PRINT January 1994


Thomas Bernhard

WE ALL WANT TO BE good consumers. We don’t want to reproduce negativity. So whenever I hear Cindy Crawford aver, “It’s really inner beauty that counts,” my inability to take things at face value makes me feel unclean. According to Gilles Deleuze, “The world is the set of symptoms of which the illness coincides with man.”

A recent art piece in Vogue juxtaposed two “artful gatherings”: a late 19th-century parlor painted by Alfred Stevens, garnished with lady artist and models, and a mod 1965 postcard of a fancy French restaurant in Chicago with mannequin like patrons, all of whom looked upscale yet very normal. Both images offered the voyeur attractive poses to identify with—one the pale romantic, two the sporty WASP. It has been customary since the 19th century for image-makers to reflect back their bourgeois or bohemian audiences from the place from which they appear likable to themselves; god help the artist who refuses to mirror his consumers back to themselves in idealized form.

While one-too-many a puff piece on a “down-to-earth” celebrity or pure-hearted artist can throw one into the hands of the devil (at least for a moment), Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989, based his career on recording every possible insult to his intelligence and finding that everything, upon close examination, disgusted him. He was one of those Viennese who were constantly hating everything: art, kitsch, nature, the Viennese who “have no lavatory culture,” his colleagues, and himself. He reserved especially colorful remarks for “the real wreckers of art”—art historians—who deserve “to he chased out with a whip.” Heidegger himself appears, unattractively, “pulling on his socks.” Especially apt at capturing esthetic urges as they curdle into careerism, jealousy, sterility, and consciousness (where most people prefer to forget these Kodak-unworthy moments—and years), Bernhard has preserved them in his books. Despite his frequent tirades against the Austrian people, when you read him it’s hard to remember he’s talking about horrible people in Vienna and not people you know in NYC today.

Woodcutters: a novel, 1984, is a charming account of an “artistic dinner,” populated with people mid- to late-career who are past their period of productivity and may or may not know it yet, and of how they prey upon others. The host couple are in fact the real parasites of the evening, a culturally anxious heiress and her husband, a once promising composer “in the tradition of Webern” who has developed over the years into an alcoholic who scares people at parties, and inflicts atonal entertainments upon them when they would like to go home. The narrator contemplates his long personal history with the guests, all of whom have prostituted themselves in various ways in the name of Art, and who repel him.

The Bernhard world is structured like a Möbius strip on which culture vultures flip into philistines, and vice versa; one relishes every sordid turn with discreet grunts of pleasure, and leaves the book strangely expunged of ego shit one didn’t even realize one was busy repressing. His work hears testimony to the fact that prolonged exposure to Beauty does not necessarily do any Good. I was bemused to hear that Susan Sontag has recently conducted a Bernhard reading at a tony Manhattan bookstore.

In Old Masters: a comedy, 1985, he provides a portrait of a professional art-consumer, an excruciatingly cultivated geriatric music critic. He goes in for a book-length close-up, observing the geezer as he observes another geezer (this one by Tintoretto, the White-Bearded Man), a habit he has committed every other day for 30 years at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. We get into his head for an unsightly portrait of an “old master” internally corroded by his lifelong dependence upon “old masters,” “to be saved anew by music every day, from all the atrocities and hideousness,” which indeed are plentiful.

Confronted with a staggering masterpiece that taunts us with our limitations, we must bring it down to our level, consume it—do something to it or with it—or be destroyed. The act of caricaturing the masters and having one’s way with them emerged, in fact, as the strongest esthetic act left to us in our belated cultural condition. We’re moved and horrified at the lengths to which the sick ego must go in order to withstand too much perfection, knowing, in fact, that it must give in to its smallness to survive. While his narrators are distinctly unlikable, they are adequate expressions of egos inadequate to the task of getting over themselves. By relentlessly inhabiting these flawed points of view and refusing to step back from them, Bernhard has produced, in my opinion, distinctly human expression.

“When we observe a picture for any length of time, even the most serious picture, we have to turn it into a caricature in order to bear it. . . . Even the obese smelly Bach at the organ of Saint Thomas’s Church was only a ridiculous and deeply embarrassing figure, there can be no argument about that.”

I first discovered Bernhard when I was drawn to his novel entitled The Loser, 1983. It’s about three piano virtuosi, all gifted, who go to Salzburg to study with Vladimir Horowitz. One of them is the genius Glenn Gould; when the other two hear him play the Goldberg Variations, they decide never to play the instrument again, “because they will never be as perfect.” The book is about the rest of their lives, which are sordid: one of them is the “loser,” who devotes himself to the “human sciences, without knowing what they are,” and alarms the other two by accumulating millions of disorganized notes, which he never turns into anything. The other one is the narrator, “the philosopher.”

