The Laughing Animal
In an interview, 'Are You Lonely Mr Handke?', Austrian novelist Peter Handke insists that humour has little place in literature as he reckons that we respond to Kafka not because he is funny but because he is true. Any humour that comes from Kafka's work lies in the writer's capacity for offering the truth rather than his ability to offer the humorous. It is an intriguing comment to keep in mind when thinking of Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian novelist a decade older than Handke, and someone who can be very funny, but also very aware of a basic abjection. Bernhard's humour seems to serve a problem deeper and more complicated than the readily humorous, and if one laughs in reading Bernhard's work, one does so because few writers have better explored the problem of bad faith as knotty perversity. Bernhard writes a little like an actor who is caught in a bad performance and the only way he can allow himself to stay on the stage is by exacerbating the play's awfulness, by destroying the props and tearing the curtain down. Bernhard is not the aloof critic disdainfully judging the performance; he is the performer incapable of going on, and who knows better than anybody else how terrible the play happens to be.
Bernhard offers a variation of our simile in a passage from Wittgenstein's Nephew, where he plans a performance of a new play with Bruno Ganz by the Burgtheater Company. Railing against the incompetence of everyone including himself since he wasn't allowed to have Ganz in the lead role as he wished, he says: "I was forced eventually to submit to a performance of my play, a first performance, which I can describe as nothing other than unsavoury and which, as I have already hinted, was not even well intentioned, as so much else and almost everything in the Vienna Burgtheater, because these absolutely untalented actors taking the principal parts joined ranks with the audience at the slightest sign of resistance..." His contract forces him to go along with the play's performance, but existentially he remains elsewhere. He knows he is part of the problem rather than part of the cure, but he can at least self-lacerate as he refuses to assume he is doing the best he can in a bad situation. The best thing to do in such circumstances is to acknowledge one's own pathetic nature, and what one lacks in freedom of action one compensates for in hammering one's own weaknesses. As he fails to "wriggle out of my most idiotically concluded contract with the Burgtheater concerning My Hunting Party", so he has to accept the mediocre actors appearing in it will create a totally different experience. "Needless to say I had written an entirely different play from the one these vile actors and hence traitors to their art performed at its first night".
The anecdote about the play stems from a drive with his friend Paul, the titular character who was also the philosopher Wittgenstein's nephew. It is Paul who has the honesty to tell him that the play was dreadful: "He characterized the whole performance as a total misreading, as well as a total failure, and as a typical piece of Viennese cultural impertinence, as a showpiece of the Burgtheater's baseness vis-a-vis an author and his play." However, that doesn't stop the narrator from dereliction of duty when it comes to being a good friend as Paul lies, later in the book, close to death. The narrator says, "I reflected that possibly I had never had a better friend in my whole life than the one who, in his flat above me, was certain to be lying on his bed in a pitiful state and whom I no longer visited out of a real fear of being directly confronted with death."
What does all this self-contempt serve? It serves a certain type of self-awareness, an awareness well-expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness. "The true problem of bad faith stems obviously from the fact that bad faith is faith. It cannot be either a cynical lie or certainty", adding, "it takes shape in the firm resolution not to demand too much, to count itself satisfied when it is barely persuaded, to force itself in decisions to adhere to uncertain truths". As the narrator says, "these absolutely untalented actors taking the principal parts joined ranks with the audience at the slightest sign of resistance, in the same shameless manner as the Viennese actors have always traditionally shown solidarity and made common cause with the audience against the play performed by them and against the play performed by them and against the author, on whom they insidiously and without the least scruples pounce the instant they notice that the audience does not want him or his play from the outset...". This is bad faith as the humble and the modest: the actors must conform to the needs of the audience, and refuse to take full responsibility for their own decisions. They remain comfortably ensconced in mauvaise foi, complacently sure that things couldn't be otherwise, and this is their faith. Bernhard's narrator sees through this ruse (a ruse the actors believe in, otherwise it wouldn't be bad faith), but cannot of course judge it safely from outside such complacency, otherwise he would fall into his own.
