Correspondence with Time

/, Literature, Blesok no. 151/Correspondence with Time

Correspondence with Time

Of course, one cannot overlook all his infamous insults to the Alpine republic of Austria. A mere thought of this crippled and derelict, and after all degenerate Austria makes me want to throw up, is a typical sentence from the end of his last novel Extinction. It is well known what harsh words he uttered about his native country. Bernhard considered his fellow countrymen stubborn national-socialists and clericals. In fact, it would be hard to enumerate everything that many called defiling the nest. And yet Bernhard’s literature is a more severe criticism of the sub-Alpine mentality than all the scandals and fights over its correctness. In a decade after the author’s death the scandals have more or less been forgotten. Or in other words: they waned into legends of cultural history. In his writing Bernhard aristocratically took revenge on those elites who were supposed to symbolise the civilised strata of the society. Truly fascinating is his ecstatic rage, which in a ceaseless monologue bites into a chosen piece of social flesh – a segment of society that was the target of his ruthless blade. Bernhard was quite merciless in choosing the material for his writing. He did not acknowledge the authority allegedly granted by History to the chosen mortals for their merits; nobody has the right to identify himself with a social role and to start believing in the reality of his act. For the Great Play of historical shifts is not directed according to any clear plan that would assign elevated positions. At its heart reigns the law of chaos. At the beginning of the 1920s, the period full of illusion, Bernhard’s fellow countryman Robert Musil admitted to similar blindness: So, this is what world history looks like from up close: you can’t see a thing. Bernhard bore testimony to what he perceived through his transient and necessarily limited awareness.
The above-mentioned Romanesque testament Extinction is a thorough report above contemporaneity. In it, we follow the mighty flow of consciousness of a certain Murau who, being a black sheep in a rich noble family, moves to Rome. However, despite feeling disgust for their way of life and thinking, he never completely severs all the ties; after all, for many years he keeps receiving a considerable sum from the estate in Wolfsegg for his rather leisurely Roman life. The whole of Extinction is a monumental dissection of the narrator’s closest family. The sharpness of the narrative is accentuated by the time span: we follow the narrator’s stream of thought from the moment when he receives the telegram about the sudden death of his parents and brother to the moment of their funeral. Every single member of the family – father, mother, brother and each of the two sisters – is meticulously studied, and their personalities and relations described. His judgments about the acts and the mental level of the relatives are defeating; Murau says: It has become my habit to constantly think and say: my mother is repulsive, my sisters even more so and stupid on top; my father is weak, my brother is a poor fool, and all of them are simple-minded. The narrator’s main reproach, which actually hangs in the air and cannot be chased away even by the tragic event – is in fact even sharpened by it – is the futile pretending that the family, because of tradition, is playing some important social role. The noble family allegedly possesses the sceptre of culture, the light of civilisation, the essence of the nation, the inspiration of faith and what else not. For the expelled narrator, Wolfsegg is a puppet theatre, the hypocritical shows of which he is unwilling to attend. The spirit hanging above the estate is burdened with rigidity and insidious melancholia. This bitter numbness hangs above the place, from where, according to the narrator, it is possible with a single glance to embrace the entire region from the Tyrolean to Lower Austrian mountains. No similar place can be found in all Austria. The view without the disturbing human figures, the charge of whitened rocks, the only legitimate pathos of the expellee.


