Sebald in Corsica: ‘Campo Santo’.

campo santoCampo Santo is one of four short pieces with Corsican settings in W.G. Sebald’s collection given the same title. These were fragments for a book about Corsica which remained unfinished at his untimely death in a road accident in 2001.

Campo Santo takes us from the author’s arrival in the village of Piana, starting with a swim in the bay of Ficajola below, a visit to the graveyard (Campo Santo), a riff on the Corsican way of death and the ultimate meaning of life. All in a remarkable 18 page single paragraph without a break in the flow of thought.

He looks around the graveyard and starts to notice the individual graves:

“…here and there among the thin flower stems, the blades and ears of grass in the graveyard of Piana, a departed soul looked out from one of those oval sepia portraits set in thin gilded frames which until the sixties used to be placed on graves in Mediterranean countries: a blond hussar in his high collared uniform tunic; a girl who died on her nineteenth birthday, her face almost extinguished by the sun and the rain; a short-necked man with his tie in a large knot, who had been a colonial civil servant in Oran; a little soldier, forage-cap titled sideways on his head, who came back badly wounded from the futile defence of the jungle fortress of Dien Bien Phu…”

Noticing an absence of very ancient graves, he later learns that graveyards only became common in Corsica from the mid-nineteenth century and that it took a while for their use to be generally accepted as people preferred to bury their dead on their own land, sometimes creating little memorials for them.

Sebald then muses on the traditional Corsican rituals following a death; the body laid out in the house for everyone to visit while the voceratrici and other village women wail lamentations during an extended wake. He considers some of the traditional Corsican beliefs about the dead; that they are present among us, standing about a foot shorter than when alive, moving around together, forming a community of the dead and paying unwelcome visits:

“…the dead were thought of as extremely touchy, envious, vengeful, quarrelsome and cunning. Given the least excuse, they would infallibly take their displeasure out on you.”

Beyond these ‘squadrons of the dead’ there are also the loners:

“individual restless ghosts intent on revenge, lying in wait by the roadside for travellers, suddenly emerging from behind a rock or manifesting themselves on the road itself, usually during the sinister hours of the day…”

And then there are the mazzeri or ‘dream hunters’ who were once a very real part of many Corsican communities. These were social outsiders by day whose spirits were said to move about rapidly at night compelled to bring death to animals within a dream world. These killings would then foretell a human death soon after. Sebald sees in this pre-Christian shadow-realm a possible manifestation of the Freudian idea that, to our unconscious, all deaths are the result of murder.

Sebald ends his meditation on the relationship between living and dead with the thought that with the huge increase in the number of the living, the significance of the dead is diminishing:

“In the urban societies of the late twentieth century…where everyone is instantly replaceable and is really superfluous from birth, we have to keep throwing ballast overboard, forgetting everything that we might otherwise remember: youth, childhood, our origins, our forebears and ancestors.”

He offers us the somewhat bleak prospect that eventually:

“…the whole past will flow into a formless, indistinct, silent mass…leaving a present without memory…”

Reading Campo Santo made me reflect on my visits to our own Corsican cemetery in Vero. It’s a short walk from the village, out of sight around the corner of the mountainside with a breathtakingly beautiful view across a wild interior valley. This ‘village of the dead’ is not a place of fear but a complement to the village of the living. It keeps its counsel and its distance but the graves and memorials serve to remind us of the life of an earlier village. Walking amongst the family groups, stopping at the graves of my beloved grandparents and those of other close relatives, I am remembering a whole generation and also connecting to the previous one; briefly encountered in childhood and learned more about second hand. Our visits are almost always in the dizzy heat of summer and in the solemn quietness of the pine forest the dead simply seem to be saying: ‘once we were the world, now it’s your turn’.

Campo Santo is wonderful, but I want to rebel against Sebald’s final view of a future without memory. There is much that will be forgotten about us after we have gone but we have existed and will not be rubbed out. Each individual who has lived is part of the great fabric of humanity and each thread in that fabric has its importance. The ebb and flow of human civilization, wars, revolutions, political movements, the flow of people and ideas – all these are built on the lives of individuals, all of whom matter – however many billions they number.

In the short term, I can see that there are plenty of reasons for pessimism, but when contemplating the longer term we should resist anything other than a narrative of human progress to which we all contribute. The residents of our own Campo Santo would expect nothing less.

See also:

Village wisdom: Corsican proverbs and sayings (August 2014)

Edward Lear in Corsica (August 2015)

John Minton in Corsica (July 2015)

Conrad in Corsica (August 2014)

Seneca in Corsica (August 2014)

Paoli in London (March 2015)

Poem: Corsica (July 2015)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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