:: Article

Poor Quartets

By Dominic Jaeckle.

Goethe Dies

Thomas Bernhard, Goethe Dies, translated by James Reidel (Seagull Books, 2016)

“Naturally, we want to have a practical relationship with the things that fascinate us, […] because a theoretical relationship isn’t enough.”
– Thomas Bernhard, The Loser

Goethe Dies, a collection of short pieces initially published in German periodicals in the early 1980s, goes some way to frame its author’s relationship with the negative romance of a running order. Although pegged in a period pushed along by the booming influence of mass media, Thomas Bernhard’s insistence seems be constantly on looking backwards. For Bernhard, retrospection and nostalgia are tools to play with history – to upset the performance of culture’s chronology. Retrospect and nostalgia illogically amass as a personality, a name comprised of each of its unique memorial moments as componential. But memory is selective, elective and misleading. The voice in Bernhard’s prose always recognises the importance of a given moment, but the mass of moments cannot be ordered properly or coherently – their collation cannot do anything to justify the composed chaos of the contemporary instant. It cannot do anything to evade the determinate, plotted points of life that have lead up to our imprisonment in a heavy “now.” Bernhard rails against that now, but only in the knowledge that argument is acknowledgement – any anger with the present tense acknowledges the prior moment that initiates it; objectifying it through verbal action, through immediate response, making a parody of the past. This engenders a load-bearing melancholia that’ll reoccur as the keystone to each of his works, but more importantly Bernhard needs to remind us again and again that this is funny. Time has a sense of humor; it just scarcely carries the tenacity of a punchline. He’s ironised the very idea of an author’s collected stories before we even get here; he’s perverted the need to structure words on paper before we arrive at the thought he is scaffolding.

That’s true wherever the finger lands when gliding over any book in his oeuvre, but is central to a reading of Goethe Dies. This interest will manifest itself time and again through a quartet of interests essayed throughout these four pieces: chaos, order, expectation and disappointment reappear as traits that weigh down on Bernhard’s protagonists who, time and again, will shuffle into view as artists, experimenters, inventors and makers – figures who, conceding that their labour will always fail to achieve personal catharsis, only ever produce ornate objects for other people’s mantels. They’re ciphers, props, deigned to interrogate our ability to communicate between one another – to sit on that dividing line somewhere between a selfish word and a genuine exchange.

Thomas Bernhard eating an ice cream

In light of such interests, Bernhard’s novel The Limeworks (1970) would carry at its core a kind of disclaimer that could be shone back against the greater qualities of his corpus:

Words ruin one’s thoughts, paper makes them ridiculous, and even while one is still glad to get something down on paper, one’s memory manages to lose hold of even this ruined and ridiculous something. […] Words were made to demean thought, […] words exist in order to abolish thought, and one day they will succeed one hundred percent in so doing. In any case, words [are] bringing everything down.

It’s a statement strung through the greater proportion of Bernhard’s habits as a writer. He’s a writer that zones in on the conception that they are writing for anybody else but can only strive on in the knowledge that, in spite of that desire, writing truncates as a kind of work and work will always pose as an obfuscation of intention. It’s transactional. It’s a question that’ll leave the majority of answers open. When he writes, it’ll feed down from a view of publicity to the personal, from the work to its worker, screening action as only a poor translation of the lifeblood of a particular actant. Ideology, but only ever in the abstract. It’s a writing threaded through with the aim of exercising a moment of self-reflection rendering a him or herself as, however momentarily, “a unique and autonomous being” in the wake of culture’s commercial pressures and its history of forms, as is played out through The Loser. Of observation that’ll look outwards only to satiate an interior life, a “mere looking”, as he terms it in Frost. Of falling out of one routine only to establish its replacement, as penetrates the action of Concrete. Repeatedly, Bernhard establishes himself as the satellite mistaken for a star, and can do little but point a finger as he follows the arc of its fall.

