Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler

University of Vienna


Thomas Bernhard: The Portrait of the Author as an Artist of Exaggeration



I’d like to begin with a quote which has a very contemporary ring to it: “Day in , day out we have the feeling that we are governed by a hypocrisy-ridden and deceitful and mean government which - to top it all off - is just about the dumbest government one could imagine (…) and we think there is nothing we can really do about it, that all we can do is look on and see how this government gets more deceitful and more hypocrisy-ridden and meaner by the day.” Now that observation may sound very recent, but, in fact, it is from the year 1985 and spoken by a figure in Bernhard’s novel Maitres Anciens (Alte Meister). “There are more Nazis in Vienna now than there were in ’38 – “ Nor is that of recent origin. It is taken from Bernhard’s 1988 play Heldenplatz or Heroes Square.

Is it possible to simply transpose the importance of a writer such as Thomas Bernhard from one culture to another? Is it possible to even speak of “importance” when we want to see Bernhard read in another language under very differing conditions? Furthermore: Is the term “importance” in any way appropriate? At any rate, I would like to begin with an observation. In the past two decades, Thomas Bernhard has succeeded in assuming the role of a modern classic writer, and not merely in Austria or the other German-speaking countries, but far beyond these confines, albeit with varying intensity. This is particularly true for Europe, whereby the vigorous interest in the Romance countries is most striking. In Italy, Spain and France, for example, almost everything available in the original German is available there in translation. In Great Britain, on the other hand, there seems to be a degree of hesitation. Apparently this writer does not appeal as much to Anglo-Saxon common sense. But there and in the United States as well, he is, at least, an inside tip. His reception in Slavic literatures has, in recent times - especially in Russia and the former Soviet republics - been tremendous. And the fact that there is a Thomas Bernhard Society in Korea is revealing in itself. And it is nice to know and very important for us to see that there is apparently growing interest in China, too. What is evident in any case is that this fascination for Bernhard is not the result of any special advertising campaign on the part of his publisher or any personal connections. Literary criticism has responded to the author in spontaneous fashion, and this allows us to conclude that Bernhard’s oeuvre obviously has qualities which arouse interest beyond the barriers of other languages and cultures. He is thus not to be regarded as a special case, be it Austrian or German. Instead, he is an example of an author who is, even in times of widespread complaints about the weak position of literature, living proof that there is such a thing as world literature. That is a merely a sober observation, but one which can be backed up by facts. Admittedly, there are other authors who are more popular - Stefan Zweig is but one example - but the interest shown in Bernhard by people of differing origins and educational backgrounds does actually beg an explanation.




This fascination for Bernhard may well be encouraging, but at the same time it has tended to detract from the interest in his oeuvre. This has been replaced - first and foremost in Austria - by the man himself and his public appearances. Bernhard became a media star, albeit less on account of his books and more because of his carefully targeted and cleverly crafted provocative acts, with which he succeeded in upsetting the collective conscience. People talked about him, about what he said or did, but not about his literary work. Bernhard’s public presence had become a quality of the work itself and became part and parcel of it. Bernhard had left the ghetto to which literature tends to be banned in our western civilization, he had become a household word, and it seems only right to ask what factors have contributed to his becoming an important writer - important at least in terms of European culture. To come up with an answer I would suggest returning to the texts and taking a close look at them.



During his relatively short lifetime (1931-1989) Bernhard published a considerable amount. Nine major novels, five lengthy stories, four volumes of short stories, two volumes of short prose, five volumes of an autobiography, eighteen full-length works for the stage, more than a handful of short plays, three volumes of poetry, many interviews and letters to the editor. And it must be noted that his literary estate contains an almost equal amount of unpublished as it does published material. Here, in particular, from his early period (until around 1960). In other words, we’re looking at a voluminous mass of texts. Needless to say, it is not the amount of written material that is an achievement in itself, but having said that we are looking at an achievement which is - solely in terms of quantity - respectable.

Faced with the task of presenting the significance of this achievement, I must confess it is difficult in the time at my disposal, and it gets more and more difficult for me as years go by. And, I have been working on Thomas Bernhard for the good part of forty years now and the longer I do the more puzzling it all becomes to me. But allow me to mention a few points which make my fascination for this oeuvre credible. I would like to begin by bringing in a number of aesthetic criteria and then deal with the effect of the texts and, at the same time, touch on the social and political dimension which is so much a part of the texts. Finally, I would like to introduce the author in this context.



