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Anamnesis in Austerlitz

Anamnesis in Austerlitz

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Published by Jane Sorensen

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Published by: Jane Sorensen on Jun 17, 2011
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 Jane SorensenThursday, December 31, 2009Word count: 3688Page 1 of 12
Anamnesis in Austerlitz
In this novel, Austerlitz was the historic site of a battle, a train station repeatedlyvisited, and a character undergoing a transformation through anamnesis. In this essay Iundertake to explore some philosophical concepts relating to anamnesis, or the particularkind that Austerlitz exemplified.“[A]n agency greater than or superior to my own capacity for thought…has alwayspreserved me from my own secret, systematically preventing me from drawing theobvious conclusions and embarking on the inquiries they would have suggested to me.”(Sebald 44)This is not how the protagonist begins his narration or how the book Austerlitz begins,but it is the beginning of his journey, the day he discovers, at age 15, his name is notDafydd Elias but Jacques Austerlitz. He knew he had arrived and been adopted into aWelsh family at a young age, but could remember nothing of his childhood, not parentsnor language, nor name. And yet this discovery – not so much discovery, but instructionto use his real name on school exams – doesn’t spur him to begin the necessaryinvestigation into his history. He continues, “It hasn’t been easy to make my way out of my own inhibitions.” (Sebald 44) The story that ensues follows a certain meanderingchronology, a disciplined and nuanced stream-of-consciousness offered to a goodlistener, the narrator. He carries the narrator/reader through his observations of rooms,buildings, streets, paintings, objects, moths, pigeons, stations, scenes and travels, people
 
 Jane SorensenThursday, December 31, 2009Word count: 3688Page 2 of 12
he knew, stories he was told, senses and emotions he felt (the latter with a sense of resistance or passivity at times), events that happened to him. Yet he also speaks with asingular remove, it seems, until he begins to speak of his frailties in later life.“I realized…how little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard Imust always have tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which relatedin any way to my unknown past.” (Sebald
 
139) I have a hypothesis that the avoidance of memory of his personal history, the lack of pre-narration self-observation except in thepresent tense, the going forward without referral back to key people in his history asexamples by which he should live his life, are all part of what made Austerlitz such anexcellent student and perhaps professor of his subject (which we are led to believe wasarchitectural history, as that was the context of so much of the book). The drive to avoidhis past fueled his curiosity and ambition in intellectual matters instead, even as itcrippled his ability to connect to others. And this may be no surprise after all, for youcould substitute Austerlitz’s architectural history for philosophy and come to the sameconclusion as Heidegger, or, for that matter, an average Joe who is unimpressed withhigher learning:
…even if we have devoted many years to the intensive study of the treatises and writingsof the great thinkers, that fact is still no guarantee that we ourselves are thinking, or evenare ready to learn thinking. On the contrary–preoccupation with philosophy more thananything else may give us the stubborn illusion that we are thinking just because we areincessantly “philosophizing.” (Heidegger 5)
Austerlitz was twice in the hospital for dementia or episodic epilepsy connected to thetrauma of remembering (or not-remembering) swathes of his life. One of the episodes of trauma was auto-induced upon retirement, a floundering of purpose that ended up having
 
 Jane SorensenThursday, December 31, 2009Word count: 3688Page 3 of 12
deep ramifications on his psyche at the time and resulted in spending the next period of his life pursuing the first. Incidentally, the first step of this endeavour occurred to him bychance while on a convalescent excursion to a bookstore, where he overheard a radioshow about the children from occupied countries who were sent to England on a specialtransport in 1939. An earlier hospitalization occurred a few months after he met Marie atthe manuscripts and records department at the Bibliothèque Nationale, when on one of many weekends she was away, he had taken a trip to the outskirts of Paris and foundhimself at a museum in the École Vétérinaire, where he saw many gruesome exhibits thathe only remembered later after much work and Marie’s patient questioning. On the wayback, he had the first of several fainting fits they called hysterical epilepsy, and “when atlast I began to improve…I also recollected how once, while my mind was still quitesubmerged [that day], I had seen myself standing, filled with a painful sense thatsomething within me was trying to surface from oblivion…” (Sebald 270)After the first episode of psychic breakdown, Austerlitz still preferred to remainignorant of what caused his malaise, and may have not made or even avoided theconnection between the malaise and his personal forgotten narrative. In so doing, he lostMarie, perhaps in Marienbad, where he felt they had been surrounded by portents tryingto tell him about himself, he being unable to convey this feeling to her. She may havebeen the cause for his earlier psychic breakdown, her importance to him being the triggerfor the importance of his past to him, a trigger inadequately dealt with – for the current of present projects and for progressing beyond the past and forgetting is the general mode of life (and yet there was little of present and presence that Austerlitz forgot, with his finely

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