kurt schwitters’s great dada love poem

File:An Anna Blume.jpg
 

"Anna Blume"

By Kurt Schwitters

 

“An Anna Blume” ("To Anna Flower") was written or perhaps more accurately constructed by the German artist Kurt Schwitters in 1919, and was soon interpreted as emblematic of the chaos of the times and a harbinger of the new poetic language.

 

O beloved of my twenty-seven senses, I

love your! – you ye you your, I your, you my.

–We?

This belongs (by the way) elsewhere.

Who are you, uncounted female? You are

–are you? People say you are, –let

them say on, they don’t know a hawk from a handsaw.

You wear your hat uon your feet and walk round

on your hands, upon your hands you walk.

Halloo, your red dress, sawn up in white pleats.

Red I love Anna Blume, red I love your! — You

ye you your, I your, you my. –We?

This belongs (by the way) in icy fire.

Red bloom, red Anna Blume, what do people say?

Prize question: 1.) Anna Blume has a bird.

2.) Anna Blume is red.

3.) What colour is the bird?

Blue is the color of your yellow hair.

Red is the cooing of your green bird.

You simple girl in a simple dress, you dear

green beast, I love your! You ye you your,

I your, you my. — We?

This belongs (by the way) in the chest of fires.

Anna Blume! Anna, a-n-n-a, I trickle your

name. Your name drips like softest tallow.

Do you know, Anna, do you know already?

You can also be read from behind, and you, you

the loveliest of all, are from behind, as you are from

before: “a-n-n-a”.

Tallow trickles caressingly down my back.

Anna Blume, you trickle beast, I love your!

 

Watch and listen to the poem in the original German here. For more on Schwitters’ music, go to this page on the great ubu.com site.

 

unica zürn’s dark spring: a portrait of the artist as a young corpse

Dark Spring is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel that reads more like an exorcism than a memoir. In it author Unica Zürn (1916-1970) traces the roots of her obsessions: The exotic father she idealized, the impure mother she detested, the masochistic fantasies and onanistic rituals which she said described “the erotic life of a little girl based on my own childhood.” Dark Spring is the story of a young girl’s simultaneous introduction to sexuality and mental illness, revealing a different aspect of the mad love so romanticized by the (predominantly male) Surrealists. Zürn emigrated in 1953 from her native Berlin to Paris in order to live with the artist Hans Bellmer. There she exhibited drawings as a member of the Surrealist group and collaborated with Bellmer on a series of notorious photographs of her nude torso bound with string. In 1957, a fateful encounter with the poet and painter Henri Michaux led to the first of what would become a series of mental crises, some of which she documented in her writings. She committed suicide in 1970—an act foretold in this, her last completed work. (Cribbed from the Web site of the great, great publisher of experimental literature, Exact Change).  


From Dark Spring:
 

Each time, she finds herself tormented by her terrible fear of the rattling skeleton of a huge gorilla, which she believes inhabits the house at night. The sole purpose of his existence is to strangle her to death. In passing, she looks, as she does every night, at the large Rubens painting depicting “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” These two naked, rotund women remind her of her mother and fill her with loathing. But she adores the two dark, handsome robbers, who lift the women onto their rearing horses. She implores them to protect her from the gorilla. She idolizes a whole series of fictional heroes who return her gaze from the old, dark paintings that hang throughout the house. One of them reminds her of Douglas Fairbanks, whom she adored as a pirate and as the “Thief of Baghdad” in the movie theater at school. She is sorry she must be a girl. She wants to be a man, in his prime, with a black beard and flaming black eyes. But she is only a little girl whose body is bathed in sweat from fear of discovering the terrible gorilla in her room, under her bed. She is tortured by fears of the invisible.

Who knows whether or not the skeleton will crawl up the twines of ivy that grow on the wall below her window, and then slip into her room. His mass of hard and pointed bones will simply crush her inside her bed. Her fear turns into a catastrophe when she accidentally bumps into the sabers, which fall off the wall with a clatter in the dark. She runs to her room as fast as she can and slams the door shut behind her. She turns the key and bolts the door. One again, she has come out of this alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow night? . . .

Sometimes, when Franz visits, he makes her laugh so hard that she ends up wetting her panties. The smell of it attracts the dog, who puts his head between her legs. This gives her an idea. She goes down to the basement and over to the dog pen, where she lies down on the cold cement floor with her legs spread apart. The dog starts to lick in between her legs. The cold only increases her sense of pleasure. Feeling the ecstasy, she arches her belly towards this patient tongue. Her back hurts from the hard stone. She loves to be in pain while enduring her pleasure. She is greatly aroused, even more so because of the possibility that, at any given moment, someone might come to watch her. Through the door she can hear the sound of her father’s secretary typing. While she yields to the dog’s tongue for hours, her brother discovers something new upstairs. Sitting at his mother’s dressing table, he busies himself with the electric vibrator their mother uses for her beauty care. This vibrator stimulates whichever part of the body it is applied to. The mother massages her face with it; the son puts it into his open pants. When she comes upstairs from the basement, weakened and dizzy, she sees her brother lose his semen, his head thrust back and his eyes closed. The sky has darkened. There is the threat of a thunderstorm and the atmosphere is tense. The adults pay no attention to the two children, who have nothing better to do than to keep experiencing, over and over again, this indescribably powerful feeling.

