Sebald: After Nature

What is this being called human?’

Recently I blogged about the event at Aldeburgh that celebrated the work of WG Sebald, Patience and Re-Enchantment, which culminated in a performance by Patti Smith at which she read from Sebald’s first literary work, published only posthumously, the prose-poem After Nature. I hadn’t been aware of this before, so I decided to read it.

After Nature was written in 1988 – that is, before his first book of fiction, Vertigo. Sebald himself described it as a ‘prose poem’, and the work is presented on the page as blank verse.  For me – and many commentators have felt the same way – I think this is a mistake. The work consists of three parts, and though the final section might possibly stand as poetry, it is hard to accept the first two parts as anything other than randomly chopped-up prose.  Prose of a high order, though, that should have been left as just that.

After Nature is certainly a fine piece of writing that anticipates themes which Sebald explored in later works: memory (and forgetting), art, the interpretation of history, migration.  Each of the three parts concerns a figure from a different century – the 16th century artist Mathias Grünewald, the eighteenth-century botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and, in the final part, Sebald himself.  What unites these stories?  All concern men troubled by the violence and injustice of their century and who, in their different ways (artist, scientist, literary scholar), interpret and meditate on their time.  All are migrants, geographically or socially, while Grunewald and Sebald seem to share the melancholic view of the human condition that is the hallmark of Sebald’s writing.

The first of the narratives, ‘As the Snow on the Alps’, concerns the artist Mathias Grünewald – ‘unknown’ as Sebald states, since Grünewald was probably not his name at all. We may know his face, though, since he incorporated his own self-portrait into many of his works, such as his John the Evangelist (below), ‘sketched out in heightened white crayon, later destroyed by an alien hand’s pen and wash, as that of a painter aged forty to fifty’.

Sebald suggests that he is the bearded man laying a gentle hand on another’s shoulder in commiseration in The Mocking of Christ (below): ‘always the same gentleness, the same burden of grief, the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled and sliding sideways down into loneliness’.

Sebald portrays Grunewald as an artist disturbed by the suffering and conflict of his time, especially the Peasants’ War – the Anabaptist insurrection against political and spiritual oppression led by Thomas Muntzer  which was utterly defeated at the battle of Frankenhausen in1525, In the Battle of Frankenhausen, Müntzer and his farmers were defeated. Muntzer was captured, tortured and decapitated, while

the bodies of peasants piled up
into a hetacomb, because, as though they were mad,
they neither put up any resistance
nor took to their heels.
When Grunewald got news of this
on the 18th of May
he ceased to leave his house.
Yet he could hear the gouging out
of eyes that long continued
between Lake Constance and
the Thuringian Forest. For weeks at that time he wore
a dark bandage over his face.

Thereafter, Grunewald ‘led a reclusive, melancholy life’, painting the altar panels for which he is now famous – most notably the extraordinary Isenheim Altarpiece, regarded as his masterpiece.

In one section an innermost panel, Grunewald depicts the Temptation of St. Anthony in mystical, visionary and grotesque form:

Sebald writes:

Now life as such, as it unfolds, dreadfully,
everywhere and at all times,
is not to be seen on the altar panels
whose figures have passed beyond
the miseries of existence, unless it be
in that unreal and demented thronging
which Grünewald has developed around
St. Anthony of the temptation:
dragged by his hair over the ground
by a gruesome monster.

To him, the painter, this is creation,
image of our insane presence
on the surface of the earth […]

In this fashion Grünewald,
silently wielding his paintbrush,
rendered the scream, the wailing, the gurgling
and the shrieking of a pathological spectacle
to which he and his art, as he must have known,
themselves belong.

Sebald later elaborated his thoughts on Grunewald’s vision in The Emigrants:

The extreme vision of that strange man, which was lodged in every detail, distorted every limb, and infected the colours like an illness, was one I had always felt in tune with, and now I found my feeling confirmed by the direct encounter. The monstrosity of that suffering, which, emanating from the figures depicted, spread to cover the whole of Nature, only to flood back from the lifeless landscape to the humans marked by death, rose and ebbed within me like a tide. Looking at those gashed bodies, and at the witnesses of the execution, doubled up by grief like snapped reeds, I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this. What is certain, though, is that mental suffering is effectively without end. One may think one has reached the very limit, but there are always more torments to come. One plunges from one abyss into the next.

