Islands of refuge


Damion Searls on A Place in the Country, and Sebald in the age of Google Earth.

When we read Sebald fifteen or so years ago, his combination of historical acknowledgment and cultural engagement seemed definitive, but rereading him recently, I was surprised to feel the work out of date in some ways. I thought he had captured what it meant to be alive in our time, but our time has moved on: to put it bluntly, gone online. His method was one of drawing connections — “Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” he remarks in A Place in the Country — but that is not something one learns slowly anymore. Here in Internet world, finding connections is the work of a nanosecond. The last two pages of Rings of Saturn catalogue various occurrences on the day Sebald finished writing, and it used to read as a deeply moving web of connections across time, moving because it tracked Sebald’s mind making those connections. Now it almost seems like a second-rate Wikipedia entry, /April-13-Events.

On the other hand, Sebald never just found connections or followed links; he made them, made them new. Sebald’s work is not encyclopedic, because it lacks any drive for totality or pretense of completeness — he follows whim, goes wherever things take him. In an interview, Sebald described his process this way:

It’s a form of unsystematic searching. . . . One thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then, obviously, they’ll connect up. But they’ll only connect up in an obvious sort of way, which actually isn’t, in terms of writing something new, very productive.

The poet and translator Anne Carson once said something similar: “The things you think of to link are not in your own control. It’s just who you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the nature of your mind.” Unsystematic searching, idiosyncratic linking: These are valuable as ever but harder to get to now, swamped as they are by the other kind. To the challenge of making imaginative connections has been added the challenge of making them visibly our own, off the preprogrammed, data-mined, hyperlinked grid.