W.G. Sebald / from “The Rings of Saturn” (1995)


On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark. Knowledge of that descent into the dark, for Browne [1], is inseparable from his belief in the day of resurrection, when, as in a theatre, the last revolutions are ended and the actors appear once more on stage, to complete and make up the catastrophe of this great piece. As a doctor, who saw disease growing and raging in bodies, he understood mortality better than the flowering of life. To him it seems a miracle that we should last as much as a single day. There is no antidote, he writes, against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osiris in the Dog star. Indeed, great dynasties last not three oaks. To set one’s signature to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best most deserving man have gone without trace. The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppy seed, and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.


[1] Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th century physician, scientist, philosopher and author.