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The Clock Repairman's gesture

 
In his essay, A kaddish for Austria: On Joseph Roth, W.G. Sebald zeroes in on a bit of personal trivia (one of those bits that operate as signatures of some nameless process) that he gets from Roth’s biographer:

“Bronsen reported that Roth collected clocks randomly; and that fooling with clocks in his final years grew into a mania. What fascinated Roth with clocks was condensed into his last piece of published prose in the first weekend of April, 1939  in the Pariser Tageszeitung.
The essay – one of those feuilleton of which Roth was one of the great masters – was entitled “At the clock repairs shop.” Sebald takes the piece as revelatory of something essential in Roth’s conception of the artist – or storyteller:

„Thus he sat, like the clock repairman, with a magnifying glass stuck in place before his eye, and looed into the broken wonderwork of wheels and gears, “as if he gazed through a blackframed hole into a distant past”. The clock repairman’s hope, like that of the writer, ist that by a small turn of the wrist [durch einen winzigen Eingriff] he can bring everything back to the beginning to restart it all in its correctly intended order.”

That’s a powerfully nostalgic and hopelessly anachronistic image of the power of the writer. Especially given the historical circumstances in Paris at the time, the Paris in which Roth was drinking himself to death, sensing the mass death to come. Our own sense of the mass death to come has now been sucked into the mass media and banalized as a zombie apocalypse, which is also, in its way, something Roth foresaw – or rather saw about his own time. In an essay that Michael Hoffman has not, I believe, englished, “Self-critique”, from 1929, Roth described his realism as the realism of the irrealism of his time – a time in which the self has hollowed itself out. The artistic response to this, Roth wrote, was to bring the reader face to face with that most difficult of all things to represent: boredom. The essay begins on a typically hard to measure sentence: “It is in some ways painful to deal with an extraordinarily good writer, such as myself, without severity and blame.” Roth goes on to say that his book, Right and Left, has hardly any beginning, really no end, has no characters and no psychology. It is not that he feels that there are no books with beginnings, ends, characters and psychology – the 19th century epic novel up to Proust has them – but Roth believes that this is no longer possible in the world in which he and the reader exist. The substance of the reader’s grandparents is of a different type from the substance-lessness of his contemporaries.

„But I have attempted – on the contrary – to produce in my reader a certain feeling of boredom, which is a necessary consequence of linguistic precision and the effort to portray the hollowness of the present not convexly, not to present the insubstantability of our contemporaries as “tragic” or “daemonic” but instead to precisely mirror the hopelessness of this world.”

One could say that Roth is enjoying a little too much his stay at the Hotel Grand Abyss. He was a man who knew Europe’s hotels, eventually making his circuit of the sleaziest among them. Still, there is something in the connection between boredom and Roth’s sense of the impending pogram. Perhaps the boredom is the necessary preface. It is a boredom that emerges from the planned system of excitement, which had its model, in the twenties, in the hypermodernity of Berlin. And which is now our wonderful world.

Or so says one mood. Another mood is: fuck that. Expropriate that boredom. Use it against the military-industrial perpetual entertainment complex. Stand up.

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