Friday, December 12, 2008
ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION by W.G. Sebald
Sebald's On The Natural History of Destruction is almost as astonishing and moving as his prose fictions. Beautifully controlled by Sebald's magisterial prose, it's a guided tour of hell that never lapses into hysteria--and is all the more horrible for that. I note a connection between what Sebald works toward in the title piece (a 'natural history' built out of the powerfully evocative images into which history has crystallized) and American philosopher Walter A. Davis's emphasis in Deracination on the power of images to communicate history's horrors. Thinking about this similarity sets me wondering if Sebald might have read Davis's 1989 magnum opus, Inwardness and Existence, a book that seems to be slightly better known in the British academy than the American (the current Archbishop of Canterbury has referenced it). It's possible, but I suspect the similarity is born of the fact that two writers of the same era and age (I think Davis is 2 or 3 years older than Sebald) who read many of the same books may arrive at similar ideas, even if they live a hemisphere apart. Anyway, the Natural History sits as both complement to and commentary upon Sebald's fictions, and as such it evokes a particularly Sebaldian melancholy in this reader when he considers how much was lost in those few seconds on an English highway in late 2001.