Force and Circumstance

I have written about Thomas Bernhard before. However, writing about him now feels different, not only from the time a decade or so ago when I first discovered his work, but even from the prevailing mood of a couple of years back. Partly fuelled by reissues on both sides of the Atlantic, there has been a radical ascent of Bernhard in the literary consciousness of the English-speaking world. This ascent has given rise to some very thorough, incisive and insightful responses to his writing, including articles by (to name just a few): Nathan Knapp, Chris Power, Missouri Williams, and Dustin Illingworth.

The appearance of articles such as these, alongside the 2021 publication of Douglas Robertson’s translation of The Cheap-eaters (Spurl editions) caused me to re-examine some of the paradoxes of Bernhard’s work that continue to fascinate me. However, the impulse to join in the conversation, to write, was unsettled by the sense that, perhaps, for me at least, there was nothing left to say. This feeling has been made all the stronger by Steve Mitchelmore’s excellent piece discussing chance and beginning in Bernhard, which goes a long way to identifying what it is that continues to make Bernhard a writer I return, and keep on returning, to. One phrase in particular resonated with me:

The words become a void in which the infinite drops into the finite, at least something other drops into life, creating a propulsive force from the coincidence of opposites

It is a cheap trick; a vulgar, even monstrous, move to say that beginning to write only when there is nothing left to say is an appropriately Bernhardian beginning, but writing (let alone criticism) is never above such cheap tricks, so here we are.

The Cheap-eaters, trans. Douglas Robertson (Spurl editions, 2021)

In thinking about the paradoxes of Bernhard’s writing, and particularly the movement of the finite and the infinite, the choice of The Cheap-eaters is not merely an arbitrary one, an accidental one, determined by the vagaries of the publication schedule. The novel, while not his very finest, reads as something of a Bernhard medley, with a great many of the tensions of his work compacted together into an uncomfortably small space. Present and correct are those elements that have come to define Bernhard’s style: an unbroken monologic paragraph, the fulminating hatreds and misanthropy that give way to self-immolation; the dark humour; the looping recursive sentences; and the musical character of the prose, moving with its play of dissonance and repetition.

More than this, even for a writer whose works deal obsessively with writing and its failures, there is in The Cheap-eaters a preoccupation with chance and fate that reveals the mechanisms of Bernhard’s approach more clearly than elsewhere in his oeuvre. In fact, it is a book where the Bernhardian style (the critic gets a sickly, perverse kind of pleasure from the employment of terms the author would have abhorred) seems to have become part of the novel’s process of totalisation and collapse. It is as though Bernhard’s own problem of beginning, that knot of displacement, futility and stubborn refusal that drives so much of his writing’s unstable energy, had become caught in the mechanism, doomed to churn out imperfect copies of itself. No, on reflection, he realised, there could have been no other novel which could be used to examine these paradoxes.

Attempting to get a handle on this mechanism has proved difficult and strange. The somewhat clumsy way I seem to want to formulate it is as:

The part that totality itself plays in the failure of its own realisation.

Of course this is bound up with the interplay of accumulating and corrosive elements that underlie the rhythms of Bernhard’s prose. It also relates to that ‘coincidence of opposites’ mentioned above, the propulsion and neutralisation at work in the meeting of the finite and the infinite. The phrase too recalls the structural form of the medley: a musical agglomeration underscored by the partial and the total. To try and bring some of this to light, I will look at the mutually-existing contraries that border the ‘field of failure’ in The Cheap-eaters: space/displacement, coincidence/fate, literature/life.

In his short book Inadvertent, the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard defines writing as: ‘creating a space in which something can be said.’ ‘Literature,’ he writes, ‘is not primarily a place for truths, it is the space where truths play out.’ Space then, in the case of literature, does not only refer to the imagined ‘narrative space’ internal to the events of the book (in this case a set of discrete parks and restaurants in Vienna) but also the shadow which the act of writing opens up in order for these events to take place, the space that the literature makes for itself to happen. Before action, before speech, there is an activity of clearing and enclosure. Knausgaard puts this succinctly later in the book when he writes:

All language casts a shadow, and that shadow can be more or less apprehended, but never quite controlled.

