Pain, Trauma and The Need to Visualize

Intermediality in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and W.G. Sebald’s "Austerlitz"

Swiss Diploma Thesis, 2008

107 Pages, Grade: 1.5 (Schweizer Skala: 5.5)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 State of Research
2.2 Word and Image
2.2.1 Terminology
2.2.2 Mediality
2.2.3 The Nature of Text and Picture
2.3 Intermediality
2.3.1 The Concept of Intermediality
2.3.2 An Abstract of Intermediality in Literature
2.4 Photography
2.4.1 Terminology
2.4.2 The Nature of Photography

3. Intermediality in Austerlitz and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
3.1 The Use of pictures on the intrafictional Level
3.1.1 Memory and Identity
3.1.2 Evidence, Knowledge and Truth
3.1.3 Documenting and Preserving
3.1.4 Surrogating Experience
3.1.5 Communicating and Expressing Oneself
3.1.6 Conclusion
3.2 The Use of Pictures on the Extrafictional Level
3.2.1 Illustration
3.2.2 Narration and Plot Incentives
3.2.3 Authentication Fictionalization of Photographs in Foer Art vs. Documentary Fictionalization of Photographs in Sebald
3.2.4 Reader Involvement
3.2.5 Text Substitution Creation of Atmosphere Omnipresence of Death and Suffering Creation of Blind Fields Pictures and Images of Buildings Picture and Image Networks
3.2.6 Conclusion: Prompting Reflections on the Medium “Photography”

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

Table of Figures

Fig. 1 The family of images according to Mitchell

Fig. 2 The leitdifference between word and picture

Fig. 3 Intermediality

1. Introduction

Two very different writers with very divergent backgrounds avail themselves of the use of pictures as narrative elements in their novels. Two very different writers who nevertheless have more in common than a stylistic extravagance: They are both directly or indirectly linked to the events of World War II and make the trauma experienced thus a major subject of their literary works.

W.G. Sebald, German citizen, born in Bavaria in 1944 and deceased in 2001, grew up at the time when Germany was trying to come to terms with its atrocious past. His own father served the Nazis in the Wehrmacht and was a prisoner of war until 1947. Many of Sebald’s works thematize the trauma the victims have suffered and the necessity of individual and collective memory in this process (McCulloh XVI-XXII). Jonathan Safran Foer has a completely different background. Designated the shooting star of the New York literary scene, he published his second work Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2004, three years after his award-winning debut Everything Is Illuminated, and was credited even more enthusiastically for it. Born in 1977 in Washington D.C./USA, he never was in direct contact with World War II or its immediate aftermath. However, he descends from Ukrainian emigrants who fled persecution from the Nazis, who had already claimed some of their family (Franke 9-10).

Both writers stem from a different background in cultural, historical and local terms. Whereas Austerlitz is the last work of Sebald, which he finished shortly before his unexpected death in a car crash at the age of 57, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is only Foer’s second novel, finished at the age of 27. However, they do not only both circle around the subjects of trauma through war, the loss of parents by the hand of the enemy and the impact of memory. They also both use graphic representations as an autonomous layer in their narratives, and are thus, according to Rippl to be subsumed under the genre of iconotexts (11).[1]

These graphic representations – photographs, maps, drawings, flip-book collections, etc. – are generally used in various ways to visualize meaning. The main protagonists, Austerlitz and Oskar, serve as both the collectors and creators of these representations within the narratives. Austerlitz and Oskar are as different as their inventors are. British citizen Austerlitz originally is of Czech origin and arrived in England in the course of a rescue mission that escorted mainly Jewish children out of Nazi Germany and the surrounding occupied areas prior to the outbreak of World War II. Austerlitz, a grown and, in the course of the novel, aging man, travels physically and mentally back to the city of his childhood. Oskar Schell, a nine-year old New Yorker, has recently lost his father in the 9/11 attacks and wanders through the boroughs of his city in the search of answers to his father’s death.

