Spring 2003

Taming Thomas Bernhard

A misread misanthrope

Gregory Williams

About halfway through The Loser, Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 book about blocked creativity, the narrator drops a bomb on the unsuspecting reader. In a momentary suspension of his virtually unswerving tone of aggressive pessimism and misanthropy, Bernhard inserts a single sentence that smacks awkwardly of humanism. It appears amid a series of reflections prompted by the suicide of the narrator’s friend Wertheimer, whose demise stems from an inability to reconcile himself to functioning as a slightly inferior pianist when compared with the musical genius of a fictionalized Glenn Gould. This sentence, in the slightly abbreviated form in which it was recently reprinted on the back of an envelope distributed by the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, reads: “Each human being is entirely unique, and each is the greatest work of art ever created.” The envelope in question, which arrived at the Cabinet offices last year, contained general press information unrelated to Bernhard. The quote was printed on the envelope’s flap, providing the recipient with a few friendly words of wisdom on the way to examining its contents. Evidently, Austria’s native son was being given a kinder, gentler face than the one he presented publicly during a lifetime of vitriol directed at his homeland.

A softer Bernhard, as seen on the envelope of the Austrian Cultural Forum.

In his will, Bernhard, who died in 1989, famously banned the publication and production of his plays and novels in Austria for seventy years (the length of their copyright). It is thus ironic, and at the same time completely predictable, that the Austrian Cultural Forum would recuperate his image and turn him into an optimist who sees the inherent value in all human existence. Known for his tightly wound depictions of the ultimate futility of life, Bernhard nevertheless sought some measure of independence and self-assertion in the act of writing. The quoted sentiment is certainly his, but taken out of context it might give the unfamiliar reader the wrong idea. The Forum’s appropriation of an author often trashed by Austria in his lifetime causes one to question whether their new attitude is a newfound warts-and-all acceptance of a literary denizen or a cynical manipulation of a body of work. If we look closely at Bernhard’s career, both versions can be seen to have some merit. Though he constantly berated Austria in his novels, plays, and speeches, Bernhard nevertheless accepted all of the awards he was given, and there were many. And while he likely would have interpreted the use of the quote as yet another example of Austrian hypocrisy (they are well known for rejecting their artists while they live, only to honor them after death), he may also have appreciated the gesture as the perfect illustration of what he regularly presented as the fundamental human drive toward miscommunication.

On its website (www.acfny.org), the Austrian Cultural Forum, which opened its new building to the public in April of last year, states its mission to be that of “transforming modernity.” For a country that has recently seen the revival of xenophobic right-wing politics via Jörg Haider’s flashy Freedom Party, it’s no wonder that the New York–based cultural representatives want to alter the legacy of modernity. Indeed, Bernhard himself consistently railed against the country’s unwillingness to confront, or even to properly acknowledge, its role in the most ignominious moments of the modern era. New York offers a sympathetic audience that might still have enough distance from the Austrian literary scene to be unfamiliar with Bernhard’s position as what he termed a “nest-fouler.” By the same token, the average, skeptical New Yorker could most likely handle a more apt quote, such as this line from Concrete (1982): “Everyone is a virtuoso on his own instrument, but together they add up to an intolerable cacophony.” It retains a bit of the desired humanism, but doesn’t forsake Bernhard’s spleen.

Gregory Williams is an editor at Cabinet.

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