"At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied" : the prose fictional metaphysics of W. G. Sebald
This thesis examines writing as a means of persuasion through which one might explore the grounds and scope of perception. Its primary focus is W. G. Sebald’s four works of prose fiction, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants and Austerlitz. I interpret Sebald as unique among contemporary writers of fiction in his sustained interest in the metaphysics of perception, in particular the role played by suggestive connections, and the kind of thinking that takes place in writing, as writing, while one writes. For Sebald, writing (both as material and as a representational device) and reading are crucial parts of perceptual experience, not simply from the perspective of a knowing, human subject, but in terms of the various kinds of agencies distributed throughout the world. I argue that Sebald’s prose fiction accounts for a wide range of perceptual experiences, including perspectives of the human and non-human, living and non-living, remembered, documented, dreamt and imagined. In his work we witness how these generically different experiences continually affect and participate in the nature of each other. Sebald’s attention to the complexity of perceptual experience, along with his stylistic elegance and formal innovativeness, means that his work offers valuable insight into the question that haunts any literary enterprise: what is the world like from another perspective? And to what extent is a perspective informed by the multiple perspectives it necessarily obscures? Sebald provides the reader with an account whereby specific perceptual detail and impersonal history at once interweave and retain their distinctness. I read Sebald alongside the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and recent critics and thinkers who have taken an interest in Whitehead’s work. For me, Whitehead offers a conceptual scaffold adequate to the richness, variability, obscurity and continual novelty of perceptual experience. In addition to Whitehead’s work, I recruit other contemporary thinkers and writers who, like Sebald, are preoccupied with imaginatively accounting for the various genres of thing that compose our world and instance worlds unto themselves. This predisposition methodologically and stylistically manifests in readings of modernity that emphasise poetic affect and poetic ix thinking as ways of accounting for experience and which are not limited by disciplinary exclusivity. Among the perhaps more implicit, though no less productive, propositions of this reading is a reassessment of the division between non-conscious and conscious perception. Invoking Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism”, I argue for a conception of consciousness that exemplifies aspects of non-conscious perceptual and cognitive processes, and, in an inverse but complementary fashion, for a more inclusive conception of the non-human world regarding its perceptual capacity. Sebald’s prose is the test case that serves as a limitation and medium, and which plays an active role in the tracing and establishment of these propositions. This thesis practises a kind of literary criticism that treats objects as implicated in the pervasive aspects of our experience. It proposes an interpretation of Sebald’s texts and, more generally, a reading methodology or theory that seeks to exemplify rather than judge the hypothetical worlds his texts establish.