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Aesthetic and Ethical Demands of German Memory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3117 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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‘Acts of memory in contemporary German fiction and visual art must seek to balance ethical and aesthetic demands.’

Discuss with reference to Die Ausgewanderten and one or more visual artists.

‘’History serves a more important purpose than simply gathering evidence to establish order, sequence and cause, because it is through reflection on the past that we can engage with a process of redemption that may lead to happiness.’’[1] Both W.G. Sebald’s ‘Die Ausgewanderten‘ and the oeuvre of Gerhard Richter address the inherent difficulties associated with the ineluctability of memory, a burden which, as Walter Benjamin explains in the quote above, is necessary to overcome for the emotional freedom of the individual and the collective. As post-Holocaust artists, both Sebald and Richter must engage in what Hirsch has labelled ‘postmemory,’ a particular form of memory which refers to the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, and whose own belated stories are ‘evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated.’ The works of Sebald and Richter are thus characterised by the need to reconcile the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic requirements of German memory work will here be seen to derive from Sebald’s transmission of ‘l’effet du réel’ and Richter’s mantra ‘Es ist wie’s ist.’ The intermedial nature of both artists’ works afford the acts of memory an aesthetic character that is neither heroic nor condemnatory nor in any way resolved. There emerges, however, a problematisation of the artist as witness, given the post-1945 lens through which the works are to be viewed, which is underscored by consideration of the morality of representation and the ethics of representation. A balance between the aesthetic and ethical demands of such acts of memory will thus be shown here to be impossible, as the questions surrounding postmemory call into question the ethical framework of memory itself. Can the ethical demands of contemporary German memory work be fulfilled by post-war artists?

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The intermedial texture of both Sebald and Richter’s works plays a crucial role in both artists’ fulfilment of the aesthetic demands of memory work, the main component of which, it will be argued here, is the aestheticization of the incomprehensible. What this means is an artistic representation of the impossible weight attached to a psychoanalytical working through of the past, or, to quote Adorno, an ‘Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit’. Richter, for instance, insists that his paintings must retain ‘something incomprehensible,’[2] and to this author’s mind that is the conundrum of memory work. An illuminating example of such aestheticization is found in Richter’s most famous series, ‘October 18, 1977.’ Painted 11 years after the events they are concerned with, the 15 works show members of the Baader-Meinhof group (a youthful picture; a post-capture mugshot; the record player in which a gun was smuggled into prison etc.) in the form of press and police photographs that Richter has blurred. Imperative to the work’s aestheticization of the difficulties of memory work is the way in which Richter’s blurring of the authentic documents exert a double pull towards, on the one hand, monumentality and, on the other, monochrome monotony.

Indeed, Richter has used the term ‘ansehnlich’ to describe the consequences of rescuing an image from the endless rush of media and paying it the devotion of crafting it into a work of art – in doing so, Richter highlights the importance to his work of visual representations of the past which are altered in such a way that they reconfigure pre-conceived notions of historical events, thereby underlining the transmorphic character of memory work. Richter comments further on ‘October 18, 1977’: ‘’Their horror is the horror of the hard-to-bear refusal to answer, to explain, to give an opinion.’’[3] Richter’s images, in spite of being ultra-loaded, refute any attempt to bring their subject matter into focus along perspectival notions of ideology or pathos or transcendence. According to the artist, they represent ‘’a leave-taking from any specific doctrine of salvation.’’ Here is where Richter’s aestheticization of the incomprehensible past is most clear: through his adherence to the notion that ‘Es ist wie’s ist,’ the artist makes clear that history is not there to be redeemed and held up in divine synthesis.

Likewise, Sebald deploys techniques in ‘Die Ausgewanderten‘ which are indicative of his turn towards the aestheticization of the incomprehensible. Indeed, it is Sebald’s combination of text and image which produces an enigmatic effect in its capacity to destabilise the notion of fixed memory and to place emphasis upon the difficulties pertaining to memory work. Many inconsistencies between the images used by Sebald that are interspersed throughout the text (76 photographs in total) emerge on closer analysis. Horstkotte has drawn attention, for instance, to the date stamp and archival filing information visible on the image of an article from a newspaper the narrator claims to have bought in Switzerland – the archival markings on the image here belie the textual narrative, given the fact that the newspaper was not purchased but rather researched in an archive. Another illuminating example is to be found in the photograph of the railway tracks at the beginning of the Paul Bereyter story. The depth of field includes the trees in the background and the tracks receding around a bend, whilst the rails in the foreground appear out of focus. In the narrative we learn that Bereyter is nearly blind at the time he lies down on the tracks to commit suicide, which means that the content of the narrative and that of the photograph do not appear fully congruous.

