Between the Rare Oases of Thought: On Thomas Bernhard and the Mind
By Ratik AsokanJune 24, 2016
Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard
The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, however, skews life the opposite way. He is obsessed with the cruel superficiality of everyday thinking, with all-consuming ambition, with the terrible limit of memory, with selfishness, fear, primal instincts of fight and flight. In short, Bernhard fixates on the barren wastelands of consciousness that stretch out between the rare oases of purposeful thought. His literary endeavor is to depict the wastelands in all their banality. Many novelists — Joyce, Beckett, Woolf — have dwelt on the idle and empty wanderings of consciousness. Bernhard is unique in that he makes no effort to imbue these wanderings with beauty. He considers man to be an essentially absurd creature who spends his hours obsessively turning over the same old frustrations, and some old (usually unfulfilled) desires, without ever actually doing anything about it.
One of Thomas Bernhard’s earliest published works was a novel called Gargoyles, which came out in 1967. For its first 80 pages, Gargoyles is a more-or-less conventionally realistic book, if also a rather bleak one. Set somewhere in rural Austria, it is narrated by a gloomy teenager, whose father, a “difficult district’s” sole doctor, has taken him along on his rounds through the mountainous countryside. The denizens of this countryside are not the noble peasants you’d expect from sentimental 19th-century fiction. In fact, the doctor’s patients are unanimously — though diversely — deformed, perverse, brutish, grotesque, and given, as he puts it, “to violence as well as insanity.” Take, for example, the piss-drunk miner who without “the slightest provocation” interrupts his alcoholic revelry to strike the innkeeper’s wife on the head with a bottle. Or the industrialist who lives in incestuous isolation with his half-sister. Or the brothers who pass their time strangling exotic birds.
This section seems “conventionally realistic” because Bernhard conjures his Hobbesian world using the standard realist’s toolkit: physical descriptions, distinct characters, a narrator with interiority, and so forth. Gargoyles’s second section, on the other hand, is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. Titled “The Prince,” section two is ostensibly meant to describe the doctor’s visit to Prince Saurau, a minor local aristocrat. Instead of submitting himself to the usual physical exam, the prince embarks on crazed, grating, repetitive rant. His rant covers the castle’s day-to-day management, the political threat to his rule, the ineluctable problems of loneliness and death. More strikingly, it interrupts, overtakes, and finally consumes the book’s narrative. “Covers” doesn’t quite do the rant justice. Saurau’s monologue is more a physical or biological phenomenon than an expression of thought. His mind isn’t interested in these topics; it feeds off them in that way an incinerator feeds off garbage. Here is a passage chosen at random:
People walk with one another and talk with one another and sleep with one another and do not know one another. If people knew one another they would not walk, talk, or sleep with one another. Do you know yourself? I often ask myself,” Prince Saurau said. A depth is always a height, the deeper the depth of the height, the higher the height of the depth, and vice versa, he added. “You imagine,” the prince said, “that you peer down into an infinite well (as into an infinite person), in his infinite height, size, and so on … I believe that my son is in London because I know that he is in London; I believe I am writing him a letter because I know I am writing him a letter, but I do not know that he is in London because I believe that he is in London.
There are a few tropes here characteristic of Saurau’s entire speech, and indeed of Bernhard’s entire oeuvre. First, let’s dismiss the notion that this particular passage contains any “ideas.” What exactly does it mean to say that every “depth is always a height”? If, as Saurau claims, “a depth is always a height,” doesn’t it logically and obviously follow that the “deeper the depth of the height, the higher the height of the depth, and vice versa.” Why make that explicit? The repetition here, however, is not just a circumstantial slip in the prose. In fact it’s a central aspect of Bernhard’s style. Take another segment:
Prince Saurau now said to me: “The more intensively I talked about the flood, the more your father was distracted from the flood. […] The moment I began talking about the flood, your father began talking about the play. The more I was preoccupied with the flood, the more preoccupied your father became with the play. I talked about the flood and he talked about the play.”
My father said: “I kept thinking all along that you couldn’t help talking about the flood, but I talked about the play.”
Prince Saurau said: “But I talked about the flood and not about the play, for what else could I possibly have talked about that day, if not the flood! Naturally I could not think of anything but the flood. And your father thought of nothing but the play.
This is non-conversation about an older non-conversation — the pervading solipsism is facilitated precisely by repetition. Indeed, these characters use words not so much to communicate as to keep other people at bay. That’s why it doesn’t matter if they repeat themselves. Words are simply the bricks they use to build a wall between themselves and the world. What compels them to build a wall? In Prince Saurau’s case, the answer is simple: insanity. The Prince’s head is full of “voices” and in an attempt to silence them, he talks and talks, or rather hates and hates, indiscriminately jumping from one subject to another (but always looping back to his favorites).
