Wednesday, February 25, 2009

WG Sebald: Looking at Corpses

Fosco recently read several "novels" by the late German author W.G. Sebald. Sebald's work is absolutely astonishing; he's one of the best authors I have read in years. In fact, The Rings of Saturn is now one of my favorite books of all time.

Sebald's work is hard to describe--it's kind of a hybrid between a novel and a personal essay, with lots of history thrown in. There isn't much "plot," but the stories are so ravishing and the language is so smooth that it's easy to fall under the spell of the narrative.

For your Wednesday edification, Fosco today offers an excerpt from Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. In the excerpt, Sebald offers a historical and art critical meditation on a famous Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson (seen below). As history, this is a beautiful passage; as art criticism, it's extraordinary. Hopefully, it will whet your appetite for more Sebald.

Excerpt from W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, trans. by Michael Hulse:

"In January 1632, [...] the dissection of a corpse was undertaken in public at the Waggebouw in Amsterdam--the body being that of Adriaan Adriaanszoon alias Aris Kindt, a petty thief of that city who had been hanged for his misdemeanors an hour or so earlier.


"The spectacle, presented before a paying public drawn from the upper classes, was no doubt a demonstration of the undaunted investigative zeal in the new sciences; but it also represented (though this surely would have been refuted) the archaic ritual of dismembering a corpse, of harrowing the flesh of the delinquent even beyond death, a procedure then still part of the ordained punishment. That the anatomy less in Amsterdam was about more than a thorough knowledge of the inner organs of the human body is suggested by Rembrandt's representation of the ceremonial nature of the dissection--the surgeons are in their finest attire, and Dr Tulp is wearing a hat on his head--as well as by the fact that afterwards there was a formal, and in a sense symbolic, banquet. If we stand today before the large canvas of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis we are standing precisely where those who were present at the dissection in the Waaggebouw stood, and we believe that we see what they saw then: in the foreground, the greenish, prone body of Aris Kindt, his neck broken and his chest risen terribly in rigor mortis. And yet it is debatable whether anyone ever really saw that body, since the art of anatomy, then in its infancy, was not least a way of making the reprobate body invisible. It is somehow odd that Dr Tulp's colleagues are not looking at Kindt's body, that their gaze is directed just past it to focus on the open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being, such as envisaged by the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in the Waaggebouw.


"[T]he much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt's picture proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real. Contrary to normal practice, the anatomist shown here has not begun his dissection by opening the abdomen and removing the intestines, which are most prone to putrefaction, but has started (and this too may imply a punitive dimension to the act) by dissecting the offending hand. Now, this hand is more peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. In other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone see the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man's eyes." (12-17)

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Jeremy said...

Always a step ahead of me.

FOSCO said...

Bah, as if. I thought I heard about him from you.