(pp 50-52; 57-59)

more from handke’s memoir of his mother


Shortly before I was born, my mother married a German army sergeant, who had been COURTING her for some time and didn’t mind her having a child by someone else. "It’s this one or none!" he had decided the first time he laid eyes on her, and bet his buddies that he would get her or, conversely, that she would take him. She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father); for the first time in her life she let herself be intimidated and laughed rather less. Besides, it impressed her that someone should have taken a shine to her.

"Anyway, I figured he’d be killed in the war," she told me. "But then all of a sudden I started worrying about him."

In any case, she was now entitled to a family allotment. With the child she went to Berlin to stay with her husband’s parents. They tolerated her. When the first bombs fell, she went back home—the old story. She began to laugh again, sometimes so loudly that everyone cringed.

She forgot her husband, squeezed her child so hard that it cried, and kept to herself in this house where, after the death of her brothers, those who remained looked uncomprehendingly through one another. Was there, then, nothing more? Had that been all? Masses for the dead, childhood diseases, drawn curtains, corre­spondence with old acquaintances of carefree days, making herself useful in the kitchen and in the fields, running out now and then to move the child into the shade; then, even here in the country, air-raid sirens, the population scrambling into the cave shelters, the first bomb crater, later used for children’s games and as a garbage dump.

The days were haunted, and once again the outside world, which years of daily contact had wrested from the nightmares of childhood and made familiar, became an impalpable ghost.

My mother looked on in wide-eyed astonishment. Fear didn’t get the better of her; but sometimes, infected by the general fright, she would burst into a sudden laugh, partly because she was ashamed that her body had suddenly made itself so churlishly independent. In her childhood and even more so in her young girlhood, "Aren’t you ashamed?" or "You ought to be ashamed!" had rung in her ears like a litany. In this rural, Catholic environ­ment, any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence: disapproving looks, until shame, at first acted out in fun, became real and frightened away the most elementary feelings. Even in joy, a "woman’s blush," because joy was something to be ashamed of; in sadness, she turned red rather than pale and instead of bursting into tears broke out in sweat.

In the city my mother had thought she had found a way of life that more or less suited her, that at least made her feel good. Now she came to realize that by excluding every other alternative, other people’s way of life had set itself up as the one and only hope of salvation. When, in speaking of herself, she went beyond a state­ment of fact, she was silenced by a glance.

A bit of gaiety, a dance step while working, the humming of a song hit, were foolishness, and soon she herself thought so, because no one reacted and she was left alone with her gaiety. In part, the others lived their own lives as an example; they ate so little as an example, were silent in each other’s presence as an example, and went to confession only to remind the stay-at-homes of their sins. And so she was starved. Her little attempts to explain herself were futile mutterings. She felt free—but there was nothing she could do about it. The others, to be sure, were children; but it was oppressive to be looked at so reproachfully, especially by children.

When the war was over, my mother remembered her husband and, though no one had asked for her, went to Berlin. Her husband, who had also forgotten that he had once courted her on a bet, was living with a girl friend in Berlin; after all, there had been a war on.

But she had her child with her, and without enthusiasm they both took the path of duty.

They lived in a sublet room in Berlin-Pankow. The husband worked as a streetcar motorman and drank, worked as a streetcar conductor and drank, worked as a baker and drank. Taking with her her second child, who had been born in the meantime, his wife went to see his employer and begged him to give her husband one more chance, the old story.

In this life of misery, my mother lost her country-round cheeks and achieved a certain chic. She carried her head high and acquired a graceful walk. Whatever she put on was becoming to her. She had no need of fox furs. When her husband sobered up and clung to her and told her he loved her, she gave him a merciful, pitying smile. By then, she had no illusions about anything.

They went out a good deal, an attractive couple. When he was drunk, he got FRESH and she had to be SEVERE with him. Then he would beat her because she had nothing to say to him, when it was he who brought home the bacon.

Without his knowledge, she gave herself an abortion with a knitting needle.

For a time he lived with his parents; then they sent him back to her. Childhood memories: the fresh bread that he sometimes brought home; the black, fatty loaves of pumpernickel around which the dismal room blossomed into life; my mother’s words of praise.

In general, these memories are inhabited more by things than by people: a dancing top in a deserted street amid ruins, oat flakes in a sugar spoon, gray mucus in a tin spittoon with a Russian trademark; of people, only separated parts: hair, cheeks, knotted scars on fingers; from her childhood days my mother had a swollen scar on her index finger; I held on to it when I walked beside her.

 

* * *

 

And so she was nothing and never would be anything; it was so obvious that there was no need of a forecast. She already said "in my day," though she was not yet thirty. Until then, she hadn’t resigned herself, but now life became so hard that for the first time she had to listen to reason. She listened to reason, but understood nothing.

She had already begun to work something out and even, as far as possible, to live accordingly. She said to herself: "Be sensible"—the reason reflex—and "All right, I’ll behave."

And so she budgeted herself and also learned to budget people and objects, though on that score there was little to be learned: the people in her life—her husband, whom she couldn’t talk to, and her children, whom she couldn’t yet talk to—hardly counted, and objects were available only in minimal quantities. Consequently, she became petty and niggardly: Sunday shoes were not to be worn on weekdays, street clothes were to be hung up as soon as you got home, her shopping bag wasn’t a toy, the warm bread was for the next day. (Later on, my confirmation watch was locked up right after my confirmation.)

Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy. She hid her touchiness behind an anxious, exaggerated dignity, but at the slightest provo­cation a defenseless, panic-stricken look shone through. She was easily humiliated.

