In the closing pages of Cervantes’s masterpiece, at last disabused and disillusioned, a decrepit Don Quixote finds that there is nothing for him beyond folly but death. When giants are only windmills and Dulcinea a stout peasant lass who has no time for a knight errant, life, alas, is unlivable. “Truly he is dying,” says the priest who takes his confession, “and truly he is sane.” Sancho Panza breaks down in tears: “Oh don’t die, dear master!… Take my advice and live many years. For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy.”
Centuries later, observing the loss of all illusion that he felt characterized the modern world, the melancholic Giacomo Leopardi wrote: “Everything is folly but folly itself.” And again a hundred and more years later, the arch pessimist Emil Cioran rephrased the reflection thus: “The true vertigo is the absence of folly.” What makes Don Quixote so much luckier than Leopardi and Cioran, and doubtless Cervantes himself, is that, as the epitaph on his tombstone puts it, “he had the luck…to live a fool and yet die wise.” What on earth would have become of such a sentimental idealist had he returned to his senses, as it were, a decade or two earlier?
Both in Vertigo and in his later novels The Emigrants and Rings of Saturn,1 W.G. Sebald, the German writer who lives in England, tells the stories of those who reach disillusionment long before the flesh is ready to succumb. The men in his book—they are always men—are engaged in a virtuoso struggle to conjure within themselves the minimum of folly, or we could call it love of life or even engagement, that will prevent them from dying “just like that,” “finished off by [their] own melancholy.”
But perhaps I have got that wrong. For it could also be said that Sebald’s characters are men who ruthlessly suppress folly the moment it raises its irrepressible head. So wary are they of engagement in life that they are morbidly and masochistically in complicity with melancholy and all too ready to be overwhelmed by it. There is a back and forth in Sebald’s work between the wildest whimsy and the bleakest realism. One extreme calls to the other: the illusions of passion, in the past; a quiet suicide, all too often, in the future. Mediating between the two, images both of his art and of what fragile nostalgic equilibrium may be available to his heroes, are the grainy black-and-white photographs Sebald scatters throughout his books. Undeniably images of something, something real that is, they give documentary evidence of experiences that, as we will discover in the text, sparked off in the narrator or hero a moment of mental excitement, of mystery, or folly, or alarm. They are the wherewithal of an enchantment, at once feared and desired, and above all necessary for staying alive.…
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