‘We Earn Nothing but Chaos’: Some Notes on Thomas Bernhard
by Nathan Knapp
First reading him, like first reading Dostoevsky, is either noxious or harrowing or both, not unlikely to have a deleterious effect on one’s mental and perhaps even physical health, as if one has entered a factory or refinery, or better, a sawmill evilly used for the carving up not of trees but great hunks of metal and steel, for a tour filled with carcinogenic and poisonous fumes. The workings are fearsome to behold, the noise unbearable, the walkways above the massive woodchippers or vats of molten steel precarious. One senses that an infection of some sort is inevitable. Worst of all: our guide cannot stop shouting. The source of his anger is unclear, diffuse, all-encompassing — but also nothing: he isn’t angry about anything just now. He’s looking into the machine. His tone has changed, waxing now not with fury but admiration — have you ever seen such a machine, he asks, impatient, multiplying adjectives, stretching syntactical structures to their furiously exhausted breaking points. It would seem he has spent his entire life looking into such a mechanism, contraption, apparatus, its inner workings as elegant as they are horrific, every part replicated in smaller and smaller parts, which themselves expand and vary into infinity, describing it all with the elegant terror of a Pascal looking for and not finding God in the abyss. Any thought of going back can be safely set aside: you’ve long since lost your way, and besides, that last walkway — the one over the vat of molten steel — seems to have fallen into it. Continue or be liquified.
God in his Rilkean loneliness created the world. Weaker than Bernhard, God created a story that allowed Him to claim that He also loves the world. Our author, not prey to such feebleness, instead gives us vertiginous stairways, prodding us to leap from great heights into deep darknesses. We go with him only because we cannot otherwise find a way out. In a quiet moment, the machines no longer so loud, he says: ‘I think it must be easier to stitch up a leaky intestine than to make these observations.’ And we cannot say that he is wrong, even if quite often we cannot quite say if he is right, either. This is in part because we are scared of him. (Our fear precludes judgement!) It is also because we see a wry smile at times like these, and begin to suspect that there is something comical in all this blackness, all these imprecations, if only for him. Maybe if we follow him he will let us in on the joke . . . but his statements are self-sealing. ‘Body and head are hopelessly interlinked,’ he tells us, ‘most gruesomely interwedged.’
Outraged that a certain state-sponsored prize is beneath him, he declares that ‘no prizes are an honor . . . the honor is perverse, there is no honor in the world. People talk about honor and it’s all a dirty trick, just like all talk about any honor.’ So why not decline it? ‘I’m taking the money, because people should take every penny from the state which throws not just millions but billions out the window on a yearly basis for absolutely nothing at all.’ He goes to the ceremony, listens as the Minister of the Ministry of Culture, Art, and Education mislabels him a foreigner, declares that one of his books takes place ‘in the South Seas’ — as risible an idea of a work by Bernhard as can be — and our author takes the lectern, legs shaking with rage. He reads out the beginning of his speech, which begins innocuously enough. ‘Honored Minister, honored guests,’ he says, perhaps clearing his throat: ‘There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks about death.’ Keep in mind that he is accepting an award — and this speech was written before the Minister insulted him.
‘The state is a construct eternally on the verge of foundering, the people one that is endlessly condemned to infamy and feeblemindedness, life a state of hopelessness in every philosophy and which will end in universal madness . . . we are nothing,’ he concludes, ‘and we earn nothing but chaos.
The Minister of the Ministry of Culture, Art, and Education rises from his seat before our author has even finished, shakes his fist at him, and strides out of the hall, taking with him almost the entirety of the crowd, several of whom also shake their fists at him, leaving our author alone with his aunt, a few friends, and a magnificent, untouched buffet. Why decline a prize when one can both accept the prize money and insult the committee? The next day a Viennese newspaper publishes an article declaring him ‘a bug’ in need of extermination.