As a literary experiment, what Bernhard achieves is interesting, but surely it’s too much to stretch over 120 pages. We emerge from Gargoyles simply bludgeoned and exhausted. The experience is not unlike reading Part Four of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (“The Part about the Crimes”). Just as Bolaño dramatized and embodied the banalization of violence, so Bernhard does with insanity. If anything, he dispels the cult of the crazy. Even an insane person’s thoughts, Gargoyles proves, turn boring in the long run.
It might seem surprising, then, that Saurau’s monologue also represents Bernhard’s career-changing formal breakthrough — many of his later novels completely dispense with the conventional narrative elements of Gargoyles’s first section and instead take the form of a seamless rant. The rants themselves often take the form of a single book-length paragraph. What salvages these later novels, however, and what makes them so important, is that Bernhard drops the pretense of “insanity” and invites his readers to associate with his heroes. These heroes don’t turn more conventional or less compulsive. Bernhard does something far more interesting: he depicts ostensibly everyday and normal characters whose consciousness is just as compulsive as Prince Saurau’s.
But isn’t that having it both ways? Most of us aren’t compulsive and crazy: that’s why we usually relate to conventional characters. Wouldn’t a deranged consciousness, even if it isn’t explicitly described as such, seem deranged and unnatural to us?
Michael Hofmann has written that Bernhard serves up a “parodically eccentric version […] of life [which] at the same time […] is almost reassuringly normal. A Bernhard novel is a bizarrely skewed but immediately familiar planet.” Hofmann’s formulation, with its emphasis on the familiarity of the texts’ strangeness, leads us to the central achievement of Bernhard’s prose. Bernhard never simply writes: “James wasted his evening worrying about his assignment, but never actually got down to doing it.” Instead, he painstakingly and repetitively tracks James as he thinks about the assignment, is in fact consumed by the assignment, but never actually gets beyond his worry. As Orhan Pamuk notes:
In the work of “balanced,” writers like Proust or Tolstoy, we might view such obsessive repetition as “a leaf in the world of human virtues and frailties,” but here it serves the instantiation of an entire world. Most writers concerned with portraying “life in its fullness” consign “obsessions, perversions, and excesses” to the margins, but Bernhard places them in the center, while the rest of experience we describe as life gets pushed into the margins, evident only in the little details involved to insult it.
“Insult” is the key word here — the second part of the Bernhard equation. You and I might curse ourselves for worrying about but never starting an assignment. Bernhard’s protagonists, however, are entirely outward facing: they will curse the entire world for this same failure. In Concrete, for example, the main character Rudolf spends his time decidedly not writing his musicological masterwork. Instead, he whines about everything that is ostensibly preventing him from writing this study — his socialite sister, his illnesses, his writing materials, breakfast, pet-ownership in Austria, St. Francis of Assisi. In The Lime Works, Konrad locks himself and his wife up in an abandoned lime works to write his great musicological thesis only to despair over how his marriage prevents him from actually writing. Glenn Gould’s incomparable genius causes one talented pianist to commit suicide and another to give up music in The Loser. Old Masters is a 200-page rant by a man who can’t connect with Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White Bearded Man but who visits the Kunsthistorisches Museum every day for 30 years to stare at it and contemplate his lack of feeling. It sounds absurd of course, but so would our own mental activity, if empirically logged.
Though most of these scenarios are horrific, Bernhard’s absurdity also offers another and altogether surprising pleasure: comedy. There is something innately funny about hearing a man complain and complain (in increasingly acrobatic, repetitive language) about a whole range of topics. As readers we never lose sight of the fundamental loneliness and terror that is driving these characters into vituperation. But the things they begin to hate on — and they hate on a lot of things — grow increasingly beside the point, arbitrary, and in fact downright silly.
Reger of Old Masters, for example, has our rapt attention when he condemns Austria for having the “most distasteful government imaginable, the most hypocritical, the most malicious, the meanest, and, at the same time, the stupidest.” This is after all, a nation that elected an ex-Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, to office in 1986. We take him less seriously, however, once he begins railing against art historians:
[T]he real wreckers of art […] The art historians twaddle so long about art until they have killed it with their twaddle. Art is killed by the twaddle of art historians. My God, I often think, sitting here on the settee while the art historians are driving their helpless flocks past me, what a pity about all these people who have all art driven out of them, driven out of them for good, by these very art historians.
And once Reger descends to the subject of Vienna’s toilets (“Vienna is quite superficially famous for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories. The Viennese, and the Austrian generally, have no lavatory culture …”) we have to laugh. That said, the reader is never safe with Bernhard: a discussion about toilets will lead to thoughts on ambition, or Austria’s shameless denial of its Nazi past. “Whoever can’t laugh doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously,” says The Loser’s narrator. His creator certainly demands both.
Though widely considered to be one of Europe’s greatest postwar writers, Bernhard was not well known in the United States at the time of his death in 1989. (In his will, Bernhard forbade any publication or performance of his work in Austria, but that’s another story.) Since then, however, his plays, novels, and stories have been gradually making their way here in translation. Given Bernhard’s writing style, it’s unsurprising that he excels in the first two genres. The stage naturally lends itself to his rantologues, and the novel allows him to create complicated, musical-linguistic structures. (The Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, himself the author of a book-length rant titled Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, has noted that Bernhard “is an author of […] a voice that became a style, a sticky style to whoever has a good ear, because you’re dealing with a prose that’s constructed musically from the principles of the fugue.”)
