Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thomas Bernhard & the cathartic purging of bile…

…incipient thoughts bat around inside my skull…
I think my head will break apart when I move from one subject to another…
there is a continual imaginative assault, which is driving me half crazy…


Reading Thomas Bernhard can be dangerous. One confronts all kinds of sickness – mental and physical, congenital, degenerate, terminal and psychosomatic. And one faces death – sudden or slow-and-painful, accidental or purposeful as suicide (an omnipresent threat). Bernhard’s through-composed stream-of-conscious style is claustrophobic and oppressive, relentless and obsessive. His vitriolic bile spews forth with vehement toxicity. His white-hot rage burns to a crisp and chills to the bone. His poison is intended for the philistines and petit bourgeois of a society corrupt to its core.

His artist-subjects’ self-loathing is everywhere apparent in darkly hilarious rants and tirades against colleagues, civil servants and most of the other members of the food chain. The following quotes are from his first novel Frost, “about” the “so-called” painter Strauch, his madness and obsessions, and the goings-on in a village filled with “morons in short sleeves” (one of his choice phrases for what “country people” represent to this disaffected child of Saturn).

(from Frost, trans. Michael Hoffmann, Vintage, 2008)

Drowning among country people is a miserable way of drowning.

Petit bourgeois businessmen fare no better.

A lawyer is an instrument of the devil…a fiendish idiot.

So-called (Bernhard’s favorite jab) artists suffer the worst fate. There is no kind of hatred quite like self-hatred. Nicht wahr, Herr Bernhard?

You know, the painter said, that art froth, that artist fornication, that general art-and-artist loathsomeness, I always found that repelling; those cloud formations of basest self-preservations topped with envy…Envy is what holds artists together, envy, pure envy, everyone envies everyone else for everything…I talked about it once before, I want to say: artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet, its disgusting cramps, its peripheral puffings and swellings, its pustular secretions…I want to say: artists are the great emetic agents of the time, they were always the great, the very greatest emetics…Artists, are they not a devastating army of absurdity, of scum? The infernality of unscrupulousness is something I always meet with in the thoughts of artists…Artists are the identical twins of hypocrisy, the identical twins of low-mindedness, the identical twins of licensed exploitation, the greatest licensed exploitation of all time…Artists, as they have shown themselves to be, he said, are all dull and grandiloquent, nothing but dull and grandiloquent, nothing…

Bernhard is the Dionysus of despair whose elixir is the bile of loathing. Whose speech is colorful as peacock feathers – he has absorbed the poison and his tongue spews it forth

like maggots in space…in the shattering fat of history, in the quarterstaves of the insoluble diluvia…


No rest for the wicked made weary (or the weary made wicked) by their unresolved dissonance with the world. The painter Strauch goes to bed
not to sleep but to howl to myself in the silence of horror.

Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.

And anathema to one so brutally honest is
the nausea of a trial by public opinion.

And sometimes Bernhard is just the ticket. Any artist who has cursed her witless critics, faced the provincialism of “popular taste” or the philistine capitulation to “commercial success” can identify with Bernhard. His inimitable voice resonates in a soulless world, corrupt by ravenous greed and numbed by a self-perpetuating system fueled by the replacing of substantive depth with surface sheen.

Everything is barbarous kitsch…Petit bourgeois sordidness…it’s too revolting.

His is like Kafka’s axe – not picking but pounding – at the frozen regions of the heart. The cacophonous volume of his vitriol threatens to drown out its pathos. The ice is so thick one forgets the affirming presence of deep water stirs underneath.

In winter, pain falls in the form of snow…Songbirds sing pain. The weak man has no law that will protect him.

Bernhard’s ostensible subject is laid bare in his debut novel, Frost. The signifier of winter’s arrival is variously described as this extraordinary frost…an iron frost…numbing frost…the ubiquitous and almost daily advancing frost… Bernhard’s pick-axe pounds relentlessly.

Frost disfigures all men…The frost eats everything up…There are many men who have been marked by frost…Frost may also signify the end of a world empire…

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.


What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, eh Thomas? Bernhard is bracing, horrifying, excruciating and essential. One Bernhard is enough to counteract a legion of so-called page-turner fiction, froth & pulp for the market and masses. Lattes for the alleged literate. Bernhard’s dissenting tenor has always been a lonely voice, the irascible minority of a skeptic courageous enough to articulate the grotesque nudity underneath the emperor’s clothes. Such dissonance threatens to assault our senses. And it dares to wake us up.

2 comments:

Frabjous Kaleidoscope said...

Great post. Reading Bernhard can indeed be dangerous -- this is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give to a writer's work. The only thing I think you've glossed over is the humor in the bile. It's there not to coat the bile and make it go down easier, but is rather an integral tool to convey it. However, I suspect that the humor comes across clearer in the original German, though you do get major doses in the translations as well.

Scott Williamson said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm afraid my brief piece on Bernhard may be nothing but gloss, but I agree with you completely on how integral the dark humor is in conveying the "subject" of his writing.