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.



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)