“On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail into the dark. There is no antidote against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace?”
—W.G. Sebald, in “The Rings of Saturn” (1998), paraphrasing a 1658 commentary on burial urns by physician and Renaissance man Thomas Browne.
Actually, ‘paraphrasing’ might be generous. Unless one is familiar with the source material, it is impossible to know in “The Rings of Saturn” where it is Sebald and where it is the others he encounters, alive or dead, on his walking tour of the English coast. But then that’s part of his point: culture as ceaseless borrowing and re-inscription.
In short, he’s turned plagiarism into art. His book is a kind of literary version of Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” At one point, Sebald spends the better part of three pages directly summarizing Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The report on Thomas Browne fills most of the first chapter.
The meaning of the title, “The Rings of Saturn,” is hinted at in a quote from the Brockhaus Encyclopedia included in the frontispiece: “The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood, these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect (see Roche limit).”
Sebald is making a symbolic tour of the debris of Western culture, which he finds both grotesque and beautiful, moreso now that it is — he argued in the 1990s — crumbling to sand. Or in Browne’s phrase: arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. Sebald writes (beautifully):
“As I strolled through Somerleyton Hall that August afternoon, amidst a throng of visitors who occasionally lingered here or there, I was variously reminded of a pawnbroker’s or an auction hall. And yet it was the sheer number of things, possessions accumulated by generations and now waiting for the day when they would be sold off, that won me over to what was, ultimately, a collection of oddities. How uninviting Somerleyton must have been in the days of [its] industrial impresario, Morton Peto, MP, when everything, from the cellar to the attic, from the cutlery to the waterclosets, was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste. And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion. However, on emerging into the open air again, I was saddened to see, in one of the otherwise deserted aviaries, a solitary Chinese quail, evidently in a state of dementia, running to and fro along the edge of the cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it could not comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix. The grounds, in contrast to the waning splendor of the house, were now at their evolutionary peak, a century after the heyday of Somerleyton. The flower beds might well have been better tended and more gloriously colorful, but today the trees planted by Morton Peto filled the air above the gardens, and several of the ancient cedars, which were there to be admired by visitors even then, now extended their branches over well-nigh a quarter of an acre, each an entire world unto itself.”
In my youth, I thought — which is to say I wanted — history to be the result of impersonal mechanical forces, be they physical or social, as distinct from, firstly, “heroic” histories, popular on the Right, which sees history as the gain of a few great-willed men moving chess pieces on a battlefield, and secondly, from Marxist theory, popular on the Left, which, following Hegel’s dialectical materialism, imbued history, a thing in itself, with a kind spiritual manifest. (Indeed, Marx is basically equal parts Hegel, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.)
Being a product of the Age of Discovery, Marx saw history like the course of a jungle river: existing separately from us, having a determined form that already extends to the future, inescapable. Society traverses this river like a man in a canoe, bounded by its shores and destined to be carried to its terminus, which Marx described as utopia.
This vision of history, by the way, almost exactly matches “The Voyage of Life” paintings by Thomas Cole, which were produced in 1842, just two years before Marx met Engels. All three men were products of their time.
Marx’s vision is in a sense the opposite of Thomas Browne’s, as summarized by Sebald above. Where Browne saw life — our paradigm for society and thence history — as a parabola that, after reaching its zenith, descended in an arc into darkness, Marx saw it instead as an exponential progression, extending ever more rapidly to the heavens, like the chart of housing prices just before the crash.
Being a child of the 20th century, I had a hard time seeing history as an impersonal force. Its tragedies seem very personal. I also had difficulty with the idea of a predetermined path, ending in utopia, which seemed at least to contradict the findings from the physical sciences, a fact that would’ve shocked Marx: that the fundamental state of things is uncertain until observed. Even rivers are not set. They change course over time — on the geologic scale, quite frequently.
It seemed to me that history was more like the weather, or perhaps the ocean — governed at the large scale by innumerable natural forces that pulled against each other like so many vectors, but on the smaller scale bubbling with Chaos, which was at the time of my undergraduate education all the rage in mathematics. I set out, then, to try to understand some of these forces. I read Braudel and the Annales school, William McNeill, and of course Jared Diamond, all of whom identified currents and tidal forces in the ocean of history.
Everyone, especially the moody (teenagers and old men), is obsessed with decline and convinced it’s just around the corner. The problem with the cult of decline is that it presupposes a certain point of view and is deliberately blind to all others. In the case of Somerleyton, the house is falling apart, yes. But from the standpoint of the trees, things have never been better!
In that sense, the cult of decline is at the very least anthropocentric, if not conceited. It declares human physiology all one needs know of biology, and, like Browne, finding every human body falling apart, extends a line backward to a time when things must have been better for all.
I began to doubt it in school — as I read about the end of the Graeco-Roman world and “the Dark Ages,” which were an invention of the Renaissance, and especially as I escaped my Eurocentrism and learned, for example, about the dynastic cycle in China and it’s domino-like effects across Eurasia, and about the contiguity of past and present in places like Japan and Dravidic India.
From the standpoint of a single culture or locality, things certainly seem to rise and fall, just as if one stands on a beach, one will experience the repeated shifting of the tides and subsequent erosion of the shore. But what are the tides from the standpoint of the ocean? The erosion of one beach leads to its deposition elsewhere. What is it that declines — versus simply changes?
It’s the most curious and damnable trait of the human brain that it’s not bounded by rationality (but rather the reverse). People can believe — and I’ve met folks who think this way — that things today are falling apart but that we’re also on the verge of the singularity. I find it hard to reconcile the disintegration of society with the immortality of all its constituents inside the most complex construct ever invented.
History is the story we tell ourselves about the past. The Christian story is a tragedy: Christ is murdered and everyone’s a sinner. But, as Browne notes, at the end of every tragedy, all the actors, even those killed on stage, are resurrected and take a bow before the director. Indeed, for someone like Calvin, the script was set and all you could do was read your lines.
The cult of decline worships a tautology, a cognitive bias, a bank run. If you believe things are failing, then you won’t expend the energy necessary to sustain them. And energy is always necessary. This is creative vitality.
The Roman Empire didn’t succumb to insurmountable tidal forces: a tsunami of invasion that wiped it away. Everything it faced at the end it had faced at least once before, to a greater or lesser degree. The difference is that people no longer expended the energy necessary to preserve it. They believed it was over, and so it was.
I don’t think society, or Western culture, is disintegrating. It’s boiling, certainly, which looks the same from inside the pot. We make more heat and light than ever before.
If the ancient world was solid and the modern world liquid, then perhaps we’re entering the gaseous phase. The thing about gases is that they’re more flexible and adaptable than solids or liquids. And yet, they remain governed by natural forces, by Boyle’s Law and the laws of thermodynamics.
Same for the rings of Saturn, which are far more beautiful than any moon.
cover image by Suzanne Moxhay