When I’m sitting in the back of class, feeling useless as a TA, I stare out the window to remind myself the world exists. It’s an oddly solitary experience in a room filled with chatter, solitary and strange. As we’re inevitably many floors up, all you can see are rooftops. The only movement is steam, curling off into the oppressive and endless blue of the midwestern sky. It’s a nameless experience, one of loneliness, yet belonging, silence and stasis.
And it’s one that W.G. Sebald also seems to have tried to capture in the opening pages of Rings of Saturn. A year after the walking tour that occupies the bulk of the book, he found himself confined to a hospital, riven with pain. His only access to the outside is through a window on the wall opposite his bed. In the haunting photo that accompanies his description, the window is inscribed with wire to prevent suicide, befitting the melancholy tone of the moment and the book as a whole. The view through the glass is, like mine, lonely and strange:
I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place. I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there; rather, it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble, from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders. At that twilit hour there were no passers-by to be seen in the immediate vicinity, but for a nurse crossing the cheerless gardens outside the hospital entrance on the way to her night shift. An ambulance with its light flashing was negotiating a number of turns on its way from the city centre to Casualty. I could not hear its siren; at that height I was cocooned in an almost complete and, as it were, artificial silence. All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears.
W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, 5
What to make of these moments, their ultimate import?
I must confess, I enjoy the solitude, though it also presents me with a sense of desolation. It need not be horrible. There’s something there, something numinous lurking in the silence. It’s only when we try to grasp it that we slip into despondency, when the solitude breaks and noise slips back in.