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The Ruin as Kairos in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn

La ruine comme temps du kairos dans Les Anneaux de Saturne de W. G. Sebald
Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès
p. 153-162


Au-delà de l’hétérogénéité sémiotique entre signes linguistiques et images, qui rend partiellement compte de la force de rupture que représente l’insertion de matériaux visuels dans Les Anneaux de Saturne, la relation texte/image dans ce roman est un lieu de tension poétique particulier en raison du caractère intempestif de l’irruption du visuel dans le texte, une intempestivité qui désigne les photographies comme des ruptures plutôt que comme des continuités, qui ouvrent le texte linguistique à son autre sémiotique, en introduisant une dilatation temporelle et une relation spécifique au passé. En amenant un changement de vitesse dans le processus de lecture, les diverses images insérées dans le texte produisent en effet des changements dans la temporalité du récit qui sont perçus par le lecteur comme autant de moments de kairos, ou possibilité d’ête présent au passé sous sa forme résiduelle, grâce à l’irruption de la ruine comme moment de vérité sur le passé. Dans L’Être et l’événement, Alain Badiou souligne le fait que nous ne pouvons être totalement présents à l’événement dans son événementialité. Nous ne pouvons que le nommer a posteriori. Ainsi, nous ne pouvons avoir accès à l’événement que lorsqu’il est passé, lorsque nous tentons de nommer ou de matérialiser ses traces. L’insertion de traces du passé dans le texte, par le biais du visuel, et de la photographie en particulier, relève ainsi d’un désir de matérialiser le passé sous forme de reste, ou de ruines. Cet article envisage l’insertion d’images dans le texte de Sebald sous l’angle de la notion agambiénienne de dispositif, qui comprend une dimension idéologique, mais aussi la réception du lecteur, l’appréhension culturelle et sociale de la relation texte/image, ainsi que l’insertion du dispositif dans une institution, afin de mieux cerner la spécificité du kairos que les ruines photographiques de Sebald introduisent dans son texte.

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  • 1 Sebaldian critics have given pride of place to the question of space in Sebald’s narratives, becaus (...)

1Critics have repeatedly dwelled on the question of space in Sebald’s novels, given the wandering habits of Sebald’s narrators, and the repeated insertion of photographs in his texts, which add the visual representation of landscapes to their textual descriptions (Catling 19–50, Gregory-Guider 422–49).1 The Rings of Saturn certainly calls for such a spatial reading, consisting as it does of various journeys, from the embedding story of the narrator’s quest for Thomas Browne’s writings, to the embedded biographies of Casement and Conrad, of Edward Fitzgerald, of the poet Swinburne, and of Sir Thomas Browne himself. Yet the insertion of visual material in the text also begs the question of the nature of the temporality at work in the novel, since the flow of the reader’s reading of the linguistic text is constantly interrupted by the insertion of visual material. Interestingly enough, much of this visual material relates to the topos of the ruin or the process of ruination, to a form of past that is not quite past but that comes back to haunt the text in phantom form. In what way does the specific temporality of the ruin make it possible for Sebald to explore 20th-century individual and collective traumas?

2The Rings of Saturn opens on an equation drawn by the narrator between trauma, writing and intermediality. In the incipit of the novel, the narrator describes the state of almost total immobility in which he has found himself, as a result of his confrontation with the traces of destruction present everywhere around himself when he started walking in the East Anglian countryside: ‘In retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place’ (Sebald 3, hereafter RS). This original trauma is made manifest through the hysterical symptoms it provokes in the narrator: ‘Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility’ (RS 3). This multilayered form of trauma is materialized by the visual elements in the text. Indeed, the mass of photographs, maps, remains of scrapbooks, newspapers articles and drawings present in The Rings of Saturn bear witness to the fact that no one in the novel can escape the ‘shadowy memory that haunts [men] to this day’ (RS 98), be they memories of the Holocaust, of acts of violence committed by the Croatian Ustasha (a fascist, anti-Yugoslav separatist movement promoting genocide against Jews, Serbs and Romani people, mainly responsible for the Holocaust in the Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War) or of the Napoleonic wars. I will focus on the photographs, which outnumber the other types of images in the novel, because they pose the problem of the link between history and fiction in a particularly acute fashion, given their specific referential status. The way Sebald questions their function as a witness to historical time, through blurring and veiling, will lie at the core of my reflection on kairos.

