Travels with Max

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The late WG “Max” Sebald wrote what some critics regarded as a spectactularly depressing book, “The Rings of Saturn” about his travels through Suffolk. However, as was so often the case with his work, all is not quite as it seems: Sebald creates his own realities from a combination of exterior and interior worlds and what one reads, however subjectively real for Sebald, is not to be taken as measurably objective truth for anyone else. “The Rings of Saturn” represents (for me at least) the mourning process that we go through following the conclusion of a major creative endeavour, a kind of post-coital tristesse that can easily descend into genuine melancholia

Quite how one can manage this situation is hard to say. At one extreme, there are those amongst us who simply shrug things off and dive into the next project and, at the other, some people dread this phenomena so much that they never finish a piece of work and so, never have to let it go and experience the sadness of completion and parting. When I finally handed a finished book over to my then publisher I felt very little satisfaction or pride in a job well done but rather a huge emptiness and a painful sense of loss that has never quite gone away to this very day (nearly 4 years later). My creative offspring grew up and, no longer needing my support, left home : a part of me went away and has never come back. How odd for an author to suffer from a variety of parental “empty nest syndrome”.

This is a paradoxical situation that seems little understood but needs consideration as a significant factor influencing the creative life. Over an entire career, letting go of one’s work and coping with melancholic detumescence can become a major problem and this, consciously or not, may be part of the reason why so many people delay their retirement for as long as possible. It may, in some measure, provide an  explanation for the depression suffered by so many artists, writers and composers – obviously one cannot generalise too far but perhaps we have here a new factor previously unconsidered but significantly contributing to a difficult and often lifelong condition.

Sebald set off through familiar countryside and this may well be a deliberate choice: knowing much of the consensual reality that surrounded him, he was freed from the need to observe objectively but, instead, was able to turn his focus inwards towards the healing powers of subjective thought and response. In such a modality, what does it matter if a historic train never actually came from China? What counts is the internal process that conceives that it could have done so and what this imparts to the possible meaning of the story. Sebald is often accused of promiscuously mixing fact and fiction but this is too simple an explanation. What he wrote was a holistic story, one that told the provable facts along with the imaginative impact that they had upon a creative mind caught in loss and grief.

Put more simply, Sebald wrote a travelling book. His approach mirrors exactly the reflective way one’s thoughts shift around when out walking or travelling as a passenger on a train or aircraft. Reality merges imperceptibly with subjectivity and what emerges is a highly personal synthesis that is neither real nor imaginary. Quantum physics tells us that, when we observe something, we change it in small but important ways: it also tells us that there are things we cannot know. More arcane theorists tell us that we each create our own individual reality and that what appears to be objectively true is only that part where our own reality overlaps with someone else’s.

If Sebald left us a message it was to tell us to believe in our own worlds and to treasure them. In common with Jung, he felt no need to separate objectivity (if indeed such a thing exists) from subjectivity. To others, our worlds are not truth but to ourselves, they are far from fiction.