"Reading at the Roche Limit"

Brook Aidan Rosini

University of Tlön

Department of Folklore

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Reading at the Roche Limit

In the spring of 2006, as I felt disoriented by the proliferation of blind theories in my graduate studies, and desiring a kind of reprieve from reading for research purposes, I picked up a book by W.G. Sebald, entitled Die Ringe des Saturn, in the hopes of losing myself, of making a miniature escape from the insular world of academia.  The steely grey clouds of the winter sky had finally lifted, taking with them the constant drizzling rains that characterize the romanticized depiction of Seattle with which I had become familiar,
revealing their influence on a spring that had sprung, not with the stealthy precision of a panther, but with the charming clumsiness of a puppy, thrilled practically to the point of dissolution by the return of its master.  The return of spring, which was entirely new to me in this city that had become only slightly less alien to me over the course of the past seven months, a city as far away from my place of birth in New England as is physically possible while still remaining within the continental United States, in many ways signaled the return of a particularly poignant melancholy, or rather a melancholy with a specific and recognizable ache, characterized by the vertiginous sensation that the entire mechanism of the infinite universe was contained within the confines of my 1.52 meter and 45.36 kilogram body, that I was the universe and everything in it.  My method of dealing with this melancholy was to revel in it, stretching out, in my free hours, in the lush grass of the quad, reading beneath the otherworldly beauty of the cherry trees in full bloom,
surrounded on all sides by laughing, cavorting undergraduates, bounded in by the imposing heights of buildings in the gothic style, their red-brick facades glowing pink as the cherry blossoms under the cloudless cerulean sky.  I was Atlas, bearing with dignity the burden of that wide open sky in all of its dizzying possibility, breathing in a certain sense of inebriation from the grass, the birds, the words on the pages of the book in my hands; I was no longer a martyred slave of time, bent low enough to kiss the earth, not out of joyous love, but out of the pain of bowing beneath its incomprehensible weight.  Instead, time stood still for me, in my drunkenness, in my boundedness, and I dug my fingers into the grass to steady myself against the inevitable rush that would come when it caught up with the spinning of my head. But it seemed that I was steeling myself for something that would never come, or perhaps I just did not wait long enought, and instead deferred the moment until some time in the future by the act of opening the book.

As I traversed the terrain of the first sentence, I felt the need to pause when I reached “Hundstage,” as the word reminded me of languorous days in the August heat, the quality of laziness clinging to my memory with the oppression of humidity, making me tired and slow.  I recalled the Egyptian belief that the greater heat experienced during the summer months occurs as a result of the ascension of the Dog Star, which shines its brightest during the summer from its place in the constellation Canis Majoris, and was originally named after the Egyptian god Osiris, who has the head of a dog and is the god of the afterlife.  I was unable to clearly remember the myth of Osiris in its entirety, in part because my memory of the original myth was confused in my mind with the memory of the Musil poem, but I did recall that he made his sister, Iris, his wife, and that his brother, Seth, murdered him after he found out that Osiris had slept with his wife, whose name, I think, began with an “N.”  After Seth murdered Osiris by drowning him in the Nile, Isis found his body and attempted to revive him, so Seth stole the body and cut it up into a number of pieces, which he then hid in various places throughout the desert.  But Isis, apparently motivated by a love deeper than that experienced in most matrimonial bonds, presumably because of the additional sibling relationship, was determined to find each body part in order to reassemble her late husband/brother, and so she searched the desert over the course of a number of years, finally finding every piece, save the one most important for the production of progeny, which Isis nevertheless achieved in co-creating, perhaps through sheer strength of will, or perhaps because she in fact ingested said body part as a somewhat unorthodox method of insemination.  Isis’ incredible willpower made me think of the quote at the beginning of one of Poe’s most exoticist stories, which also includes an extended resuscitation scene, and I could not help wondering if Sebald had read either the Musil poem or the Poe story.