3If the source of the narrator’s trauma lies in the traces of horror and annihilation he can read around himself, a quest for what has escaped and will escape annihilation guides his narrative. Thus, the narrator’s creation of an intermedial arrangement of photographic images and verbal narrative becomes, for him, a way of making the past present, even as it underlines the pastness of the past. It is a way of showing the ravages of time while preserving the remnants of past times. In other words, this intermedial narrative creates a landscape of ruins through its manipulation of time. Although the novel contains few pictures of actual ruins, Sebald’s intermedial narrative is ruination at work, but ruination as a preliminary to the experience of kairos, i.e. to the experience of an epiphanic sense of presence to the very nature of our being-in-time, during which it is time itself that becomes the event.

4Lying on his hospital bed and looking through his room window, Sebald’s narrator embarks on a narrative that delves into the past so as to retrieve significant fragments that may be salvaged from the passage of time. As the narrator’s original travel-writing project peters out because of his forced immobility, his decision to start on an autobiography based on the combination of text and images takes shape, which leads him to the creation of a landscape of ruins as a token of the presence of the past (Long & Whitehead 59). Indeed, as Georg Simmel argues in his seminal 1911 essay, the ruin ‘creates the present form of a past life, not according to the contents or remnants of that life, but according to its past as such’ (Simmel 265). In other words, the ruin is solidified memory, which makes it a fundamental element in the narrator’s quest for a narrative form capable of working through trauma. The articulation of text and photographs in his intermedial narrative creates a pendulum-like movement between past and present which conjures up a hallucinated vision of the vestigial image of a past which has been lost, but which the ruin, in its specific temporal quality, has the power to recall, as Michael Hamburger describes when reminiscing about the Berlin of his childhood, in the novel:

Whenever a shift in our spiritual life occurs, and fragments such as these surface, we believe we can remember. But in reality, of course, memory fails us. Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable. If I now look back to Berlin, writes Michael, all I see is a darkened background with a grey smudge in it, a slate pencil drawing, some unclear numbers and letters in a gothic script, blurred and half wiped away with a damp rag. Perhaps this blind spot is also a vestigial image of the ruins through which I wandered in 1947 when I returned to my native city for the first time to search for traces of the life I had lost. (RS 177–78)

5The vestigial image of the ruin is precisely what Sebald’s narrator constructs when he conjures up the past from the vantage point of the ‘then’ (Barzilai 205–18), through his text and photograph narrative. Indeed, the narrator’s intermedial narrative is a way for him to manipulate time so as to select what is lasting, what may feed into the present and make it possible for continuity between past and present to be re-installed, a condition for trauma to be worked through, and a preliminary for his landscape of ruins to be brushed. The end of the first chapter in the novel is particularly telling in that respect, which connects the narrator’s quest for ‘the mysterious survival of the written word’ (RS 93) with Thomas Browne’s own aspiration to transcend temporal linearity: ‘Browne scrutinizes that which escaped annihilation for any sign of the mysterious capacity for transmigration he has often observed in caterpillars and moths’ (RS 26). Such transmigration is precisely what the ruin represents in its capacity to make past and present communicate.

6Photography is foundational to this undertaking, because it is referential by nature. As Roland Barthes makes clear in Camera Lucida, a photograph possesses a factual dimension: being the product of light hitting a photosensitive plate, it indexically gestures toward the real object which has affected it. Hence its appearance as a ‘fragment of the real’ (Barthes 87) and its capacity to act as a witness to the reality of the past. This conception of photography, which is based on film photography, ties in with Sebald’s quest for a memory of the past that uses photographs as archives to document the reality of bygone times. The black and white aesthetics of Sebald’s photographs, combined with their lack of technical achievement, presents them as traces of the past: the fact that they adhere to the conventions of realism, being neither aestheticised nor even particularly technically satisfying, reinforces their role as witnesses to history. Their blurred and fuzzy aspect deprives them of any preexisting aesthetic or technical agenda, which gives them greater force of conviction in relation to the past reality they conjure up.