The traditional short story, however, comes with certain structural demands — plot, economy, narrative tension, an epiphany — that seem incompatible with his torrents of vituperation. And yet he did write short stories, or at least short prose pieces, four of which have been collected in Goethe Dies, Seagull Books’ latest offering from the Bernhard back-catalog.
None of these pieces began their life as “fiction.” Seagull Books has presented us with a grab-bag collection of feuilletons, art criticism, and event-specific prose pieces (which, taken together, come in at 72 generously spaced pages). “Goethe Dies,” the first entry, was written for the Austrian daily Die Zeit to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Goethe’s death. Most writers, when called upon to perform such a service, would craft a passionate and admiring essay. Bernhard instead submitted a short story that literally dramatized Goethe’s death. What’s really audacious about the story is that Bernhard’s Goethe is obsessed, impossibly, with Wittgenstein (in the story, his contemporary). Goethe wants to meet the author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work he considers far superior to his own oeuvre. In the hands of another writer — Milan Kundera, say — this could have made for a great comedy. Who, wouldn’t want to read about the fantastic meeting of these two heavies? The story’s narrator himself admits that, “Even if Wittgenstein and Goethe just stood facing each other or sitting, remaining silent the whole time, and even if it had been the briefest of moments, it would have been the most beautiful moment that I could imagine.”
What Bernhard serves up is very funny, but not at all in the way you imagined. Goethe is as compulsive and solipsistic as every other Bernhard hero and he spends the entire story obsessing over his place in German literature and Wittgenstein’s superiority. But unlike in The Loser, this inferiority complex doesn’t drive Goethe to suicide. He simply wants to meet Wittgenstein, and one of his pupils is sent off to England to fetch the great Austrian philosopher. In a bleak twist, Wittgenstein dies of cancer just before the messenger arrives. In a bleaker conclusion, Goethe himself dies on the last page. Bernhard, never one to withhold a blow, ends the story thus:
[Goethe’s last words] are his most famous, More light! But in reality Goethe’s last words were not More light, but rather No more! Only Riemer and I—and Kräuter—were present. We, Riemer, Kräuter, and I agreed to tell the world Goethe had said More light as his last words and not No more! Long after Riemer and Kräuter died, I still suffer that lie like a forgery to this day.
There is something at once perfunctory and sadistic about this ending. It’s satirical, but not pointedly so. Indeed Goethe is little more than a placeholder in this story. Hand Bernhard any major writer, artist, or philosopher, and you’d expect him to dole out a similar if not identical clobbering. Bernhard’s real object of scorn is not Goethe (a writer he clearly admirers) but the Austrian culture industry that he considers too preposterous to have anything to do with Goethe. His target is not a character within his text, but rather the publishers of it. Consequently the pleasures it offers are not literary but extra-literary. You get a few good laughs at the thought of Bernhard submitting this piece to commemorate Goethe’s death, but that’s just about it. The story feels too incidental and slight to count as literature. Sadly, the other three “stories” in this collection also suffer from a similar weightlessness.
“Reunion,” for example, is ostensibly supposed to be a “conversation” between childhood friends who are meeting after 20 years. Instead (surprise, surprise) it unfolds as a rant throughout which our narrator curses his and his friend’s horrible parents, and especially their propensity to go on alpine vacations. Here’s a taste:
Twice during the year they went into the mountains to find peace and quiet, but of course they only brought wherever they went their lack of peace and quiet, and of course the valleys in which they went really did have peace and quiet, but only as long as they did not enter them, the forests peace and quiet as long as they didn’t walk in them, the summits of mountains as long as they weren’t climbing them.
James Reidel does a wonderful job of conveying Bernhard’s deranged rhythms, but there is little else to be gained from this story than passing stylistic pleasure. That, and the fact that it was Bernhard’s contribution to a national art exhibition’s catalog (presumably the exhibition showcased landscape paintings?).
Even this extra-literary satisfaction is lacking from “Going Up in Flames,” a seven-page rant against Austria (“I found not a single iota in that Austria that was ever acceptable”) that could be slotted anywhere into Bernhard’s other books, but feels incomplete when read by itself. “Montaigne,” likewise, is narrated by a Bernhard intellectual who runs away from his family with the ostensible goal of reading in solitude, but instead finds himself obsessively hating on his family for preventing him from reading.
On the way from the library to the tower I realised that I have not escaped them in forty-two years, even though in the forty-two years of my life I have had nothing else in my head but to escape them.
It’s a typically Bernhardian flip: this intellectual self-nullification, which might send a momentary shiver of recognition down some reader’s spine. It might even lead them on to the major works.
Ratik Asokan writes about books, films, and photography. You can read all his work here.
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