Photography, reportage and literature

1. Work by the great German novelist W.G. Sebald, who died in 2001, continues to appear in English translation: Unrecounted (2004) is one of the latest such volumes. In this book, verse by Sebald accompanies etchings by Jan Peter Tripp. The etchings depict human faces, and are executed in such a hyper-realistic style that they might be mistaken for photographs. But Sebald, in an essay appended to the book, defends Tripp’s art by contrasting it with photography. In the process, Sebald reveals something of his conception of art, and the arguments he presents may help us to understand his own haunting, enigmatic work.

Sebald’s approach to photography derives in several key respects from that contained in Roland Barthes’s short book Camera Lucida. Old photographs of those now dead do not restore them to life but rather embalm them. The more closely we examine photographs from the nineteenth century, the more alien their subjects come to seem; our capacity for empathy fails us. This explains the eerie feeling many of us experience on viewing very old photographs, a feeling which is in some ways the very opposite of our reaction to a great painting or literary work. We expect to respond intuitively to another human face, but the faces in old photographs have become mere objects and our reaction is, accordingly, blank.

The photographer is an “undertaker”, an “agent of death”. Even photographs of the living make them seem dead: they are reduced to pure form, pure object. The photographer’s ruses of backdrops and naturalistic settings for their subjects are nothing but attempts to offset the inherent lifelessness of the photographed face. Further, Barthes writes, photographs say nothing about the people and scenes, they depict, except that they were and were such. They have “no depth”, they tell us only that “that has been”. As Sebald says, “the photographic image turns reality into a tautology”.

It is just in these respects, for Sebald, that Tripp’s art differs from photography. His etchings are based on photographs, and in fact differ from them only in the most subtle ways, but these traces of the artist’s hand are enough to transform their meaning and purpose, and are what gives them their value. The difference between art and reportage may be as much a matter of form as of content; at any rate, the difference is crucial. Where superficially similar photographs present their subjects as though they were dead, Tripp’s art is about death. “Life’s closeness to death it its theme, not its addiction”. By going beyond mere reportage, it expresses a little of what it means to be mortal.

2. Iris Murdoch, in her book The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, interprets Plato as believing that art is dangerous because it “undoes the work of philosophy”. Where philosophy teaches us a proper scepticism about our ability to gain any real understanding of the world, art gives us an easy sense of insight into things. Through art we gain an illusion of intuitive understanding, which is just what philosophy combats. We cannot “see into the life of things”, but art can fool us into thinking we can.

This is similar, I think, to a line of thought pursued in On the Natural History of Destruction, another work by Sebald published in English since his death. Sebald faults post-war German culture for the lack of attention paid to the horrific effects of the Allied bombing of German cities during the Second World War. But he is also critical of those novelists who have dealt with the issue. They have been too quick, he argues, to resort to elaborate literary devices in order to represent their subject matter. They have tended to approach the destruction of German cities through metaphor, or to turn that destruction into metaphor. Another strategy has been to use grand metaphysical schemes to interpret events and give them some meaning.

In the face of the tremendous trauma with which these novelists are concerned, such strategies are, for Sebald, tasteless. Moreover, they are false to their subject matter. They have the effect of a pulled punch: the force of an inherently disturbing narrative is softened by the way in which it is presented. Conventional literary devices make sense of events for us, and thus make them palatable. Where first-hand experience would leave us speechless, confronted with a literary account we know just what to say.

Sebald recommends, instead, a matter-of-fact tone, a bare retelling of events, reportage rather than art. This is the tone of those few authors who, he feels, have handled the issue well. It it also his own tone when, in the course of the book, he describes the bombings, and every reader will find those actions distressing.

We seem to be left with a choice between reportage and literature. On the one hand, reportage suffers from its own transparency. Old photographs have nothing to tell us beyond what is on their surface. Their subjects are nothing but dead. On the other hand, literature, in interpreting, falsifies, at least when it deals with events of the magnitude of the Second World War. Is there any way out of this quandary?

3. Sebald’s own novels are characterised by sudden, often lengthy, incursions into history, memoir and biography. The Rings of Saturn, for example, is organised around an account of various walks along England’s North Sea coast, but most of the text is taken up by narratives drawn from the history of China, the career of Roger Casement and any number of other topics. Some of these are put into the mouths of people the narrator meets on his walks, others relate to places and things he comes across, while some have only thematic connections to the rest of the novel.

One of the striking features of the novel is that the main narrative does not attempt to explain these sections. It provides a context for them, rather than a commentary. In consequence, the reader feels that the structure of the novel serves the numerous stories told within it, and not vice versa. The significance of these stories does not need to be advertised, nor their presence justified.

No reader will call Sebald’s eloquent prose bald, or describe his elegiac tone as one of bare reportage. Still, the anecdotal passages to which I have referred are, in their way, transparent. It is the Taiping rebellion itself that gives depth to the narrative of The Rings of Saturn, not the way that Sebald writes about the Taiping rebellion.

The Second World War, the Holocaust, the catastrophe of Central Europe in the twentieth century, are constant themes in Sebald’s work. His task, one feels, has been to deal with these themes without patronising them, to walk the line between the deadening effects of photographic reportage, and the distorting effects of literature. We may have in Sebald, at last, a Central European writer equal to the unwieldy legacy of his century.