Saturday, February 05, 2011

After Nature

We made our way to Suffolk last weekend for the third manifestation of the Re-Enchantment project, dedicated to W.G. Sebald and landscape.  The events at Snape Maltings began on Friday with the premiere of Grant Gee's film Patience (After Sebald), which retraces the walk taken by the narrator of The Rings of Saturn and examines the book through the responses of artists and writers like Iain Sinclair, Tacita Dean and Adam Phillips.  Saturday's symposium opened with Stephen Watt's poem, 'For My Friend, Max Sebald', and gave a platform to various writers on place: Rachel Lichtenstein, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Alexandra Harris and Dan Gretton. Although each discussed their own work rather than Sebald's, their contributions provided a context for thinking about Sebald and landscape, picked up in the round table discussion that ended the afternoon.  The talks were all stimulating and enjoyable but did leave me wanting to get back to Sebald's writing, so it was a pleasure to end the day with a Patti Smith concert in which she performed sections of Sebald's poem After Nature. The more committed Sebaldians stayed on for some guided walks to Orford Ness on Sunday, but we decided to head home - put off by the prospect of the fierce winter wind blowing in off the German Ocean.

The temptation to walk in Sebald's footsteps is strong (as I have mentioned in an earlier post about Sebald), but several contributors to Grant Gee's film remark on the futility of this endeavour.  In an interview with The Guardian Gee describes Robert Macfarlane's attempt to retrace Sebald's walk. '"He arrived in Lowestoft," laughs Gee, "and saw everybody was happy, that the weather was lovely, and then he went and had a swim in the sea. He realised he was having too much fun – that what he was doing was unSebaldian – so he packed it in after two days."'  Gee filmed the locations in grainy black and white, like Sebald's embedded images, giving us the sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator (voiced by Jonathan Pryce).  The film is unobtrusively soundtracked by The Caretaker (James Kirby), whose music has often dwelt on memory and amnesia.  It is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so we do not get to hear about Sebald from people who were close to him, or hear the views of a succession of literary critics - the emphasis is on Sebald's artistic legacy and influence.  His humorous side comes through too - fans of the Lowestoft fish-eating incident will be pleased to see this 'sorry wreck' of a meal makes a brief appearance.  Gee also managed to persuade two actors to lie on the beach at Covehithe and recreate the sight that so disturbed the narrator, looking down from the cliff at a couple resembling 'some great mollusc washed ashore', her legs spreadeagled, his feet twitching 'like those of one just hanged'.

 Robert Macfarlane introduces The Wild Places of Essex

After the screening Grant Gee was interviewed by Robert Macfarlane whose own recent film The Wild Places of Essex was shown as part of Saturday's programme.  This was made for the BBC's Natural World series and in complete contrast to Patience (After Sebald) it was shot in high definition colour.  The camera lingers on bluebells and badgers in the woods near Billericay, deer leaping somewhere in Epping Forest and seals stained rusty orange by the iron in the Thames estuary.  However, Macfarlane, like Sebald, was also making a literary journey, and we see him reflecting on the nature of wildness and the way industry and nature conflict and interact.  It made me want to visit Rainham Marshes, and even Jaywick, where crumbling streets are named after coastal plants that have long since disappeared (I thought of the poems in H.D.'s Sea Garden).  Essex also featured in Rachel Lichtenstein's talk, which drew on her books Rodinsky's Room (1999) and On Brick Lane (2007) and illustrated the way history has shaped the inhabitants of these places.  Like Sebald, she has listened to the accounts of people marooned by time or who hold memories of worlds that have disappeared forever.  Another Sebaldian character, Fred Zentner, emigrant and bookshop owner, is the subject of a Grant Gee short film, seen packing up to leave after forty years selling specialist cinema books.  Among the other short Gee films shown in Snape I was particularly struck by The Western Lands and have included an extract below because of its landscape subject.

Looking back, I think the day's main talking point was provided by Richard Mabey, who criticised Sebald's lack of respect for the Suffolk landscape in The Rings of Saturn. His particular concern was with Dunwich Heath, which the narrator found to be a 'melancholy region', forlorn above the sea.  Sebald writes of the prehistoric settlers who burned off the forests, saying the scene must have resembled those palls of smoke now visible above the jungles of Brazil and Borneo.  Mabey explained that it could not have happened - Suffolk's deciduous woods would not have burned in this way.  The criticism had added force as part of an ecocritical plea to see the natural world more clearly and resist the pathetic fallacy (Mabey's concerns reminded me that the Climategate controversy had centred on Sebald's University of East Anglia).  Does it matter?  Sebald ends his book with an explicitly unreliable anecdote, based on a passage in Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica 'that I can no longer find'.  He says that  in Holland 'it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.' Sebald's melancholy world view may have obscured the details of the landscape and people he encountered, but perhaps this helps us see the journey we are on more clearly.

