The Scythe of Saturn

W. G. Sebald (1944 - 2001)

W. G. Sebald (1944 - 2001)

“Unfortunately, I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought. All of us are fantasists, ill-equipped for life, the children as much as myself. It seems to me sometimes that we never get used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.”  Words from the writer W. G. Sebald, in his most notable book ‘The Rings of Saturn’. When you hear that title, ‘The Rings of Saturn’, one might imagine we were about to start talking about a science fiction book; it brings to mind Star Trek, and the USS Enterprise whizzing past (in the opening credits) the rings of a Saturn-like planet. But rather, the title has a more mythological association: the Romans deified the planets of the cosmos, they understood them be representations of divine forces - Mars the God of War, Mercury the God of commerce and financial gain, and Jupiter as Father Time, usually depicted as an elderly bearded man, dressed in a robe, and carrying a scythe and an hourglass. A scythe with which he will cut you down when your time is at hand. In one of the author’s ponderings, he likens the earth’s slow turn to darkness to Saturn’s scythe. He says, “The shadow of the night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set… one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn--an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness”.

Beach at Lowestoft

‘The Rings of Saturn’ is a book almost impossible to categorise. On the surface, it is a travel biography, about a man on a walking tour of Suffolk. He begins, “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work, and in fact my hope is released, up to a point, for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then…” Fiction, travel, biography, myth, and memoir, or all of these. When W. G. Sebald was asked which category he wanted his book in, he said he wanted all the categories. Perhaps the best way to categorise it is as a post-modern novel. Sebald was born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944. He studied in Germany, and in 1967 moved to England, ending up in Norwich as the professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia. Success came late; he wrote his books first in German, and his renown came as they were translated into English. Difficult to categorise, but thematically the book explores subjects of time, memory, and identity. He is freed from work, carefree, departing into the nature Suffolk has on offer - the call of nature - and when alone with his thoughts he quickly realises he is not at all carefree, in fact he is quite depressed. Being a German living in England, of the post-WWII generation, he finds his thoughts return to his fatherland, the atrocities orchestrated by ‘his’ people. This is a theme Sebald often returns too, often infuriated by his own generation’s reluctance to explore the topic. ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is very much rooted into Suffolk county; his walk begins on the coast in Lowestoft, and ends at Bungay.  As he reached a place, an event or thought comes to him, he draws out an association, and it spirals out from there. Spirals out… It is thought that the Rings of Saturn were once a moon, a moon that strayed too close, was drawn in by gravity, and shattered against the planet’s surface, leaving dust particles and ice crystals in its wake. This is very good explanation of what this book is: a series of concentric rings, concentric walks, around topics of England, made up of shattered fragments of the past.

Sebald's Bergen Belsen photograph.

Last week I went to Lowestoft and looked out into the North Sea, or as Sebald calls it, the German sea. Cat and I put 2p coins into the 2p windfall machines, and we watched at the fountain as children tried to run from one side to the other without being sprayed, most of the time unsuccessfully. Like most seaside towns, it is filled with people having far too much fun, a mood oddly out of step with the book that commences upon its shores. In the part we had read out – the precarious natural scene, the division of sea and the lake, the Benacre broad, an hour's walk north of Southwold where the beach divides the fresh and salty water - there does not stand upon the other side of the lake a great stone manor house. Though the precarious natural scenery is depicted accurately, the manor, along with Major Le Strange, liberator Bergen Belsen, is fictitious. Throughout ‘The Rings of Saturn’ there are small black and white photographs, dark, as if each one has been photocopied several times each, adding very effectively to the melancholy tone being communicated. As soon as Bergen Belsen is mentioned, the book presents us with a shocking full spread image, which is apparently the scene that greeted the Allied liberators on the 14th April 1945 near the concentration camp. A sea of corpses amidst the tranquil forest. In the photograph, the forest canopy thickens towards the top, obscuring the horizon, thwarting our ability to contextualize it. There is no camp in the background, or barbed fence. There is an odd sort of echoing taking place. We stand upon the eroding shingled beach between Lowestoft and Southwold, look towards the western horizon and see a fictitious manor. We stand among the dead, the victims of Bergen Belsen, we look out, but can see no horizon at all… We are severed from place, alone and cut off, unable to locate ourselves in relationship to the atrocities that took place, unconnected, unable grasp it, and therefore unable to adequately deal with it, or process it. For Sebald these shards act as monuments to destruction, like the very rings of Saturn themselves which are their own kind of monument to an astronomical destruction of eons past. We can only glimpse shards because the whole is beyond comprehension, that magnitude of destruction is beyond us, the ‘whole’ being the process of erosion upon Suffolk’s shores, a moon crashing into a planet, man’s destructive footprint upon the world, or indeed the Holocaust itself.

