Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld
“Where do I get this absolute sense of security on the one hand, and this horrific helplessness on the other?” Bernhard wondered in his autobiography. The answer he gives is personal, yet his perfectionism, his preference for “going it alone” and his unusually intense identification with his work resonated with a strain of the postwar zeitgeist. It was a time of “all or nothing,” one that worshiped the extraordinary, obsessed loner—who was almost always a man—striving toward perfection. In a letter from March 1971, Bernhard compared his situation to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the 1959 novel by Alan Sillitoe, made into a film in 1962. It’s the story of a boy, Colin Smith, from the wrong side of the tracks in industrial England, who lands in prison and takes up long-distance running as a form of mental escape from the cruelties of prison life. The prison leadership recognizes Smith’s talent and tries to co-opt it, offering him early release if he wins a critical cross-country race. Smith speeds ahead of the others and is favored to win, but then stops short of the finish line in a gesture of defiance. “My situation,” Bernhard wrote to Unseld, “is The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I have given my present existence this title.”
Sillitoe’s novel, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958), Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970), the pseudo-documentary films of Werner Herzog about a ski-flier or a mountaineer driven to the ultimate jump or the impossible climb: all of these works betrayed a particular postwar fascination with the horror, loneliness, and ecstasy of defying the strictures of society and state, and in so doing, testing one’s capacity to the limits. With the war over and the welfare state ascendant in Western Europe and America, what this generation did not seem to want or need was a safety net. “You can’t fall off a mountain,” Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums. In his acceptance speech for the Bremen Literature Prize in 1965, Bernhard expressed the essence of Kerouac’s statement: “No time has ever set such high expectations as ours; we already exist megalomaniacally; because we know that we cannot fall and cannot freeze, we dare to do what we do.”
Brinkmanship of the human mind and human machine demanded the most ascetic and concentrated isolation. Bernhard wrote most of his novels and plays in the austerely furnished interior of his farmhouse in Ohlsdorf, which until the 1980s did not have so much as a telephone. “I have here an ideal prison as my house of work, in the best imaginable surroundings,” he told Unseld in December 1966. Though he often wrote of how he preferred the city to life in the country, Bernhard always returned to Ohlsdorf, whence most of his letters to Unseld were postmarked. One of his intellectual inspirations was the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, an uncle of Bernhard’s friend Paul, whose odd figure turns up in several of the author’s novels, stories and plays. In 1919, Wittgenstein famously gave away his considerable inheritance (his father, a Viennese steel tycoon, had been one of the richest men in nineteenth-century Europe) and left Austria for good, spending much of his later life living out of a backpack. During a visit to upstate New York in 1949, Wittgenstein told a fellow philosopher:
It’s like this: In the city, streets are nicely laid out. And you drive on the right and you have traffic lights, etc. There are rules. When you leave the city, there are still rules, but no traffic lights. And when you get far off there are no roads, no lights, no rules, nothing to guide you. It’s all woods. And when you return to the city you may feel that the rules are wrong, that there should be no rules, etc…. It comes to something like this. If you have a light, I say: Follow it. It may be right. Certainly life in the city won’t do.
One early reviewer of Bernhard’s novel Gargoyles (1967) wrote that with “Thomas Bernhard there breaks out again, amidst a decidedly urban literature, the primeval forest.”
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The way Bernhard told it, his entire conscious life was a sustained charge “in the opposite direction,” into the woods. In A Child (1982), the fifth and final volume of his autobiography, he explained how he spent the first year of his life in a net. His cradle was a below-decks hammock on a fishing boat docked at Rotterdam, and he one of “seven to eight” infants hanging from the wooden ceiling in the “unbelievable stench” and “impenetrable damp” of the ship’s bowels, his face “riddled and misshapen by boils.” He was removed from the net once or twice a week, whenever his unwed mother managed to steal enough time from her housekeeping job to pay a visit.
In its details, most of what Bernhard related about the first year of his life was untrue. He lived in the boat’s hold not for a year but for just a few weeks, and there were not seven to eight other newborns; he was the only one. Bernhard was well known as an Übertreibungskünstler, an exaggeration artist, a designation he readily embraced: “without exaggeration one cannot say anything.” Thinking radically opposite was another of his trademarks. In the vision of his newborn self caught in a fisherman’s net, swinging helpless in the stench, untouched by anything but the strands of the hammock, Bernhard saw not confinement but freedom: “Only when I am by seawater can I truly breathe, to say nothing of my ability to think.” Though he would live most of his life in his mother’s native landlocked, mountainous Austria, he frequently called himself a “sea person”: “ich bin ein Kind des Meeres.”
A Child opens with a scene from Bernhard’s childhood, but not with his time in the net. Rather, the beginning—his beginning—is his first ill-fated attempt to break away: “At the age of 8 I mounted the old Steyr bicycle of my guardian, who was at the time engaged in Poland and was about to march into Russia with the German army.” So begins the breathless adventure of a child who had never before ridden a bicycle, and is so intoxicated when he discovers he can—“I rule the world”—that he immediately resolves to ride the nearly thirty miles to Salzburg to visit his aunt. All the while he imagines an audience of “observer-admirers” who “had to see that, in the face of the greatest obstacles and opposition, I had always prevailed and was victorious!”
Like the German army’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the boy’s exalted cycling surge toward victory and glory ended in humiliation and defeat. A hard rain fell, the bike broke, a sobbing Bernhard had to find shelter in a roadside tavern and was ultimately dropped off in front of his mother’s house in Traunstein by a pair of young men. The parallel between the Nazis during World War II and the young Bernhard’s misadventure is not a casual one: for any man in postwar Germany or Austria who wanted to live the life of the long-distance runner, the Nazi legacy weighed heavily. The Nazis thought themselves very special. They took from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche the idea of the Übermensch (Overman), from the writer Ernst Jünger a cult of extreme and detached heroism forged in the machine-gun fire of World War I, and from the legal scholar Carl Schmitt the concept of a “state of exception” that allowed them to vaporize the institutions of democracy with a single gesture. Theirs was a religion of exception that required the masses of its adherents to exist collectively above and beyond everything else, including death and the law.
After Germany’s second great defeat, and having proven themselves unworthy of Hitler’s grand ambitions, most Germans wanted nothing to do with the state of exception. But not all of them. Some sought a way to liberate exceptionalism from the Nazi legacy, to feel the ecstatic rush of striving without merging with the mass, or “going under” for the Overman, as Nietzsche put it. To them, and Bernhard especially, uniformed goose-stepping in unison was precisely not a life of “going in the opposite direction.” Slipping the net also entailed casting off this unwanted inheritance.
It was early morning when the young Bernhard was dropped off at home following his cycling misadventure. But instead of going inside to face an ox-pizzle lashing from his mother, he walked the few extra miles to the village where his grandparents lived to seek refuge with his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, from whom he expected, and received, understanding for what he had done. As Bernhard wrote in A Child, “My grandfather loved chaos…. Loved the unusual and the exceptional, the contrarian, the revolutionary, he came to life in contradiction, existed entirely from opposition.” During the war, Freumbichler was apprehended by the Nazis for listening to Allied radio and sent to serve in a labor unit. His brand of exceptionalism reached above and beyond the masses. “Have something big in your sights, that was his constant admonition, the highest!” Bernhard recalled. “Always have the highest in your sights!” When not out walking with Freumbichler, Bernhard spent much of his childhood alone. It was, after all, the loneliness of the long-distance runner that was his essence: “I hated the herd, I loathed the masses, a hundred and a thousand voices shouting from a single mouth.”
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