A Taste for Distaste
In Thomas Bernhard's novel, Old Masters, several pages are given over to what seems like an unequivocal attack on Martin Heidegger. The most pampered and finally most insignificant of German philosophers, Bernhard reckons, and describes him as a "revolting episode in the history of German philosophy", even insisting "Heidegger has a common face, not a spiritual one." Writing on Bernhard, Gabriel Josipovici proposes in the writer's denunciation of Heidegger that we need to be careful with attribution and always attend to tone. "And it is not even Bernhard saying this, but his character Reger, as reported by the narrator of Old Masters. Do we side with Reger against Heidegger? Do we laugh at Reger for his absurd rant, and at the narrator for reporting it without comment? Do we simply sit back and enjoy the comic rhetoric? Or can we do all these things at once?" (New Statesman)
Later in the same book, Bernhard, through Reger, and through the narrator recalling the conversation, speaks wonderfully of Schopenhauer, with Reger saying that after his wife died "I sat up in bed and read a few lines of Schopenhauer and reflected on them and again read a few Schopenhauer sentences and reflected on them." Not that the remarks in either instance, when Reger speaks of Heidegger or Schopenhauer, are in speech marks they are instead floating attributions, not quite quotes from Reger but it seems not really the narrator's words either, and Bernhard's only if we insist that what a writer puts down on the page belongs to the author and not to his or her characters.
In many writers' work, the differentiation is clear enough, at least when it comes to character and narration. What the characters say carry inverted commas and the narration does not. Often things get a bit more complicated when you have a character narrating another character's comments while they are narrating a story to someone else. Then there are speech marks within speech marks. But while this might be a necessary literary device for a character coming back from a distant land with a strange story to tell, Bernhard is the ultimate literary homebody who doesn't want awed mystery in the telling but instead a double-jointed approach to judgement. When Marlow narrates his tale in Heart of Darkness it is to tell people in England of the horrors he saw in Africa and the further horrors that Kurtz saw and created, but for Bernhard what he does by deflecting the story onto others, by telling stories about other characters telling stories, is to suggest that what matters is the problematic perspective not as a modernist device, chiefly, but as a form of moral phenomenology.
Josopivici interestingly proposes that while Bernhard's fellow-Austrian, Elfriede Jelinek, is "a fierce and intelligent polemicist...the one thing that escapes her attention is herself and her values." (The New Statesman) Bernhard, on the other hand, is much more unsettling because it is impossible to tell where he stands. By offering another character's opinions that his narrator nevertheless remembers, and that in turn Bernhard narrates, we can't infer that Bernhard sees Heidegger as a useless old goat, and Schopenhauer the golden child of German philosophy, even if we might wonder why Bernhard gives over pages and pages to dismantling the 20th-century philosopher and praising the-19th century one. It is perhaps the case that Bernhard does see Heidegger as a "re-thinker, who lacked everything but truly everything, for independent thinking", and that he believes Schopenhauer is a great mind. Yet he cannot be unaware that many who think Schopenhauer is a great thinker will be inclined to think Heidegger is too, and many of those who care little for Heidegger aren't likely to see much in Schopenhauer either. For one reading Bernhard's book to argue the respective merits of both philosophers would be to miss the point. But then, what point is Bernhard making? It would be too easy to say none at all, as though manifold ambiguity is the same as the pusillanimous when vital to Bernhard's oeuvre is the utter rejection of cowardice while at the same time constantly acknowledging human weakness. The point is to indicate that what one needs to avoid is general opinion, the doxa that will take for granted the greatness of Heidegger and Schopenhauer when it is the unorthodox that begins to reveal the doxa surrounding us. This doesn't mean one can escape falling into received opinion, accepted behaviour and subservience but Bernhard is likely to say let us not pretend these aren't vices and make sure we present them as vices.
