mourning thomas bernard the austrian way: “commemoration of the dead and incantation of the dead…”

"Why can’t one permit a grand gesture of mourning and announce the plays of Thomas Bernhard in Austrian theaters. And then not perform anything. The audience could just sit there and simply think. There is enough to think about. ”

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Marlene Streeruwitz

"Perverted Attitudes of Mourning in the Wake of Thomas Bernhard’s Death”

 

. . . und jetzt auch schon in der Gewohnheit, selbst das Fürchterliche als

eine leicht zu verarbeitende Alltäglichkeit hinter mich zu bringen, ein

Meister, hatte ich alle Voraussetzungen, über das, was ich immer ein-

dringlicher zu beobachten hatte, nachzudenken und mir sozusagen als

willkommene Anschauung viele dazu geeignete Anschauungen oder

Vorkommnisse zu einem lehrreichen Studiengegenstand zu machen.

Thomas Bernhard, Der Atem, 1978

 

 

Object of Study: Number One

 

A MUSIC TEACHER AT A VENNESE HIGH SCHOOL says, he knew him,

the master, very well indeed, and met him, Thomas Bernhard, fre-

quently. In the café Bräunerhof. And took pictures, pictures that he,

the master, liked very much, just as much as the poet had always en-

joyed meeting him. And now he, the music teacher, was going to put

together a book of these pictures. A book about the master, about

Thomas Bernhard. And he, the music teacher, was going to become

famous with this book. World-famous. Of course.

 

The work of mourning is a difficult, existential process and painful.

It is a laborious undertaking, until all the internalized particles of the

object of mourning have been surgically removed, and it becomes all

too necessary to construe strategies for avoiding pain so as not to col-

lapse completely under the weight of a loss.

 

On the other hand, one can always infer from the manner that char-

acterizes the work of mourning of the bereft, whether the mourned

person was loved and respected. Or whether the person doing the

mourning is more at stake in all the laments, whatever they may be. In

the case of Thomas Bernhard we are the ones left behind, and for the

Austrian an additional sense accrues to belong to those people that

were cut out of Bernhard’s will. Relatives who are not to receive any-

thing, and are not worthy of a share.

 

 

Objects of Study of a Mixed Nature

 

People, whom one may have seen portrayed in one or the other plays

by Bernhard, have masses celebrated in his memory. Masses for Tho-

mas Bernhard with young nuns of the Carmelite order reading early

poems and psalms of the poet. Hopefully this helps those who attend

the mass.

 

It may also calm those who talk now about Thomas Bernhard as if

one had always been on close friendly terms, with all its shoulder-on-

shoulder implications and all its syndromes of hugging, the verandas in

the Salzkammergut and the hunting lodges with the many antlers on

the wall. But one was not on intimate terms. One always heard: “Tho-

mas, do you want some more noodle soup?” This retroactive intimacy

with its informal mode of address may help.

 

As an observer one is somewhat amazed to note how mourning op-

erates in the reverse order, how the mourned object is internalized

rather than expelled. In all honesty, one has to admit that the thought

What would he have said about it?” originates in a similar strategy of

avoiding pain as the lighthearted conversations of the salon. The sen-

tences that begin with “Thomas would have . . .,” “Here Thomas

would . . .,” “Bernhard did not . . . .”

 

Exegesis, substitute of God through citation, incantation of the per-

son for the duration of a citation, recalling the cited person back

among the living. Here lies the basic problem of all exegesis. In most

cases, we are dealing with reported statements, and for the most part

the personal opinion of the person reporting is clothed in a Thomas-

Bernhard-costume.

 

Commemoration of the dead and incantation of the dead belong to

the inventory of unchanging anthropological models. The dead person

is conjured up in mass or over coffee and cake or over pork roast and

beer. Everyone has to do so according to ability and belief. The salons

in the Salzkammergut where Thomas Bernhard led serious conversa-

tions about the advantages of hand-tailored shoes serve just as well as

the site of the Bräunerhof where Thomas Bernhard had a Kleinen

Braunen and read the Neue Zürcher. And perhaps the remark “Thomas

Bernhard sat here” is well intentioned. However. The old heads of state

also sit in the salons grinning while shrugging their shoulders. After all,

they have survived. But even the triumph of the living over the dead is

rather normal in its cruelty.

 

 

The Pedagogical in All This

 

What turns this process of coping with loss into an object of study as

given in the initial citation is the common urge to make mourning

public.

 

The music teacher wants to become famous. World-famous. One

works on remembrances. Letters are written to the dead person. In in-

timate terms, of course, and the publication can no longer be held

back. Karl Hennetmair takes up two pages of the Zeit magazine. Aus-

trian broadcasting anchors and directors of the Burgtheater document

their proximity to Bernhard on pictures in which one appears together

and preferably at the Heldenplatz. Former lovers appear in rumors.

Widows have not yet been spotted.

 

If one were to place these pictures in a silver frame on the grand pi-

ano, for eternal memory, that would be a loving gesture. In the public,

these pictures turn easily into a cornering, a wanting-to-be-in-the-

picture of the bystanders. An index of one’s friendship with him. Per-

haps one should also look at this with regard to the technique of the

work of mourning. But media are never that friendly.

