robert bresson on truth and feeling


The mixture of true and false yields falsity (photographed theater or CINEMA). The false when it is homogeneous can yield truth (theater).

In a mixture of true and false, the true brings out the false, the false hinders belief in the true. An actor simulating fear of shipwreck on the deck of a real ship battered by a real storm – we believe neither in the actor, nor in the ship nor in the storm. (p 10)

Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.

Cinematography: new way of writing, therefore of feeling. (p 15)


When the public is ready to feel before understanding, what a number of films reveal and explain everything to it! (p 59)

It is as if there are two TRUTHS: one that is dull, flat, boring, at least in the eyes of those who daub it with falsity; the other …

For want of truth, the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti’s way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer’s film, used to draw tears. (p 65)

—from Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography (New York, Urizen Books)

gertrude stein on the aesthetic dynamics of the familiar, the accepted and the beautiful

Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation” describes the nature of collective influences upon aesthetic judgment, in specific the temporal and social factors which create the perception of beauty in a text as that text reenacts those processes in the reader’s mind. She analyzes the effect of familiarity on the perceived beauty of a work of art and the resulting process of acceptance or even canonization: “for a very long time almost everybody refuses and then almost without a pause everybody accepts.”  Stein demonstrates for the reader how this acceptance occurs by employing formal devices which initially seem to obstruct meaning but soon enough become comprehensible and finally artistic, as the reader works her way through the text.  


Composition as Explanation

Gertrude Stein 

First delivered by the author as a lecture at Cambridge and Oxford, this essay was first published by the Hogarth Press in London in 1926 and revived in the volume called What Are Masterpieces.

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

It is very likely that nearly every one has been very nearly certain that something that is interesting is interesting them. Can they and do they. It is very interesting that nothing inside in them, that is when you consider the very long history of how every one ever acted or has felt, it is very interesting that nothing inside in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean this. The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition. Lord Grey remarked that when the generals before the war talked about the war they talked about it as a nineteenth century war although to be fought with twentieth century weapons. That is because war is a thing that decides how it is to be when it is to be done. It is prepared and to that degree it is like all academies it is not a thing made by being made it is a thing prepared. Writing and painting and all that, is like that, for those who occupy themselves with it and don’t make it as it is made. Now the few who make it as it is made, and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them usually are prepared just as the world around them is preparing, do it in this way and so I if you do not mind I will tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.

To come back to the part that the only thing that is different is what is seen when it seems to be being seen, in other words, composition and time-sense.

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that  is contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason. They themselves that is everybody in their entering the modern composition and they do enter it, if they do not enter it they are not so to speak in it they are out of it and so they do enter it; but in as you may say the non-competitive efforts where if you are not in it nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had, there are naturally all the refusals, and the things refused are only  important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them. In the case of the arts it is very definite. Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic, but it is perfectly simple that there is no reason why the contemporaries should see, because it would not make any difference as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway, and as every one is naturally indolent why naturally they don’t see. For this reason as in quoting Lord Grey it is quite certain that nations not actively threatened are at least several generations behind themselves militarily so aesthetically they are more than several generations behind themselves and it is very much too bad, it is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries, if all one’s contemporaries could be one’s contemporaries.

There is almost not an interval.

For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling. Now the only difficulty with the volte-face concerning the arts is this. When the acceptance comes, by that acceptance the thing created becomes a classic. It is a natural phenomena a rather extraordinary natural phenomena that a thing accepted becomes a classic. And what is the characteristic quality of a classic. The characteristic quality of a classic is that it is beautiful. Now of course it is perfectly true that a more or less first rate work of art is beautiful but the trouble is that when that first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing that is important from then on to the majority of the acceptors the enormous majority, the most intelligent majority of the acceptors is that it is so wonderfully beautiful. Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.

Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. This makes it so much more difficult to realise its beauty when the work is being refused and prevents every one from realising that they were convinced that beauty was denied, once the work is accepted. Automatically with the acceptance of the time-sense comes the recognition of the beauty and once the beauty is accepted the beauty never fails any one.

Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series.

Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.

It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.

Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain.

The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain.

No one thinks these things when they are making when they are creating what is the composition, naturally no one thinks, that is no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made.

Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for us naturally.

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.

Now the few who make writing as it is made and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them are those that are prepared by preparing, are prepared just as the world around them is prepared and is preparing to do it in this way and so if you do not mind I will again tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.

Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted and that authentically speaking is composition. After life has been conducted in a certain way everybody knows it but nobody knows it, little by little, nobody knows it as long as nobody knows it. Any one creating the composition in the arts does not know it either, they are conducting life and that makes their composition what it is, it makes their work compose as it does.

Their influence and their influences are the same as that of all of their contemporaries only it must always be remembered that the analogy is not obvious until as I say the composition of a time has become so pronounced that it is past and the artistic composition of it is a classic.

And now to begin as if to begin. Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for us naturally. There is something to be added afterwards.

Just how much my work is known to you I do not know. I feel that perhaps it would be just as well to tell the whole of it.

In beginning writing I wrote a book called Three Lives this was written in 1905. I wrote a negro story called Melanctha. In that there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present although naturally I had been accustomed to past present and future, and why, because the composition forming around me was a prolonged present. A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present. I created then a prolonged present naturally I knew nothing of a continuous present but it came naturally to me to make one, it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural.

After that I did a book called The Making of Americans it is a long book about a thousand pages. 

read the rest of the essay…

“we have turned our existence into an entertainment mechanism… an artificial natural catastrophe”

"Bernhard’s love-hate relationship to theatre is used as a recurring motif throughout his novels and plays: Theatre as entertainment and diversion, a sign of human weakness when it comes to facing the ultimate truth, or what is perhaps even more disgusting and cause for much anger and (self?) hatred, a source of the masochistic pleasure people derive from making art out of their misery.”


