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Green Thoughts: Landscape, Environment, and Literature

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The concept of a landscape, early on in its inception and use in nature writing, has been heavily scrutinized by critics for its subsumption of the authorial view in making available to the reader, not essentially an objective landscape, but a cultural set of attitudes and a worldview through which to look at natural phenomena with. Landscape writing, as some critics thus denote it, has since come to denote not only a certain kind of descriptive writing rooted in, and finding its progenitors in, the very modern trope of writing as a flaneur- it now encompasses an expansive set of writings that are often cognizant of the anthropological presence in describing nature. Thus, the description of a landscape can never be apolitical; the landscape is inevitably a construct, a carefully assembled conglomeration of natural entities embedded within a human-made way of observing these entities. It becomes unimaginable, therefore, to assess when exactly landscape becomes accessible solely as a cultural means of understanding the world, and when it remains a facet of nature writing- limited, at least apparently, in its approach to examine the surrounding as anything but an assimilation of observations. Nonetheless, the very idea of the landscape remains a necessarily potent one, questioning as it does the various approaches that humans adopt to comprehend natural phenomena.

Importantly, one of the major ways to make sense of literary landscapes is to account for it as selection of described experiences: that landscape is rarely presented to the reader at the moment it is first perceived by the author ensures some amount of mediation, alteration, modification, and additional cultural and historical attributes that make it more a lived experience, remembered retrospectively, than an imaginative description. Landscape, then, assumes the role of a mediator: it becomes the means through which the reader accesses the ‘other’- if one is to consider what Raymond Williams (1921-1988) assumes landscape to signify. If, as William notes, “The very idea of landscape implies observation and separation” (120), then the act of reading a landscape becomes the act of re-living an experience- not one that occurs at the moment of first encountering the landscape, but one that is purposively structured and elaborately worded, perhaps even re-visited, refashioned and re-imagined at the behest of an author located in cultural and historical specificities.

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If literary landscapes are surmised on the experiences of the author, a reading of it may deem necessary to question what such a literary-geographical discourse eclipses, what it re-presents, what it systemically estranges the reader from as it proceeds to establish an authorial presence in, for example, the countryside. Such a reading perhaps accentuates the tension between the internal and the external landscape, between what is said and what, in classic Derridean fashion, is omitted and warrants further study.

The object of this essay is to analyze how landscape and space assume the character of an entity with its own agency- how space, place, and the landscape as imagined in Sebald’s works interact to elicit the private fears of not only their narrator but also the reader that embarks on the intertextual journey that Sebald conceives. For this purpose, W.G. Sebald’s (1944-2001)treatment of landscape and space in Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz are of significant importance and contribute as the primary sources for this study to enhance an understanding of literary landscapes and space in relation to memory, and to examine contemporary ones in relation to their modern ancestry.

Akin to the flaneurs he often appoints as the protagonists in his works, Sebald himself appears to be a transient figure, always traveling between spatial and temporal coordinates, between reality and the imagined, between cultures, borders, and languages. Despite being unvaryingly experimental with his narrative form and genres, Sebald’s works manage to strike a consistency that allows for their recognition as signature works of the German writer. Part of this stylistic consistency in Sebald’s works can be attributed to the accompaniment of his prose by images, illustrations, maps, and drawings. Inserted dexterously at places in the text, these accessories to the prose serve to further distort the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality, and the narrator’s imagination- all of which form part of Sebald’s creative preoccupation with his works. There are, however, certain repetitive themes and motifs that owe their place to Sebald’s interest in depicting mutually coexisting, yet antithetical ideas- death and living, the past and the present, presence and absence, fecundity and decay. And whilst the anxious relationship between these ideas and the narrator’s own uncertainties often assumes foreground in his texts, being further deranged by the reader’s assumptions about the direction that the prose launches into, one of the most fascinating aspects of Sebald’s spatial setting is his treatment of landscape. Of particular importance to many cultural geographers, the ever-changing landscape becomes as much of interest to the reader as to a critic, for it in these landscapes that Sebald masterfully embeds his many diversions and digressions, taking his reader on a literary journey, often into an immensely traumatic past.

