February 21, 2017

Bernhard's cause

"An Indication of the Cause" (Die Ursache, 1975) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)

I found the city increasingly intolerable as a result of hundreds of sad, squalid, appalling, and mortifying experiences, and essentially it has remained intolerable to this day. To pretend otherwise would be untrue, hypocritical, and dishonest, and it is imperative that I should set down this record now and not later—I must set it down now, while I am still capable of fully recreating my experience as a child and an adolescent in Salzburg, of recreating it with all the factualness and scrupulous regard for truth which are necessary if I am to give a true indication of what it was like to be a schoolboy there. I have to seize this moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then, the true facts and the true reality. For all too soon the time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light; and whatever Salzburg was to me as a schoolboy, it was never a pleasant or tolerable place, and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.

Thomas Bernhard's motive for his autobiography was clear. When his mental faculties were still clear, and his health still permitted it, he wanted to produce an account of his childhood and schooldays in the blighted city of Salzburg. And so, between the years 1975 and 1982, Bernhard produced the five parts of his memoir. His novels, too, are practically the same hate mail to his city of childhood, with its "mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism." W. G. Sebald attributed Bernhard's "factualness and scrupulous regard for truth" to the impending knock on the door, as he mentioned in an interview in December 2001, eight days before he himself received the knock.

Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others.

Much more so in Gathering Evidence, the novelist was openly testifying using his own voice, or voices—the voice of his childhood and the retrospective voice of the writer—the horrific experiences he endured firsthand before, during, and after the war. While remembering-slash-writing, his current self was trying to recapture the wounded feelings of his former, thirteen-year old self. Yet he would like to differentiate his description of "how I felt at the time" with "the way I think now". The bursting energy of his tale was derived in part from layers of memory soaked in varying densities of perception. He would shift pronouns from "I" to "he" on page 79, then go back to "I" on page 83. David McLintock also noted his use of shifting perspective in the translator's preface: sometimes he views his youth from the standpoint of the present, at others from another intermediate point.

His appeal to "the true facts and the true reality", however, remained guarded. He knew his story was not distorted because they were based on factual evidence, but he could only give an indication of what he remembers.

The facts are always frightening, and in all of us fear of the facts is constantly at work, constantly being fuelled; but this morbid fear must not lead us to conceal the facts and so to falsify the whole of human history—which is of course part of natural history—and pass it on in falsified form just because it is customary to do so, when we know that all history is falsified and always transmitted in falsified form.

From which we can gather that the writer had divested himself of all illusions of an accurate account of history. And from which we sense that his only protection from falsification was to perceive and create a version of history to the best of his memory and to the best of his ability. He simply had to make the attempt. Here we read about his recollection of multiple suicides of school boys his age and the air attacks skirted by Sebald in his lecture in On the Natural History of Destruction. Bernhard's descriptions of the air raids and their aftermath were some of the most brilliant writing he wrote. They could surpass the supreme irony in Heinrich Böll's accounts of air bombing destruction in The Silent Angel.

Bernhard's aesthetics of falsification was similar to Sebald's own, but only to an extent. Sebald was concerned with the truth (moral rightness) embedded in aesthetic form and feeling. The rightness and truthfulness of a narrative could be gleaned from its aesthetic and literary design. Bernhard, for his part, was concerned with the content and the desire (i.e., personal indications) to communicate the truth of that content. Both confessed to subjectivity. Bernhard acknowledged the impossibility of depicting the absolute reality of the past and, hence, its truth. But in refusing to give up and stand aside, in continuing to write what he knew and remember in order to set the record straight according to his own personal convictions, he was after the truth or an indicative version of it.

What is described here is the truth, and yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part. [from "The Cellar: An Escape", italics in the original, bold emphasis mine]

The immediacy and the urgency of Bernhard's account of the war must be set off against what Sebald diagnosed as a collective repression of wartime narratives and against the self-censorship by leading writers of the time who could not summon their energies to give witness. "Time makes its witnesses forget", Bernhard concluded when nobody remembered what happened on a site of destruction after he questioned them years after the bombing of a building on the same site which killed many employees working in it: "rows of bodies covered by sheets, their bare feet visible on the dusty grass behind the iron railings of the so-called Co-op, and ... trucks arriving ... with enormous consignments of coffins ..." Sebald's thesis on forgetting certainly was indebted to Bernhard's anguish against people who deliberately wanted to forget. Whenever Bernhard talked to people and asked them about what they went through during the war, he was met with "extreme annoyance, ignorance, and forgetfulness." He found this offensive to the spirit, this concerted determination to forget. His desire to remember was his "pious wish" to settle his personal account of history.

The cat in the box was simultaneously dead and alive. But someone, the novelist, had to dare to be the first one to open the box. All that matters is the truth-content of the lie.

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