In Defense of Anachronism: Or, W.G. Sebald Interviews Me
by Lindsey Drager
What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter, and audience?
It is a manner akin to the knot in a rope around which we are at once anchored to and distanced from the boat. It is a drama that happens in a mirror, with a doubling that installs anxiety matched only by the inevitability of the curtain call.
How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one’s own precursor?
The word disaster can be tracked in its first use to 1598, wherein it referred to cosmic cataclysm, a sky de-starred, a sun un-lit, the world un-spun. It lives there still, in the rifts that constitute the sky, but too, there are quiet disasters unfolding at each present-tense dusk. One such portrait of this exists in a photograph I found in the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs digital archives. Perhaps significantly, I came across the photography on the very day it was taken, May 11th, exactly 63 years after the moment of tragedy ensued. The portrait shows a small corpse over which a bulking man crouches, hiding his face with a single broad hand. In the background lives a fence, against which a larger child sits on a chair, head buried in the apron of a woman who stands facing him. The photograph is not digitized except for this tiny thumbnail telling the world, or she who falls upon it when browsing photographs using the key term “father grief,” that in the print archives in Washington D.C., kept from erosion in a temperature-controlled room lives this minor, this very limited and local catastrophe. It is not one of the 27,000 limbs amputated by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone from 1991 until 2002. It is not the mid-century mass slaughter of animals at the financially strapped Toledo Zoo, or the 2011 tsunami in Fukushima. It is not the unborn children of African and Mexican American women throughout California who were victims of federally funded involuntarily sterilization from 1909 through the late 1970s. It is not a public or historical disaster, but a private and timeless one, and whether or not this constitutes more or less collective mourning, I cannot know. In telling you the story of the nameless father and in narrating the botched corpse of the child who lie before him, having fallen unnaturally, with limbs twisted wrong-like, have I participated in the perpetration of this disaster? Certainly, though differently. The answer I have been talking around and through is the plight of small disaster, which risks being quiet, even silent. Private disasters are unfolding right now. To conduct the work of telling means resisting the myth that everything is fine, the first fallacy of executed tragedy. And so, we do the telling.
Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point?
There are two answers to this question.
The first requires a discussion of how accumulation happens. The Sorites Paradox purports that terms like heap and pile are triggered by a certain amount of accumulation—of sand or rice or grain. It is at first several kernals or bits and then in a majestic condensation of language and logic, they coagulate to form a single pile. Therefore, that we are considering death as mountainous already assumes there has been a lot of death and that it collects and that we can climb it, reach the precipice and stand atop. The issue is that there might be no other vantage point, since we are all perched on mountains and the emblem of a mountain is bound to that of departure.
The second answer is: Were we not, why write?
Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect?
One method for measure is time and its relationship to veracity. The photograph may gesture toward an event that came to pass, or it may be posed such that the spectacle becomes an illustration. When text and image are wedded, we adopt images as evidence further explicating the stories and anecdotes we are told, though doing so means privileging and charging them with a relationship that is only implied.
In his study of image and text in The Rings of Saturn, James Elkins argues the rhetorical purpose of photographs when paired with text lies either in distraction or interruption. But in Rings of Saturn, this dichotomy is compromised, and a new relationship is introduced: that of fracture. Fracture, unlike distraction or interruption, is bound to the plural; it is a splitting that fosters duplication rather than decomposition. For example, when text has been carefully paired with image, referents like “this” allude to both an unnamed and abstract concept in the narrative while also pointing indirectly to the image around which the text lives, and therein opening possibility rather than limiting it. Elkins also speaks of the illegible photographs. That these images are described as failing to be read for me further underscores the capacity of image-text encounters to do the work of narrating loss.
Is it not wrong to squander one’s chance of happiness in order to indulge a talent?
In her article “Fairies and the Folklore of Disability: Changelings, Hybrids and the Solitary Fairy,” Susan Schoon Eberly notes that before modern medicine, children born with congenital disorders such as progeria, Down Syndrome, and dwarfism were referred to as changelings. It was believed that fairies stole the “normal” infants to whom woman gave birth and replaced them with deformed “marvels.” In an effort to get their non-disabled children back, health practitioners encouraged parents to return changelings to their fairy families by leaving them on the shore. As a result, beaches were often riddled with the corpses of dead disabled children, placed there by parents living with the hope that the child they imagined conceiving would be miraculously returned to them in the night.
To put it differently: your question implies happiness squandering is not yoked with and enveloped in the practice of being human.
Will what I have written survive beyond the grave?
Will there be anyone able to comprehend it in a world the very foundations of which are changed?
I don’t know that the change hasn’t already happened.
Do you remember?
In Narrative Bodies, Daniel Punday claims that Frankenstein “can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein. What is at stake […] in the novel is the description of a primal scene of creation. [Dr.] Frankenstein combines a monstrous answer to two of the most fundamental questions one can ask: where do babies come from? and where do stories come from?” These two questions are fused in their attempt to articulate the uncanny and sublime nature of creation—whether story or human being—exposing both as relying on a delicately balanced union; mother and father on the one hand, and author and reader on the other. It is the aftermath of that union that marks the start of two uncannily similar events, both of which always already haunt.
Will this be alright?
I am listening to Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” on repeat. Is this disaster? Is struggle or boredom? Is snow a mechanism for or a working through disaster? Is disaster an institution, or a language, or a geographic space? Is having children an act of or defense against, disaster? Is choosing not to witness disaster, disaster?
In other words, please define what you mean by “this” and “be” and “alright.”
What would we be without memory?
We would be the liminal space between the caterpillar and the moth, when the being is exactly and perfectly neither.
NOTE: This interview is composed of every rhetorical question posed in W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn translated by Michael Hulse in 1998 and published by New Directions. Questions in the order they appear here can be found on the following pages: 80, 182, 125, 182, 253, 253, 253, 254, 210, 255. All photographs were found in the Library of Congress Photos and Prints Archive and live in the public domain.
Lindsey Drager is author of The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc 2015). She lives in Colorado where she is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver.