The first time I understood that it is all up to me – life, etc – was the first full day of my first child’s life. On the seventh floor of the hospital I watched her sleeping and fumbled with bits of cotton wool.
I kept catching myself thinking things like, when the real parents come I can tell them she’s a good sleeper.
It was neither comforting nor uplifiting each time I realised again that the real parent was me. I longed for someone to be in charge and to take at least some of what I see now I understood as a crushing responsibility off my shoulders.
I wrote this poem about that time:
The real mother
Someone’s left a baby here
it’s asleep at the moment
I think I can look after it
until the parents come
when the real parents come
I hope they bring some
clothes for it
the ones I’ve got
are much too small
I hope they get here soon
I might let it fall
from this high window
I think Sebald’s point about the phoniness of third person narration is in some ways a criticism of this longing that many people have for someone to be in charge. I can’t imagine Sebald was a fan of conspiracy theories, for example.
These paranoid ideas about everything from the murder of JFK to 9/11 are often another expression of the same human desire for an all-powerful god figure who can bring order and peace to the world. The idea that someone in authority was responsible for these tragedies is, ultimately, comforting. A corrupt government, say, can be punished and guarded against far more easily than mad or bad individuals acting in accordance with their personal credos.
When our culture was less complex the idea of omniscience was more credible. Everyone went to church and most people worked on the land for much of history. So writers really could know much more about people’s lives and comment on them with greater confidence.
Today no one has much idea what anyone beyond their immediate family and intimate friends is doing. If we don’t know much about each others’ lives, how can we comment on them?
I think most writers find free indirect speech (the same as limited third person or third person from a specified point of view) a good compromise and this is one reason why third person is still a popular way to tell stories.
You could say we’ve rescued god but we’re only allowed him from a specific, personal point of view, (a thought which resonates with the individual way more and more of us express our spirituality).
It’s all very confusing which brings me back to the seventh floor of that hospital. It turned out she wasn’t a good sleeper but with time and practice I have become a more confident (and much happier) mother, and my hope is that time and practice will answer some of these questions about writing. Or maybe you can?