how much of Hegel Heidegger has ingested over the years, despite his intense dislike of historical dialectic. In Heidegger it’s not the psycho-theological but the politico-theological that holds out some promise for a metaphysically orphaned humanity, a hope that is then destroyed by his own fateful linking of it to Nazism through his membership of the Party.

Sebald’s ambulatory, ‘semi-documentary prose fiction’ (p.xiii) is, I think, brilliantly illuminated against this background. Santner writes (p.140) that ‘what has been lost in Sebald’s universe is the regular synchronizing of individual and collective occasions of remembrance that define the liturgical time of the religious calendar.’ For Sebald, or, rather, in his work (for not all a writer’s strategies are conscious), ‘mobilizing the resources of remembrance’, ‘mobilizing…the possibility of suspending that dimension of our lives where we are delivered over to our creatureliness’, depends only on chance.

There is no theological consolation here, although Santner feels that ‘Sebald’s multiple portrayals of acts of testimony and transmission — in their very dependence on chance — leave us…rather more open to the possibility of an encounter and engagement with the creaturely dimension of our neighbour. This is then, not so much a substitution of memory-work for politics as it is the imaginative  construction of the kinds of sites where such encounters might take place.’

‘We must love one another or die,’ wrote W.H. Auden in 1939, as the war that would haunt Sebald’s life broke out.

‘Love of neighbour is, for Sebald, a kind of ongoing research project,’ concludes Santner.(p.141)

I’ve skimped here on the many ties interlacing the work of Sebald with that of Walter Benjamin, another writer haunted by the Nazi phenomenon and ultimately its victim. Perhaps it’s enough though to note with Santner (p.107) that Natural History is ‘understood both by Benjamin and by Sebald as the single most potent counter-argument to the bourgeois faith in progress’ and that the term creature, having lost its place in an idea of God’s creation, is now just as likely to reveal, about human beings, ‘abnormalities… deformities…grotesqueries…’

In a world where the privileged few gather in great global cities given over to freedom and pleasure, while the ‘creaturely’ poor look on from the margins, both within countries and across the globe, the political implications of what Rilke and Heidegger, Benjamin and Sebald wrestled with seem in fact quite stark.

Further, knowledge of this chapter in literary history might make lep us make better sense of where contemporary Western politics is headed. For it wasn’t only the bourgeoisie, beginning in the nineteenth century, that believed in a progress that, even as it expanded markets, helped relieve the plight of the poor. Progress was also the entire foundation of socialism (in the form of the welfare state, and of Marxism (as the triumph of the proletariat in controlling the economy in its own favour). Progress was a humanist faith, based on an idea that there could be economic circumstances beneficial to the humble creature in all of us.

The plight of the creature without economic shelter now underlies our concept of human rights. A certain level of economic and legal protection is the only norm we seem to have, and the level of care we extend to animals lies close by.

This then is what some German poets and philosophers were struggling to articulate, beginning a century ago, and reading them can make our present global dividedness seem very bleak.

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