Like her father, she thought the time had come to deny herself everything, but then with a shamefaced laugh she would ask the children to let her lick their candy.

The neighbors liked her and admired her for her Austrian sociability and gaiety; they thought her FRANK and SIMPLE, not coquettish and affected like city people; there was no fault to be found with her.

She also got on well with the Russians, because she could make herself understood in Slovenian. With them she talked and talked, saying everything she was able to say in the words common to both languages; that unburdened her.

But she never had any desire for an affair. Her heart had grown heavy too soon: the shame that had always been preached at her and finally become a part of her. An affair, to her mind, could only mean someone "wanting something" of her, and that put her off; she, after all, didn’t want anything of anybody. The men she later liked to be with were GENTLEMEN: their company gave her a pleasant feeling that took the place of affection. As long as there was someone to talk with, she felt relaxed and almost happy. She let no one come too close; she could have been approached only with the delicacy which in former days had enabled her to feel that she belonged to herself—but that was long ago; she remembered it only in her dreams.

She became sexless; everything went into the trivia of daily life.

She wasn’t lonely; at most, she sensed that she was only a half. But there was no one to supply the other half. "We rounded each other out so well," she said, thinking back on her days with the savings-bank clerk; that was her ideal of eternal love.

 

Continue reading

from kafka’s the zürau aphorisms

 

1.

 

The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.

 

2.

All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.

  

3.

There are two cardinal human vices, from which all the others derive their being: impatience and carelessness. Impatience got people evicted from Paradise; carelessness kept them from making their way back there. Or perhaps there is only one cardinal vice: impatience. Impatience got people evicted, and impatience kept them from making their way back.

 

 4.

Many of the shades of the departed busy themselves entirely with lapping at the waters of the Acheron, because it comes from us and still carries the salt tang of our seas. This causes the river to coil with revulsion, and even to reverse its course, and so to wash the dead back to life. They are perfectly happy, and sing chorus of gratitude, and caress the indignant river.

 

 5.

From a certain point on there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.

 

6.

The decisive moment of human development is continually at hand. This is why those movements of revolutionary thought that declare everything preceding to be an irrelevance are correct—because as yet nothing has happened.

 

7.

One of the most effective seductions of Evil is the call to struggle. It’s like the struggle with women, which ends up in bed.

 

8/9.

A smelly bitch that has brought forth plenty of young, already rotting in places, but that to me in my childhood meant everything, who continue to follow me faithfully everywhere, whom I am quite incapable of disciplining, but before whom I shrink back, step by step, shying away from her breath, and who will end up—unless I decide otherwise—forcing me into a corner that I can already see, there to decompose fully and utterly on me and with me, until finally—is it a distinction?—the pus- and worm-ravaged flesh of her tongue laps at my hand.

 

—from Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms. Trans. Michael Hofmann.  New York: Schocken, 2006.

 

paul ricoeur on narrative, identity and robert musil

 

The lesson that narrativity also has its unsettling cases is taught to perfection in contemporary plays and novels. To begin with, these cases can be described as fictions of the loss of identity. With Robert Musil, for example, The Man without Qualities — or more precisely, without properties (ohne Eingenschaften) — becomes ultimately nonidentifiable in a world, it is said, of qualities (or properties) without men. The anchor of the proper noun becomes ridiculous to the point of being superfluous. The nonidentifiable becomes the unnameable. To see more clearly the philosophical issues in this eclipse of the identity of the character, it is important to note that, as the narrative approaches the point of annihilation of the character, the novel also loses its own properly narrative qualities … To the loss of the identity of the character thus corresponds the loss of configuration of the narrative … these unsettling cases of narrativity can be reinterpreted as exposing selfhood by taking away the support of sameness.

—from Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992

  

 

film theorist siegfried kracauer on boredom — 85 years ago (!)

Siegfried Kracauer was one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant cultural critics, a daring and prolific scholar, and an incisive theorist of film…. [his] book is a celebration of the massestheir tastes, amusements, and everyday lives. Taking up themes of modernity, such as isolation and alienation, urban culture, and the relation between the group and the individual, Kracauer explores a kaleidoscope of topics: shopping arcades, the cinema, bestsellers and their readers, photography, dance, hotel lobbies, Kafka, the Bible, and boredom. For Kracauer, the most revelatory facets of modern life in the West lie on the surface, in the ephemeral and the marginal. Of special fascination to him is the United States, where he eventually settled after fleeing Germany and whose culture he sees as defined almost exclusively by "the ostentatious display of surface."

 

—from http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/KRAMAS.html

 

 

"Boredom"

Siegfried Kracauer

 

People today who still have time for boredom and yet are not bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around to being bored. For their self has vanished—the self whose presence, particularly in this so bustling world, would necessarily compel them to tarry for a while without a goal, neither here nor there.

 

Most people, of course, do not have much leisure time. They pursue a livelihood on which they expend all their energies, simply to earn enough for the bare necessities. To make this tiresome obligation more tolerable, they have invented a work ethic that provides a moral veil for their occupation and at least affords them a certain moral satisfaction. It would be exaggerated to claim that the pride in considering oneself an ethical being dispels every type of boredom. Yet the vulgar boredom of daily drudgery is not actually what is at issue here, since it neither kills people nor awakens them to new life, but merely expresses a dissatisfaction that would immediately disappear if an occupation more pleasant than the morally sanctioned one became available. Nevertheless, people whose duties occasionally make them yawn may be less boring than those who do their business by inclination. The latter, unhappy types, are pushed deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until eventually they no longer know where their head is, and the extraordinary, radical boredom that might be able to reunite them with their heads remains eternally distant for them.

