Monday, March 25, 2013

Vertiginous: Sebald and Foucault

In preparation for a radio interview about my most recent Critical Flame essay on Ernst Herbeck, poetry, and madness, I was re-reading Foucault's History of Madness. I quote from—and generally crib—Foucault's history / geneology pretty heavily. More than I intended, really. I also revisited Sebald: Herbeck appears as a character in Vertigo—in the chapter “All'estero,” which is the Italian word for foreign, or abroad—and Sebald also writes about the poet in his collection of essays, Campo Santo.

Coincidences arose as I read the three in tandem. I'm going to follow them here. I expect little of coherence to come from this and I have no thesis. There is no “point” to this digression. Enjoy.

In the introduction to his book Understanding W.G. Sebald, Mark McCulloh writes, “Sebald was fascinated with all forms of eccentricity and the allegedly thin line between genius and insanity.” I imagined that this would be obvious to any reader of Vertigo, but it was a theme often overlooked in reviews, despite the appearance of “Discrete Madness” in the title of the book's first section, as well as the interlocking narratives of mental breakdown, the allusions to Kafka, and the excursion with the schizophrenic Austrian poet Ernst Herbeck.

Perhaps this was because the critics had been primed by the prior English-language publication of his novels, which of course were later works: Vertigo (published in English in 1999) was in fact Sebald's second novel, the first of a loose trilogy that includes The Emigrants (published in English in 1996) and Rings of Saturn (published in English in 1998). Had Vertigo been the initial point of contact, would the critical focus have been different? Would attention have been paid more to the madness of instance and creativity versus the resonances of history?

Herbeck, on the other hand, was entirely ignored in the reviews of Vertigo—though that seems less surprising. The reviewers did not have any access to Herbeck's poetry in English translation at the time; it's possible they had never heard of him at all. That being said, it is an oversight. Most serious German-language readers would likely know Herbeck's work, and Sebald writes explicitly about Herbeck in his essays. The inclusion of Herbeck also marks the book as being specifically about madness and art: it is a failing of the critical reception, a silence—an exclusion lacking intention but driven by the willful extra-linguistic obliviousness of Anglo-American literary culture. Something major was missed by critics that could have given key a context to English-language readers.

The German title of Sebald's book is Schwindel. Gefühle. It is a bit of word play, breaking up the German compound that translates to vertigo: dizziness and feelings, respectively. The English edition, as McCulloh discusses, excludes the playful tone of the dissected, compound original. A more exact translation might have been Dizziness, Feelings of or Vertigo, Feelings of. It would at least allude to the taxonomic quality of the book, which explores the variety of madnesses, always returning to the issue of madness and meta-narrative (that which becomes the historical).

The term vertigo—a word Sebald uses several times in the book—invites a new more complicated set of resonances within this constellation of these texts, particularly with Foucault. He deploys the word vertiginous at several key moments in his History of Madness. Foucault writes that in the eighteenth century—the key era for the modern conceptualization of madness (and its twin, unreason)—vertigo was considered to be one species in the taxonomy of cranial illnesses, which were all considered, loosely, to be forms of madness.

Sebald's title—Schwindel. Gefühle.—echoes both of these findings. Madness is at turns spiritual/ethical and medical/physical, or both, through the dissembling of a single word into a sort of odd encyclopedic entry.

In discussing the ship of fools paradigm, Foucault writes, “Madness and the figure of the madman take on a new importance for the ambiguousness of their role: they are both threat and derision, the vertiginous unreason of the world, and the shallow ridiculousness of men.” Events appear to be echoes of each other but those reverberations have no articulated meaning. They are mute. Human beings speak and assert “reason” but the world itself is dumb and the matrix of actions across space and time, individually made, are full of unreason. This idea finds echoes in Herbeck's motif of the mouth, and his own malformed capacity for speech.

There is more to this, particularly in relation to the title of Herbeck's chapbook (and eponymous poem)—Everyone Has a Mouth—and Sebald's depiction of Herbeck in Vertigo. Foucault writes: “On the great scale of things, all things are Madness; on the small scale, the whole itself is madness. Which means that if madness can only exist in reference to some form of reason, the whole truth of reason is to allow some form of unreason to appear and to oppose it, only to disappear in in turns in a madness that engulfs all. In one sense, madness is nothing at all, the madness of men, a nothingness faced with the supreme form of reason that alone delineates being; and the abyss of fundamental madness, nothing, as it is such only for the fragile reason of men. But reason is nothing, as the reason in whose name the folly of human reason is denounced, when it is finally glimpsed, reveals itself to be nothing other than a vertiginous chasm where reason itself must remain silent.”

Some critics touched upon these motifs. In the New York Times review of the book, W.S. Di Pietro writes, “In Sebald's world, everything is somehow related to everything else, yet the whole is terrifyingly unstable.” Here is Foucault writing of the parallels between the modern age's relationship with unreason or madness, and the relationship between Occident and Orient:
In the universality of Western ratio, there is this division called the Orient: the Orient, thought as origin, dreamed of as the vertiginous point whence are born the nostalgias and promises of return, the Orient offered up to the colonising reason of the West but nevertheless indefinitely inaccessible, since it forever remains as the limit: night of the beginning, in which the West was formed, but in which it traced a dividing line, for the West the Orient is everything that it itself is not, whilst it is nonetheless bound to look within it for its own primitive truth.
In Boston Review, Joyce Hackett writes, “His is a language of silence, in which meaning surfaces in the negative space between juxtapositions, repetitions, variations, and ruptures.” In The Independent (UK), William Sutcliffe also approaches it, writing, “It is in what is missing, what is unsaid, that the meat of Sebald's writing lies.” And in The Partisan Review, Nicol Krauss writes, “The word ‘vertigo,’ with its allusions to a known or unknown illness, also suggests a pervading sense of an ever-encroaching madness. ‘While it might have been rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance,’ Sebald writes. In the ramblings of all three books, he follows the story of someone gone mad, though it’s usually the gentle madness that comes from retreating into one’s own mind.”

There we are. Madness, creativity, unreason, the mouth, vertigo—Foucault, Sebald, Herbeck, and the public reception: this is either very simple or very complicated. Probably I missed a book that addresses exactly these issues in a perfect amount of detail and depth as to leave them stripped of uncertainty (if so, please tell me). In any case, I'll admit that this project is itself vertiginous. It has form but no meaning; it has echo, but unreason.

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