Critics have often begun their examination of the landscape as it appears in Sebald’s prose by locating landscape as a cultural phenomenon of the imagination, asking whether the descriptions of landscape in his works demonstrate reality or a figment of the imagination. For John Wylie, then, landscape in Sebald’s prose serves to indicate the tension between what is observed, versus what one is surrounded by, bringing into focus the two tangential denotations of landscape within this genre of writing- that of landscape as depicting a real physical surrounding, as opposed to that of landscape representing what another has witnessed and observed to be.

Another interesting approach to the question of real-unreal in Sebald’s works has been presented by Daniel Weston, who likens the concept of landscape to the Derridean concept of supplement. For Weston, what represented landscape affords to its actual physical counterpart is similar to what, for Derrida, the relationship between speech and writing signified. For Derrida, then, responding to Rousseau’s attack on language, the word supplement comes to designate an essentially ambivalent concept: the coexistence (of two tangential opposites) which is as necessary as it is questionable. To quote Derrida,

If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence. Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes- (the)-place [tient-lieu]. As a substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of presence, it produces no relief, its place in the structure is assigned by the mark of an emptiness. Somewhere, something can be filled up of itself, can accomplish itself, only by allowing itself to be filled through sign or proxy. The sign is always the supplement of the thing itself. (24)

If one is to agree that Sebald’s landscapes function as a supplement, the question of what the landscape eclipses, what void or absence it attempts to occlude whilst simultaneously acting also as a sign, becomes imminent. Perhaps, as Neal Alexander proposes, it is the immediacy of the presence that the Sebaldian landscape occludes: by attaching significantly weighty meaning to the landscape, harking back to incidents in history, disordering the sense of time that prevailed thus far in the narrative, and offering alternate perspectives on what the landscape was meant to conventionally signify, the landscape occludes the significance of its character in the present, and thus stands as a proxy for repressions buried in the past, which may perhaps have no other way of resurfacing in the present moment in the text.

In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald exemplifies this conception of landscape as a supplement by accentuating the narrator’s melancholy and loneliness, and setting the tone of a despairing narrative rooted in mental illness. Thus in the opening pages of the text, the narrator situates himself not only in spatially on the coast of Suffolk, but more prominently, on the path of a disarrayed trauma narrative that signals the disturbances in temporal linearity that the narrative is set to undergo.

The oncoming slaught of digressions, seasoned with intensely historical micro-narratives, seems ironically to intensify the narrator’s depression, from which he is attempting an escape in the first place. The coast of Suffolk then becomes a site for releasing a shared trauma narrative- arguably, this narrative assumes center stage over the descriptions of the countryside. Interestingly, it is always the narrator’s morbidity that allows for the resurfacing of distressing narratives; the opening lines of the text situate him inescapably, not in a hospital ward, but in a kind of ward in his mind, one that imprisons him to his memory and forces an often tormenting recollection to be revived along his journey.

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast…I became overwhelmed by the feeling that Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot. Indeed, all that could be seen of the world from my bed was the colorless patch of sky framed in the window. (5)

The narrator’s breakdown then precipitates his story- his pain becomes a prerequisite for his walks, leading one to question how much the landscape contributed, in real terms, to his trauma narrative. His perception of the sky as a ‘colourless patch’ visible to him through his hospital window also warrants further questioning- the likelihood of the sky being devoid of color is slim at the perception of one in a state of deep depression. Akin to reading any narrative by one with a disordered perception, this confession warrants a more critical reading of his descriptions of the landscape he encounters later in the text. This proposition of landscape as being fluid and mobile almost immediately strikes one as provocative in its innate displacement of the certitude that one often places in the concept of places. From memories of one’s childhood, the emphasis on places remaining, at least in one’s memory, constant and stable, plays an important role in situating places in relation to one’s own lived experiences.

