The Millions

W.G. Sebald and the Malthusian Tragic

In 1798, an unknown curate named Robert Thomas Malthus published the essay that would give his name to a new breed of anxiety. He argued that the growth rate of the population would always exceed the growth rate of the food supply, inevitably reducing every country to the brink of starvation, and turning the world into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: crowded, chaotic and cruel.

It was a unique, and uniquely grim, theory. For centuries, apocalyptic scenarios had been the sole purview of God, the price he would exact in exchange for sorting out our souls. Malthus demonstrated that not only did humanity possess the divine’s capacity for destruction, but also that the engine of this destruction could be as innocent an act as procreation. Friedrich Engels, joining a chorus of criticism, called it “the most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship.”

I wonder if Malthus knew he had discovered a new species of despair, and if he himself was affected by it. If he was the neurotic type, he must have struggled to suppress an uneasy foreboding at the sight of a festive crowd, a teeming market, or his own grandchildren. If he sought comfort in rural solitude, I doubt he found it. I picture him struggling to wave away a dismal image that his imagination was superimposing over a bucolic field, the muddy slum that he predicted it would become.

Malthus might have recognized himself in the narrators of W.G. Sebald. On seemingly every page of Sebald’s four novels, his narrators struggle to repress a feeling of horror at the most innocent scenes. For them, it’s the past that is always superimposing itself. This depressing tendency is so pervasive as to become almost absurd: when the narrator of Vertigo wakes up in Venice the beautiful stillness of a peaceful morning only reminds him of other, unpeaceful mornings: “How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of traffic, with a mounting sense of panic.” He concludes with some choice words about humanity’s penchant for annihilation.

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