Sartre's twofold problem of bad faith here is fundamental to Bernhard's work: the individual refusing to confront the nature of their actions, and, secondly, assuming a conclusion before the event. "Consequently a peculiar type of evidence appears: non-persuasive evidence", Sartre notes. "Bad faith apprehends evidence but it is resigned in advance to not being fulfilled by this evidence, to not being persuaded and transformed into good faith." We see the similarity with Sartre when the narrator says, "the decisions are made by these so-called famous actors with their famous names and their feeble theatrical sense, who, solely by dint of a total neglect of their equipment as actors and by the most shameless exploitation of their popularity, at the peak, as it were, of their non-art, once they have been raised to the throne of their popularity by the utterly stupid Viennese theatre public, maintain their position in the Burgtheater for decades and as a rule to their deaths". We note both their identity and their curiosity remain static. They have established themselves, and their place in the public's affections, and their purpose is to maintain this relationship to the detriment of personal transformation or aesthetic development.
If one agrees with Handke that great literature comes not from being funny but from being true, equally what we often want from a writer is the ability to search out their truth. Bernhard's seems to concern questions of bad faith, but not because he wants to find ways in which to answer them, but instead to find a form in which to contain them. The two most obvious formal devices here would be the refusal of paragraphing and concision, and the use of repetition and italics. Wittgenstein's Nephew is no more than a paragraph long, but the paragraph runs to a hundred and twenty pages. There is a tradition in contemporary literature of forcing the form, making it confront the reader sometimes through the lay out, sometimes through the grammatical structure. On occasion this is radically provocative (as in B. S. Johnson's example where he wrote a book that remained unbound so that it could be read in any order the reader liked), and sometimes formally innovative. Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch could be read one of two ways: either straight through and ending on chapter 56, with the other chapters thereafter expendable, or beginning with chapter 73 and then flipping back and forth according to the chapter that was seen to follow it at the end of each one: after 73 one would go to chapter 1, for example. James Kelman's story Not Not While the Giro starts in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of one. Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile is one long paragraph except for the last sentence, which gets a paragraph of its own. In some instances (B. S. Johnson and Cortazar) this is confrontation of form, in others, the grammar of confrontation.
Bernhard's is a grammar of confrontation, a writer who, like Jose Saramago and Laszlo Krazhnahorkai, expects one to possess a readerly stamina: he expects the reader to swim the channel rather than do laps in the pool. There are no grammatical pauses for thought, here, and yet taking into account Sartre's notion of bad faith, in the firm resolve not to expect too much, Bernhard's prose insists on being too much. Its purpose isn't to suggest but to demand as it wants to make claims on the reader. This isn't only the difficult claim of following a demanding prose structure, but also a demanding voice. When the narrator talks of the differences and similarities between Paul and Paul's uncle, he says: "For a century the Wittgensteins had produced armaments and machines until finally they produced Ludwig and Paul, the famous epoch-making philosopher and the no less famous -at least in Vienna, and, just there, even more famous - lunatic who, basically, was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig just as, the other way about, the philosopher Ludwig was just as crazy as his nephew Paul; the one, Ludwig, had made philosophy the basis of his fame, the other, Paul, his craziness."
This is a demanding rather than commanding prose style, as it doesn't assume a position of authority; it seems to ask for it. Think for a moment of Balzac's prose in The Duchess of Langeais "the people always wish to see money, power, and initiative in their leaders, hands, hearts, and heads; they must be the spokesmen, they must represent the intelligence and the glory of the nation. Nations, like women, love strength in those who rule them; they cannot give love without respect; they refuse utterly to obey those of whom they do not stand in awe". This is a commanding style. We might believe the narrator is talking nonsense, but it is as if the style does not acknowledge that possibility: Balzac offers it not as a provocation but as a firm statement. Bernhard's work usually contains within its style the awareness of its ready contradiction, and keeps pushing further and further into the remark as though assuming that no matter the forcefulness of the style, the reader is ready to fall back into the bad faith of the ready-made formula. When Balzac writes he is writing from these formulas, and his genius resides not at all in his capacity for generalization, but in the energy of portraiture and situation. The narrator's comments like the one above in The Duchess of Langeais are asides, used to contextualize the given period, but not vital to the story he tells.
