David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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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.


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.

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.

John Williams: Augustus

Williams wrote the serious, affecting academic novel Stoner before he wrote this (mostly) epistolary novel about Augustus Caesar. Despite Williams’ protestations that both novels are concerned with power, the poor academic Stoner had no power while the characters in this one have nothing but. Augustus himself does not speak until the short, final section. The rest of the novel is told in letters between his family, friends, and a few enemies (Cicero and Mark Antony).

Williams ignores the influence of Robert Graves’s salacious Claudius novels and most of the dicier gossip of the time. It is a very high-minded and “Greek” treatment of the Romans. Augustus’ wife Livia is not the murderous witch of the Graves books, merely tough-minded and manipulative, though Augustus sees right through her. In parts Williams goes out of his way to avoid the pettier emotions: Augustus sentences his daughter Julia to a brutal island exile in order to save her life, not to punish her for treason. Augustus is also not concerned with her promiscuity or with promiscuity in general; his draconian marriage laws are merely to promulgate virtue, not demand it. This Augustus is, if anything, closest to the spectral Augustus of The Death of Virgil, who is more a philosophical respondent to Virgil than an actual person. Williams’s Augustus even expresses regret for exiling Ovid.

So Augustus emerges as a preternaturally calm and clear-headed person, as close to the ideal of the enlightened monarch as one could hope. Before his ascent, in the first half of the book, he is a cold, masterful tactician. After becoming emperor, he is a stoic ruler resigned to the unhappiness and isolation that he has brought on himself and pessimistic that the tide of chaos can be fought off after his death. This dialogue with Julia, after he has chosen Tiberius reluctantly but mindfully as his underwhelming successor, is representative:

“Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”

My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe that it has,” he said. “We both must believe that it has.”

Here, as elsewhere, he is more Marcus Aurelius than Augustus.

The things that get out of Augustus’s control do not do so because of human fallibility and weakness, at least not on Augustus’s part. In his final monologue, he expresses little but resignation for what he has accomplished, and he regrets the loss of friendship and ordinary life that his position has cost him. These are the strongest moments in the book, the contrast between the benevolent despot and the young genius among his talented friends and compatriots, the last time he knew actual friendship.

In contrast, the weak point is Julia. Williams seems to have made a conscious decision to give Julia a long and retrospective part in the book, writing her memoirs after Augustus’s death on a larger and less wretched island than the original site of her exile. She writes as a mature, disappointed woman who holds little anger, someone who has lost whatever power she once had. She is happy, but Williams does not succeed in defining her sufficiently to make her more than a foil for Augustus. Perhaps this is a result of the paradox he set himself: Julia and Augustus cannot engage in a real dialogue over the course of the book because they are inhabiting different worlds. Williams does better in having other characters describe their relationships with Augustus, because among all his generals and advisers there is mutual understanding among the intrigue and mistrust, and so they all feel imminently present and evoke how Augustus is always at a remove, even when speaking for himself.

What is its relation to Stoner, which portrays little but small spiritual triumph in an unromanticized academic life? The pains and losses in Augustus are so large as to overwhelm most of the “human” motivations that drive Stoner (as well as most novels). The book reads something like a thought experiment: if Augustus had been so reflective and benevolent, how could the events of his life be explained? What results is an old masters portrait of Augustus, larger than life and larger than human emotion, but still in touch with both.

David B.: Two Stories

The Armed Garden and The Veiled Prophet appeared in the Winter and Spring/Summer issues of MOME, Fantagraphics’ otherwise unremarkable comics anthology. David B., though, is perhaps the greatest living comics writer/artist, and certainly the most mystical. His work draws heavily on portraying visual representations of internal and metaphysical states. He deployed these techniques at length in Epileptic (L’Ascension du Haut-Mal in French), his three-hundred hundred page chronicle of his brother’s severe epilepsy and his family’s life with it. At some point in the future, I will attempt to come to terms with the scope of David B.’s achievement of creating a visual weltanschauung as universal as that of any of the old masters. Here, though, are two little religious fables about crossing the gap between the human and the heavens, and the horrors therein.

