This post is by David Henningham and was originally published on the Henningham Family Press Blog in September 2014
The recent collection of WG Sebald’s biographical writings, entitled A Place In the Country, invites us to consider the influence of six great writers that were dear to Sebald during his life, the implication being that he too belongs on the list. The six greats are ‘tormented souls,’ and it is ‘their absolute failure to accommodate life and art, to which Sebald returns again and again.’ The priority for this collection is the window it may open onto Sebald’s own corpus through his analysis of ‘those who devote their lives to literature, “the hapless writers trapped in their web of words.” Caught between a ‘nostalgic utopia’ and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’. But I was surprised to find there was a far more definite connection running through these essays than that of the clairvoyant Romantic artist cliché, who apparently risks being claimed by this generation of scholars as a sort of first-trimester-Psychogeographer. The floppy word ‘life’ in the introduction obscures the word economics, a concern which comes up metronomically in these essays; the chief repetition that makes it clear that they form a complete work together.
This is economics in the specific sense of coming to terms with the demands of nature upon us; οἰκονομία (household management). Sebald meditates on how the artist should arrange their living while the shifting terms of our truce with Nature exacerbate an already precarious position. This very valuable book oscillates between two poles, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. As we pass (roughly) chronologically with the six authors through these paradigm shifts Nazism looms, of course. But when we reach it Nazism is viewed through the lens of a German Agricultural political heritage, managed with a mailed fist.
Yet what is most interesting is the way in which Sebald returns so deliberately to this economic theme in each essay but completely fails to interrogate its significance, like a face-blind man confidently and repeatedly showing you a photographic portrait. What is absent is an account of the role capital has to play in making utopia affordable; some would say inevitable. The commemorative arts in antiquity encircled the Polis, and belonged to a way of life where ‘household management’ had been taken care of. For the Greeks this was when you could enjoy the scrutiny of your peers, or in the Modernist era, when you could afford a room of your own. Literature is life After Wealth. In these essays Sebald erroneously applies the Romantic Sublime to the overbearing endurance of capital; wealth that outlives its accumulators; a financial process that has been impiously elevated to the immortality of nature. The tiny human figure in this new picture doesn’t stand on top of a mountain – he stands on a mezzanine overlooking a vast Chongqing factory floor.
What inspires Sebald’s vertigo inducing vision of capital is his conflation of the Terror of political revolution with the Industrial Revolution:
There lurks the fear of the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control. When the young Mörike (1804-1875) begins writing, he has at his back the revolutionary upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, while the terrors which herald the new age of industrialisation are already silhouetted on the horizon, the turmoil unleashed by the accumulation of capital and the moves towards the centralisation of a new, cast-iron state authority. The Swabian quietism Mörike subscribed to is – like all the Biedermeier arts – a kind of instinctive defence mechanism in the face of the calamity to come.
In the short-term this is an opinion that has its merits. The uprooting and redistribution of muscle power around the British Isles was a social calamity with effects that some argue are still felt today (I have no idea if the same was true in Germany). Political revolution and Industrial revolution both open up periods of innovation and experiment that bewilder and exploit those that live within them. Yet it seems clear enough that Sebald sees this ‘spinning out of control’ as an inherent and enduring property of Capitalism, rather than an extension of the disdain that landowners had already felt towards the working classes for generations. Yet the ‘precariousness’ of life in this new paradigm seems to me to be nothing more than the experience of its novelty.
Sebald’s view that capital is destabilising and spiritually corrosive is unconvincing given all the energy that has been harnessed and labour saved so far. I doubt any system has liberated more individuals to be able to enter education and spend time on the arts as Capitalism. I am one of those fortunate enough to have received the general life-long bursary of industrial commonwealth. Even unsuccessful artists like myself can persist in making art without starving to death. Mörike’s ‘defence mechanism’ is merely an inability to understand the forces at work, and the same nostalgic ‘wishful utopia against progress’ we find amongst the Stoke Newington Set.