 

There is no one, however, who has no leisure time at all. The office is not a permanent sanctuary, and Sundays are an institution. Thus in principle, those beautiful hours of free time everyone would have the opportunity to rouse himself into real boredom. But although one wants to do nothing, things are done to one: the world makes sure that one does not find oneself. And even if one perhaps isn’t interested in it, the world itself is much too interested for one to find the peace and quiet necessary to be as thoroughly bored with the world as it ultimately deserves.

 

In the evening one saunters through the streets, replete with an unfulflllment from which a fullness could sprout. Illuminated words glide by on the rooftops, and already one is banished from one’s own emptiness into the alien advertisement. One’s body takes root in the asphalt, and, together with the enlightening revelations of the illuminations, one’s Spirit—which is no longer one’s own—roams ceaselessly out of the night and into the night. If only it were allowed to disappear! But, like Pegasus prancing on a carousel, this spirit must run in circles and may never tire of praising tohigh heaven the glory of a liqueur and the merit of the best five-cent cigarette. Some sort of magic spurs that spirit relentlessly amid the thousand electric bulbs, out of which it constitutes and reconstitutes itself into glittering sentences.

 

Should the spirit by chance return at some point, it soon takes its leave in order to allow itself to be cranked away in various guises in a movie theater. It squats as a fake Chinaman in a fake opium den, transforms itself into a trained dog that performs ludicrously clever tricks to please a film diva, gathers up into a storm amid towering mountain peaks, and turns into both a circus artist and a lion at the same time. How could it resist these metamorphoses? The posters swoop into the empty space that the spirit itself would not mind pervading; they drag it in front of the silver screen, which is as barren as an emptied-out palazzo. And once the images begin to emerge one after another, there is nothing left in the world besides their evanescence. One forgets oneself in the process of gawking, and the huge dark hole is animated with the Illusion of a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone.

 

Radio likewise vaporizes beings, even before they have intercepted a single spark. Since many people feel compelled to broadcast, one finds oneself in a state of permanent receptivity, constantly pregnant with London, the Eiffel Tower, and Berlin. Who would want to resist the invitation of those dainty headphones? They gleam in living rooms and entwine themselves around heads all by themselves; and instead of fostering cultivated conversation (which certainly can be a bore), one becomes a playground for worldwide noises that, regardless of their own potentially objective boredom, do not even grant one’s modest right to personal boredom. Silent and lifeless, people sit side by side as if their souls were wandering about far awav. But these souls are not wandering according to their own preference; they are badgered by the news hounds, and soon no one can tell anymore who is the hunter and who is the hunted. Even in the cafe, where one wants to roll up into a ball like a porcupine and become aware of one’s insignificance, an imposing loudspeaker effaces every trace of private existence. The announcements it blares forth dominate the space of the concert intermissions, and the waiters (who are listening to it themselves) indignantly refuse the unreasonable requests to get rid of this gramophonic mimicry.

 

As one is enduring this species of antennal fate, the five continents are drawing ever closer. In truth, it is not we who extend ourselves out toward them; rather, it is their cultures that appropriate us in their boundless imperialism. It is as if one were having one of those dreams provoked by an empty stomach: a tiny ball rolls toward you from very far away, expands into a close-up, and finally roars right over you. You can neither stop it nor escape it, but lie there chained, a helpless little doll swept away by the giant colossus in whose ambit it expires. Flight is impossible. Should the Chinese imbroglio be tactfully disembroiled, one is sure to be harried by an American boxing match: the Occident remains omnipresent, whether one acknowledges it or not. All the world-historical events on this planet—not only the current ones but also past events, whose love of life knows no shame—have only one desire: to set up a rendezvous wherever they suppose us to be present. But the masters are not to be found in their quarters. They’ve gone on a trip, having long since ceded the chambers to the ‘surprise party’ that occupies the rooms, pretending to be the masters. But what if one refuses to allow oneself to be chased away? Then boredom becomes the only proper occupation, since it provides a kind of guarantee that one is, so to speak, still in control of one’s own existence. If one were never bored, one would presumably not really be present at all and would thus be merely one more object of boredom, as was claimed at the outset. One would light up on the rooftops or spool by as a filmstrip. But if indeed one ¡s present, one would have no choice but to be bored by the ubiquitous abstract racket that does not allow one to exist, and, at the same time, to find oneself boring for existing in it.

 

On a sunny afternoon when everyone is outside, one would do best to hang about in the train station or, better yet, stay at home, draw the curtains, and surrender oneself to one’s boredom on the sofa. Shrouded in tristezza, one flirts with ideas that even become quite respectable in the process, and one considers various projects that, for no reason, pretend to be serious. Eventually one becomes content to do nothing more than be with oneself, without knowing what one actually should be doing—sympathetically touched by the mere glass grasshopper on the tabletop that cannot jump because it is made of glass and by the silliness of a little cactus plant that thinks nothing of its own whimsicality. Frivolous, like these decorative creations, one harbors only an inner restlessness without a goal, a longing that is pushed aside, and a weariness with that which exists without really being.

