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Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld | The Nation

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Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld

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Nazism thrived on choreographed repetition. The Nazis wanted to change history by going back and repeating it. World War I was their ultimate pride and shame; they revisited it incessantly. Their random-access approach to history was like the “repeat” function on a CD or MP3 player, skipping back to relive the past, cry to the ballads and march to the marches, over and over again.

Der Briefwechsel von Thomas Bernhard, Siegfried Unseld
Edited by Raimund Fellinger, Martin Huber and Julia Ketterer.
Suhrkamp. 869 pp. Paper €39.80.

About the Author

Holly Case
Holly Case teaches history at Cornell University and is the author of Between States: The Transylvanian Question and...

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The Nazis’ mortal enemies, the Communists, believed in serial history, like a tape played from beginning to end. One could fast-forward, or accelerate, the tape, but jumping to an earlier track, even rewinding, was impossible. Once the tape had started (at the origins of mankind), there was no stopping it: the cosmic cassette would play to the end of human history.

Born into this age of extremes, Bernhard thought like a Nazi and believed like a Communist. Critics categorized Bernhard’s work variously as “anarchistic” and “reactionary,” but always, always on the extremes. Such was his comfort zone: he wrote his first novel, Frost (1963), in the middle of a beastly hot summer, and wearing only a swimsuit. But for all his extremism, what made Bernhard the very opposite of a Nazi or a Communist was his disdain for the roar of the masses and his tortuous romance with isolation. In his fiction and plays, creator-men go into seclusion in a remote or very particular place in order to perfect some philosophical project or solve a longstanding thought-problem. There they double back over their own thought path, moving inexorably through repetition and revision toward an exalted and perfect omega, literally thinking themselves to death. Creative self-destruction is the inevitable end that greets the protagonists in Bernhard’s best works: Correction, Walking (1971), Extinction (1986) and Heldenplatz (1988). As he once told his publisher, “I am a tightrope walker without a tightrope,” for whom “the abyss is not just below.” To read Bernhard is to soar impossibly high without a safety net, unable to distinguish the ecstatic rise from the horrific fall.

The conditions at that altitude are extreme. Bernhard’s favorite theater director was the German Claus Peymann, who staged the premiere performances of most of his pieces. Peymann’s sets were so tall that even when the actors were touching onstage, a frosted tragicomic irony stood in for intimacy—a reminder that living in Bernhard’s work is not for the faint-hearted or the sentimental. During his infamous “orgy of sparkling water,” Unseld reported having the sensation that “What we were doing was none other than a scene from a Thomas Bernhard comedy…. I don’t know if I would have the nerve to face another such conversation again.”

In his prose Bernhard abandoned narrative and exposition, dispensed with paragraphs and chapters, and was comfortable having sentences run on for a page or more, veering away from and circling back to a subject. But the aim of such ceaseless explication is never description, for Bernhard held that “everything is always otherwise than it is described.” In a 1986 television interview, he told the Austrian journalist Krista Fleischmann that descriptions of places and events in literature were “uninteresting” and “uneconomical.”

Despite his contempt for description, Bernhard did write obsessively about things, above all articles of clothing—shirts, pants, shoes—and their relative quality and care. In Walking, several pages are filled with a character holding pants up to the light, noting thin patches in the fabric and repeating with increasing intensity the phrase “Czechoslovak rejects.”

By his own admission, Bernhard suffered from “the so-called counting sickness,” a compulsion to count everything. He avoided riding in streetcars because he could not prevent himself from trying to count each window as it passed. No less fastidious with his own work, Bernhard turned revision into the very substance of his art. While revising Correction, he wrote to Unseld that the novel “is a mathematical problem and will become beautiful literature only when it is perfectly solved.” As Unseld grew increasingly impatient with each new delay, Bernhard went on in his letters about achieving the “last precision” and the “last perfection.” Finally, after four years and at least nine delays, Bernhard turned over the manuscript to his publisher. As the title suggests, the novel is about revision, and because Bernhard is its author, it’s about total revision, though one that the author realizes without succumbing to the dead certainty that awaits his protagonists. As Bernhard told the German writer Asta Scheib in a 1987 interview, “Unlike stunt pilots, who only crash once and then are mostly done for or dead, the writer is also done for and dead, but always comes back to life.”

What kept him from sharing the fate of his protagonists was his ecstatic passion for his work, which he described in a letter to Unseld as “my only pleasure, my only joy, my grossest possible indecency.” Bernhard made this passion almost physically palpable in his prose, and especially his plays, which often sound like music or poetry, relentlessly driven by rhythm and repetition. In Heldenplatz, a servant repeats aloud while demonstrating exactly how her late boss had instructed her to fold his shirts: 

Like this you see this is
how he folded the shirt
then he snatched it up
and folded it again
and snatched it up
and folded it again
[looks at the clock]
Seven or eight times he snatched up the shirt
and folded it again
and then he said now you fold it Frau Zittel
fold it exactly
the way I’ve just folded it….
Like this the Professor said like this
and he turned in the sleeves
you see Frau Zittel see see see….
No no Frau Zittel I am not mad
I am simply exact Frau Zittel but not mad
I am simply exact Frau Zittel but not mad
a perfectionist is what I am Frau Zittel
I am not sick I am not sick he screamed
I am simply a perfectionist
I am a notorious perfectionist….
Intolerable person he screamed intolerable person
this is how you fold a shirt like this

Bernhard compared this pitiless, rhythmic language to “when some old grandmother…repeats every third sentence and every moment says ‘my identical twin.’”

His emphasis on the banality of the technique is telling, and calls to mind a passage from Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), about the trial of the primary logistical mastermind behind the Final Solution. Arendt observed how Adolf Eichmann “repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché)…. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think.” Bernhard may have shared this stylistic tic with Eichmann, but not the intellectual defect: instead of using language to mask the absence of thought and reflection, Bernhard’s banal repetitions are a willful plunge into the “internal processes” of the human spirit, “that which no one sees.” And the internal process that most captivated him was the human individual’s gorgeous, catastrophic romance with its own perfectibility. We believe it’s possible, we know it’s not possible, we believe it’s possible, we know it’s not possible; the spirit strives for perfection, tantalizes us with the very outline of perfection because it knows there is no such thing.

One of the earliest pieces of writing we have from Bernhard is a speech he gave at the age of 23 to honor the 100th birthday of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. “He did not write on bond paper, but on stinking cheese packages—but precisely that was just poetry.” What Bernhard recognized in Rimbaud was that he had approached perfection via filth: “his literature was an only, indeed world-wide, historically free, unbound, unrefined religion, triumphant in dirt and tattered shoes.” This was to become Bernhard’s own counterintuitive method: what better way to cast off the Nazi legacy than by forcing its meaning in the opposite direction.

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