Near the end of the book that we will chiefly focus upon, Cutting Timber: An Irritation, the narrator leaves a late-night dinner party hosted by a wealthy couple, the Auersbergers, that he hadn't seen for many years, people he knew in the fifties but who he's avoided ever since. He is there due to a moment of personal weakness and just after harrowing news: another person he had known for decades had taken her life the night before. Though he heard it first from the shopkeeper he pretends he hears it first from the Auersbergers as they mention it to him, and who in turn insist he must come and visit them. At the end of an evening where dinner was served so late because they were all waiting for the appearance of a well-known actor who was acting on the stage that night, the narrator tells the hostess "that I was sorry not to have heard her voice that evening, none of her always so beautifully, indeed so superbly, indeed so uniquely rendered Purcell arias, and that I was altogether sorry to have severed my contact with her and Augsberger..." It is a complete lie, "one my vilest and most infamous lies ever." Such a lie doesn't make the narrator feel better about himself, a man able to pull the wool over other's eyes as he shows yet again he can be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Not at all: that he can lie so completely shows he is as detestable as everyone else, a horrible hypocrite that deserves their company since he is no better. Yet they were also his friends, or at least his acquaintances, and the people who helped shape him, however twisted and bitter that shape happens to be. "...I cursed these people and yet must love them and that I hated this Vienna and yet must love it, and I reflected, while running now through the Inner City, that this city was nevertheless my city and always would be my city and that these people were my people and always would be my people..." This comes at the end of the book when he realises he must write at once about this "artistic dinner." Must he write about the wonderful friendships or about the notion that this was the best he could manage, the closest he could get to having friends as someone who doesn't deserve better ones? It is as though he acknowledges less that these are real friends than that he too, in company, is an unreal person, someone who will say whatever needs to be said to get through a social occasion.
It is why he briefly admires the actor, who he generally despises. When at one moment at the end of the dinner another guest he detests, the writer, Jeannie Billroth, asks the Burgtheater actor if he could "say at the end of is life that his art had fulfilled him", the Burgtheater actor replies that the question is quite simply nothing but stupid". Between two people he hates, better the one who hates someone else and tells her so, the narrator thinks. "...I greatly enjoyed the Burgtheater actor's attack on Jeannie, because I have, very rarely if indeed ever, known anyone say anything like this to Jeannie's face, or anyone responding quite as fiercely to one of her displays of impertinence, this earned the Burgtheater actor, though I continued to dislike him as much as before, my respect." The actor does at least do what a few pages later the narrator cannot: insult to their face people he doesn't like. It might not seem much of a quality but in a milieu of spite, selfishness, self-delusion and parasitism then it can seem almost appealing. If Josipovici suggests that Jelinek is a writer who is willing to cast the first stone while she writes coruscating novels about Austrian society that leaves her without sin, Bernhard writes novels that show everybody is living in glass houses as he determines to break a few windows. In Bernhard's work, he supposes that the level of hatred must include self-hatred and part of that self-hatred is a hypocrisy that adds still further to one's abject self.
"The history of satire features practitioners who nevertheless seem to have little interest in professing noble motives, in conspicuous indifference to the social costs of their attacks", says Kata Gellen and Jakob Norberg. "Thomas Bernhard is perhaps the paradigmatic modern example of such argumentative attenuation. His texts abound with attacks on figures, behaviors, and even whole societies, and yet he often withholds any supporting reasons or measured evaluations that might facilitate our acceptance of his statements." ('The Unconscionable Critic: Thomas Bernhard's "Holzfllen"') To do so would be to be reasonable, and reason might be a way to escape being implicated in the criticisms offered. If someone insists that another is useless and hopeless, inarticulate and stupid, lazy and mean, then if they fail to give any examples the listener is left knowing nothing about the person attacked but a lot about how the accuser feels. The more reasons given the more it would appear to be about the accused; the less justified the more it seems to represent the person speaking. When Reger gets worked up over Heidegger there is no point taking umbrage at the attack; better to see it as yet another vituperative perspective that is offered, a means by which to say the usually unsaid. Equally, when the actor yells at Jeannie it doesn't matter what he is saying but that he is saying it at all. Bernhard's work can be understood not so much in what it says but in the unsaid that gets said. Most of the time in discourse the said doesn't contain within it the unmentionable, which is quite different from the ineffable. There is nothing ineffable about the narrator's silence in Cutting Wood, but what he says contains within it the unmentionable that he keeps to himself as he instead offers what the social convention demands: kind words to the hostess.