Thomas Bernhard

An Introduction

By Gitta Honegger


The most unbelievable deeds reported here

took place in real life.

The most incredible conversations recorded here

were spoken word for word.


These contents are the contents of the years

preserved only in bloody dreams




The above quote is from the prologue of one of the major German language

theatre events of the seventies: Hans Hollmann’s stage version of Karl

Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind, orignially performed in Basel and re-

staged this summer in Vienna, Kraus’s native city. The original work,

published in 1926, is one of the most monumental, prophetic and influential

pieces of Austrian literature, a two-volume drama, never intended for production,

dealing with events—chiefly of ordinary people and their peculiar mentality—which

led to World War I and prepared the way for Hitler and World War II.


Austria’s famous tourist image as the land of operetta, kitsch, schmaltz

and schlag becomes for those living in it, and whether intentionally or not,

living in it at least occasionally, a double-edged legacy, as infuriating and

confusing as it is inescapable and, at times, deadly. Operetta heroes and

heroines or characters fashioning themselves after those models, acting

out the tragedies of mankind, not necessarily on the highest political level,

but in their personal lives, haunt the plays of Schnitzler; they provide the

deceptively sweet facade for Odon von Horvath’s devastating humor. And if

today, after two world wars, the collapse of the Empire together with its

aristocracy and high style, and the most unspeakable atrocities committed

by operetta beaus and beauties, this mentality still persists, it seems a

macabre reconstruction of old prop-and-costume pieces from the stock

room of history, which in the case of Austria has always been a very

theatrical and a very pompous one.


This is Thomas Bernhard’s Austria. It helps understand his peculiar brand

of theatricality, intentionally frozen, mechanical, a "reconstructed" one.

Freely borrowing from other sources, his dramaturgy is deeply rooted in a

tradition which has been drained of its original life and serves now only as a

crutch, an artificial device, ultimately as "entertainment" in the sense of

diversion from the overpowering obsession with decay and death. Yet

therein lies also the paradox—another much loved, much hated trademark

of the Austrian mentality, of Austrian art: this obsession with death is in

itself the greatest diversion, the great duality of Baroque art, so perfected in

the architecture of Salzburg, where Bernhard spent much of his youth dur-

ing World War II.


Bernhard’s love-hate relationship to theatre is used as a recurring motif

throughout his novels and plays: Theatre as entertainment and diversion, a

sign of human weakness when it comes to facing the ultimate truth, or what

is perhaps even more disgusting and cause for much anger and (self?)

hatred, a source of the masochistic pleasure people derive from making art

out of their misery.


I don’t go to the theatre

on principle

it is somethingquite disgusting

the theatre

wheneverI am in the theatre

I am constantlyreminded

how disgusting it is

even though I can’t explainit to myself

what makes it so disgusting

but it is disgusting

But maybeyou deal so muchwith theatre

because you are so disgusted with it.


says the General in The Hunting Party to the Writer,who turns everything he

sees into what he calls a "comedy," although the General does not agree

with this definition.


Theatre, on the other hand, is the ultimate artifice (and it always must em-

phasize its artificiality) people develop, next to other constructs, such as

science and philosophy, as a bulwark against nature, which to Bernhard is

always a brutal, decaying, dark and deadly one.


Most of Bernhard’s central characters are obsessed with such a construct.

In The Force of Habit the circus director Caribaldi forces his troupe to prac-

tice Schubert’s "Trout Quintet" for twenty-two years, even though they

never manage to get through the whole piece; in Minetti, the actor Minetti

practices passages from King Lear every day for thirty years in front of the

mirror in his sister’s attic in Dinkelsbuehl; in Immanuel Kant it is philosophy

(with the ultimate irony that this namesake of the philosopher is a contem-

porary invention, just as Minetti’s namesake, the famous German actor

Bernhard Minetti, who created many characters of Bernhard’s plays and

who also played this Minetti, is a dramatic invention, whose story has

nothing to do with the "real" Minetti’s biography). What keeps the title

character in The Utopian (Der Weltverbesserer) famous and alive is his

study dealing with the improvement of the world, which will be accom-

plished by its total destruction; the Judge, a former camp commander in

Bernhard’s latest play Eve of Retirement insists on celebrating Himmler’s

birthday year after year, for which occasion he dresses up in full SS uniform

and forces his paraplegic sister to shave her head and wear the uniform of a

camp inmate. The General in The Hunting Party is working on some uniden-

tified study, his life work. In The Fool and the Madman (Der Ignorant und der

Wahnsinnige), the doctor (and madman of the title) keeps talking about his

love of dissecting corpses while waiting in the dressing room of the famous

opera singer who is just performing the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute.

If in her case music is the last (and very Austrian) vestige for a once

possibly meaningful existence, it is in grotesque contrast to her pathetic

stock character and the play ends in (literal) darkness and chaos.


In these plays science, philosophy, art are presented as crutches to keep

the mind alive, if only on the brink of madness in the face of an unrelenting-

ly crippling, decaying nature. His first play, A Party for Boris (Ein Fest fur

Boris), deals with actual cripples. The Kind Lady, who has lost both legs

and her husband in a car accident and presently lives with Boris, also

without legs, prepares a birthday party for him and 12 other legless cripples

from the asylum next door. Between the preparations and the actual party,

a macabre dance of death, accompanied by Boris beating the drum until he

collapses dead amidst the laughter of the guests and the Kind Lady, there

is a scene of the Kind Lady returning from a costume ball where she forced

her servant to appear as a legless cripple.