Bernhard the narrator is sceptical of the notions which, according to some higher logic, are supposed to provide a focus for a society. His position is consciously marginal: from his solitary viewpoint the entire social structure seems grotesque, and his bitter laughter springs from the realisation that people constantly pretend that they are aristocrats, artists, hunters or priests, without being able to face their own solitude and the mortality abiding in it. Bernhard’s accusation has no inherent objective assumption; its form is a chaotic charge. This spitting is a totally individualised voice, well aware of the fact that it is tailoring what he reports about the victims of his mental murder. For him, exaggeration is the creative and existential style. Everything is exaggerated, but without exaggeration it’s impossible to convey anything. When you raise your voice, it’s already exaggeration. Why raise it otherwise? Whenever anyone says anything, it’s exaggeration. Even if they say that they don’t want to exaggerate, it’s exaggeration. Bernhard does not assume that he has been given the privileged position of a diagnosticist, who in a single word places a curse on his native soil. His attacks are not systematic enough, their obsessiveness contains too many paradoxes for a sane mind. While, for instance, at some point in Extinction he sings a praise to the virtues of the plebs, elsewhere in the same novel the healthy, pink peasant faces seem utterly stupid to him. Bernhard is a lumberjack who cuts where the axe falls, but most willingly where he senses a great deal of pretence, the ideal ground for the sprouting of the grotesque.
This flaming rage, this analysis of the grotesque forms of human existence, points at what sits at its heart – loneliness which, no matter how celebrated, isn’t a precious privilege of the mind, but a punishment. Only a fool advertises solitude, for to be alone, utterly alone, means nothing else but to be utterly mad. Hence his obsession with his native environment. Bernhard’s prose – despite all the sparks of bitter rage – is above all a report about the terrible loneliness of an individual and a community in general. The report about great distances separating people, no matter whether they evade this fact with learnt ways of vegetating or simply step out of the collective game. And the exit – and this is an important experience in Bernhard’s creativity – is never final. Bernhard is preoccupied with the social context, but as a writer he is not interested in either social justice or the level of literacy or capital flows. In its erratic nature Bernhard’s narrative view is focused on mapping the all-pervading loneliness, on tearing off its masks. Loneliness cannot be measured by objective standards. Thus the literary speech, through a radically subjective stance, makes its way to the very base of the social structure, to the deepest fears, which time and again renew the theatre of the masses.
Present time is the child of great visions transferred into earthly life. From the vertical of the sky the utopia descended to the horizontal of the earth. Despite the general faith in an idyllic future, harboured by intellectuals as well, doubts about the illusion of heaven have always been present. The promised brotherhood of men has often proved to be a skilful trick of the greedy rulers. Today, the so-called critical intellectual has difficulty believing that collective projects are sensible, and his doubt contains some instilled self-preservation tactic. In what the Alpine dwellers recognise as their positive identity, the Alpine satire as a manoeuvre of contemporary criticism sees nothing but the hypocrisy of impotent hollow men. Here starts the debate about the mental physiognomy of Alpine nations, about their reservations and tensions. Everything will be dissected, and it seems just.
What lies behind this entire obsessive context called the ‘other’, ‘neighbour’ or, if you want, ‘somebody from the other side of the barbed wire’? Bernhard and those like him might cut into this self-questioning afresh. Into the often hardened typological exercise. Art is the boat, which is smuggling into the future a premonition of man’s unrest, an echo of what originally concerns us: an echo of unique human existence. Now matter how worn out, lacerated and kicked at. Bernhard settles in the very heart of Alpine loneliness and produces such an accurate report about it because he leaves behind the world of general categories and moves into the sphere of the individual. This is what art can do, and what – on the intimate altars – often places it above any intellectual reflection. Bernhard obsessively circled around the Alpine intellect, but his dissection is consistent in its subordination to the laws of literary autonomy; about his time and place he speaks in a special literary language. He renounces the exclusiveness of intellectual correspondence with his time. For people like Bernhard, literature becomes the homeland, from where they are sending us signals and revealing the masks and various acts of cosmetic surgery. And in so doing constantly besiege what lies at the very heart of hollowness.
Art addresses us because of the time delay; it is never a correct part of its age, its very nature contains an anarchistic insensitivity towards the mental operations reigning in the social present. Its explosiveness is muffled, and yet it can erupt a long time after it was conceived. Art is a corridor between times, the passageway for secret messages. How will Bernhard’s riddle be solved by the children of the United Planet? Let us not resort to shamanistic prophesies. Bernhard has a great deal to say to the present time, and is definitely very well understood by the Alpine people. Although he tried so hard to renounce his Alpine mentality, Bernhard is its thorny flower. The black box of Alpine awareness. The rocky sky is erased, utterly solitary. Neither the ‘Heidiland’ spectacular shows nor the accompanying critical debates will significantly shatter the structure of the relations which have for a long time defined the place of the maladapted individuals in Alpine societies. Perhaps the Alpine man will sooner or later become extinct, but – measured by the yardstick of human life – it will be a slow death. Landowners under the Alps will persist for a long time to come, so sensitive about every stretch of land, so accurate in counting the honours expressed to them. And for a long time to come all this will be a grotesque mask for the loneliness symbolised by the archetypal image of a solitary mountain. The mountain, which for Bernhard is not a gentle haven, but the disintegrating, yet only true reality.

AuthorMitja Čander
2023-10-01T12:28:11+00:00 September 9th, 2023|Categories: Essays, Literature, Blesok no. 151|Comments Off on Correspondence with Time