Snape Maltings: landscape framed by
a hole in the Family of Man
(Barbara Hepworth) 

In defence of The Rings of Saturn, Robert Macfarlane asserted that there are many different ways of writing about a landscape.  Sebald's publishers found it hard to categorise Sebald's work, a unique mix of memoir, fiction, history, travel; similar confusions had surrounded Bruce Chatwin, whose books had nevertheless opened up new space for writers like Sebald.  Richard Mabey continued to question the need for 're-enchantment' and argued that we are still too conditioned to see landscapes as prospects, viewed through the eyes of a surveyor or landowner.  He would like more artists to follow John Clare, immersing themselves in the natural world and able to see the landscape from a non-human perspective.  Alexandra Harris (whose Romantic Moderns I'm currently enjoying) put in a word for the continuing importance of the framed view, which slows us down and directs our attention.  The neo-Romantics in her book depicted places that had been closely observed, but worked on by the imagination - like Suffolk in The Rings of Saturn.  Sebald sees things through the eyes of an artist rather than a naturalist and his books concern visions of landscapes, like Grünewald's in the Basel Crucifixion: 'behind a group of mourners / a landscape reaches so far into the depths / that our eyes cannot see its limits.'  The strange dark sky may seem unreal but may still have been painted 'after nature', inspired by memories of the eclipse of 1502, a 'catastrophic incursion / of darkness, the last trace of light / flickering from beyond.'

These lines were read by Patti Smith at the concert that evening, accompanied by her daughter Jesse on piano and Michael Campbell on xylophone, guitar and percussion.  Among the songs they performed were 'My Blakean Year', 'Ghost Dance', and 'Birdland', which she said had been composed in an associative way reminiscent of After Nature.  They encored with 'Because the Night', introduced as Sebald's "favourite Patti Smith song", the least reliable assertion of the day.  She read an unfinished poem written in tribute to Sebald, but it was her emotionally charged performance of texts from After Nature that made the greatest impression, filling the hall with Sebald's own verse.  Think of the way Patti Smith songs like 'Land', written as prose poetry, begin with gentle accompaniment, then take off, soaring faster and louder until finally getting resolved on a new note of calm. Sebald's poetry lent itself to this treatment, especially the closing lines of After Nature, which she read with gathering momentum until the last sentence, where the sun sets on a distant landscape. The poem describes a dream in which Sebald sees far below him his own house and 'the shadows falling / on the East Anglian landscape'.  He flies over the North Sea and the Rhine's alluvial plain, 'cities phosphorescent / on the river bank, / industry's glowing piles waiting / beneath the smoke trails...'  Time seems to stretch out and speed up and he finds himself looking into Altdorfer's great painting: Alexander's army, Darius 'in flight / towards the sickle moon' and finally, beyond them, 'the evening glow / and a city on the shore ... The Nile Delta can be made out, / the Sinai Peninsula, the Red Sea / and, still farther in the distance, / towering up in dwindling light, / the mountain ranges, / snow-covered and ice-bound, / of the strange, unexplored, / African continent.'

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus (detail) 1529
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Kevin Faulkner said...

Sounds like an extremely stimulating event, thanks for reviewing in great detail. I'm trying to find the passage mentioned by Sebald in Browne's 'Pseudodoxia'. Wish I'd attended this Snape event it attracting so many diverse talents; it bodes well for further artistic homages closer to the 10th anniversary to Sebald's untimely death.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has walked alone at twilight along the shingle at Dunwich past the illuminated tents of the night fisherman will be caught in Sebaled's net and forever enchanted.

Plinius said...

There have been some problems with the commenting - if it's stopped you for some reason please just send me an email. Here is what Gareth from ArtEvents has emailed me to add in here:

Dear Andrew many thanks for your comprehensive coverage of our weekend programme at Snape. For readers who might be interested, we shall be releasing Patience (After Sebald) later in the year and also doing special festival 'event' screenings. Please sign up to our e-list for full and advance notice of this and all Re-Enchantment projects, including info on our book 'Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings' at
Gareth Evans

Anonymous said...

I still remember going to an event at the South Bank on literature in translation were Sebald spoke. He came across as a very modest person. Did anyone who knew him well comment on what he would have thought of this event being dedicated to him?

Kevin Faulkner said...

i was only a slight acquaintance of Max's but I'm fairly confident that he would have been highly embarrassed at the developing cult which is growing over his literary works.