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Michael Hofmann on Thomas Bernhard: Missing the Point

I was disappointed in Hofmann’s article on Bernhard, Reger Said, in the LRB, not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. Yes, there is a lot of ranting in some of his books, particularly the one Hofmann is discussing, Old Masters, as well as the contemporaneous Woodcutters, but it is only one side of Bernhard’s work, and it is always contextualized.  It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target. (And since Hofmann translated Bernhard’s rather rantless early novel Frost, for which I give thanks, he knows there is more.) But if Bernhard were the grumpy caricature Hofmann paints him as, his books would be nowhere near as affecting. So I will interrogate the article to draw out the depths.

Hofmann:

They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant.

I would say that the seams show, constantly. For all Hofmann makes of how the voices in a Bernhard book merge together into a unity, the constant lurch into the histrionic and the lack of proportion, the way in which a Bernhard narrator will go from attacking Nazis to, say, attacking cheese, makes his rants somewhat less than focused bursts of fury. He is not Karl Kraus and nor is he trying to be. (He’s better.) Extinction is where this agonized self-undermining is most on display. It’s his deepest rant, as the narrator constantly defers dealing with the real monstrousness at hand, a monstrousness for which he feels intensely responsible, by focusing on smaller topics and frivolous insults:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it.

Extinction

This is not a focused rant, nor even a curved one, but a looping spiral collapsing inward on itself. Opinion gives way to the very hatred of one’s self for expressing an opinion. To express an opinion is to lower yourself to the level of what you’re attacking, as the narrator of Woodcutters realizes over and over again, not that he can stop. But what can you do?

Hofmann:

Something is being clobbered so hard that we laugh – quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re nervous, we don’t think anyone could say all this and mean it. He means it, all right.

The indefinite antecedents here–“all this,” “it”–are precisely the crux of the issue. He means what? All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount. Odd that Hofmann should mention Nietzsche, one pole of Bernhard’s rhetorical world-view, without mentioning the other: Beckett. Nietzsche was determined to be anything but a nihilist, to be the very greatest non-nihilist there could be, to say “Yes” to life. Though Bernhard grasped Nietzsche’s subversive tricks in his rhetoric and his staged exaggerations, Bernhard would never give that Yes. Hell, Bernhard wrote a book called Yes in which the titular “Yes” is the dubious answer to the question “Will you kill yourself some day?” Hofmann seems to have missed the other pole. Ranting is an affirmation of an opinion. The narrators are in no condition to make affirmations. Their affirmations are empty. They are evading.

The rant is a dodge. If the narrator shuts up for a second, the real wretchedness, the void and the evil and the pain, will come crashing down. And it always does. Philosophically, Bernhard is Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche exhaustingly rejected for his endless NO.

Hofmann:

The book ends with a cautious stab at a little more of the world: Reger has, ill-advisedly in view of much that has gone before, purchased a couple of theatre tickets, and invites Atzbacher to take in a show with him. It is Kleist’s comedy The Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater. ‘The performance was terrible,’ Atzbacher notes in the book’s last put-down. It is a real ending, slight but real, no mean feat.

In fact, this is only the denouement, the final punchline. Considered apart from what has gone just before, it is only another insult. But that last put-down comes, crucially, after the veil has briefly fallen and the narrator’s energy has failed him.

A person today is at everyone’s mercy, unprotected, we are dealing today with a totally unprotected person, totally at everyone’s mercy, a mere decade ago people felt more or less protected but today they are exposed to total unprotectedness, Reger said at the Ambassador. They can no longer hide, there is no hiding place left, that is what is so terrible, Reger said, everything has become transparent and thereby unprotected; in other words there is no hope of escape left today, people, no matter where they are, are everywhere hustled and incited and flee and escape and no longer find a refuge to escape to, unless of course they choose death, that is a fact, Reger said, that is the sinister aspect, because the world today is no longer mysterious but only sinister….

The death of my wife has not only been my greatest misfortune, it has also set me free. With the death of my wife I have become free, he said, and when I say free I mean entirely free, wholly free, completely free, if you know, or if at least you surmise, what I mean. I am no longer waiting for death, it will come by itself, it will come without my thinking of it, it does not matter to me when. The death of a beloved person is also an enormous liberation of our whole system, Reger now said.