The ineffable is something else again, a mode of discourse that interested Bernhard's fellow Austrian writer Peter Handke far more than Bernhard, a Heideggarian interest in what cannot be said and which demands poetic consciousness to find manifestation. As John Pizer notes: "Handke's recent works, on the other hand (especially the Langsame Heimkehr tetralogy) are resonant with Heidegger's influence. Handke assumes a solicitous yet passive stance towards the objects of Cezanne's world as he tracks them in Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire, a Heideggerian Gelassenheit zu den Dingen which seeks to renew the cohesion between man and the external world." ('Phenomenological Redemption and Repressed Historical Memory: Benjamin and Handke in Paris') Bernhard appeared far more interested in Wittgenstein, evident in Martin Esslin's observation that "Bernhard has never made a secret of his debt to Wittgenstein, quite apart from his friendship with Wittgenstein's mad nephew Paul, which forms the subject of his most recent autobiographical volume, Wittgenstein's Nephew." ('Beckett and Bernhard: A Comparison') Bernhard could see in Wittgenstein's famous utterance not a deep philosophical need but an eschewal of the fatuous and in the insincere. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" needn't suggest the ineffability of language but a limitation that cannot be breached but is nevertheless filled with metaphysical nonsense. There is much more to Wittgenstein than that, obviously, and a lot more to Bernhard too, but what needs to be understood is that there is a suspicion of the idea that language is hiding something mysterious from us that we must seek out. Consistently one finds in Bernhard's work that characters can indeed 'speak their mind' but that doesn't mean they are doing anything other than going round in circles (Old Masters), if they are talking to a friend, or know exactly what is on their mind but refuse to divulge it in the company of others as they take on a silent and aloof position of disgust and, in their silence and hypocrisy, self-disgust. (Cutting Timber) When Heidegger says, "speaking a lot about something does not in the least guarantee that understanding is thus furthered. On the contrary, talking at great length about something covers things over and brings what is understood into an illusory clarity, that is, the unintelligibility of the trivial." Bernhard wouldn't be inclined to disagree. He might however with Heidegger's following claim: "But to keep silent does not mean to be mute ... one who is mute still has the tendency to "speak....Authentic silence is possible only in genuine discourse. In order to be silent, Dasein must have something to say." (Being and Time) Handke is much more interested than Bernhard in the possibility of the latter: "There is almost no language any more. It is only when I live and have a feeling that there is a future, that language appears, not only for me as a writer. Language is the most valuable thing there is. Most people have no language. There is a sigh of relief through the masses when there is someone who has a language. What is this language? I believe this language is only poetic language." ('An Interview with Peter Handke, Studies in 20th Century Literature') There is in Handke a hope for language; in Bernhard an ongoing hopelessness. When asked about conversation, Bernhard says, "I don't usually have them. To me people who want to have a conversation are suspect, because that raises particular expectations they're unable to satisfy. Simple people are very good to talk with. When talking is supposed to become conversation, that's when things get gruesome!" And this isn't because writing is much more important: "Life consists of one long succession of nonsense, a little bit of sense, but mostly nonsense. No matter who. Be it great, supposedly great people, all the usual names, me included, Ciaron, aphorists. All pathetic and leads to nothing but the end. You can sit at home, put your books on the shelf, and when you look at them, you think: 'Sad'." (signandsight.com)
There is still for Bernhard the distinction between what can and cannot be said; however, this is chiefly a social question rather than a metaphysical problem. It isn't that language demands of us a poetic comprehension; more that it usually oppresses us with a social obligation few can resist. The narrator in Cutting Timber can't find the wherewithal to admit that he already knows that Joanna has died when the Auersbergers tell him, can't find the means by which to turn down their invite, and can't resist telling Mrs Auersberger how wonderful the evening happened to be even if he was bored and irritated throughout. He becomes socially ventriloquial, a dummy in the hands of society, puppeteered by convention. Yet there is also, throughout the book all that cannot be said, all that he nevertheless thinks, with much of the novella's humour coming from the gap between the two. When he sits there and reckons the only reason the Burgtheater actor is talking is that everybody else is too exhausted to say anything, it is funny partly because Bernhard conveys a sense of boredom at the time rather than in reflection. Here the narrator says, "most people really don't interest one, I reflected all that time, hardly any of the people we meet interest us, they have nothing to offer us but their mass piteousness and their mass stupidity and bore us with it always and everywhere and naturally we have no interest in them whatsoever." When Dostoevsky rants against others in Notes from Underground we have the thoughts of a monomaniac mainly alone in his room; in Cutting Timber, we have the thoughts of a monomaniac in a room full of others and herein lies much of the humour. It is the thought that isn't spoken aloud but thought alone yet in company that creates much of the amusement. Early in the book, before the actor arrives and before dinner, the narrator consistently offers reflections from a particular seat at a remove from the rest of the guests and that adds to the sense of a man incapable of saying what he thinks while thinking constantly about what he witnesses and reflecting upon these observations. "You should not have gone to the Gentzgasse, I told myself the moment I was facing the Auersberger woman, an act of lunacy, I told myself as I wanted to shake hands with Auersberger and he did not take my hand, whether because he was pissed/and or out of the vilest infamy I cannot say, I reflected in the wing chair."