Benacre Broad.

The way Sebald attempts to capture perception through highlighting these shards of destruction, mirrors closely in tone the work of Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf, writing in the early 1900s, was greatly disturbed by the events of WWI, and though no such external events are referenced in the piece about the dying mouth we had read out, these events act as the backdrop. They frame her melancholia, and prompt her reflection on death that is stronger than she. Though the subject of a book, or this book, may lie far from the concerns in question, somehow it succeeds in capturing it. One talks about something entirely unrelated, and through this unrelated thing, or person, or place, is able to capture something far more extraordinary. Take another example, another photograph slightly earlier in the book, a photograph taken in Lowestoft (allegedly - it’s always difficult with Sebald to know where history ends, and fiction begins, but nevertheless), a photograph taken in Lowestoft in 1913 of fishermen standing amongst a large quantity of fish. This photograph mirrors the photograph I have already mentioned, the men stand scattered amongst the mountain of fish, as the trees stood scattered amongst the mountain of corpses. Here then is another shard, another monument to destruction: a glut of herring. Local people salvage a few for themselves, but the rest rot away. When caught, herring’s colour changes, from a dark green to blue, and glowing in a phosphorescent manner, peaking a few days after their death, and then fading away. Though Sebald here is talking about the properties of herring, really, he is talking about the properties of memory. As Sebald says later in the book: “Whenever a shift in our spiritual life occurs and fragments such as these surface, we believe we can remember. But in reality of course, memory fails us. To many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up…” Phosphorescent fragments, gleaming ice crystals orbiting a far-flung planet.

Sebald's herring in Lowestoft photograph.

In the British Romantic literary tradition - Wordsworth, Coleridge - we walk in nature as a process of recovery. To strip away the rhythm of the modern world, the hour break, economizing, hyper-rationalism, in order that we might recover something of an original state. We meander, we take concentric walks around the same places, the same ideas. In the same way that we catch glimpses of the horrific through Sebald’s work, we also catch glimpses of some idyllic fantasy too, which if truly grasped, and truly inhabited in all its fullness, would in fact be no ideal, but its own kind of horror. Sebald talks about, for example, our idyllic sense of home. A sense which adults can only recall from an imagined past, a place we once called home, where we felt safe and secure, and in this mist of the familiar. But if truly inhabited today, this would be its own kind of oppressive hell. We spend our lives trying to find something we don’t really want. Clarity, perspective. The subtitle of this book, ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is ‘An English Pilgrimage’, a pilgrimage of course being a journey of spiritual significance, which will in some way heal the soul. But really in this book Sebald in his journey is not healed, rather he just recognises the fragmentary, transitory, loss of meaning in it all. This then is perhaps the last refuge of comfort, that the systems of meaning we surround ourselves with in fact have no meaning at all. And so stop trying to convince yourself that they do. Let’s just go on meandering, moving in concentric circles around the same places and ideas, And maybe, that’s good enough…


Reclaiming Peace: The Life and Writings of Etty Hillesum

Part 1

Etty Hillesum (1914 - 1943)

Etty Hillesum (1914 - 1943)

I have been told I have an unusual hand - a hand interesting to palm readers. On my left hand, instead of having two parallel lines as most people do, I have a single line, which cuts directly across my hand. In palmistry circles this is called a simian line, which most people don’t have. Having a simian line, according to palm readers, indicated that my heart and head work as one. It indicated, allegedly, quite an intense individual. Now of course, I don’t take such pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo seriously. If this kind of thing has any validity at all, it would be in this narrow sense: palmistry is a means of creating a therapeutic space, a safe space, in which one can intentionally attune to another, and thus perhaps be able to intuit something from them. The simple act of offering another individual your undivided attention has an emotional, healing value to it.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung was interested in our “collective unconscious”; patterns of thought and images within humanity collectively, which surface throughout human history, in primordial mythic traditions, in alchemy, mythology, and the occult. Carl Jung was fascinated by all such subjects, extrasensory perception, UFOs, and indeed palmistry. In the mid-1920s, a respected Jewish German palmist by the name of Julius Spiers moved to Zurich in order to train as a psychotherapist under Jung. Julius Spier developed his own multidisciplinary approach to psychotherapy, in which he used his palm reading skills as part of his patient analysis. In 1928, having benefited from Carl Jung’s tutelage, now in his 40s Julius Spier moved to Berlin to set up his practice. Spier was very much a ladies’ man. His practice became very popular with the women of Berlin, they regarded him as having a ‘magical personality’. As his palmist-psychotherapeutic approach gained popularity, he began teaching, and his success grew. Being a Jew as he was, living in Berlin became increasingly unwise during the 1930s, and so in 1938 he moved his practice to Amsterdam, where he quickly achieved the same level of success. He was giving lectures, and taking on clients, and in 1941 he took on a new very notable 27-year-old client, and her name was Etty Hillesum.