 

If, however, one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly. A landscape appears in which colorful peacocks strut about, and images of people suffused with soul come into view. And look—your own soul is likewise swelling, and in ecstasy you name what you have always lacked: the great passion. Were this passion—which shimmers like a comet—to descend, were it to envelop you, the others, and the world—oh, then boredom would come to an end, and everything that exists would be . . .

 

Yet people remain distant images, and the great passion fizzles out on the horizon. And in the boredom that refuses to abate, one hatches bagatelles that are as boring as this one.

 

—first published in 1924. In Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (1995)

bernhard on the art of the aphorism

I write aphorisms, he said over and over, I thought, that is a minor art of the intellectual asthma from which certain people, above all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses’ night tables, I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room; the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting.”

—from Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, p. 64

“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

WHEN OPERETTA H EROES ACTED OUT

THE OF TRAGEDY MANKIND

 

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

endureit

because we have turned our existence

into an entertainment mechanism

nothing but a shoddy entertainment mechanism

madame

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-

periences.

 

"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.

“in every soup you find a nazi”: thomas bernhard’s “the german lunch table”

"The German Lunch Table"

("Der deutsche Mittagstisch")

 

A Tragedy

to be performed

by the Vienna State Theatre

when Touring Germany

 

Thomas Bernhard

 

Translated by Gitta Honegger

 

 

 

 

Herr and Frau Bernhard, their daughters, their sons, their grandsons and granddaughters, their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters, and their closest relatives—ninety-eight people around a small, not quite round, lunch table. Natural oak.

 

HERR BERNHARD:

(Scoldingly.)

You must take your time

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

Take the time

 

HERR BERNHARD:

To eat

Think of your mother and of her mother and of the mother of your mother’s mother

 

(Everyone, except Herr and Frau Bernhard, looking at each other.)

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

 

The revolution will destroy all of you, then you won’t be getting soup like this anymore

 

THE YOUNGEST OF THE GREAT-GRANDSONS:

(Screams.)

And no more potatoes

 

THE OLDEST OF THE GREAT-GRANDSONS:

Not one potato in all of Germany.

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

(Hoarsely.)

Because cancer-care has eaten up everything

 

HERR BERNHARD:

 

And NATO

And those AWACS

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

(To everyone.)

Don’t you ever say out loud what we just said

 

(Asks.)

Isn’t this delicious soup

 

(Everyone nods.)

 

THE SECOND ELDEST GREAT-GRANDSON:

(Not great-great grandson!)

Our new President is a Nazi

 

THE THIRD ELDEST GREAT-GREAT GRANDSON:

(Not great-grandson!)

And our last President was a Nazi too

 

THE OLDEST GRANDSON:

The Germans are all Nazis

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

Stop talking about politics

Eat your soup

 

HERR BERNHARD:

 

(Jumps up.)

 

I had enough now

In every soup you find a Nazi

 

(Hits with both hands the bottom of his still full soup plate.)

 

Nazi soup

Nazi Soup

Nazi Soup

 

(Frau Bernhard has jumped up, screams and points her index finger at Herr Bernhard’s pants.)

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

 

There you see

He’s wearing Nazi pants

Nazi pants that’s what he’s wearing

 

 

THE OLDEST GREAT-GRANDSON:

(Screaming.)

 

The Nazi pants

The German Nazi-father-pants

 

(Frau Bernhard sinks back into her chair and covers her face with both hands.)

 

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

How ashamed I am

Good God

Oh God help me how ashamed I am

Like President Scheel like Scheel like Scheel

 

THE YOUNGEST GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER:

(Loudly.)

 

And like President Carstens

And like Carstens

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

Do we have to go through this

 

HERR BERNHARD:

It’s always the same as soon as we sit down at our table around the oak someone finds a Nazi in his soup

Instead of our good old noodle-soup we’re getting Nazi soup every day now

Only Nazis and no noodles

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

Listen to me dearest husband

You can’t get noodles anymore anywhere in Germany only Nazis

No matter where we buy our noodles it’s Nazis we get

No matter what package we open it’s always Nazis spilling out and when we cook the stuff it’s always boiling over

It’s not my fault

 

(Everyone throws down their spoons.)

 

THE YOUNGEST GREAT-GRANDSON:

Why don’t you leave mother alone

 

FRAU BERNHARD:

(Her face buried in her German mother’s apron, meekly.)

After all all of you were spoon-fed on National Socialism.

 

(They all throw themselves on Frau Bernhard and strangle her. The oldest great-grandson screams into the silence:)

 

Mother

 

(Curtain.)

 

Translation copyright 1981 by Gitta Honegger.

 

thomas bernhard’s book-long elegy for paul wittgenstein

excerpts from Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Cover Image

on bernhard’s illness, doctors and hospitals

In 1967, one of the indefatigable nursing sisters in the Hermann Pavilion on the Baumgartnerhöhe placed on my bed a copy of my newly published Gargoyles, which I had written a year earlier at 60 rue de la Croix in Brussels, but I had not the strength to pick it up, having just come round from a general anesthesia lasting several hours, during which the doctors had cut open my neck and removed a fist-sized tumor from my thorax. As I recall, it was at the time of the Six-Day War, and after undergoing a strenuous course of cortisone treatment, I developed a moonlike face, just as the doctors had intended. (1)

 

 

Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal their incompetence and cloak their charlantanry. From the very start of their treatment, which is known to emply the most inhuman, murderous, and deadly methods, Latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves and their victims. Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science. (8)

The Ludwig Pavilion was now Paul’s residence. And I suddenly hesitated, wondering whether it was really wise to establish a link between the Ludwig Pavilion and the Hermann Pavilion, whether it might not do both of us more harm than good. For who knows, I thought, what state he’s really in? Perhaps he’s in a state that can only be harmful to me, in which case I’d better not visit him for the time being. I won’t establish a link between the Hermann Pavilion and the LudwigPavilion. And if I did make an appearance in the Ludwig Pavilion, I thought, especially a surprise appearance, it might have a devastating effect on my friend too. I was suddenly scared of seeing him, and I thought of letting our friend Irina decide whether or not it was advisable to make contact between the Hermann Pavilion and the Ludwig Pavilion. (31)

 

the healthy and the sick

The healthy never had the patience with the sick, nor, of course the sick ever had the patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten.