The chief characteristics of the coast of Suffolk being its low density of population and its flatness allows the narrator to project his despondent temperament on to the landscape. This renders the landscape highly mobile, insofar as it refracts, whilst also intermittently absorbing, the vicissitudes of his temperament- the landscape thus assumes its own character as an external force that interacts with the narrator’s account and adapts to the narrative. However, this isn’t to propose that the narrator foolishly allows for the eclipsing of what the real landscape presents to him- the narrative is still replete with imagery from the East Anglian coast that is seemingly preoccupied with the physical dimensions and attributes of what he is confronted by. Instead, his descriptions of the coast are supplemented with examples of human doing within the realm of these naturally existing phenomena. For example, he writes

(The) catastrophic incursions of the sea into the land of this kind happened time and again, and, even during the long years of apparent calm, coastal erosion continued to take its natural course. Little by little the people of Dunwich accepted the inevitability of the process. They abandoned their hopeless struggle, turned their backs on the sea, and, whenever their dwindling means allowed it, built to the westward in a protracted flight that went on for generations. (58)

Here, Sebald achieves a twofold effect- he suffuses the natural erosion of rocks with the human tendencies to refract away from such natural phenomena at the time they occurred; his focus is thus reoriented not merely towards the occurring of natural processes, but, in a way highly characteristic of thanatouristic writing, on the psychological effects of those processes in present time.

In a curious way, as suggested by Weston, the complex relationship between natural life and human life is presented as a supplement- the decline of one almost always signaling the death of the other. This pattern continues throughout the text: upon reaching Orfordness, the narrator gives a brief account of the physical landscape, before he delves into the effects that these long-drawn natural processes had on the people closest to their occurrence. Thus, he observes how the fishermen close to the coast couldn’t bear the ‘loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere, and in some cases even became emotionally disturbed for some time’ (62).

Sebald’s attention to the repercussions of natural processes in human history reveal his anthropocentric preoccupation with historical narratives. That the narratives of human history nearly always seem to penetrate those of natural phenomena signify a human-centric approach to comprehending decline and decay, a theme that permeates the narrative, insofar as it almost always foreshadows the narrator’s description of the decline of human civilization.

However, it is not consistently that the narrator seems inspired by the overbearing presence of the landscape to delve into tangential narratives. There is also the absence of memory and an erasure of the past that, at certain points in the narrative, become unsettling to comprehend. A prime example of this is perhaps how the narrator dwells on the absence of written records whilst remembering certain events of the Second World War. Not only does he emphasize how the lack of written evidence affects one’s perception of the War, but he seems also to relate the barrenness of the landscape to traumas that have been collectively forgotten. Much like an unforeseeable erasure of natural pastures, such an erasure in textual and human memory presents itself as a void that cannot be accessed- Sebald, through the infamous narrator, is signaling the destruction of human memory concomitantly with that of the abandoned landscape.

The ambulatory narrator in The Rings of Saturn is thus a voyager, blurring for his reader the edges between the past and present while indicating deep-rooted skepticism for the future. His wanderings are typical of Sebaldian prose, complete with unscheduled, unplanned departures and the lack of preconceived routes of travel. The horizons of the landscape are thus dissolved, as the narrative plunges into radically disparate spatiotemporal dimensions, concerned more with the totality of human civilization than with the representations and significance of the landscape.

If one is to further account for the revelatory prefix, then the circularity of time as demonstrated in the text may perhaps seem to displace, if only slightly, the Western Cartesian notion of time and linearity.

“The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood, these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect (Roché-limit)” (4)

If the only limits to Sebald’s prose were the function of specific genres, The Rings of Saturn systemically displaces the notion that the narrative is concerned with a particular kind of travel writing. If the limitations of landscape and surroundings were a force for the narrator to reckon with, he advances his account of human vulnerability and the decline of human civilization with almost flippant disregard for the conception of landscape as merely a natural entity.