Let me start by turning to Bernhard’s works. Anyone reading the texts will gather the impression that the style of writing is homogenous, that we are dealing with an author whose language is somehow self-contained and unique and that, for that reason, the works themselves are inter-changeable, that the sentences within the individual works are inter-changeable. To put it in a nutshell: that the monotony, the perseveration, the insistence on expressions, the repetitions, and the spiralling texts create a type of current which sucks in the reader. The monotony of the texts is certainly one of the most striking characteristics, but having said that, the reader who takes a very close look will detect the fine differences. And in art as well as art critique, perception of these fine differences is what counts. In an interview, Bernhard used a fascinating image which helps us to characterize what makes this monotony so special: “When you look at a white wall you will realize that it is neither white nor bare. If you are on your own for a long time and get used to being alone and are more or less trained in loneliness, then you begin to discover more and more in places which, for normal people, are (essentially) bare. On the wall you discover cracks, fine cracks, uneven patches, vermin. There is a tremendous movement on the walls. – in actual fact the wall and the page of a book completely resemble one another.” (Bernhard 1970, 153). We have to take this image seriously: Bernhard’s texts are a white wall and we are called upon to examine his works in such a manner, like a white wall in order to detect the cracks and fissures, the “tremendous movement”. In other words, reading Bernhard means that the reader must lower his sights, as it were, for he or she won’t encounter a portrait of society as we expect from a major realistic novel. On the contrary, we are dealing with a reduced form. The variety of colours is reduced to one colour. From now on, we are dealing with a white surface. Let us try make an approach by examining something typical of Bernhard, namely the formula of negation. The effacement of the fresco and its replacement by a white wall will serve as our metaphorical point of departure.

These are processes of negation, of extinction, of correction - the latter being titles of two of his novels by the way. The point is also to obliterate the narrative elements, to destroy them. Thomas Bernhard once referred to himself as a “Geschichtenzerstörer”, as a “destroyer of narratives”, as someone who would shoot down a narrative, a story, if it ever dared to come out from “behind a hill of prose” (Bernhard 1970, 156). Bernhard thus turns against one of our fundamental needs in life: we all want to tell stories, but now Bernhard (along with many other authors such as Rilke and Musil) is telling us that the days of story-telling are long gone. The big narrative, the coherent narrative is impossible, all that’s left over is a fragment. The same holds true for his dramatic works. Here, the dialogue, which ultimately also makes these works come to life, is systematically destroyed. To be sure, that’s a risky business. After all, dialogue and conflict are essential to drama. Bernhard, on the other hand, shifts everything to the monologue, and the art of the monologue takes on a form of its own both in his narrative prose and his dramas. One might be inclined to think this is all pretty boring, and critics have, indeed, found this monotony annoying. They spoke of the “Alpenbeckett und Menschenfeind” in an obvious reference to the title of a work by Ferdinand Raimund. However, the parallels to Beckett are only partly accurate. In any case, Bernhard has created a degree of suspense on the stage precisely because of this monotony. One figure speaks, the other remains silent and the viewer knows how important this silent figure who merely listens actually is. This silence is, in essence, criticism. Bernhard forces the actors on the stage to do the simplest of things: they iron clothes or else help someone into their clothes and all of a sudden everyday life, pantomime is present. And these silent actions themselves take on a tremendous significance in the course of the plot. I believe there are few dramatists who are capable of achieving similar effects through the art of silence.

However, the reader or the theatre-goer has the feeling he’s been short-changed: there is no nice story, there is no spectacular finale. Bernhard’s works just break off, they remain open, they open. It is common knowledge that, in art,  there is nothing “round”, nothing rounded anymore, that a commitment to a fragmentary form is tantamount to a commitment to aesthetic honesty. We can’t recount the stories which Bernhard tells, every narrative defies our attempts to piece together a whole through our interpretation.

Bernhard irritates us especially because his prose cannot be measured according to the yardstick we use for realistic texts. “In my books everything is artificial”, he stressed on repeated occasion. He is entirely conscious of the fact that it is impossible to reproduce reality and that this can only result in false appearances at the best of times. The language of the absolute, the process of making things absolute is part of this. Anyone reading a text by Thomas Bernhard will be impressed by the plethora of superlatives, by the expressions of exclusiveness and totality.