 

When a sick person, having ceded the place that he once occupied by right, suddenly demands its restitution, the healthy regard this as an act of monstrous presumption. A sick person who returns home always feels like an intruder in an area where he no longer has any business to be. It is a well-known pattern the world over: a sick person goes away, and once he is gone the healthy move in and take over the place he formerly occupied, yet instead of dying, as he was meant to do, he suddenly returns, wishing to resume and repossess his former place. The healthy are incensed, since the reappearance of this person whom they had already written off forces them back into their previous confines, and this is the last thing they want. The sick person needs the most superhuman strength if he is to resume and repossess his former place. (48-9)

paul wittgenstein joins bernhard on a road trip (for a newspaper)

On one occasion I had to have a copy of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung because I wanted to read an article about Mozart’s Zaïde that was due to appear in it. believing that o could obtain a copy in Salzburg, I drove the fifty miles to this so-called world-famous festival city, with Paul and a woman friend of ours, in her car.  But the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had in Salzburg. Then I had the idea of getting a copy in Bad Reichenhall, and so we drive to this world-famous spa. But the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had there either, and so we drove back to Nathal, somewhat disappointed. Just outside Nathal, Paul suddenly proposed that we drive to Bad Hall, another world-famous spa, where we would be sure to get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and so be able to read the article on Zaïde. So we actually drove the fifty miles from Nathal to Bad Hall. But the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had there either. Since it was just a stone’s throw, a mere twelve miles, from Bad Hall to Steyr, we drove to Steyr, but the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had there either. We then tried our luck in Wels, but the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was not to be had in Wels either. In all, we had driven two hundred and twenty miles just to get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and all to no avail. As may be imagined, we were completely exhausted, and so we went to a restaurant in Wels to relax and have something to eat, as the hunt for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung having brought us to the limit of our physical endurance. It occurs to me now, as I recall this episode, that Paul and I were very much alike. Had we not been totally exhausted, we would certainly have driven on to Linz and Passsau, perhaps even to Regensburg and Munich, and in the end we would have thought nothing of simply driving to Zürich to buy the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for in Zürich, I fancy, we would have been certain to get a copy. Since we failed to get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that day, because it is not taken in any of the places we visited, even during the summer months, I can only describe these places as miserable shitpots, which thoroughly deserve this description, if not an even shittier one. I also realized at the time that no one with intellectual pretensions could possibly exist in a place where the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is unobtainable. To think that I can get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung all the year round in Spain and Portugal and Morocco, even in the smallest town boasting only one drafty hotel—but not in this country! And the fact that we could not get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in all these

presumably important towns, not even in Salzburg, all our rage blistered against this backward, narrow-minded, hick, and simultaneously repulsively megalomaniacal country. We should live only where we could get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, I said, and Paul agreed absolutely. But then in Austria there’s only really just Vienna, he said, since in all the other towns where it would seem one would get the Neue Zürcher Zeitung one as a matter of fact cannot get it at all. At least not every day and just when one would want it, when one absolutely needs it. It occurs to me that even now I haven’t gotten to the article on Zaïde yet. I’ve long since forgotten the article and I’ve naturally also survived without this article. But at the time I had thought I had to have it. And Paul supported me in this absolute demand, and, what’s more, he as a matter of fact led me through half of Austria for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. (53-55)

 


paul wittgenstein’s caustic criticism

He was the most ruthless observer and constantly found occasion to accuse. Nothing escaped his accusing tongue. Those who came under his scrutiny survived only a very short time before being savaged; . . . he would lambaste them with the same words that I myself employ when I am roused to indignation, when I am forced to defend myself and take action against the insolence of the world in order not to be put down and annihilated by it. (60-61)

 

 

literary awards

If one disregards the money that goes with them, there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies. I had already discovered this in Germany. They do nothing to enhance one’s standing, as I had believed before I received my first prize, but actually lower it, in the most embarrassing fashion. Only the thought of the money enabled me to endure these ceremonies; this was my sole motive for visiting various ancient city halls and tasteless assembly rooms—until the age of forty. I submitted to the indignity of these award ceremonies—until the age of forty. I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it. Only in extremities, when one’s life and existence are threatened—and only until the age of forty—is one justified in receiving any prize of distinction, with or without an accompanying sum of money. When I received my prizes I did not have the excuse that I was suffering extreme hardship or that my life and existence were threatened; hence by receiving them I made myself not only low and contemptible but positively vile, in the truest sense of the word. (66-67)

 

 

