. . . Thomas Bernhard

. . .


As a certified holder of a Bachelor of Mathematics certificate, I can confidently assert that rationality exists only as a way to juggle all the words one feels compelled to throw into the air. But even that certificate is no guarantee of success, and the Outsider Art go-round left a hatchet, a raw egg, and a beach ball on my face.

Most of the muddle was caused by my smudging across questions of production (what do we notice? what attitude do we take? what markets do we approach?) and questions of consumption (how do we notice? how do we understand? how do we enjoy?) as if all of 'em were one big really dumb question.

Thus, Doug Asherman points out that I claim that the worst thing is the formation and mutual support of a mediocre group, when the really REALLY worst thing is when the mediocre group manages to convince larger groups to take it even more seriously than it takes itself.

Regarding "insularity," David Chess suggests

that there is no "mainland" at all, except in the sense of a particularly large (or visible, or well-funded, or populous) island.
(In fact when we're talking The New York Review of Books it's not even that large an island; it's just that the islanders think it's centrally located.... Minifesto: I'm not sure that a decentered self is necessary for ethical living, but I'm pretty sure that a decentered self-image is.)

And giving David Auerbach the last long word:

With all respect, I want to reframe your insider/outsider argument, because I'm not eager to see another generation of writers inspired by Colin Wilson's The Outsider willing themselves into solipsistic states of media attention and minor celebrity. I'd like to displace the insider/outsider dichotomy into the realm of 'material'. There's a quote from John Crowley's review of Lanark that I'm thinking of:
It is more like the great homemade books, the all-encompassing works that have always been constructed not of mainstream materials but of the author's own peculiar mud and straw: Pilgrim's Progress, say, or Branch Cabell's Jurgen.
I'm willing to admit that the considerations of the intellectual market matter only once you've rejected the satisfactoriness of Borges' "Secret Miracle" [....] But at that point the question of whether the creation of something was approached from the insider or outsider standpoint is more one of idiom than anything else. Or to put it another way, you can't be Kaspar Hauser and Ian Curtis at the same time. (And for a different take, I just read the conclusion of Kim Deitch's latest serial in Zero Zero, which "solves" the problem under discussion by inverting both Heinlein's "Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and Charles Fort -- rather than "We are property," it is "We are entertainment.")

But the outsider brand, in its two forms--

--From without--

The Jack Spicer bit is priceless, but all those "Crazy Buddhist art. Crazy Hindu art. Crazy Medieval German art." fall more under the rubric of exotica rather than "outsiderism," I'd say. What the two have in common is a desire to attach the label of foreignness to the work. I think this is less a narrative conceit (as you say) than an impulse on behalf of both the producers & consumers to mythologize & escape. And it's going on contemporaneously too: what Richard Ford & David Foster Wallace have in common is a mythologizing of everyday materials, albeit in very different form. It's not very good mythologizing (Richard Yates did it best, and most honestly, in my view), but it's still an updated variant on what Mailer, Updike, Oates, and the rest of those geezers have been earning accolades for for years. The dominant short story paradigm in most of the anthologies these days seems to be (1) the "I'm so real" Carver-derived approach of Tilghman, Offutt, and many others whose names I've forgotten, or (2) the creepy, sub-supernatural angstploitation of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, David Gates, and I suppose Russell Banks. Both are variants on the same impulse to impose a private "outsider" view on ordinary materials through sheer will -- because that's the only thing that can make it worthwhile. It's a lousy approach. I think the consequent turn to the exotic stems from the same cause -- when people get fed up with the fakery of the above, they turn to the irreducibly foreign.

And then there's people like our friend Jandek who apparently achieve some level of commodification by being fetishized by collectors, and the ensuing debate over whether he and others are the "real [foreign] thing" or not. It's very important to the consumers that they are -- what could he possibly have to say if he were just like you and me?

Granted, I think America (north and south) is more prone to mythology than the Europeans or Asians (hence our great legacy of comic books & comic strips!), but the current crop of writers is too civilized to do it honestly. So while they're too self-conscious to apply the label to themselves even as they incorporate it into their fiction, those who feel it...