The seems to us perhaps the most glorious acceptance speech ever given for a literary prize. At the very least, something to which one ought to aspire. E.M. Cioran tells us that ‘There is only one way to praise: to inspire fear in the figure being extolled, to compel him in fear and trembling to hide himself far away from the statue being erected.’ Bernhard teaches us that the only way to accept praise is by doing the same.
If his style, so virtuosic, once we have spent our days and weeks and months with him, begins to appear to be the product of an intrinsic and even conservative fear, it is because he, like his hero, Bach, and his foe, Nature, desires in the end only to repeat himself, but also cannot help himself from introducing variation after variation. It is thus that sometimes when Bernhard is no longer playing Bernhard, as when God is no longer playing God, and when Nature for a moment ceases its delight in decomposition and decay, that he is most valuable to us, as when in his memoirs he speaks of one day coming across a man standing shirtless in a hole with a pneumatic drill, an old acquaintance from his youth, when he worked as a grocer’s assistant in the Scherzhauserfeld Project, the most impoverished slum in all of Salzburg. It is here we see Bernhard in all the gentle humanity he has to offer. ‘Nothing mattered,’ the man said. ‘At that moment I also felt as that nothing mattered. It was a nice, clear, concise, handy phrase. “Nothing mattered.” We understood each other.’ The man suggests they go have lunch, where they exchange memories of their youths in Scherzhauserfeld Project. ‘He had always imagined his life differently than it had turned out,’ Bernhard writes of the man. ‘I felt the same.’
He spent his whole life dying. We must forgive him when, so often, we find him making too much of chance events or seemingly innocuous decisions. Emblematic, in this sense, is this episode from the life of the protagonist of The Cheap-Eaters:
all of a sudden he had not gone to the old ash tree, but rather to the old oak tree, for if he, said Koller, had gone to the old ash tree on the day in question, he possibly would not have happened upon the cheap-eaters, but rather upon something quite different, since in any case, had he alighted upon a different walk than the one he had taken on that day, namely a walk leading to the old oak and not to the old ash, he would have happened upon a different subject, possibly even a diametrically opposite subject, upon a completely different one, he said, than the one he had happened upon, because he had taken that and no other walk.
At the same time, he experiences ‘the confirmation of his conviction that the very notion of a chance event was nonsensical and unthinkable’. Such certainty often belies a great and gnawing doubt which, for Bernhard, devolves into a kind of despair. His narrators spend page after page belaboring the impossibility of chance in events and situations attributable to nothing else, as when the narrator of Wittgenstein’s Nephew devotes half the book to considering the fortuity of his presence in the chest clinic while his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the philosopher is in the lunatic clinic next door. What seems like a stylistic tic, and is a stylistic tic in certain of his lesser works, such Yes or The Cheap-Eaters, is also one of the truest things about the man: his life—and by his life I mean his suffering — was the product of the cruelest chance: a lung infection incurred while unloading sacks of flour on a frigid day when he was a teenager. The infection kept him on his back for weeks. He was sent to hospital, and then to a series of asylums or wards, where he would soon come catch tuberculosis, an affliction that would last the rest of his life. This must have exacerbated that sense of alienation so commonly met in writers’ childhoods, for he was physically quarantined for much of his later youth, in hospital after hospital and asylum after asylum, with none of the carefree philosophical speculations of Thomas Mann’s asylum inhabitants in The Magic Mountain. This ailment both binds him more closely to his grandfather — who ends up in a different wing of the same hospital during the young Bernhard’s first stay there — and ensures his hatred of doctors and other such official figures forever. While the boy is lying in his hospital bed he learns that because of a botched diagnosis, his grandfather has died of a treatable condition. In the same year his mother would die of cancer.