The Writer of The Hunting Party says:


All the time we talk about somethingunreal

so that we can bear it


because we have turned our existence

into an entertainment mechanism

nothing but a shoddy entertainment mechanism


into an artificial natural catastrophe.


Human nature, as it presents itself, is always a theatrical one, leading back

to the tacky operetta heroes. The cast list of The Hunting Party reads like

the Dramatis Personae from an operetta: The General, the General’s Wife,

the Prince, the Princess, 3 Ministers and a servant. In The President the title

character takes a bath after barely escaping an assassin, who might have

been his son suspected of being a terrorist, while his wife is preoccupied

with the death of her dog, who suffered a heart attack during the assassina-

tion attempt. Later, the President busies himself with a mediocre young ac-

tress in Portugal, not too much concerned with the political situation, and

his wife apparently amuses herself with a butcher and a chaplain to satisfy

her physical and spiritual needs.


And, of course, the Kind Lady in her wheelchair, playing her power games in

the guise of kindness with her servant and the cripples, is easily associated

with Beckett. However, this seems less an imitation than a conscious and

legitimate quote (just as the connection between The Cherry Orchard and

the forest in The Hunting Party) in the context of Bernhard’s use of pre-

existing theatrical images and themes to construct a world which is

theatrical inasmuch as it employs all available devices, "ready-mades," to

animate the process that diverts from lifelessness, the source of disfigura-

tion and madness.


Bernhard’s plays are not dramatic, cannot be dramatic in the conventional

sense of conflict, be it psychological, political or moral. Where there is no

choice, there is no conflict. Death is a matter of choice only insofar as it can

be staged. Thus suicide becomes a profoundly theatrical event, a self-

directed performance, ridiculous in its mometary, stagey pathos, tragic in its

ultimate inevitability. But even the character who perceives this duality, the

Writerof The Hunting Party, apparently one of the more distant observers in

Bernhard’s work, is a pathetically indulgent (typically Austrian) "Raunzer,"a

cry-baby, in love with his misery, and a laughable figure in the end.


Most of Bernhard’s plays feature one or more characters who are either

obsessive speakers or those who listen. This emphasizes the performance

quality, not just as a theatrical device, but as an existential necessity. His

characters cling to their speeches for dear life, they unravel sentence after

sentence like Ariadne’s twine to lead them out of the maze of their brain, the

source too of their understanding of the world as a dying one. But the only

way not to die is to pursue their thoughts. These are not necessarily new,

startling ones; at times they are banal, sometimes profound, often repeated,

circling around the same themes, carefully constructed in seemingly endless

rhythmical patterns. In his plays Bernhard does not use any punctuation.

There may be a very simple reason for this: As soon as there is a period, there

would be an actual end to the sentence, a full stop, both for the speech and

the speaker, who would die and, in many cases, does.


Bernhard creates a free verse form out of the rhythms inherent in the intricate

syntax of the German language, its baroque complexity also a relic, now re-

constructed, of the old, official, upper-class language of the monarchy. It is

also broken down into its components, which form the rhythmical basis, a

music-like notation system, again, a most accomplished artifice destroying

the natural flow of speech without ever being able to deny its profound

connection to and understanding of it-ultimately transcending the limitations,

the limit of nature through art. Bernhardis, above all, a master of language.

What may seem indulgent at first sight (especially to the Anglo-Saxon,

American sensibility) is deeply connected to his characters’ existential ex-



"Endless speaking" says Michel Foucault "or, for that matter, speaking in

order not to die, is an activity probably as ancient as the word itself. For the

time of the narration, the death-bringing phenomena remain necessarily

suspended, speech, as we know, has the power to stop arrows mid-air."


Thomas Bernhard was born on February 10, 1931, in Holland. His father was

an Austrian farmer, his mother the daughter of the Austrian writer Johannes

Freumbichler,who was a great influence in his life. He spent much of his

chlildhood in Salzburg, where he studied music and acting. Until 1955 he

worked as a journalist. His first collections of poems and short stories were

published toward the end ofthe fifties. His first great breakthrough came

with his first novel Frost in 1963. He received numerous literary awards. Since

1965 Bernhard has lived on a farm in Upper Austria.


Novels and short stories:


Frost, 1963

Der Italiener, 1963

Amras, 1964

Verstorung (Gargoyles, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1967

Prosa, 1967

Ungenach, 1968

Watten, 1969

Das Kalkwerk (The Lime Works, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1970

Midlandin Stilfs (A collection of stories), 1971

Gehen, 1971

Der Kulterer, 1974

Die Korrektur , (Correction, trans. by Sophie Wilkins, Knopf), 1975

Die Ursache (The Cause), Der Keller (The Cellar), Der Atem (Breath), 1975

Der Stimmenimitator, 1978

Die Billigesser, 1980


Plays: (Dates of publication)


Ein Fest fur Boris (A Party for Boris), 1968

Der Ignorantund der Wahnsinnige (The Fool and the Madman),1972

Die Jagdgesellschaft (The Hunting Party),1974

Die Macht der Gewohnheit (Force of Habit),1974

Der Prasident (The President), 1975

Minetti, 1976

Immanuel Kant, 1978

Der Weltverbesserer (The Utopian),1978

Vordem Ruhestand (Eve of Retirement),1979


Gitta Honegger is a director and translator who has translated five plays of

Thomas Bernhard.

