David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: music (page 1 of 13)

Do the Cthulhu: Monster Mashes and Cannibal Dances

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one knows how to do the Monster Mash, and that the song only describes people doing the dance and not how to dance it.

Yet the Monster Mash can be known. Its own lyrics say as much. The cost—one’s sanity, surely—may just be too great.

For you, the living, this mash was meant too
When you get to my door, tell them Boris sent you

Then you can monster mash
(The monster mash) And do my graveyard smash
(Then you can mash) You’ll catch on in a flash
(Then you can mash) Then you can monster mash

Monster Mash (Bobby Pickett)

The Monster Mash describes a realm in which those who know do and those who do know, a realm in which a “flash” will immediately grant you the terrible knowledge both of the dance and of the creatures who perform it and their realm. Once one sees beyond the veil, once one crosses beyond the threshold of Pickett’s “door” of perception, there is no turning back.

Outside the ordered universe that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

That flash of Lovecraftian gnosis, in less macabre presentations, is central to the history of dance crazes more generally. Despite the Swingers’ egalitarian claim that it ain’t what you dance, it’s the way you dance it, the privileged knowledge of dance moves has been central to the history of musical exhortations to hit the dancefloor. As with so many in-group declarations (Actor’s Equity, say), the only way to become a member is to already be one.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band captured this paradox in their 1969 performance of Monster Mash, in which Viv Stanshall describes a mash that has not yet taken place. As the monsters wake up and begin to dance, the temporal paradox causes the song to self-destruct at the very moment Stanshall begins the countdown to the actual mash:

“The countdown begins now…”

The song becomes its own sequel, in the style of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation.

The Monster Mash is atypical in not being explicitly prescriptive. It hints at what is behind the veil but only offers a polite invitation and a seductive peek. Most songs about dances do indeed exhort the listener to perform their titular dances, and many go further by shaming those ignorant of the moves, drawing a line between populist inclusiveness (everyone can do this dance!) and elitist exclusion (if you don’t do this dance, you are a loser!).

Now here’s a dance you should know!
When the lights are down low!
Grab your baby, then go!
Do the Hucklebuck, do the Hucklebuck
If you don’t know how to do it
Then you’re out of luck!
Shove your baby in, twist her all around
Then you start a twisting mad and moving all around
Wiggle like a snake, waddle like a duck
That’s what you do when you do the Hucklebuck

The Hucklebuck (Roy Alfred, lyricist)

The song berates the listener for not already knowing the Hucklebuck, as a precursor to the actual instruction. The promise of secret knowledge lures in listeners, and a line is drawn between the elect and the hoi polloi. (The Fall, at the peak of Mark E. Smith’s obsession with H. P. Lovecraft, would ridicule this pretense to exclusive coolness by rewriting it as “Hassle Schmuck”.)

In the classic Honeymooners episode “Young at Heart,” Ralph Kramden hears the song exactly once, after which he somehow has acquired that elect knowledge and can mysteriously dance fluidly and confidently. Ralph has crashed through the barriers separating him from Jackie Gleason and Gleason’s other characters and momentarily partakes of their knowledge. Unusually for the show, Ralph wins over Alice with his new knowledge. He conquers his momentary humiliation when Alice sees him dancing, and she symbolically accepts his pin to join him inside the circle of dance knowledge, so he can continue to revel in his sudden gnosis:

“This is one of those numbers that tells a story.”

Once subject to revelation (to apocalypse, literally “uncovering”), there is no turning back. Not even Alice Kramden can manage it. She too succumbs.

M. T. Anderson, author of Symphony for the City of the Dead and The Pox Party, has traced this rhetorical apocalypse back to very early in the recorded era (as well as to the envoys of Dante’s Vita Nuova):

Let’s examine the question of the division between dance and song (and lyric). Take the Charleston, for example:

Caroline, Caroline, At last they’ve got you on the map
With a new tune, a funny blue tune, with a peculiar snap!
You many not be able to buck and wing
Fox-trot, two-step, or even swing
If you ain’t got religion in your feet
You can do this prance and do it neat… Charleston! Charleston! …

Like “The Monster Mash,” it slurs the difference between the dance and the song (i.e. itself) which elicits the dance. They both posit somehow an imaginary song and moment, anterior to themselves, when the dance becomes wildly popular — as if the dance proceeded the song, and the song merely announces, like John the Baptist at the river, the glory of another mover and shaker. But in fact, in each of these cases, the song is the appropriate vehicle for the dance. The song exists in a loop of self-promotion, declaring a past triumph that cannot have come before itself, the express vehicle of the dance — because you dance the Charleston to the “Charleston,” the monster mash to “The Monster Mash.” It is fundamentally unlike, say, the waltz, which can be danced to any one of a thousand waltzes, or indeed anything in 3/4 time.