“I’ve always been a foreign agent,” the protagonist states in Bernhard’s Correction, and the failure to find a country, however weighty that assertion may seem, is only portrayed through a lack of control within the thinking life of his characters: a simple dissatisfaction with any rendered home. Always speaking as though only ever an inch away from Bernhard’s own tenor, the populace of his texts represent the jarred relationship between order and its undoing, between the clarifications of either a “yes” or a “no”. If his themes prove the product of chaos, it’s a chaos that needs be emulated in writing – a chaos lampooned in the imposition of structure. As he writes (again in Correction), this is a question of the late twentieth-century and its pacing:

Everything in the world is done in a great rush nowadays, […] everything is rushed, too rushed, every time, nothing is allowed to develop at its own natural pace, it’s all done in a mad precipitate brainless rush wherever you look, people simply rush into action and the results are sheerest chaos. The universal chaos in the world today, especially in recent times, is chiefly the result of every kind of precipitate action taken without first carefully considering what should be done, precipitateness and rushing things are the most terrible characteristics of our world today […]. In every area of life there’s nothing but chaos. Wherever we turn there’s chaos. In the science’s there’s chaos, in politics, it’s chaos, whatever we do, it’s all chaotic, wherever we look, purely chaotic conditions, chaotic conditions are all we have to deal with. Because everything is being done precipitately, in a rush. In such a time of precipitateness and overhastiness and the consequent chaotic conditions a thinking man should never act precipitately or overhastily in anything that concerns him, but every single one of us constantly acts precipitately, overhastily, in every way.

That this chaos itself should prove the recurrent theme in a body of work that so aggressively curates the appearance and rush of immediate sensation – of an uninterrupted flow of negative thinking – is the joke that Bernhard seems be laughing at again and again through his prose, and that feeds back to his line on language: “Words are bringing everything down.” He himself needs to curate this sense of chaos for his commentary to allow for its movement from book to book, character to subject, scene for scene. The ever illusory heart of his writing seems be, however, definition. Words are bringing everything down – we don’t need to rush to an argument’s endpoint, we should preserve the moment of its ambiguity. Words will make popular a private thought, and, following every kind of exposure, turn that thought to its circularity, ignoring its detail. Unable to carry the load of the author behind a remark, Bernhard’s “language” will be remarked as a vehicle without a driver – just another symbol there to be toyed with – an instrument to be played – an article of clothing fit for purpose. Chaos. The very word acts as an alarm rung for Bernhard’s own issues with his process and the ways in which his thinking will manifest itself as product.

In Goethe Dies, this theme is carried straight to centre stage as this quartet of works plays make-believe as a primer for Bernhard’s cache of philosophical ideas. Interpolating four stories that’ll lock together thematically, James Reidel’s translation calls in that sense of the question and answer over one hundred and twelve pages – each question is phrased as a statement of intent, each answer making a mockery of its question. The four stories mark out an arc. First we have the eponymous ‘Goethe Dies’, then ‘Montaigne: A Story in 22 Instalments’, on to ‘Reunion’, and finally the deeply personal correspondence with a vacant companion, ‘Going Up in Flames: A Travelogue to an Erstwhile Friend’. Over the course of these stories Bernhard seats proclamation after proclamation before slowly establishing the idea that any remark he may make is tricked, distorted, contextually misunderstood and then forgotten. In pursuit of that line of argument we shift in focus again from the personal to the public – the first person perspective, the testimony so central to parts one and two, proves compromised by three – ‘The Reunion’ – and four, the aptly titled ‘Going Up in Flames’, recounts little beyond the futile purposes of his writing, how writing corresponds as little more than a stated HERE I AM in concrete expression; a paean to the fact that there’s nobody on the receiving end to read his letters. In the end, we’re again talking about chaos and an effort to find a structure fit for that that’ll sit outside of our control. Bernhard plays with the traffic of lived experience into cultural commerce and showcases that descent through the slow debasement of relationships. Words are bringing everything down. For Bernhard, we can’t find a way to meaningfully connect language and object: association is always problematic.

Following on from his thoughts on language, ‘Goethe dies’ holds another aphorism as central to its unbuttoning: “It is philosophy, no more literature.” From there, we’ve little but false testimony – something perhaps a little closer to fiction than any philosophised argument – but to hold that emphasis alone as being at the heart of the action here is perhaps to misunderstand Bernhard’s point. The story is one of self-examination – “the hardest part of holding a conversation with a man lying on his deathbed more or less motionless the whole time, a genius staring in the direction of the window, is to find the appropriate pitch in one’s own voice” – but ultimately the touch point is the idea of talent followed by its inevitable eclipse, the slow adaptive process of allowing the buck to be passed from one hand to another for the sake of history’s own remodeling of a written idea. Goethean thinking, so vital to Germany’s Romantic moment, would, for Bernhard, inevitably mean little against the weight of Wittgensteinian thinking. That’s the joke here: two names as dance partners; one has to allow the other to lead, eventually, against ego and will. All the fiction writer can do, if we are to allow Bernhard’s testimony its symbolic extension, is twist the truth and delay the inevitable. Whilst Goethe’s second to last words may have been a Wittgensteinian phrase – “the doubting and the doubting nothing” – his final remarks were written wrong. Not “more light!” as is so famously reported, but rather “no more!” That “forgery”, as Bernhard terms it, is all that the story can achieve if it is to stay a story. His fiction claims to be corrective, on that card, abstracting its own fabrications, presenting them as fact.