We might wonder if at any stage our narrator will start to express these thoughts but the irony is that of course somebody else does instead: the actor they have all been waiting for to arrive so they can finally have their dinner. After acting in various scenes earlier in the evening in The Wild Duck, he creates a scene when he starts yelling insults at Jeannie. If managing to express the apparently ineffable can create a moment, a realisation or crystallisation in the company of another, often evident in Handke's work where a peripatetic character comes into contact with others, in Cutting Timber and elsewhere in Bernhard's novels, the best we can hope for in such company is a scene. Somebody doesn't express what is in their mind but what is on their mind: they are people getting things off their chest. We might during most of the novel expect this to be the narrator but the twist in the tale is that it happens to be another character altogether who our narrator is then forced to admire and no longer completely despise. If a moment between two people can produce a hint of love that augments both parties, the best a Bernhardian scene can produce is a realisation of one's pusillanimity. Just because Bernhard says, "one always depends on people. There is no one who doesn't depend on somebody. Someone, who is always alone with himself, will go under in no time, will be dead" ('From One Catastrophe to the Next'), it doesn't mean that this acceptance of others isn't a constant negotiation and, taking into account Cutting Timber's subtitle, irritation.
It is taken for granted that others rub us up the wrong way and the best one can hope for is occasionally meeting someone who rubs us up the right way. In Old Masters, the narrator seems tolerated by the music critic, Reger, who has been going for thirty years to look at the same Tintoretto painting: the narrator is someone Reger doesn't share his thoughts with; he offloads them upon him. As Reger talks about the numerous things he hates, so our narrator dutifully listens, hanging off his every word like a man condemned. He is incarcerated in another man's thinking but it is as though Reger's claustrophobic loathing of life is still better than leaving the narrator in the agoraphobia of the world. One doesn't sense the narrator Atzbacher would wish to be anywhere else; that Reger is the best teacher he could hope for, a person to whom one can respectfully listen. "I myself had these dreadful unscrupulous teachers, and again, in turn, urban teachers and rural teachers, and I was ruined by them well into mid-life..." It doesn't mean that a conversation takes place between Reger and Aztbacher but at least Aztbacher believes that Reger's opinions aren't those of the state. "They gave me nothing but the repulsiveness of the state and of a world marked by that state." "When Reger says "I slipped into art to get away from life, that is how I might put it. I sneaked off into art, he said....These people who, like me, basically really hate the world, sneak off from one moment to the next from the world they hate and into art which is totally apart from that hated world" it seems a whole lot better to accept Reger's views than those of his repugnant teachers. Clearly, Atzbacher doesn't dislike Reger (perhaps even worships him), but Bernhard doesn't suggest at all a meeting of equals. Reger gets to say what is on his mind and Atzbacher proves receptive. There need be no scene because Atzbacher is sympathetic to his views; clearly, in Cutting Timber Jeannie isn't sympathetic to the actor's and the actor to Jeannie's. When two people start to offer the unmentionable, a scene erupts. When one person speaks the unmentionable to another who wants to hear it, a friendship develops.