the world according to james wood…


Excerpts from James Wood’s How Fiction Works:
The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. And that is it. Anything else probably will not much resemble narration; it may be closer to poetry, or prose-poetry.
In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration. The common idea is that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscience) and unreliable narration (the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does). On one side, Tolstoy, say; and on the other, Humbert Humbert or Italo Svevo’s narrator, Zeno Cosini, or Bertie Wooster. Authorial omniscience, people assume, has had its day, much as that “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade” called religion has also had its. W. G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Sebald continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.”*
*This interview can be found in Brickmagazine, issue 10. Sebald’s German accent had a way of exaggerating the already comic, miserable, Bernhard-like pleasure he took in stressing words such as “very” and “unacceptable.”
For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of this division have been caricatured.
Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.”  In my example, the word “stupid” marks the sentence as written in free indirect style.  Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: “Ted watched the orchestra through tears.”  The addition of the word “stupid” raises the question: Whose word is this?  It’s unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall.  No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted.  He is listening to the music and crying, and is embarrassed—we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes—that he has allowed these “stupid” tears to fall.  Convert it back into first-person speech, and we have this: “‘Stupid to be crying at this silly piece of Brahms,’ he thought.”  But this example is several words longer, and we’ve lost the complicated presence of the author.
What is so useful about free indirect style is that in our example a word like “stupid” somehow belongs both the author and the character; we are not entirely sure who “owns” the word.  Might “stupid” reflect a slight asperity or distance on the part of the author?  Or does the word belong wholly to the character, with the author, in a rush of sympathy, having “handed” it, as it were, to the tearful fellow?
Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language.  We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.  A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge—which is the free indirect style itself—between them simultaneously closes the gap and draws attention to its distance.
This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character’s eyes while been encouraged to see more than the character can see (an unreliability identical to the unreliable first person narrator’s).
Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child—or the child’s proxy, an animal—to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.
What happens, though, when a more serious writer wants to open a very small gap between character and author? What happens when a novelist wants us to inhabit a character’s confusion, but will not “correct” that confusion, refuses to make clear what a state of nonconfusion would look like? We can walk in a straight line from McCloskey to Henry James. There is a technical connection, for instance, between “Make Way for Ducklings” and James’s novel What Maisie Knew. Free indirect style helps us to inhabit juvenile confusion, this time a young girl’s rather than a duck’s.
So the novelist is always working with at least three languages.  There is the author’s own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character’s presumed language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; and there is what we would call the language of the world – the language that fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into a novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere, and text messaging.  In this sense, the novelist is a triple writer, and the contemporary novelist now feels especially the pressure of this tripleness, thanks to the omnivorous presence of the third horse of this troika, the language of the world, which has invaded our subjectivity, our intimacy, the intimacy that James thought should be the proper quarry of the novel, and which he called (in a troika of his own) “the palpable present-intimate.”


There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character. I can tell it from the number of apprentice novels I read that begin with descriptions of photographs. You know the style: “My mother is squinting in the fierce sunlight and holding, for some reason, a dead pheasant. She is dressed in old-fashioned lace-up boots, and white gloves. She looks absolutely miserable. My father, however, is in his element, irrepressible as ever, and has on his head that grey velvet trilby from Prague I remember so well from my childhood.” The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilised in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and afraid to push out.
But how to push out? How to animate the static portrait? Ford Madox Ford, in his book Joseph Conrad: A Personal Reminiscence, writes wonderfully about getting a character up and running—what he calls “getting a character in”. He says that Conrad himself “was never really satisfied that he had got his characters really and sufficiently in; he was never convinced that he had convinced the reader; this accounting for the great lengths of some of his books.” I like this idea, that some of Conrad’s novels are long because he couldn’t stop fiddling, page after page, with the verisimilitude of his characters—it raises the spectre of an infinite novel. At least the apprentice writer, with his bundle of nerves, is in good company, then. Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, “La Reine Hortense”: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.” Ford comments: “that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been ‘got in’ and can get to work at once.”
Ford is right. Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were; and—a corollary of this—that the reader can get as much from small, short-lived, even rather flat characters as from large, round, towering heroes and heroines. To my mind, Gurov, the adulterer in Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”, is as vivid, rich and sustaining as Gatsby, or Dreiser’s Hurstwood, or even Jane Eyre.
A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction—from the side of those who believe too much in character and from the side of those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”; they should have an “inside” as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us…
… In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of—or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might be able to feel that “ick factor” and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two aging and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator, of whom all one can say is that she is unlikely to be so unforgiving when she herself has reached seventy. But there is nothing egregious about this article. A glance at the thousands of foolish “reader reviews” on, with their complaints about “dislikeable characters,” confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness…
On the other side, among those with too little belief in character, we hear that characters do not exist at all. The novelist and critic William Gass comments on the following passage from Henry James’s The Awkward Age “Mr. Cashmore, who would have been very red-headed if he had not been very bald, showed a single eyeglass and a long upper lip; he was large and jaunty with little petulant ejaculations that were not in the line of type.” Of this, Gass says:
We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr. Cashmore added to this one. Now the question is: what is Mr. Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr. Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organisation, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.*
I find this deeply, incorrigibly wrong. Of course characters are assemblages of words, because literature is such an assemblage of words: this tells us absolutely nothing, and is like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined “world,” because it is just a bound codex of paper pages. Surely Mr. Cashmore, introduced thus by James, has instantly become, in practice, an “object of perception”—precisely because we are looking at a description of him. Gass claims that “Nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him,, but that is exactly what James has just done: he has said of him things that are usually said of a real person. He has told us that Mr. Cashmore looked bald and red, and that his “petulant movements” seemed out of keeping with his large jauntiness (“were not in the line of his type”). At present, of course, in James’s preliminary jabs, Mr. Cashmore has just been created, and he hardly exists; Gass confuses the character’s Edenic virginity with his later, fallen essence…
*Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970).
But to repeat, what is a character? I am thicketed in qualifications: if I say that a character seems connected to consciousness, to the use of a mind, the many superb examples of characters who seem to think very little, who are rarely seen thinking, bristle up (Gatsby, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, Widmerpool, Jean Brodie). If I refine the thought by repeating that a character at least has some essential connection to an interior life, to inwardness, is seen “from within,” I am presented with the nicely opposing examples of those two adulterers, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest, the first of whom does a lot of reflection, and is seen internally as well as externally, the second of whom, in Theodor Fontane’s eponymous novel, is seen almost entirely from the outside, with little space set aside for represented reflection. No one could say that Anna is more vivid than Effi simply because we see Anna doing more thinking.If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters—round and flat characters—and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.


