“…Beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this. What is certain, though, is that mental suffering is effectively without end. One may think one has reached the very limit, but there are always more torments to come. One plunges from one abyss into the next.”
I often hear that guilt is a bad, destructive thing. It’s a popular opinion with anyone from bombastic self-proclaimed anti-PC activists to liberal men who look at the world as if from above. But I honestly don’t think that guilt is bad. I have seen quite a bit of what comes when it is lacking, and the results are always violent and never creative. The pangs of guilt, even if the person experiencing them is not the malefactor, are fodder for the best literature. If Faulkner did not feel conflicted about the South, we would have never had Yoknapatawpha. And my two favorite German-language authors, Sebald and Bernhard, would have never been, if not for the nazi heritage they carried with them throughout and spilled out in pages. I will talk about Bernhard when it’s his time, but Sebald’s “The Emigrants” are, to me, a perfect book about the fragility of the world around us, and, most importantly, the people who inhabit it. Like blades of grass that the narrator plays with in chapter one, they are easily crushed and destroyed. It’s the next level of reflection on the Holocaust in the continuity set by the two films, “Night and Fog” and then “Shoah”. Sebald digs his nails beneath the reader’s skin while telling stories that are elegantly constructed and searingly beautiful. Every time I read him, I learn. I, too, come from pain inflicted, layer upon layer, and I, too, want to make this guilt into beautiful things.
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
Original title: Die Ausgewanderten
Translated from German by Michael Hulse
Published by New Directions in 1992