There is no denying that Sebald’s use of photography is somewhat centred on indexicality, which produces ‘l’effet du réel’ – as Tagg has argued, the notion that the photograph is a mode of technological rather than human witnessing is taken to imply that it also possesses a greater claim to truth: the apparatus is merely a non-human recording agent that cannot lie- the enigmatic inconsistencies, however, are crucial in understanding how Sebald aestheticizes the monumental task of memory work. By destabilising the authority of photographic and verbal documents, Sebald does not discredit history; instead, the enigmatic in ‘Die Ausgewanderten’ works in such a way as to encourage personal, critical engagement with the text and to discourage passive, superficial reception. As argued by Scholes, ‘all writing, all composition, is construction. We do not imitate the world, we construct versions of it.’[4] This is particularly relevant to ‘Die Ausgewanderten,’ in which Sebald shows how photography is also a way of constructing versions of reality. His blurring of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ reveals that representations of truth and reality, most prominently with regards to memory, exist only in their constructedness. By doing so, Sebald encourages the reader to engage memory personally, privately, and possibly find ways for finding the redemptive happiness espoused by Benjamin.

Sebald and Richter, however, also seek to explore the ethical demands of memory work. As artists, aesthetics is crucial, and this author’s interpretation of their works as aestheticizations of the incomprehensible serve to emphasise the artists’ desire to present objectively the ruminations of memory work; such an interpretation, however, must be followed by a review of the ways in which the artists engage ethically with particular aspects of social history. Indeed, Sebald does place moral judgements on certain aspects of German memory work, in his attempt to unravel the veil of silence underlining Germany’s troubled relationship with Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung. Through an exploration of place and memory, Sebald can create a narrative that balances the claims of memory with the injunction against Holocaust representation. Sontag has rightly noted that ‘journeys of one kind or another are at the heart of all Sebald’s narratives; the narrator’s own peregrinations, and the lives, all in some way displaced, that the narrator evokes.’ Indeed, the book begins with the description of a journey whose exact purpose remains vague, despite the precise markers of time, place, and motivation in the description: ‘’Ende September 1970, kurz vor Antritt meiner Stellung in der ostenglischen Stadt Norwich, fuhr ich mit Clara auf Wohnungssuche nach Hingham hinaus.’[5] This opening vague scene of departure establishes displacement as both the subject and the condition of writing. This notion of displacement carries on throughout the book, most notably in the section pertaining to ‘Max Aurach.’ An illuminating example is to be found in the narrator’s journey to Kissingen, the South German town where Aurach’s family had lived. The narrator shows himself to be appalled by the forgetfulness of the Germans – in fact, the reason he gives for his early departure is that ‘die rings mich umgebende Geistesverarmung und Erinnerungslosigkeit der Deutschen, das Geschick, mit dem man alles bereinigt hatte, mir Kopf und Nerven anzugreifen begann.’[6] The geographical displacement of the characters in the book mirrors the ways in which ‘Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit’ pulls apart notions of identity. Contemporary German memory work is seen in ‘Die Ausgewanderten’ as being accompanied by disdain for previous generations, and a hostile approach to national identity.

Richter’s acknowledgement of the ethical demands of acts of memory is more difficult to pin down. Commenting on Richter’s pervasive use of grey Spieler notes, ‘when Richter eliminates color from his paintings and restricts himself to shades of gray, he forces the viewer to take a consciously less sensuous and more intellectual approach.’[7] Indeed, Richter explained his predominate use of grey thusly: ‘’It makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations… It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make ‘nothing’ visible. To me, grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, non-commitment, absence of opinion, absences of shape.’’[8] His attempts to neutralise the ethical standpoint of his work are not entirely convincing – Richter chooses to make ‘nothing’ visible, an act one can argue is not at all indifferent.’ Richter’s technique of photo-painting is particularly effective in arguing for ethic morality in his works – particularly ‘Onkel Rudi’ – as photo-painting acts to add a ‘moment of cognitive reflection, of historical and representational self-consciousness, to the experience of the photographic image. It creates a space and time for reflection upon that image which is qualitatively different from that of the photograph itself, haunted as such experience is by the trace of the object.’[9] The example of ‘Onkel Rudi’ is illuminating in considering the historical consciousness of Richter’s works and how he directly problematises memory of Germany’s Nazi past. Dissonance is created in the image as the viewer notes the man’s smiling face alongside his stiff, formal uniform. What is more, tension arises in the light of such a military figure being portrayed in soft focus. As the harshness of the image of the soldier is softened, conflict emerges between form and content, a disjuncture which occurs on multiple levels. Moderating the barbarity of the Third Reich in such a way, alongside titling the piece ‘Onkel Rudi’, points the viewer to the ambivalence so many Germans felt after the war. Richter asks how one reconciles the identities and memories of family members who fought for their country under the leadership of the Third Reich. It is in the blurred lines of the painting that the viewer sees reflected the antipodal concepts of remembering and forgetting, alongside those of uncle and complicit soldier. As Hoffman posits, ‘’Das Gemaelde loest den Helden auf wie eine harte Substanz im Wasser. Nicht das Was, sondern das Wie der Erinnerung ist Richters Thema.‘‘[10]