The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism. There is no such thing as “a novelistic character”. There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes. Some of them are solid enough that we can speculate about their motives: why does Hurstwood steal the money? Why does Isabel Archer return to Gilbert Osmond? What is Julien Sorel’s true ambition? Why does Kirilov want to commit suicide? What does Mr Biswas want? But there are scores of fictional characters who are not fully or conventionally evoked who are also alive and vivid. The solid, nineteenth fictional character (I count Biswas in that company) who confronts us with deep mysteries is not the “best” or ideal or only way to create character (though it does not deserve the enormous condescension of postmodernism). My own taste tends towards the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows: Why does Onegin reject Tatiana and then provoke a fight with Lenski? Pushkin offers us almost no evidence on which to base our answer. Is Svevo’s Zeno mad? Is the narrator of Hamsun’s Hunger mad? We have only their unreliable narration of events.
Perhaps because I am not sure what a character is, I find especially moving those postmodern novels, like Pnin, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, or Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, in which we are confronted with characters who are at once real and unreal. In each of these novels, the author asks us to reflect on the fictionality of the heroes and heroines who give the novels their titles. And in a fine paradox, it is precisely such reflection that stirs in the reader a desire to make these fictional characters “real”, to say, in effect, to the authors: “I know that they are only fictional—you keep on suggesting this. But I can only know them by treating them as real.” That is how Pnin works, for instance. An unreliable narrator insists that Professor Pnin is “a character” in two senses of the word: a type (clownish, eccentric émigré), and a fictional character, the narrator’s fantasy. Yet just because we resent the narrator’s condescension towards his fond and foolish possession, we insist that behind the “type” there must be a real Pnin, who is worth “knowing” in all his fullness and complexity. And Nabokov’s novel is constructed in such a way as to excite that desire in us for a real Professor Pnin, a “true fiction” with which to oppose the false fictions of the overbearing and sinister narrator.
What does it mean to “love” a fictional character, to feel that you know her? What kind of knowledge is this? Miss Jean Brodie is probably one of the “best-loved” novelistic characters in postwar British fiction, and one of the very few to be something of a household name. But if you dragged a microphone down Princes Street in Edinburgh and asked people what they “know” about Miss Brodie, those who had read Spark’s novel would likely recite a number of her aphorisms: “I am in my prime”; “you are the crème de la crème”; “the philistines are upon us, Mr Lloyd”, and so on. These are Jean Brodie’s famous sayings. Miss Brodie, in other words, is not really “known” at all. We know her just as her young pupils knew her: as a collection of tags, a rhetorical performance, a teacher’s show. Around her very thinness as a character we tend to construct a thicker interpretative jacket…
Spark was intensely interested in how much we can know about anyone, and interested in how much a novelist, who most pretends to such knowledge, can know about her characters. By reducing Miss Brodie to no more than a collection of maxims, Spark forces us to become Brodie’s pupils. In the course of the novel we never leave the school to go home with Miss Brodie. We never see her in private, off-stage. Always, she is the performing teacher, keeping a public face. We surmise that there is something unfulfilled and even desperate about her, but the novelist refuses us access to her interior. Brodie talks a great deal about her prime, but we don’t witness it, and the nasty suspicion falls that perhaps to talk so much about one’s prime is by definition no longer to be in it.
Spark always exercises ruthless control over her fictional characters, and here she flaunts it: she spikes her story with a series of “flash-forwards”, in which we learn what happened to the characters after the main action of the plot (Miss Brodie will die of cancer, Mary Macgregor will die at the age of 23 in a fire, another pupil will join a convent, another will never again be quite as happy as when she first discovered algebra). These coldly prophetic passages strike some readers as cruel; they are such summary judgments. But they are moving, because they raise the idea that if Miss Brodie never really had a prime, then for some of the schoolgirls their primes occurred in their schooldays.
These flash-forwards do something else: they remind us that Spark has ultimate control over her creations; and they remind us of . . . Miss Brodie. This tyrannical authority is precisely what Miss Brodie’s most intelligent pupil, Sandy Stranger, hates, and finally exposes, in her teacher: that she is a fascist and a Scottish Calvinist, predestining the lives of her pupils, forcing them into artificial shapes. Is this what the novelist does, too? That is the question that interests Spark. The novelist adopts God-like powers of omniscience, but what can she really know of her creations?
To argue that we can know Jean Brodie just as deeply as we can know George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, to argue that lacunae are as deep as solidities, that absence in characterisation can be a form of knowing as profound as presence, that Spark’s and Saramago’s and Nabokov’s characters can move us as much as James’s and Eliot’s, is to concede nothing to Gass’s scepticism. Not all of these characters have the same amount of realised “depth”, but all of them are objects of perception, to use Gass’s words, and things that can be correctly said of persons can also be said of them. They are all “real”, but in different ways. That reality level differs from author to author, and our hunger for the particular depth or reality level of a character is tutored by each writer, and adapts to the internal conventions of each book. This is how we can read W.G. Sebald one day and Virginia Woolf or Philip Roth the next, and not demand that each resemble the other. It would be an obvious category error to accuse Sebald of not offering us “deep” or “rounded” characters. I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or “deep” enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author, unfairly, for not giving us enough—the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.