In tandem with his earlier works, both Austerlitz and The Emigrants deal with the concept of departures and travel along a register similar to that of Sebald’s own life. Critics such as Christopher Guider have noted that the origins of this traveler-narrator-storyteller can perhaps be traced back to Sebald’s own memories about his childhood, in particular, his vague, somewhat hazy references to the Alps of his childhood. Commenting on his tendency to reveal a sense of longing for his childhood, she notes that he chooses to write in German, despite having moved base to England for years hence. His reminiscing at the past, along with the longing expressed at intervals in the narrative, all become characteristic of Sebald’s narrator. Expressing a steady historicist nostalgia for the past, and musing on the destructive future seems to be one way of coming to terms with his new reality- needless to indicate, this memory narrative forms a significant strain in his works, and can be found recurring in nearly all his travel writings.

Austerlitz begins with the description of a journey made from England to Belgium, where the narrator meets the protagonist, Austerlitz, now a lecturer in England, but originally a Jew living in Germany. Having escaped the horrors of the Holocaust, Austerlitz was raised by people in England- people he didn’t consider to be his home. Thus begins his prolonged search for his identity and the meaning that he wishes to attach to it- concomitant with a search for his real home, his place in the world. That the narrator first meets Austerlitz at a train station is heavily symbolic- not only of Austerlitz’s but of a collective trauma that his memory carries- since the train journey for many during and after the War was hugely disastrous, if not always traumatic. The train station then becomes a symbol for yearning, perhaps even so for a collective European consciousness ravaged by the War, for a longing to arrive at a fresh start, a new destination that can be home. For Austerlitz, it may symbolize emotional stability and the prospect to discover his identity. The train station also becomes symbolic, then, of Austerlitz’s voyages to and fro metropoles such as London and Paris, but also to places such as Prague and Belgium. These wanderings become easier to analyze as real-world manifestations of his mental perambulations. Thus the train station, a foster symbol of concentration camps, is a site of refuge and fleeing, but also of homeliness for one whose emotionally turbulent past brings his present into turmoil. Importantly, the train station is a network of (less) stray places that bridge the chasm between time and space in short periods of time. Interestingly, the opening journey begins with the establishment of ambiguity; critics have noted the tendency for the unexplained urges to be read as a trope of spectral writing:

In the second half of the 1960s, I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. (1)

In Austerlitz, thus, landscape- or perhaps the physical surrounding- is intricately associated with memory and a trauma narrative that resonates with many of Sebald’s other narrators. Contrary to what travel signifies for most, the narrator goes on to infect his travels with a sense of ambiguity- one that doesn’t, in the least, provide for a resolution to his wanderings, but only drifts him further in the abyss he attempts to navigate. Places, at instances in Sebald’s prose, do not reveal as much about memory and hauntology, as they sometimes become the past. Thus, Austerlitz contends,

[bookmark: _cfii75wqvpom]“It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.” (185)

The narrativization of Austerlitz’s trauma is presented to the reader devoid of a chronology, or of any binding temporal or spatial format that holds it together. Trauma is, instead, revealed through the multiple associations that occur organically in Austerlitz’s present conscious. The place becomes central to the narrative insofar as it livens up Austerlitz’s past- replete with visions of the spectra. The unfolding of the narrative is therefore comparable to the unforeseeable associations and the unplanned trips Austerlitz makes in his mind, while the spatialization of time is affected by his own experiences with time-fragmented and unreliable in the midst of his traumatic memories. Finally, at Liverpool Street Station, Austerlitz encounters the spectral: it is here that he collapses in weariness in the morose twilight that envelops his wandering mind. He sees visions of two middle-aged men, “dressed in the style of the thirties” (193), and the boy that they had come to meet. Unsurprisingly, it is the train station again that invokes the sense of ghostliness in Austerlitz’s narrative- something about the perpetual coming and going of travelers on the train station fragments his memory again and brings to him visions of his traumatic past. In a sense, time stands still, associated with the memories that place seems to evoke- time becomes part of the spatiotemporal maelstrom brewing in the young protagonist’s mind.