There need be nothing mysterious or ineffable about such friendships no matter how odd the participants in them happen to be. In Wittgenstein's Nephew, the friendship between the narrator and the title character is augmented by a shared stay in an institution: the narrator is there with a lung condition; the titular character after a mental episode. "I did not regard [this] as a coincidence. But neither did I interpret any great mystery into that fact. I, in the Hermann Pavilion, was thinking that my friend Paul was not in the Ludwig Pavilion, and for that reason I was not alone." In contrast, Handke tends to emphasise the mystery, to see in a moment the opportunity to go beyond the contours of self. "First, she looked out at the fields through the plate glass front; then at the hat in my hand as though this were a prearranged sign of recognition; and, last, into my eyes. It was a two-way glance that nothing could cancel out, though after it we blinked into empty space as if something terrifying had happened." (Across) Instead for Bernhard friendships are often affinities of the morose, the self-despairing, the self-loathing. In The Loser, the narrator and Wertheimer are forever bound (until Wertheimer takes his life) by realising their musical limitations in the face of meeting and befriending a fictionalised Glenn Gould after he had turned up in Vienna many years earlier. They are gifted musicians but Gould is a genius and meeting him ruins their self-belief. "...If only we hadn't run into Glenn, Wertheimer said. If only the name Horowitz had meant nothing to us. If only we had never gone to Salzburg! he said. We caught up with death in that city by studying with Horowitz and meeting Glenn." In Cutting Timber, the Ibsen play that the actor appears in, The Wild Duck, there is a line "If you take away the life-lie from an average person, then you also take away their happiness." The narrator and Wertheimer were not quite average people but they were not musicians of genius and meeting Gould revealed their relative mediocrity: they couldn't sustain their life-lie. The friendship is developed out of that awareness; the realisation that they are forever in Gould's shadow and any attempt to resist that reality would be to once again fall into the life-lie as the narrator and Wertheimer whittle away their existence without purpose, both with money to burn due to hefty inheritances. For decades, Gould is the marker of their mediocrity even if in other circumstances, if they had never met the great Canadian pianist, they might have had entirely successful musical careers and accepted the life-lie without too much dissatisfaction. Their 'un-genius' need not have been revealed. But meeting Gould brings out a self-dissatisfaction that can never be conquered: the narrator devotes himself to a philosophical text that he never completes, and Wertheimer to the human sciences which he never seems to understand. It is a friendship predicated on defeat but a friendship nevertheless.
In this sense, the life-lie can be a little like a variation on the unmentionable. One reason so many things are not expressed but are thought is they can be seen in common parlance to hurt someone's feelings. Why tell somebody that they are a poor writer, a miserable teacher, an ignorant doctor or a dull speaker, when you can say instead that you enjoyed their story, learnt a lot from their class, thought their medical advice was useful or their talk fascinating? There is nothing ineffable about the unsaid in such situations, and the capacity to speak more honestly about them becomes astonishingly easy once the person is out of earshot. Due decency might stop us but how often have people at conferences moaned about the boring keynote speech, especially over a drink later in the pub after the keynote speaker has been whisked off on a plane to their next destination? The life-lie isn't exposed, the keynote goes off and does the same speech somewhere else but a friendship develops out of the acrimony expressed in private against the literally high-flying academic. To offer such remarks during the conference would be to create a scene; to offer the same remarks in the pub to someone else can generate instead complicity. But another way of looking at it is to see that the keynote is brilliant and the others realise how, compared to the great speaker, their thoughts are inadequate and second-hand. Their life-lie is exposed and their abilities shown up. In a Bernhardian fashion they can still become good friends as they bond in their acknowledged self-loathing, in their ability to face the life-lie that many others have not confronted.