Even the characters we think of as “solidly realised” in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them. There is probably a basic distinction to be made between novelists such as Tolstoy or Trollope or Dickens, who seem unselfconsciously to create galleries of various people who are nothing like them, and those writers either less interested in or perhaps less naturally gifted at this faculty, but who nevertheless have a great deal of interest in the self – James, Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, Roth, Michel Houellebecq. Iris Murdoch is the most poignant member of this second category, precisely because she spent her life trying to get into the first. In her essays, she often stresses that the creation of free and independent characters is the mark of the great novelist; yet her own characters never have this freedom. She knew it, too: “How soon,” she wrote, “one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense ‘interested in other people’, this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself. It is impossible, it seems to me, not to see one’s failure here as a sort of spiritual failure.”
But Murdoch is too unforgiving of herself. There are scores of novelists whose characters are basically like each other, or rather like the novelist who created them, and yet whose creations stream with a vitality that it would be hard not to call free. Does The Rainbow possess any characters who don’t sound like each other, and ultimately like Lawrence? Tom Brangwen, Will, Anna, Ursula, even Lydia—they are all variations on a Lawrencian theme, and despite differences in articulacy and education, their inner lives vibrate very similarly. When they speak, which is rarely, they sound the same. Nevertheless, they do possess blazing inner lives, and always one feels how important this inquiry into the state of the soul is for the novelist himself…
…In the same way, it often seems that James’s characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them…
…So the vitality of literary character has then, perhaps, less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility – let alone likeability – than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character “Isabel Archer”, even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here.
In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster used the now-famous term “flat” to describe the kind of character who is awarded a single, essential attribute, which is repeated without change as the person appears and reappears in a novel. Often, such characters have a catchphrase or tagline or keyword, as Mrs. Micawber, in David Copperfield, likes to repeat “I will never desert Mr. Micawber”. She says she will not, and she does not. Forster is genially snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder, or fuller, characters. Flat characters cannot be tragic, he asserts, they need to be comic. Round characters “surprise” us each time they reappear; they are not flimsily theatrical. Flat ones can’t surprise us, and are generally monochromatically histrionic. Forster mentions a popular novel by a contemporary novelist whose main character, a flat one, is a farmer who is always saying “I’ll plough up that bit of gorse”. But, says Forster, we are so bored by the farmer’s consistency that we do not care whether he does or doesn’t…
…But is this right? If by flatness we mean a character, often but not always a minor one, often but not always comic, who serves to illuminate an essential human truth or characteristic, then many of the most interesting characters are flat. I would be quite happy to abolish the very idea of “roundness” in characterisation, because it tyrannises us—readers, novelists, critics—with an impossible ideal. “Roundness” is impossible in fiction, because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people. It is subtlety that matters—subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure—and for subtlety a very small point of entry will do. Forster’s division grandly privileges novels over short stories, since characters in stories rarely have the space to become “round”. But I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s 10-page story “The Kiss” than I do about the consciousness of Waverley in Walter Scott’s eponymous novel, because Chekhov’s inquiry into how his soldier’s mind works is more acute than Scott’s episodic romanticism.
Forster struggles to explain how we feel that most of Dickens’s characters are flat and yet, at the same time, that these cameos obscurely move us – he claims that Dickens’s own vitality makes them “vibrate” a bit on the page. But this vibrating flatness is true not only of Dickens, but of Proust, who also likes to tag many of his characters with favourite sayings and catchphrases, of Tolstoy to some extent, of Thomas Hardy’s minor characters, of Thomas Mann’s minor characters (he, like Proust and Tolstoy, uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif—a repeated attribute or characteristic—to secure the vitality of his characters), and supremely of Jane Austen.
Take Shakespeare’s Henry V. If you asked most people to separate King Harry and the Welsh captain Fluellen into Forsterian camps, they would award Harry roundness and Fluellen flatness. The King is a large part, Fluellen a minor one. Harry talks and reflects a lot, he soliloquises, he is noble, canny, magniloquent and surprising: he goes among his soldiers in disguise, to talk freely with them. He complains of the burden of kingship. Fluellen, by contrast, is a comic Welshman, a pedant of the kind Henry Fielding or Cervantes would nimbly satirise, always banging on about military history, and Alexander the Great, and leeks, and Monmouth. Harry rarely makes us laugh, Fluellen always does. Harry is round, Fluellen flat.