The encomium delivered by the minister in the audience chamber of the ministry was utter nonsense, because he merely read out from a sheet of paper what had been written down for him by one of his officials charged with literary affairs. He said, for instance, that I had written a novel about the south seas, which of course I had not. And although I have been an Austrian all my life, the minister stated that I was Dutch. He also stated that I specialized in adventure novels, though this was news to me. More than once during his encomium he said that I was a foreigner, a visitor to Austria. (70)

 

 

Accepting a prize is in itself an act of perversity, my friend Paul told me at the time, but accepting a state prize is the greatest. (72-3)

 

 

Just before the ceremony, in great haste and with the greatest reluctance, I had jotted down a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man is a wretched creature and death a certainty. After I had delivered my speech, 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. (73)

 

 

the city versus the country

As Paul once put it, people who leave the city for the country and want to keep up their intellectual standards have to be equipped with tremendous potential, with incredible mental resources, yet sooner or later even they are prone to stagnation and atrophy, and by the time they become aware of this process itis usually too late, and they inevitably come to a miserable end without being able to help themselves. Hence, throughout the years of my friendship with Paul I accustomed myself to the lifesaving rhythm of constantly switching between the city and the country, a rhythm that I intend to maintain for the rest of my life—going to Vienna at least every other week, and at least every other week to the country. For in the country the mind is drained just as fast as it is recharged in Vienna—faster, in fact, since the country always treats the mind more cruelly than the city ever can. The country robs a thinking person of everything and gives him virtually nothing, whereas the city is perpetually giving. One has simply to see this, and of course feel it, but very few either see it or feel it, with the result that most people are sentimentally drawn to the country, where in no time they are inevitably sucked dry, deflated, and destroyed. The mind cannot develop in the country; it can develop only in the city, yet today everyone flees from the city to the country because people are basically too indolent to use their minds, on which the city makes the greatest demands, and so they choose to perish surrounded by nature, admiring it without knowing it, instead of seizing upon all the benefits the city has to offer, which have increased and multiplied quite miraculously over the years, and never more so than in recent years. I know how deadly the country is, and whenever possible I feel from it to some big city—no matter what it is called or how ugly it is—which always does me a hundred times more good than the country. (76-7)

 

on suicide

For years I had taken refuge in a terrible suicidal brooding, which deadened my mind and made everything unendurable, above all myself—brooding on the utter futility all around me, into which I had been plunged by my general weakness, but above all my weakness of character. For a long time I could not imagine being able to go on living, or even existing. I was no longer capable of seizing upon any purpose in life that would have given me control over myself. Every morning on waking I was inevitably caught up in this mechanism of suicidal brooding, and I remained in its grip throughout the day. (79-80)

  


on viennese coffehouses

Sitting on the park bench, I recalled that at the Sacher he always preferred to sit in the right-hand lounge, because he found the chairs there more comfortable but above all because he judged the paintings on the walls to be better executed, while I naturally preferred to sit in the left-hand lounge, because of the foreign newspapers, especially the English and French newspapers, that were always available there and because of the more wholesome air. When we went to the Sacher, therefore, we would sit sometimes in the right-hand and sometimes in the left-hand lounge. When I was in Vienna (and in those years I spent most of my time in Vienna) the Sacher was our favorite resort, since it was ideally suited to our speculations; it therefore went without saying that we would meet there or, if for some reason the Sacher was out of the question, at the Ambassador. I have known the Sacher for nearly thirty years, since the time when I used to sit there nearly every day with friends belonging to the circle of the brilliant composer Lampersberg, who was also as mad as he was brilliant. At this time, around 1957, I had just completed my studies, and it wasthe most difficult period of my life. These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house—not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant, but to one frequented by their victims. At the Sacher I could get all the newspapers, which I have always had to have since the age of twenty-two or twenty-three, and could spend hours study them in one of the comfortable corners of the left-hand lounge without being disturbed. I can still see myself sitting there for whole mornings, scanning the pages of Le Monde or The Times and never having my enjoyment interrupted for a moment; as far as I recall I was never disturbed at the Sacher. At the literary coffeehouse I could never have devoted myself to the newspapers for a whole morning without interruption; before so much as half an hour had passed I would have been disturbed by some writer making his entrance, accompanied by his retinue. I always found such company distasteful because it deflected me from my real intentions, rudely impeding what I considered essential and never facilitating it, as I would have wished. The literary coffeehouses have a foul atmosphere, irritating to the nerves and deadening to the mind. I have never learned anything new there but only been annoyed and irritated and pointlessly depressed. At the Sacher I was never irritate or depressed, or even annoyed, and very often I was actually able to work—in my own fashion, of course, not in the fashion of those who work in the literary coffeehouses. At the Bräuenerhof, above which my friend had lived for years before we met, I am still put off by the foul aim and the poor lighting, which is kept down to a minimum—doubtless from perverse considerations of economy—and in which I have never been able to read a single line without effort. I also disliked the seating, which is inevitably damaging to the spinal column, however briefly one sits there—to say nothing of the pungent smell that emanates from the kitchen and very soon get into one’s clothes. Yet at the same time the Bräunerhof has great merits, though these do not suffice for my peculiar purposes. These consist of the extreme attentiveness of the waiters and the unfailing courtesy of the proprietor, which is neither exaggerated nor perfunctory. But at the Bräunerhof a dreadful twilight reigns all day long—a boon to young couples or old invalids but not to someone like myself, who wishes to concentrate on studying books and newspapers. I attach the utmost importance to reading books and newspapers every morning, and in the course of my intellectual life I have specialized in reading English and French newspapers, having found the German press unbearable every since I first began to read. What is the Frankfurter Allegemeine, for instance, compared with The Times, I have often asked myself, what is the Süddeutsche Zeitung beside Le Monde? The answer is that the Germans are just not English and certainly not French. From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets—to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper? At the Bräunerhof one’s thoughts are immediately stifled by cigarette smoke and kitchen fumes, and by the twaddle that is talked by the semi-educated and the demisemi-educated of Vienna as they let off their social steam at midday. At the Bräunerhof people talk either too loudly or too softly for my liking, and the service is either too slow or too fast. The Bräunerhof is inimical to all my daily requirements, yet thisis precisely what makes it the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse—like the Café Hawelka, completely downmarket. I have always detested the typical Viennese coffeehouse, famous the world over, because I find everything about it inimical to me. Yet for many years it was at the Bräunerhof that I felt at home, despite the fact that, like the Hawelka, it was always totally inimical to me, just as I felt at home at the Café Museum and at the various other establishments I frequented during my years in Vienna. I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse, but I go on visiting them. I have visited them everyday, for although I have always hated them—and because I have always hated them—I have always suffered for the Viennese coffeehouse disease. I have suffered more from this disease than from any other. I frankly have to admit that I still suffer from this disease, which has proved the most intractable of all. The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind. I find myself insupportable, and even more insupportable is a whole horde of writers and brooders like myself. I avoid literature whenever possible, because whenever possible I avoid myself, and so when I am in Vienna I have to forbid myself to visit the coffeehouses, or at least I have to be careful not to visit a so-called literary coffeehouse under any circumstances whatever. However, suffering as I do from the coffeehouse disease, I feel an unremitting compulsion to visit some literary coffeehouse or other, even thought everything within me rebels against the idea. The truth is that the more deeply I detest the literary coffeehouse of Vienna, the most strongly I feel compelled to frequent them. Who knows how my life would have developed if I had not met Paul Wittgenstein at the height of the crisis that, but for him, would probably have pitched me headlong into the literary world, the most repellent of all worlds, the world of Viennese writers and their intellectual morass, for at the height of this crisis the obvious course would have been to take the easy way out, to make myself cheap and compliant, to surrender and throw in my lot with the literary fraternity. Paul preserved me from this, since he had always detested the literary coffeehouses. It was thus not without reason, but more or less to save myself, that from one day to the next I stopped frequenting the so-called literary coffeehouses and started going to the Sacher with him—no longer to the Hawelka but to the Ambassador, etc., until eventually the moment came when I could once more permit myself to go to the literary coffeehouse, when they no longer had such a deadly effect on me. For the truth is that the literary coffeehouses do have a deadly effect on a writer. (82-87)

