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Butterflies III

January 14, 2015

Accordingly, the narrator’s visit to the salt-frames towards novel’s end yields the only conclusion that can be provided on the issue of memory (albeit an “unsatisfactory” one). Sitting on a bench, watching the mineral waters navigate the labyrinthine blackthorn branches, the narrator recounts how he:

…all that afternoon immersed myself in the sight and sound of that theatre of water, and in ruminations about the long-term and (I believe) impenetrable process which, as the concentration of salts increases in the water, produces the very strangest of petrified or crystallized forms, imitating the growth patterns of Nature even as it is being dissolved. (230)

Much as Ferber’s portrait of the butterfly man can arrive at no depiction that resolves the tangle of psychic health and unhealth surrounding the figure, so do the “petrified or crystallized forms” defy the narrator’s attempt to discern a comprehensible pattern governing their creation and destruction. Moreover, he seems incapable of even distinguishing whether a given form is at any moment being formed or dissolved; the form, after all, mirrors “the growth patterns of Nature even as it is being dissolved,” indicating that any success at separating the two movements would only prove artificial, any attempt to do so futile.

Unsurprisingly, the narrator notes that the process before him appears “long-term and…impenetrable.” Despite its opaque nature, he finds himself content to while away several hours at the salt-frames, simply watching the process of simultaneous creation and dissolution. His continued observation, regardless of its efficacy, informs the reading of Ferber’s plight given above. He can find no ultimate satisfaction in slaving away on the butterfly man’s portrait; nonetheless, he does not slacken his efforts to complete it. Rather, his inability to adequately capture the “faceless” spurs his continued work. He achieves what little resolution can be obtained from engaging the conflicting positive and negative dynamics underlying the link between the butterfly man and that lost piece of himself: the resolution of having engaged the “impenetrable.” In confronting his memory, Ferber recognizes that the resulting tension that it engenders within his person and psyche is unavoidable. He reaches the same conclusion that Aunt Fini draws about Ambros Adelwarth’s telling stories: “He was at once saving himself, in some way, and mercilessly destroying himself” (100). In fact, Ambros’ case indicates that one only finds relative psychic health in embracing this tension between the underlying dynamics. One must navigate the conflict between the benefits and risks that the faculty of memory poses to the mental integrity of the individual to find any sort of solace.

By underscoring both Ferber’s success and failure, Sebald outlines an ethical responsibility that the individual bears towards both one’s personal and communal history. This responsibility, however, no longer applies solely to the individual. Sebald’s text seems as much an indictment of Germany as of any individual therein. As the narrator remarks of the German people, “a lack of memory…and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up” (225) defines their relationship with the Holocaust; this results in the psychic unhealth or “insanity” (181) that Ferber associates with Germany. Instead, both individual and community must follow Ferber’s example in addressing the past, no matter the nostalgic vertigo or toxicity attached to those memories. History bruises, but ignoring the past threatens to undermine the sanity of the individual and community.

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