Integrating the Disintegration
Reading Ingeborg Bachmann's short story collections, Three Paths to the Lake and the30th Year, we might hear in Bachmann, who was part of the Group 47 post-war writers, another Austrian, one who would go on to attack the group at a talk in the mid-sixties: Peter Handke. The attack at Princeton University in 1966 helped make Handke famous as he insisted that writers like Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass and Martin Walser offered "descriptive literature", and he was there to offer something new. Handke was in his mid-twenties and making a name for himself as he created a new space against others, but we might feel that he would have had more sympathy for Bachmann, whose work, written in the post-war years until her death in 1973, has the lacerating force on her fellow, younger Austrian. (Indeed, days after her death, Handke dedicated a speech to Bachmann after winning the Buchner prize.) We might describe this quality as the prose of righteous disregard: a feeling towards the self that isn't at all sanctimonious as it refuses to find dignity in one's actions, nor caricature as it acknowledges the absurd but never funny inadequacies of the human. Unlike fellow Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek (who adapted Bachmann's novel Malina for the screen) she doesn't push the prose into the sustained hysteria Jelinek often offers as she tears into Austrian conformism and sexism with great syntactical energy. What both Handke and Bachmann share is an acuity of observation that suggests the autobiographical as reflective lucidity. It does not seem to be about creating characters (which is why it can appear so autobiographical) but it is not at all about detailing the experiences of their lives either. It is instead about exploring a character from the inside of their chaos and the interior nature of that search excavates the fictional, refuses to give the work a novelistic breadth and instead finds in it a particular type of breath. Irmela von der Luhe quotes Christa Wolf saying of Bachmann's work: "while reading this prose one should not expect stories or the descriptions of actions...one will hear a single voice, bold and complaining." ('I Without Guarantees')
A particular passage in the long story 'Three Paths to the Lake' helps explain this breath. Here the central character Elisabeth realises that when she would tell Viennese friends about her glamorous life working as a photographer in Paris and New York, people would be fascinated, but she would wonder about the substance of her tales. "Anyone who happened to be listening could easily have had the impression that they were catching a glimpse of that different world, a shimmering and fascinating place, for Elisabeth's accounts were told well and with a sense of humour, but at home, with her father, the stories crumbled into nothing; not only because Herr Matrei wasn't in in the least interested but also because she noticed that, although she had actually experienced it all, then again she hadn't, there was something bleak and empty in all these stories..." It is as though Elisabeth is trying to find her breath; a way of speaking that can speak for her and not about her. The anecdotal tales furnishes a social occasion without elaborating a personal need: "she never spoke about her own life." The anecdote served a purpose but it hardly expressed a self, and its limitations were met not by her father's indifference, but how she could see in her father's company how impoverished these anecdotes were. Earlier in the story, Elisabeth thinks about a man who has been tortured and somehow managed to write about his experiences. How did he achieve it, she wondered, thinking "this man had attempted to discover what had happened to him when his soul was destroyed and to learn how a human being could change and continue to live, defeated, with that knowledge." The contrast between the anecdote offered and the personal catastrophe illuminated might be where the difficulty of literature often resides. Though many will talk of the problem of literature as an historical one, that literature becomes ever harder to write, its existence harder to justify, and schools forming to try and maintain literature's significance, Bachmann would seem suspicious of this, saying, "when we look back on the past half-century, on its literature with its chapter-headings of Naturalism and Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Imagism, Futurism, Dadaism, and a great deal that refuses to fit under any chapter-heading, it seems to us as though literature has been developing in a completely miraculous albeit somewhat inconsistent manner, exactly as it always has done, as it did in earlier agesfirst there was Sturm und Drang, then Classicism, then Romanticism, and so forth." Bachmann adds, "it is not especially difficult to acquire a working knowledge of these periods; but the present leaves a fair amount to be desired; we cannot properly see how it is developing, where it is headed; nothing is getting any clearer, not even the sense of a direction or directions." This was during one of a series of Frankfurt lectures in 1959, with Bachmann determined to escape from ready-made, overly theoretical or historical approaches to the literary. It is not that the silence comes because of a historical set of circumstances (like the Holocaust), or a literary development, like the Absurd; it stems more from a personal necessity that could strike any writer, at any time, and that it is perhaps this silence which allows literature to manifest itself.