This circularity, I think, is an excellent example of the Kardashian effect, a phenomenological moebius bootstrapping in which your fame comes only from announcing your fame. It is a fame simulacrum with an empty core, pointing back at an event which was not an event, deixis without a referent; an ouroboros conga line.

M. T. Anderson

Yet as the Swingers suggested, there’s always been an egalitarian, anti-gnostic tendency, taken to an extreme by the much-covered Land of 1000 Dances (Cannibal & The Headhunters, Wilson Pickett, and many others), which casually rattles off dance names in its lyrics, making it simultaneously parasitic on the other dances it cites (as there is no actual Land of 1000 Dances dance) and utilitarian.

Children, go where I send you
(Where will you send me?)
I’m gonna send you to that land
The land of a thousand dances

Got to know how to Pony
Like “Bony Maronie”
You got to know how to Twist
Goes like this

Mashed Potato
Do the Alligator
Twist, twister
Like your sister

Then you get your Yo-Yo
Say, hey, let’s go-go
Get out on your knees
Do the Sweet Peas

Roll over on your back
Say, “I Like It Like That”
Do the Watusi
Do the Watusi

Then you do the Fly
With the Hand Jive
Then you do the Slop
The Chicken and the Bop

Then you do the Fish
Slow, slow Twist
Then you do the Flow
Got to move solo
Then you do the Tango
Takes two to Tango

Land of 1000 Dances (Chris Kenner)

Here is a song to which you can do every dance! You must dance the waltz to any waltz, where no other 3/4 dances are available, but you can dance any dance to Land of 1000 Dances (save the waltz). Ignorance is not a problem: do whatever dance you want, and you’re in luck no matter what. Kenner is thorough, but Cannibal and the Headhunders dropped over half of the dance names for that nagging “Na na-na na na” vocal hook, illustrating just how irrelevant the specific dance moves were. It ain’t what you dance, it’s the way you dance it.

Na na-na na naaaaaaa

Yet from flattening nondifferentiation inevitably arises the urge to differentiate, and this populist trend did not last. It took the arch-romantic Bryan Ferry to fight back against the democratizing power of the Land of 1000 Dances. He posited a dance so simultaneously ubiquitous and inaccessible that knowledge and performance were reserved for those touched by the demiurge of creativity and genius: the Strand. Ferry goes further: the Strand is not a dance, but “a danceable solution,” a Platonic meta-dance that subsumes all (and exclusively) cool content, not merely dances.

Not Terry Wogan

In the end, Ferry proclaims that all concreta, whether dances, flowers, or paintings, fall away before the abstractum of the Strand:

There’s a new sensation
A fabulous creation
A danceable solution
To teenage revolution
Do the Strand love
When you feel love
It’s the new way
That’s why we say
Do the Strand!

Do it on the tables
Quaglino’s place or Mabel’s
Slow and gentle
All styles served here
Louis Seize he prefer
Laissez-faire Le Strand
Tired of the tango
Fed up with fandango
Dance on moonbeams
Slide on rainbows
In furs or blue jeans
You know what I mean
Do the Strand!…Oooh

Had your fill of Quadrilles
The Madison and cheap thrills
Bored with the Beguine
The samba isn’t your scene
They’re playing our tune
By the pale moon
We’re incognito
Down the Lido
And we like the Strand.

Arabs at oasis
Eskimos and Chinese
If you feel blue
Look through Who’s Who
See La Goulue
And Nijinsky
Do the Strandsky.

Weary of the Waltz
And mashed potato schmaltz
Is a nice flower
It lasts forever
But it can’t beat Strand power
The sphinx and Mona Lisa
Lolita and Guernica
Did the Strand

Do the Strand (Bryan Ferry)

The Strand’s form can inhabit a wide variety of content, but only content meeting forever-unspecified conditions of total coolness. There’s no teaching the Strand; those who can partake of it do so through some unconditioned gnostic revelation. Some will never and can never know the Strand.

But perhaps they are better off. Cthulhu knew the Strand too.

The punk era atomized the tension between elitism and populism, often by just ignoring it, but occasionally subverting it. Aside from the singular Fall example above, Cabaret Voltaire’s “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)” turns the exhortation into a vague incitement to actual violence, playing on the ambiguity of that most general verb “to do.” Similarly, A Certain Ratio’s “Do the Du” takes an excellent, funky groove and puts lyrics of intimate agony on top of it which seem to have nothing to do with dancing.

