Memory and Disintegration in the work of W.G. Sebald and The Caretaker

This paper was delivered at the Resonant Edge Hauntology Symposium on the 15/06/2017. Full interviews with Grant Gee and James Leyland Kirby will be published later this summer.

My talk today is about two specific forms: the writing of W.G. Sebald and the musical work of The Caretaker.  My aim is to show the links between the two, with reference to ideas of Hauntology but also through looking at the bridge between them that comes in the form of Grant Gee’s 2012 experimental documentary, Patience (After Sebald).  By looking at the work of both artists, a potential thematic framework for Hauntology can be presented.  Though my paper is about a specific relationship between these two forms of work – both of which are related to Hauntology – it is worth briefly stating what my position is in regards to the term, perhaps even setting out the criteria for what I mean when I use “Hauntology,” before exploring the work in question.  This is simply to explain the perceived lack of typical Hauntology material. 

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Though the term Hauntology has become a far more aesthetic descriptor in the recent years, my ideas of Hauntology stem initially from the writing of Mark Fisher (and, to a natural extent from his extenuation of the theories of Jacques Derrida in its application to more cultural rather than simply political forms).  As well as the aesthetic palate that the term now commonly denotes – 1970s British paraphernalia such as Public Information Films, old Penguin books and work that touches upon such aesthetics by the likes of Ghost Box Records and Scarfolk Designs – my idea of Hauntology figures heavily on relationships to memory as a whole, not simply semi-nostalgic memories of a certain generation who grew up in 1970s Britain.  Fisher has suggested two forms that Hauntology can potentially take which I constantly refer back to, and which can be applied to both works in question.  He writes of these two forms that:

The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic “compulsion to repeat”, a fatal pattern).  The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). (2014, p.19).

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These are the criteria I refer to when considering ideas of Hauntology which can talk about more typical examples and their relationships to the past but also relate to work which deals more generally with the placement and relationship to memory.  For though Sebald’s work in particular is not so readily associated with the work of Hauntology, his novels and their use of imagery especially play upon several hauntological relationships with memory.  Equally The Caretaker’s music, though written about a great deal in hauntological contexts, even by Fisher, does not readily conform to the popular forms of the movement; there is no reference to 1970s Britain, there is no reference to remembered cultural artefacts from that period and the trauma repeating and breaking through the memory is certainly far more perceivable in his work and is devoid of the potential arguments surrounding nostalgia that other hauntological musicians can find themselves being questioned about.  It is now worth briefly providing an overview of both artists’ work simply to provide some context which highlight their initial differences in order to emphasise the uniqueness of the crossover between them

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W.G. Sebald was born in Wertach in Bavaria, travelling to England in later life to work at the University of Manchester, eventually relocating to the University of East Anglia in Norfolk – the landscape that would come to dominate his work – before he was tragically killed in a car crash in 2001.  He has four major works, of which The Rings Of Saturn – the chief subject of Gee’s film – is the third to his novels Vertigo (1990), and The Emigrants (1992), followed by Austerlitz in 2001 alongside several volumes of poetry and essays.  James Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker project began in 1999 with the release of work on the V/Vm Test Records called Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom.  The project took inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), especially its use of ‘Midnight, The Stars And You’ by Al Bowley with Ray Noble And His Orchestra and the atmosphere it created of the past repeating into the present day; the trauma of a murder in the hotel (as well as even older traumas) repeating and fighting to be present.  The music works through a collage form, building soundscape-like tracks from similarly old recordings of classical and dance jazz music, also deliberately emphasising the crackle found on various analogue recording and playback media.  The two artists are, in other words, poles apart in many regards, but are connected through their relationships with memory and through the connecting work of Gee’s film.

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John Doran has written about and interviewed Kirby extensively over the years and, in 2016, he raises a key point to begin the analysis.  Doran suggests that “…as it started to explore different aspects of memory loss the music itself became more texturally and structurally complex.” (2016).  Memory is the key thematic point of interest in Kirby’s work but, essentially, it is not just the repetition or the compulsion to repeat of a negative memory; it is the very gradual disintegration of that memory itself and even the perception of memories.  It is worth stating that the final project for The Caretaker, currently underway and taking the form of six releases over the next few years, is quintessentially about such disintegration of memory through dementia. Doran writes further: “He tells me about the next and final stage of the project. How he will release a series of six records, called Everywhere At The End Of Time which will come out in half-yearly instalments, tracking not just a mind succumbing to dementia through all of its stages, as if in real time but the entire project itself dissolving through forgetfulness, into chaos and then nothingness.”  Kirby then goes on to discuss the project further suggesting how his practice plays with his own perception of memory (something incredibly relevant to his score for Patience):

“My final idea has been to give the whole project dementia. Originally I was going to make one recording and take it down into the abyss over a period of three years. So the idea would have been to do one recording and degrade it, to process it down so you would get a continuation from the start to the end point. But then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be better to give the whole project dementia?” That then forces me to think, “Well, what do I remember from the project myself?”” (2016).

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In Kirby’s work, the trauma is specifically the loss of memory, or the process of such a loss; Fisher’s model of an anticipator.  In Sebald’s novels, in particular The Rings Of Saturn, the trauma is instead the memory of something more specific being retained; often the holocaust of World War Two but also other traumas of place and worldwide calamity.  Though the novel is framed via a walk through the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, this is a narrative tool which Sebald uses as a portal to memories and ideas sparked by objects in the landscape; the terrain becomes a memory board for the traumas to resurface upon.  Yet the landscape plays tricks on the narrator of the book too, eventually raising questions about the reality of the memories in question in a similar way to Kirby’s disintegrations of memory.  As Sebald writes in the novel, “At the time I could no more believe my eyes than I can now trust my memory.” (1995).  Perception in Sebald’s work is played upon because of the fluctuating relationship to time in the same way as Hauntology functions, with particular relation to Fisher’s first conception of the form where something “is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality” (2014).  The objects in the landscape hint towards the past that is no longer there but still tormenting the psyche of the narrator as he progresses further and further upon his walk (which had real-life consequences for Sebald who was hospitalised shortly after completing it).

