Reading Prompt Due Sunday by 5pm

In Family Secrets, Annette Kuhn says, “The Photograph is a prop, a prompt, a pre-text: it sets the scene for recollection.” Please discuss this quote in light of the themes introduced in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

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32 Responses to Reading Prompt Due Sunday by 5pm

  1. Annette Kuhn’s quote works perfectly in conjunction with W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. The very cover of the novel is exactly the pre-text that Kuhn speaks of, in more ways then one. It is the first thing that the reader sees before they even start the novel. Due to the reader’s tendency to connect parts of the text to others, the reader is led to presume that the boy in the photograph on the cover is either the narrator of Austerlitz, or Jacques Austerlitz himself. However, the photograph cannot be of either of these characters, since they are just that – characters. Thus, despite the fact that the picture and the characters really have no relation, the reader enters the novel already having made certain presumptions about the characters based on nothing but the proximity of the photograph and the text. This is exactly the “reconciliation” that Kuhn refers to. The reader has a natural tendency, as discussed, to reconcile two dissimilar texts to one another, and the introduction of a photograph makes this reconciliation impossible to avoid. W.G. Sebald uses photographs thusly throughout the entirety of his text. By using photographs of real people in situations similar to his imaginary ones, he allows the reader to consider the relationship between fiction and reality, blurring the line between both.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Don’t you consider the narrator a character as well? What about the photographs that do not resemble any particular situations in the book but are the fruit of a digression by Austerlitz? You make a good point, that the photographs are a way of mixing up fantasy and reality, or history and fiction, but it may be more than that. To some extent, they build a layer of alienation into an already alienated text because of all the layerings of discourse (first the narrator, then austerlitz, etc.)

  2. Anne Langdon says:

    Throughout the novel, I believe that Austerlitz’s uncovering of his repressed memory is not stimulated by photographs. Before this quote there is a clarifying sentence in Kuhn’s writing saying that photographs are meant to make us recall where we were at that moment in time, but how we were or felt. In contrast, when Austerlitz is looking for his mother in the video, the picture seems to only mean where his mother was at a particular time. Although when Austerlitz encounters a picture of himself as a young child, he responds as Kuhn suggests. He cannot remember where it was taken, and the details surrounding the shot. However, he does remember the way his hair used to fall, and the part he played while he was wearing the costume. Yet, compared to the other things that spark his memory, mostly places like the train station, his old apartment, or the vacation spot, the photographs seem to evoke little insights. On the other hand, In my experience as a reader, the photographs of the train station, or the waiting room, acted as a “prop or a prompt” to spark my entrance into Austerlitz’s memory.

    However, as Kuhn’s chapter one exhibits, I believe that Austerlitz and Kuhn could agree that what was not in the photograph that colors one’s recollection or reaction. For instance, the photograph depicting the opera set, somewhere his mother often graced the stage before she was forbidden, was interesting because it was unclear whether his mother was in this opera or merely attending taking the photograph. Similarly for the picture of himself, he could not recall who took the photograph. The absence of information, or the exclusion of a person, sometimes sparks a memory the disconnect, which in some cases both Austerlitz and Kuhn point out can be meaningful.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      I love your articulation of the photographs acting as a prop or a prompt to spark our entrance into Austerlitz’ memory. It is almost as if we have better access to his memory than he does, and this is represented by the appearance of these photographs.

  3. Emily Schweich says:

    Kuhn draws on Barthes’ theory of a punctum, for often a viewer is pierced by something that is missing from a photograph. “To show what it is evidence of, a photograph must always point you away from itself,” she says (Kuhn 13).

    In Austerlitz’s self-discovery through photography, he is drawn to the missing aspects of the photographs he encounters. The photograph he finds of himself as a child “points” him toward other memories of his childhood.

    Yet Kuhn doesn’t discredit the ability of a photo’s composition to evoke memories. To her, the image is “necessary, but not sufficient, to the activity of meaning making” (Kuhn 14). She adds that there are other factors besides the photo that lead to the emergence of memory.

    “What I am saying is: memories evoked by a photo do not simply spring out of the image itself but are generated in a network, an intertext, of discourses that shift between past and present, spectator and image, and between all these and cultural contexts, historical moments (Kuhn 14).

    As Austerlitz studies history in school, however, he finds that his memories of historical events tend to direct him to specific photographs. His recollection of the Battle of Austerlitz particularly points him to a photograph.

