Die Ringe des Saturn; The Rings of Saturn

[This page by Dora Osborne]

Die Ringe des Saturn ; The Rings of Saturn (1995)

Following a particularly difficult and intense phase of work, Sebald’s narrator sets off on a walking tour of Norfolk, a physical journal which provides the stimuli for a literary, intellectual perambulation through the long history of nature and its attendant catastrophes. A particularly melancholy text, Die Ringe des Saturn seems governed by the gravitational pull of inevitable disaster. Sebald writes not without a gentle humour, however, something teased out in Craig Brown’s hyper-lugubrious Private Eye parody [Craig Brown, ‘W. G. Sebald’, Private Eye, 958, 4 September 1998, p. 25]. Melancholy describes a condition of introspection between madness and genius and Die Ringe des Saturn adopts this posture of intellectually productive, but debilitating Acedia to investigate man’s relation to nature and death. In an essay of 1917, Sigmund Freud considered the term melancholy in relation to mourning, claiming mourning represented a ‘healthy’ process of accepting loss, whereas melancholy signalled a pathological attachment to the lost object. Die Ringe des Saturn is preoccupied with loss and the ways we have tried to come to terms with mortality, an attempt made all the more difficult where death comes as a consequence of man’s brutality against his fellow man. Funereal motifs abound, from the discussion of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial to the rather mundane photograph of a hearse in traffic, partially obscured by another vehicle. There are many threads running through this densely woven text, but mortality and our responses to loss is a particularly strong one.

Sebald is keen to show the continuity of certain phenomena across the centuries, but whilst there is much to suggest that civilisation has progressed, the narrator is confronted time and again with examples to the contrary; which is to say, in his desire to assert his superiority, man has inflicted terrible damage on the natural world and, most catastrophically, the human race. The narrator expresses this most emphatically, where he states that all processes of human production depend on combustion: in a physical, chemical sense, making something will involve the destruction of something else [Sebald, Die Ringe des Saturn (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2003) p. 203; The Rings of Saturn, trans. by Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1999), p. 170]. Sebald draws on the critique of civilisation articulated by Horkheimer and Adorno in Die Dialektik der Aufklärung; The Dialectic of the Enlightenment which describes the Holocaust as the point where the perceived progress of humanity embodied by the Enlightenment collapses into barbarity (on this point see Hutchinson, reading list below). As with all of Sebald’s literary work, Die Ringe des Saturn is not about the Holocaust in any direct or immediate sense, but for its longer view on questions of mourning, melancholy, destruction (as burning) and the perversion of progress, it is always trying to find a way of approaching this topic. In fact, whereas the references to Germany’s recent past are oblique in other prose works, Die Ringe des Saturn is unusual for including a photograph of bodies under tarpaulin, taken at the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp. This image occupies two pages and bears no caption. The text falls silent for the time we take to contemplate this image.

Sebald questions the pursuit of progress and links this to the pursuit of beauty, using the motif of silk as a literal thread through the text. Tracing the long history of silk production, the narrator finds that this is another process which involves destruction; in order to extract the raw silk undamaged, the silk worm must be killed whilst still inside the chrysalis. He describes sericulture through the centuries, but notes how it was an important part of the Nazi endeavour to make Germany self-sufficient. A documentary film shows how the silk worms would be killed over a boiling cauldron of water. Thus, the beautiful fabrics which are made from this process have to be viewed in the light of the brutal methods implemented for their manufacture.

Sebald seems to view the traumatic history of National Socialism as part of a longer history of destruction and, with his focus on nature and natural disaster, considers the implications of human intervention in the natural order. Die Ringe des Saturn has been read as an ecological text, and the fundamental significance of trees supports this idea. Arboreal imagery and images suggest the survival of nature beyond the span of human life, so where Sebald’s narrator recounts the devastating effects of Dutch Elm disease, or the significant losses of woodland during heavy storms, we sense that the natural order has been disrupted. In this regard, Sebald felt a strong connection with the poet Michael Hamburger who often wrote about trees and plants and shared Sebald’s sense of foreboding that man’s superiority over these species would be exposed as the worst kind of hubris.

Die Ringe des Saturn has proved enormously popular, inspiring readers and writers to undertake similar ‘pilgrimages’ (e.g. Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places). And in 2007 Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery hosted an exhibition, ‘Waterlog’ which paid homage to Sebald’s book and the Norfolk places which feature in it (http://www.waterlog.fvu.co.uk/). British artist Tacita Dean was commissioned to produce a piece for the event and she focused on the encounter with Michael Hamburger described in chapter 7. Her video installation runs together still shots taken at Hamburger’s Suffolk home, some of which clearly mirror Sebald’s photographic inserts.

2012 saw the release of Grant Gee's cinematic homage to Sebald and The Rings of Saturn: Patience - After Sebald.


The film also focuses on the significance of East Anglia for Sebald's travel writing and, although it mentions the author's German origins it seems to suggest that Sebald wrote his texts in anticipation of their English translation, which is to say, it posits Sebald as an English language author. Whilst his work has garnered significant praise from an Anglo-American readership, we should not forget the (albeit ambivalent) significance of the German language and its literary tradition for Sebald's project.

Further Reading

Carolin Duttlinger, 'W. G. Sebald: The Pleasure and Pain of Beauty’, German Life and Letters 62:3 (2009), 327-42

Ben Hutchinson, Die dialektische Imagination – W. G. Sebald (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009)

Bianca Theissen, ‘A Natural History of Destruction: W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn’, Modern Language Notes 121:3 (2006), 563-81