Photo by Mike Flemming.Copyright
The Power of W. G. Sebald’s Small Silences
The Rings of Saturn follows a Sebald-like narrator as he walks along England’s eastern coast, letting his mind wander along with his feet. The prose follows the narrator’s digressions from each place and idea to the next, moving freely in time and space. The last chapter is concerned almost entirely with the subject of silkworms. Sebald’s narrator, inspired by the writings of the 17th-century polymath Thomas Browne, traces the history of sericulture—the rearing of silkworms for the production of silk—from its origins in ancient China to its arrival in Europe to its use in 20th-century Germany.
Like much of the novel, this fairly erudite discussion, while arresting in its way, does not immediately make its significance known. Then, a few pages from the novel’s end, the narrator considers a film he happened upon the preceding summer on the subject of silk cultivation under the Third Reich. As the booklet that accompanies the film informs both narrator and reader, in the 1930s, silk production became an important part of Hitler’s demand for an economically self-sufficient Germany. As a result, sericulture became a common feature of children’s education. It turned out to serve many pedagogical functions. In one of the novel’s most memorable passages, Sebald writes:
Any number [of silkworms] could be had for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage of their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. – In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs despatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.
With the phrase “extermination to preempt racial degeneration,” Sebald slips seamlessly from the discussion of sericulture to an oblique discussion of the Final Solution. The description of the film takes on a haunting doubleness. It is both an explanation of the killing of silkworms and an evocation of the Nazi genocide.
When I returned to this passage, what struck me most was the dash Sebald places between the description of the use of silkworms in the classroom and the account of the film—a single dash that hovers between two complete sentences. What could be its significance?
“The dash, situated between the talk of schoolroom sericulture and the talk of silkworm execution, creates a moment of silence for the victims of the death camps.”