    “I myself, added Austerlitz, in spite of all the accounts of it I have read, remember only the picture of the final defeat of the Allies in the battle of the Three Emperors. Every attempt to understand the course of events inevitably turns into that one scene where the hosts of Russian and Austrian soldiers are fleeing on foot and horseback on to the frozen Satschen ponds” (Sebald 72).

    In mentally picturing this photograph, Austerlitz sees himself as part of this historic battle and linked to the “glorious past” of the French people, perhaps because of the context in which he views the battle in connection with his own name. Yet, the photographs of his childhood only cast doubts on the memories that he holds of this time in his life.

    Is the personal always political in terms of photography? Do images of public events elicit the same emotion as those of personal memories? While the “political” image of the battle gives Austerlitz a sense of identity and heritage, the “personal” images of his childhood and family presented in the context of the Holocaust take that identity away.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      While for Barthes, the punctum is something visible within the photograph, here you are arguing that it is something that is missing from the photograph. I like this distinction very much. The question you pose about the personal always being political in photography is an interesting one. I think that in the case of Austerlitz, what we are looking at is not question of politics as much as questions of history. Austerlitz is history writ large.

  4. knkern94 says:

    I believe that this quote from Annette Kuhn gives reasoning for Austerlitz’s motivations throughout the novel to go on this journey to find his history and his personal identity. Historical battle grounds, dead collections of insects, and train station waiting rooms have been retained in Austerlitz’s life memories more than the family he’s desperately desired. Austerlitz connects emotionally more with the concrete artifacts he encounters on his explorations than he does with the photographs which give him solid proof of the family ties he was looking for all along.
    Saying that a photograph only “sets the scene for recollection” implies that it can neither guarantee a memory nor ensure that it will be the memory hoped for. After finding the photo of his mother, Austerlitz decides to head to Paris to trace his father’s life but reluctantly says “he did not belong in this city, nor anywhere else in this world” (Sebald 254). The photograph only gives Austerlitz a spark into remembering his past life, and leaves him frustrated when he can’t remember further details into the setting and event of the photograph. Recollecting a photograph is not difficult if the image is familiar, but connecting with it emotionally becomes harder when the whole story is not known. That is why a photo can only be a “pre-text”.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Yes. But push this idea further, and consider what Kuhn is suggestion. She wants us to find ways to look beyond the photograph, in directions that the photograph sets for us, in order to better understand the whole complex of intersecting factors that form every individual experience. For Austerlitz, you are absolutely right — he gets sucked into the periphery of the things which are essential to him — the photographs are only of the periphery, and not of the central point he seeks out.

  5. joezim1994 says:

    Austerlitz is a man in some sense without a past, deprived of a history, yet the void of memories are what comes to define him. Memories and photographs are inexorably tied together in this novel; they compose a sort of Gordian knot of people and events which are independent of the individual, but still cannot be removed from the formation of one’s identity. In ‘Family Secrets’, Kuhn articulates the power of the photograph to set “the scene for recollection” as well as engender “discourses that shift between past and present” (Kuhn 14). This is a prominent theme of ‘Austerlitz’, which chronicles a man who, in effect, quarantines himself to be “protected… from [his] own early history” (Sebald 140). It is no coincidence that Austerlitz appears obsessed with taking and collecting photographs—this seems to be his own way of claiming a past that had been taken from him. Kuhn also states that “to show what it is evidence of, a photograph must always point you away from itself” (Kuhn 13). With photographs, Austerlitz finds an anchor to his lost past, not a complete rendition of what is gone. There are many things that pictures cannot show. His frantic search for an image of his mother demonstrates how photographs can rekindle the past, yet they remain only a flat representation of it. A central metaphor of this novel is the way that buildings and architecture are designed specifically to exclude that which is not wanted and “despite the elevated positions…the thickness of their walls, and their labyrinthine corridors, [the fortresses] proved entirely useless” (Sebald 298). In the same way, the way that Austerlitz fortifies himself from the past is stormed by mere photographs that elucidate a history otherwise out of reach.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Or do you think that perhaps he is fortifying himself with the photographs themselves? They represent, perhaps, his digressions from that which he truly seeks?