Bernhard, though, expects his narrator's opinions to become part of the book's backbone and part of the book's attempt at good faith. If Balzac offers an opinion not too far removed from Flaubert's dictionary of received ideas, then Bernhard is closer to Sartre in assuming that his purpose is to assume such ideas have to be called into question, and their questioning the space in which the narrator's own voice becomes present. When the narrator in Wittgenstein's Nephew says, "presentation of prizes, aside from the money they entail, are the most unbearable things in the world", this isn't merely an opportunity to counter provocatively the prevailing wisdom that surely prizes are a good thing, but the chance to explore over several pages why they are debasing. He doesn't toss off a contrary position, but demands one listens to this counter stance. He goes on to explain that he was once given a prize where they didn't even offer any money; and details the humiliation and demands made upon him on the receiving of it. At one moment he is stuck in a seat in the auditorium as speeches are made about him, and sitting in the next seat is a woman who falls asleep and starts snoring. Most of the people there don't even recognize who he is. "Several members of the Academy ran about the dais, seeking the centrepiece of the ceremony. The lady minister too turned and directed her head around the hall. Suddenly a gentleman on the dais spotted me sitting in the middle of the hall and the gentleman whispered something in the ear of President Hunger and left the dais and made for me. This was not so easy pushing his way through the fully occupied row to me in the middle of the hall." At the ceremony the narrator becomes anonymous, a nuisance and a bore, but it is thoroughly deserved: "because a prize is inevitably only awarded by incompetent people who want to piss on your head and who do copiously piss on your head if you accept their prize. And they are entirely justified in pissing on one's head if one is mean enough and vile enough to accept their prize".
This insistent need to make demands is evident in Bernhard's frequent use of repetition and italics. In another set-piece absurdity, the narrator and Paul Wittgenstein search Austria for a copy of a famous, Swiss daily newspaper. "On one occasion I needed the Neue Zurcher Zeitung because I wanted to read an article on Mozart's Zaide, which, had it been announced, would be in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, and since, as I believed, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung would only be available in Salzburg, which is eighty kilometers from here, I drove to Salzburg, that so-called world-famous festival city, in the car of a woman friend, along with her and Paul, in order to buy the Neue Zurcher Zeitung there. But I did not get the Neue Zurcher Zeitung in Salzburg." So they drive still further. "...and so we drove to Bad Reichenhall, to that world-famous spa. But I did not get the Neue Zucher Zeitung in Bad Reichenhall either and so the three of us, more or less disappointed, drove back to Nathal." As the narrator fails to find the world famous newspaper in a world-famous festival city and world famous spa town, so he plays up Austrian provincialism coming out of personal frustration. Where a Balzac might dismissively announce that a place was so provincial that one couldn't even find a copy of a particular newspaper, Bernhard pushes the problem as far as he can, as if to say this is symptomatic of all the faults of the Austrian nature, and doesn't so much exaggerate for effect, as affect: to emphasize the personal slight rather than the general assumption, and then utilizes the slight for metonymic impact. The small detail, personally felt, reflects a general narrow-mindedness. The italics nicely capture a sense of frustrated disbelief, and the repetition of the newspaper's name demanding that the narrator's disbelief be fully registered.
Of course someone might read Wittgenstein's Nephew and say they get the message: do we really need four pages and no less than twenty two mentions of the newspaper's name to deliver it? Perhaps not if we insist prose should be commanding more than demanding, and the writing to the point and not beyond the pale. Yet Bernhard's purpose and prose style lies in countering the sort of figure of bad faith so astutely captured by Sartre in Nausea, where central character Roquentin wanders around (a copy of Balzac's Eugenie Grandet in his possession), and muses over the locals in the town of Bouville. Here are people who seem to believe in the world without at all calling it into question, and Arthur C. Danto reckons in Sartre that such characters believe "that meanings are resident in things, woven into the objective fabric of the universe." How one might ask does a writer refuse to assume that meanings are so resident in things, and is this not partly what we mean by the writer's style being demanding rather than commanding?
