Wittgenstein and Sebald: The Place of Home and the Grammar of Memory

David Schalkwyk


Wittgenstein appears in W.G. Sebald’s work in a variety of forms, both explicit and implicit. My paper traces the place of the Austrian philosopher in the German novelist’s fiction by examining the common role of the concept of the loss or search for home in each via the grammar of memory. Sebald invokes Wittgenstein explicitly in his novel Austerlitz, and the tales that make up The Emigrants and Vertigo. But there are also more implicit, suggestive modes of interaction between them. I argue that if Wittgenstein thought of himself as the inventor of similes, Sebald, as it were, returns his philosophical similes to their place or home in the world, giving them a literal historicity that is paradoxically also fictional. Sebald calls upon Wittgenstein’s idea of returning language to its “home” by examining the devastating effects of the mid-European, and especially Jewish, withdrawal of home and the devastation of memory which Wittgenstein’s philosophical work passes over in silence. The evocation of the biographical figure of Wittgenstein in Sebald’s attempts to come to terms with loss and denial following the Holocaust in characters like Jacques Austerlitz, Paul Bereyter, Max Ferber, and the narrator himself, suggests that an ethics of memory consonant with the demands of human suffering from the Belgian Congo to Theriesenstadt lies in following Wittgenstein’s disavowal of causal explanation for the never-ending quest for “seeing conncetions”.


20th century philosophy; literature; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; history; language; literature; memory; Sebald Winfried

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