Will Self on Sebald and the Holocaust

A public lecture

Will Self's lecture on W. G. Sebald's writing on the Holocaust has been published by the TLS:
"I have been asked if I was aware of the moral implications of what I was doing. As I told the tribunal at Nuremberg, I did not know that Hitler was a Nazi. The truth was that for years I thought he worked for the phone company. When I did finally find out what a monster he was, it was too late to do anything as I had already made a down payment on some furniture. Once, towards the end of the war I did contemplate loosening the F├╝hrer’s neck napkin and allowing a few tiny hairs to get down his back, but at the last minute my nerve failed me."

Following Freud – himself driven into exile by the Nazis – there are some things too serious not to joke about, and this applies to Hitler, to the regime he initiated, and even to the murders – through war, mass shootings, extermination camps and forced marches – that that regime carried out: mass murders the true extent of which will never now be established with complete accuracy. Twenty million, thirty? What can such figures tell us about the reality of a single individual crushed beneath the Nazi juggernaut?

I should qualify the above: some things are too serious for some people not to joke about them. I cannot decide whether or not W. G. Sebald would permit himself even the wryest of smiles in response to Woody Allen’s parody of Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, which I quote from above. After all, it isn’t the Holocaust that “The Schmeed Memoirs” seeks to extract humour from; rather, Allen is savagely mocking Speer’s claim that at the time it was taking place, he personally knew nothing of the murder of millions of Jews. By transforming Hitler’s erstwhile architect – who subsequently became his Minister for War Production – into a self-deluding barber, Allen performs the essential task of the satirist: to expose the lie of power for what it was, is, and always will be, and to strip away the protective clothing – of idealism, of denial, of retrospective justification – from the perpetrators of genocide.

Ours is an era intoxicated by its capacity to reproduce history technologically, in an instantaneous digitization of all that has happened. But far from tempering our ability to politicize history, this seems to spur both individuals and regimes on to still greater tendentiousness. Among modern philosophers Baudrillard understood this development the best, and foresaw the deployment of symbolic events alongside the more conventional weaponry of international conflict. Sebald understood it as well: in The Rings of Saturn his fictive alter ego observes the Waterloo Panorama, a 360-degree representation of the battle warped round “an immense domed rotunda”, and muses: “This then . . . is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was”. To counter this synoptic view – which, again and again throughout his work, Sebald links to dangerous idealisms and utopian fantasies – the writer offered us subjective experience. This was not, however, reportage that relies for its authority on witness; Sebald, as he wrote with reference to the Allied bombing of Hamburg in his essay “Air War and Literature”, mistrusted seeming clarity in the retelling of events that had violently deranged the senses. Rather, his was a forensic phenomenology that took into account the very lacunae, the repressions and the partial amnesias that are the reality of lived life. [Read More]

Listen to an audio recording of Self's lecture.