Redeeming Words: Language and the Promise of Happiness in the Stories of Döblin and Sebald (Suny Series, Intersections: Philosophy & Critical Theory)
David Michael Kleinberg-Levin
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Probing study of how literature can redeem the revelatory, redemptive powers of language.
In this probing look at Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz and the stories of W. G. Sebald, Redeeming Words offers a philosophical meditation on the power of language in literature. David Kleinberg-Levin draws on the critical theory of Benjamin and Adorno; the idealism and romanticism of Kant, Hegel, Hölderlin, Novalis, and Schelling; and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. He shows how Döblin and Sebald—writers with radically different styles working in different historical moments—have in common a struggle against forces of negativity and an aim to bring about in response a certain redemption of language. Kleinberg-Levin considers the fast-paced, staccato, and hard-cut sentences of Döblin and the ghostly, languorous, and melancholy prose fiction of Sebald to articulate how both writers use language in an attempt to recover and convey this utopian promise of happiness for life in a time of mourning.
“Redeeming Words is an elegant, highly learned, and incisive exploration of how language—and thus the greatest literature of our time—both registers the experience of the loss of utopia and affirms hope by making the loss more clear. It takes as its theme the most profound reflections on the role of words in a time of abandonment and disenchantment. Kleinberg-Levin argues not only that words communicate this sense of loss but constitute it by failing to achieve total mastery and transparency and self-consciously thematizing the corruption and also affirmative power of words. At the deepest level, this study analyzes words and what the very existence of words can confer to individuals and communities.” — Peter Fritzsche, author of The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century
Hegel would have it, even the sentence constructions in Sebald's writings, languorous, drifting as if without direction, and repeatedly deferring any comprehensive sense, but silently taking into themselves the work of memory and mourning, replicate the phenomenology of the Spirit's rhythms and moods, turns and returns, as it journeys toward self-recognition in otherness. In the story of his return to W., the village of his childhood, the narrator tells about Babett, Bina, and Mathild, the three
that their language itself, in its very being, nevertheless persisted in representing. And they bequeathed memories darkly stained by imaginary guilt. So many missed opportunities, so many lost possibilities—the very essence, it seems, of history, chronicle of the ruins of hope. A shore that appears only by, only in, disappearing! Is that not the aporetic phenomenology of utopia as a promised land? The figure of an earthly paradise of universal happiness appears again and again in world history.
“Anatomie der Schwermut,” op. cit., 123. Regarding post-Holocaust literature and the need for new “Schreibmodalitäten,” new ways to write literary works about the past, retrieving collectively repressed memory, see “Wie kriegen die Deutschen das auf die Reihe,” op. cit., 93. 9. Regarding the “sehr elegante,” style of the prose in The Rings of Saturn, a book filled with accounts of death and destruction, Sebald suggests that “the detached style perhaps contributes to rendering the subject matter
the causality of Fate that is expressed in, and by, this use of language. More lucidly than is conventional, more stripped of disguise, and with stronger, more insistent compulsion, words show themselves here as a force of moral significance—the persistently propelling, rhythmically compelling force of judgment or pronounced resolution that they always already are. (In this regard, I think it could be argued that the strange causality which Döblin bestows on language in his novel has a certain
mysterious and chilling voice, source or origin unknown, which seems to be the voice of Fate or the voice of Death. I will have more to say about the narrative style of Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz in Chapter 4, where I will complete my argument for the connection between his language and the overpowering force of Fate. �2 Montage: Freedom or Fate? For the Surrealists, there is meaning in chance constellations of events and objects; but this meaning cannot be fully grasped. However, if the