Thomas Bernhard in hammock

‘Montaigne’, across its 22 instalments, is a continuation of that theme as the view shifts to the urgency of ownership. Private renunciation leads to a seizure of public property in this case; “I have never had a father,” Bernhard writes, “never had a mother, but I have always had Montaigne.” All walks of the life of character here are slimmed down as he looks, looks and looks again to find the room to read without the determinisms of biography intervening.

‘Reunion’ then proceeds with analysis of that very isolation; when paired down to our own actions and adjectives, how can we escape being read ourselves? Here “discipline prevents any development”, Bernhard writes. We’re caught in self-preservation as a natural mode through the simple actions of living – living in a house that hangs “as a permanent exhibition of [our] art”. The natural want, on that slide, is to look for a “matching echo”, as it sounds for Bernhard – an idea beyond attainment by virtue of the inevitable degradation that comes around with every return. It’s only ever his voice getting smaller.

But the apotheosis of his thinking, the crossroads where these four points of argument meet, find fruition in the final piece in this collection, ‘Going up in Flames’, where nothing is out of reach of the slow burn of Bernhard’s perspective. The flint, in this instance, is place; if literature is supplanted by philosophy earlier in the collection, here we find ourselves locked in an “unphilosophical country”. Given in to nothing but the first person, movement can only ever be a physical push forwards. Here Bernhard writes for himself, his interlocutor having fallen from “friend” to foe – an “enemy of [his] ideas”:

I had written letters to you in Vienna and Madrid, then in Budapest and Palermo, but letters never sent, all of these letters stamped and addressed, as a matter of fact, but not sent so as not to be a sacrifice to someone’s bad taste. I have destroyed these letters and sworn never to write you another line, not one more to you or anyone else. I permitted myself no more correspondence.

If this is the beginning of Bernhard’s withdrawal from literary life, it would not be unfitting; ‘Going up in Flames’, with its authorship dated between 1983 and 1984, would be followed by only two works of fiction thereafter prior to Bernhard’s death in 1989… Old Masters (1985) and Extinction (1986). Neither of these texts would meet Bernhard’s English speaking audience through their translation until the early to mid-1990’s and, given the distance between his death and the text’s arrival in the English language, ‘Flames’ could be read as an afterthought to their themes. But whilst ‘Flames’ reads, at first sight, as a heady indictment of Bernhard’s own Austria, its dissatisfaction with the “letter” as a medium speaks volumes as to the continued couching of Bernhard in the canon. As he gives up on writing for anybody other than himself, as he writes only to support a “vain whim”, in his words and cast in the imaginary mouth of his talking partner, Bernhard takes his Parthian shot back at literary history and splits his mind in two.

We have Bernhard the reader; we have Bernhard the writer; both are present in these short works and their roll call of names – characters spun out of culture’s chronology – but Bernhard’s joke is about production, about ownership. A slur on the fabrication of reputation as stitching together the fabric of work. Almost thirty years after his death, Bernhard’s click with the commercialisation of ideas, the marketisation of talent, and the determining forces of epochal and cultural pressure still sing true to the difficult object of writing. Bernhard wants us to call rather than respond and, unable to measure up to that, seems to suggest we burn down the routes of circulation, the link to lineage, the temptation to please, the wanton celebrity; his suggestion, time and again, remains that we only ever write for ourselves. The isolation preached at the end of this collection is then a calling card to just one endpoint; to rid writing of its influence, to celebrate affect over effect – to change the smaller details of life through its record, its recollection – and to do so without an eye on anybody else. Whatever the case, as he writes in The Loser, we need to have “a practical relationship with the things that fascinate us”, because, in the end, “a theoretical relationship isn’t enough”. Here, we’ve a quartet of tragicomic commentaries on the possibility of that pragmatism, but it’s a writing given in to the fact that words are bringing everything down.


Dominic Jaeckle

Dominic Jaeckle is a writer living in London. He writes about reading.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 18th, 2016.