It is always the same thing again and again. Always the most dreadful, always the most awful. Bernhard seals off his language and makes it immune to any and every mimetic and realistic challenge with “All- und Existenzs?tze” (R. Carnap). Reference here is to what he himself described as the so-called “art of exaggeration”. Indeed, the artist must exaggerate in order to drive the truth out of the things and into language. He wants to distort in order to make things distinguishable. One sentence stands out here: “Everything is ridiculous when one thinks about death.” Bernhard made the remark in a thank-you speech he gave in 1968 after receiving the Austrian State Prize for Literature and I myself consider it to be the fundamental principle of his aesthetics. It is the principle of all of Bernhard’s lines of thought. Everything we do becomes ridiculous in the face of death - something which constitutes the absolute point in human existence. The decisive thing is where you place the accent and I believe this is where we can find a useful criteria (possibly: tool) to differentiate. In Bernhard’s early works, death is a central theme and through death everything is made to appear ridiculous. In his later works, as, for example, from 1975, the element of ridiculousness comes to the forefront. We have thus touched on a further principle Bernhard uses to annoy or irritate his readers: The border between the comic and the tragic is crossed. One can repeatedly find horrible things in the midst of the ridiculous and ridiculous things in the midst of horrible things; these texts are comedy-tragedies, and the old insight, expressed especially by Schopenhauer, that the great tragedies are the great comedies is one of the principles Bernhard uses to make his reader feel vexed and emotionally involved and to entertain him at the same time. “Is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy?” happens to be the title of an early narrative work, a title which, at the same time, takes on the character of a programme for Bernhard’s oeuvre. In other words: Whether something is a tragedy or a comedy is left up entirely to the reader or the theatre-goer. Reactions to Bernhard’s texts vary greatly, even from people who are, at any rate, entirely reasonable types. Some people can’t laugh, while others have to. We know, for example, that Kafka had to laugh when he was reading out loud from “The Trial”, and Kafka and Bernhard have a lot in common.



I know there are many different approaches to Bernhard’s texts, and one look at the secondary literature on Bernhard is enough to make you want to climb the wall. There is scarcely a scholarly discipline that hasn’t tried its hand at Bernhard. There are the constructivists and then the deconstructivists, followed by the Rezeptions?sthetiker all the way to the die-in-the-wool adherents of hermeneutics and ontology from the late school of Heidegger. Not to mention the discourse analysts from the school of Foucault or the Marxists or else the devout theologians or else experts on the social history of literature as well as literary psychologists from the schools of Freud and Lacan - they all have their Bernhard, each his own.

Instead of getting all bogged down in the arguments back and forth and possibly taking sides I would rather pose a question, namely how did we get to the point of this polyphony of criticism, this hermeneutic anarchy in the first place? Even if we have seen similar developments in the case of other writers such as Kafka, we may assume that the diverging reception of Bernhard’s works has something to do with the texts themselves. At the same time we may also assume that everyone has found something in the text which can be supported by arguments. What I think we ought to do is to make an attempt to search for the factor which seems to destabilize the reception of Bernhard’s texts to such a degree. It is only within a closed system that this destabilization process appears not to become operative. In that case, it is also the system which speaks and it is no longer the author Bernhard who - behind our backs because he is evil and mean - takes revenge on the system.



Nature: In order to assess the importance of nature as a theme in Bernhard’s works it would be advisable to take a brief look at the significance of the concept of nature in Austrian literature as a whole. Austria is a country which almost habitually wants to see itself defined in terms of its natural environment, of its beautiful natural environment. Nature is more or less the guarantor of the Austrian identity, and Nature ensures that the people in this natural environment are good people. And because the people in this natural environment are good so, too, is Nature good and beautiful. So it is in this rather disastrous circular argument that Nature is called upon as a confirmation of Austrian identity. And then Bernhard comes along and disrupts this circular argument with his texts and destroys this cycle of never-ending self-confirmation. In the case of Bernhard, Nature is simply no longer good, moreover it is antagonistic, it is what makes people sick. There are anti-bodies in Nature, Nature turns your neck around, oh awful Nature: “Sometimes even Nature twists your neck around, Nature reft of simplicity, one then recognizes this infinite complexity of awful nature”, is the way Bernhard puts it in the novel “Frost” (17th day). In so doing, Bernhard works in opposition to a tacit understanding which has had a lasting effect on the thinking and behaviour of mankind for centuries now: Mother Nature is a topos which has been around since the days of Antiquity, but this mother is, in the case of Bernhard, cruel and she destroys what she has brought forth. Inversely, she destroys us because we destroy her. Western literature is determined by the notion that we act and ought to act according to nature, something which is a proven stoic maxim. “Naturally” is one of Bernhard’s favourite words, however, it has a negative connotation for him, even if the author is, indeed, fascinated by the beauty of nature. “When you balance the beauty of the country against the meanness of the people then you come up with suicide,” he remarked on one occasion. It is a peculiar mathematical operation which, however, is captivating precisely on account of its irrationality. Nature is ever present in Bernhard’s works; it eats away at the lives of the people. It is a destructive and at the same time invigorating principle.