  6. sjfrazier015 says:

    The majority of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is text. Only every so often do you come in contact with a photograph or a series of a few photographs. This leads me to believe that what Kuhn says about photographs “setting the scene for recollection” is very prevalent in Austerlitz. None of the photographs have captions, and because of this, it is sometimes hard to tell which photographs go with what is being mentioned in the text at the time. For example, on page 121 you come across a photograph of a man walking down a road with fields on either side. But, when reading the text, you come across nothing that exactly explains what the photograph is showing the reader. Kuhn says that “the image itself figures largely as a trace, a clue” and this is a great example of this. The photograph seems to only have reminded Austerlitz of a time when he yearned to create an album of his journeys. Kuhn goes on to say that photographs are always leading to stories pointed “somewhere else.” On page 40 of Austerlitz, you see a picture of a backpack hanging on a hook. In the text, it tells of how the narrator identified with Austerlitz, first by his knapsack. But I am led back to this image when later on in the reading, Austerlitz himself is telling of a vision he saw of himself as a child with his foster parents. “As it was, I recognized him by the rucksack of his.” Many times on the text, you are given an image that you would not have expected or rather, you get a very generic photo of say, a train station, when looking for something much more personal. Many times in my life, I see a photograph or an image flashes up in my mind that brings back a memory so strong, but perhaps is quite disjointed from the photograph I saw in the first place. I think that Austerlitz struggle with this often and this theme is resounded throughout the novel.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      I love your articulation of being “led” back to an image in the book. He plants them throughout the text for us as “clues.” This creates a beautifully interactive novel.

  7. maxinesrich says:

    In W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, Sebald tells the tale of a man, Austerlitz, who attempts to learn about a family from which he is descended but of which is not a true part. As Annette Kuhn notes, photographs “set the scene for recollection,” and this is what Austerlitz does throughout the novel. One such example is found when Austerlitz is telling of Gerald, a younger boy, upon posting the image of the rugby team and noting the sadness apparent on his face. Immediately after the photograph, Austerlitz tells of Gerlad’s “awful homesickness” (75). The characterization derived from the photograph lends itself to Austerlitz’s recollection.

    A later, interesting, example is found when Austerlitz recounts the description he receives from his foster father, Elias, of Elias’ hometown. This description is accompanied by photographs, and from these photographs, Austerlitz imagines a past of which he was not a part. Most interesting is the placement of the photograph itself on the page. The photo follows the phrase, “containing several photographs of his birthplace,” and the photo immediately follows the comma. This puts the photograph in the position of being a parenthetical phrase in and of itself, and it remains the descriptor of the birthplace. The photograph embodies the history.

    As Kuhn notes, “telling stories of the past, our past, is a key component in the making of ourselves” (2). Austerlitz lacks this past, and thus the self-realization that comes along with it, and builds a past based upon the photographs shown throughout the novel.

    • shjones says:

      Kuhn’s comment mixes directly with two different themes in “Austerlitz”. The first is the use of a photograph for purposes of memory. To Kuhn, the photograph itself isn’t the memory, the recollections that are triggered and sought after when looking at the photograph are. In a similar manner, Austerlitz’s journey to places of his childhood triggers long forgotten memories. His present perception of his surrounding isn’t his memory; his knowledge of his deeply buried past is. Seeing the familiar environment once again allows Austerlitz’s brain to unlock experiences that had been not been thought of for decades.
      In a broad scope, Kuhn’s comment also illustrates how photographs have the power to unlock memories and feelings in all people. Kuhn makes the distinction between private photographs (family pictures) and public ones (film, news pictures). Even if the photograph’s spectator does not have a personal connection with the photograph, the picture still produces a reaction of recall. Recall either in the sense of a direct memory, or the application of learned feelings and associations. The different pictures put throughout “Austerlitz” have two meanings to the spectator. One, as illustrations of the cotnent of the text, and another informed by the spectator’s past and experiences.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      What is interesting about what you write is that you stumble onto the wonderful idea of photographs belonging to someone else, or excluding their viewers and Austerlitz’ own complex relationship to seemingly arbitrary photographs that lead him no closer to himself. Why?

  8. colleenshipley says:

    Upon first reading Austerlitz, I was struck by the lack of paragraph breaks, quotation marks, and otherwise essential grammatical components of a novel. However, as the novel unfolded, I realized it was in the stream of consciousness style for a reason. Austerlitz, in many ways was an introspective journey of self-discovery, as told by W.G. Sebald.

    As an orphan, Austerlitz never had a true sense of identity or belonging in his early life. It wasn’t until he was much older and on the verge of lunacy that he sought such closure. Until that point, he tried to repress any memories by, as he puts it, “always refining my defensive reactions, creating a kind of quarantine or immune system which…protected me from anything that could be connected, in any way, with my own early history” (140). It was only after a trip to the train station awakened his memory that he began to explore his roots and eventually relay them to the author.

