On the Natural History of Destruction

On the Natural History of Destruction

Book - 2003
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W.G. Sebald completed this extraordinary and important -- and already controversial -- book before his untimely death in December 2001. On the Natural History of Destruction is W.G. Sebald's harrowing and precise investigation of one of the least examined "silences" of our time. In it, the acclaimed novelist examines the devastation of German cities by Allied bombardment, and the reasons for the astonishing absence of this unprecedented trauma from German history and culture. This void in history is in part a repression of things -- such as the death by fire of the city of Hamburg at the hands of the RAF -- too terrible to bear. But rather than record the crises about them, writers sought to retrospectively justify their actions under the Nazis. For Sebald, this is an example of deliberate cultural amnesia; his analysis of its effects in and outside Germany has already provoked angry and painful debate. Sebald's incomparable novels are rooted in meticulous observation; his essays are novelistic. They include his childhood recollections of the war that spurred his horror at the collective amnesia around him. There are moments of black humour and, throughout, the unmatched sensitivity of Sebald's intelligence. This book is a vital study of suffering and forgetting, of the morality hidden in artistic decisions, and of both compromised and genuine heroics.
Publisher: New York : Random House, c2003
Edition: 1st U.S. ed
ISBN: 9780375504846
Branch Call Number: Literature 833.914 Seb


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May 19, 2018

Because Sebald died young, unfortunately he wrote relatively few novels. This is a book of essays and a lecture in which he addresses head-on the theme of lost memories of the holocaust of WWII Germany, from the sides of both the perpetrators and the survivors. Admitting that fiction pales by comparison, considering the informative value of the events, he urges us to excavate "the slag heaps our collective existence." Because it specializes so heavily, I would leave the second essay until last unless you are a student of modern German literature. However, the third essay looking at the writing of Jean Amery, one who survived the camps, delivers the hard punches to the gut and psyche. Amery wrote, "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured", and further, torture is "an essential expression of totalitarian rule." Why did people submit? Sebald answers: "The power structure of the SS state towered up before the prisoner monstrously and imperturbably, a reality that could not be escaped and that therefore finally seemed reasonable." And then afterwards society takes from the victims the "right to resentment" because "the consciousness of people [have been] rehabilitated by time." Whether it is the WWII attempted genocide of a people or the enslavement of a continent of people, Sebald's conclusions apply: "private suffering increasingly merges with the realization that the grotesque deformities of our private lives have their background and origins in collective social history." His conclusion on literature based on the events is therefore not hopeful. "The purpose of representing cruelty thus outlined, as we now know, has never been fulfilled and probably never can be, since our species is unable to learn from its mistakes. Consequently such arduous cultural efforts can no more come to a conclusion than the pain and torment they seek to remedy." Not a happy Facebook-type read, but an important study with ideas that many try to avoid. Will you?


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