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Somewhat ironically, however, one of the most vehement criticisms of Sebald’s novel came from Fisher and, aptly, in a review of Gee’s film for Sight & Sound.  In the article he writes of the film’s emphasis on the landscape, something which Fisher wanted more of in the book:

“Patience (After Sebald) is itself a misremembering of The Rings of Saturn that can’t help but reverse the book’s priorities. In the book, Suffolk frequently recedes from attention, as Sebald follows his own lines of association.  By contrast, the main substance of the film consists of images of the Suffolk landscape: the heathland over which you can walk for miles without seeing a soul; the crumbling cliffs of the lost city of Dunwich; the enigma of Orford Ness, its inscrutable pagodas silently presiding over Cold War military experiments that remain secret.” (2012).

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This could spiral down an admittedly appropriate rabbit hole of memory loss: a book about the traumatic fragmented memories of history of a landscape being adapted for a film that, according to Fisher, is in itself a misremembering of the novel, which, to finalise the point, then contains a musical scoring by an artist whose chief mode of creativity explicitly attempts to mimic the process and act of memory loss.  It’s an almost Borgersian relationship to consider that needs some unpacking.   Robert Macfarlane has called Sebald a  “post-modern antiquarian” which arguably also summarises The Caretaker’s practice, in particular relation to his score for Patience.  The film is an interesting structure that openly toys with adapting the novel but also is open in the realisation that such a feat would be incredibly difficult to achieve.  Therefore, Gee reframes the walk and themes of the novel with that of a talking-head documentary, spiralling off into other topics in the same way that Sebald does when walking the East Anglian coastline.  I spoke to Gee recently about the choice and use of music in the film and he had several interesting points of note.  The first is how he worked with Kirby to arguably mimic the framework of Sebald’s techniques of recontextualising past events – playing heavily with memory once more – in relation to the use of music of Schubert in particular.  He suggested the following and is quoted in full because of its clear importance to the arguments in questions:

The decision to use The Caretaker’s music came instantly and very early in the project. Well before shooting. As soon as I had envisioned a visual texture for the film which seemed appropriate for the subject (grey, granular, with each shot feeling like it could just go on looping forever…) then there was an obvious connection to the sound of The Caretaker records. Grey, granular, trapped in historical loops… So the walk through Suffolk and the filming there, proceeded with those kind of sounds in mind. The decision to suggest recordings of Die Winterreise as the source of the soundtrack came about because I’d read somewhere that Sebald loved Schubert’s lieder. After the film was finished, someone told me that some of Die Winterreise was played at Sebald’s funeral though I don’t know if this is true. (2017).


Again there is a spiralling effect occurring here, something that seems very natural when discussing Sebald’s work.  For the music of the film is potentially haunted by the real-life death of Sebald even musically (it need not be said that the film is heavily melancholic because of the hindsight of Sebald’s death).  A final tie that Gee mentioned in conversation brings the point home.  When asked about the musical potential that was initially in Sebald’s work – a point raised because of Gee’s background in both music videos and music documentaries – he ties Sebald to the work of The Caretaker and Hauntology as a whole because of Mark Fisher.  He said that:

“While shooting my previous film (a documentary about Joy Division) in 2006, a couple of the interviewees started talking about Hauntology (first time I’d heard the term) and directed me towards Mark Fisher’s K-Punk site. And reading about the band there certainly helped shape the relationship between music and place in that film. So when, 3 years later, I was in pre-production for ‘Patience’, it was  encouraging to find that both Sebald and The Caretaker’s music were also deeply embedded in K-Punk. It helped bridge my thoughts across the two projects and to connect and crystallise notions about music and memory and film.” (2017).

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Hauntology is the connecting factor, the answer to the conundrum of trying find a musical accompaniment to Sebald’s layered and complex work. Fisher himself attended the Towards Re-enchantment symposium which Patience premiered at in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.  He wrote of the event that misremembering was at the centre of the conference’s discussion points, writing “More than one of the speakers at the Towards Re-enchantment symposium acknowledged that they misremembered The Rings of Saturn.” There’s something fitting about this, of course, given that the duplicity of memory is arguably Sebald’s major theme and the theme of Kirby’s latest (and last) musical project; as if the loss that Kirby in particular is initiating genuinely cannot be returned from.

Memory is an aspect of both Sebald’s and Kirby’s work but it is endlessly fitting that Fisher’s ideas ultimately brought them together.  Even though Fisher was critical of The Rings Of Saturn, almost undoubtedly because it used the same landscape of work he admired by the likes of M.R. James and others, it was his ideas of Hauntology, the past residing just behind the present ready to reappear as an uncomfortable ghost, that brought the pair of artist’s work together.  It is perhaps best then to give the final word to Sebald who, perhaps more than most artists of the last hundred years, has dealt constantly and explicitly with the concepts of memory, in the guise of Hauntology or otherwise.  In his final novel before his death, Austerlitz, a narrative about the traumatic rekindling of memory of the kinder transport during World War Two for a man who was orphaned, he writes an ultimate summation of Hauntological plays with memory channelled through his work and the musical work of The Caretaker.  He writes the following:

“Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” (2001).

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