For many traditional modes of narrative, the shadow is a problem to be elided. The desire for ‘realism’ or ‘naturalism’ seeks to perform its world-building to lead the reader into a shadowless noon. Bernhard, for his part, does the opposite. The shadow is stretched out as far as it will go.

This recalcitrance presents difficulties for interpretation and summary. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that events in the book never simply happen, but are always refracted through being told, through second-order or even third-order observation. This displacement creates the seam into which the work unfolds. Even trying to give a basic plot summary of The Cheap-eaters, a topology of its events, presents difficulties. Here is an attempted outline:

The narrator, a school friend of the novel’s principal subject Koller, is writing down his recollections of Koller’s own story regarding the so-called cheap-eaters in the Vienna Public Kitchen, the VPK (so-called because they only ever eat the cheapest food on the menu). The cheap-eaters are figures with whom Koller has eaten with for years, becoming part of the group after losing his leg following an infected dog bite. However, this strange gathering had not held any real significance for Koller until years later when, whilst out walking, he decided to walk to one particular tree instead of another. In doing so, Koller re-encountered the cheap-eaters and suddenly realised that they were to be the essential focal point for the as-yet uncompleted essay on Physiognomy which would constitute his life’s work.

From the outset, the form and content of the novel are so heavily intertwined that the structural elements that might be simply stylistic are dragged into the murky territory of the narrative, and, on the other side, the events of the novel repeatedly prove to be structural elements in the construction of the work. The telescopic ‘framing’ effect is further amplified by Bernhard’s integration of monumentality and minutiae; contraries of scale that are also responsible for creating much of the humour in The Cheap-eaters (and many of Bernhard’s other novels). The most quotidian events are picked at and pulled until they seem to unravel the fabric of reality around them. An excoriation of the entire world for having the vulgarity to exist reveals itself from a slight remark, a menu choice, a walk to a tree.

This is the novel’s second sentence:

As on the preceding days he had been able to go automatically to the old ash tree and not the old oak tree, but all of a sudden he had not gone to the old ash tree, but rather to the old oak tree, for if he, said Koller, had gone to the old ash tree on the day in question he possibly would not have happened upon the cheap-eaters, but rather upon something quite different, since in any case, he had alighted upon a different walk than the one he had taken on that day, namely a walk leading to the old oak and not to the old ash, he would have happened upon a different subject, possibly even a diametrically opposite subject, upon a completely different one, he said, than the one he had happened upon, because he had taken that and no other walk, and hence happened upon the cheap-eaters on the day in question, because he had gone to the old oak tree and not to the old ash tree.

Formally then, the very elision that enables most fiction to operate, the transparency of narration that presents an open door to another world, is not only refused, but is the very thing that is torn open to clear space for the work. At the same time, this constricted space is written through with distorted perspectives that force vast quantities of the human suffering and debility into the fault.

The effect of all this is a kind of vertigo, where discrete acts and disquieting systematicity continually work to reveal and dissolve one another. Bernhard’s flair for beginnings, that beginning from failing to begin which immediately creates the impression of exhaustion and unstable energy, finds a motor in this formal play of tearing and confinement.

Vertigo is a condition caused, in part, by the co-presence of contraries of scale: the minute and the monstrous. Faced with such a situation, comprehension falters and dizziness results. The severity of this instability in Bernhard is part of what makes his works both modern and modernist.

The increasing awareness of the vastness of the world through technological development, the continual presence of incomprehensible quantities of information, has made the condition of vertigo, and its accompanying anxiety, an ever-more pervasive part of the human condition. This is the horror vacui of modernity, a repulsion at the insignificance of the subject that manifests itself at both ends of the spectrum of universal and particular, reducing human activity to, on the one hand, random meaningless events, and at the other, the foregone conclusions of a cold, abstract system. One acute, material example of this shift can be seen in the invention of the machine gun and its use in the First World War, something which was largely responsible for putting an end to the concept of heroism still such a vital feature of Victorian life.

Beyond a certain point, the sense of ‘worldliness’ that can be so moving in a work of art or an event like the sight of occupied rooms glimpsed from the window of a train can threaten to crush us, or make any endeavour seem meaningless. Walking into a vast library, looking down from an aeroplane, watching a million starlings sweep across a marsh, these are all tied to this dissolutive motion of unity and isolation.