Julius Spier (1887 - 1942)

Julius Spier (1887 - 1942)

Part 2

Etty Hillesum can be thought of as Anne Frank’s ‘adult counterpart’. Both highly intelligent, female Jewish writers, both killed at hands of the Nazis in concentration camps. Etty Hillesum, though, I think offers a far stronger challenge to her readers, because throughout the horror she encountered first hand she ever radiates a radical tolerance. No matter how awful another individual is towards her, she always strives to see the humanity in the other. As she said in her diary, she looks to see the ‘small, naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man's senseless deeds.’ Hillesum’s altruism in the face of the world’s greatest evil is incredibly difficult to comprehend. When she finally departed for Auschwitz in September 1943, she did so singing. She had an unassailable belief in the underlying goodness of people, a belief she was able to maintain despite what she experienced, and even despite being destroyed herself by people. She refused to join others in their hatred of the German people. She rose above hate, despite the horror all around her; something she was able to do, because she discovered the peace of God within herself.

Part 3

Dutch people celebrating the arrival of the Nazis in Amsterdam, May 1940

Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch woman who died aged 29 in Auschwitz. She is known to us, and is notable, because of the diary she kept from March 1941 to October 1942, a diary she began writing at the behest of her psychotherapist, spiritual mentor, close friend, and ultimately lover, Julius Spier. In 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. At first the occupying Nazi forces did nothing to the Jewish population. Their presence did not affect Etty Hillesum a great deal; she was able to be her provocative, sexually adventurous self, being the popular, party going girl she was. And yet, she began to wrestle with some spiritual angst. She describes this angst as being like a ‘knot of emotions’, holding her back. It was for this reason she sought out Julius Spier, the man who, as a friend had warned her ‘can tell everything about you. From your hands…’ She later described him in this way:  “It’s like this: When [Spier] says ‘This is a table,’ and when someone else says ‘this is a table’, then the two tables are quite different. The things he says, even the simplest ones, sound more impressive, more important, I would almost say more highly “charged” than the same things said by anyone else. And not because he adopts a portentous air, but because he seems to draw on deeper, stronger, and more truly human sources than most others. And in his work he looks for human, not sensational, results, although he invariable causes a sensation just because he is able to look so deeply into people.”  Etty attests that within a very short few weeks, her spiritual outlook on the world had a fundamental shift. Spier introduced her to the Bible, and the writings of St. Augustine, breathing exercises, and practices of listening to her interior self. She felt liberated, and free in a way she had never known. She found a peace and harmony within herself. She felt deeply attuned to Julius Spier, as they were both individuals seeking after the deep truths of the interior self.

Westerbork Concentration Camp

Many Jews at the time in the Netherlands thought there may not be systematic persecution against them after all, but it was not to last. As anti-Jewish regulations started to kick in, it became apparent that the Jewish population in the Netherlands was under threat after all. Etty Hillesum refused to hide, either physically or in plain sight by playing down her Jewish identity. She wanted to be wholly present to reality, and that meant accepting what the world has in store for her, positive or negative. Talking to God in her diary she says, “Alas, there doesn’t seem very much You yourself can do about our circumstances, our lives… you cannot help us but we must help you to defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last…” And so, she commits herself afresh to pursuing her own spiritual development as of utmost importance. She speaks in her diary of joy, and the beauty of life, while at the same time experiencing persecution. She writes how she cannot hate another, that all such hate is simply part of our human condition, just as much in her and in Gestapo officer screaming at her. She always thought well of others, even if they were oppressing her.  “There are, it is true, some even at this late stage putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safe keeping, instead of guarding You dear God. There are those who want to put their bodies in safe keeping, but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings.”

