What does W.G. Sebald mean by the doubling of his character Jacques Austerlitz with Ludwig Wittgenstein, a “poetic” philosopher who, although of Jewish ancestry, had little to say about the fate of the Jews during the Nazi period? Sebald's initiation of the reader into Austerlitz's life story through visual and verbal references to the philosopher suggests certain Wittgensteinian themes and problems. These include the relation of ethics to aesthetics and of both to memory, of propositions to truth-making, and of the verbal to the visual arts as exemplified by the eighty-one photographs included in Austerlitz. Indeed, Austerlitz and Wittgenstein mirror each other in so many ways that a reader familiar with Ray Monk's biography of the philosopher and Wittgenstein's own work might suspect that Sebald lifted specific elements from these texts into his own. But Sebald's work also conveys an unvoiced critique of Wittgenstein's neglect of Nazi politics. If Sebald's representations of the way that both propositions and images can dissimulate, that logic and science can fail and even destroy us, would have interested Wittgenstein, Austerlitz also reminds us that the ethics of memory requires the necessity not of the silence Wittgenstein invokes at the end of the Tractatus in a statement that Sebald himself quotes at the end of Vertigo, but of an ongoing journeying into new literary genres.
In Sebald's work each of these relations bears upon the difficulties of representing the Holocaust and Austerlitz mediates the search for his history through photographs of landscapes and buildings. This mediation also occurs through Sebald's dialogue with Wittgenstein's skepticism and, indeed,
Through its focus on architectural “monumentality,” Austerlitz brings into full articulation Sebald's “inhabitations” (Mikhail Bakhtin's word) by Wittgenstein's family resemblance, as well as his notion that ethics is a kind of metaphysics.