Saturday, September 23, 2006

Old Masters, Thomas Bernhard

In his preface to Correction, George Steiner, while judging it to be Thomas Bernhard's masterpiece (a fairly common assessment, it seems; I haven't read it yet, but I can think of at least one person who disagrees), says that, "[t]oo often, notably in his later writings, Bernhard succumbed to a monotone of hate (hate for Austria, for modern man, for the soiled materiality of being)." Old Masters is late Bernhard (published in 1985 four years before his death), and readers could be forgiven for describing it as indeed often seeming little more than a "monotone of hate". As with Concrete, published a year earlier, we are subjected to a steady stream of negativity directed towards, yes, Austria, modern man, critics, artists, art. In this case, most of the opinions are held by Reger, a music critic who writes for The Times of London, who for more than thirty years has visited the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna every other day to sit across from the same painting, Tintoretto's White-Bearded Man. Reger's pronouncements come to us through Aztbacher, the apparent narrator, who has been invited by Reger to meet him at the museum. Aztbacher gets to the museum early, and takes the time to observe Reger and recount, it seems, nearly everything that Reger has ever told him.

We are drawn into the world of Reger's opinions, many of which seem perfectly reasonable, and had me either nodding my head or enjoying the ideas, for example in this early passage:
The perfect not only threatens us ceaselessly with our ruin, it also ruins everything that is hanging on these walls under the label masterpiece. I proceed from the assumption that there is no such thing as perfect or the whole, and each time I have made a fragment of one of the so-called perfect works of art hanging here on the walls by searching for a massive mistake in and about that work of art, for the crucial point of failure by the artist who made that work of art, searching for it until I found it, I have got one step further. In every one of these paintings, these so-called masterpieces, I have found and uncovered a massive mistake, the failure of its creator. For over thirty years this, as you might think, infamous calculation has come out right. Not one of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter by whom, is in fact whole or perfect. That reassures me. It makes me basically happy. Only when, time and again, we have discovered that there is no such thing as the whole or the perfect are we able to live on. We cannot endure the whole or the perfect. We have to travel to Rome to discover that Saint Peter's is a tasteless concoction, that Bernini's altar is an architectural nonsense. We have to see the Pope face to face and personally discover that all in all he is just as helpless and grotesque a person as anyone else in order to bear it. We have to listen to Bach and hear how he fails, listen to Beethoven and hear how he fails, even listen to Mozart and hear how he fails. And we have to deal in the same way with the so-called great philosophers, even if they are our favorite spiritual artists, he said. After all, we do not love Pascal because he is so perfect but because he is fundamentally so helpless, just as we love Montaigne for his helplessness in lifelong searching and failing to find, and Voltaire for his helplessness. We only love philosophy and the humanities generally because they are absolutely helpless. We truly love only those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.
While Reger is finding fault here, it doesn't seem wholly negative, nor merely an attempt to knock artists or other famous people down to size. The notion of art as a record of failure is not ridiculous, and there are echoes, of course, of Beckett's "Fail Again. Fail better." dictum. But Reger goes further than that. It quickly starts to seem as if he despises nearly all art, all life, as much of what follows is a negation.

Old Masters is subtitled "A Comedy". Why? For one thing, there is Irrsigler, the guard at the Kunsthistoriches Museum who has enabled Reger to occupy the space in the museum for more than thirty years. We learn early on that Irrsigler had "wanted to join the police because the career of a policeman would...solve his clothing problem" and became a musuem guard for much the same reason, and even thought of joining a monastery "because there too a person's clothes were provided". Irrsigler is a comically stiff figure. But, in the manner of Bernhard's other work, most of the comedy comes about through Reger’s pronouncements themselves. They become so repetitive as to often be ridiculous, to be comical; are so often objectionable; so often so encompassing, so absolute, so far over the top, so apparently assured and negating of everything they come into contact with; at times Reger is so obnoxious as to be repellent, yet it’s funny; the re-statements from every conceivable, every tedious angle of the same proposition, which is then modified with an “except”, which is then re-stated itself from seemingly every possible grammatical angle. More than once I grew exasperated, tired of plowing through yet another permutation of yet another outlandishly absolute negative opinion, finding myself wondering why. Then there are those rants that are simply hilarious. He rants about Vienna's cleanliness and then intones solemnly: "The lavatory question and the tablecloth question are still unsolved in Vienna". Good point. Also: has been scientifically established that a Viennese uses a piece of soap only once a week, just as it has been scientifically established that he changes his underpants only once a week, just as he changes his shirt at most twice a week, and most Viennese change their bedlinen once a month, Reger said. As for socks or stockings, a Viennese, on average, wears the same pair for twelve consecutive days, Reger said.
On average! Over time, through all of this, we learn about Reger. He is physically weak, elderly. His wife has recently died and he considers himself a coward for having stayed behind. He looks to art but it fails him in his time of need, and yet, finally, it appears to be all he has, and he clings to it. There ends up being something strangely affirming about this. And, in Bernhard's perverse way, the book has what I am going to call a happy ending. Aztbacher finally learns why he has been invited to meet Reger and it is wildly anti-climactic, in one sense, but thematically consistent. The final sentence of the book is hilarious and perfect.

I am unsure which I liked better, Old Masters or The Loser, my previous favorite Bernhard (and, oh yeah, source of this blog's name). Either way, Bernhard is uniquely Bernhard, even with the echoes of other writers (Beckett, I guess, and more than one place has compared the form to Notes from the Underground, which makes sense, given the rant or confession, though it escaped my notice I have to admit, and seems more specifically relevant to Concrete). His enormous paragraphs (again, there are no breaks here) and the interspersed "Reger said", "I considered", "said Reger, I thought", etc, and ranting and re-ranting through grammatical reconstructions, make for a reading experience that is by turns thought-provoking, infuriating, hypnotic, and often quite funny. If you already like Bernhard and haven't read Old Masters, of course you're going to want to, and if you haven't read him yet, I imagine this is as good a place to start as any. For myself, in France I was able to find Correction and Gathering Evidence, his childhood memoir, both of which I look forward to, as well as finding the rest of his fiction, Extinction in particular.



Blogger AC said...

I was wondering where the blog's name came from. I'm really interested in this notion of failure and art; I need to read some of Beckett's prose works, and more Kafka. But I love how everything in Bernhard comes through failure. And he is really funny!

September 25, 2006 11:25 PM  

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