Old Masters

This is serious stuff. This is not a rant. What follows–the return to the rant, a few more tossed-off insults–is just the evasive engine turning over a few more times, the continuation of the futile effort to will one’s self out of the pain of living. It only further offsets Reger’s prior naked moment. And yet Hofmann ignores that moment. How could he miss it? It’s the wrenched heart of the book. Hofmann only disparages the wife, as though she meant nothing to Reger, when in fact she quite obviously meant everything, a fact Reger tries furiously to ignore, only to finally give up, at least for a moment. It’s as if Bernhard were writing a character named Michael Hofmann but forgot to insert all the self-doubt and self-hatred and sorrow. All the meaning, as it were.

Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon

I do not have to pay $3.50 to find out what it feels like to be a Jew.

     George S. Kaufman on Gentleman’s Agreement

I do not like Michael Haneke. I do not like his insufferably smug brand of moral superiority. I do not like his trite attempts to indict his audiences for complicity in his violence and sadism. Worst of all, I don’t think he’s a very good filmmaker. The White Ribbon may be the most sophisticated version of Haneke’s modus operandi, as well as the least unpleasant, but the stark artiness only makes the banality of his ideas all the more obvious. (It’s harder to see banality when you’re being provoked and annoyed.) The sophistication tactic worked well enough to win him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but if you can still respect Haneke after listening to him prate on (in the documentary 24 Realities Per Second) about forcing truth upon the audience unwillingly and how he wants to “rape the spectator into autonomy,” then you are made of more forgiving stuff than me.

Haneke’s best works, his television adaptations of Kafka’s The Castle and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Three Paths to the Lake, show a low-key filmmaker with a gift for knowing when not to press the point. That gift was evidently lost by the time Haneke foisted Benny’s Video, The Seventh Continent, and Funny Games upon the world. The message is always the same: you are guilty, everyone is guilty. And he makes sure you hear it, loud and often.

There’s not much to The White Ribbon. Set in a small German village shortly before World War I, the movie chronicles a few years of assorted bad things that happen to the landowner baron, the farmers, and the other village officials. One child is kidnapped and tortured. A doctor’s horse trips over a thin strung wire, nearly killing him. And so on. The mystery is who is doing them.

All the adults in the village are uniformly rotten except for the schoolteacher narrator, who is merely devoid of personality and who thus serves as the point of viewer identification. His older self narrates the movie in deadening, portentous tones, making explicit what was already too obvious. The more powerful the adult, the more rotten they are, and so the doctor, the steward, the baron, and the pastor are the loci of evil. As for the children, well, if you’ve seen Haneke’s last film, Cache, you will have no trouble figuring out what’s going on with them. Actually, you won’t have any trouble either way. They’re rotten too. PS: They grow up into Nazis.

The black and white photography is beautiful but sterile, the product of a director who has never matured past his infatuation with the V-effekt. Some of the performances are good, though Haneke wastes talented Austrian Birgit Minichmayr in a disposable role, and Josef Bierbichler only has a few seconds over the course of the movie to convey incredible physical menace, which he still manages to exploit efficiently. Both were used to far better effect in the “popular” Wolf Haas adaptation The Bone Man last year:


I wasted my time watching this movie when I should have been watching more Haneke.

Rainer Bock is nicely evil as the doctor (only the kids get names) and the children are creepy, but mostly the actors are more lifeless than Herzog’s hypnotized cast in Heart of Glass. (Trivia: Bierbichler was the only actor not hypnotized in that film.) The only actor seemingly given license to put some energy into his role is Detlev Buck, who plays the withering and sarcastic father of the girl the schoolteacher wants to marry. He’s evil too, but he’s funny. The whole movie should have been about him, but since he’s too entertaining and we are here to learn, Haneke only gives him a few minutes.

Now, I’m not opposed to didacticism. I can tolerate and even enjoy the essayistic work of Alexander Kluge because the ideas are original, but with Haneke it’s just the same old sermon. With the Dardennes, you get redemption and transcendence, but Haneke just wants to see you suffer. Haneke is the pastor who ties his son’s hands to the bed every night to prevent him from masturbating. He’s going to make sure we have no fun. He is the abusive parent punishing us the audience, who then grow up to be Nazis or write nasty reviews or something. If Haneke had a sense of irony, he would make something out of this, but I don’t think he even realizes the parallel. He’s a fundamentalist preaching the evils of fundamentalists.


Michael Haneke at a screening

I’m not surprised that the cinerati have eaten up the self-abnegating experience of watching Haneke, but I am surprised that few people seem to have remarked on how derivative it is. Apart from the obvious lifts from Bresson, The White Ribbon is stylistically and thematically a remake of Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, and a vastly less gripping one. Dreyer sucks you in; Haneke just harangues. Whenever the schoolteacher’s narration kicks in with all the dynamism of the drearier chapters of Atlas Shrugged, you’re reminded once more of how little enjoyment you’re supposed to be having, and how important this film is supposed to be.