In Cutting Timber, the title comes from the actor's revelation that he might have been happier and more content trying not to become a great actor but by cutting wood in the forest. "I've always longed...to walk into the forest, deep into the forest...completely surrender to the forest...cutting timber." In such a thought resides consolation, a possibility of seeing oneself not as others see us but as we might wish to see ourselves from the perspective of ourselves without it passing through the prism of societal achievement. When earlier in the novel, the narrator discusses Jeannie Billroth, he notes "this Viennese Virginia Woolf, that dreary author of poetry and prose who, this was now suddenly clear to me, had all her life been immersed in her petty-bourgeois kitsch, as I believe," Jeannie Billroth has "the effrontery of saying right out saying right out that she wrote even better than Virginia Woolf..." that she had gone "further in her novels than The Waves, further than Orlando, further than To the Lighthouse." But the narrator allows her to live in her self-belief by merely saying I believe rather than I said. By keeping his own counsel he avoids a scene but he doesn't express himself. He might like to tell Jeannie Billroth she isn't much of a writer but having a thought and offering a remark may content-wise be no different yet they represent an enormous difference societally. The person who speaks their mind might not even be expressing their thought at all but enjoying the provocation. After all, some will say what others are too uncomfortable to say even though they might have no thought on the subject themselves. A person who hasn't read a friend's book and says that another friend thought the book was terrible has no thoughts about the book but possesses the forthrightness, even the cruelty, to speak not their mind but the mind of another. Here there is a gap between the thought and the deed. Such a person seeks humiliation in another rather than expression in themselves as they offer the unmentionable that isn't even their idea.
Such a position wouldn't seem to interest Bernhard and if he momentarily admires the Burghtheater actor it isn't because the actor is creating a scene but that he is defending himself against insinuations. By losing his temper with Jeannie Billroth and by acknowledging that he might have been happier cutting timber, he becomes in the narrator's eyes an honorable character. The narrator isn't so heroic but neither is he as deluded as many of the other guests, who are pretend-artists, freeloaders and familially wealthy. The narrator's mistake was turning up and the whole novel is predicated on the narrator's wish to leave. As Kata Gellen and Jakob Norberg say: "in a sense, the narrator has come back to do nothing more than prepare the way for yet another act of self-removal: while his voiced critique seems to predominate Bernhard's text, the work's plot centers around a process of delayed exiting." ('The Unconscionable Critic: Thomas Bernhard's "Holzfllen"') Some see the book's title and the passage about it as reflecting Bernhard's ironic relationship with the cliches and tropes of late 19th-century Scandinavian art, with Dean Krouk reckoning the book, like Ibsen's play, is "ironizing the simple wisdom of these forest fictions and the sentimental-romantic cultural criticism they contain." ('Forest Fictions: Thomas Bernhard's Holzfllen and Henrik Ibsen's Vildanden'). We are more inclined to see in the Burgtheater actor's remarks a truth within the irony, comprehending his place in this world that could have under different circumstances generated another place that might have made him more content. Shortly before remarking on his desire to be a woodcutter he says, "Yes, I have always thought if only I had been born someone different from who I am, if I had become one who is left alone. But for that I would have had to be born not out of my parents but of quite different ones and I would have had to grow up in entirely different conditions, in open nature, as I've always longed, not in enclosed nature, in nature altogether, not in artificiality." His heroism might be brief and the narrator may return to his usual disdain, but in this moment the pair could almost be friends. Here is a man speaking his mind, what is in his mind and the narrator is almost moved. "I hadn't been in the least interested in what the Burgtheater actor had said during the meal, only much later, in the music room [where the outburst takes place], when the Burgtheater actor had drunk more than would have been basically good for him, had he become interesting also to me, because, as I now think, everything he had said in the dining room had been nonsense, chatter and twaddle..." But "...he began to utter the words forest, tall forest and cutting timber continually, words which, as I now realize, are not only his life cues but those of many such people as Burgtheater actors and millions of others..." as the actor introduces "a thoroughly spiritual, or even philosophical, element." All the prattling, all the chatter and twaddle, meet what the actor assumes is a social expectation of what is expected of him, a continuation of a thespian performance by other means but where he finds his life cues, rather than life lies. Speaking of the life cue, Dean Krouk reckons "the cynical narrator sees through the dream of woodcutting; he recognizes it as merely an existential strategy used by the actor and "millions of others" like him. In other words, the Burgtheater actor's dream of woodcutting functions as a nourishing illusion of the natural life, at both a personal level and in the cultural imagination." Yet at this moment the narrator is at pains to indicate that he isn't being cynical; that the actor does momentarily interest him. "The way he had said forest, tall forest, cutting timber, I reflected, had been not old-age sentimentality but clear-sighted." It is the moment of sincerity that interests him not the natural world that the Burgtheater actor wishes to occupy as we have a moment that could almost be Handkeian. However, unlike in Handke's fiction, nature in Bernhard's work is often terrifying or mundane. In Amras, the narrator says, "the mountains are against human beings, the cruelty with which the high mountain ranges crush human beings..." In The Loser, the narrator says "the countryside outside my window was the dreary, sickening countryside I knew so well from Desselbrun and which years ago I suddenly couldn't take anymore." How too can we forget the passages on Heidegger in Old Masters? "I always visualise him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who, with her perverse knitting enthusiasm, ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has herself shorn from their own Heidegger sheep."