    Therefore, the images in the novel, as described by Annette Kuhn, serve to set the stage for Austerlitz’s muddled memories of his years at Bala with his adoptive parents, the boys’ boarding school, and everything proceeding. Some images are of himself or objects he saw, such as the photograph of him in a white costume as a young boy, and of the flower pattern of the walkway of his childhood home. But more often than not, they are images that remind him of parts of his life, such as a picture of outer space for his friend at school, or an illustration from a children’s Bible representing his captivity and desire for liberation.

    As a work, I think Austerlitz was a scrapbook or memory book where W.G. Sebald pieced together as best he could, the disparate parts and stories from his friend Austerlitz and made them into a fluid piece. Just as the images in Austerlitz’s life prompted him to reflection, they inspire the same reaction in the reader, when paired with the text.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      Remember to separate Sebald from the narrator and from Austerlitz in your reading of this book. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the great sense of alienation built into it by all these layers of narration and narrative.

  9. The photograph of Austerlitz as a child is used as the center of the book Austerlitz to focus Austerlitz’s recollection of his childhood around. However, this quote from Kuhn does not seem to hold entirely true for Austerlitz. He struggles to recall the situation in which he was photographed as a child, before a masked ball, coming up with only vague, dim recollections. It is when he meets people from his past, such as Vera, or re-visits the places of his childhood that his memories truly begin to come back. Austerlitz often instead seems to use architecture as a pretext for memories coming back, such as when he stumbles upon the abandoned waiting room, and suddenly remembers waiting there himself as a young boy. But photographs are also important, tangible proof of the past, especially for someone such as Austerlitz who has found their memory to be unreliable. This is why he places such great significance on finding a photograph of his mother, watching a video for hours and examining individual frames, hoping to find a glimpse of her. This also occurs with the photograph of the theater, and the true photograph of his mother that he and Vera find from a newspaper. Austerlitz also did not have any pictures of his childhood, which perhaps contributed to his memory block of his early childhood, as he had nothing to prompt his memory. He further self-censored himself from looking at images of Germany as well as that time period, perhaps self-consciously realizing that seeing such pictures would force him to remember. At that that time, this powerful aspect of photography is what made it undesirable to him.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      So photographs offer him what his memory cannot? You make an excellent point when you observe that the photographs in Austerlitz do not necessarily show us what he remembers, but direct us indirectly through all the obstacles to memory that he has erected.

  10. Annette Kuhn’s quote “The Photograph is a prop, a prompt, a pre-text: it sets the scene for recollection” is easily related to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. The story itself is fiction, as far as I understand it. Therefore the photographs included in the text, as well as the portrait on the cover, are not photographs that were taken by Austerlitz or anyone he knew because they did not exist. These photographs are included to add to the story, like a platform on which Austerlitz builds his broken history. On page 83, Austerlitz reflects on Andromeda Lodge, where glass cases held everything from shells to sea urchins. He mentions butterflies in the list of artifacts displayed in the rooms, and in the middle of this paragraph, a photograph of a case of butterflies interrupts a sentence. There is no proof that this is the exact case that Austerlitz remembers; however, the photograph acts like a prop or example of what he might have seen. Within the actual text, Austerlitz uses the photographs to aide his memory (sometimes unsuccessfully), like a prompt as Kuhn puts it. On page 183, the same photograph that is on the cover appears. Vera tells Austerlitz that it is a picture of him before he went to a masked ball. Although Austerlitz does not remember the actual ball, he remembers the way his hair looked as a child, as shown in the photograph. Kuhn is accurate in saying that photographs can be props, prompts, and pre-texts because they stir up memories that are otherwise forgotten.

  11. Within the context of Austerlitz, the photograph plays an important role in discussing the narrative within the context of reality. With Kuhn’s idea that photography is used as a way to develop the recollection of a human being, it becomes extremely problematic within “Austerlitz.” Jacques whole existence and identity is brought into question throughout the novel. As such, this idea that photographs will bring about a recognition or recollection seems particularly cruel. Austerlitz does not have a basis for recollection and the whole search of the novel is for the answers to his very existence. Though the pictures throughout the novel seem to only function as a prop, it more so functions as a reminder to the reader that Austerlitz will never have recollections, he will never have a genuine photograph, and he may never have a genuine identity. The photographs serve to juxtapose the reality of his life with the fantasy of the novel. The photographs serve to show that there is a sense of reality to this conversation, yet the reader still knows that these photographs are not really of Austerlitz or his experiences. As such, it brings into question who the recollections are for. Are they for the reader or the characters? If the photographs are for the reader, then what is Sebald trying to bring about within his work? Sebald may be trying to subtly get the reader to recognize the horrors of the holocaust in context with the people most lastingly affected by it, the family members who survived. Many books on the holocaust cruelly portray the horrors of the time, but rarely do they delve into the children of this time; the children who grew up without an identity, and as such may never know or have the recollections that the family album is supposed to give them. It is an empty void that may never be filled and always will be felt.