--From within--

still don't use it as a primary marker in their work, though they may try. I look at Bruno Schulz's work and compare it to Beckett's, and while I see them trying for similar effects, I think Beckett is more successful. This despite Schulz's Kafka-like isolation and Beckett's (relative) integration into the various scenes around him. I'm tempted to see the issue, then, as irrelevant to the quality of the work being produced -- though it may just be that Beckett was just such a prima facie genius to everyone around him that he could have been totally maladjusted and still fit in.

Thomas Bernhard, on the other hand, is a writer who I think really hurt his work by being so socially involved in Austrian theater and politics, but I don't think that it was socialization per se that damages his books so much as an innate desire to throw obscene epithets at other people. With or without the opportunity to hurl them from a respected position in Austrian letters, I think his work would've suffered the same.

. . .

Slicing the mail bag   Errata

Tom Glynn brings our earlier erratum to an even higher gloss:

"Whoa guys! Thomas Bernhard is at one and the same time our most comic and our most depressing writer. I should say was, since as you know he is dead. Who cares about his political involvement? Look at his writing. Is there anything funnier than Old Masters or more depressing than Yes? And has anyone pointed out the connection between Kierkegaard and Bernhard?"

+ + +

Speaking of hot literary disputes, I ain't George Steiner and I ain't George Steiner's son, but I can be George Steiner till George Steiner comes: James Wood's attack is vicious and exhaustive enough that most of us can probably wrest at least a couple nicks out of it....

"Steiner is like someone who, seeing a blind man in the street, says: 'I would rather be deaf than blind.'"

. . .

The blurb is a difficult form at best, but its authors risk especial injury when they wrap a subject as prickly as Thomas Bernhard, whose pinched sneer -- more vitreous than vitriolic, less sulphurous than hydrogen-sulfidic -- casts a consistently unflattering (if dim) light on all around it. (And on itself as well; it seemed to me that Woodcutters would've worked better if the narrator's scornful scare-italics had slowly increased their share of the prose until they covered every word he set down....)

The most amusing page of Woodcutters (and for pity's sake I'll skip the introductory sentence which blows the joke) is the nearly Flaubertian (first draft Flaubert, anyway):

To present The Wild Duck to the Viennese public was not just a risk, said the actor, but a considerable gamble. The Viennese simply did not respond to modern drama, as he put it -- they never had responded to modern drama. They preferred to go and see classical plays, and The Wild Duck was not a classical play -- it was a modern play, which might admittedly one day become a classic. Ibsen might one day join the classics, and so might Strindberg, said the actor. He had often felt that Strindberg was a greater dramatist than Ibsen. Yet at other times, he said, I've felt the opposite to be true -- that Ibsen is superior to Strindberg and has a better prospect of becoming a classic. Sometimes I think Miss Julie will one day become a classic, and at other times I think it'll be a play like The Wild Duck. But if we attach too much importance to Strindberg we do Ibsen an injustice, he said, just as we do Strindberg an injustice if we attach too much importance to Ibsen. Personally, he said, he loved the Nordic way of writing, the Nordic way of writing for the theater. He had always loved Edvard Munch too. I've always loved The Cry, he said -- which of course you are all familiar with. What an extraordinary work of art! I once went to Oslo just to see The Cry, when it was still in Oslo. That doesn't mean that I have a preference for the Scandinavian countries, he said. Whenever I was in Scandinavia I had a nostalgia for the south, or at least for Germany, he said. Stockholm -- what a dreary city! To say nothing of Oslo -- so enervating, so soul-destroying. And Copenhagen -- enough said!

But the second most amusing page is the back cover:

"Mr. Bernhard's portrait of a society in dissolution has a Scandinavian darkness reminiscent of Ibsen and Strindberg...."
-- Mark Anderson, New York Times Book Review

. . .

One reader adds to our dossier on glassy, gassy Thomas Bernhard:

"Woodcutters is a fix-up of the last ten pages of Wittgenstein's Nephew from 2 yrs earlier, where it is not Bernhard but the titular Paul Wittgenstein who provides the final blow (missing from the novelization): 'You too have become a victim of the imbecility and intrigues and underhand dealings that go on at the Burgtheater. It doesn't surprise me. Let it be a lesson to you.' This suggests that Bernhard was too socialized for his own good and hated himself for it."
While another adds to our ball of confusion:
"#17140\WA IcePrincess"


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Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.