For contrast, take Haneke’s Austrian superior Ulrich Seidl, whose Import/Export should have won Cannes in 2007 but was too unpretentious and vulgar to do so. Seidl doesn’t skimp on showing rank unpleasantness, but it’s in the service of, to put it succinctly, life. (I got some funny looks in the theater when I said to my friend that Import/Export was optimistic, but Seidl himself says he’s a humanist, and he is.) The villagers of The White Ribbon are Protestant, but Haneke is the very caricature of the dreary Austrian Catholic painted by Thomas Bernhard. He makes dead movies; they are dead on the screen and the audience is dead in their chairs.

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

Butcher’s Crossing is the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams’ three mature novels (he disowned a first novel, which I have not read). Unlike the near-perfect tenors of the academic novel Stoner and Augustus, Butcher’s Crossing sees some significant shifts in tone over the course of the book. All three novels are Bildungsromans, but here Williams also attempts to tell the story of the decline of the American West as well. That is why, unlike the other two novels, it is not titled after the main character but the frontier town which provides the settings for the bookends of the novel.

Will Andrews is a Harvard student who, inspired by Emerson, drops out to find himself in the great West. After arriving in Butcher’s Crossing, he funds a hunting expedition to a distant valley in Colorado where a great herd of buffalo still remain, most of the other herds having already been hunted down and killed for hides. He is naive and for a time it seems he could be easily scammed, but the leader of the expedition, Miller, is serious, and after Andrews has a slight dalliance with a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, they set out with two other grizzled men.

So the ground for an archetypal post-western has been laid, and the themes follow those that would be used (and overused) by Cormac McCarthy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and, of course, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo:

harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle, but you can’t close off the wilderness. he heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself staring down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner. “there’s a conflict,” he said. “there’s a conflict between land and people…the people have to go. they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own cb radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe…maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face.”

“Call of the West”

And that does somewhat mimic the arc in the book. Things get immediately dire as they have trouble finding water, and less than a third of the way into the book, things do seem to be shaping up for a sheer hellishness. But they find the water and the valley, and soon enough they are hunting (i.e., massacring in large numbers) buffalo. There is a sustained, 40-page description of the early days of the hunt that may be the most focused setpiece Williams ever wrote, and the turning point in Andrews’ character.

It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.

Such introspection is comparatively rare in the novel. Extensive and careful description is more common, but when it comes like it does here, it is strikingly abstract and visceral simultaneously. I don’t know if the effect is quite successful (thought it beats Cormac any day), but it’s certainly unusual. Williams resists any broad judgments of character. If Andrews is losing his humanity, then “humanity” is not an absolute value. He is freed from this sort of condescension towards the whore that he felt earlier in Butcher’s Crossing:

He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place, betrayed by certain artificialities of conduct, thrust from a great mechanical world upon this bare plateau of existence that fronted the wilderness. He thought of Schneider, who had caught her arm and spoken coarsely to her; and he imagined vaguely the humiliations she had schooled herself to endure. A revulsion against the world rose up within him, and he could taste it in his throat.

Much, much later, after returning to Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews thinks back to this very moment and excoriates his younger self for his callow snobbery.

But returning to the plot: after the first day, things become blurry. They continue killing and skinning thousands of buffalo, and Miller, the expert guide and hunter, really wants to kill them all, even if it means leaving hundreds of skins to bring back to following spring. Unfortunately, it starts to snow, and they are stranded in the valley between the mountains all winter long.

As with the scenes where they nearly die of thirst, this would seem to be another potential hell, an existential misery. But Williams pulls back from this desolate Bresson scenario to aim more at The Wages of Fear, and six months of surely excruciating boredom pass fairly quickly without any Shining-like incidents. (In terms of page count, they pass more quickly than that first day of hunting.) I do think that this points to a fundamental stoicism in Williams’ work: for Augustus, Stoner, and Andrews, the hell comes from without, not from within. Events, not ennui, shape character.

Spring comes and they head back, and the book shifts again. Butcher’s Crossing has been transformed and ravaged by the end of the buffalo hide market, and Andrews’ growth is overshadowed by Miller’s desperate attempts to cope with the extinction of his chosen life from which he draws his pride. But the threads unravel; Williams can’t quite make Miller’s collapse mesh with Andrews’ development because Andrews does not learn anything new from it. Rather, Andrews finally does sleep with Francine, the whore from earlier, in a scene where Williams’ writing falls into the floridness described by Pynchon in critiquing his own first published story:

You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text. The language suddenly gets too fancy to read. Maybe this wasn’t only my own adolescent nervousness about sex…Even the American soft-core pornography available in those days went to absurdly symbolic lengths to avoid describing sex.

Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner

And in general, Williams’ writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher’s Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort.

Butcher’s Crossing is a novel of discrete sections, and the ways they do and don’t fit together outline the refinements that Williams would make to his fictive approach. (Reading early work after later work, as I did with Thomas Bernhard’s “Walking”, sometimes helps to illuminate the best parts of the early work more vividly.) Williams abandoned the larger societal picture after this novel to focus on a single character and his milieu, and I suspect he found fault with the dual-pronged nature of Butcher’s Crossing as well. But he also abandoned the idea of the setpiece. It’s understandable, but based on that hunting section, he could have been a master at it. (He also learned how to write female characters; the women of Stoner are far more convincing than the one-dimensional Francine.)

But what of the greater themes of the book? I still think that Williams is pretty cagey about making statements and that the book requires that the author and the reader do not judge Miller and his kind too harshly. The West drives him and others to nihilism (explicitly voiced by a hide trader late in the book), but is this a fundamental truth, a consequence of their ravaging of the land, or just the aftermath of the extinction of their way of life? I do not see a definite answer. We do know that Andrews is changed, even if we don’t know quite what he becomes, and that is the heart of the book.

Bernhard on Heidegger

And speaking of Heidegger, here is the much less subtle Thomas Bernhard on him, from the always amusing Old Masters:

I always visualize him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who, with her perverse knitting enthusiasm, ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has shorn from their own Heidegger sheep.

I cannot visualize Heidegger other than sitting on the bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife, who all her life totally dominated him and who knitted all his socks and crocheted all his caps and baked all his bread and wove all his bedlinen and who even cobbled up his sandals for him. Heidegger was a kitschy brain….. a feeble thinker from the Alpine foothills, as I believe, and just about right for the German philosophical hot-pot. For decades they ravenously spooned up that man Heidegger, more than anybody else, and overloaded their stomachs with his stuff. Heidegger had a common face, not a spiritual one, Reger said, he was through and through an unspiritual person, devoid of all fantasy, devoid of all sensibility, a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow, Reger said, which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades let its smart little cow-pats drop on it….

Heidegger is the petit-bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who has placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcaps, that kitschy black night-cap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.

There’s another great section, which I don’t have at hand, talking about how at dinner parties people are always coming up to you and offering you bits of Heidegger and you haven’t even gotten in the door before someone is offering you a little piece of Heidegger, and so on.

Attila Bartis: Tranquility

This book just won the Three Percent Best Translation of 2008 prize, and while I can’t speak to the translation (though I have it on good authority that it’s excellent–thanks GJ), I was happy to have it win, being a booster of Hungarian lit in general (and Laszlo Krasznahorkai in particular). Jeff Waxman describes a not-uncommon worldview of Hungarian literature when he says, “Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.” Hungarian director Bela Tarr said it even better:

And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us…I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

And it’s fair to say Bartis subscribes to something on the order of this view. What he brings to Tranquility that is very much his own is hysteria, at a level that is rarely encountered at such sustained length. Bernhard is a good contrast: while Bernhard’s narrators are obsessive, ranting, and irate, they are very rarely hysterical. Bartis’s breathless portrayal of unrelenting stress and compression owes the most, I’d say, to Celine and his spiritual disciple E.M Cioran, with a bit of Portnoy’s Complaint (namely, the end) mixed in.

And with a book that is pitched so consistently at the level of hysteria, Bartis has to keep the changes coming so that the tone does not become monotonous. The story of Andor, a middle-aged man, and his exceedingly unhealthy realationship with his mother and only slightly healthier relationships with several women careens around just as Andor careens between the three women in his life (and the one absent one, his sister), never settling in one place long enough to set up a sustained narrative. This is evidently intentional, as the plot necessarily cannot get started with such a tone at work. Any concession to traditional narrative dynamics would wreck the effect, and this book is all about effect.

Such a sustained howl can become numbing or exhausting; at times Bartis piles on so much pain that the book risks becoming a shaggy-dog story. It’s ultimately Andor’s relationship with his mother, and the sheer acuity and inexorability of it, that holds it all together. The other women are sweet relief in comparison. For Bartis, it seems that that level of hysteria, that sheer limit at which there is no appeal to reason and no possible escape, is fundamentally fostered in the mother-son bond.

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