Not simply re-reading, but reading as remembrance, with a sense of the inherited layers: measuring the difference between working through W. H. Auden’s canonical poem about “suffering” reduced to “some untidy spot” today and the first time those words were found, twenty years ago. Then it was there to be read precisely because of its canonical status. Still, it immediately struck a nerve of sense. Done with Donne, the romantic bramble cut through, all of Pound’s impossible allusions cast aside, none of Bishop’s demanding banality. Half of a page in the middle of the introductory anthology, it stood plain, clear, and contained.
It was read then on a campus in
Sitting in the sun on a wide campus, the textures of daily life were more important than text itself, and certainly more important than figuring out what it might mean that Auden was showing something essential in the citing of Breughel, or what it might mean for him to be in Brussels in 1938: where and when one could buy a postcard of King Leopold III as a pilot adventurer; when the war was coming over the horizon, just a month after Kristallnacht had burned its warning into the Jews of Germany; where and when Paul de Man was himself just a restless student earning a degree in chemistry, two years before he would write collaborationist pieces for Le Soir promoting the rigors of a scientific treatment of literature, and long before he would create the textual alchemy that tried to make history, even his own, disappear into impossible translation.
Auden felt clear then, and he feels right now. The failure of apprehension is common enough, more so when the sun shines or the business at hand turns the eye from other recognitions. So it was that
the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy failing out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Now that it is a colder time, another life being lived, it is easier to hear how such poems gather memories upon them. The words carry their meanings but also the strange and uncanny affectsof all those other times, places, and ways of encountering them. Instead of the anthology with its decontextualized, sterilized and fossilized exhibit, now “Musée des Beaux Arts” is seen in its rightful place. It is needed to make sense of the cold currents through which the expensive and delicate sail. So spurred by a reference in another work, one is lead to the volume of collected Auden, where the tale of Icarus is adjacent to a poem called grounded in the date and season of its creation, “
Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
The certainty that constitutes a thing.
Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House
Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,
A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.
W. G. Sebald instills such lessons of looking for that history, of looking for the history of man in each look out and back. The past is continually there in both the obvious traces of the photographs he so often uses, but it also saturates his works in the form of other works inherited, absorbed until they form a filter of seeing.
It is common to think of the memories of reading held in marginalia or annotations; underlinings making declarations. The richer sense of the past's return comes through the accreted associations with the words themselves, or the way we create the stories for pictures or the pictures for the stories and then take notice of the world, staring meaning into it.
This kind of memory is necessary, Sebald says, because “it is hard to discover / the winged vertebrates of prehistory / embedded in tablets of slate.”
Unlike the absent fossil of the natural world, man’s history is written in a thousand carved scars of the earth, or in each tiny cringe before the self-mutilating memory. It can be seen and felt. It is in the dream of Icarus before that fall, “sailing in the midst of / the currents of light.” Earthbound, it is the great hoping “perhaps” that mirrors his flight, the possibility “you’ll see a golden coast / a land veneered with rain or / a schoolboy on his way home / over a beautiful meadow.” It is likewise in this passage’s echo of Auden; a memory that the suffering is hidden in those brief spells of necessary recovery, which is the mind’s work itself, a small, tentative flight waiting to be hatched.