I want to explore Sebald’s short story, “Dr. K. takes the waters at Riva(from “Vertigo”) from the viewpoint of the author’s concern for, and expression of, the marginilisation and invisibilisation of same-sex love and affection throughout various periods of history and hegemonic society(see earlier entry for some other examples of his dealing with the subject).

I am not concerned here with entering the morass of (academic and general) debate on the nature of Kafka’s sexual orientation. I am looking SOLELY at THIS  story(abeit in the context of Sebald’s OWN concern for same-sex love)as an entity in itself and FOR itself. And, having said that, of course, we always have this great writer’s elusiveness and mystery and ambiguity about his subject matter, whether it be towards the “subject” itself or towards himself as the narrator, or purported narrator, of that subject. This mirrors, A PRIORI , the ultimate(at least partial)  unknowability of the (whole) truth about the person/concept/place Sebald describes; or, indeed, about ANYONE, fictional or real.

Sebald sets the scene:”Dr K.”, en route to Vienna(did this really happen?-it doesn’t matter because the points Sebald makes are politically and sociologically valid anyway),views “an ominous, deserted station, the trains empty”{I shall post more, later, on those particualar manifestations of unquiet, spectral architecture and geography}. And even the name of the station(or place on the way) may, knowing(or NOT being able to “know”) Sebald, may be significant, being a possible reference to Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament”, where the composers “Immortal Beloved” is marked( in this story it would be K’s chaste love for the unnamed “mermaid” he later meets or his self-unnamed, but nearly named, same sex desires generally.). So, “Dr. K” feels he has reached “the end of the line”.

K. is suffering from manifold psychosomatic maladies-he is “extremely unwell. He is suffering from dejectedness”.Even more startlingly, he experiences extreme states of derealisation/depersonalisation; he feels outside of himself:”like a ghost at a table”.

At that(significant) moment he imagines(actually sees??-with Sebald you rarely know) Franz Grillparzer(who DID exist: a melancholic and, in later life, bitter, Austrian dramatist, 1791-1872, who happened to be homosexual), ” a man now so ancient that he has  almost faded away”.Grillparzer/”Grillparzer” gives Dr. K some OVERT sexual attention(“He indulges in all sorts of tomfoolery and on one occasion even lays a hand on Dr. K’s knee”).

This incident leads Dr. K to be “in a wretched state”, as he remembers his same- sex, sexual adventures in  Berlin; and then Sebald makes his most powerful and most unequivocal ever statement about homosexual/gay/same-sex legal. political and social(and thus psychologically internalised)oppression: that Dr. K cannot proceed in his life because society does not allow him to have a marriage of sexual openness(and friendship) with his wife; and it certainly does not legitimize, in law and in social attitudes, at this period in history anyway, the possibility of taking “the only possible step beyond a friendship with men”, because “there, on the other side of the prescribed boundary, the boot is already upraised that will crush you under its heel”. The (not so veiled) reference to Nazism(or possibly ANY fascist, totalitarian state)gives this statement even MORE force than it has already(just by dint of being STATED so forcefully).

This is a profoundly un-Sebaldian phrase in its overt, harsh directness and undoubted political import(of course, ALL his texts have profound political meanings and references, but he tends to deal with these subjects circuitously); and, even more so, in its profoundly atypically Sebaldian STYLE: its violence jumps out of the primarily melancholic tone and content of the text. This therefore relates to my passionately held view, upheld by a number of his texts, that there are deep political points being made in most of his works; here his prevalent concern for marginalised people, who have their physical AND/OR psychological identities wiped off the face of the earth:in this case, people who experience same-sex desire.

Dr. K,s sense of his own unrealness and insubstantiality progress and are often repeated: he is “seized by a creeping paralysis,”; “he has a vision of himself as amost mysterious figure”.