[Oh dear, he’s getting horribly off track. The machine gun? Horror vacui? Good lord, get to the point already…]

The manifestation of these forces in the realm of music is one of the principal features of that great novel of musical genius: Mann’s Doctor Faustus. The humanist narrator, Zeitbloom, recognises in certain works by his devilishly talented friend, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, a chilling systematicity. The warmth or emotive character of the works is undercut by a flicker of infernal architecture. It is not that the work is stilted, staid, far from it. In fact the architecture is subterranean: indeed part of the horror of its codification is that it is only glimpsed. This kind of music is the kind we find in The Cheap-eaters, though it is not discussed (such grand discussions about music are no longer possible) rather, its melodies are sublimated within language.

[Here we witness more of the critic’s malignant glee: Bernhard, publicly at least, hated Mann.]

The rhythm is impelled by two forces, two contesting scales, neither of which can quite establish control as they both develop out of and erode one another. The move toward the singular, toward development, is undercut by the foregone, the inevitable, before any ground can be held. The resulting timbre is unstable, but even instability is prevented from being the presiding mood or atmosphere, plagued as it is at every turn by baleful certainty.

Thomas Bernhard photo © Sepp Dreissinger 1981

At the level of the individual event, the condition of vertigo instils a sense of extreme randomness, coincidence, and inexorable fate, predestination. The movement between these poles is at the heart of The Cheap-eaters. Across the novel, a series of seemingly coincidental occurrences is related; each becoming a partial centre of gravity for the narrative to revolve around before being supplanted by the next. First comes the walk to the oak tree, then the story of the dog bite, then Koller’s first meeting with the cheap-eaters, the encounter between the narrator and Koller, and then the telling of the story itself which Koller relates to the narrator in an eatery called The God’s Eye (a name exuding the third person’s crude omniscience). During this time, each event unwinds away from the accidental as it is written about and re-told until it has the aura of being entirely inevitable. What, in the effect of vertigo, was a question of scale is here a question of writing, and of time.

The horizon of accident and necessity is central to the activity of literature. The movement of events in The Cheap-eaters replicates the confluence of accident and necessity in the act of writing: the near-infinite possibilities that are erased once pen is put to paper, when one thing is written rather than another. This is the deeply debilitating condition of writing, it’s unavoidable failure. Bernhard explains the problem in one interview in the following way:

Whatever you write it’s always a catastrophe. That’s the depressing thing about the fate of a writer. One can never put on paper what one thought of or imagined. That gets lost when it is put onto paper. All you deliver is a bad, ridiculous copy of what you had imagined

[Does this not also hint at the risk of criticism, indeed of all comprehension? The interpreter takes a work, a singular and mysterious thing, and seeks to resolve it into identifiable approaches, structures, (shudder) themes. In an effort to combat this, the critic tries to preserve some mystery, through the insertion of an apposite remark. He opens his volume of unpublished Nietzsche fragments (itself only a single volume, №16 of a larger set, a fragment of the fragments) and turns to a page at random (p.287 in this case), finding:

There is no event in itself. What happens is a group of appearances selected and summarised by an interpreting being.

But this activity of serendipity, while true, even to its subject already appears too good to be true. We suspect a hoodwink, a carefully selected aphorism arrived at from hours of careful study. Something decided long in advance. And, moreover, who can tell?]

Posturing aside, the catastrophe of reduction explains Bernhard’s hostility to writing and the hesitancy to begin. To ‘make meaning’, to ‘say’, is always to erase, to give form to silence. How can this catastrophe, even the recognition of it as a catastrophe, provide any place to begin?

Nowhere is the execrable condition of literature more evident than in the sketches of the cheap-eaters in the closing passages of the novel. Presented to the narrator by Koller, these sketches form what is purported to be the beginning of the great Physiognomy essay but inevitably turns out to be just another preamble (physiognomy, notably, is a pseudoscientific practice of supposedly being able to obtain depth, character, from surface. The four members of the table: Weniger, Goldschmidt, Grill and Einzig are presented in passages that are simultaneously parodic renditions of fiction’s descriptive tendencies and apparitions of the practice of writing: both literary tropes and tropes of literature.