Now of course how that literature will then be formulated will be reflective of historical circumstance and literary possibility: one doesn't write like Jane Austen or Dickens in the 21st century if one wishes to reflect an aspect of the time and to formulate the problem of the self. As Hermann Broch says: "every genuine work of art is at once new and bound to tradition: later generations see before anything else its place in tradition and thus grow increasingly blind to revolution, whereas contemporaries (for their part blind to tradition) see in it only the unfamiliar and the new: for the general public, an insolence meriting punishment, for the artist a revolutionary act, all the more so since he considers its success depends on newly discovered insights and resources of artistic technique." (Geist and Zeitgeist) But equally the self will not be examined if one holds too easily to either the times or the literary expectations of the moment. Hence in the Franfurt Lectures, Bachmann quotes at length Hugo von Hoffmansthal: "even during familiar home-baked conversations, I came to find all the opinions that are casually vented with an air of downright somnambulistic certainty so questionable that I was obliged to cease taking part in such conversations altogether." Hoffmansthal adds, "I was filled with an unaccountable rage, a rage that I only barely managed to conceal with great difficulty, when I heard such sentiments as: this affair will turn out well or badly for this man or that one; N. the sheriff is a wicked man, T. the parson a virtuous one; M. the tenant farmer is to be pitied, his sons are wastrels; another man is to be envied, because his daughters are good housekeepers; one family is coming up in the world, another one is in decline."
Language is always waiting for us, ready to be used, we might say, but is it not so often waiting to use us? This would be a specific variation on the structuralist notion of language speaking through us rather than we speaking through language. As Mary Klages says in Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, "we don't speak language, language speaks us." Yet in Bachmann's work this is shot through with an existential problematic that would say if we just take for granted that language speak for us, then we are not making the effort to reconfigure it for our own ends: for communicating the subject that we are. In this sense 'Three Paths to the Lake' finds its antithesis in 'Problems, Problems'. In the former, we feel the narrator trying to find the means by which to generate a subject through Elisabeth, while in 'Promises, Promises' the story more ironically, yet not quite humorously, explores what happens when someone accepts the wherewithal of their limitations. "She [Beatrix] drew her compact out of her purse and examined her teeth - not bad, although a bit irregular, she absolutely had to go to the dentist, and soon. And they really needed to be cleaned again, not this week, next week. A horrendous burden. She was glad she'd finally almost half-decided to go." At the hairdresser, Beatrix is informed that one needs wigs. "But this isn't the first time I've said it, you definitely need one, actually two, you absolutely need two wigs, if you do winter sports and then head south." Beatrix is a victim of language too, but this is the language of semiotics as Jean Baudrillard might define it, applied to the body. "For women, beauty has become an absolute, religious imperative. Being beautiful is no longer an effect of nature or supplement to moral qualities. It is thebasic, imperative quality of those who take the same care of their faces and figures as they do of their souls. It is a sign, at the level of the body, that one is a member of the elect, just as success is such a sign in business." (The Consumer Society) Just as language will speak for us so will the consumer society if we have enough money to buy into the signs of success. In an interview not long before she died, Bachmann said, "...I don't believe in this materialism, in this consumer society, in this capitalism, in this outrageous horror that happens/takes place here.... I really do believe in something, and I call it "a day will come." And one day it will come. Well, probably it won't come, since they've always destroyed it for us.... It won't come, and I believe in it anyway. Because if I can't believe in it anymore then I can't write anymore either. (GuI)
