My pleasure reading over the last couple of weeks has been W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the story of a man who is haunted throughout his life by his inability, or unwillingness, to remember his origins. Last night, I was reading Anthony Giddens for a class on memory and archives that I’m taking this semester, and I came across a passage that perfectly describes Sebald’s eponymous protagonist:
Both Austerlitz and the anonymous narrator repeatedly remark on his feelings of disconnection from and aversion to the flow of time, and throughout the book Sebald makes the reader feel what it is to experience time as “a series of discrete moments,” as when he describes a massive clock in a railway station:
During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of the hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one’s heart almost stopped.
Giddens discusses the “ontologically insecure individual” as if he were a deviation from the norm, where normality is defined in terms of being able to sustain an autobiographical narrative. Certainly that is the assumption of narrative psychologists, who analyze the stories people tell about themselves and correlate mental health with tales of redemption, told in the third person. They would no doubt reward Austerlitz’s melancholy and fragmented first-person recollections with a cocktail of prescription drugs. But maybe Austerlitz isn’t such an oddball. Zygmunt Bauman contends that the linear, novelistic experience of time has been replaced in our current society by what he calls “pointillist time”:
If Bauman is right, ontological insecurity is now the norm, and whatever autobiographical narratives we do manage to piece together function only retrospectively, rather than motivating our future plans and actions.