The way I read it, doing the “Du” (“you”) is indeed a gnosis, but one of mutual annihilation between two partners locked into each other and away from the world. Dancing to it is running the risk of entering that nightmare. It’s the Monster Mash all over again, except the monsters are two ordinary lovers.

The ultimate riposte to the whole song-and-dance dilemma, though, is The Table’s “Do the Standing Still (Classics Illustrated),” a dance that is not a dance, one performed by corpses over a lyrical bed of quotes from Silver Age Marvel comics, a tribute to all those misfits who stay home from discos in their rooms at night reading Jack Kirby.

It’s the real monster mash.


Songs for further reference:

  • The Terminals, “Do the Void”
  • The Method Actors, “Do the Method”
  • The Homosexuals, “Do the Total Drop”
  • Electric Six, “Newark Airport Boogie”
  • Kontakt Mikrofon Orkestra, “Do the Residue”
  • XTC, “Traffic Light Rock”

A special honorable mention goes to Electric Six’s “The Number of the Beast,” which enthusiastically describes the secret knowledge to summon an otherworldly beast, but the knowledge is not dance moves but mathematics. Plato would approve.

When I look out my window
I’m amazed by the curses I see
I’m bound by what I don’t know
And what I don’t know is looking back at me

So make your counting count
Get the precise amount
It’s beyond rudimentary
I need an abacus
’cause I’m bad at this!
Ain’t been to university

Now clear the decks and solve for X!
Slide to the right and solve for Y!
Square root of eight–Triangulate!
From West to East: the Number of the Beast!

When I crunch up your numbers
I’m afraid of the outcome I see
I’m tired of supernumery [sic]
And I know he getting tired of me

Now clear a path!
Do basic math
And feel my wrath
Feel my wrath

Electric six, “The Number of the Beast”

Top 20 Non-redundant Live Albums

A little holiday fun. I don’t write about music too much and especially not pop music, but I haven’t seen this done before, so I thought I’d open it up to people.

I was trying to think of the best non-redundant live albums. This only is an issue for music where the studio plays an integral part of the creation of the music, which often means that live versions are just inferior or, at best, redundant. So here are the rules:

  • Must be an actual legally released live album; no bootlegs.
  • Most of the material must exist in studio versions (for comparison).
  • For the most part, live versions must be either superior or substantively equal-but-different to studio counterparts. Equal is not enough.

In no real order, here’s what I came up with as personal favorites. Links to Youtube if I could find them.


Een Rondje Holland

Price: $21.36

10 used & new available from $8.35

The Ex play some of their best material with a dozen-plus improvisers (mostly winds/bass/drums, but also including Jaap Blonk and a singing saw player), as well as some blunt improvisations. The lyrics have all been swapped out for new ones in Dutch (State of Shock becomes Kokend Asfalt, for example), but it doesn’t really affect the songs much since Ex vocals are a rhythm instrument. Thunderous.


Live In Japan

Price: $16.99

3 used & new available from $16.99

Tim Hodgkinson’s post-Henry Cow punk band, leaving behind 20-minute prog epics like Living in the Heart of the Beast in favor of things like I Hate America. I like their studio work, but here they swap out their rhythm section for the superior duo of Chris Cutler on drums and Jim Welton (aka Amos/L. Voag from the Homosexuals) on bass. Everything is tighter and angrier.


In the Hothouse

Price: $39.99

5 used & new available from $28.26

Adrian Borland, who committed suicide in 1999, wrote some pretty amazing songs done up as somewhat conventional 80s British alternapop. (Total Recall, for instance.) The live album takes off some of the 80s sheen and the performance is amazingly tight, unlike most other bands of their time.


Except for these guys. Seemingly propelled by a massive stimulant binge, they play as though chased by the devil and Ian McCulloch sounds sufficiently deranged to cover up the silliness of the lyrics. The players are all fairly amazing and play better here than they ever managed in the studio. Porcupine, Heaven Up Here, and especially Over the Wall crush the studio versions. They sure mellowed out fast after this.


Tindersticks (Deluxe Edition)

Price: $14.49

1 used & new available from $14.49

The second disc is the Live at Bloomsbury Theatre album. More confident than the original albums, plus a full orchestra on all tracks. The material is pretty much their best ever, and Drunk Tank in particular has a special place in my heart.


