Selected Passages from W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn

-- "At the end of the passage that led to the room where we were sitting ... hung an oval, half-fogged mirror that had a somewhat disquieting effect. We felt that this dumb witness was keeping a watch on us, and thus we discovered--discoveries of this kind are almost always made in the dead of night--that there is something sinister about mirrors. Bioy Cesares then recalled the observations of one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar, that the disturbing thing about mirrors, and also the act of copulation, is that they multiply the number of human beings."

-- "As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth's slow turning into the dark. The huntsman are up in America, writes Thomas Browne in The Garden of Cyrus, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of 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, so, he continues, 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."

-- "They abandoned their hopeless struggle, turned their backs on the sea, and, whenever their declining means allowed it, built to the westward in a protracted flight that went on for generations; the slowly dying town thus followed--by reflex, one might say--one of the fundamental patterns of human behavior. A strikingly large number of our settlements are oriented to the west and, where circumstances permit, relocate in a westward direction. The east stands for lost causes."

-- "In the final analysis, our entire work is based on nothing but ideas, ideas which change over the years and which time and again cause one to tear down what one had thought to be finished, and begin again from scratch. I would more than likely never have started building the Temple if I had had any notion of how my work would get out of hand, and of the demands it would make on me as it became ever more complex. After all, if the Temple is to create the impression of being true to life, I have to make every one of the tiny coffers on the ceilings, every one of the hundreds of columns, and every single one of the many thousands of diminutive stone blocks by hand, and paint them as well. Now, as the edges of my field of vision are beginning to darken, I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish the Temple and whether all I have done so far has not been a wretched waste of time."

-- "This then, I thought as I looked around me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing in a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?"


Who Can? Toucan.

I arrived home late last night exhausted and slightly giddy. It seems appropriate, given the latter point, that I thought (for the first time in a solid five years) about the toucan. I was in Brasil, and my group had an exploration day of sorts, which we spent hiking and exploring around a nature preserve outside of Brasilia. Mostly when I think about that day, I remember the waterfalls. They were quite beautiful, and the one was especially high--the daredevil in our midst quickly found an elevation from which to jump down into the pool below, and for those who had tired of the jump, we were able to swim under the torrent into the caverns behind (but dared not put our feet down, lest the razor sharp rocks below the surface should slice them to ribbons).

If I pause to tug at the memory a bit, other things come forward. One of the first pools we came to had leeches in it, much to the chagrin of the individuals who decided to wade into it. And there were these blood red carnivorous plants. I think I still have a picture of them somewhere (I could check, but I like the way uncertainty tastes). They were the most oddly sinister things you've ever seen, like an evolutionary mirror of a praying mantis, which looks like a plant but is an insect, while these behaved like insects, but were plants. Obviously their prey were nothing human-sized, but I still had the uncomfortable sensation that if they just grew a little bigger and spread out a bit to cover a greater ground area, they would probably not hesitate to digest larger things. And, appropriately, they would probably look rather like a pool of blood. Let us just say that if one were to poop in the woods, they would not be the best lining for your makeshift toilet. (I'm well aware that they're unlikely to do any injury whatsoever to a person, but the role of imagination is, among other things, to appreciate the absurdity of what is real.)

And then there was the toucan. Toucans really are strange looking. That kind of beak to body ratio could hardly fail to render them absurd. This particular toucan was probably part of the rehabilitation program that occurred at the preserve, since I never saw it fly, but then, I know very little about the habits of toucans as a species, having only met the one. He was a relatively social creature, waddling up to join us before we embarked on our hike, but if he liked us, he had an oddly aggressive way of showing it. A few of us had paused and were standing in a circle, and in his incredibly small brain the toucan generated the notion that he should go from person to person attempting to bite their feet.

I hope you can appreciate just how silly this looked. Just imagine a 6' tall person assiduously avoiding a spider, and you have the right idea. Of course, a toucan's beak is enormous (obviously--remember that beak to body ratio), so you probably don't want one to chomp down on your toes, assuming that it has any amount of jaw strength (It might not. I'm quite vague on the anatomy here.). And having once been nipped on the shoulder by an ostrich at Lake Tobias, I have a healthy disinclination to anger large, beaky birds. But it was still amusing to watch otherwise fearless individuals avoiding a stumpy, waddling bird.

Experiences are rarely memorable for the bare content of what occurred. I can tell you in a sincerely bored tone of voice that I have been to Peru, Guatemala, Switzerland, and so on. Where I have been is not terribly important to me, except perhaps in a game of Never Have I Ever. This is not to say that I found any of my travels boring. It is simply an observation about the nature of memory and of stories: that the things that create interest, that make those experiences valuable to us, are often in the things that we, as necessarily selective rememberers, are most prone to forget.

I remember walking along the River Cam through the Grantchester Meadows to the Orchard on a chilly afternoon in early spring, watching in utter disbelief as a group of doughty adventurers made the upriver swim. Or on another afternoon jaunt with Leah, we passed by the skating field and listened to the rusty gate squawk of pheasants, for whom Leah expressed a deep distaste. In the seemingly enormous scope of the six months that I spent in Cambridge, those moments become vanishingly small and difficult to see, and yet they are the justification lying in the dusty corner of my mind for the typically unsubstantiated statement that I had a life-changing, wonderful time there. Of course I did. Nobody ever asks why. Well, that's why.

Being fully present in the moment has left me open to remembering those devilish details. It is a becoming soft: like wax or clay, open to the impression of a million tiny perceptions pricking painfully at your senses to produce a joyful chorus: "You are alive! You are alive!"

As usual, I have no idea how to conclude this. So I offer only a parting thought:

Efficiency says that if you can make one journey instead of two, then you should only make the one to conserve time and energy. Adventure says that if you can make two journeys instead of one, you should make two, because the world and you in that world will have changed in the time between the first and the second.


Ezekiel, Who Was Blind

I hear the wind
I hear the wind
Pass over the valley.
The bones, they rattle.
The bones, they rest.
Dry bones.
Dry dust.
But wait--
The wind is moving.