As witness to the genius, they are traumatized; nothing happened but their consciousness that Gould is a genius. The consciousness is the trauma; and Bernhard’s books are like objectified traumas, trauma objects, receptacles for the horrid experience of those who must suffer (or survive) the genius of others. Gould is the catastrophe (from their point of view), and they are his survivors. Only a depraved ego could have permitted himself to undergo the feelings necessary to produce such a sacred horror of a book.

I devoured it, of course, to recognize what I have been doing wrong—to possibly avoid future disasters, as if one could. The loser had “an artistic attitude,” the genius “didn’t need one.” The loser “detested artists . . . who destroyed their personalities to be geniuses,” the genius wants “to wake up one day and be Steinway and Glenn in one . . . Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn, all for Bach.” The loser blames everyone else for his catastrophe: “I told Glenn that he had destroyed Wertheimer [the loser],” said the narrator, “but Glenn had no idea what I meant.” The loser “would have liked to be Glenn Gould, would have liked to be Horowitz . . . wasn’t capable of seeing himself as a unique and autonomous being, as people can and must if they don’t want to despair; no matter what kind of person, one is always a unique and autonomous being, I say to myself over and over and am rescued.”

The loser is more interesting to read about, though ultimately, like Gould, he winds up erasing himself from his “work,” changing and deleting his hellishly overinvested manuscript, his life’s alibi, until finally “nothing remained except the title The Loser.” The narrator, too, renounces his musical ambition, and retreats to “occupy himself with a writer’s inanities,” to witness this pathological display. To be destroyed rather than enriched by the achievements of others is a little bit of hell more frequent in the art world than people care to admit. The book is about being friends with a genius artist, and how horrible it is, especially for the merely talented. It’s esthetic porn for overachievers, capturing the foul juices in which the ego simmers, unable to give itself over to a wholly hygienic admiration of the more gifted friend, or to the Universal. A persistent theme in Bernhard is art appreciation in its grotesque aspect, how it festers in “creative” milieux swarming with ex-aspiring artists, whose once esthetic strivings are now long buried, inhibited in their aim, deflected onto people, fashion, politics, and other people’s work. Ironically, the “worklessness” of these people is mirrored back by the real “work” (as articulated by Maurice Blanchot), the “workless work” that stands not for the gods, nor for their absence, but, rather, for the absence of their absence—the congenitally belated object that can only bear witness to its own absurd urgency. . . and mock it.

The only thing more superficial than me is my work.
—Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass

When I met Cary, he was installed in the gallery personally handing out cookies to his spectators from a toaster oven. He gave me his card— “Here I am, please don’t be mean”—and I was both liberated and devastated. Liberated because I couldn’t believe someone was getting away with what he was doing in a gallery context; devastated because I felt, by the very coherence of his loser vision, that he had somehow ariticipatorily plagiarized all of my subsequent wretchedness as part of his material. Since he’s a good friend, I feel doomed for life. While the Gould-genius was characterized by his paradoxically titanic egolessness, Cary has turned his whining, his self-consciousness, his willingness to admit he wants to be fashionable, into his form of discipline. By combining both genius and loser in one, I feel like he has squeezed me out into this nonspace, as his witness, like a kind of double loser. Maybe that’s why he has a weight problem! Cary’s achievement of masterful misery challenges the concept of Loserliness itself, introducing the distinction, in fact, between strong and weak losers, strong losers being the ones who can work their misery, affirmatively becoming—losers; weak ones those who haven’t yet figured out how to occupy themselves, to tap the Giant Loser within for Personal Power. Admiring his sure loserly instincts, I find myself reading all of his traits, even his hatred of houseplants, as potential components to the integral genius of his vision. I realize that this is sick.

I don’t like things that suck.
—Beavis and Butt-head

One is shocked to discover that Bernhard won “many of the most prestigious literary prizes of Europe” when he thoroughly skewered pretentious windbags, institutional prostitutes, puffed-up cultural pimps, and scary people who traded in their early promise for marriages to money, positions, or, in the case of the women, garden-variety ingrates. One has to presume that the very people who gave Bernhard these prestigious awards were the soul-destroyers and murderers he was talking about, produced and circulated by the very “hospices for terminal dilettantes” that sickened him. Ever biting the hand that fed him, in the end Bernhard won, as usual, by never underestimating human vanity. One has to presume they thought that he was talking about someone else.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.