Moving onto Trieste, the protagonist, on the edge of sleep,has, firstly, a feeling of how “it is to be a free man”, wandering the (male) red-light “harbour”; and, next, a vision of an an angel, which, disconcertingly, then metamorphoses into  a “garishly painted ship’s  figurehead”; I would say this is probably some sublimation, which then descends into guilty anti-transformation, of his true sexual desires.

On the way to Venice now “the waves were still breaking within him”, and a brief period of freeedom from “tremulousness” is succeeded by the narrator’s description of him now being “on the brink of disintegration”. The ending of this paragraph, after his arrival in Venice , is especially poignant and disturbing: “the misery within him was almost overflowing”; and he sees himself as FATED to “endure” this extremely melancholic, unfulfilled state of being as this as his “nature”(he is referring to his passive inability to OWN his homosexual feelings, not the feelings themselves{directly} but, of course, Sebald, via the narrator, is again, less overtly this time, making the deeply political point that Dr. k has no social context or permission to do anything  about these feelings).

In Verona next, Dr. K becomes paranoid, sensing  that the town’s occupants are all in happy family groups just to make HIM unhappy(“staged especially to bring home to him, Dr. K., his  solitary, eccentric condition”.)

This brings us to the bleak heart of the story. The narrator describes Dr. K as seeing a film, and, at one significant point,”supposed”(a la Sebald!) it was the representation of a Prague student who sees his doppelganger in a mirror, the double leaps out of the mirror, the student stabs him and thereby realises he has stabbed HIMSELF too. The reason given for the (putative) stabbing of the original mirror image of the student is that they were “engaged in the most intimate and self-destructive of relationships”, and that the beloved, for such he is, (though he is also the rejected/suppressed part of the students very OWN self), is engaged to be married. So, the student has killed him whom he loves, and the homo-erotic part of himself too. This (“supposed”) incident leads Sebald(via the narrator) on to an ecstatically melancholy and sorrowful brief but powerful meditation on opera and the human condition: “the soundless aria of the hero’s demise”, referring to opera as the art-form where “the dying voice aimlessly wanders through the music”{Guilda’s death, in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” would be an example}.The mutual anti-consummation of the death of the two doppelgangers is seen as to be appropriately and richly represented in these “final contortions”, as according to Dr. K(via the narrator, via Sebald) “we lie prostrate on the the {operatic} boards, dying, our whole lives long”(or is this an ACTUAL, or partial actual, quotation form Kafka himself??)

Now spectral images are placed in the text; because Dr. K is a spectre of himself by now-a shell- and, in the photographs of the eager crowd agog to meet the deputy secretary of the Prague Workers Insurance Company, there is only a gap where he should be. This is a fine example of Sebalds’s counterpointing of the text with telling, often elusive and/or ghostly, pictures.

Dr. K, on his next stage of his journey into disintegration(though, as we shall see, he has his moment of {partial}redemption too) goes for hydropathic bathing at Riva. Images of physical paralysis and being utterly overwhelmed are repeated; and Dr. k is obscurely comforted by his mealtime neighbour, an old man who remarks on how lots of life/world changing events often come about serendipitously(“it is a fundamentally insane notion..that one is able to influence the course of events by a turn of the helm{ie. by human control}, by will-power alone, whereas all is determined by the most complex interdependencies”.

What happens next is startling. There is some kind of temporary redemption (over his anguished, disintegrating state of mind) for Dr. K, as he meets a “frail”  fellow bather; in fact it is her very delicacy that makes her “most precious to him”, as he IDENTIFIES with her (self)unknowability and fragility. Sebald is very clever, and poignant here, because he puts their scene of rowing on the lake at many removes from reality: “as if the entire location were an album”, i.e. an IMAGE of directly experienced reality; and ” the mountains had been drawn on an empty page” by a(another remove) “dilettante”; then, finally, as a “rememberance”(sic!) for a woman’s picture album. So, as it is happening, this touching (non-physical)liaison is already concomitantly becoming a MEMORY of itself.