To explore this further let us leave aside for the moment Wittgenstein's Nephew, and see Bernhard's style evident in other books. In Cutting Timber the narrator says, "Jeannie Belroth was sitting opposite me also in the music room...Jeannie had always been keen on what she called an intellectual conversation, and always emphasized at every opportunity that in her human relationships she was always interested only in such intellectual conversation, that she went to parties for this reason alone, but she herself had never had an exact, and most not even an approximate, idea of what she described as an intellectual conversation." In the story 'Too Much', the one sentence tale goes: "A paterfamilias who had for decades been praised and beloved for a so-called extraordinary sense of familyand who one Saturday afternoon, admittedly in especially humid weather, murdered four of his six children, defended himself in court by saying that all of a sudden the children were too much for him". In another story, 'Unrequited Love', the narrator says, "Pittioni, the geography teacher who was tormented by his pupils the whole time he taught in a secondary school, failed to return from a vacation. He had gone to Hutttschlag just to study the works of Humboldt and to relax, but he hanged himself in the room to which he had retired for just a few days. In his will he left everything he was possessed of to his pupils". Here the italics suggest an existential enquiry, some sense of existential dismay in the face of social convention and expectation. Yet while such passages seem consistent with Sartre, what are we to make of remarks in Bernhard's memoir: Gathering Evidence? "Human beings are as they are and cannot be changed...Nature knows no scale of values...Only theories can cripple us - that is obvious - all the philosophies and systems of thought which block the way to clarity with their unusable insights." Or his remarks in Old Mastersabout Sartre's philosophical forerunner Heidegger: "that ridiculous Nazi in-plus fours"? Whatever problems Bernhard would seem to have with society, consolation cannot easily be found in philosophy, no matter if in Extinction the narrator puts Sartre in a creative pantheon of French writers alongside Proust and Flaubert
However, did Bernhard not want to find a space between philosophical system building which merely led to abstraction, and the social norms that led to human obstruction: to a too easy falling into the world and its complacencies to the detriment of truth-seeking, and is this not what we find in Wittgenstein's Nephew and the passages quoted from elsewhere? Now Bernhard would not seem to see truth-seeking and hypocrisy-exposing as quite the same thing, with Gabriel Josipovici seeing the difference between Bernhard and his fellow Austrian Elfriede Jelinek resting on this point. For Josipovici: "Jelinek, like her master Adorno, is a fierce and intelligent polemicist, but the one object to escape her attention is herself and her values. Bernhard, on the other hand, is much more unsettling because it is impossible to tell where he stands". How could it be otherwise if one explores the problem of bad faith aware that in the process of apparently escaping it one finds oneself more deeply embedded in it?
By analogy and in conclusion, we might think of an arduously convoluted passage in Being and Nothingness where Sartre says: "this belief is a being which questions its own being, which can realize itself only in its destruction, which can manifest itself to itself only by denying itself." Now a belief in science, as Sartre notes, can often be destroyed and that is the very purpose of the scientific enquiry. As Karl Popper in Unended Quest says of the critical method: the purpose lies in "the method of trial and error: the method of proposing bold hypotheses, and exposing them to the severest criticism, in order to detect where we have erred." The faith of the idea has to confront the power of the empirical. The problem of being is that the critical method doesn't apply, but there is in Bernhard's work a critical method nevertheless: a constantly damning attack mobilizing book-length paragraphs, italicized statements and repetition. Yet of course such a method cannot arrive at the truth as Sartre and Popper might propose is available in science, so what can it be tested against?
We can return to our opening remark from Handke; that something is funny because it is true. Though Bernhard is surprisingly good on the set-piece comedic sequence (the prize-giving, the newspaper-seeking) these serve not the mechanical desire to elicit a laugh, but the need to expose certain lies. In commanding humour one laughs often not because of a truth revealed but devices utilized: the set-piece removed from any socio-political context and playing on mistaken identity, comedy of embarrassment, errors in speech, and so on, all for the purposes of adding to bad faith rather than countering it: in creating a pleasing diversion for a bourgeois readership or audience. Yet Bernhard seems to offer the opposite, taking into account what he says in an interview with Asta Scheib. "Yesterday a woman almost jumped at me when I was in town. She screamed: "If you go on like this you are going to end up in a slow and horrible death!" You cannot do anything against such things. Or you are sitting on a park bench and all of a sudden you are hit from behind, you give a start and hear someone shout: "Just go on like that!"" This is humour that hurts, and so people sometimes want to hurt back, it seems. The irony is they provoke the very scenes that his own work generates, but where he writes to attack the bourgeois status quo, does the person literally attacking him do so to try and reinstate it?
That is a big claim, but a smaller one would be acknowledge Bernhard's need not to use comedy to please but to displease, to rough up the assumptions of our comfortable selves based on status, power and relative wealth, and to find out how much of our thinking is based on little more than an easy faith that is predicated on these immodest luxuries. As Bernhard says, quoted in the Scheib interview, "we have to report about nothing but the fact that we are wretched". If Nietzsche in The Gay Science says that man is the laughing animal, then Bernhard is one of the species' most successful exponents of its combination with wretchedness, with what Nietzsche then adds: "the weeping animal, the miserable animal". Laughter here might be paramount, but is it humour with truths attached: the truth of weeping, miserable laughter, perhaps.
© Tony McKibbin