 

What, for example, caused Mr. Schödel (Die Zeit Nr. 32, 1989),

following immediately the advice of the photographer Rittenberg

Look at Hennetmair,” when he, as he reports, was found by him in

Switzerland, to allow Hennetmair’s rather private work of commemo-

ration turn into a public matter? Was it a question of demonstrating in

exemplary fashion how one is to cope when one’s former idol dies not

reconciled and in irreconcilable fashion and the conflict is prolonged

into eternity.

 

The falling out between Bernhard and Hennetmair stems from a se-

vere breach of trust. The publication of a description about a non-

functioning TV-set from 1972 can be seen as an act of remorse and an

attempt to be excused by handing it over to the public. Also the remark

of Schödel “Yes. I was a guest at the Weltverbesserer” can be interpreted

as severe breach of trust, yet an understandable case of the biographical

method and again as Schödel’s work of mourning. This has nothing to

do with Thomas Bernhard. Rather with yellow journalism. Even sensi-

tive and cautious sentences won’t help here. And towards the end of

the article in Die Zeit, one is drawn logically to the core of all discus-

sions about Bernhard, the author’s final will.

 

Here too, as in the quasi-citations à la “Thomas certainly would not

have . . .” the last breach of trust that can still be committed against

someone is prepared. Namely, not to respect his final decrees.

 

One refers to the brother. He announces a guided tour through

Bernhard’s estate. In doing so, one receives no longer an image of peo-

ple suffering in their state of mourning. A landscape in the hills of

Ohlsdorf emerges where journalists wander about and are served stories

and fragments of memories. Female adepts of the master, whose love

letters could not be considered during his lifetime, bathe in a post-

mortal intimate “you.” The man who helps out in the villa displays the

blue leather jacket that the master purchased in Sicily and immediately

gave away. The neighbor, from whom the master gladly accepted X-

mas cookies, now offers them. For sale, naturally. We all have to make a

living. And the famous publisher will one day place the manuscript of

the TV-set criticisms into our hand in a deluxe facsimile edition.

Ohlsdorf elevated to a site of pilgrimage. Nearby Mariazell for selected

groups. Preferably from a sentimental-melodramatic spectrum. The de-

scendants of idealistic chains of weeping.

 

Presently, we’re still searching among pieces of memory. Perhaps

somebody still owns a note where the master kept score of a game of

blackjack or jotted down scribbles and malicious caricatures of the play-

ers. As is known, one can possess the remembered person by means of

memorabilia — and not always in a non-malicious fashion. One should

bear in mind that relics, which is what we’re dealing with here, that

relics are remains and originate from either corpses or instruments of

torture.

 

In this pressing into the public, we may be dealing with the attempt

to externalize the mourned object. By means of this externalization, the

object can be transferred onto a larger and more remote context. The

mourning person surrenders and gets rid of the surrendered. Under the

pretext to make it available to everybody, yes having to do so, the sin-

gle person becomes free. Perhaps also free from feelings of guilt that

play a considerable role in the work of mourning. That this method

may involve a form of surrender which may neither look delicate nor

sensitive and may have nothing to do with the mourned person, par-

ticularly not his work, doesn’t really do much damage to our somewhat

dried-up yet still rather lavish baroque culture of mourning. We love

our dead and celebrate them.

 

We do not yet know the full scope of the planned surrender. “Only

selected groups,” says the brother. Everything else will be revealed at

upcoming book fairs. One works on the super-memorial, that much we

hear from Frankfurt.

 

In the Austrian TV talk show “Club 2,” we already had a chance to

listen to the benignly smiling notary, holding forth with examples of

the most incredible changes in wills witnessed in his professional career.

And that only a few really mean what is actually stated. And that the

true evil is that people die. And no longer have a chance to change the

will. In their fashion. How they would have wanted it originally. The

testators. But then nothing can be done about it anymore. And that

taught him not to take wills seriously anymore. And above all. Intel-

lectual property.

 

Nobody shall be embarrassed when the first play will be performed

again in Austria. Redirecting arguments via a liberal discussion round-

table à la “Club 2.”

 

One could have withdrawn after the first disclosure of the will into a

corner and reflected about what had happened that made such decrees

necessary and that were above all not changed anymore. Everybody

would have had a reason to reflect about what it was, here in this Aus-

trian world, which always required a superlative of atrocities. And peo-

ple elsewhere and in the Federal Republic of Germany could have

examined Austria, the poet and the will as a case study in what a climate

of intellectual narrowness does to a person. Others too know how to

repress, something we do so elegantly here. That can be done any-

where. By accident we were given a few centuries to master this art and

are nowadays powerless enough to possess nothing but this art. The re-

sult: extreme cruelty, unbelievable inconsiderateness and deepest mis-

ery, in Frankfurt as well as Timbuktu. An opportunity for reflection is

certainly given.

 

Why can’t one permit a grand gesture of mourning and announce

the plays of Thomas Bernhard in Austrian theaters. And then not per-

form anything. The audience could just sit there and simply think.

There is enough to think about.

 

Translated by Matthias Konzett

 

Notes

 

1Marlene Streeruwitz, “In der Gewohnheit das Fürchterliche,” Und. Sonst.

Noch. Aber. Texte. 1989–1996 (Vienna: edition Selene, 1999), 7–13.


from Matthias Konzett (editor), A Cmpanion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard (2002)

 

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