With language ready made and a consumer identity expected, how can one hope to find freedom of self? Many would claim this would be another myth: the myth of individuality that indeed the consumer society can quickly take advantage of. Yet there seems an enormous difference between Beatrix and Elisabeth, between someone who knows about fashion and someone who wants to know more about herself. The freedom perhaps rests less on identity as such than on the interval one finds between expectation and reflection. Whether one uses a cliche or follows a fashion, the interval is minimal. Freedom would be the capacity to expand one's space for thought in the face of immediate response. Can art help? "Art as a transforming force...?" she would say in one of the Frankfurt Lectures. "Transformation in generalthat is the question, a question that is but a part of the first, doubt-ridden, formidable question: what do we mean by transformation, and why do we crave transformation through art?! For we obviously crave something from it!" Art can be one area of the interval; a resistance to the consumer objects that commodify and rush us into selves that we have no time to consider, a self always in abeyance as it waits the next new thing that can justify our existence. As Beatrix thinks, "two of her bras were too tight and the other two were too baggy, that could only happen to her, because she had so often cut corners to save money without using her common sense, but at least now she had those delicate bikini panties that fit perfectly..." It isn't that Elisabeth's life is without superficialities; more that she tries to find a way of understanding them. "Her increasing success with men was directly related to her increasing indifference to them: what she now, in retrospect, jokingly called sojourns in the desert and dry spells were things of the past, those days when she had cried after each loss and isolated herself in defiance..." Elisabeth isn't a shallow person casually exploiting others' feelings; more that she comprehends an aspect of human feeling. She offers it without cynicism but knows that exploitation cannot easily be denied.
From a certain point of view 'Promises, Promises' might seem like a better story than 'Three Paths to the Lake', but this would be to assume sub-text is better than text, that irony is more important than sincerity. Yet taking into account Wolf's earlier remark, and some comments of our own, what Bachmann does best in her short stories is stay close to the non-fictional without slipping into the autobiographical. This allows for the eschewal of the devices of fiction without settling into the facts of one's own life. As Bachmann says in her intro to the novel Malina, "If my memory only meant normal memory, ie. Things belonging to the past, things lived out, things abandoned, then I am far, very far from the reticent memory in which nothing more can disturb me." Perhaps the purpose here isn't to create characters but to hypothesise other selves, to bring into being beings that are not us, but that can seem close to us in our imaginary capacity to exist beyond ourselves. When Flaubert famously said "I am Madame Bovary" this still sounded like a provocation: that Flaubert had imagined himself into the body and mind of his female central character. Yet we read Madame Bovary and still find a nineteenth-century craftsman at work, someone who creates a vivid relationship between Charles and Emma and also the various figures in the provincial town in which they live. Indeed, James Wood says "for Flaubert, for Dickens, and for hundreds of novelists after them, the minor character is a delicious kind of stylistic challenge: how to make us see him, how to animate him, how to dab him with a little gloss?" (How Fiction Works) Wood goes on to give an example from Madame Bovary of someone who is glanced at a ball and never seen again. It gives the novel its texture but contributes little to its meaning from the specifics of Bovary's consciousness.
A writer more interested in expressing a consciousness would only include the episode if it could reflect the mind of the central character rather than expand the milieu in which the story has been set. It isn't that the hypothetical self has no interest in others; it is that the interest in others is closely affiliated with the self that thinks and feels. The nineteenth-century novelist frequently offers an omniscient perspective that can easily move between one character and another, but a more modern approach cannot so easily assume such ready characterisational range. Whether it happens to be Handke or Duras, Kafka or Bachmann, we view things from a very narrow aperture but without at all a narrowing of feeling. If the voice is bold and complaining this isn't sanctimoniously because others can not live up to ourselves; rather that the human cannot live up to its status as human. One of the advantages of creating characters of wide range is that they can also incorporate a wide range of human experiences and dispositions. There is an enormous difference between Count Dracula and Jonathan Harker, and much of the tension in a book like Dracula rests on the antithesis that can generate plot, but what happens if one creates works that have no such dispositional disparity, if the narrator holds to quite a singular perspective and tries to view others from this angle?