But the categories could easily go the other way. The King Harry of this play, unlike the Harry of the two Henry IV plays, is merely kingly, in rather a dull fashion. He is very eloquent, but it seems like Shakespeare’s eloquence, not his own (it’s formal, patriotic, august). His complaints about the burdens of kingship are a bit formulaic and self-pitying, and tell us little about his actual self (except, in a generic way, that he is self-pitying). He is an utterly public figure. Fluellen, however, is a little terrier of vividness. His speech, despite the “Welshisms” that Shakespeare puts in—”look you”, and so on—is idiosyncratically his own. He is a pedant, but an interesting one. In Fielding, a pedantic doctor or lawyer speaks like a pedantic doctor or lawyer: his pedantry is professionally bound up with his occupation. But Fluellen’s pedantry has a limitless and slightly desperate quality about it: why does he know so much about the classics, about Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon? Why has he appointed himself the army’s military historian? He surprises us, too: at first we think his windiness will replace valour on the field, as Falstaff’s did, because we think we recognise a type—the man who speaks about military action rather than performing it. But he turns out to possess a touching valour and loyalty; and his rectitude – another inversion of type—is not merely hypocritical. And there is something piquant about a man who is at once an omnivorous roamer of the world’s knowledge and literatures, and a little Welsh provincial. His monologue on how Monmouth resembles the classical city of Macedon is both funny and moving:
I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the world I warrant you shall find comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also more- over a river at Monmouth.
All of us still meet people like Fluellen; and when a garrulous bloke on a train starts talking up his home town, and says something like “we’ve got one of those”—shopping mall, rugby stadium, violent pub—”in my town, too, you know”, you are apt to feel, as towards Fluellen, both mirth and an obscure kind of sympathy, since this kind of importuning provincialism is always paradoxical: the provincial simultaneously wants and does not want to communicate with you, simultaneously wants to remain a provincial and abolish his provincialism by linking himself with you. Almost 400 years later, in a story called “The Wheelbarrow”, V.S. Pritchett revisits Fluellen. A Welsh taxi driver, Evans, is helping a lady clear out a house. He finds an old volume of verse in a box and suddenly bursts out, scornfully: “Everyone knows that the Welsh are the founders of all the poetry in Europe.”
In fact, the ubiquitous flat character of the English and Scottish novel, from Mr. Collins in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Charles Ryder’s father in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, tells us something deep about the dialectic of British reticence and sociability. From Shakespeare descends a self-theatricalising, somewhat solipsistic, flamboyant, but also essentially shy type who can be found in Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Scott, Thackeray, George Meredith, H.G. Wells, Henry Green, Waugh, Pritchett, Spark, Angus Wilson, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, and on into the superb pantomimic embarrassments of Monty Python and Ricky Gervais’s David Brent. He is typified by Mr. Omer in David Copperfield, the tailor whom David visits to get his funeral suit. Mr. Omer is an English soliloquist, and prattles on without embarrassment as he blunders his way all over David’s grief. He shows David a roll of cloth which he says is too good for mourning anyone short of parents, and then windily opines: “But fashions are like human beings. They come in, nobody knows when, why or how; and they go out, nobody knows when, why, or how. Everything is like life, in my opinion, if you look at it in that point of view.”
Something true is revealed here about the self and its irrepressibility or irresponsibility. Mr. Omer is determined to be himself, even if that means likening fashions in clothes to patterns of morbidity. No one would call Mr. Omer a “round” character. He exists for a bare minute. But contra Forster, the flat character like Mr. Omer is indeed capable of “surprising us” – the point is, he only needs to surprise us once, and can then disappear off the stage…
Mrs. Micawber’s catchphrase “I will never desert Mr. Micawber” tells us something true about how she keeps up appearances, how she maintains a theatrical public fiction, and so it tells us something true about her; but the farmer who says “I’ll plough up that bit of gorse” is not maintaining any similarly interesting fiction about himself—he is just being stoical or habitual—and so we know nothing about his true self behind the catchphrase. He is simply stating his intentions. That is why he is boring; “consistency” has nothing to do with it. And we all know people in real life who, like Mrs. Micawber, do indeed use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance. The insight afforded us into the secret costs of this type of comic public performance—think again of Gervais’s David Brent – seems to me one of the central treasures of British tragicomedy…
No one would deny that writing of this sort has indeed become a kind of invisible rule book, whereby we no longer notice its artificialities. One reason for this is economic. Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that this brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again. That is why the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of Le Carre or P.D.James than it is of Flaubert or George Eliot or Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques. The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away most of what made those writers truly alive. And of course, the most economically privileged genre of this kind of largely lifeless ‘realism’ is commercial cinema, through which most people nowadays receive their idea of what constitutes a ‘realistic’ narrative.”
Decomposition like this happens to any long-lived and successful style, surely; so the writer’s—or critic’s, or reader’s—task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced.

