Readers of The Written World will know that I am a great fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein. So, it seems, was Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose work is apparently peppered with references to the philosopher whose work so changed philosophical practice in the 20th century – according to me, not only our understanding of the world but our understanding of how we go about understanding it.
Of the three books by Bernhard I’ve read, all contain some references to Ludwig, and it is said that other of his books deal heavily with him and his thought.
One of these, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, is a short – 100 pages with big type – account of Bernhard’s relationship with the man in the title, whose name was Paul and who was not the full quid.*
Ludwig also had a brother named Paul who was famous in his own right. A pianist, he lost an arm in the First World War, yet continued to play. Among other pieces, he commissioned and performed a one-handed work by Maurice Ravel, and according to Wikipedia, developed one-hand techniques in er concert with his footpedals to allow music previously thought to be impossible to play one-handed. Readers can find performances on YouTube, at least one heavily criticised by commentators.
According to a biography of Ludwig, the Wittgenstein family didn’t scrimp their criticism either.
Bernhard, who was also a pianist and a graduate of the Salzburg “Mozarteum”, doesn’t mention the pianist. His account of his friendship with the nephew is variously described as a memoir and a novel. It is hard to know from this just how much of what he has to say is true. It has been common in the last generation, if not before, to rewrite history – in literature and in film and no doubt in other ways – to incorporate fiction. I’ve done it myself, in Tobi’s Game, putting a character through not just the Holocaust but also the final days in the Nazi leadership’s bunker in Berlin. Things happen in this book that really happened, but not necessarily as I described, and certainly not with a character I invented.
Bernhard is however something different. The echoes of Wittgenstein’s Nephew ricochet off the walls of Austrian society and for Austrians the clatter must be alarming. Despite spending most of his life in his native country, he doesn’t have much that is nice to say about it, and what he does have that is nice to say is compromised by confessions of his failing to dislike it. But underneath is something much more compelling and disturbing about life in any so-called developed society, a critique so savage and honest that few if any can emerge unscathed from a reading of a Bernhard book.
What Bernhard finds objectionable about life is life itself, especially as it is lived by us – we poor humans, who preen and prance and pretend in the face of certain decay and death. Much of what he says in Wittgenstein’s Nephew about how we behave does not actually accord with my thinking or my experience, but his attacks are often deceptive, their truths arriving from some other angle than they seem at first.
Like Nikolai Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, Bernhard is a very profound dialectician. He doesn’t mind working out the dialectics in plain view either. Was Ludwig mad as Paul? Was Paul as much of a philosopher as Ludwig? The Austrian explores these possibilities positively, and while he is about it, tears strips off mental health professionals.nonetheless describing Paul’s illness definitely as an illness. What he objected to was not that Paul needed some kind of intervention, but the intervention that was prescribed. He is thus outraged – as we should be – by the psychiatric practice of the time (late 1960s, before and after): “Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science…the real demons of our age, going about their business with impunity and constrained by neither law nor conscience.”
Bernhard was hardly alone in his views at the time.The Austrian located the beginning of his book in 1967, when he and Paul were in different wings of a hospital in Vienna – he for thoracic surgery, Paul for electro-shock “therapy”. By then Thomas Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness had been in print for six years and R D Laing’s Divided Self, and The Politics of Experience would have been available to Bernhard as he wrote.
Bernhard attacks the cherished values of settled existence in favour of the life of risk and growth,and his works – the four I have read or am reading – could be described as rants against his targets and in support of his ideas. They contain narratives, like Celine typically in the first person, and in Bernhard’s case without bothering to start a second paragraph, but we read them for their views on life and death, put so often in ways that are at the same time appalling and hilarious. Celine was a master at the humorous sketch; Bernhard less so: the Austrian shared Celine’s wit, however, with asides skewering his targets as weakly flailing moths before the collector sticks them forever in his specimen tray.
No one would suppose that these two miscreant misanthropes were in every respect admirable – as writers, as thinkers, as people. Some would say that there was nothing admirable about Celine, and an afterward to The Loser suggests Bernhard’s disappearance would have been greeted with cheers by many Austrians. Yet Celine freed me when I encountered in him in the 1970s as he freed others before and since, to nod, smiling or chuckling or guffawing, in understanding agreement of the rank hypocrisy that both surrounds and invests us, and that surely is worth something. Kurt Vonngegut once wrote that Celine lacked “blinders” that most of us have to prevent us from seeing “the unbelievability of life as it really is” and Bernhard is no different in that sense. His hapless victims deserve their fates because they will not live a life worth living by their own standards as well as his.
It is hard to believe that Bernhard was as disagreeable in person as he makes himself out to be, reviled not only for his views but his manners but there is some evidence that it is true. Celine by contrast had a strong coterie of defenders and friends, even if some of these fell away when he used them as thinly disguised and thoroughly unpleasant characters in his novels.
The fourth of Bernhard’s book s I am now enjoying is his last, aptly titled Extinction. Naturally this can mean a lot of things on a lot of levels. He adopts a device favoured by Dostoevsky I’ve highligthed in Written World in the past – an observer observing the narrator.** This can make for great literature though I am not so sure Dostoevsky really needed it, and not sure either if Bernhard does. Celine was really only happy in the first person in a mad autobiography: “first you have to pay for it. Then you can use it.”
Like Celine – indeed, like Dostoevsky too – Bernhard makes me want to lift my sights in my writing. I care less for the experimental aspects of these giants of the written word than I do for the white heat of their commitment. Even if we are not really sure what they meant in their books, we are really sure that they really meant it.
So – Bernhard comes as a time in my writing life when I have written what I think is a pretty passable thriller and ghost story, with the aims that I have always set myself: to have a serious purpose in this frivolous genre, now genres. But I think now, maybe, it is time to go further and harder at what I want to do as a writer.
“First you’ve got to pay for it, then you can use it.” In my writing I’ve chosen never to base any character on a single living person, and even those who have passed through I’ve taken things away from personalities and added them too. My own life – I’m not on the bottom of the barrel watching greedy sadists shooting fish from up above, trying to dodge the bullets. But I’ve had a life that falls within Celine’s rubric all the same***. I can always write more in the lines I’ve done so far, but I can do better if I focus hard enough, and risk enough. Time to choose.
*”Full quid” = English/Australian/New Zealand and perhaps elsewhere for not all there, mad.**In Karamazov, Demons, Notes from Underground, and elsewhere.***Celine could have had a cushy life, and indeed seemed to be heading for it before he veered of into the Parisian demimonde to write his first blockbuster, Journey to the end of the night. Even later he often played it straight.