Thursday, February 3, 2011
Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters
Stubbornly bitter, excessively critical, and yet deeply amusing, Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters is an uninterrupted tirade against, well, everything. The book focuses on an elderly musicologist, Reger, who, contra John Barth, has lived his life according to the principle that anathematization of the world is an adequate response to the world, indeed, the only adequate response to the world. For over thirty years, Reger has gone “every other day except Monday” to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where he has made an arrangement with the museum guard Irrsigler so that he can occupy the Bordone room by himself and do his thinking while sitting in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. On the day the novel recounts, Reger’s friend Atzbacher, a philosopher who refuses to publish anything, meets with and listens to Reger, who self-assuredly attacks everything that comes to his mind, including art historians, museums, the Viennese, Austrians, teachers, the state, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Heidegger, childhood, birthdays, human beings, and the sun. The book has no paragraphs or chapters, and the entire narrative action consists of no more than one character entering into a room, so Reger’s expression of disapproval continues unabated from the novel’s beginning to end. Bernhard’s sentences are long and convoluted, often twisting and turning back on themselves. They typically repeat variations on the same point, attempting to land the same blow more than once rather than develop an argument. There is perhaps a certain nihilism lurking underneath this indifference to explication. Bernhard at one point writes, “everything that is said is nonsense, but we do utter that nonsense convincingly, Reger said. Anything that is said sooner or later turns out to be nonsense, but if we utter it convincingly, with the most incredible vehemence we can muster, then it is no crime, he said.” Sentimentality and kitsch are Reger’s favored derisive labels. “Sentimentality altogether, that is the terrible thing, is now greatly in vogue, just as everything else that is kitsch is now greatly in vogue.” “The whole world today is ridiculous and at the same time profoundly embarrassing and kitschy, that is the truth.” “Anything human is kitschy, he said, there can be no doubt about that.” Spread throughout the book are snippets of the philosophy underlying Reger’s condemnation of the world. For Reger, critical negativity, as a way of life, is the only thing that allows the finite individual to survive, particularly when confronted by inhumanly perfect and complete works of art. Attacking art, finding its flaws, fragments, and failures, liberates the individual from its illusions and chains, and helps make his existence, his damaged life, bearable. “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. . . . 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.” “There is no perfect picture and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music, Reger said, that is the truth, and this truth makes it possible for a mind like mine, which all its life was nothing but a desperate mind, to go on existing. One’s mind has to be a searching mind, a mind searching for mistakes, for the mistakes of humanity, a mind searching for failure. The human mind is a human mind only when it searches for the mistakes of humanity.” When extended beyond art, this critical position makes the world universally “abhorrent” to Reger. Nonetheless, Reger obtains a kind of autonomy through this negativity, which severs any relation that binds the individual to the world. “You have the strength to turn the world into a caricature, he said, the supreme strength of the spirit which is necessary for it, this one strength of survival, he said. We only control what we ultimately find ridiculous, only if we find the world and life upon it ridiculous can we get any further, there is no other, no better, method, he said.” In true dialectical fashion, however, the critical subject still needs the objects that it negates, its existence being unthinkable without them. For example, Reger is especially hostile towards the titular “old masters” that hang on the walls of the museum, but for decades he as still chosen to visit the museum. “Everything they have painted and which is hanging here is repulsive to me, I often think, he said yesterday, and yet for decades I have been unable to avoid studying it. That is the most terrible thing, he said yesterday, that I find these old masters most profoundly repulsive and again and again I continue to study them.” Throughout the book, Reger’s voice flows through and dominates the voices of Atzbacher and Irrsigler, who, respectively, do little but report and repeat what Reger says. The effect is that the narrative feels like a monologue by Reger, but the novel’s conclusion, which leaves Reger’s negativity intact, reveals a more positive truth about his garrulousness and his need for companionship.