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History As Natural History & The Destruction Of The World

1503 words - 7 pages

W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn explores the relationship between toleration and persecution through a first person narrative. The novel is preoccupied with loss and the ways we have tried to come to terms with mortality. It is a meditation on the destructive nature of history, the human lives affected, and the restorative power of art. However, his work is not simply a record of these human-induced catastrophes, but also attempts to fashion new representational tools for the purpose of acknowledging and coming to terms with the realities of modern human history. Sebald’s critcism tends to focus on the biographical and psychological backgrounds of the writers he mentions. He draws ...view middle of the document...

Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn presents a counter-figure drained of enlightenment’s and modernity’s emancipatory promise. His fascination for Sir Thomas Browne whose view is mystical and quasi-astrological, and who saw the world as a unified whole that was subject to a cyclical trajectory through time creates a sense of the failure of post- Englightenment Western thought. The novel similar to The Dialectic of Enlightenment undermines not only dominant enlightenment narratives of history and identity, but also the faint hopes for redemption and emancipation. The absence of the hope of the hopeless and a utopian vision for a liberating potential of modernity results in the text’s melancholic vision of loss and displacement. The novel’s evocation of modernity and the depletion of its emancipatory potential achieve a repudiation of the promises of progress and enlightenment. The novel ends not with an outlook on the possibilities of Jewish life today and in the future, but with a look back into an abyss “into which no ray of light could penetrate” (Sebald 297).
Whilst there is much to suggest that civilization has progressed, the narrator in The Rings of Saturn is confronted time and time again on his journey, with examples to the contrary; which is to say, in his desire to assert his superiority, man has inflicted terrible damage on the natural world and, most catastrophically, the human race. The narrator expresses this most emphatically, where he states that all processes of human production depend on combustion: in a physical, chemical sense, making something will involve the destruction of something else (Sebald 170). This “paralyzing horror” was felt when “confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past” (Sebald 7). The Dialectic of Enlightenment tries to elaborate on the new Critical Theory’s ambivalence concerning the ultimate source or foundation of social domination. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the source of today's disaster is a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown: “Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization…. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized” (DE 11). For Horkheimer and Adorno, there is a continuity of the age of myth within Enlightenment and modernity in general. They argue that the Enlightenment has taken us down a barbaric path. “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant” (DE 1). However, Horkheimer and Adorno do not reject the eighteenth...

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