Historiography in Photo-textuality: The Representation of Trauma in W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

Published: Apr 11, 2019
W. G. Sebald Holocaust photography and Literature photo-text trauma
Angeliki Tseti

This paper springs from the issues raised with reference to the historiographical representation of limit events and the challenges presented in the attempt to address collective trauma, and wishes to contend that fictional works of photo-textuality —in other words novels which consist of verbal as well as visual (photographic) components—carry the potential to place such ‘unrepresentable’ or ‘indescribable’ events among the historically narratable. While focusing predominantly on word-image interactions, this paper reads W. G. Sebald’s photo-text The Emigrants (1992) as an example of photoliterary narratives of trauma, to examine the ways in which these bimedial structures enable the surfacing of memory in multidirectionality. This is achieved, I argue, via the employment of the valuable functions of testimony and witnessing, the establishment of polyphony and multi-perspectivity—consequent, predominantly, to the reciprocal relationship between verbal and visual narrative— and the ensuing involvement of the respondent viewer/reader in the production of meaning. Within this context, the insertion of the photograph in the verbal narrative, and the aporias raised by the interaction of the two components, allows for an affective mode for addressing the singular traumatic event to be developed, and for historic calamity to be approached in a manner that echoes the experiences of other victims and/or survivors of catastrophic events. Thus, the traumatic past may be re-constructed by analogy and, while singular, also meet Paul Ricoeur’s definition of the historical as contributing “to the development of a plot.”

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