  12. In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a man recounts his life story to an unnamed narrator. He eventually learns that his parents were murdered in the Holocaust. He repressed his memories of his early childhood and avoided learning anything about World War II his whole life, until he decided to discover his past.
    Annette Kuhn’s Family Secrets discusses how the ways in which photographs are produced and then used can affect their meaning for their viewers – and how this is associated with their memories. Sebald’s novel took a much more unconventional approach in his novel, because, strictly speaking, the photographs contained within it are not needed to convey the message that he appears to be getting across. Photographs are sprinkled periodically throughout the book that correspond with descriptions of places or, occasionally, pictures of people. The photographs add to the superficiality of his prose – the reader seems to be skating over top of Sebald’s literary world ,instead of being truly immersed in it. Perhaps that is the point – that the pictures highlight how his text seems to skim along the surface and that there is a more complex meaning to be unearthed by delving more deeply into the matter. That is how Kuhn’s quote relates to Sebald’s work – the pictures guide both the reader and the characters to think and to remember. By writing and including photographs in such a simplistic way, Sebald is emphasizing how hard it is to try to understand the Holocaust – even a nonfiction book will only be able to skim the surface of the true horror of the events taking place.

    • Sheila Jelen says:

      What a wonderful formulation — that we are skating on top of his prose instead of being truly immersed in it. That is absolutely right. The photographs make that evident.

  13. Elana says:

    In Family Secrets, Annette Kuhn says, “The Photograph is a prop, a prompt, a pre-text: it sets the scene for recollection.” Meaning, photographs serve as “memory texts”. They serve as reminders of the past. Photographs trigger memories of past events and thus tell a story beyond the surface. A simple photo can cause “characters’ [to remember] things buried deep in their past and long forgotten” (Kuhn 6). This is because, as Kuhn explained, photographs reveal more than just the surface observations (such as the subject, time of day, setting, etc.) They also reveal hidden meanings and stories to each spectator.

    I have three distinct thoughts regarding this quote in terms with the novel Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. The first thought is as follows. In Austerlitz, the photographs serve as a sort of trigger for the narrator. Very often, the photographs are not of significant moments or details in the story. Rather, I believe the photographs serve as a trigger for the narrator who is telling over Austerlitz’s story. Because the story line spanned over many decades, I believe the narrator used these photos to help him remember the many memories of the encounters he had with Austerlitz. For example, On page 32 there is a picture of a cluttered office. Who knows if this was indeed the office of Austerlitz. It could be that the narrator saw this photo and it reminded him of the times he visited Austerlitz in his own cluttered office.The photograph is included because it was the trigger that led the author to record the following encounter with visiting Austerlitz in London.

    Another thought very similar to the one above is that as I read the novel I noticed that the obvious details in the photograph were never mentioned in the text and whatever was outright mentioned in the text was almost never photgraphed. Rather, the photo was always placed among the text of the story behind the photo. While reading the novel, one may think that the photos chosen may not seem important in light of the story however, they were the photos that triggered the memory of the story and thus were the ones chosen to be included in the book.

    My last thought has to do with what Kuhn said about family albums. Kuhn said that “as clues are scrutinized and pieces fitted together, a coherent story starts to emerge” (Kuhn 22). This story is the story of the family secrets. The photos in Austerlitz are never of Auterlitz’s parents. Most are not even of Austerlitz himself. This absence tells a story of its own. It reflects the missing identity Austerlitz felt all his life and the lack of knowledge about his parents. Although the photos did not reveal the details of his experience on the kindertransport, it did reveal the fact that he was missing that familial bond as a child. He was missing the love and adoration of two caring parents and a secure identity for himself.