This might well be the right moment to dwell in more general terms on the relationship between Austrian writers and history. It is commonplace for people to read Austrian literature with an eye to the country’s history. But at the same time, the notion that this literature is such that it would balk at any historical change, i.e. that it is somehow anti-Hegelian or anti-dialectical has itself become a topos among critics. The father of this anti-dialectical attitude is one Adalbert Stifter, and the title of Ulrich Greiner’s book The Death of Indian Summer (Der Tod des Nachsommers), which appeared in 1979, says just about everything. In this book, the widely known thesis of Claudio Magris about the “Habsburg Myth” in Austrian Literature is perpetuated to include the time after 1945. Whatever one happens to think about these theses, they do, indeed, have something - if not everything - going for them. At any rate, we can say that in the mid-60’s the tendency for authors to write against their own positive historical images becomes more and more prevalent. In her 1985 novel entitled Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose Language you do not understand), Marianne Fritz carries out the liquidation of the Habsburg Myth in the most radical manner. She recounts the fate of a worker’s family in the year 1914 and the battle for the fortress at Przemysl. The Habsburg Monarchy appears here not as the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic state, but instead as a colonial power which has robbed the peoples of their true religion and their indigenous culture. The point I’m trying to make is not to confirm whether this view is right or wrong, but instead to show how one’s own country’s history can be demystified. Not just in the sense of criticism of clich?s and conventions but as criticism of the (tacit) agreements upon which the foundations of the Monarchy rested and which, in addition to that, managed to command considerable respect.

One of the chief prosecution witnesses against this administration of our identity through history is Peter Handke. It was he who remarked that the Germans were a people who had sunk into the abyss of history. He hated all people, Handke continued, who needed history in order to define themselves. In his play “Aus der Fremde”, Ernst Jandl has his main protagonist say the following: “geschichtsha? habe sie empfangen zur nazizeit/ geschichtsverlangen kenne sie auch heute noch nicht.” (she came to hate history during the Nazi era/even today she doesn’t know the feeling of longing for history).

Bernhard, too, tends to delete concrete historical facts, and this seems to me to be one of his main narrative principles altogether: facts and dates, figures and works - they don’t become clearly defined until after the process of obliteration, deletion, or painting over. It would seem that Bernhard does with his literary texts what Arnulf Rainer, for example, does with his paintings.

In the novel Extinction, things look entirely different. Here Bernhard does make the concrete history of Austria discernible, even though he does not, of course, re-tell history as such. But - and I think that is worth noting here - this history does appear to be concentrated in a single location, and that is Wolfsegg Castle. The “castle” is a common and multivalent cipher in Austrian literature. The cipher stands for a series of constellations: ruler and dominator, territorial sovereignty, as a means of contrasting past and present. Austria prefers to present its secular past in the form of castles and fortresses. To be sure, that’s a phenomenon you’ll encounter in other parts of Europe, too. Thus, Wolfsegg Castle is just such a place where Austrian history appears to be conserved in crystalline form.

Austria is made to appear as a country of political ignoramuses, especially as a place where imagination is entirely lacking. There is a lot of talk about the “fatherland and the government, about democracy and about communism and socialism. … But the democrats don’t (seem to) know or don’t want to know what democracy really is, and the communists don’t know what communism is and the socialists don’t know what socialism is, etc.” (Politische Morgenandacht 1966, 12).

That would lead one to believe that there ought to be things such as democracy, as socialism, as communism (not to mention fatherland and government) in the true sense of the word, but that it is simply not something which can be readily understood. One notion shimmers through in Bernhard’s writings again and again. Those persons who represent a “Weltanschauung” are actually far removed from the actual utopian concept of it. The genuine socialists fail because, with their utopian ideas, they simply have to fail. And here, too, the person doing the talking does not come to our assistance and help us out with a definition of what communism and socialism could, after all, mean.




We could, in actual fact, more closely define the nature of the hyperbole in Bernhard’s writings. In any case, we are dealing here with a speaking subject which is definitely committed to this practice, a practice which, it must be said, pursues a cognitive interest. The point is that by means of exaggeration something can be made “anschaulich”, that is: vivid and graphic. And, in this system something is functioning.