It is in his memoirs that we finally realize that he is, in fact, a person. If this at times lessens the effect of his actual work it increases our affection for him in a way that is almost total. He grants us the knowledge of his grandfather, who first taught him how to blow up bridges: ‘One could destroy anything with explosives if one wanted to. In theory I destroy everything every day, you understand, he said. In theory, he said, it was possible to destroy everything every day, whenever one chose — destroy it, bring it down, wipe it out. This seemed to him the most marvelous idea in the world. I made it may own and have toyed with it all my life. I kill whenever I want, I demolish things whenever I want, I destroy whenever I want. But theory is nothing more than theory, my grandfather would say,’ he writes, before telling us that ‘Grandfathers are our teachers, our real philosophers. They are the people who pull open the curtain that others are always closing. When we are with them, we see things as they really are—not just the auditorium but the stage and all that goes on behind the scenes. For thousands of years grandfathers have taken it upon themselves to create the devil where otherwise there would have been only God.’ A grandfather then, is himself a god — and a far superior variety than that of a father, who can only ever be nothing more than an absence, an object of yearning so remote that we can make nothing of him, as Bernhard could never make anything of his own father, who he never knew. And so this, actually, is the kind of writer the young boy eventually becomes. A grandfather. Someone who pulls open the curtain that others are always closing. ‘Through them we see the drama in all its fullness, not just a pathetic, bowdlerized fragment, for what it is: pure farce.’
If we, his audience, are then his grandchildren, this explains why he must repeat himself so often and so readily and so vehemently — and why he must also make use of all the dynamite at his disposal, to hold our attention, for children love explosions — and so that we may remember that what we are looking at is always farcical. The world is a real place but all the more absurd for this fact. This is why this world must be destroyed, over and over again. It is ‘by always insisting on what is essential they save us from the dreary indigence in which, were it not for them,’ — for grandfathers! — ‘we should undoubtedly soon suffocate.’
He writes that ‘the sick are inevitably condemned to protracted illness and eventual death. Doctors are victims of either megalomania or helplessness; in either case they can only harm the patient unless he himself takes the initiative.’ It is possible that one may only truly appreciate Bernhard if one has suffered a long illness oneself. One may derive pleasure from him, one may even enjoy him, but one can only love Bernhard if one has spent months lying on one’s back helpless to do anything else, if one has seen the spectre of death toiling beneath one’s own skin, or heard it rattle in one’s chest, fearing that there is no cure. This is the root of his appeal: he makes us laugh precisely when he insists most outrageously that there is no cure, not for sickness or anything else. To again quote E.M. Cioran, whose statement about Beckett applies equally to Bernhard: ‘He is a destroyer who adds to existence — who enriches by undermining it.’
There is no doubt his range is limited. The constraint of his style — the long unbroken paragraph he is known for — makes things easier for him even as it fails to do so for the reader. Such a paragraph represents millions of tiny choices which he no longer has to make, allowing him to arrive more efficiently to where he’s going. Like all truly great artists, in his unyielding vision, his refusal to qualify himself or excuse others, he exposes himself to the derisive laughter of those who will not be moved. His style can be imitated, and has been, and will continue to be. There are times when he seems to be unconsciously parodying himself. His influence has grown so widespread in contemporary European literature it can scarcely be adumbrated. It is to his credit that he remains appreciated in English only by a small but quickly growing number who seek him out of a genuine desire for his company. One fears that it is only a matter of time before he is taken up by those punctilious destroyers of writers and writing, both the basket-weaving and scrapbook-making MFA programs and the pusillanimous English Department theorists. We predict he will not go down easy for them: one swallows Bernhard whole or not at all. Even if we manage to get him down the hatch, he lodges in the throat like a bone. One cannot truly read him and remain a bien pensant in thought or form any more than one can jump into a woodchipper and avoid being shredded to be pieces.
