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Bavarian Rhapsody

I don’t think Lauren Oyler was quite fair in accusing W. G. Sebald of excising all evidence of modernity [“Desperately Seeking Sebald,” Review, December], particularly when she lays “denialism about the existence of McDonald’s” at his door.

Sebald’s narrators do mention McDonald’s, and not only in Austerlitz, as Oyler observes. There is a carton of McDonald’s fries ordered at a “brightly lit counter” in The Rings of Saturn. While it’s true that ordering those fries did make the narrator feel “like a criminal wanted worldwide,” Sebald can hardly be accused of refusing to acknowledge the existence of McDonald’s. Every era has its artifacts, and I think it is part of Sebald’s method to demonstrate their arbitrary nature, not to privilege those of the past over the present.

Readers are, of course, free to dislike his doleful sentences, but I would argue that it’s worth considering Sebald’s project with a little more seriousness than Oyler musters, since what he is attempting to uncover is the violence concealed by everyday life, throughout history. The evidence he assembles—of war, genocide, slavery, and so on—is hardly joy-inducing.

Olivia Laing


Amid the overwhelmingly positive critical response that Sebald’s work has received, there is certainly room for dissenting voices. But Oyler’s “respectful difference of opinion” offers a rather impoverished basis on which to judge cultural value. Oyler “doesn’t like” Sebald’s books because they are “posturing and needy.” She doesn’t like their haunting, haunted quality. She has a particular problem with Sebald’s use of other writers’ works and biographies. While Oyler attacks Sebald as a rampant plagiarist, other readers have reveled in this intertextuality and have recognized that Sebald is continuing an honorable tradition of allusiveness in modernist writing: like James Joyce, Sebald was conscious that the references he wove into his works would keep literary critics busy for decades.

Most of all, Oyler seems baffled by the “bland appreciation” that other critics have accorded Sebald. There may indeed be reasons to be skeptical about Sebald’s reception in the anglophone world. Few German writers are widely read in English, and Sebald can therefore appear as a lone voice, a “good German” who speaks the truth about his homeland, as though the 1968 generation had never existed and no intellectuals before or since have grappled with the problems of Nazism or German guilt. Sebald’s (deeply tendentious) portrayal of Germany’s failure to confront its Nazi past reinforces a comfortable stereotype of morally compromised Germans. Reading Sebald in a German context, and knowing his criticism as well as his fiction, yields a different picture: that of an incorrigible provocateur who never let the facts get in the way of a good anti-German polemic.

J. J. Long
Professor of German and Visual Culture, Durham University
Durham, England



Dallas Liars Club

As an example of the “superstitious” beliefs held by Americans, Colette Brooks writes that “47 percent believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone” when he assassinated President John F. Kennedy [“Buy the Numbers,” Readings, December]. As a matter of fact, he didn’t. Since 1963, Henry Hurt, David Kaiser, Cyril Wecht, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and many others have shown that the Warren Commission Report, which reached the predetermined conclusion that Oswald acted alone, was a factual and logical mess. Contrary to what Brooks implies, it’s the belief that Oswald didn’t have accomplices that is an automatic and unthinking prejudice.

George Scialabba
Cambridge, Mass.




Will Self is right to point out that pioneering trauma theorists characterize psychic pain as simultaneously old and new, speakable and unspeakable, rare and ubiquitous, shocking and commonplace [“A Posthumous Shock,” Essay, December].

Perhaps the only problem with these very legitimate concerns is that they have already been voiced by a host of cultural critics in the quarter century since Cathy Caruth got the ball rolling in the mid-Nineties. Self makes Anne Rothe sound like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, rather than one member of a growing chorus that includes Susan Brison, Stef Craps, Roger Luckhurst, and Michael Rothberg. Critiques of trauma theory, valuable though they are, shouldn’t obscure the real contributions made by Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dori Laub as they constructed the field that Self so energetically interrogates. They argued—convincingly, importantly—that art and literature give us unique tools for both expressing and understanding the most durable forms of psychic pain.

Joshua Pederson
Associate Professor of Humanities, Boston University
Watertown, Mass.


It is always perplexing to me—for this is by far not a new phenomenon—when yet another venomous article takes aim at the multifarious and complex languages of trauma in order to reduce, objectify, and degrade their subtleties and replace them with the author’s own claims to rightful knowledge. When one reads dogmatically, it is inevitable that one discovers dogma, a gesture that allows Self to substitute his own words (here cribbed from decades of well-known philosophical, theoretical, and scholarly work on accident, trauma, technology, and modernity and put on pretentious display under the author’s own name) for the words of the writers he so aggressively and systematically misreads.

Yet the languages of trauma, in my own writing and in that of the many varied and differing authors upon whom I draw, do not lay claim to dogmatic truth but rather call out for a careful act of listening, an openness to what is not yet fully understood. No single theory, such as the one Self falsely purports to innovate, can accommodate the infinite variations, experiences, distinctive tones and forms of appeal that make up the writing (including the theoretical writing) that emerges around the surprising, always unsettling, notion of traumatic experience.

Between the subtle and resonant languages of trauma, which address us, often enigmatically, with a plea to listen, and a dogmatic discourse whose sole aim is to shut down listening, there can be no meeting.

Cathy Caruth
Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.


Will Self responds:

I accept Joshua Pederson’s point that mine is by no means the first voice to be raised against the bogus edifice that trauma theory constitutes in the humanities, but I am attempting to bring these criticisms to a more general readership, rather than claiming any great originality. Still, there’s hardly anyone, as far as I’m aware, who has asserted that psychological trauma (in its current iteration, PTSD) is not present in all societies at all times, but intrinsic to the phenomenon of modernity itself. Roger Luckhurst certainly goes some way toward this, but he doesn’t altogether deny, as I do, the presence of trauma in other times and places.

Cathy Caruth’s reply, meanwhile, constitutes no sort of rebuttal at all, but only a threnody of emotivism: My essay is “venomous” while I myself am both “pretentious” and guilty of having “cribbed.” I read “dogmatically” and therefore discover “dogma” (a diallelus of an argument if there ever were one). By contrast, Caruth merely restates her claim to the ethical supremacy of herself and her fellow trauma theorists, because their engagement with the malady is “a careful act of listening.” This bald assertion is followed by a lofty shutting-down of any debate on the matter—yet there’s been no substantive rejection of my arguments, only woolly appeals to subjectivity and ad hominem remarks. That my essay advanced a view of literary criticism that might be unpalatable to some who have made their careers in this field is indisputable; that those so indicted should resort to insult is disappointing.

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February 2022

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