Art is the “most repugnant and at the same time greatest thing around”, his protagonist Reger says in the novel Maitres Anciens, one which Bernhard calls a “comedy”. This book contains the most radical reckoning not only with Austrian art but with art in general. I think this is one of the most amusing and at the same time enigmatic texts Bernhard has written: Bernhard, as a master of switching back and forth between comedy and tragedy, tries here to accentuate the comic element, something which is overly evident in some parts of the novel Frost. The eighty-two year old music critic Reger is on a crusade, he pays a visit to Vienna’s Art History Museum every second day to search for the lethal flaw on a painting by Tintoretto called “The man with the white beard”. [gemeint ist wohl das Gemälde “Sebastiano Venier”] His principle: one can find a lethal flaw in every work of art—and be it ever so consummate. The perfect work has to be distorted, the greatest painting has to be turned into a caricature. The text contains a fiery tirade against traditions in art, especially against Austrian artists: Stifter, we read, never wrote a proper sentence (in his life), Mahler represents rock-bottom as far as music is concerned, Mozart also composed “Unterhöschenkitsch” [knickers, panties] and Klimt was absolutely appalling. Needless to say, a lot of people viewed such remarks as out and out provocation.

Here, criticism is mobilized against art. Whereas it is ordinarily the task of sublime criticism to uncover the accomplishment of art, to show how a work of art is complete in itself and to safeguard the sanctity of an art work against rash judgement and to prove the quality or value of the work of art by becoming deeply engrossed in the circumstances surrounding its creation, with Bernhard it’s different. Criticism is now used as a means to oppose the art work: the idea is to falsify the art work and not to verify its perfect structure. And Bernhard’s protagonist Reger is convinced he can succeed in doing this with every art work. One can uncover the fatal flaw in any case. In other words it is a manifestation of art-destroying art. In European literature it is impossible to find another equally consistent and uncompromising attack on art itself. I would like to support the argument that this has an actual function and is not mere provocation by adding a few references. We have someone before us who is primarily writing against himself; he writes against art, against his own profession, something which, after all, allows him to earn a living and survive; In doing so, he more or less destroys the principles of his very own existence.

In the novel Extinction from the year 1986, the last major prose work to be published during his life time, Bernhard has found a formula for this technique: the art of exaggeration. He writes: “If we did not have our art of exaggeration (…) we would be condemned to living a terribly boring life, to an existence no longer worthy of existence itself. And I have developed my art of exaggeration to unbelievable heights. In order to make something understandable, we have to exaggerate, I had said to him, only exaggeration makes something vivid; even the danger that we might be declared to be fools doesn’t bother us as we get older.” (124) We could, in actual fact, more closely define the nature of the hyperbole in Bernhard’s writings. In any case, we are dealing here with a speaking subject which is definitely committed to this practice, a practice which, it must be said, pursues a cognitive interest. The point he’s trying to make is that by exaggerating something it can be made “anschaulich”, that is: vivid and graphic. Exaggeration means distorting something and thus through distortion something becomes distinguishable.

Of course, the broadsides which Bernhard unleashes through his literary figures against art—and not only art—are characterized by exaggeration. But it is important to realize that we’re talking about a form of art, namely the art of exaggeration. It is not merely a rhetorical manoeuvre or a complaint which he wants publicized for a variety of reasons. Bernhard assigns this art of exaggeration a special role in the Austrian culture industry. But not only in this country.



It is precisely through constant exaggeration that Bernhard pointed out just how bad reality really is. And he knew that this “bad reality” could only be exposed through the art of exaggeration. It was in the most perfect of systems—and this includes the world of great art (something which he personally valued highly)--that Bernhard looked for and subsequently discovered flaws. Every time there was a maximum consensus of opinion about a person or a thing, then Bernhard would turn against it. This especially applied to the world of politics. For example, Bernhard attacked the well-respected Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky when the latter was at the pinnacle of his career in the late 70’s. And there are examples from the world of literature, as well. Bernhard vehemently attacked Elias Canetti—whom he otherwise admired—before he received the Nobel Prize. But the same holds true for Bernhard himself: he put himself and his art at risk knowing full well that this was the only possible way to rescue himself and his art.

Art, history and nature—all these discourses overlap with one another in Bernhard’s works and it is difficult—at least it is for me—to talk about these central themes without referring to Bernhard himself. In his texts Bernhard revokes all the tacit understandings we have with regard to things like art, nature, history—and we could likely include science, as well. In her obituary of Thomas Bernhard after his death in 1989, Elfriede Jelinek remarked: “An diesem toten Giganten kommt keiner vorbei“ (ev. No one will surpass this dead giant OR No one will duplicate this dead giant). And it would appear as if almost all the writers in Austria were still spellbound by this powerful negation with which he got everyone to speak. Perhaps Bernhard’s major achievement was the fact that he got people with differing educational and ideological backgrounds to stand up and speak their piece and that no one remained indifferent to him. In his gesture of negation, everything that is negated –and that includes art, science, history, nature—seems to re-appear and take on his silhouette. No one has succeeded in practicing this “negative dialectic” (Adorno) in such a succinct fashion as Bernhard. Art can only survive if it is negated.