The burden of thinking is a burden of which we have gladly delivered ourselves; Western culture has long declined, as Spengler presaged, and is coping well with it. Contented to observe faraway reality as mediated by mass media, most of us have no longer to think for ourselves, and instead receive our perceptions premasticated. The intellectuals manqués reach a tired, equally pre-packaged nihilism which teaches that if a disaffected youth can only pick up a copy of Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (preferably the hardback Anaconda Verlag edition), and pensively expatiate on the benign indifference of the universe, then one’s condition is in some way improved; thinking is so often an affectation like any other, and rarely challenges itself as it does in Bernhard. The elephant-in-the-room nothingness is seen in one of two (actually mutually inclusive) ways – as an emancipatory anomie, or as something obliquely dispiriting.
Thomas Bernhard is not for such people, and I doubt that he would have wanted to be. Bernhard was a storyteller, as he said, of stories which he hated – a ‘destroyer of histories’ who liberated himself, a time beset by pastiche and aesthetic exhaustion, from the burden of literary tradition. He repudiated the history of his country, Austria, and its complicity in the crimes of its neighbour; so unwontedly vicious was he toward Austria that in his will he forbade any publication or staging of his works within her borders. He inveighed derisively against the ubuesque excesses of his society (springing from the same tendencies, he thought, as Naziism), against insidious ways of dispelling the absurdity of our existence (flight either to religiosity or secretly-affirming absurdism), inter alia; yet these targets are derided not from superiority, scorning fatuity in the name of some higher ideal, but rather out of a ludic sense of the ludicrosity of our earnest beliefs, leaders and world at large. He conveyed the meaninglessness which we all skirt around, and did so in such a way that it strikes us as a mere state of affairs.
Joyce wrote that a writer must write first of what he knows best, but derided his earlier collection, Chamber Music, in Ulysses; his disciple, Beckett, dismissed his contemplative earlier work as immature and unworthy (Deirdre Bair takes this as his way of dismissing “blatant, undisguised autobiography”); Auden, to cite a personal favourite, dismissed his embarrassingly pellucid moment in September 1, 1939 in a prolegomenon to a later anthology (“Mr W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written”). Bernhard alone dealt unashamedly with these perceptions without polyphonic games, and without the ambiguity of texte scriptible. (This assured unambiguity bedevilled his political involvement – in an Austria which wanted to atone for its legacy whilst carefully feigning discontinuity, his sesquicentennial quip that “there are more Nazis in Vienna now than in ’38” was not kindly received, ironically. It turned out to be a Parthian shot.) This is not a recommendation which is likely to be taken by many, nor is it thus posed as a challenge – for a literary challenge, for a hermeneutic puzzle, there are better choices. There is very little, despite its immense import, which can be said to recommend Bernhard’s oeuvre – it is certainly not easy or heartening reading. It is not aesthetically worthy - he apparently considered his work more musical than others do - nor is it cathartic, edifying, or much else. Such a gloriously nihilistic body cannot be justified with reference to lies such as the ‘human condition’ used to sell Shakespeare to first-formers. It is most apposite, in light of this, to close with the words of an influence of his:
“This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it.”