death and the storyteller

Of the storyteller, Walter Benjamin observes that:
Death is the sanction of everything [he] can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.
and, by way of explanation, makes the following remarkable claim (emphasis mine):
A man—so says the truth that was meant here—who died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every pointin his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life. The nature of the character in the novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the ‘meaning’ of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the ‘meaning of life’. Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one…. The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.
— from Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller

the basic necessity of the creative act

The creative imagination which makes myths, stories, poems, is a primary function of mankind. Is it a final fact, which cannot be analyzed further? Or can philosophic thought resolve it and integrate it into our comprehension of the contemporary world? Among the numerous autarchic philosophies of contemporary Germany I see none capable of doing so. They are far too occupied with themselves and with the problem of “existence”, and hence have little to give to one who thinks historically. The only one philosopher who attacked the problem was Henri Bergson (1859-1941). In 1907 (L’Évolution créatrice) he had interpreted the cosmic process under the image of an “élan vital”… The fiction-making function (“function fabulatrice”) has become necessary to life. For our study, Bergson’s discovery of the fabulatory function is of basic importance. For thereby the much-debated relations between poetry and religion are for the first time cleared up conceptually and integrated into a comprehensive scientific picture of the universe.

Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages

gary indiana on consumer capitalism & cultural flotsam

In this chapter from Do Everything in the Dark Gary Indiana muses about popular music — that old leitmotif of Theodor Adorno — to show the totalizing commodification of mass culture in twenty-first century America (not surprisingly, Indiana is an accomplished social and artistic critic in his own right): 
Malcolm sits in Union Square Park, on a bench facing the white tent tops of the farmers’ market, braced for another day of floor-walking at the Virgin Megastore. People buying music and video DVDs fall into a trance induced by clustered rows of monitors, clashing streams of music, and a huge Orwellian video grid strategically placed to lure shoppers down to Level One, where three items or two items or four items of the same kind of thing are forever on sale, but never displayed in close enough proximity for the sensorily battered to distinguish two for one from three for two or four for three. The calculated illogic of everything sends thousands each day into transports of credit card abandon that move a Niagara of cash around the world.
       He’s recently read a news item about the millions in bootleg CDs that funnel through Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, along with trucks stuffed with counterfeit Marlboros, real marijuana, and heavily disguised convoys of depleted uranium, stolen fuel rods, Kalashnikovs, any species of unthinkable thing desired or sold by shadows traveling under the rose.
       At the Megastore, all is legitimate, flawlessly manufactured, factory sealed. Its revenue spills cleanly into the raging river of cash and credit and digital wealth, spinning numbers in and out of corporate bank accounts. Somewhere, no doubt, this river sucks up the tributaries of loot generated by the inauthentic, the counterfeit, the Jennifer Lopez knockoffs. A spike in the current from the world’s numberless laundries sends it all rushing faster to the Falls.
       Malcolm doesn’t have to persuade people to buy things. They can’t help themselves. He merely has to interpret, a few times a day, the sometimes fractured language of the customer’s desire, recognize the piece of music or musician whose name they’ve forgotten or can’t quite bring to mind, or figure out from froggily hummed signature riffs what album by which performer a song they want appears on. The gross abundance and variety of music and books and movies stimulates an epidemic wish to own a copy of everything. As customers dawdle or race along the wide rows of product bins, their eyes snag on reissued memory tracks, groups they’ve read about in magazines, music they might not like to hear but which is thought to define the present in an important way As each moment passes, by the time they get this music home to their audio systems, other, newer music defines the moment they’re listening to these acquisitions, and still newer music will nail down the moment that replaces that moment. All these moments eventually condense into a boxed set as the perfect past, the sound of an era. Memory becomes the sound track of perfection.
       Malcolm is most comfortable working on Level One, handling DVDs: every week, eons of long-forgotten films fill shelves in reformatted special editions, their sound tracks digitally scrubbed, with clickable sidebar interviews with directors, even the original trailers, optional commentary from stars, material that sparks Malcolm’s interest. Shanghai Express, Eyes Without a Face, Bunuel, Godard, Fassbinder, Dracula’s Honeymoon, Porky’s, everything from the moronic to the sublime returns from the grave in suavely designed, oblong snap-open cases, even the silents Malcolm cherishes. The only aspect of this eclectic, bonanza resurrection of every movie ever made that irritates him is that they’re grossly overpriced compared to the vanishing videotape format. However, he gets a substantial store discount. He also steals copiously Even Anna doesn’t know Malcolm hates music. When he moonlights as a DJ, he wears earplugs that virtually deafen him.
— from Gary Indiana, Do Everything in the Dark

from the opening pages of thomas bernhard’s on the mountain

For me these lines from one of Bernhard’s early novels — this one was written as a kind of long prose-poem, hence the unusual paragraphing and line-breaks — perfectly summarize his sensibility, and while the subject matter owes something to Beckett, the archness of tone and the sense of sad pleasure the narrator takes in condemning absolutely everything comes entirely from Bernhard’s own desperately insistent voice:

          . . . think on the possibility of condemning intelligence altogether, 
e’s preoccupied with a thousand things, intelligence?,

that don’t interest me in the least, with his divorced
wife, for example,
a few nouns, a few subordinate clauses, the woman
who owns the gallery was badly dressed, made small
talk with her husband, some of it in my direction, crazy
bird-chatter, meaningless, but I found the encounter
refreshing, she’s an important person, after all, and I
don’t want to forget that, the pictures hanging in her
gallery have given me a tremendous urge to work, al-
though they’re all by famous people, I can’t get rid of
the suspicion that they’re nothing but sham,
exploit it, why not?,
in the end, death enters deep into life: buried the earth
where you wept, destroyed the city with its senseless
bustle, the poor women, the bad poets, killed a lot of
them as they were waking up, went to work, unmoved,
a priest is crushed between two streetcars, no one troubles
about him,
thoughts pile up in my brain and resist my note-taking,
what use is a thought noted in my brain?,
they surface, sink back under: for good: women, men,
between delight and despair,
that idea of Kant’s: something about autumn colors,
you feel like spitting it right out again,
twelve o’clock: all the dreams go to pieces, the world
stops, comes back together, but nobody sees that,
the decisive coincidences congeal with the onset of
winter, two thousand undelivered winter vests totally
alter the face of the earth,
no worse rabble than writers, artists,
all achievements glossed over, tremen.dous exertions
dismissed with slander and silence,
the status of the writer is even lower than that of shopkeepers,
much lower than that of politicians,
to get to the writers: get down into the dirt,
you men don’t understand anything, she says, she
pushes me away, with her feet in my back, you cur, she
I’m completely spent and I go, and sure enough the
next day I can’t get in, she won’t open the door, she
simply will not let me in, leaves me standing outside
the door, toward morning I go for a walk in the park,
that evening I’m back at the crack of her door, she
opens it wide, laughs, falls on my neck, it’s just like it
always was, just like the first few days,
I write a line, how many weeks has it been that I haven’t
written a line?, it doesn’t matter whether a person
writes or not, what he writes, I’m constantly telling
myself how it doesn’t matter, pitiful, obscene, but this
line might be extended, developed, made into a poem,
into a scrap of paper, a lousy scrap of wind and rot, I
rummage around in my manuscripts, in this heap, in
these stacks of paper, I tear out a page here, a page
there, ten pages, twenty pages, a hundred pages, and
toss them into the stove,
I’m disgusted, I don’t find a thing, anything at all, not
a single comma, I’ll burn it all up,
but where are the matches?, I can’t set fire to it without
a match, I’m lying on my heap of paper and burning,
everything inside me is burning, I’m burning up on this
pile of shit, on this reeking shit-heap of mediocrity,
one day you’re cut off, at the very start you’re cut off
and can’t go back, the language you learn and the whole
business of walking and all the rest is for the sake of
the single thought, how to get back again,
they fill up their bellies with beer and sausage and
vomit it up again…
— from Thomas Bernhard, On The Mountain