“instead of facing life’s realities, we bury ourselves in mysticism and sex”

the great gary indiana on the saintly thomas bernhard

“an honesty practically unheard of in contemporary writing, since contemporary writing avoids all necessary cruelty and specializes in gratuitous cruelty, especially where this topic of one’s family is concerned . . . “

Saint Bernhard

by Gary Indiana

I looked forward to Thomas Bernhard‘s final novel with morbid anticipation. It arrives six years after his death, for which it seemed every book was an elaborate, nattering, malcontented, euphoric, excoriating rehearsal, a last gasp of disgust at the modern world, Austria, National Socialism, the Catholic Church, received ideas, capitalism, socialism, the middle class, the upper class, the proletariat, nature, urbanism, pastoralism, philistinism, artists, and first and foremost himself. Along with Witold Gombrowicz, after whom he named the mad Prince’s gardener in Gargoyles, Bernhard had been my decisive aesthetic and mental influence among 20th-century writers. He revealed the shrunken, petty, deformed condition of human beings as the modern world transformed them into things.

I always read this Bernhard with relief. Even though he was in Austria and not America, even though he wrote of Austria’s hideousness instead of America’s hideousness, even though he continually provoked and ridiculed the so-called cultural elite of Austria and not the so-called cultural elite of America, I felt grateful that someone, somewhere, could write exactly as he pleased with impunity, fearlessly, and that his reputation grew and grew as he became more and more disagreeable, more contrary, more intolerant of hypocrites and imbeciles. That his hatred of the state and the Catholic Church remained unassuaged, no matter how many prizes and awards were thrown at him. “No money and being pissed on,” he wrote about receiving the Grillparzer Prize, “that was intolerable “I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms,” he wrote in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, “for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him.”

I wondered, months before Extinction arrived, if it would still be possible to write something interesting about this Bernhard, whom some believed to be the greatest writer in the world, and whom others believed to be an obscure and irritating misanthrope, having made two previous attempts, once in Details, of all ridiculous places, and once in The Village Voice, because whenever I attempted to write something about Bernhard I found myself in the predicament of Rudolf, the narrator of Concrete, whose attempts to begin an essay on Mendelssohn Bartholdy have been thwarted and crushed for 20 years, by the importunate visits of his sister, for example, and then by his sudden loneliness when his sister returns to Vienna after visiting him in the country, or by his longing for the city while he’s in the country, then his conviction, in the city, that he can only write in the country. “I believed fervently,” Rudolf writes, “that I needed my sister in order to be able to start my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. And then, when she was there, I knew that I didn’t need her, that I could start work only if she wasn’t there. But now she’s gone and I’m really unable to start. At first it was because she was there, and now it’s because she isn’t. On the one hand we overrate other people, on the other we underrate them; and we constantly overrate and underrate ourselves; when we ought to overrate ourselves we underrate ourselves, and in the same way we underrate ourselves when we ought to overrate ourselves.”

Rudolf ends by saying very little about Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Concrete, though perhaps he says more than he really needs to, just as Reger, in Old Masters, says very little about Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man, the painting he’s studied every other day for 20 years in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, just as Konrad, in The Lime Works, never gets around to writing his all-important treatise on the sense of hearing, despite endless acoustical experiments on his wife, whom he finally kills with a Mannlicher carbine she kept behind her old-fashioned invalid chair in the desolation of the lime works. “Only two years ago,” Konrad says, “I was still of the opinion that the lime works would be good for my work, but now I no longer think so, now I can see that the lime works robbed me of my last chance to get my book actually written. I mean that sometimes I think, he is supposed to have told Wieser, that the lime works is precisely why I can’t write it all down, and then at other times I think that I still have a chance to get my book written down precisely because I am living at the lime works.”

Whenever a new Bernhard book appeared, I remembered that the first Bernhard novel to fall into my hands was the English edition of Concrete, for which I traded the English edition of Gombrowicz’s Operetta, a book that has vanished. I now have the French edition of Operetta, but whenever I am in England I ransack Foyle’s and all the other bookshops looking for that English version, with no luck, and of course I also recall that the person with whom I traded Operetta for Concrete is a woman I no longer talk to. A new Bernhard novel invariably reminds me of this failed relationship, so similar to Bernhard’s relationship to the so-called poet Jeannie Billroth in Woodcutters: “To think that I once loved this woman Jeannie Billroth, whom I have hated for the last twenty years, and who, also, hates me. People come together and form a friendship, and for years they not only endure this friendship, but allow it to become more and more intense until it finally snaps, and from then on they hate each other for decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives.”

As these Bernhard novels appeared one by one, I also remembered my long visits to Alter Pfarrhof, winter and summer, only a few miles across the German border from the village where Bernhard lived, not far from Wels, and Attnang-Puchheim, and the other Bavarian towns “where Catholicism waves its brainless sceptre,” as Bernhard’s grandfather put it. At that time I had many friends in Germany, and now all but a handful have committed suicide.

