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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: thomas bernhard (page 1 of 3)

Tao Lin: the Old Master

We present a guest post by Thomas Bernhard, reviewing Tao Lin’s Taipei.

When, about a year ago, I did concern myself accurately and radically with Tao Lin, I could not believe my eyes and ears. Such faulty and bungled English or American, whichever you prefer, I had never before read in my whole intellectual life in an author who is, of all things, famous today for his precise and clear prose. Tao Lin’s prose is anything but precise and it is the least clear I have come across, it is packed with distorted metaphors and faulty and confused ideas, and I really wonder why this provincial dilettante is today revered to such an extent by writers, and above all by the younger writers, and not by any means by the least known or least noticed ones. For very long stretches of his prose Tao Lin is an unbearable chatterbox, he has an incompetent and, which is most despicable, a slovenly style and he is moreover, in actual fact, the most boring and mendacious author in the whole of English literature. Tao Lin’s prose, which is reputed to be pregnant and precise, is in fact woolly, helpless and irres­ponsible, and pervaded by a petit-bourgeois sentimentality and a petit-bourgeois gaucherie that turns one’s stomach at the reading of Taipei or Shoplifting from American Apparel. Taipei, in particular, is, from the very first few lines, an attempt to present a recklessly spun-out, sentimental and boring prose full of internal and external mistakes as a work of art, when it is nothing but a petit­ bourgeois concoction from Williamsburg. Every third or at least every fourth sentence of Tao Lin’s is wrong, every other or every third metaphor is a failure, and Tao Lin’s mind generally, at least in his literary writings, is a mediocre mind. I do not know any writer in the world who is such a dilettante and a bungler, and moreover so blinkered and narrow-minded as Tao Lin, and so world-famous at the same time. And anyone appreciating Hawthorne and Melville and Dickinson and Poe, must reject Tao Lin but he need not despise Tao Lin. Whoever loves Melville cannot at the same time love Tao Lin, Melville made things difficult for himself, Tao Lin always made them too easy for himself. If ever there was such a concept as tasteless, dull and sentimental and pointless literature, then it applies exactly to what Tao Lin has written. Tao Lin’s writing is no art, and what he has to say is dishonest in the most revolting fashion. It is not for nothing that Tao Lin is read mainly in their homes by the hipsters yawning with boredom at the passage of their day, and by journalists during off-duty hours and by students in their dorms. A genuinely thinking person cannot read Tao Lin. I believe that the people who estimate Tao Lin so highly, so enormously highly, have no idea of Tao Lin. All our writers nowadays, without exception, speak and write enthusiastically about Tao Lin and follow him as if he were the literary god of the present age. Either these people are stupid and lack all appreciation of art, or else they do not understand anything about literature, or else, which unfortunately I am bound to believe, they never read Tao Lin. Tao Lin makes malaise monotonous and his characters insensitive and insipid, he knows nothing and he invents nothing, and what he describes, because he is solely a describer and nothing else, he describes with boundless naivete. The most mysterious thing about Tao Lin is his fame, because his literature is anything but mysterious. Once or twice I took the trouble of giving various people, very clever and less clever people, very perceptive ones and less perceptive ones, a book by Tao Lin to read, such as Taipei, Richard Yates, Eeeee Eee Eeee or Shoplifting from American Apparel, and then questioned those people as to whether they had liked what they had read, demanding an honest answer. And all these people, compelled by me to give an honest answer, told me they had not liked it, that they had been infinitely disappointed, that basically it had said nothing, but absolutely nothing, to them, they were all simply amazed that a person who wrote such brainless works, and moreover had nothing to communicate, could become so famous. That Tao Lin experiment amused me again and again for some time. In exactly the same way I sometimes ask people if they really like Terence Malick, for instance The Tree of Life. Not a single person I asked ever liked the picture, they all admired it solely because of its fame, it did not really say anything to any of them. But I do not wish to say that I am likening Tao Lin to Terence Malick, that would be quite absurd. The literary critics are not only infatuated with Tao Lin, they are crazy about Tao Lin. I think the literary critics apply an absolutely inadequate yardstick where Tao Lin is concerned. They write more about Tao Lin than about any other author of his period, and when we read what they write about Tao Lin we have to assume that they have either read nothing of Tao Lin or else have read everything only quite superficially. Malaise is now enjoying a boom, that is why Tao Lin is now enjoying a boom. Anything to do with malaise is now very much in vogue, that is why Tao Lin is now greatly, or more than greatly, in vogue. Drugs are now greatly in vogue, the internet is now greatly in vogue. Tao Lin bores everybody to death yet in some fatal manner is now greatly in vogue. Sentimentality altogether, that is the terrible thing, is now greatly in vogue, just as everything else that is kitsch is now greatly in vogue. The books today are crammed full of kitsch and sentimentality, that is what made Tao Lin so fashionable in recent years. Tao Lin is a master of kitsch. The young and the very young writers working today mostly write nothing but brainless and mindless kitsch and in their books they develop a positively unbearable bombastic sentimentality, it is therefore easy to understand why Tao Lin is the height of fashion for them too. Tao Lin, who introduced brainless and mindless kitsch into great and noble literature and who ended up committing a kitschy suicide, is now the height of fashion. But Tao Lin has not described malaise at all, he has only kitschified it. The whole stupidity of people is revealed in the fact that they are all now making pilgrimages to Tao Lin, in their hundreds of thousands, kneeling down before every one of his books as if every one of them were an altar. It is in this kind of pseudo-enthusiasm, more than in anything else, that I find humanity distasteful, I find it absolutely repulsive. In the end everything eventually becomes a prey to ridicule or at least to triviality, no matter how great and important it may be.