  14. This quote seems to be a partially accurate depiction of the central theme of Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. This book surrounds greatly around Austerlitz quest to discover the meaning and origin of his last name and who his parents were. He is lost and cannot rely on his memory to serve his goal. Throughout the book Austerlitz encounters photographs and images from his past, ranging from his old rugby team to a picture of himself when he was a child. These photographs do bring some sort of feeling and memory back to him but he is stunted to just that. He has a lot of trouble bringing back memories and lost time and does not really successfully, “…set[s] the scene for recollection,” very well.
    He is quite frustrated, in that he cannot change that which has already occurred, “…how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power or memory is never heard, never described or passed on (24).” However, Austerlitz can recollect and rekindle lost events and time even more when he exists in a setting or environment himself. He is able to remember things that he didn’t know he could when in the right situations. Although not all of his questions are answered, he has more concrete answers and has a little bit more closure.
    However, looking at a different perspective, I can also believe that Khun’s quote, can be fully supported rather than partially supported by the themes in the book. If looking from the view that a photograph is a captured moment in time and that the human eye Is similar to the action of a camera, then the experiences like in the waiting room could be just as if he was looking at a photograph of the waiting room. Our eyes are capturing moments in time, as moments pass, the images no longer exist but in out minds. The camera does a similar action in which all that is captured no longer exists. Therefore, comparing the photographs that Austerlitz looked at and tangible environments that he was in can be looked at interchangeably.

  15. esrayagoub says:

    It is clear that Sebald and Kuhn had somewhat similar opinions of photography. Sebald would agree that “the photograph is a prop, a prompt, a pre-text: it sets the scene for recollection.” He may even go on to argue that they could be the basis of some literary works. When I read Sebald’s novel, I barely noticed the images, because the descriptions that preceded them were so vivid. But in these descriptions the narrator described the images and then moved into his memories of what happened at these places. Despite the fact the narrator was not the photographer, he had his own story for each image. This is similar to the way Kuhn described her caption for the image of her as a child in contrast to the caption he mother had given the photo. The narrator’s descriptions were often long word sentences. I think the authors chose to use that structure to prove the cliche of an image being worth a thousand words.
    After reading Kuhn’s work, I though she in a a way belittled photography. She seems frustrated by the number of stories that could be told about a single image. I think this is where her opinion differs from Sebald. Sebald seemed to see images as more powerful because they evoked so much thought. I also noticed that Sebald seemed to focus on the details (mostly architectural) in images whereas Kuhn focused on the context that the image was taken. Although she mentions Barthes philosophy she seems to focus too much on the tension between the photographer and the spectator and overlooks the idea of a punctum, that Sebald subtly hints at in his descriptions.

  16. Annette Kuhn’s quote about photography illustrates the means and challenges that Austerlitz in W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz encounters in his search for self-discovery and the text’s discussion of the recording of history.
    The photograph, in the quote’s conception, is a tool that has the ability to artificially assemble something lost or scattered. It is in this sense that Austerlitz makes sense of the world around him. His knowledge of and acute perception of architecture and imagery serves as way for him to reconstruct his reality from various sources not directly related to him. The way Austerlitz, for example, surrounded himself in old historical environments, such as the Tower Hamlets cemetery in London (Sebald 227), implies an attempt to supplant his knowledge of his past indirectly, by trying to understand the world through foreign images. Austerlitz’s actual connection to the past is founded on what Kuhn describes photographs as; ambiguous helper items that help people decipher their own history. Austerlitz gathering of information and images can only imitate memories of his past that were never there.
    Further relating these ideas, the implications of Kuhn’s quote on photography’s effect on history and recording are that photographs are mere reflections and mirrors of history, ambiguously and lightly contributing to a largely human-made concept such as history. Austerlitz implies that the physical and visual landscapes of history are fragmented and concealed, highlighting its own indeterminate nature. The author and Austerlitz engage in extended conversations about their own experiences and also history. These conversations imply that the actual record, whether it is photography or the memories of their travels through Europe, is different than what history is popularly described as. The narrator’s encounter with a rotting Belgian fort (Sebald 20), after deliberating with Austerlitz on the high stature and reputation these forts held at the time, leaves him disillusioned about the genuine content of their supposed greatness. He is left staring at an image that makes its own history a façade. Similarly, Kuhn means to point out how the representation of a thing only allows for the viewer to reconstruct it in their own terms, giving the representation the power to deceive and to reflect on the viewer what they already perceived.

  17. Sheila Jelen says:

    The focus on the viewer is right on. We are searching for Austerlitz in the photographs just as much as he is looking for his own history.

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