The result is stories like Bachmann's. In 'The Thirtieth Year' a man cannot tolerate his life and what he has done with it and what he can expect from it. Yet this evacuation might be better than enervation. Is it better to be all over the place than confined in one's thinking and feeling? The central character sees someone in front of him he used to know. It takes him a moment but he recognizes Moll, a friend who "once wanted to discover what the new style was and who has now found it. Moll, who today knows how people should furnish their homes, paint, write, think and compose." Moll soon has to move on. "Moll naturally despises him, Moll's old friend, because he now looks at his watch and sees that it is time to go, Moll, who lives according to an inner clock, who winds up his austere spirit, who makes his privilege tick." The 'Thirtieth Year' isn't an ironic text like 'Promises, Promises', but this doesn't mean it is direct either: that is simply an exposition of a position. Works from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to Knut Hamsun's Hunger, from Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet to Sartre's Nausea, manage to convey a distaste for the social within the context of a troublesome individuality. The writers don't offer essayistic answers from the place of autobiography, but speculative possibilities from a self at one remove. When the narrator in the '30th Year' says "like every creature on earth he doesn't reach any conclusion. He doesn't want to live like just anyone, nor like somebody special. He wants to move with the times, and stand against them", it may remind us of Pessoa, who says "government of the world begins in us. It's not the sincere who govern the world, but neither the insincere; it's those who create in themselves a real sincerity by artificial and automatic means...to see clearly is not to act." Or Sartre: "That is half-past five striking. I get up, my cold shirt is sticking to my flesh. I go out. Why? Well, because I have no reason for not going out. Either. Even If I stay, even if I curl up quietly in a corner, I shan't forget myself. I shall be there, I shall weigh on the floor. I am."
The position is paradoxical, even contradictory or confused, but this is often where one finds a self residing. Moll occupies rather than resides and this is why he is enervated while the central character would feel evacuated. He assumes the appropriate position on numerous topics, but the belief is only as good as the moment it is offered. It doesn't come from a place far enough inside him to reach the internal paradox; it is a space outside him that he can temporarily occupy for his own ends. Someone who offers all the right opinions might not have any belief in them beyond their immediate use value, and this would seem to be what the central character sees in Moll. Yet the story doesn't want to claim that there is an appropriate stance either: more that chaos is better than clich, confusion better than conformity. Near the end of the story, the central character thinks: "for a long time he had also not known what to believe and whether it was not altogether disgraceful to believe anything. Now he was beginning to believe himself when he did or said something. He was gaining confidence in himself." The narrator adds, "He also trusted the things he did not have to prove to himself, the pores of his skin, the salty taste of the sea, the fruit-laden air and everything that was corporeal."
