THE VIOLENCE OF MEANING

John Tagg

 

I

It would seem there is something futile about writing about photographs, about saying what is there to be seen.

In Winfried Sebald’s scrupulous and disarming work, The Emigrants, photographs appear on the pages here and there, matter of factly and without attribution. It is unusual, perhaps, to find photographs in what one might have taken for a novel, at least since the brief rise and fall of the photographic book at the turn of the 1930s and 40s. But the photographs in Sebald’s text evoke no surprise.

Someone’s father is said to have driven a Dčrkopp in the twenties and we see a photograph of a car with four passengers in a cobbled street. There is an elementary school outing "to the conduit house above Hofen and the powder magazine where the Veterans’ Association kept their ceremonial canon, on the hill where the stations of the cross led up to the Calvary Chapel". And there is a church spire rising from the jostling heads of little boys. We are told that the photograph that follows was taken in the Bronx in March 1939: a family dinner showing relatives who had emigrated from Germany during the Weimar years. A photograph is mentioned that resembled another, clipped earlier from a Swiss magazine, and then one or other of these appears in a break in the text. The pilot of a launch generously allows the narrator to take her picture, dressed as the woman described in the text. On a walk along a New Jersey beach, Uncle Kasimir pulls out his camera and takes "this" picture of the narrator, a print of which he sends two years later, along with his gold pocket watch. On a trip to Jerusalem in 1913, Uncle Adelwarth poses in what we are told is "Arab costume;" while, in Constantinople, his travelling companion secures a photographic souvenir of a dervish boy aged about twelve. And there they are, the photographs. A character remembers a photograph taken by his father almost thirty years before and he himself has a photo he took of his father on the Brauneck, newly returned from Dachau, "one of the few that have survived from those years" (E, 186). The photographs are there, sure enough. Nothing to remark on here. Except that, as the pain of memory rises, the unaffected prose turns chilled like the stone of a monument and something passes across the images like the ghost of Nabokov, trying to catch something in his net.

We are shown other images, too: an automatic teamaking machine; a neglected garden; a Manchester canal; derelict housing in the Hulme estate; some indecipherable structures said to be saltframes; a threestoried, turretted villa; the locked gates of the Jewish cemetery in Kissingen. We do not know where they have come from. Though, in the narrative itself, photographs keep turning up, casually yet somberly: a slide show of a trip to Crete; an album of photographs put before the storyteller, with notes in a dead man’s hand; another album that had belonged to the writer’s mother, come by at a propitious moment; yet another leafed through at the table, after tea with Aunt Fini. A collection of postcards carefully mounted by Uncle Adelwarth is fetched from a bedroom drawer. A framed photograph is taken down from the wall to be looked at for what may be the first time in forty years. Photographs are handled. Memories come back, like the return of a body caught in a glacier seven decades before and unexpectedly released from the ice.

Then comes a photograph that is declared to be a forgery: a newspaper clipping, tracked down in an archive, of the book burning in Wčrzburg in 1933, the picture of which must have been contrived from some other gathering, since the book burning took place on the evening of May 10 when it was already dark. The suspicion is aroused that "so too everything else has been a fake, from the very start". We are not sure how widely these words should be taken to apply. Other images follow until, at the last, we come to photographs by a bookkeeper named Genewein of the ghetto established in 1940 in the Polish city of Lodz. The photographs are, in fact, only recalled from an exhibition in Frankfurt the year before and are envisioned now projected onto flats, "which in truth did not exist," on an infinitely deep stage. In the image that comes to mind, there are three women:

The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera. The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her. The weaver to her left has inclined her head a little to one side, whilst the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long. I wonder what the three women’s names were—Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of the night, with spindle, scissors and thread.

These are the last words in the book and the photograph in question does not appear. Over the page, however, there is a final image with the title "Photograph of the author by Jan Peter Tripp". We have no reason to doubt it. We may make of it what we will, whatever we can bear, at the point where this imaginary is about to pass from us and is at its end. There is nothing left but seven blank pages and the final cover, on which we may read what critics have written. Sebald’s book has, for example, been reviewed as "an archive of family photos, a documentary record of German Jewish life from the late 19th Century to the late 20th." That certainly throws light on the photographs. But, as Sebald writes, "There is a mist that no eye can dispel".

It is not clear that Sebald writes about the photographs that appear in the pages of his book. And it is not clear that the photographs that appear are about what his writing describes. Yet, is it not because these things are unclear that Sebald’s "unclassifiable" book has filled its readers with the sense of being moved by something that cannot be documented, something that has remained hitherto unsayable, something that has resisted coming to light? Could it otherwise have given witness to the unforgettable forgotten that declines to enter the tribunal of history, but has not vanished into the grave?

Few have shared Sebald’s scruples. His book has few companions. For the rest, meaning must be arrived at. Truth must be told. Photographs and writing must be dependable instruments. They must communicate. They must be made to. Though this would seem to entail there was something futile and something excessive about writing about photographs, about saying what is there to be seen, few have been deterred. The stakes are too high. Meaning might escape us. Repetition is compelled. Nothing can be left unattached. The photograph must be spoken for.

Now, we do indeed have something excessive and futile and all the more violent for that. And so, from Sebald’s almost unbearable restraint, it is to this violence of meaning I must move.

 

(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)