There follows a very complex(philosophically and psychologically) paragraph, where  the protagonist justifies to himself his seperation out from, and inability to actualise, his true nature with this comment:”(he) evolves a fragmentary theory of disembodied{sic} love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement”. This need to portray to himself some oxymoronic and impossible CONDITION(dressed up, speciously and with sophistry, as some kind of “pure” , idealised love-state,)reflects his need to justify and sublimate his homo-erotic feelings; and Sebald again makes another deeply political,pro-homosexual statement(with Dr. K as his mouthpiece):”happiness lies in our natural surroundings not in our poor bodies which have long since become seperated from the natural order of things”. “Natural” is especially significant here: same-sex love, and its physical expression, has often, historically and culturally, been seen as “UNnatural”; Dr. K’s body and love for men are split off from his intrinsic deepest self by political and social oppression; by homophobia and heterosexism, in other words, abominations which Dr. K has INternalised.

But, just BECAUSE this relationship between Dr. K and the unnamed frail woman IS so nebulous and “disembodied”, Dr. K can believe in his own (false and inauthentic) self-concept.He NEEDS to at that moment; and it consoles him

The old military  man now dies and Dr. K is sans his last ally and consoling figure; possibly, not co-incidentally, the General had “neither wife nor children”. The General, like the doppelganger in the mirror earlier, is, at least to some significant degree, a relection of Dr. K himself-“this taciturn and oppressed soul”.

We are nearing the end: after a reference to the Flying Dutchman, “Gracchus”, huntsman figure(who appears in other Sebald narratives)who “has been voyaging the seas of the world ever since, without respite”:- after this mournful digression,Dr. K realises that “there is nothing to be enjoyed”, in the “natural and lawful order of things”; he has, at least, had some kind of ATTEMPT at sexual and affective fulfilment, as Dr. K has followed a young man, “veritably lusting” after him, “with a feeling of unbounded pleasure”.

Here Dr. K comes his closest to self-ackowledging his same-sex desire, but the narrator (and/or Sebald)says “we must assume{his desire} remained unstilled”. In a reference to Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, (in “Illuminations”), in particuarlar Benjamin’s comments on Kafka’s photograph of himself, aged 5,( hemmed in by a posed image and fronds),Dr. K(in this story) refers to a photograph of a niece of his wife:”Yes this little child deserves to be loved”(Dr. K writing to Felice, his wife). As if this isnt poignant enough, the narrator/Sebald /”Sebald” says “But what love could have been sufficient to spare the child the terrors of love, which for Dr. K stood foremost among all  the terrors of the earth?”.

And, very finally, we have a forestaste of Dr. K’s AND  the spectral narrator’s death:an echo of Grillparzer putting his hand on Dr. K’s knee, earlier in the story, brings it full circle, as the narrator HIMSELF(NOT Dr. K)imagines himself as “touching, in a moment of distraction{ONLY -nothing else, because of institutionalised, and therefore internalised, homophobia/bi-phobia,ie. with a lack of any significant self-admittance and certainly no self-acceptance},the knee of the man who was to have been our{sic} salvation”.

I hope I have shown, in this sorrowful, disturbing and powerful story how Sebald(probably not just the authorial voice in this one particular story, beacuse homophobia/biphobia and marginalisation and invisibilation are frequent pre-ocupations in a lot of his works), by means of a UNIVERSAL/UNIVERSALISED story, shows the way society can destroy a person with its prejudices and narrowminded thinking.

I say “universal” advisedly: firstly, because i MEAN it; it IS a story about ALL unattainable love, whatever the sexual orientation of the protagonist; but it is also, very explicitly, bravely and politically, like all Sebald, a strong political and radical statement on the oppression of minorities, whether intentional or not, by hegemonic powers… which point will bring me on to a posting I shall shortly make regarding the use and ABuse of the word “universal” to sustain the political, legal and social status quo…

Published by: decayetude


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