These suicide deaths are never far from my thoughts, especially when the books Bernhard was writing during those very years when my friends were killing themselves appear. Wittgenstein’s Nephew, for example, and The Loser, books that describe the impossibility of life, that describe the cost of living, the mental and physical toll of a few decades of disappointment, disappointment with oneself and one’s failures first of all, accompanied by the horror that is other people, the true extent of which is the only enduring surprise life has to offer, as Bernhard demonstrates, for the truth is that we always seek some acceptable level of endurable horror only to find that each time we accommodate ourselves to what we believe to be the worst that can happen this level of horror reveals itself a temporary reprieve from an even greater horror, and so on, right up to the ultimate horror of death, which supposedly releases us but is actually the biggest horror of all. We think we can dilute the horror of life by pursuing some activity, by writing books or composing music, yet everything conspires to make this activity impossible, everything stops us in our tracks, until even our wish to continue becomes an absurdity. I have always thought that Faulkner‘s Nobel lecture, with its godawful valediction that man will not only endure but prevail, is actually a sinister wish, a bit of cant unworthy of Faulkner. “I had jotted down a few sentences,” Bernhard writes of accepting the State Prize for Literature, “amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty.”


In those years when Bernhard was writing The Loser, Old Masters, Woodcutters, and finally Extinction, I lived in a country where the obvious truth of Bernhard’s writing was intolerable, a country where a writer like Bernhard or Sartre or Gombrowicz would only be reviled as a nest-fouler, a raging disease of a country bent on becoming Disney World, a country of advanced senility, a malignant nation of putrid happy endings, a country ruled by malevolent dwarfs, a country intoxicated by technology, a country crawling with desperate hypocrites, spiritually no different than Austria. “After I had delivered my speech,” writes Bernhard, “which lasted altogether no more than three minutes, the minister, who had understood nothing of what I had said, indignantly jumped up from his seat and shook his fist in my face. Snorting with rage, he called me a cur in front of the whole assembly and then left the chamber, slamming the glass door behind him with such force that it shattered into a thousand fragments.” It doesn’t matter even slightly, I thought, if Nazis call themselves Christians, or National Socialist Catholics call themselves Episcopalian Republicans, or fascists call themselves leftists or what have you, the object remains the same, the whole movement of life in the modern world is to turn people into things and jam life into death. The Austrians have National Socialism in their past and have never recovered, and we have National Socialism in our future. Instead of facing life’s realities, we bury ourselves in mysticism and sex, both of which, and certainly in combination, any pig with the will to power can manipulate for his own purposes.

Bearing in mind all the thoughts that Bernhard had made available to me, and not simply Bernhard, of course, but the writers he returned to again and again, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, for example, and Kafka, always Kafka, and Schopenhauer, who is more important to me than Nietzsche, though I have never really understood a word of either Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, I opened the loose galleys of Extinction, expecting to read through the book at one sitting, but the idea that this was the “final novel” stopped me, just as the idea that small g was the final novel of Patricia Highsmith stopped me from finishing it for months and months. Once I’ve read Extinction, I thought, I will have read everything by Thomas Bernhard, except a few untranslated plays, which of course made me wonder why, throughout the many years that I traveled back and forth to Germany, I never learned German, all my efforts to learn German came to nothing, even when Schroeter offered me a major part in a Shakespeare play at the Freie Volksbuhne, if only I would learn the lines of the Schlegel translation of The Comedy of Errors. There are so many books by Ingeborg Bachmann and Christian Enzensberger that I could read if only I knew German, yet when when encouraged to learn German by one of Germany’s eminent stage and film directors I failed miserably in my efforts, resenting Schroeter the whole time for casting me in a play translated from my native language, which made the job of learning it in German seem perverse and sinister. If I knew and could read German, I could read all of Bernhard, yet even when Schroeter hired a daily coach to rehearse my lines with me, I could never get them out of my mouth. Furthermore my coach, a television actor in a moronic crime series, resented Schroeter for giving a German role to an American, and therefore resented me, practically guaranteeing my inability to learn my lines. The same thing happened with the Ottinger film and the Schlingensief film; in the end all my lines had to be dubbed, and of course in the Ottinger film it was really only one line, which I have forgotten now and in any case never could speak. Faced with Extinction, I was also faced with my miserable botched job of learning German, as well as the sad thought that this was the “final novel,” and also with the sudden apprehension that I might very well not be in the mood for Bernhard and so might put off, even indefinitely, the new book, Extinction, because for years I had ingested every word published by this author, as soon as it appeared, for years I couldn’t get enough of Bernhard, my Bernhard mania, so-called, was well known to the people around me, for years I would read long passages of Bernhard to my friends on the telephone, whether they wanted to hear Bernhard or not.