Gotta Let This Hen Out

Price: $24.98

4 used & new available from $24.98

Hitchcock’s only real outright “rock” album since the Soft Boys, which is a shame because it’s amazing. Possibly better if you can’t see the suit he is wearing when he’s playing the soaring Heaven.


The Blow-Up

Price: $18.98

18 used & new available from $11.69

This one’s pretty obvious…Marquee Moon?


In a Hole

Price: $49.98

2 used & new available from

The Fall have been inconsistent from day one, though they’ve gotten way more so over the years. I saw them in college when they were pretty much my favorite band and in the space of one week they managed one sublime performance, two mediocre performances, and one onstage fistfight that ended that version of the band. Here they’re sublime. (The slightly later Live in Reykjavik album is very nearly as good as this.) “The Backdrop shifted and changed…”


For Otis Redding. (Even more specifically, for I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.)


Last Concert

Price: ---

0 used & new available from

It’s all great and massive and joins order and chaos like nothing else, but in particular the version of Miagetegoran, Yoru No Hoshi Wo (from Ground Zero Plays Standards) is deafening, unearthly, and beautiful.


In the Middle of Words

Price: $9.94

3 used & new available from

The second disc, Live in Vancouver, shows that 15 years of playing tricky fast prog-punk live does tend to improve performances of such. The sax parts are mostly staccato 8th notes. Koroze!


Bump & Swing (A Live Recording)

Price: $39.99

1 used & new available from

Similar to Uz Jsme Doma, recorded at just the right intersection of proficiency and hyperactivity. Hear the Dogs.


Hypno Beat Live

Price: $29.95

1 used & new available from

REALLY fast material – slick production + even faster performances. Move Me.


Elvis Costello: Live at the El Mocambo

Price: $25.00

11 used & new available from $13.63

Sorry fans, My Aim Is True is a thin, wimpy-sounding, and not particularly well-played album. These versions are better, and the This Year’s Model material is pretty great too.


Darkness & Light: The Complete BBC Recordings

Price: $53.96

2 used & new available from

The CW is right, the albums are way too restrained and slick. Great songs, more energy, better sound, though not enough to make you guess that Breaking Bad antics were going on behind the scenes. Oh Lucinda.


Devo Live-the Mongoloid Years

Price: $22.76

6 used & new available from

It took me a long time to realize that they were pretty great live. The first album is okay and you can take them after that, but here Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA comes out as their best-ever tune and then rolls right into Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy.


801 Live (Collector's Edition)

Price: ---

1 used & new available from

Probably breaks the rules since this band only existed for a week or two, but since it’s Eno’s only live album, the material all exists in studio versions by related bands, and this is an amazing record that many Eno and Roxy Music fans have never heard of, I figured I’d include it. Miss Shapiro is as good as anything on Eno’s first two albums.


The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Expanded 2004 Remaster)

Price: $19.95

14 used & new available from $12.12

Mostly for side 4, where a bunch of really talented players and several sugar jars of cocaine make the band visceral for the first and only time. (Though this Rome video of The Great Curve is better.)


More Guitar

Price: $19.89

7 used & new available from

Not the ideal song selection, but Thompson often sounds clipped in the studio, and this has the best playing & force from him of the live stuff I know. (This is not counting the two hundred live albums I haven’t heard, though.) Can’t Win and Shoot Out the Lights are both incredible.


See also the unavailable-anywhere-today Ne Zhdali Live in Tokyo, another case of the Uz Jsme Doma phenomenon.

There are also a couple amazing single live tracks that I wish were parts of full albums, like a 1975 version of the Isley Brothers’ Fight the Power where the nonstop crowd noise and police whistles make the whole track sound like Public Enemy, or Stevie Wonder’s epochal version of Superstition live on Sesame Street.

Okay, over to you all now….

Xenakis’s Rebonds

Feldman: Do you think that some memories are better than other memories? I mean like in psychoanalysis: one goes there to free one-self of the memories that makes it impossible to live in reality, and I would say as a metaphor about becoming a composer that one has memories that one has to get rid of.

Xenakis: I prefer artistry instead of psycho-analysis because in psycho-analysis… infact what you do is, you’re trusting on some traces of your memory, something different in your story and when you think you have left that story you’re building something different and it becomes your new past..

Iannis Xenakis and Morton Feldman in Conversation

Saw an excellent performance of Iannis Xenakis‘s solo percussion piece “Rebonds” last night by the very fluid Ayano Kataoka. From the number of performances on Youtube, I guess it’s repertory now. This is a pretty good one:


The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.

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