on travelling and (not) feeling at home

Yet it is equally true that I am still more at home in my Viennese coffeehouses that I am in my own house at Nathal. I am more at home in Vienna generally than I am in Upper Austria, which I prescribed for myself as a survival therapy sixteen years ago, though I have never been able to regard it as my home. This is no doubt because right from the beginning I isolated myself far too much in Nathal and not only did nothing to counter this isolation but actually promoted it, consciously or unconsciously, to the point of utter despair. After all, I have always been a townsman, a city dweller, and the fact that I spent my earliest childhood in Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest seaport, has always had an importanceinfluence on my life; it is therefore not without reason that once I am in Vienna, I find that I can breathe freely again. On the other hand, after a few days in Vienna I have to flee to Nathal to avoid suffocating in the loathsome Viennese air. Hence, in recent years I have made a habit of switching between Vienna and Nathal at least every other week. Every other week I flee from Nathal to Vienna and then from Vienna to Nathal, with the result that I have become a restless character who is driven back and forth between Vienna and Nathal in order to survive, whose very existence depends on this strictly imposed rhythm—coming to Nathal to recover from Vienna, and going to Vienna to recuperate from Nathal. (87)

 

 

I did the same—naturally on a more modest scale, though no less obsessively—switching between Nathal and Vienna, between Venice and Vienna, even between Rome and Vienna. I am the happiest traveler—when I am on the move, moving on or moving off—but the unhappiest arriver. Clearly this is a morbid condition. (89)

 

 

bernhard’s the hunting party and viennese theatre

During the journey I recalled his behavior at the first performance of my play The Hunting Party, an unprecedented flop for which the Burgtheater provided all the requisite conditions. The absolutely third-rate actors who performed in the play did not give it a chance, as I was soon forced to recognize, in the first place because they did not understand it and in the second because they had a low opinion of it, but being a makeshift cast assembled at short notice, they had no option but to act in it. (93-4)

 

 

Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed, decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all the decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded—on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public— though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world.

(94-5)

 

paul wittgenstein’s death
 
I had possibly never had a better friend than the one who was compelled to lie in bed, probably in a pitiful condition, in the apartment above me, and whom I no longer visited because I was afraid of a direct confrontation with death. (98)

 

 

I had met Paul, as I know see, precisely at that time when he was obviously beginning to die, and I had traced his dying over a period of more than twelve years. And I had used Paul’s dying for my own advantage, exploiting it for all I was worth. It seems to me that I was basically nothing but the twelve-year witness of his dying, who drew from his friend’s dying much of the strength he needed for his own survival. It is not farfetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible. (99).

 

 

He lies, as they say, in the Central Cemetery in Vienna. To this day I have not visited his grave. (100).

 

 

—from Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1989)