Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld
In 1941, on the advice of a doctor, Bernhard’s mother sent him to a Nazi home for children with behavioral problems, which stood in the middle of a large forest near Saalfeld, Germany, a day’s journey from Traunstein. The experience brought the young Bernhard into closer contact with the Nazi welfare state, an experience that would harden his grandfather-given suspicion of states in general and set him on a collision course with the stifling postwar Austrian welfare state in particular. On the first night in Saalfeld, he was “exposed” as a bed-wetter; the punishment was being denied breakfast and seeing the incriminating sheet hung on a line in the packed mess hall. “I had entered a new hell…. A German boy does not cry! And in the forest of Thuringia I did almost nothing but cry.” Bernhard visited the home again forty years later, around 1980. It was in communist East Germany and still serving the same function. “Nothing had changed,” he wrote in A Child, although the flag now flying outside was that of the German Democratic Republic.
Bernhard also saw a continuity from Nazi to post-Nazi in his native democratic Austria, so much so that from his humble beginnings as a bed-wetter, he became a Nestbeschmutzer, a nest-soiler—the name given him by his critics in the postwar Austrian establishment. He was infamous for his exuberant, vitriolic invectives against state and society in Austria, and in particular what he saw as the common ground between wartime Nazism and postwar cultural and political Catholicism, which were to him “nothing more than contagious diseases, mental illnesses.” In An Indication of the Cause (1977), Bernhard recounted his experience as an adolescent in Salzburg. “My home town is in reality a deadly disease,” he wrote, describing the “catholic-national-socialist atmosphere” in which he had grown up and attended school during and after the war. “Out of the so-called day room in which we were educated in National Socialism there emerged a chapel…and where the image of Hitler had once been on the wall there now hung a large cross…. The now daily…swallowed body of Christ was also nothing more than the daily so-called salute to Adolf Hitler.” Whereas the German writer Heinrich Böll, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, saw in a cross’s shadow on a school wall the persistence of a kind of dissent (the mark refuses to grow fainter even after it has been painted over by the Nazis), Bernhard saw the competition between cross and swastika as a false opposition. Their methods and ideals were essentially the same.
Above all, Bernhard perceived that the softening of power in postwar Austria did not necessarily lead to its diminution. He wrote about how society and state were still eager to make victims out of the “suffering, maimed and sick…. And the centuries have not changed this in the least, on the contrary, the methods have been refined and become thereby even more horrific.” In 1975, the year Bernhard wrote those words, the French historian Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish, which traced the transformation from physical to spiritual punishment over several centuries (as opposed to decades) but drew the same conclusion as Bernhard: the abandonment of torture and execution as methods of social control had merely transformed rather than attenuated the power of that control. “Is there a diminution of intensity? Perhaps. There is certainly a change of objective,” Foucault wrote. “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”
Bernhard’s assault against the soft stranglehold of societal and institutional control was a constant, categorical critique of the sort that frequently made his moderate German publisher uncomfortable. Unseld recounted a meeting with Bernhard in December 1982, in the Viennese apartment of Frau Maleta, a longtime friend of Bernhard’s and the wife of Alfred Maleta, the former president of the Austrian Republic. Maleta was of the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party), a Christian-conservative party known as the “blacks.” Unseld: “And then his prognosis in the house of these blacks that the blacks did not stand a chance. But also the socialists did not stand a chance, and the greens did not have a chance—no one stood a chance, that was Bernhard as we all know him.” Bernhard’s tendency to reduce all politics (particularly Austria’s) to a single unmitigated disaster also manifests itself in his fiction and theater pieces, most notably the immensely controversial Heldenplatz, wherein the brother of a Jewish professor who has just leapt from a window to his death says: “in the past fifty years those in power/ have destroyed everything/ and it cannot be made right…. The socialists are no longer socialists/ the socialists today are essentially nothing more/ than Catholic national socialists…. The socialists today are capitalists.”
The correspondence between Bernhard and Unseld offers a rare glimpse of the nest-soiler’s true political sympathies. In 1972, he congratulated Unseld on the “birthday of your new country” after the Social Democrat Willy Brandt was reconfirmed as chancellor of Germany following a coalition crisis. And when the moderate Socialist François Mitterrand was elected president of France in 1981, Bernhard’s tone was ecstatic: “While in the human imagination every day and every hour a new world comes into being if we want it to, in politics it happens in such a spectacular way only a few times a century.”
But Bernhard is justifiably better known for his bile than for his accolades, and among the things he most despised were the mass market and state subventions for artistic production. His disdain for what he called the “assembly-line” approach to publishing accounts for some of the tension that runs throughout his correspondence with Unseld. Most of the so-called literature that is produced, Bernhard complained in a July 1975 letter, was “nothing more than a trash heap of spiritlessness [Geistlosigkeit]! It is all stupidity, shamelessness, charlatanry!… I’ll have nothing to do with this now obvious development in the direction of total dumbing down!” In April 1966, he wrote, “I’m making it difficult for you, just as I make it difficult and ever more difficult for myself…. I hate bad books, but for a good one I will push half of my fatherland into the abyss without the slightest hesitation.”
This was no exaggeration, for Bernhard quite regularly did as much. Addressing an abstract Austrian “young writer” in 1957, he declared that “Out of the nation of poets and thinkers has come a nation of insured, a nation of public servants and party members, a country of weaklings, a landscape of passionless file-carriers.” Nor did Bernhard’s position soften with age. As he told Krista Fleischmann in 1984, “I oppose all subventions, all forms of pension, and artists should not be paid a single Groschen [penny]…. Because then one can no longer write a good book…. Everything cultural here has been destroyed because everything is supported.” In state subventions for culture, Bernhard saw a force that supported mediocrity—a hundred and a thousand voices writing with a single pen—and marginalized, indeed pulverized, the exceptional.
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