Weniger manages a vinegar bottling plant but engages in shady practices, unspecified criminality and fraud which he is ‘unable to commit to decisively’. A kind of amalgamation of disenchanted Ireneo Funes and misanthropic Marcel Proust, he always knows exactly the correct time (despite using a gold pocket watch that has bene broken for years) and considers going on a round-the-world voyage, abandoning the idea after realising that it would be: ‘not much more rewarding than an hour-long walk in the Prater’. Grill works as a shipping supervisor and grew up in a tower block with ‘a thousand rats for every human resident’. His wife died suddenly from a ‘remarkable unresearched illness’, a comical phrase that reads like a blank the author meant to fill in later, before subsequently being abused by doctors for teaching purposes (a literal manifestation of the pathology of knowledge). Einzig is the least well-known to Koller, and constantly gives out conflicting biographical information, including (à la Charles Kinbote) gratuitous fantasies about a ‘noble lineage’.

Most literary and most pitiful of all is Goldschmidt, the bookshop owner, who spends time serving history and literature, ‘even though he knew that in doing so he was serving false masters’. Here the pitiful condition of art rises to the surface:

The bookdealers were the most pitiable people in the world, because all the abominableness and brutishness of human history and the helplessness and pitifulness of art weighed more heavily on them than on anybody or anything else and they lived in constant fear of being crushed to death by this anti-human burden.

False masters. History seeks to give meaning, unity, to human social existence where there is an overwhelming ocean of incomprehensible death and horror. Literature, for its part, is a force that seeks to enrich life by turning away from life. Writing and reading withdraw us from the world into a narrowed landscape of types and signs. Language, as Goldschmidt says, is a force that ‘encumbers’ all comprehensible thought, reducing it to ‘a state of perpetual debility’. The necessary realisation as material act is a process that destroys the potential of the very thing it brings into being. In being written, the spark of spontaneity and chance is extinguished, dampened into fate. The world of the word is a fixed, dead world.

The attempt to ignore the shadow of the word does not alleviate the problem. Novels that do so are merely symptomatic of the condition rather than its cure. Too often works that are understood as literary present nothing other than still lives, self-contained totalities from which any movement is suffocated. The problem is not that such novels skip too easily over the problem of beginning; it is, rather, that they never truly begin at all.

More often than not, conventional novels use the implication of verisimilitude to absolve them of the necessity for imagination. The empty corridor of realism acts as a ‘get out of jail free’ card because it allows the accidental agglomeration of details, their incoherence at the level of form, to be elided by purporting a direct relation to an exterior reality. Their life is, quite literally, elsewhere.

The inner coherence of the genuine work of art is displaced from the work to its mere object, allowing the novel to present nothing more than an approximate and arbitrary imitation of life. Such works are the foregone conclusions of an abstract system, filled with coincidences whose ground of meaning lies in a realm they have no access to except as a pale imitation, a masquerade.

Yes…intercourse with philosophy, with written texts is extremely dangerous…for me especially…I sometimes beat about the bush for hours, days, weeks on end
— Thomas Bernhard, Drei Tage

We have reached the finale, the critic’s ill-advised philosophical crescendo. It is here, perhaps that we can finally begin, or begin to discuss the beginning. Returning to the question of totality and failure, we might argue that, by their reliance on an imagined natural relation to the external world, the kind of bloated, dull descriptive novels that make up the shortlists of most major prizes (in the English-speaking world at least), generally fail to capture even the smallest part of that world. The realist gesture towards an external, presiding totality, like the purchase of an indulgence, pre-emptively absolves the work of its genuine work. But, in doing so, it reveals the lack of relation to the very reality which granted the indulgence.

Such forms of totality, rather than introducing and maintaining a relation to the real, instead oversee the construction of a tomb. In the opposite direction, The Cheap-eaters is a work where totality, the infinite, stands as a negative condition that prefigures all efforts at relation. Paradoxically, the spectral presence of the system, a glimpse of the infinite, unsettles the calcification that it threatens, undermining any recuperation of the event by showing that recuperation as its inevitable horizon.

