Friday, January 25, 2013

Climbing Mount Mordant/Thomas Bernhard

In German, Bissigkeit, with bissig being viciousness. Mordant.  Mordancy.  As in "The most mordant of writers was Thomas Bernhard."  No cynic, Bernhard could turn a huckster like Sartre to pâté en terrine with a single ten-page sentence.  The rollicking, circling, repetitive, nihilistic, unpackable, Kafkaesque cadences of Bernhard--the only writer apart from Kafka who makes me laugh out loud*--usually end at the same point, the very one Sophocles makes in Oedipus at Colonus (line 1225): "Better never to have been born."  The climax of Bernhard's Yes is an affirmation of suicide, and only the puckish Bernhard, who I would guess loved life in the way all true nihilists do, would write a mad monologue affirming that there is nothing worth affirming, that life is not so much absurd as horrifying, that no human act could have value, and that, nonetheless, the whole  affair is best understood not as tragedy but as farce. 

It would be coy to say that Bernhard was the great chronicler of our era; he wasn't, and such a notion  would have left him in stitches.  He was of no era, or perhaps he was of the greatest of centuries, the sixteenth, when wit and murder danced an allemande with plague and famine.  Moving through a typical blasted Bernhard landscape is like being parachuted into the milieu of Matthias Grünewald, perhaps into one of the panels of his Crucifixion, a world in which cruelty was seasoned with decorum--no anonymous drones dropping bombs in Grünewald; the lashes were applied by a man, whose grotesque mask seems to say--"Well, what can I do?"  As in Bernhard, the Old Masters were never mistaken about the causes and nature of suffering, and Icarus lands with an indifferent splash.

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How radical a writer was Bernhard? Here is the publisher's description of his novel Gargoyles (a charming Christmas tale for the kids): "One morning a doctor and his son set out on daily rounds through the grim, mountainous Austrian countryside. They observe the colorful characters they encounter--from an innkeeper whose wife has been murdered to a crippled musical prodigy kept in a cage . . . " There's more. A "paranoid prince" and a "parade of human grotesques." No bestseller here. One imagines literary agents rushing to sign Bernhard to a mega-deal; motion pictures, a fawning review in Harper's, a Twittered version of the book for the attention-deficient crowd. Then again, perhaps not. On the surface, Bernhard is never a cheerful read, yet, as in The Castle, with its own version of the human nightmare, Bernhard's monsters are so clearly us that we laugh to feel reassured: yes, it really is all right to be vain, monomaniacal, greedy, and cruel. Bernhard's truths are often too much to bear, but they are truths nonetheless.

Reading Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew or, my personal favorite, The Old Masters, one asks, 'what is comedy?'  Thanks to Shakespeare and Northrop Frye, we presume that comedies always veer toward weddings and renewals of life--as with the crocuses at the conclusion of Humbolt's Gift.  But also thanks to Shakespeare, we know there is more to comedy than transvestism, drunkenness, sexual double entendres, and nuptials. Shakespeare, after all, not only wrote "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but also "Measure for Measure," and "A Winter's Tale."  Aristotle taught us that tragedy purges pity and fear, but he also taught us that that comedy purges bitterness (ψόγος) and our  natural loathing of the absurd. One might argue that life is far more likely to provoke invective than a sense of fatedness--this is the central discovery of Kafka--a king knows tragedy, but we clerks feel absurdity in our bones.  The writer who thought "writing was praying," wrote these witty lines:

Last night I dreamt about you. What happened in detail I can hardly remember, all I know is that we kept merging into one another. I was you, you were me. Finally somehow you caught fire.”  

Somehow you caught fire. I have to laugh when I read this passage though there is nothing funny in it. Here is, I am certain, the meaning of Kafka's famous line about "the frozen sea within us."  Great literature wakes us up, and the more deeply we are asleep, the greater the tug needed to rouse us.

Bernhard travels a similar road, less fastidiously than Kafka:

"The atmosphere in Hoeller's house was still heavy, most of all with the circumstances of Roithamer's suicide, and seemed from the moment of my arrival favorable to my plan of working on Roithamer's papers there, specifically in Hoeller's garret, sifting and sorting Rooithamer's papers and even, as I suddenly decided, simultaneously writing my own account of my work on these papers, as I have here begun to do, aided by having been able to move straight into Hoeller's garret without any reservations on Hoeller's part, even though the house had other suitable accommodations, I deliberately moved into that four-by-five-meter garret Roithamer was always so fond of, which was so ideal, especially in his last years, for his purposes, where I could stay as long as I liked, it was all the same to hoeller, in this house built by the headstrong Hoeller in Defiance of every rule of reason and architecture right here in the Aurach gorge, in the garret which Hoeller had designed and built as if for Roithamer's purposes, where, Roithamer, after sixteen years in England with me, had spent the final years of his life almost continuously, and even prior to that he had found it convenient to spend at least his nights in the garret, especially while he was building the Cone for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, all the time the Cone was under construction he no long slept at home ....."  

This sentence continues, in the least compromising of all Bernhard's novels--Correction--and reprises all of the (three) numbingly and, eventually, hysterically repeated themes of the novel--the garret, the Cone, and the papers of Roithamer, another of the many stand-ins for Wittgenstein who often appears, thinly disguised, in Bernhard's novels.  How attractive the Wittgenstein's must have been to Bernhard--a family decimated by suicides!  One wonders what the austere logician of the Tractatus would have made of  Correction's baroque syntax and its relentless mockery of seriousness and taciturnity.  I've just quoted a passage from pages one and two; weeks later (it seems) we arrive on page one hundred twenty five and find this: "If I walk barefoot they won't hear me, I'd thought, and so as soon as I'd entered Hoeller's garret I walked around and back and forth a lot in my bare feet in order to practice this barefoot walking in Hoeller's garret..." One feels as if one is trotting up the down staircase, or trapped in a dream of jogging endlessly for a bus, not moving one inch. Or one is living one's life, as it is, and not moving one inch.

 "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," wrote Wittgenstein, and Bernhard appears to counter with the proposition "Even within the limits of language there is to be found an unlimited world."  This is what Bernhard shares with Kafka--the conviction that language need not take us anywhere--through neither narrative nor conclusion--to show the meaning of the world.  Why do we need beginnings, middles, and endings when, as in Kabala, every word is capable of pushing us into the abyss?

*See David Foster Wallace, "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed," in Consider the Lobster. Typical Wallace: "It's not that students don't 'get' Kafka's humor but that we've taught them to see humor as something you get--the same way we've taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseperable from the horrific struggle."  It is much the same with Bernhard, with outcomes more likely to result in despair than resignation. 

Perhaps as a bit of publishing pro bono work, one finds Thomas Bernhard's books in so-so Vintage Paperback editions, with outdated prefaces (by, for example, George Steiner--two pages!).  But this is being rectified, as in the new edition of Gargoyles, which has no introduction whatsoever. 

Bernhard, the wittiest of misanthropes, whose account of his literary prizes (My Prizes: An Accounting)  is the last word in the genre of Self-Justifiying Public Ingratitude, isn't for the faint of heart.  But you never know: look at how popular David Lynch was for a few seconds.  The Bernhard lover hopes a serious press will take up the cause--and quickly--of reissuing TB in suitable editions so that one can disseminate mordancy at the appropriate holidays.  

George Ovitt (1/25)




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