Bringing the past back to life : classical motifs and the representation of history in the works of W. G. Sebald / by Alan Joshua Itkin.
This dissertation argues that the German author W. G. Sebald (1944–2001) uses motifs drawn from classical epic poetry to articulate a new mode of historical representation suited to the traumatic historical events of the twentieth century. Sebald's works represent the past in evocative images, while at the same time maintaining a focus on the highly constructed nature of the representations they thus create. This hybrid modernist-realist mode of representation, which I call nekyiastic modernism, is modeled on the idea of raising the dead past and bringing it into the living present. To articulate this mode of representation, Sebald draws on three linked classical motifs: nekyia (the raising of the dead), ekphrasis (the description of a work of art), and katabasis (the journey into the underworld). In doing so, he builds on the work of post-Holocaust authors and critical theorists, including Primo Levi, Peter Weiss, Paul Celan, and Siegfried Kracauer, who use these same classical tropes as metaphors for the work of memory and the writing of history in the wake of the Holocaust. Sebald's work highlights an ambivalent relationship towards realist modes of representation in these authors' works, a desire for realism but an ultimate disillusionment about its promise to capture the past as it really was. I argue that Sebald re-stages and subverts this desire for the real in the uncannily intense descriptions in his works. By moving the classical trope of raising the dead to the center of his aesthetic program, he also articulates a fundamentally different relationship to the past: For Sebald the present is the underworld in which the past is always present, waiting to be brought back to life. This dissertation seeks to go beyond the binary established by Hayden White between events that can be represented using realist techniques and modernist events that demand modernist techniques. Complex and traumatic events such as the Holocaust, I argue, call for hybrid modes of representation, like Sebald's nekyiastic modernism, that transcend this distinction.
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