The Turin Horse

BERNHARD: Because everything’s in ruins. Everything’s been degraded, but I could say that they’ve ruined and degraded everything. Because this is not some kind of cataclysm, coming about with so-called innocent human aid. On the contrary, it’s about man’s own judgement, his own judgement over his own self, which of course God has a hand in, or dare I say takes part in. And whatever he takes part in is the most ghastly creation that you can imagine. Because, you see, the world has been debased. So it doesn’t matter what I say, because everything has been debased that they’ve acquired. and since they’ve acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they’ve debased everything. Because whatever they touch-and they touch everything-they’ve debased. This is the way it was until the final victory. Until the trimphant end. Acquire, debase, debase, acquire. Or I can put it differently if you like. To touch, debase and thereby acquire, or touch, acquire and thereby debase. It’s been going on like this for centuries, on, on and on. This and only this, sometimes on the sly, sometimes rudely, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally, but it has been going on and on. Yet only in one way, like a rat attack from ambush. Becouse for this perfect victory, it was also essential that the other side, everything that’s excellent, great in some way and noble, should not engage in any kind of fight. There shouldn’t be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side, meaning the disappearance of the excellent, the great, the noble. So that by now these winning winners who attack from ambush rule earth, and there isn’t a single tiny nook where one can hide something from them, because everything they can lay their hands on is theirs. Even things we think they can’t reach – but they do reach – are also theirs. Because the sky is already theirs and all our dreams. Theirs is the moment, nature, infinite silence. Even immortality is theirs, you understand? Everything, everything is lost forever! And those many noble, great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way. They stopped at this point, and had to understand, and had to accept, that there is neither god nor gods. And the excellent, the great and the noble had to understand and accept this right from the beginning. But of course, they were quite incapable of understanding it. They believed it and accepted it but they didn’t understand it. They just stood there, bewildered, but not resigned, until something – that spark from the brain – finally enlightened them. And all at once they realized, that there is neither god nor gods. All at once they saw that there is neither good nor bad. Then they saw and understood that if this was so, then they themselves do not exist either! You see, I reckon this may have been the moment when we can say that they were extinguished, they burnt out. Extinguished and burnt out like the fire left to smoulder in the meadow. One was a constant loser, the other was the constant winner. Defeat, victory, defeat, victory, and one day – here in the neighbourhood – I had to realize, and I did realize, that I was mistaken, I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth. Because, believe me, I know now that this change has indeed taken place.

OHLSDORFER: Come off it, that’s rubbish.

The Turin Horse

Yes, they really did give him the name Bernhard. He even looks a bit like Thomas Bernhard. Perhaps his words are to not to be taken as the thoughts of Bela Tarr or Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Pile of Shit Reviews Profound Philosophical Rhapsody: Lars Iyer’s Spurious

I reviewed Lars Iyer’s Spurious for the Quarterly Conversation. Blogger reviews blogger. I wrote this review during a break from a longer, far more exhausting project, so I took the opportunity to kick back and enjoy myself.

Friendship demands one expose oneself, or better, that one allow oneself to be exposed in the ecstasis that does not permit us to remain mired in tautology.

Lars Iyer, Blanchot’s Communism

Spurious cannot be reviewed like the books of so many dead authors, or even so many living ones. Lars Iyer is a blogger whose site is named Spurious, and now he has published a book named Spurious with a narrator named Lars. The book relates closely to the blog in content, in style, and in spirit. (It shares little in common with his two academic books on the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot, however.) Some of the content from the book has appeared on the blog as daily entries, before and even after the book was published.

I am a blogger as well. We share some of the same tastes: Thomas Bernhard, Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Smog. Lars and I were both anonymous bloggers for a time. We did not want a public persona influencing our reader’s impressions of our work. Now we are not anonymous. I decided it was futile. Just ask Tao Lin. By signing up with Melville House, Tao Lin’s publisher, I gather Lars agrees.

Those who take Spurious the blog, and thus Spurious the book, as a pathetic intellectual burlesque are missing the great complexity offered by each. It is a subtle complexity, obscured by misdirection. But the richness in the book is available to those who let themselves be misdirected and then misdirect themselves. It takes some effort on the part of the reader to unsituate him or herself, however. Because this book does read like a sequence of blog posts on Spurious, and because it plays on the border between fiction and non-fiction like so many blogs, it demands a different sort of reading than one would give a novel that comes with nothing but a name attached. The chorus of Larses in the book, the blog, and Iyer’s interviews speak with greatly overlapping voices. But listen to this chorus of Davids and all will be made clear.

…continued…

PS: Apropos of nothing, I’m quite impressed with Google’s tribute to Will Eisner. Eisner’s letters-as-buildings and flexible panel space were always some of his most striking techniques. Nice to see them here.

 

Trainspotters Update: Lars Iyer “Like”d my article on Facebook. Steve Mitchelmore has defriended me, however.

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.

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