This essay takes a particular image in W.G. Sebald's novel Austerlitz and traces the hidden web of literary, theoretical, scientific, and philosophical allusion that informs it. At a crucial point in the narrative, when the protagonist is on the verge of entering the state archive in Prague and discovering his own origins, he has a dream which implicitly recalls the figure of Humboldt's parrot, a talking animal and the only creature to preserve the sounds of a now extinct language. If this is an image sourced in the literature of eighteenth-century science, it is also one that demands to be read against other key intertexts of the modern moment, including Darwin's Descent of Man, Flaubert's Un Coeur Simple, and the more recent voices of Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and Maurice Blanchot. Weaving these diverse materials together in a manner that echoes Sebald's own textual and aesthetic practice, we argue that Sebald's parrot crystalizes a central problematic of the novel: What is the relationship between the archive and testimony in the experience of the desubjectified subject? What is the status of linguistic signification in the aftermath of loss? In this the image of the parrot becomes both a highly condensed figure of Freudian dream-work and the quintessential monad, caught in that vacant space between the real and the relic, primary event and present trace, representation and that which cannot be spoken. While all of this coheres with Sebald's historical preoccupations as a post-Holocaust writer, it points specifically to those literary resources of modernity that Sebald implicitly brings to bear on the very question of history. Indeed, the aim of this article is to mine the unrevealed archive of Sebald's own literary imagination in order to capture the problem of the archive itself.
Research Article|March 01 2013
Sebald's Parrot: Speaking the Archive
Comparative Literature (2013) 65 (1): 123-135.