There is little doubt that Bernhard is a facetious writer capable of showing a world full of hypocrites, cynics, oppressors, bullies, the covetous, the greedy and the deluded. Still, there is a spirit in Bernhard's work even if it manifests itself very differently from Handke's. Characters might usually be trapped in Bernhard's novels for whatever reason but to seek or to find another world beyond the readily social is often proposed. In his memoir, Gathering Evidence, Bernhard says of his school years, "I am speaking of the state of utter inadequacy and helplessness which afflicted me as a boy and afflicts everybody at this vulnerable age. To put it quite simply: during that time my spirit was almost broken; and nobody, not one single person, perceived this darkening of my spirit, this virtual destruction of my spirit." In The Loser, the narrator says, "Wertheimer wasn't capable of seeing himself as a unique and autonomous being, as people can and must if they don't want to despair; no matter what kind of person, one is always a unique and autonomous being..." It seems Bernhard is cynical towards society but capable of seeing hope for the self. Any attempt an individual makes to escape the societal and to express a self is admirable. It is partly why the person who provocatively violates social rules isn't impressive for that reason; only if a self is expressed in the process of such a violation. When Bernhard insists "that I believe there are decisive people for everyone. I had had two in my life. My grandfather on my mother's side and another person, someone, whom I got acquainted to one year before my mother's death. That was a relation that lasted over thirty-five years," (thomasbernhard.org) the purpose is to find such people. One does not create social situations for the sake of confrontation but for the possibility of affiliation to find like-minds. In Extinction, the narrator says, "the more my family kept me away from so-called simple people and tried to alienate me from them, the more I longed to be with them. For years I was aware of a perverse craving for their company and sought to rid myself of it, knowing it to be useless, but I did not have the strength to free myself of it, knowing it to be senseless..." Bernhard adds, "While our supposed inferiors always strove upward to our level, I always strove downward to theirs. Our inferiors were always unhappy in their station, while I, their better, was unhappy in mine." We needn't pretend there is no irony involved in the narrator's claims, in the ferocious need to be with simpler people while offering complicated formulations about how unachievable it happened to be, but there is a consistent interest in Bernhard's work to escape one's societal expectations and find solace in just one or two people who can be deemed of import. Hence, so many of Bernhard's books are based on close friendships, however compromised, troubling and occasional Wittgenstein's Nephew, Old Masters, The Loser and Extinction, too, if you include the narrator's friendship with his pupil. Hate may be vital to Bernhard's fiction, may be constantly offered as a means by which to speak the unmentionable, but he also says: "If you only love, you're lost, if you only hate, you're lost too. If you like living, as I do, then you have to live in a perpetual love/hate relationship with all things. It's a kind of balancing act." (Sign and Sight) No doubt hate is much more present than love but that is the vituperative need to find out of the societal general quagmire, the occasional moment or encounter that can allow for its opposite. If as Paul Valery proposed, "taste is made of a thousand distastes", Bernhard found often what he liked out of the many things he detested, through characters searching out like-minds who could share a fondness for the taste for distaste.
© Tony McKibbin