The infinite and the problem of beginning are inextricably linked. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hegel and Nietzsche, two thinkers whom Bernhard’s own writing contains a stylistic echo. The self-propelling energy through constant retroaction of the former, the virulent, bombastic cadences of the latter. In Hegel, the problem of beginning is the place to begin, and reveals itself as the beginning only from the standpoint of the self-developed totality of relations between concepts in the true infinite of the Absolute. ‘Beginning’ in any originary sense is impossible (and is liable to leave us trapped on a Kantian desert island of categorial reason). Nietzsche shares an anti-foundationalism with Hegel, but here the impossibility of beginning becomes the impetus for the re-inscription of beginning into each and every moment: the eternal return. Through the concept of the eternal return, Nietzsche attempts to immanently ground eternity. This eternity is not an alien ‘other’ to time, but a co-constitutive criterion of the passing and becoming of each moment. As Krzysztof Michalski puts it in his invaluable book The Flame of Eternity:

Understood in this way, eternity is not the opposite of time but its aspect, its necessary dimension. [p.186]

Michalski goes on to quote the scholar Ryszard Przybylski (in reference to Shelley), with the assertion that ‘eternity transforms being into appearance’. Appearance here denotes a recognition of the ineradicable presence of the capacity for change. Eternity reveals the transient condition of all that is and as such its ‘being’ is always unstable.

History and literature, Goldschmidt’s false masters, imbue life with meaning, but in the process life is necessarily reduced, denied, occluded. The utopian character of history and literature, which is grounded in what Peter Osborne calls ‘the trans-generational unity of the human’, is also that which can stifle them before they can begin. Both are constructed sites of meaning that extend beyond the scope of all existing social subjects and systems of production. They do this, in spite of the unerring futility of the chaos that surrounds them, in its very shadow. On this level, all works of art and efforts at history are optimistic. However, there is another side of this coin. Nihilism, like Barney being ejected from the pub of the world by the Moe Szyslak of meaning, always finds a way back in.

As the narrator of The Cheap-eaters says:

Life or existence was nothing other than the unceasing and actually uninterrupted and hopeless attempt to extricate oneself from everything in every possible department and drag oneself into the future, a future that time and again had nothing to offer but the renewal of this selfsame lethal process.

This is why all of Bernhard’s internal wrangling with form, with displacement, with beginning, is so important for the works as literature. The Cheap-Eaters demonstrates that the process by which the novel is written, however futile, is not simply a stylistic feature but co-determinate and co-determining with the activity of life.

Rather than enabling us to forget the debility of language and allowing us to revel in its constructions, Bernhard’s self-questioning in The Cheap-eaters shows us that it is paradoxically by resisting literature’s act of creation that one remains closest to life. The reason for doing so is not merely to demonstrate the incapacity of literature, to reveal the wizard behind the curtain for its own sake. Rather, it is that making literature in this way reveals something fundamental about what it is to be human, about our human condition. In order for the world to mean something, we have to reach reduce it, whilst attempting to reach across, to make our reduction always more than what it is. To speak, to name, to narrate, to write: the ways we interpret and understand the world, all do violence against its richness and potentiality. Bernhard is a writer who reveals this in his self-appointed role as a story-destroyer not because he simply removes a traditional plot structure from his work, but because he attacks the conditions of possibility for that structure in the first place. He goes against the story that literature tells itself. Writing in and through such a catastrophe, what is there left to say? Well, for Bernhard at least:

There’s the non-existent conversation with the past, which itself no longer exists, which will never exist again. There’s the conversation with long, non-existent sentences. There’s the dialogue with non-existent nature, intercourse with concepts that are non-concepts, that never could be concepts. Intercourse with conceptlessness, cluelessness. There’s intercourse with a subject-matter that is unremittingly imperfect. The conversation with material that doesn’t answer back. There’s the absolute soundlessness that ruins everything, the absolute despair from which you can no longer extricate yourself. There’s the imaginary prospect that you have built for yourself in order to be able to keep only imagining it. There’s the attempt to brush up against objects that dissolve the moment you think you could have touched them. There’s intercourse with actualities that turn out to be shams. There’s the attempt to piece back together a period of time that was never unified. There’s always the same groping in your imagination towards a representation of things that by its very nature must prove false. There’s your identification with things that have emerged out of sentences, and you know neither anything about sentences nor anything about things, and time and again you know pretty much nothing at all.

Yorkshire person. Editor @readysteadybook. Writer @thequietus, @3ammagaine, @gorse_journal, @LAReviewofBooks + more. Communism, literature, philosophy.