Undiscovered Territory

The postmodern reconceptualization of space posits that “our experience of time and space in the late twentieth century has changed…fundamentally.” Hui refers to the work of postmodern geographers who view the newly compressed world as a series of networks more than as a spatial territory. “For the first time in history we have the godlike perspective that humanity has always imagined” (i.e., viewing the earth from the air). But, Hui argues, “it turns out that we have nevertheless come no further in terms of knowing ourselves.” In The Rings of Saturn, Hui sees a postmodern global network (all of “the local and global histories that he encounters on his pilgrimage in Suffolk.”) that is overlaid with a “project that is local and remains stubbornly so.” By remaining fixated on Suffolk, Sebald can tell a more cosmological story that rejects “the dilettantism of tourism.”

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I’ve recently been reading a number of early modern English chorographies (e.g. “A Perambulation of Kent” by Peter Lambarde and “A Survey of London” by John Speed). The parallels with Sebald’s work are fascinating. Chorography was the branch of early modern geography that concerned itself with local history – the history of particular places and the people, particularly the families, that had shaped them. It was a constant concern of chorographers such as Lambarde to distinguish chorography from chronology. They insisted that they were writing chiefly about topography, and only secondarily about the history of these places.

I don’t know whether Sebald knew this tradition (which as far as I can tell was supplanted by natural historical accounts of places, such as Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia), but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. He brings the tradition up to date by demonstrating – brilliantly – that in the modern world, local histories have to be about the entire world. The early chorographers contented themselves with speculations about the mythological ancestors of particular British peoples (e.g. by claiming that refugees from Troy first populated certain counties); Sebald makes historical connections that have the quality of myth, precisely because they are so unexpected. When I read his books, as when I read the chorographies, I find myself constantly thinking “is that really true?” The difference is that, with Sebald, it nearly always is.

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