As different as they are, both Austerlitz and Oskar, as well as Oskar’s grandparents, have suffered traumatic experiences by war and the loss of loved ones. The pictures that have been integrated in the narratives execute various functions on different levels along the way of their stories. On the intrafictional level, they act as visualizations of pain and trauma, proofs of existence and identity, evidence of history, media of documentation and verification, surrogates of experience and means of expression. On the extrafictional level, they serve not only as a means to carry on with the narrative on a visual level, but also as a reminder that pictures are always open to numerous interpretations and do not necessarily contribute to authentication, realization and truth as they are often perceived to do in everyday life. Rather, they give way to fictionalization, and to the construction of one’s very own version of an explanation, which can be either a way of coming to terms with received trauma or of impeded recovery. The aim of this thesis is, on one hand, to closely examine and compare the functions of images in both narratives, whether material or verbal, although the emphasis will be on photographs, and the way they interact with the written text. On the other hand, the thesis tries to educe the statements Sebald and Foer endeavor to make by pursuing intermedial strategies.

2. Theoretical Background

With regard to the fact that images in the sense of mental images induced by the texts are innumerable, a concluding examination of intermediality in the two novels is not realistic. At the same time, reducing the analysis to material pictures only would also reduce the depth and thoroughness of it. Thus, the target of this thesis will not be set on the completeness of the subject, but on the elaboration of its focal points. Moreover, as the majority of the material pictures are photographs, special emphasis shall be placed on these media. In the following, I am going to provide a short survey of the state of research concerning Sebald’s and Foer’s literary works, and then proceed with a theoretical and philosophical approach to, first, word and image in general, which leads to an approach to intermediality, and second, to photography in particular.

2.1 State of Research

Whereas Sebald’s works have been scrutinized very thoroughly, especially after his death in 2001, secondary literature published on Foer is scarce. Gradually, papers are being loosely released, but according to my knowledge, although his novels have been finding their way into schools and universities, no scholar has yet dealt with Foer’s literature in a book or has collected and edited respective essays. The essays that have been written mainly deal with the novel’s approach to the 9/11 attacks due to the fact that this was one of the first novels published on this subject, which include, for example, those by Jessica Franke (2005) or Benjamin Bird (2007). The use of photographs in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been grazed by scholars who occupy themselves with the use of picture in fiction in general, such as Timothy Dow Adams (2008) or Julia Evergreen Keefer (2005). However, none of them has yet taken his or her time to closely examine Foer’s treatment of intermediality, but have merely made a reference to the novel.

Sebald’s case is very different. As Long observes, “W.G. Sebald has become one of the most written-about contemporary German authors”. Conferences are being held, interviews made and reviews written (11; compare Atze and Loquai 9). However, as Long and Denham point out, scholars have only begun to intensely engage Sebald’s literature after his death in a car accident in 2001 (Denham 1; Long 11). Moreover, Denham claims that although Sebald was a German citizen, he was “better known and more celebrated in the English world of letters than in the German, at least between 1996 and 2003, when his œuvre, following his death, began to be read more in the German-speaking world” (1). According to Long, all of Sebald’s works, except his first work Nach der Natur, have been mainly analyzed under the aspects of the Holocaust (14), memory (16) and the ethics of representation (18), especially when it comes to photography (19), but also under the aspects of melancholy (21), home and homelessness (22) and intertextuality (24). As to the first, Sebald’s works as Holocaust literature, Denham is certain that the reason for Sebald’s early recognition in the English-speaking world lies here. He argues that Sebald has approached the subject of the Holocaust, a “specifically German catastrophe of modernity that is murder, exile, loss, and grief”, tactfully as well as with modesty and helplessness, but at the same time with relentlessness. He adds that Sebald is perceived to act contrary to the cliché about German “know-it-all” intellectuals who are either “guilt-laden or anti-fascist or moral-relativist and revisionist” (6).

Apart from his rather harsh words concerning German writers who have been dealing with the Holocaust, Denham fails to explain why Sebald has long been ignored by German scholars. Neither do German scholars make allowance for this fact; Martin and Wintermeyer merely state that this again demonstrates how differently German literature is received internationally (10). However, German scholars also deal with the approaches that Long has listed and it is important to point out that they are by no means disjunctive. On the contrary, the notion of the Holocaust (and additionally 9/11 in Foer’s case) interferes with the question of intermediality as much as with the notions of memory, ethics of representation and homelessness. The question of how pictures, and photographs in particular, are used in the two novels shall be the thread that links these approaches.

