Reading “Correction” in Cairo
“If one disregards the money that goes with them,” says the narrator in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, a more or less real-life avatar of the writer Thomas Bernhard, “there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies.” Berhard goes on to describe his experience with literary awards and how they “do nothing to enhance one’s standing”—also the subject of a dedicated little book of his, My Prizes: An Accounting—revealing the depth of his contempt for the institution, for Vienna’s “literary coffee houses”, which have a “deadly effect on the writer”, and for the compromises and dishonesties required by the writerly life:
I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it.
For a Third World writer inevitably enraged by the tastes, biases and ulterior, including politically correct motives of Third World award juries, the effect is one of liberation. So even in grand old Austria this happens! It is also one of recognition. Here, dead since 1989, is someone who not only knew the truth but wasn’t afraid to say it, going so far as to integrate it into the fabric of his art.
Of course you need not be a writer to appreciate Bernhard’s platitude-busting power. From a literate as much as a literary viewpoint, no one shows up the discursive hopelessness of the globalized present as intelligently, as comically, or with as honest an expression of disappointment in humanity embodied by the tribe that begat him. Non-statements like this 2017 tweet by Barack Obama, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion”, reflect not just a failure of nuance and irony, “which diminishes the unbearableness” (Gargoyles), but a true crisis of meaning.
It’s a crisis borne of corporatism: all things are company-owned products, all statements advertising; freedom consists of the ability to buy and sell objects including your own self; equality means imposing standardized morals across real differences while dividing people up into smaller and smaller categories of unreal victim. The process is facilitated by a misguided egalitarian drive to cleave unto the lowest common denominator, however dehumanized, commodified or otherwise criminal that might be. In the Arab world, Facebook-triggered “democratic transformation” since 2011 has shown how pre-modern value systems and historically plundered economies can turn virtue-signaling into failed states and sectarian civil wars.
Bernhard remains largely unknown among the Arabs, but it was here that I discovered him after the age of forty, having embraced and been disillusioned with the Arab Spring. In Bernhard’s impossibly long, meandering sentences and the interminable blocks of reported speech they form, there is a constant, buzzing discomfort, a kind of deep distrust or preemptive despair. It is the perfect counterpoint to the slough of deepities, idiocies and indoctrination mantras associated with the disasters at hand.
I cannot read Bernhard’s German—and it’s possible that my reading of him in English translation is a misunderstanding, though I also believe that in literature misunderstanding is, at least potentially, just as valid as understanding—but as an Egyptian born in 1976, I truly find myself in rhythmic rants such as Reger’s critique of Heidegger—“that ridiculous Nazi philistine in plus-fours… a tasteless and readily digestible reader’s pudding for the mediocre German mind… not only his Black Forest walking stick which he himself had whittled, in fact his entire hand-whittled Black Forest philosophy, everything about that tragicomical man has always been repulsive to me” (Old Masters)—or the painter Strauch’s tortured analogy for suffering:
You will still hear the scream, even though the facility for the production of the scream is dead… Even if all the vocal cords have been chopped up and sliced apart, are dead, all the vocal cords in the world, all the vocal cords of all the worlds, all the imaginations, all the vocal cords of every creature, the scream is always there, is always still there, the scream cannot be chopped up, cannot be cut through, the scream is the only eternal thing, the only infinite thing, the only ineradicable thing, the only constant thing. (Frost)
Bernhard not only exposes and demolishes the discursive lie that seems to have hijacked the sayable, he also busts the notion—arguably the most enduring platitude in human history—that setting out to change the world, being proactively virtuous or heroic, is meaningful, or in anyone’s interest but your own. “He has donned the proletariat,” the mad Prince Saurau says of his son, “and the horrible part of it is that at any moment he can strip himself of it again” (Gargoyles).
Free of the indignities of self-branding—including the imperative to embody or promote some salable cause or identity—Bernhard’s perspective, as crucial to my here and now as any in any language, shows an earnest appreciation of genius: “For there’s nothing more terrible than to see a person so magnificent that his magnificence destroys us and we must observe this process and put up with it and finally and ultimately also accept it” (The Loser). It shows unqualified contempt for moral laziness and intellectual pretension, let alone all-round philistinism: “Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms… solely in order to conceal their incompetence and cloak their charlatanry” (Wittgenstein’s Nephew). It shows numerous—vindicating—qualities.
All of which are rooted less in a philosophical system—“I can hear charges being brought against the big ideas,” Strauch says, “a great court has been convoked to hear the case… More and more big ideas are arrested and thrown into prison. The big ideas are sentenced to terrible punishments” (Frost)—than an exquisite understanding of metaphor and meta-metaphor: language itself as a direct manifestation of the human condition. For example:
it was nevertheless by this process of boiling down a work of over eight hundred pages to one of only four hundred pages and then a mere one hundred fifty pages and then no more than eighty pages and then finally one of not even twenty pages and in fact, ultimately leaving absolutely nothing of the entire work behind, that all of it together came into being, all this taken together is the complete work. (Correction)
That’s why, whatever else they do, the quasi-soliloquies of Bernhard’s characters always manage to remain literature. “People or rather each person by himself,” Saurau says, “can very well be viewed as a novel serialized in a daily newspaper which is printed by nature. In the editorial office, however, a horrible arbitrariness prevails… And the writers… make use of the truth which is useless to the philosophers.”
They also latch onto motifs or methods which, however narrowly specific to their own situation, end up traveling beautifully. The Upper Austria landscape yields Buddhist insights: “The man who gets to the top of the tree is forced to realize there is no top and no tree” (Frost). Roithamer’s troubles with the homeland recall the horrors of the Nile Valley: “such a country needs people who are not angered to the point of rebellion against… the irresponsibility of such a country and such a state, such a totally decrepit, public menace of a state… a state in which only chaotic conditions, if not the most chaotic conditions, prevailed” (Correction).
Yet it is in a minor encounter in the first half of Gargoyles that the extent of the fellow feeling underlying Bernhard’s contempt comes through: “Turks provide the cheapest labor in our country. That was the only sort they could have hired to work in this gorge… But you’re only imagining that you are the Turk and ascribing your own thoughts to him… How destitute the Turk’s life at home must have been for him to end up in this gorge in Central Europe, I thought. The gorge,” he writes, “is a cruel betrayal of him.”
This piece was written for the Austrian literary magazine SALZ, where it is published in German translation.