The central narrative of After Nature, ‘And if I Remained by the Outermost Sea’, is based on the 18th century naturalist and botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller and his part in Vitus Bering‘s Alaskan expedition. Sebald is interested in what drove Steller to leave the safety of an academic career in Germany for the severity and the unknown dangers of the arctic wilderness. One answer:

Visions of this voyage of discovery,
Steller later recorded, had so seized
his imagination that he […] could
think of nothing other than
the shapes of the fauna and
flora of that distant region
where East and West and North
converge, and of the art and skill
required for their description.

Steller sought the unexplored arctic to catalogue and classify. But by the end of his life, Steller becomes aware of the ill-treatment of the indigenous people and writes papers defending their rights against the incursions and exploitation of Russian imperial interests: arrests and interrogations follow and Steller ‘now wholly grasps the difference between nature and society’. He flees, pursued by Imperial forces, and eventually dies of fever and stroke:

This is infirmitas, the breaking
of time from day to day
and from hour to hour,
it is rust and fire
and the salt of the planets,
darkness even at noon and
luminaries absent from heaven.

Sebald describes Steller’s death and burial:

…the dead man
was dreaming still of the grazing
Mammoth across the river
until in the night someone came
And took his cloak
and left him to lie in the snow
like a fox beaten to death.

The powerful last section, ‘Dark Night Sallies Forth’, brings together the themes of migration, departure, and ‘revisitings’ of histories, as Sebald explores his own family’s history and memory and tells of his journey out of Germany to study in Manchester:

…after leaving my remote home,
I arrived there and took lodgings
among the previous century’s

Sebald confronts the ease with which things are forgotten, or are displaced from memory because they are associated with a shadow that knows no limits.  He stares at a photo of his mother and father, taken on 26 August 1943.  The following day his father left for Dresden ‘of whose beauty his memory, as he remarks when I question him, retains no trace’. The very next day, Nurnberg is bombed; his mother

saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like
or what her feelings were
at this sight.

In all three narratives, the forces and phenomena of the natural world are powerfully present. Steller joins Vitus Bering on the ill-fated Alaska expedition in 1741, and watches captain and crew sicken and rot in wind and weather. Grünewald paints his altarpieces in revulsion at the physical world and at man’s plague-ridden, war-torn, sinful existence in it.  Sebald recounts the journey of his mother, fleeing the bombing of Nürnberg and becoming aware that she is pregnant, and his own migration to Manchester. Then the narrative moves from memory to a melancholic vision of the future, in poignant lines addressed in the East Anglian present to his daughter:

Come, my daughter, come on,
give me your hand, we’re leaving
the town, I’ll show you …

…the end
of the world, the five
cold houses of Shingle Street.
Inconsolable a woman
stands at the window,
a children’s swing Rusts in the wind,
a lonely/spy sits in his Dormobile
in the dunes, his headphones
pulled over his ears.
No, here we can write no postcards,
can’t even
get out of the car
Tell me, child,
is your heart as heavy as
mine is, year after year
a pebble bank raised
by the waves of the sea
aAll the way to the North,
every stone a dead soul
and this sky so grey?
So unremittingly grey
and so low as no sky
I have seen before.
Along the horizon
freighters cross over
into another age
measured by the ticking
of Geigers in the power station
at Sizewell, where slowly
the core of the metal
is destroyed. Whispering
madness on the heathland
of Suffolk.
Is this
the promis’d end?
Oh, you are men of stones.
What’s dead is gone
forever.What did’st
thou say?  What,
how, where, when?
Is this love
nothing now
or all?
Water? Fire? Good?
Evil? Life? Death?

The spellbinding conclusion of the poem – which might have been visualised by Werner Herzog, and is, in fact, inspired by Albrecht Altdorfer’s visionary 16th century painting, The Battle of Alexander at Issus – describes a dream in which Sebald sees far below him his own house and ‘the shadows falling on the East Anglian landscape’.  He flies over the North Sea and the Rhine’s alluvial plain, ‘cities phosphorescent on the river bank, industry’s glowing piles waiting beneath the smoke trails…’ .

Now I know, as with a crane’s eye
one surveys his far-flung realm,
a truly Asiatic spectacle …

tents lying in the evening glow
and a city on the shore …

The Nile Delta can be made out,
the Sinai Peninsula, the Red Sea
and, still farther in the distance,
towering up in dwindling light,
the mountain ranges,
snow-covered and ice-bound,
of the strange, unexplored,
African continent.

Image (top) of Shingle Street by Sarah Spencer.