7Yet on closer examination, the documentary feel of these photographs proves deceptive. Many of them are overexposed and covered in a white veil or screen or mist that mars their visual accuracy, and simply cancels their force as witnesses to things past, since they appear as unreadable for lack of focus and clarity. Their grain or texture, which the reader was inclined at first to interpret as a token of their archival truthfulness, turns them into self-undermining authenticators of fiction. The lack of a caption and their insertion without an explanation shows that their referentiality is highly unstable. Rather than being traces of the past, they suggest the haunting presence of a past that is unable to pass: they are the symptoms of the trauma which the narrator seeks to work through, the ghost-like remnants of destruction contributing to Sebald’s obsession with the violence of man. In other words, they are the vestigial images of the ruins of past times. Thus the photograph inserted on the double page following the evocation of Major George Wyndham Le Strange, who served in the anti-tank regiment that liberated the camp at Bergen Belsen on 14th April 1945, possesses archival authenticity in its very blurry nature and overexposed quality, but it only dimly represents a wood strewn with what appear as bodies, or body bags, which possibly evoke the horror of the Holocaust, which might also be interpreted in a different way. Similarly, and perhaps even more strikingly, the photograph which punctuates the narrator’s evocation of the crimes committed by men of the Croatian Ustasha, provides the reader with a very unclear picture of half-naked bodies hanged in a row. The very blurry aspect of this photograph which seems to authenticate the scene as archive prevents the reader from gaining full access to the past.

8More than witnesses to past reality, the photographs in The Rings of Saturn are therefore memento mori, i.e. living witnesses to a past that is passed and dead. As Susan Sontag made clear in her book On Photography, photographs are forms of mourning, they freeze past reality in the attitude of death: ‘All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’ (Sontag 15).

9The photographs in Sebald’s novel play such a role as memento mori: they are the spectral vestiges of the presence of the past. They irrupt into the text like ghosts, thus bearing witness to the fact that past reality is no longer, but can only be apprehended in uncanny phantom form, as underlined by Maia Barzilai in W. G. Sebald, History, Memory, Trauma: ‘Photography functions not only as a means for attempting to access the past but also as an emblem for the uncanny resurgence of the past’ (Barzilai 207). Sebald’s photographs give us access to the past as a ghostly shadow, as a ruin of what once was, and they foreground the distance, or the interval, between past and present by theatrically representing the passage of time through the white mists, screens and filters which cover them. Their unreadability duplicates for the reader the disruptive resurgence of the past for the traumatised narrator. Indeed, as they bring to the fore the past dimension of the past, they mimick the resurgence of the traumatic symptom in the narrator’s psyche, after the period of latency which Freud designated as ‘Nachträglichkeit’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud 31–42). This resurgence in representation is the only access we can have to the event that is passed, as Alain Badiou underlines in his analysis of the structure of the event in Being and Event. Alain Badiou makes clear the elusive dimension of the past event, which prevents us from gaining access to the event qua event, because it leaves us speechless, on account of its very nature as a point of rupture with being. We can identify the event only a posteriori, through re-presentation (Badiou 228–29). Thus the traumatic event which exceeds our capacity to understand and recognize it, is perceptible only in its resurgence as symptom, as Cathy Caruth points out: ‘the traumatic symptom is a response, sometimes delayed, to an event or a series of events that overwhelm us and take the form of hallucinations, dreams, thoughts and repetitive and involuntary behaviours caused by the event’ (Caruth 4–5). Such delayed representation, such belatedness is precisely what Sebald’s photographs foreground, when pointing to the gap, to the line of fracture between past and present. What they invite us to experience is precisely that moment of kairos when the narrator understands about the specific temporality of his trauma, through its re-inscription in the text and image sequence or syntax. In that sense, Sebald’s photographs in The Rings of Saturn are dialectical images, according to the Benjaminian definition of the term, i.e. constellations of past and present times which make visible the very fracture between past and present, thus revealing the true nature of time in a moment of kairos.

