Animal Encounters and Ecological Anxiety in W. G. Sebald
W. G. Sebald’s works engage deeply with the environment as the catalyst for historical meditation, as affectively laden places, as embodiment of his vision of the archive, as contested territory, and as projection screen for a variety of anxieties. However, his texts also deal with the environment itself, sometimes in the context of human dominance over ‘nature’ and sometimes on its own terms. In these situations, his unnamed first-person narrators collide with the material environment in ways that highlight the porousness of the boundary between nature and culture and between the human body and the supposedly external environment. These encounters with non-human matter and agency take the form of struggles against resistant plant matter, post-industrial toxic landscapes, global inorganic threats like storms and erosion, and encounters with animal life and death.
The most famous examples of animal life in Sebald’s works are found in Die Ringe des Saturn, where the narrator muses at length over the herring fishing industry in Suffolk and the cultivation and killing of silkworms. However, many of his other works also feature encounters with animals both alive and dead. My essay, which is situated at the intersection of material ecocriticism and animal studies, and draws from theories in both of those fields, will interrogate the above as well as animals in captivity in Austerlitz and Die Ringe des Saturn, non-domesticated animals both dead and alive in Nach der Natur, and the taxidermied bodies of animals across his works.
By studying these non-human bodies and agencies, I will demonstrate that the suffering and killing of animals by humans in Sebald are not just ciphers for the killing of humans, as some have argued. Instead, encounters with animals both alive and dead represent despair for the damage done to the environment by humans. Moreover, these encounters ultimately convey a nostalgia for a lost, perhaps imagined nature and the ability to interact with it. John Berger’s theory of the animal gaze, Rachel Poliquin’s study of taxidermy and ecological nostalgia, Donna Haraway’s theories of companion species, Jane Bennett’s vital materialism, and Timothy Morton’s theory of hyperobjects inform my approach to Sebald’s animal encounters. I also intend to interrogate the role of animal studies in Anthropocene studies and material ecocriticism. This is of particular interest in the field of German studies, where ecocriticism too often takes for granted the nature-culture divide and the existence of the wild. I hope to provoke a debate about the validity of those approaches to environmental humanities in the Anthropocene.
Keywords: W. G. Sebald Ecocriticism Animals, Ecology