2.2 Word and Image

Modernity’s desire to “make visible” has found many outlets: photography, film, television, video, etc. (50). This “shift” away from scripture towards visualization has been called “the pictorial turn” by Mitchell (Picture Theory 11-13). Pictures are used to clarify, illustrate, demonstrate, narrate, etc. This shift has raised various questions, not only concerning the nature of pictures, but also concerning the nature of their relation to language. In order to clarify my argumentation in the main part, I am going to provide an explanation of pictorial as well as textual representations, their specifications and the manner of their interaction.

2.2.1 Terminology

Austerlitz and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close both offer textual and pictorial representations as a subject of analysis. Therefore, a clear understanding of “text” and “image” and/or “picture” as well as their implications is required (the term “representation” will in the following be used to denote a visual or verbal reproduction of a concept, person or object). Metzler’s Lexicon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie defines “text” as an instrument of communication by means of language (650). This implies that it can be spoken as well as written. Analogical to Rippl (17), I am going to use the term “text” in reference to the written and printed text of Austerlitz and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Pictures are not that easily defined. Rippl (17-19) refers to Mitchell and states that pictures must be examined individually according to their time, their discourse-analytical level and typological specification. Especially Mitchell’s image typology appears to be useful to specify the subjects of examination (Iconology 10; compare Rippl 18):[2]


illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1 The Family of Images according to Mitchell

In the course of my argumentation, graphic and verbal pictures will be of the most interest (compare 2.4 Intermediality) and I will use the term “material” synonymous with “graphic” at times. However, both of these categories are intertwined with the category of mental images. Through the use of graphic images as well as verbal images, they necessarily succeed in evoking mental images within the reader. Such can be ideas, associations, fantasmata which Mitchell defines as “the revived versions of those impressions called up by the imagination in the absence of the objects that originally stimulated them” (Iconology 10) and, most importantly in Sebald’s case, memories. Thus, images of the graphic and the verbal categories in fact serve in order to stimulate mental images, which will be a major subject in the main part.

At this stage, however, it seems to be important first to clarify the difference between “picture” and “image”, if there is one. Mitchell argues that the two terms are “often used interchangeably to designate visual representations on two-dimensional surfaces.” However, he elaborates that there are distinctions: A picture is the representation of a “constructed, concrete object”, “a deliberate act of representation (to ‘picture’ or ‘depict’)” and “a specific kind of visual representation”. An image, meanwhile, is “a virtual, phenomenal appearance”, “a less voluntary, perhaps even passive or automatic act (‘to image or imagine’)” and a summary of “the whole realm of iconicity” (Picture Theory 4). Thus, it seems advisable to use the term “picture” when it comes to the graphic representations in the two novels and the term “image” whenever verbal images are concerned


[1] I will not employ the term “photo-text” which von Steinaecker proposes (Literarische Foto-Texte 13) since although the emphasis will be on the analysis of photographs, it will not be limited to it, but include other material pictures such as drawings, etc.

[2] Rippl points out that due to the fact that this typology was made in 1984, it might have to be elaborated in order to do justice to electronic picture representations. Moreover, she criticizes the fact that both two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations fall under the same category although they evidently bear divergent characteristics (18-19). As three-dimensional representations are not the subject of this thesis, this fact does not affect my argumentation.

Excerpt out of 107 pages


Pain, Trauma and The Need to Visualize
Intermediality in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and W.G. Sebald’s "Austerlitz"
University of Bern  (English Department)
1.5 (Schweizer Skala: 5.5)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
867 KB
Sebald, Foer, Intermediality, Photography, Trauma, World War II, 9/11
Quote paper
Lic. phil. hist/master of arts Stephanie Pabst (Author), 2008, Pain, Trauma and The Need to Visualize, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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