A 2001 interview with W. G. Sebald (put online by the New Yorker) makes me want to read his work (which I have still not gotten around to); this paragraph, in particular, resonates strongly with my own feelings about how to navigate life:

But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this. So you then have a small amount of material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then, obviously, they’ll connect up. But they’ll only connect up in an obvious sort of way, which actually isn’t, in terms of writing something new, very productive. You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn’t done before. That’s how I thought about it. Then, of course, curiosity gets the better of you.

His thoughts on coincidence are also right up my alley:

Yes. I think it’s this whole business of coincidence, which is very prominent in my writing. I hope it’s not obtrusive. But, you know, it does come up in the first book, in “Vertigo,” a good deal. I don’t particularly hold with parapsychological explanations of one kind or another, or Jungian theories about the subject. I find those rather tedious. But it seemed to me an instance that illustrates that we somehow need to make sense of our nonsensical existence. You meet somebody who has the same birthday as you—the odds are one in three hundred and sixty-five, not actually all that amazing. But if you like the person then immediately this takes on more . . . and so we build on it, and I think all our philosophical systems, all our systems of our creed, all constructions, even the technological worlds, are built in that way, in order to make some sort of sense, when there isn’t, as we all know.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. joe tomei says

    I am always intrigued by Schopenhauer’s concept of will, which, terribly paraphrased, is that we have to acknowledge some sort of will in the world, because when we look back on our lives, we see that the unrelated decisions made get us somewhere, even though we had no idea at the time.
    Now, it is very (too?) easy to get all mystical about this, and I certainly envy Sebald’s non-plusedness about the way life is random. But I mistrust a bit Sebald’s assertion, because it carries the seductive suggestion that being good at something doesn’t really require a lot of hard work. I say this as someone who is only now realizing that being good at something requires an absorption in it. Some people manage to have this absorption quite naturally, but there are a lot of very accomplished people who (probably quite unconsciously) downplay the level of their absorption and present their ability as simply the fortunate accumulation of chances and ideas that let them do what they do.

  2. I don’t think he’s at all suggesting that “being good at something doesn’t really require a lot of hard work”; he’s explaining how he gets to the point where he starts working.

  3. I didn’t read that into it either, although the “being good at” could be applied to the random method insofar as fact gathering, storage, piecing together, and voila! — conclusion. Sometimes we know more than we think we do…

  4. Henry IX says

    It seems to me that Sebald’s idea an expanded version of the quote: “Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.” attributed to Albert Szent-Gyorgi.

  5. dungbeattle says

    Each person should follow their own drum beat. Those that follow the leader are always behind [i.e. they just reguritate the same old cud]. All [nearly] advances are the result of new combinations. To be sucessfull does not mean getting gongs but achieving your own brand of thought that satisfy thy own special needs.[ as long as they do not impede or impinge on thy neighbour.] Most of us, are unfortunaley a cut and paste types, but do need order to communicate our own brand of thought.
    Order plus random access to the gray matter, no two brains use the same address of storage.
    Unfortunately mental slaves are required to carry out the requirements of the lead Queen bee.

  6. joe tomei says

    I don’t think he’s at all suggesting that “being good at something doesn’t really require a lot of hard work”; he’s explaining how he gets to the point where he starts working.
    Well, this could be projection, but in the interview, he is asked
    I was wondering how you approached this in the writing of it, the idea of narrative form. Was the structure a function largely of your unconscious associations during the writing process? Or was the structure something you plotted out in advance in a very deliberate way?
    Now, his reply seems to be concentrated on the getting to the starting point, but in reply to the next question, he says
    And, as it comes right, then quotations or figures or things that you hadn’t thought of for eighteen years offer themselves all of a sudden. I’ve always found it to be quite a good measure that things are going in a way that you can trust when, even in the writing process itself, things happen. For instance, the last part of this book is all about silk, and that section, in turn, finishes with a number of pages on the culture of mourning. And on the very day when I finished these pages, I looked in, I think it was the Times, the daily circular, and there were all these events I needed from the list of what had happened on a certain day one hundred and thirty years ago or two hundred and twenty years ago. And they all slotted into the text, as if I had been writing toward that point. It was quite amazing. But it does happen occasionally—it’s very gratifying when it does.
    Now, I don’t think he is lying, as I said, it is probably unconscious as to how much his skill is developed, and how hard he has worked to write. And of course, the humility of discussing how the novel seems to write itself rather than being an act of the writer’s creative will has a long pedigree. But I also think that it is very seductive (though I may be just in a pissy mood from the fact that I can’t get my students to realize that they actually have to do some work)

  7. Well, I did my PhD just like that. But, like a dog, I needed several big boots up the arse to pull it all together. It’s what comes of keeping an open mind. No great global view of my subject, (nor any claim to rewrite the book), just several bright corners that hopefully may interest some other maniac at some other time.
    *attempts honesty, expresses self poorly*

  8. when we look back on our lives, we see that the unrelated decisions made get us somewhere
    While we’re on this subject, which is one of my favorites, I’ll just mention Heidegger thought that the word decision was composed of -cision, a split, and de-, undo, so that a real decision was a resolution of a false doubling or cutting.
    I even wrote a “poem” about it, which you can see here.

  9. “This manner of writing, while in many ways very pleasing, is not altogether satisfactory. Its main characteristics are graciousness and evasiveness. After reading the paragraph we are prepared to give it general consent simply because the author has cautiously left nothing for us to attack. We cannot tell how much he believes what he says and how much he is simply expounding a beguiling fancy. The paragraph abounds in noncommittal expressions. … Then too, he smiles at us, and perhaps the smile means that we should not take this urbane man too seriously. He writes with the confidence of the author who is making no assertions to which his reader will not consent … [I]n his principal prose essays he used that devious way of writing which he had evolved so that his growing cautiousness about his own ideas could be successfully concealed under an appearance of taking the reader into his confidence. At his best he writes very well within this framework, especially in matters peripheral to the point; but he usually commits himself definitely only to the most general propositions. The technique is very adroit; he interrupts the flowing rhythm often enough with a short phrase or a change in sentence structure, so that we are never afraid … that he has anesthetized us; he introduces simple words and phrases … which suggest common speech without descending … to the awkwardness of excessive simplicity. There is no doubt that this way of writing is effective, but it is not bold.”
    From Richard Ellmann’s Yeats – The Man and the Masks, a passage critical of his turn-of-the-century prose style that might well be applied to Sebald; reproduced with elisions being related to the specific example (a paragraph from an essay on the psaltery) Ellmann cites (all ellipses mine).
    Also, The Rings of Saturn appears to have a more than coincidental structural similarity to Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

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