Etty Hillesem in 1939

Etty Hillesem in 1939

“But the babies, those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night to be carried off to a distant land. I have to put it all down quickly, in a muddle, because if I leave it until later I probably won’t be able to go on believing that it really happened. It is like a vision, and drifts further and further away. The babies were easily the worst.”

In northern Holland, there was a temporary camp set up for the Jewish population called Westerbork. In order that Etty Hillesum might minister to the Jewish people suffering there, in order that she might lead some of these people to the peace she knew in God, she voluntarily entered that camp, rather than being sent there by force. When she saw anger and hatred in others, she thought of the interior pain that must be inside of them. She longed to minister to people at that level. On the 7th September 1943, under the order of an SS commander, Etty was deported to Auschwitz with her parents, and her brother.

‘Good Bye for now. We left the camp singing’ - Etty


Still upon the Shores of Walden

The young Henry David Thoreau

The young Henry David Thoreau

Picking up from last week, while Emerson was in England meeting his intellectual hero William Wordsworth, a young 18 year-old-man called David Thoreau was taking his entrance exam to get into Harvard University. He was accepted, barely. While at Harvard, Thoreau studied a broad range of subjects. He focused though mostly on languages, learning Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. In Thoreau’s penultimate year at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his seminal work, ‘Nature’. ‘Nature’ contends that society, which takes us away from nature, destroys our sense of wholeness; that our own spiritual well-being is intrinsically wrapped up with nature. We are part of nature. No human being, no matter how much history has elevated them, or even deified them, is above nature. Take the genteel Wordsworth we met last week. The temptation is to read his poetry, and elevate him in our minds; imagining his verse being of such splendour - coming forth from the mind of a profound genius - the temptation is to imbue Wordsworth with an almost mythic status. But in truth, the Wordsworth we met last week was a gentle and relatable, kind, man, but he was just a man. Nature then is like a great leveller. Nature is in you and I, just as it was in Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau. We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow the weight of the perceived greatness of our forebears to shut down the possibility of individual originality. We must think for ourselves, and not simply conform to the status quo, or traditions, for their own sake. We must live from within, trusting in our own intuitions, reconnecting afresh with the sublime Nature has on offer. When Emerson’s ‘Nature’ was published in 1836, it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. Anyone who read it could not help feeling more wide awake to the beauty and meaning of creation. And this was certainly the case for David Thoreau, or as he came to be known, Henry David Thoreau, who was enamoured by the book; it shaped everything which was to follow.

Engraving of Harvard College, 1767

The subsequent year, in 1837, Thoreau graduated from Harvard University. That year’s commencement speech was given by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his speech, titled ‘The American Scholar’, Emerson restates the central ideas of ‘Nature’, emphasising the need for America to throw off its reverential attitude to European intellectual culture. It was time for America to forge its own literary destiny; to read books, yes, but to no longer mimic them. To find its true inspiration within the immensity of Nature. Inspired by Emerson’s work and address, Thoreau began to keep a journal, in which he recorded his daily life, thoughts, and observations of nature. This journal was the basis for everything Thoreau is now notable for - all his subsequent lectures and published works were first drafted in his journal. For next few years, Thoreau helped his father in his business as a pencil maker, and set up a small school he ran with his brother. But increasingly he was becoming active within Emerson’s Transcendental Club, becoming good friends with Emerson, despite being 14 years his junior. And in 1841 he was invited to move into Emerson’s household in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived off and on for the next decade, officially as the ‘live-in handyman’, but evidently the real purpose was for Thoreau to benefit from Emerson’s support and advice, focusing, as he was, more and more on his writing. There were times when Emerson and Thoreau’s relationship became a bit strained, the primary cause of this tension though seems to have arisen due to the extent to which they idealised one another. They thought so highly of one another that they could not help falling short of each other’s expectations. To Emerson, Henry David Thoreau was a man of such potential, any idle moment was an insult to that potential. Indeed, at times the intellectual intensity between the two men must have been unbearable.

