Voicing the Dead: Photography and Language in W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Emigrants

Nicola Borasinski, Queen Mary University of London

‘By shutting her eyes, by losing consciousness, Albertine had stripped off, one after another, the different human personalities with which she had deceived me ever since the day when I had first made her acquaintance. She was animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me.’

Marcel Proust, The Captive; The Fugitive1

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud comments that ‘[e]ven in the best interpreted dream, there is often a place that must be left in the dark […] its mycelium.’2 It is with regards to this ‘spot where [the unconscious] reaches down into the unknown’ that I will investigate the ways in which W.G Sebald attempts to illuminate this darkness through his use of photography in both Austerlitz and The Emigrants.3 These black and white photographs convey a variety of images that complement the narrative in both texts. It is this integration of photography with language which has been overlooked in much criticism on Sebald. This article will explore the way in which Sebald attempts to convey this silent mycelium and in doing so portray the polyphonic voices of the dead. I will examine how Sebald’s chosen photographs coalesce with the language employed in the two texts and the relation this has to photographic discourse. This discourse is characterized by what the photograph represents, or what it is showing us that is external to the events of the narrative in both of Sebald’s texts. This includes not only the subject of the photograph but the stylistic elements in the photograph, i.e. the angle, the light, colours. The photographs thus operate both autonomously in their own frame of reference, but contrapuntally to the language in the texts.

The starting point for my investigation will be Jacques Austerlitz’s description of his breakdown and what this passage tells us about the limits of language in representing trauma. Following this I will then explore the ways in which trauma links to the unconscious mind, drawing on specific moments in Freud’s text Moses and Monotheism. I will then analyse the ‘non-voice’ of the unconscious4 in relation to the dead characters that are portrayed in both of Sebald’s texts. Finally I will, contrary to much critical work surrounding Sebald, explore how photography and language synthesise in both Austerlitz and The Emigrants to portray the silent voices of the dead.

In Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist, suffers a breakdown: ‘[F]or as soon as I so much picked up my pencil the endless possibilities of language, to which I could once safely abandon myself, became a conglomeration of the most inane phrases.’ Jacques conveys how the ‘endless possibilities’ that language once held for him become meaningless, ‘hollow’ and thus incommunicable.5 This passage is particularly poignant when considering the relationship between language and photography throughout the novel, as neither in the past temporality of the breakdown, nor in the present temporality of narration, is Austerlitz able to fully communicate what happened to his mind. Austerlitz describes what happened but can only portray it in terms of loss of language where, ‘[t]here was/[is] not an expression in the sentence’ (p.173). The navel of his breakdown remains elusive, with words such as ‘hollow’ and ‘false’ being employed by Austerlitz to describe this process. This choice of wording makes his language empty and thus communicates something that in its very essence defies transference.

Language’s inadequacy to communicate trauma is furthered when Austerlitz relates what he underwent during his breakdown:

sat for hours, for days on end with my face to the wall, tormenting myself and gradually discovering the horror of finding that even the smallest task or duty, for instance arranging assorted objects in a drawer, can be beyond one’s power. (p. 173)

Here, Austerlitz’s pain is inscribed onto the physical action of ‘arranging assorted objects’. His inability to do so conveys a sense of the weight under which his mind has collapsed, as a seemingly simple task remains ‘beyond [his] power.’ This failure to finish tasks seeps into the language where verbs are not in past tense. ‘[D]iscovering’, ‘finding’, and ‘arranging’ are all present participles that indicate actions which are not yet complete, and as such further reiterates how these actions are out of Austerlitz’s reach; they cannot, and never will be, complete. The phrase gradually discovering the horror of finding’ is particularly striking, as two present participles follow on in quick succession. This leads to a knock-on-effect whereby both actions remain hanging in the narrative – the ‘discovering’ and ‘finding’ remain hidden. The breakdown thus remains beyond articulation in language, its tools proving insufficient for expressing Austerlitz’s trauma.

By leaving the language in a state of flux, Sebald links the plot of Austerlitz’s narrative, his breakdown, to its literary enactment in the text. The grammatical structures mimic Austerlitz’s feeling of being lost in language, as if it were ‘an old city full of street and squares, nooks and crannies’ that he cannot ‘find his way through’ (pp. 174-5). This extract highlights the way in which language reaches a limit in exploring the traumatic events in Austerlitz’s life. Shoshana Felman states that ‘[i]n the testimony, language is in process and in trial’.6 This acknowledgement of language ‘in process’ is explicitly replicated by Austerlitz in his use of present participles and thus helps to convey his trauma as something unobtainable. It cannot be captured in a freeze frame, and cannot be ingested by the reader due to its momentum. This pace offers challenges to the reader and as such invites a re-examination of Austerlitz’s trauma. Language thus becomes contentious as both character and reader place it on trial, gauging whether it is sufficient in articulating trauma.

The inadequacy of language to capture trauma also appears in another of Sebald’s texts, The Emigrants. The narrator relays the narrative of Max Ferber during the war years and states that, ‘It had been a terribly bad time for him, a time scarcely to be endured, a time he could not bear to say any more about.’7 This blunt sentence differs greatly to the pages of description in which Austerlitz attempts to convey his breakdown; however both extracts portray the same impenetrable darkness of trauma that language seems unable to capture. Ferber’s trauma is not explored in any great depth and is overtly portrayed through its unspeakable nature – the reader is aware it is too painful for Ferber to mention.

  1. Marcel Proust, ‘The Captive (1923); The Fugitive (1925)’, in In Search of Lost Time, Vol V, trans. By D J Enright (1992), (London: Vintage Classics, 2000), p. 72. []
  2. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1913), ed. and trans. By James Strachey (1955), (U.S.A: Basic Books, 2010), p. 528. []
  3. Ibid, p. 494. []
  4. ‘Unconscious’ in its use here being understood as the recess in human subjectivity that resists easy assimilation into the consciousness and thus resists easy representation in language. []
  5. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (2001), trans. By Anthea Bell, (London: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 173. All subsequent reference to this text will be placed after the quotation in parenthesis. []
  6. Shoshana Felman, ‘Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching’, in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, ed. By Shoshana Felman & Dori Laub, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 5. []
  7. W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1996), trans. By Michael Hulse, (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 167. []

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