Lesley Chamberlain on the origin of the works
of Sebald and Kiefer.
Heidegger was a forefather to both the painter and the writer. That’s what I want to say here. and to press the understanding of Heidegger that I’ve laid out in A Shoe Story. The maligned but hugely relevant German philosopher first properly explored what has been called the psycho-theology of our being material beings in material worlds. Given that we and our worlds pass, what spiritual consolation can we draw from our situation as post-Darwinian creatures? The Heidegger I quote repeatedly in A Shoe Story said:
Individual objects get used up and worn out; and with that the practice of using them declines, loses it shine and becomes banal. Something that existed for a purpose now rots away; sinks back into being any old thing. When something that once existed for a purpose declines into purposelessness its reliability [on which we can base our lives] vanishes from sight. (A Shoe Story p.95 and fn 141. The translation is mine – LC)
Heidegger’s words, from The Origin of the Work of Art, 1936, already suggest the aesthetic consolation on which Sebald and Kiefer will build their artistic careers. The importance of the vision underlying these words can’t, in my view, be overstressed. As readers of my book and of the article I extracted from it will know, I crosscrossed Europe with them in mind to write the Shoe Story and to express my own feelings about the rapidity and mournfulness of change from which the forward thrust of capitalism (and the proliferation of heritage sites) do nothing to spare us. Each of us has to work out our own agenda here, with regard to our personal losses and the passing of time. For Sebald ‘natural history’ is nature’s Darwinian way, thriving here, reaching a dead end there, unpredictably and not according to any divine plan that would console us. Nature naturally destroys what it also builds, and we, creators as well as creatures, add to the destruction, as well as succumbing to it. Therefore natural history is also our history, and not one that is as easily redeemed by memory as popular neo-humanist thinking suggests.