But Sebald is not without insight into the ways that humanity can practice old sins with new capital. Keller’s character Heinrich describes the elaborate domestic rituals by which his mother lives on almost nothing. Sebald demonstrates ingeniously how this tale, which deliberately evokes saintliness and the legendary, does not provide an alternative to capitalism as it first appears, but is an exemplary case of capital accumulation. Keller (1819-1890) was ‘obliged to experience first hand how what has been painstakingly saved up by means of self-denial is carried over to the next generation as debt.’ The mother has created a perverse kind of ancestor worship whereby she can watch over Heinrich for the rest of his life even though they both know she cannot see him beyond her grave.
Yet Sebald goes on to repeat the erroneous mantra of this book, ‘Keller was one of the first to recognise the havoc which proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.’ The irony is that Keller’s critique does not go far enough for today’s reader. If one were to scale up the mother’s mode of living on almost nothing, as we find in the slums, we would discover it is in fact a highly inefficient and polluting way of life. Not only does she hand over an emotional debt to the son, these legions of modest dwellings deforest and pollute the natural world. What Sebald fails to appreciate in all of these essays is that Industry is the art of making a high standard of living available to billions, while reducing their effect on the environment. Capital creates thriving cities which reduce the area humanity occupies, while providing for their needs with far less energy. Capital dissolves social castes and provides myriad alternatives to prostitution in deprived zones. Capital allows people who were destined for the production line to obtain an emotional, intellectual life. The question isn’t how capitalism can be slowed down to an acceptable pace for middle class Europeans, but rather how we can get over ourselves more quickly while capital gives access to commonwealth for these others we once, perhaps we still consider inferior to ourselves. The more people involved in this process globally, the sooner climate and conflict can be resolved.
The middle class fear is that if all mod cons are given to everyone the planet will choke, but this is wrong-headed. The process of delivering technologies to the masses demands their constant reinvention – new forms that do the same work with less effort.
True gold, for Keller, is always spun with great effort from next to nothing… False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.
No. These common sense instincts are factually flawed, just as the observation that the sun goes round the earth is an anthropocentric illusion. Keller’s alternative to capitalism is a system of barter exemplified by Frau Margret who owns a junk shop. Junk is brought by customers who pay tribute to her with consumables, their pre-capitalist Matriarch (also idealised by Engels). No, Keller can keep his tribal obsequiousness. And his junk can be sorted into the fruits of Work and Labour, the latter to be scrapped and recast in better, life-affirming forms.
This praxis of living on nothing is reprised in Sebald’s praise for Robert Walser, (1878-1956) a transient exigence imposed to some extent by the Nazis. Walser’s life story testifies that when the world goes mad you must enter the asylum. Walser was key to Sebald’s realisation that ‘everything is connected across space and time’, which is the true kernel of his writing practice; currently being trudged into the mud by the new breed of professional psychogeographers. They can even obtain a Chair in Psychogeography in a respected university, not that they would dream of sitting down. One such synergy is ‘Natural history and the history of our industries’ – this is a profound connection of two categories usually treated as opposites, prominent in After Nature, and this is surely Sebald’s most rewarding observation about capital – that the rigours of nature, harnessed, are at the heart of Industry. This seems obvious, but most people behave as if nature is a gentle equilibrium that needs to be defended from our interventions. Sebald sees nature as something temporary on the face of the Earth, a senseless botcher that undoes the marvel it achieved blindly moments before. Industry exports this chaotic genius from the automatic operations of our cells. Motor proteins are directly related to motor cars. Sebald’s error is to be intimidated by this and join with these other great authors who claimed Agriculture as a stalemate; a compromise with nature. The allotment garden seems a good place to get off, and it is no accident that many academics hope to be allotted a quiet room where they can tend their books and papers like vegetables in a greenhouse. But there is ‘never a stop’, and as successive generations of engineers take it in turns to kick Malthus in the balls, we will find widespread equality, freedom and cooperation demand automation.
