The same evening I watch the documentary “Patience” about W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn for the second time. I am looking for a quote I had written down in my notebook without mentioning the source. I suspect it is from Sebald. I find out it isn’t, but it is in the documentary, it is about him.
“.... if you allow yourself to become a writer, the catastrophy will be like an avalanche, whereas if you keep walking, you might be ok.”
The quote is somewhere towards the end of the documentary. Just before it goes into the subject of pilgrimage. The Rings of Saturn, a story about a long walk, is subtitled “An English pilgrimage”. And as the narrator explains, a pilgrimage is a movement towards healing, towards resolution, towards selfunderstanding. But in the book, the narrator, Sebald himself, collapses. The walk results in catastrophy, a vanishing of stabilities.
Saturn is the melancholy planet. It represents our limitations in power and control. It intensifies feelings of isolation and sadness. Its rings were once a moon that circled closer and closer around the planet until it got too close and was ripped apart by tidal forces. Now its particles circle around the planet at an equal distance in an endless movement.
Reading Sebald always makes me realise there can be great comfort in it, when everything collapses around you. When things fall apart. When the centre cannot hold. Once, in an interview, being asked why he was still writing when at the same time his view of the world was so pessimistic, his answer was that he was trying to create very small lagoons situated out of time, to discover specific truths, in as far as that is possible. He said that trying to describe the unbearable things in such a way that they loose their heaviness, makes it possible to communicate them, to open peoples’ eyes.
One of my favorite moments in Rings of Saturn is when Sebald meets Edward who lives with his mother and sisters in an old manor house somewhere in the countryside. “Ever since leaving school in 1974, Edmund, the youngest, had been working on a fat-bellied boat a good ten yards in length, although, as he casually informed me, he knew nothing about boat-building and he had no intention of ever going to sea in his unshapely barge. It’s not going to be launched. It’s something I do. I have to have something to do.”
He makes me realise I’ve been building my own boat.
And to come back to the subject I’m dealing with here, on this blog, in this project (and this is Sebald again): It is not about reaching some sort of christian or spiritual goal but it is about “auf eine bestimmte Weise zu gehen und zu sehen”, to walk and to see things in a specific way.
Sebald chose to walk and to write but he once said that he could just as well grow cucumbers. It doesn’t matter what you do. As long as you go about it in the right way. And when you grow cucumbers at least you know you will have a crop you can show to the outside world. Something they can eat. Something they understand.
There is sadness in this thought but Sebald masters his sadness well. Like Rilke he sees how it is an inseperable part of life. It is connected to change. No change without sadness. No newness without sadness.
“For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unfamiliar. Our feelings become mute in timid shyness. Everything within us steps back; a silence ensues, and the something new, known to no one, stands in the center and is silent.”
Rilke wrote this in his Letters to a Young poet and I encountered them here, in Sweden, in the most Sebaldian way possible. In the middle of a walk along the pilgrim trail from the west-coast to the east-coast of Sweden I started the second day in a tiny place called Flädie. In the afternoon I collected Rilke’s book at a library where I had ordered it because I wanted to reread it. The eighth letter, the one about sadness, is written in Flädie. I had no idea.
“For it is not inertia alone that causes the unspeakably monotonous and unrenewed human condition to repeat itself again and again. It is the aversion to anything new, any unpredictable experience, which is believed untenable. Only he who can expect anything ... will have a relationship to life greater than just being alive ... when a sadness arises within you of such magmitude as you have ever experienced, or when a restlessnes so overshadows all you do ... you must believe that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand. It shall not let you fall.”
Life is a pilgrimage. But those of you who read this all down to these last lines know already. You know it doesn’t matter if your answer is a yes or a no. You know that there is no need for the question.