It becomes clear that both Sebald and Richter engage in acts of memory which, at first glance, subscribe to both aesthetic and ethical demands. However, this author seeks to argue that a balance between the two is not to be found, given the artists’ position as memory workers of the ‘postmemory’ sort. In ‘The Ethics of Memory,’[11] Margalit questions whose obligation it is to remember. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the question of sensitivity and appropriateness emerges – who, or which group is the agent of memory? Also, does the immediate memory of persecuted groups and individuals take precedence over the imagined reconstructions of others, such as Sebald and Richter? This issue of retelling provokes conflict in the socio-political realm, where the problems of ethics, imagination and the right to speak on behalf of memory intersect. Margalit argues for historical specificity and clarity in remembering, which insists that the moral witness must have lived in the past and must testify from memory, not hearsay. In essence, moral witness is undermined, not strengthened by false testimony. Sebald is problematic in that he starts by recounting stories of his interlocutors and ends by universalising their suffering and blurring distinctions between past and present, victim and perpetrator. One must question whether Sebald’s second-generation German suffering is really the same as second-generation Jewish suffering? Indeed, the desire to give back the stories of his interlocutors can be viewed as a double-edged sword, in that it is also him taking away their voices, a confusion of voices. Sebald in many ways cannot be a moral witness, as he did not experience the events with which he wishes to identify himself, and his suffering is so different from that of his interlocutors. As Margalit expounds, ‘a moral witness is a species of eyewitness’[12] – no amount of postmemory will create the conditions for Sebald to experience what his interlocutors do.

Hence, a balance between the aesthetic and ethical demands of German memory work can be sought but is rarely achieved. Both Sebald and Richter engage in acts of memory work in such a way that they masterfully convey the difficulties of remembering and the dangers of forgetting. Through this author’s belief in the aestheticization of the incomprehensible, both Sebald and Richter appear to query whether an ‘Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit’ is possible for any individual or collective, regardless of nationality. Their works, however, do have ethical foci – both artists are forced to reconcile the disruption and upheaval inherent in 20th century German history. It is contentious whether the ethical demands of memory work can be met through the works of these artists – it is arguable, yet hotly debatable, as to whether those born post-1945 are capable of dealing with those ever-present ghosts of the past still haunting Germany today. Such contention will continue to foment ,for the burden of the past does not leave us. As Sebald’s narrator explains: ‘so also kehren sie wieder, die Toten.‘[13]


  1. W. G. Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (1992)
  2. Aleida Assmann, ‘Four Formats of Memory: From Individual to Collective Constructions of the Past’, in David Midgley and Christian Emden (eds), Cultural Memory and Historical Consciousness in the German-speaking World since 1500.
  3. J. J. Long, W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  4. Andrea Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer/Paul Celan: Myth, Mourning and Memory (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007).
  5. Gerhard Richter: Editions 1965-2004 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004).
  6. Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald (2007)
  7. Robert Scholes, Structural Fabrication (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1975)
  8. Reinhard Spieler. «Ohne Farbe.» Gerhard Richter: Ohne Farbe.( Ed. Reinhard Spieler. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005.)
  9. Detlef Hoffmann. «Die Schärfe der Unschärfe – Zum Beispiel: ‚Onkel Rudi‘ von Gerhard Richter.» Geschichte und bildende Kunst. (Ed. Mosche Zuckermann. Göt tingen: Wallstein, 2006).
  10. Avishai Margalit.The Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002).

[1] Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald (2007)

[2] Gerhard Richter: Editions 1965-2004 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Scholes, Structural Fabrication (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1975)

[5] W.G. Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (1992)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Reinhard Spieler. «Ohne Farbe.» Gerhard Richter: Ohne Farbe.( Ed. Reinhard Spieler.

 Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005.)

[8] Gerhard Richter: Editions 1965-2004 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Detlef Hoffmann. «Die Schärfe der Unschärfe – Zum Beispiel: ‚Onkel Rudi‘ von Gerhard Richter.» Geschichte und bildende Kunst. (Ed. Mosche Zuckermann. Göt tingen: Wallstein, 2006).

 [11] Avishai Margalit.The Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002).

[12] Ibid.

[13] W.G. Sebald. Die Ausgewanderten (1992).


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