To trust in one's senses over opinions would seem to be the means by which to trust in the self over society, however confused this position may be. One's identity isn't formed by society but in reaction to it as one's body reacts rather than acts: finds its points of resistance. The enervated self is one that does not offer resistance but is formed as it conforms, accepts the societal expectations and claims a self within these demands. But is that a self at all? Bachmann would perhaps think not, and it is one way to make sense of her silence, the need for it. As von der Luhe says, falling silent in conformity of the truth, in Bachmann's phrase, "does not at all mean being speechless out of resignation, or fear or criticism. Bachmann asserted truth even in silence". One way of looking at a certain approach to literature is the degree to which it comes out of silence or out of noise. In 'Three Paths to the Lake' when Elisabeth talks about her exciting times in Paris and New York this is finally part of the noise. She can tell the stories well enough as she articulates her points but doesn't have much of a point to make. As she says, though she "had experienced it all, then again she hadn't, there was something bleak and empty in all these stories, and the bleakest part of all was that she had really watched it happening..." as she "never said a word about what really upset her." To have expressed the latter, rather like those who somehow manage to speak of their terrible experience of torture, is to express from the silence. We wouldn't want too readily to equate the enormity of torture victims with the private pain of the inexpressive, but we wouldn't want to ignore the links either. The question isn't the degree of misery that has befallen one, but the capacity one has to speak from the specifics of that misery. What we so often find in 'Three Paths to the Lake' and numerous other Bachmann stories is this attempt to move beyond the text and reside not in the literary politeness of sub-text, but the literary impoliteness of the textually subterranean. While a fine story like 'Promises, Promises' generally holds to the surface of the text and relies on irony to suggest something more apparent, stories like 'Three Paths to the Lake' and 'The 30th Year', as well as 'Everything' and 'A Wildermuth' (both of which we will discuss in a moment) determine to investigate what are within thoughts and feelings. They don't dramatise; they interrogate, trying to find ways in which to go beyond the noise. In 'Promises, Promises' Bachmann offers a story full of irony, but it is in numerous others where the question of indignity manifests itself. Beatrix in 'Promises, Promises' is merely undignified: she has the capacity to see herself as separate from the indignities that surround her. When she sees that people "all around her let themselves be squeezed into; that she would never work, least of all learn a trade, because she had no ambition whatsoever to earn a single shilling, become self-supporting and spend eight hours a day with people who smelled bad", we know that the narrator is keeping her distance from her character as the character believes she is keeping her distance from others. But we are left with a smart sub-text that negates the noise without quite speaking from the silence. However, when in 'A Wildermuth' the central character, a judge who cracks up during a trial, says, "I sought the truth in the flesh, I wanted to make something harmonize, my living body with a living body. I wanted to force a confession from the flesh", even if these are the words of a married man talking about the affair he happens to be having, any irony in the highfalutin metaphysical discourse he offers for the prosaic thing called adultery is secondary to the metaphysic. There is irony, certainly, but there is the textually subterranean within it that is part of the process of articulating the silence as well as delineating the noise.
Many a fine writer can capture the noise but they do not always concern themselves with the silence that it might contain, or they insistently leave the possibility of the silence in sub-textual form. But one reason why we have talked of the reflective lucidity that hints at autobiography without succumbing to it rests on this need to explore what the silence might be. When in 'A Wildermuth' the husband talks about his affair with Wanda, he notices "even later I never had the slightest doubt about the choice. It is true that at the time I did not yet know what I have found out since and successfully silenced in myself: that neither she nor any woman like her could ever bring my body to its truth, but that it was this waitress and that there may be other Wandas somewhere in the world with this ability...to whom I avow my attachment and never can avow it." His wife can talk but he reckons: "Does Gerda know how much, how little what she says harmonizes with what she feels?" Wanda may not speak clearly or well, but he seems to see more harmony, more truth in his lover's body than coming out his articulate wife's mouth, someone who likes using words and is happy to embellish stories. "I have never caught her reporting an occurrence exactly as it happened." This is not because she is a liar but because she is imaginative, and yet this is a very different imagination from the one the husband seems to demand from his lover. 'A Wildermuth' could have been an ironic story like 'Promises, Promises', but it achieves a paradoxical texture partly by resisting sub-text, by investigating the text and allowing a more complicated form of feeling. The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is right to see that "paradox is the intellectual life's authentic pathos, and just as only great souls are prone to passions, so only great thinkers are prone to what I call paradoxes, which are nothing but grand thoughts still wanting completion." (Papers and Journals) In this sense we might say that the ironic story awaits a simpler completion than a paradoxical one. Few will come away from 'Promises, Promises believing that Beatrix isn't failing to see reality, but by the end of 'A Wildermuth', the breakdown that befalls the judge plays up the impossible gap between legal judgement and sensory immediacy. Where does the truth lie, the truth that the judge so desperately wants to find when he says "as a result the truth was neglected, the higher truths recovered from us, while we, distracted from them, tried to bring hurried studies to a hurried end in order to find places as useful members of society"? The story ends "until truth rises up to me over the grass and the rain and over us: a mute awareness compelling me to cry out, to shout out about all truths. A truth of which no one dreams, which no one wants."