The woods by Walden Pond

It was during this period that Emerson purchased the land around Walden Pond, and in March of 1845 Thoreau began building himself a small cabin there. As he most famously put it “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...” And so began the two year, two month, two day, Walden pond experiment. As I mentioned last week, the Romanticism movement was in reaction against the industrial revolution, against applying a mechanistic, cold logic to life, working to a clock, in which you measured productivity by the hour, and divided labour into delineated tasks. Was society, and industry, and the clock, and maximising productivity, not diminishing our humanity? Thoreau, in going to the pond, was able in a small way to step back in time, to worry less about everyday affairs, and so devote more time to his writing. It also of course gave him the opportunity to put Emerson’s words to the test, to live in closer proximity to the divine, closer proximity to nature, to live to the rhythm of nature. In his actions we find a model of how to live simpler lives, free of excess, living sustainably, in an environmentally conscious way. Thoreau has been regarded as the first modern environmentalist. In 1847 Thoreau left the pond, going back to live in Emerson’s household, and then a year later moved back to his parent’s home. However, it is worth pointing out that all these places around the town of Concord, Massachusetts, are within small area. The walk from Emerson’s home to Walden pond is only 30 minutes, and similarly the walk from Emerson’s house to Thoreau’s parents’ house was about 40 minutes.

A box of pencils from J. Thoreau & Company.

In this period then, after the Walden experiment, when Thoreau was in his early 30s, he once again began working in the production of pencils. Thoreau’s pencils are actually very notable. At this time, his pencils were considered the best. The reason for that was that his pencils did not merely contain graphite, but rather a combination of New England graphite and clay, making them stronger. The combining of graphite and clay in pencils was invented, or at least reinvented, by Thoreau, and is still used to this day. When he wasn’t making pencils, he was working on his most notable book, ‘Walden’, about his time by Walden Pond. Unlike Emerson’s ‘Nature’, which was a big success on publication, when Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ eventually came out, it was a flop. Despite being a more notable book today, at the time it was met with indifference. As Thoreau moved into his late 30s, he had to come to terms with the fact that he would not be the major proponent of transcendentalism he longed to be. And so, disheartened, he turned his attention towards more practical matters, political issues of justice in his own day, most importantly the abolitionist cause. He wrote his second most notable work, ‘Essays on Civil Disobedience’, in which Thoreau advocated for a non-violent, passive resistance approach to slavery. He wrote this essay against the backdrop of America’s 11th president, James K. Polk, who believed strongly in the necessity of slavery. His was a strongly militaristic presidency; he declared war on Mexico to secure the Texas border, and came close to launching the states into a third war with Britain. Thoreau defined himself politically in opposition to Polk. At the heart of this essay, Thoreau asks the question, which again seems exceedingly pertinent to now, what should citizens do when confronted with a president they wholly disagree with? After all, the president was elected, and therefore he was the rightly and democratically appointed man for the job. The prevailing sentiment was that as the majority had spoken, everyone in opposition was obliged to keep silent and respect the will of the majority. Thoreau wanted to challenge this kind of thinking. He believed people should not be blind nationalists following obediently the authority structures in place, but rather be individual thinkers, directed by their own conscience - not just on polling day, but every day. And as such, as individuals directed by our own conscience, we should, when confronted with political authority we disagree with, find our own ways of resisting said authority by non-violent means. To sing our opposition, to march in opposition, to speak in opposition. In 1908, a lawyer from India read Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’. It was to have a lasting impact on him, and ultimately upon his country of India. His name was Mahatma Gandhi.

His grave in Sleepy Hollow cemetery

By Thoreau’s late 30s he had begun to sufferer from tuberculosis. He grew weaker, and died in 1862, when he was only 44 years old. His death was not widely reported. Despite today being regarded as one of America's greatest literary artists, he died practically unknown. Thoreau's funeral eulogy was given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a eulogy which focused almost entirely on all that was worst about the man. Emerson painted a picture of a man who was cold, brittle, and anti-social, a picture which tainted Thoreau’s reputation, and resulted in his work not being read for a century. Thoreau's work was never about building a linear or logical argument, it was about one’s personal experience in the face of nature, it was about those isolated moments of sudden awareness. Thoreau’s work differs from Emerson’s in a number of ways, most obviously in being far more grounded, and practical. Thoreau invites us afresh to consider our relationship to Nature, one another, and also to the state.

‘Mist’ - a poem by Henry David Thoreau

Low-anchored cloud,
Newfoundland air,
Fountain-head and source of rivers,
Dew-cloth, dream-drapery,
And napkin spread by fays;
Drifting meadow of the air,
Where bloom the daisied banks and violets,
And in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers,—
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men’s fields.