“The Armed Garden” is the more straightforward of the two. Jog describes it in detail here, but in brief, it concerns a Prague blacksmith, Rohan, who is subject to visions of Adam and Eve urging him to lead humanity back to paradise before the fall.

This he does, setting up camp in a verdant garden and descending into debauchery. One defiled woman under his reign asks, “You claim to be men of God, yet you commit the most abominable crimes,” and Rohan responds:

We are now one with God; we are no longer held to observe the commandments! We have the right to satisfy all our desires! If you refuse me, I shall kill you but you will be the one at fault!

Then the twist. Eve now appears to the militant Ziska, telling him, “Your brother Rohan has lost himself on the road to Paradise.” Ziska takes up arms and invades the garden, where they have regressed to a pre-human state of existence, having been absorbed into the trees, rocks, and ground. Rohan himself has undergone some kind of false apotheosis into a sun, and Ziska is able to destroy him with the aid of a talking goose.

Though the mythos is Christian, the story uses a more ancient mode of divine-human interaction that is closer to Greek and Norse mythology. Rohan loses the approbation of the gods even as he embraces their words and leaves humanity behind; it’s Ziska, who remains human, who comes out the victor, along with the backing of Eve.

“The Veiled Prophet” (also described by Jog) is very much the complement of “The Armed Garden”: this time, the divine intrudes on the human instead of the other way around. Set in a vaguely Arabic milieu, A veil falls from the sky onto an average man and transforms him into an all-purpose religious leader, appearing as any and all former prophets to others and inspiring an immediate and immense following. He amasses an army and sets about conquering all around him, until the Caliph marshals a large army against him. The prophet holds forth with rhetoric reminiscent of Rohan:

This world does not exist! It is an illusion! The real world is behind this veil. But you cannot see it without perishing! Here, there is neither law nor religion. The violation of every law is the first step toward the real world.

But unlike Rohan, the prophet is divine. He unleashes a literal flood of the skeletons of the victims and martyrs of injustice from all of history. The Caliph fights wisely and bravely, but he doesn’t have a chance. He’s only human.

The tenors of both stories are similarly folklorish, but the differences in setting and outcome are salutary. Reading “The Veiled Prophet” after “The Armed Garden,” I expected the prophet to come to grief, led astray by the intrusion of a piece of eternity–the veil–into the human world. But no, the prophet is now eternity (or the “real,” as the prophet would have it), and he is as destructive to the world as paradise was to Rohan’s sect. Humans touching eternity and eternity impinging on humans. David B.’s cosmology in these two stories has the same axioms:

  1. The eternal world is more real than the human world.
  2. It is hostile to humans in its very nature.

This cosmology is a gnostic one in that the eternal world reveals itself subjectively and in pieces. Yet David B. seems ultimately concerned with the idea that it is precisely the illusory world that allows we as people to exist and to survive. Every incursion of the Real destroys us. Merely to touch the Real, as Ziska does at the end of “The Armed Garden,” is enough to blind one. People exist in the space between the Real and nothingness, condemned to see the world in lies and misunderstanding, and it is those fictions that form our very existence. Fictions keep the Real at bay, though it remains a constant presence. Hence the theme of compulsory, obsessive creation that underlies Epileptic.

In addition to gnosticism, it’s also a Hermetic metaphysic. Hermeticism thrives or dies based on the ability of its advocate to enthrall the aesthetic appreciation of the reader, and David B. is sublimely skilled in this regard. Hermeticism is particularly suited to the comics medium, just as Lull and Bruno communicated more intuitively and persuasively in their charts and graphics than they could in their writing.

As for the source of David B.’s inspiration, I can’t say, not being a gnostic or a hermeticist myself, but I cannot deny the overwhelming reaction (illusory or real) that his world (illusory or real) is more freestanding than those of most artists, requiring less support from the shared assumptions of his culture, and that this is a crucial aspect of at least one sort of genius.

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

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. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

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. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…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. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. 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. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

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