The Power of W. G. Sebald’s Small Silences
Even His Punctuation Gestured Toward the Trauma of History
Anyone who has read The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald’s penultimate novel, likely remembers the book’s final pages. The Rings of Saturn follows a Sebald-like narrator as he walks along England’s eastern coast, letting his mind wander along with his feet. The prose follows the narrator’s digressions from each place and idea to the next, moving freely in time and space. The last chapter is concerned almost entirely with the subject of silkworms. Sebald’s narrator, inspired by the writings of the 17th-century polymath Thomas Browne, traces the history of sericulture—the rearing of silkworms for the production of silk—from its origins in ancient China to its arrival in Europe to its use in 20th-century Germany.
Like much of the novel, this fairly erudite discussion, while arresting in its way, does not immediately make its significance known. Then, a few pages from the novel’s end, the narrator considers a film he happened upon the preceding summer on the subject of silk cultivation under the Third Reich. As the booklet that accompanies the film informs both narrator and reader, in the 1930s, silk production became an important part of Hitler’s demand for an economically self-sufficient Germany. As a result, sericulture became a common feature of children’s education. It turned out to serve many pedagogical functions. In one of the novel’s most memorable passages, Sebald writes:
Any number [of silkworms] could be had for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage of their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. – In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs despatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.
With the phrase “extermination to preempt racial degeneration,” Sebald slips seamlessly from the discussion of sericulture to an oblique discussion of the Final Solution. The description of the film takes on a haunting doubleness. It is both an explanation of the killing of silkworms and an evocation of the Nazi genocide.
When I returned to this passage, what struck me most was the dash Sebald places between the description of the use of silkworms in the classroom and the account of the film—a single dash that hovers between two complete sentences. What could be its significance?
This same unusually placed dash occurs elsewhere in the novel, which is full of such shifts as the narrator’s mind considers the places through which he’s traveling, things he has learned, people he has known, and works he has read. The simplest explanation is that these dashes signify breaks in the narrative. In this instance, it marks the narrator’s shift away from his description of information he learned from the film’s pamphlet to his description of the film itself.
But as I read and reread the silkworm passage, this practical account of the dash seemed increasingly insufficient. I began to see the dash as doing much more than marking a transition—I began to see it as an attempt to capture the horror of what the words that precede and follow it only allude to. The dash, situated between the talk of schoolroom sericulture and the talk of silkworm execution, creates a moment of silence—the very opposite of talk—for the victims of the death camps. It’s Sebald’s attempt to make legible a loss that language can circle but never quite reach.
The gravity, inescapability, and illegibility of historical trauma are themes of The Rings of Saturn and of Sebald’s work as a whole. A German born into World War II and writing in the wake of the Holocaust, Sebald made this his central artistic concern. The Rings of Saturn opens with the narrator ending his journey in a hospital in Norwich, immobilized, he suspects, by “the paralysing horror that had come over [him] at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.” Yet The Rings of Saturn is not a direct account of history’s horrors. Rather, it attempts to reckon with them by circling them, allowing both narrator and reader to encounter them by coming into their orbit.
Sebald’s subtly unusual use of the dash performs this same function in miniature. In most cases, dashes connect. They link clauses and tie together ideas. But his dashes do the opposite; they create gaps. They aren’t ligaments, but lapses. They’re places to rest for a moment in the enormity of what Sebald has (and hasn’t) said before picking up and following the narrator on his way.
Sometimes, the dash accompanies prose that is obviously in conversation with the idea of destruction. In the eighth chapter, after the narrator finds himself caught in a dust storm, Sebald writes:
Gasping for breath, my mouth and throat dry, I crawled out of the hollow that had formed around me like the last survivor of a caravan that had come to grief in the desert. A deathly silence prevailed. There was not a breath, not a birdsong to be heard, not a rustle, nothing. And although it now grew lighter once more, the sun, which was at its zenith, remained hidden behind the banners of a pollen-fine dust that hung for a long time in the air. This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down. – I walked the rest of the way in a daze.
Unlike the silkworm passage, here the stakes are explicit. The narrator’s experience of the silent, unpopulated landscape brings to mind the planet after the extinction of all life. The dash invites the reader to pause—to linger for a moment. The earth bereft of life—can we imagine such a thing? The dash creates a space to encounter, or at least to attempt to encounter, the notion’s terrible sublimity.
The placement of some of these dashes makes their meaning easy to see. One follows the description of a region’s obsolescence as the windmills that determine its significance disappear in the years following World War I. Another hovers between an account of the battle that marks the decline of Dutch naval power and a citation of Thomas Browne’s meditation on how the earth’s revolutions and humans’ sleeping habits make it so “one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row [ . . . ] an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.” These dashes highlight and let us linger in elegiac evocations of historical and even planetary loss.“In most cases, dashes connect. They link clauses and tie together ideas. But his dashes do the opposite; they create gaps. They aren’t ligaments, but lapses.”
In other instances, the effect is less immediately clear. Two dashes intrude upon the narrator’s discussion of the life of the poet Edward FitzGerald, who lived as a hermit, working diligently on an array of literary projects he never completed, with the sole exception of his translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, published in the same year as the death of his closest friend. Five more punctuate the narrator’s consideration of the memoirs of François-René de Chateaubriand, who fled to England during the French Revolution, where he tutored a vicar’s daughter in what became a thwarted romance. In these instances, the dashes gash the narrative, letting the personal tragedies of the figures under consideration, however seemingly insignificant, bleed into historical tragedy. They point to the reciprocal relation between personal and historical trauma.
These dashes are one way in which Sebald attempts to make illegible loss legible—to invite the ghosts of unspeakable historical horror to haunt language itself. Fittingly, they appear in all four of his major works. After brief appearances in his first two novels, Vertigo and The Emigrants, they take on a far more prominent role in The Rings of Saturn and in Austerlitz, his final work. (In an essay in the anthology A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W. G. Sebald, scholar Arthur Williams notes that the English translation of Austerlitz, which Sebald prepared along with translator Anthea Bell, actually omits some of the dashes that appear in the first section of the German edition—I can’t help thinking of the ghosts of these obviated marks as idling imperceptibly within the English text, present in their absence.)
Sebald’s work makes use of photography, montage, obsessive intertextual allusion, and an arresting prose style that is somehow both nostalgic and deeply ominous. But the strange, short moments of silence between sentences play a key if subtle role. If Sebald’s project was to create a literature adequate to the genocidal horror of the 20th century—one that reckoned with that horror not as an aberration standing outside of history, but as one part of a history of horrors—then these interstitial dashes, these minor marks that let silence speak, are one small way in which he manages this monumental task. Throughout Sebald’s works, the dead wander like restless ghosts. But in the small silences of his dashes, they are permitted to linger and—at least for a moment—to rest in peace.