A wonderfully disorienting experience

I’m halfway through W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, in which you can read, for example, the following comment on Newtonian time:

If Newton thought, said Austerlitz and pointed through the window down at the in the last reflection of the day glimmering water curve, that surrounded the so-called Isle of Dogs, if Newton really thought that time was a stream like the Thames, where then is the source of time and into which sea does it finally flow?

(That’s my translation, which captures just a bit of the tortuousness of Sebald’s German syntax that English can’t accommodate.)  Also this question:

In what way do things that are immersed in time differ from those that are never touched by it?

The relevance of this question to mathematics should be obvious.  The following quotations from a New Yorker article by Mark O’Connell, published on the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death in a road accident, are not obviously relevant to mathematics, but some readers may find them relevant to the MWA‘s peculiar style, which some readers seem to find irritating.  It’s no accident that Sebald’s The Emigrants was one of the books I was reading while I was writing MWA:  I find that I naturally tend to adopt the rhythm and tone of whatever I’m reading in my own writing, and I choose what I read  as a function of what I’m trying to write.  (And that’s one reason I’m now reading Austerlitz.)

…it was out of frustration with the strictures of academic publication that Sebald turned to creative writing (a vague and ungainly term that, by default, winds up being the most accurate generic description of his work). “He’d originally taught German literature,” says Bigsby, “and had published the kind of books that academics do. But he got increasingly frustrated, and began to write in what he called an ‘elliptical’ way, breaching the supposed boundaries between fact and fiction—not what you’re supposed to do as an academic.” Sebald himself sometimes described his work as “documentary fiction,” which goes some way toward capturing its integration of apparently irreconcilable elements.

And then
Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading. His books occupy an unsettled, disputed territory on the border of fiction and fact, and this generic ambivalence is mirrored in the protean movements of his prose.

The “him” in question is Sebald, of course, but I can’t deny that “wonderful disorientation” is what I’m after when I read pretty much anything.



3 thoughts on “A wonderfully disorienting experience

  1. sntx

    While I have not read Austerlitz, I have read The Rings of Saturn (the only Sebald I have read, and only in translation), where the principal voice is again deeply concerned with time. It is a wonderful book, and I think I understand what you mean.

    In the latest edition of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, there is an entry called ‘fictitious non-fiction’ or maybe ‘creative non-fiction’ – I don’t remember which – but it is full of disorienting books; one that comes to mind is Foucault’s Order of Things and even, surprisingly, Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien.


  2. Nqabutho

    “In what way do things that are immersed in time differ from those that are never touched by it?”

    Their existence is causally dependent upon some prior condition. The relation between a proposition and another proposition, rule or definition upon which its truth depends is a purely logical dependency, outside of time, but we understand the former kind of relation (“empirical”) in terms of the latter kind of relation, in Kantian fashion. This is not quite right, but I’m tired and need to get some sleep right now. There are two main kinds of logical dependency relation, and the causal relation is modeled on the functional dependency, rather than the inclusion (deducibility) structure, although the latter is involved in the relation between the statement of the causal law and the causal hypothesis of which it is an instance. I think. I’ll come back to it tomorrow. Other differences follow from this.

    In any case, I would suggest T.S.Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages”, the third of his Four Quartets. I love this thought:

    Men’s curiosity searches past and future
    And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
    The point of intersection of the timeless
    With time is an occupation for the saint —
    No occupation either, but something given
    And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
    Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

    And so forth. A great contemplation of the problem by the poet.



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