As widely observed by critics of Sebald, the German flaneur’s prose is always devoid of the pacifying effects of a resolution. The reader, who must undertake this textual vertigo along with the narrator, is left giddy in the face of a narrative that excavates mortifying memories continuously. While this assumes the garb of a pilgrimage along the East Anglian coast, as in The Rings of Saturn, or the quest to arouse deeply personal fears and traumas in The Emigrants, or the journey to locate one’s family, and by extension, one’s past in the Holocaust as in Austerlitz, the texts are almost always characterized with a reflective gaze that often inverts the outer landscape to the landscape of the mind.

With a calculated accuracy, nearly all of Sebald’s landscapes, places, and spaces serve to catalyze human memory to seek further into the past for answers that are perhaps embedded not in the moment of time that is described at present in a text, nor in the past that the narrator travels back to: it seems the object of their questioning, the answer to their trauma, lies in a ceaseless intertextual travel that the reader undertakes along with the narrator/protagonist. In such a sense, the resolution to trauma is magnified and emphasized at every fresh encounter with a space that has the potential to trigger another time travel. The permanent tireless oscillation between what is and what has been, and the quest to bridge the chasm between the two, leads the reader to partake in a trauma narrative which is not conventionally theirs. Thus, space invokes memory, enlivens traumas, and by means of deferring a resolution to the future, allows for the articulation and handling of trauma in ways that would otherwise disallow it to assume the character of a public entity.

Works Cited

  1. Alexander, Neal. “Theologies of the Wild: Contemporary Landscape Writing.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.38.4.1.
  2. Baronian, Marie-Aude, et al. Diaspora and Memory: Figures of Displacement in Contemporary Literature, Arts and Politics. Rodopi, 2007, Google Books, books.google.co.uk/books?id=LItBN2keNpQC&pg=PA200&lpg=PA200&dq=it does not seem to me austerlitz past&source=bl&ots=QOM7W-_htX&sig=ACfU3U3qvKJslJyXu_H6HSVTF3QBmEhhAQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiAtZv8hcbhAhU1ThUIHT78BzkQ6AEwB3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=it does not seem to me austerlitz past&f=false.
  3. Christopher C. Gregory-Guider. “The ‘Sixth Emigrant’: Traveling Places in the Works of W. G. Sebald.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 46, no. 3, 2005, pp. 422–449. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4489126.
  4. Dubow, Jessica, and Richard Steadman-Jones. “Mapping Babel: Language and Exile in W. G. Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz.’” New German Critique, no. 115, 2012, pp. 3–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23259388.
  5. Hill, Lisa. “Archaeologies and Geographies of the Post-Industrial Past: Landscape, Memory and the Spectral.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 20, no. 3, 2013, pp. 379–396. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44289643.
  6. Pieldner, Judit. (2015). A Melancholy Journey through Landscapes of Transience. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Philologica. 7. 10.1515/ausp-2015-0036.
  7. Simona Mitroiu (2014) Narrative Identity and Trauma: Sebald’s Memory Landscape, The European Legacy, 19:7, 883-900, DOI: 10.1080/10848770.2014.965525.
  8. · Sebald, W G, and Michael Hulse. The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions, 1998.
  9. · Print.
  10. ·
  11. · Sebald, W G, and Anthea Bell. Austerlitz. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001. Print.
  12. ·
  13. · Sebald, W G, and Michael Hulse. The Emigrants. New York: New Directions, 1996. Print.
  14. Weston, Daniel. “The Spatial Supplement: Landscape and Perspective in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 18, no. 2, Apr. 2011, pp. 171–186, doi:10.1177/1474474010397596.
  15. Wolff, Lynn. Monatshefte, vol. 100, no. 2, 2008, pp. 313–316. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30154495.
  16. Wylie, John. “The Spectral Geographies of W.G. Sebald.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2007, pp. 171–188. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44251139.
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