It is hard to explain why Sebald sees frustrated wisdom in these agricultural obsessions. He even goes on to explain that allotment settlements in Berlin in Mörike’s time were created as an expression of a desire to extend the Fatherland and create German colonies in Africa and Tahiti. In this case it is Agricultural idealism, not the manic stock market, which is fertile ground for nationalistic tyranny. Nazi Germany hid a beating industrial heart behind an Agricultural screen of blood and soil. German factory workers would mail-order peasant outfits from Nazi periodicals to wear at the weekend. So why does Sebald double-back and describe centralised state authority and capitalist accumulation as bedfellows when they have an inherent antipathy? Surely Germany was a very peculiar case in harbouring both. Without the failure of capitalism, stock market crashes and war reparations, it is hard to imagine Nazism would have had so much appeal. The slavish sameness of the Nazi production line isn’t one of productivity worship – it is emblematic of the death of the individual, consummated in death on the battlefield. The robot is their ideal citizen. The Nazi attitude to butter is famous: I can’t believe it’s not bullets.
This German heritage of agriculture and aristocratic authoritarianism is hinted at in Sebald’s essay on Hebel (1760-1826). He was the editor and principal contributor to an almanac, the Hausfreund, which can be considered emblematic of the importance of ‘household management’ to that particular writer.
At no point were his hopes and philosophy directed at a violent and bloody reversal of the status quo. His concern was only ever for the practical improvement of the living conditions of the people, such as promoted by Karl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden.
This member of the Aristocracy advocated the ideas of the French Physiocrats, whose ‘economic philosophy’ centred on Agriculture. Sebald’s judgement is that this group wished to inoculate the German Aristocracy against revolution with a dose of ‘Bourgeois rationality’, conserving the natural order of benevolent despotism. Germany would become ‘a large and flourishing garden’, where the lower orders were too blessed and busy to think of a revolution that could only return to terrorise them in turn.
Everywhere peace and satisfaction would reign, “If only all men would cultivate the fields and provide for themselves with the work of their hands”. In such nostalgic utopian views was the educated middle class wont to articulate its discomfiture at the rapid spread of the economy of goods and capital it had itself created, and which was now proliferating year on year.
These astute comments on middle class hypocrisy remind me of the comments of Engineer D in After Nature, who has lost his belief in the science he always served:
the revolutions of great
systems cannot be
righted, too diffuse are
the workings of power,
the one thing always
the other’s beginning
Again both Industrial and Political revolution are invoked in one stroke. But further, in Sebald’s marvellous poem the natural process of evolution, both iconographer and iconoclast, becomes identified with the technical ingenuity conjured up by the human mind. Industry is an extension of Evolution in the mass of interconnected entities. This is true. Metabolism is at the heart of cells, combustion engines and household management. Sebald demonstrates that evolution is not the more gradual, comfortable cousin of revolution; great systems cannot be righted. Nature has always threatened to overwhelm Civilisation, but now the same powers have been invited within the city walls by Industry.
Perhaps the life of Rousseau (1712-1778) weaves these threads together best. He shared the Physiocrat faith in Agriculture. When invited to draft a constitution for Corsica his ideal was to create a non-hierarchical society administered through rural communities. Bartering, again, would replace the monetary economy, and agriculture was seen as the ‘only possible basis for a truly good and free life’. Luckily for Corsica, Rousseau couldn’t face the journey from Ile St-Pierre that would be necessary to realise this dream. ‘A utopian dream in which bourgeois society, increasingly determined by the manufacture of goods and the accumulation of private wealth, is promised a return to more innocent times.’ But by depicting this as an ‘inherent contradiction’ between utopian nostalgia and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’, Sebald overlooks the possibility that the powers unleashed by capitalism may improve the standard of living generally, and that ‘private wealth’ may increase individual freedoms. The question is really how these benefits should be managed with equity, and it seems inevitable Rousseau’s rural communes would become a way to distribute lack fairly rather than create prosperity.
Even the Bible, the handbook of so many Agrarian idealists and Adamites, bars the way back to Edenic innocence with a flaming sword. The future is a Holy City, furnished with parks; Eden was always a peaceful garden surrounded by wilderness under the rule of nature; its natives plucked fruit in the equatorial fashion; Adam didn’t need to delve or Eve to spin until they were in the muck. Agriculture has just as much toil about it as Industry, and the labourers in both field and factory either receive a safer, easier working life from machinery, or the chance to go to University. The word unemployment implies that employment is the natural order of things. I suggest disemployment. It makes it harder to justify these elitist tuition fees.