“Swallowing and gulping down the body of Christ every day,” I would read into the telephone, “was essentially no different from rendering daily homage to Adolf Hitler. While the two figures are totally different, I had the impression that at any rate the ceremonial was the same in intent and effect. And I was soon confirmed in my suspicions that our relations with Jesus Christ were in reality no different from those we had had with Adolf Hitler six months or a year earlier. When we consider the songs and choruses that are sung to the honour and glory of any so-called extraordinary personality, no matter whom–songs and choruses like those we used to sing at the boarding house during the Nazi period and later–we are bound to admit that, with slight differences in the wording, the texts are always the same and always sung to the same music. All in all these songs and choruses,” I would read, “are simply an expression of stupidity, baseness, and lack of character on the part of those who sing them. The voice one hears in these songs and choruses is the voice of inanity–universal, worldwide inanity. All the educational crimes perpetrated against the young in educational establishments the world over,” I would read, “are perpetrated in the name of some extraordinary personality, whether his name is Hitler or Jesus or whatever.”

I could never get enough of Bernhard, yet I worried that perhaps by this time, faced with a final or ultimate Bernhard, I had had too much, that another long plunge into Bernhard’s mind would leave me depressed and empty, which I already was, and Bernhard must have known, I thought, that he would die soon after finishing this novel, or even while writing it. I have noticed that after a certain moment in writing a novel even a healthy writer begins to suspect that he will die before finishing his book, and Bernhard’s health was never good. Here he describes, in the words of his alter persona, receiving a telegram informing him of his parents’ and his brother’s death in a car accident, “unexpectedly outliving” these people he was supposed to predecease, and then all the complex feelings that go along with the “sudden deaths” of people you have hated for decades because everything you did in life disappointed and alienated them, people whom, nevertheless, you are obliged to love, or, rather, to carry some memory of love for with you from cradle to grave, and the incredibly sad history of these terrible families, where they have hated you and you have hated them for years and years, and now you have to lay them out and stick them in the ground, with all the ghastly so-called survivors in attendance. “Though my parents had been pathetic in every way,” writes Bernhard, “I had always regarded them as demons, and now suddenly, overnight, they had shrunk to the ridiculous, grotesque photo that I had in front of me and was studying with the most shameless intensity.”

It takes a superior honesty to write about such things, an honesty practically unheard of in contemporary writing, since contemporary writing avoids all necessary cruelty and specializes in gratuitous cruelty, especially where this topic of one’s family is concerned. And this is especially true of American writing. I have read so many lying, utterly deceitful novels by Americans about their families, especially by the so-called black sheep of these families. “All the time they have nothing in their heads but portraying themselves,” Bernhard writes, “in the most distasteful manner, though they are quite oblivious of this.” So many utterly deceitful novels whose writers invent ghastly families that are actually more glamorous than the ghastly families they really had. Utterly deceitful novels that are camera-ready for some wretched motion picture. “Photography,” Bernhard writes, “is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable.” Of his mother he writes, “To my mother, with her craze for dolls, my sisters were actually talking dolls that could be made to laugh or cry when she wished and dressed and undressed when she wished, while her husband and son were puppets, whose strings she pulled whenever the mood took her.” Of his father he writes, “My father joined the Nazi party at my mother’s instigation, and it has to be added that he was not ashamed to wear his party badge quite openly on all occasions. … On Uncle Georg’s last visit … he reminded my father that he had once been a member of the Nazi party, and not just briefly. Whereupon my father leaped up, smashed his soup plate on the table, and stormed out of the room.”

One is fortunate if one’s father was not a Nazi, I thought, but that’s as far as it goes. One is driven away from these horrible families at the earliest age possible, and with luck they will never have the slightest idea what you do in life, will never read a word you write, since anything you write and anything you do is bound to disgust them. “Wherever you go in Austria today you’re surrounded by lies,” Bernhard writes, and, I thought, the same goes for here. “Wherever you look, you find only mendacity,” Bernhard writes, and, I thought, the same goes for here. “Whoever you talk to, you’re talking to a liar,” writes Bernhard, truthfully. “This ridiculous country and this ridiculous state are basically not worth talking about, and to think about them is just a waste of time.” And what American, unless he has a heart of stone, could not say the same about his own ridiculous country, his own ridiculous state: an utter waste of time.

“A literary event of the first magnitude: some editor has written on the fly-leaf of Extinction, knowing perfectly well that literary events have no magnitude whatsoever any more, that this unparalleled Thomas Bernhard is far too good a writer to occasion any sort of literary event in America, except perhaps a public bonfire in front of the town library, though he might see such a fire as yet another ignorant prize or award, or even an homage, this Thomas Bernhard who wrote, “Time destroys everything we do, whatever it is,” and who certainly knew what he was talking about.

—from Gary Indiana’s Let It Bleed: Essays 1981-1995 (Serpent’s Tail, 1996)

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