Perhaps taking into account Kierkegaard's comment, the paradoxical is the arena for truth, and that truth is not an action; more a perception. After all, we say we perceive or apprehend the truth, we don't act it and by the same reckoning the truth does not manifest itself through action but within it. This doesn't mean that truths cannot be revealed through actions; more that it is the consequence of those actions that reveal the truth. in King Lear finds the truth in the retrospective awareness of his deeds, just as Jude in Jude the Obscure reveals to us the injustice of the British education system after he tries so hard to find a place at university. The truth is not stated; it is found as result of action. However, the type of work that Bachmann's fits into does not function at its most interesting finding truth through action, and subsequently sub-text, but through meditation and the presence of the textually interrogatory. Often we have less a story than a thought process that carries along with it the acknowledgement of deeds and hence the breath.
In 'Everything', a father discusses his relationship with his partner and especially his son as the story offers not a narrative progression but instead an observational position deepening. The narrator tells us that he hardly communicates with his wife and married her not for her sake, nor his, but because she was expecting a baby. He doesn't know what to make of this child, and observes him like an alien but without quite knowing which one is the extra-terrestrial life form. "How am I to express what is going on inside me? I was like a savage who is suddenly made aware that the world in which he moves between hearth and encampment, between sunrise and sunset, between hunting and eating, is also the world that is millions of years old and will pass away, that occupies an insignificant place among many solar systems, that rotate at great speed on its axis and at the same time around the sun." A child isn't an object of affection but a subject for scrutiny, even a case study. "I merely went on observing him. I don't know whether a man has a right to observe his own child like this. As a researcher observes a 'case'. I watched this hopeless case of a human being." His wife Hanna thinks their child will be different from other kids, but the writer-narrator sees no reason why his son shouldn't hurt, cheat and insult others just like everyone else. Here, the story possesses a devastating aloofness with the narrator only able to recognise the full importance of his son through the boy's death after he hits his head on concrete while on a school trip. The son had been a problem child in class, not long before trying to stab another pupil. Regret is far too weak a word for the father's anguish. He wants to find a way of reaching Hanna, and if he can, and if their bodies conjoin, "if there are children after this embrace, good, let them come...I shall devour them like Chronos, beat them like a big, terrible father, spoil them, these sacred animals, and let myself be deceived like a Lear." The narrator wishes he had acted in the world however foolishly, instead of observing it at a distance. Yet the story we have has been written at a distance too. But it is a paradoxical one. It is distance for the character from the world but immediacy for the reader as we explore a narrator's universe.
It is this point we were addressing when we noticed similarities between Bachmann and Handke: an autobiographical tone that isn't the same as autobiography; the sense of an immediate consciousness rather than a series of events viewed through character and situation. "We are indeed sleeping, are sleepers, out of the fear of being obliged to perceive our world as what it is" Bachmann proposed in her Frankfurt Lectures, but Bachmann wants a literature that will wake us up. This is perhaps the contemporary version of catharsis and must be found not through a chain of events that will lead to tragedy and emotional release, but must be called something else and manifests itself through a chain of non-events shaped by a radical interior consciousness. In the Frankfurt Lectures, Bachmann also says "our existence today lies at the intersection point of so many mutually unconnected realities that are chockful of the most mutually contradictory values." She adds, "within the confines of your own four walls you can cultivate a domestic idyll in the patriarchal vein or libertinage or whatever else you likeoutside you're whirled about in a functional world of utility that has its own ideas about your existence." Perhaps one needs to integrate the disintegration, to find a means by which to acknowledge the disparity between the anecdotal details that we say to others are our experiences, and the chaos inside that cannot so easily be narrativised.
© Tony McKibbin