10Through this moment of kairos, Sebald’s photographs collectively produce a discourse on the historical documentation of the past based on the archive as being insufficient to guarantee full access to past reality. As opposed to this traditional vision of history, the narrator proposes a Benjaminian vision of time and history based on the close attention paid to the ruins of what once was, a way of avoiding the historical vantage point on past events which, as Sebald declares, falsifies perspectives (Benjamin 235). According to Sebald, that panoptical vantage point cannot take into consideration the remnants of reality which Walter Benjamin, and Sebald after him, designate as true witnesses to the reality of the past. Indeed, the ruin, as Sebald’s narrator makes clear when he describes his visit to Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, superimposes many ages which coexist, even as they are ‘imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion’ (RS 36). Hence their ineffable charm, and their captivating life-in-death quality. Capturing the essence of the ruin by proposing a vicarious experience of the past which lies outside the chronological and panoptical boundaries inherent in the traditional discourse of history is precisely what the narrator’s intermedial narrative purports to do. The narrator’s description of his visit to Waterloo is a case in point, which makes clear that the past accounted for by chronological history is dead and ghost-like. It can only lead to incomprehension, being like a foreign language that resists our understanding: ‘That afternoon in the rotunda I inserted a couple of coins in a slot machine to hear an account of the battle in Flemish. Of the various circumstances and vicissitudes described I understood no more than the odd phrase . . . No clear picture emerged’ (RS 125). It is precisely the absence of a clear picture of the past and the lack of a vantage point over past events, which allow both narrator and reader to experience something of the reality of the past. This is what Sebald’s photographs create for us, with their fuzzy and blurred quality, which prevents us from towering over the reality they evoke. The syntax of their articulation with the text suggests that they are relatively independent of a narrative which they do not systematically illustrate, instantiate or clarify. They’re not fully integrated in the text, spring up at unexpected moments, thus reproducing on the level of the reading experience the disruptive resurgence of the past for the narrator. Moreover, their very reproduction suggests that the narrative text is not sufficient when it comes to bearing witness to the past, and that narrative memory needs to be buttressed by photography when evoking the past. The reader thus feels compelled to supply the missing links and to re-organise the text/image relation so as to re-motivate the links between the narrative, the story, and the photographs. In order to make sense of the ruins of the past that are scattered through the intermedial narrative, therefore, the reader has to participate actively in the reconstruction of that past, something which cannot be done without empathy and a shifting of temporal gears. Thus Sebald’s intermedial narrative works as a Foucaldian apparatus, a machinic combination of discourses, bodies, institutions, and power which captures the reader’s forces and transforms his experience of subjectivity in time (Agamben 2). To put it in Nelson Goodman’s terms, the reader’s ‘digital’ activity of reading—which is based on our capacity to break down the linguistic text into discrete units which can be isolated and identically duplicated—is challenged by the ‘analogical’ perception of the inserted visual material which we apprehend globally, because it is made of analogical symbols which signify ‘in droves’ (Goodman quoted in Mitchell 67–68). The technique of montage whereby Sebald selects, transforms, juxtaposes and confronts the linguistic and the visual, combining them according to the new grammar, or syntax, of collage thus deconstructs temporal linearity so as to reconstruct a new temporality in which the past can be articulated with the present to form a constellation of time.

11Sebald’s highly unstable combination of text and image in The Rings of Saturn gives the reader a hallucinated sense of presence to and experience of a past lying beyond the reach of history. The hallucinated feeling inherent in Sebald’s meandering, fragmented, and dialogical narrative that blurs voices and sources of utterance through the recurrent use of indirect speech enables the novel to be polyphonic, thus catering for the reader’s multi-sensorial access to an experience of the past. The past apprehended in this way is not the chronological past, or chronos constructed by the discourse of history, but the past of aîon, the intensive time of affects and percepts, which the intermedial narrative conjures up. It is a hallucinated past built through associations and analogies, oscillations and anachronisms, which follows the meanders of memory rather than the chronological linearity of history. It is the affective past which the ruin embodies, in its capacity to superimpose several temporal layers, while pointing to a totality beyond itself, which it reveals in its absence. Thus, Sebald’s intermedial narrative shows us that, as Benjamin made clear in his analysis of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, a ruin is not simply the remnant left over when monumentality has withered away, but it is the very emblem of our transience and a reflection of our human condition.

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1 Sebaldian critics have given pride of place to the question of space in Sebald’s narratives, because of the specific status of Sebald’s narrators as wanderers, and because of the way the visual material inserted in Sebald’s novels contributes to their spatialisation by adding the visual representation of landscapes to their textual descriptions.

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, « The Ruin as Kairos in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn »Études britanniques contemporaines, 43 | 2012, 153-162.

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès, « The Ruin as Kairos in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2014, consulté le 28 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès

Université du Mans.
Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès is a Professor of English literature at the Université du Maine (Le Mans) in France. Her doctorate thesis dwelled on the representation of violence in contemporary British fiction. In her postdoctorate thesis she broadened her approach to include the contemporary philosophies of the event and their relation to British literature. She published books on Martin Amis and postmodernism (2003), on the figures of violence (2005) and on Text/image relations (Parcours/Détours 2008), together with a number of articles on 20th and 18th century British literature and the event. Her current research focuses on the representation of trauma through text/image relation.

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