A moralist, like one of his spiritual relatives, Witold Gombrowicz, he tells us that ‘Only a stupid person is amazed’. His greatest bile is reserved for ‘Awe and reverence, which in any case restrict the mind,’ especially when forced upon the young. Following the war, when his school reverts from Nazi to Catholic proprietorship, he writes that ‘Swallowing and gulping down the body of Christ every day . . . was essentially no different from rendering daily homage to Adolf Hitler. While the two figures are totally different, I had the impression that at any rate the ceremonial was the same in intent and effect.’ He goes on:
When we consider the songs and choruses that are sung to the honor and glory of any so-called extraordinary personality, no matter whom . . . we are bound to admit that, with slight differences in the wording, the texts are always the same and are always sung to the same music . . . . an expression of stupidity, baseness, and lack of character on the part of those that sing them.
That the young are forced to sing such things, to genuflect and show admiration, he can only describe as a capital crime.
Unlike Bernhard, however, Gombrowicz was as far as we know never attacked by an elderly lady as he boarded a city bus. She was upset at leaked quotations from his upcoming play, Heldenplatz — which would prove to be his final work — in which he had written that ‘this tiny state is a gigantic dunghill,’ and a ‘completely disgusting and decrepit country’. The old woman struck or attempted to strike him with her umbrella. The only remarkable aspect of this incident is that such things didn’t happen to him more often.
He was born on 10 February in 1931 in Holland, where his mother had fled from Austria after his father had abandoned her. He spent much of his childhood in the country and he came from country people. Though his admirers have been said to constitute a kind of boy’s club, he himself was most likely asexual, physically frail — hardly a beacon of hearty masculinity. The most important relationship in his life, apart from his grandfather, was with a woman 37 years his senior. Two days after his 58th birthday, he died by assisted suicide in the presence of his half-brother, Dr. Peter Fabjan.
At 14 years old, following an attack by American bombers, Bernhard emerged from the bomb shelter and ‘stepped on something soft . . . . At first sight I took it to be a doll’s hand, and so did my companions, but in fact it was the severed hand of a child.’ He describes his fear, the smashed buildings, bodies lined in rows and taken away in trucks. One afternoon during the war, while sitting in the living room with his grandmother, they saw a Canadian plane shot from the sky through a window: ‘there were several white points indicating the members of the crew who had bailed out by parachute,’ but also ‘several parachutes which failed to open: we could see the black dots falling to earth faster than the parts of the plane. Other parachutes opened but caught fire for some reason and burnt out in no time, falling to earth with the crew members attached to them.’ His grandmother, sensing and perhaps hankering for the spectacle, took the young Bernhard with her to view the wreckage. Blood lay spattered everywhere on the snow. ‘There’s an arm! I said, and on the arm was a watch.’ Later, as an adult, returning to the places where he glimpsed and experienced these things, he meets ‘only with extreme annoyance, ignorance, and forgetfulness. It is like being confronted with a concerted determination not to know, and I find this offensive — offensive to the spirit.’
At around the age of 32, he wrote that ‘Life is the purest, clearest, darkest, most crystalline form of hopelessness . . . There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.’ Of Strauch, the painter whose endless rants fill his first novel, Frost, the narrator says: ‘He is one of those people who refuse to say anything at all, and yet are continually driven to say everything.’ As Gombrowicz puts it: ‘One can be all the more human the more one is inhuman.’
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, we glimpse him in certain pictures — wearing a snowball on top of his head, carousing on a hillside in his underwear, eating an ice cream cone, sitting on a park bench surrounded by children, or wearing lederhosen and cracking a joke among friends — and we say to ourselves: this could not have been a serious man. And we are right, in the sense that only an unserious man could have so splendidly dynamited so many façades, so delectably destroyed so many illusions. When we read of his final joke — simultaneously a last excoriation — the prohibition in his will of ever having any of his works published, performed, or even quoted aloud in his home country — we cannot help cackling. Such impertinence delights us. It makes us want to weep with joy that there ever was such a person amongst us as him. For as long as we continue to read him, he will continue to strip away what is stupid, false, and illusory in our own selves; we suspect that his work — that schoolroom in an abattoir, that devil where there would only be God — will never lose its urgency, nor we our need for it.