“A walker’s approach […] is a phenomenological one”: W.G. Sebald and the Instant

Paul Thompson


This article employs a phenomenological approach to appreciate three works of W.G. Sebald in English translation—The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz. Max van Manen’s concentration on the “pre-reflective” nature of lived experiences (Qualitative Health Research 27.6 [2017]: 812) and Gaston Bachelard’s focus on the disruptive instant provide an insight into threshold experiences in Sebald. In The Rings of Saturn, the step-by-step progress of the Wallfahrt, Bergsonian durée, and the concentricity of planetary rings are disrupted by immediate experience. In The Emigrants, eidetic memory is shown to be a product of the present, not a recollection of the past, and encounters with the “Butterfly Man” to be more important than his identity, whilst in Austerlitz memory is theatrical or cinematic. As a result of this analysis, it emerges that phenomenological concepts of place, event, object, and vector express how Sebald’s narrator and denizens encounter reality. (PT)

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