As I read further, I noticed that Sebald also wrote of the “Hundsstern,” and its relationship to certain maladies of the body and soul.  The planet Saturn has often been associated with melancholy, but the overlooked relationship with Chronos does not seem to bear that same stigma, although of course the very passage of time itself inevitably hastens the disintegration of both body and mind.  I thought to myself with cheap amusement that it seemed that the old saying had it exactly backward; time does not heal all wounds, but rather causes them all, simply by virtue of the fact of its progression.  If moments really could be made discrete, as some of our philosophers would have us believe, if it were possible to unburden ourselves of memory entirely, then perhaps we could not suffer as deeply, for there would be no more possibility for retrospective misery, that strangely nostalgic wounding that is, admittedly, a necessity for some, and instead there would be only a continual sense of anticipation; no looking back, but only looking toward something, perhaps toward the present, perhaps toward living life. Instead of a continuous cycling into the past, there would be a return to the present. 
Memory is, after all, just another narrative, a histrionic history that is told by oneself to oneself and, occasionally, to others, when the opportunity arises.  It is in a constant process of edit; at turns scratched out, rewritten, overwritten, parts of it discarded entirely, parts accidentally lost from the notebook of the psyche, alternately stretched and shrunken to suit the roles of the current players, parts willfully given away to loved or hated ones.  What a horror to think that one’s identity, if there can be such a thing as that which is identical to itself, is bound up in all of that mess of shreds, shards, shavings, and shrapnel.  A French philosopher believed that memory itself was the very thing that made it possible to conceive of something like identity, a sense of continuity of the self over time, but it seems that founding this most precarious sense of causal efficacy on something so fragile as memory must be at least as problematic as basing one’s beliefs and “knowledge” on one’s duplicitous senses.  It is difficult not to wonder whether this particular gentleman’s amorous desire for cross-eyed women played any role in his preference for rationality over sense perceptions and the abilities of the mind over those of the body—especially considering the rumor that he overcame this desire when he realized that it stemmed from his own childhood vision problem, proving, as far as he was concerned, that the mind could overcome the desires of the body when properly—that is, rationally—understood.  Philosophizing, I thought to myself, rarely ends that well.  In fact, it almost always ends in death of some sort.

I shook my head and turned my attention back to the book that I had dropped beside my feet in the grass, finding the place where I had stopped reading and turning the page.  I noticed an image at the bottom of the page, and I couldn’t help but skip over the text in order to have a closer look at the illustration, which turned out not to be of much use.  The image consisted of a black rectangle, within which was another rectangle, slightly askew, the upper third of which was grey, while the rest was white, divided up into an even number of squares.  The numberless tiny squares seemed like they might be netting of some sort, but the overall effect of the picture was, to be quite honest, not much of an effect at all, and left me with a strange sensation of disappointment.  I returned to the top of the page, an odd reversal of the temporality of reading through the narrative, a kind of re-experience of a part of the text that I had not yet really experienced, determined to find an explanation or at least a motivation for the placement of the picture.  I learned from the hasty movement of my eyes over the words that Sebald, or, if not in fact Sebald, then the narrator of the tale, had been hospitalized due to being overcome by complete paralysis a year to the day after he began a journey through Suffolk, and that while he lay in his hospital bed unable to move, he felt that all of the space of the countryside seemed to be reduced to ein blinder und tauber Punkt, because the only view he was able to gain of the outside world was das farblose Stück Himmel im Rahmen des Fensters.  These words led me again to the image, on which I allowed my eyes to rest for a moment so as to study it once more in the context of what I had just read, and I realized that the picture did indeed seem to be a stock one of an institutional door, the kind that has a grid of thin metal bars embedded in its glass window in case of violence against transparency.


The movement between the text and the image gave me a feeling of dizziness—I felt as if I had not really traveled anywhere at all in the narrative, but had only been distracted at points along the way, transgressing traditional temporality of reading, allowing various associations to take over my approach to the book as a whole, struggling to keep what I thought would be, but realized may not in fact be pertinent information at the forefront of my mind.  I felt that this impression of disorientation is simply what it is to read at the Roche Limit, the absorption of words and images at the border of the dissolution and coalescence of information, to be between making meaning and being oversaturated with it, a balancing act at the moving dynamic threshold on one side of which information remains fragmented and meaningless and on the other side of which information comes together to make meaning.

I wade through words as through a heavy mist, at turns utterly blinded, and more rarely, allowed glimpses into memories and histories that should be better known to me, but remain somehow mostly inaccessible.  I travel through Sebald’s text as through a familiar landscape, in which I know the street names, but not the routes, for time has laid its heavy hand on all that I thought was home, bearing it down and away from me, not maliciously, but lazily, nonchalantly, which makes it all the worse, transforming it as it does into something strangely and unsettlingly different.  I am reminded of my childhood, of certain authors, scenes, photographs.  I talk about them, to anyone who will pretend to listen, to myself, to no one.  I am propelled into the uncertainty of my future, such as it may be, such as it is not, nor never can be, for it is not, nor never will be.  I struggle to retain awareness, systematic certainty, but these things elude me as the silent rings from the stone I throw widen, overlap, increase until they include everything imaginable, and many things unimaginable.  I return to the words, symbols on a page which are nothing to me but the pathetic echo of my desire to communicate the incommunicable.  So it goes.