Monday, June 20, 2016

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard

My most recent post, The authorisation to invent, criticises the dominant mode of fiction as practised in English, with the main complaint being that fiction inhabits the minds of its characters, telling us what they feel and think without any concern for boundaries and what crossing boundaries might destroy. As I admitted there, this is a naïve complaint, as it is precisely because the novel is one of the few places where there are no constraints on human knowledge and control that it is so popular, providing as it does readers and writers with an escape from the otherwise dominant experiences of uncertainty, confusion, dispossession and solitude.

But what if the writer seeks instead to respect these experiences rather than appropriate them as part of a story, as experiences undergone by characters? Well, one example arrived when I began reading Dostoevsky's The Devils, a novel narrated by "Mr G---v" describing events within his circle of friends and acquaintances. For all its familiarity as a lengthy 19th century novel of social and political intrigue, there is insight only through what is overheard by the narrator in person or reported to him in person via those friends and acquaintances, with all of the qualifications that entails. The shadow of narration is thereby cast over events, and there is no privileged knowledge beyond that already allowed. Whatever the intentions of the author, this subtle constraint has major effects.

Kevin the Brontosaurus reading Goethe Dies

It is perhaps no coincidence that of The Devils Thomas Bernhard wrote: "Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work". These adjectives are the words I would have used to describe his own books when I discovered them, written it seemed to me on the edge of collapse. Aged 19 and expected to die of TB (the initials might be more appropriate than the full name) he read the book in a hospital bed:
It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Devils had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. [Translated by David McLintock]
Twenty years later, living on but still threatened by constant ill-health, he published The Lime Works, a novel beginning with an ellipsis and in the midst of hearsay and speculation:
... when Konrad bought the lime works, about five and a half years ago, the first thing he moved in was a piano he set up in his room on the first floor, according to the gossip at the Laska tavern, not because of any artistic leanings, says Wieser, the manager of the Mussner estate, but for relaxation, to ease the nervous strain caused by decades of unremitting brain work, says Fro, the man in charge of the Trattner estate, agreeing that Konrad's piano playing had nothing to do with art, which Konrad hates, but was just improvisation, as Wieser says, for an hour first thing early in the morning and another late at night, every day, spent at the keyboard, with the metronome ticking away, the window open ... [Translated by Sophie Wilkins]
While this has Bernhard's characteristic music, it bears only faint relation to the monological exaggerations and opinions that caricatures his more famous work, suggesting that the various characters' perspectives and their various contrasts play an important role in determining his fiction, that is, so long as we also take into account the end of perspective. Twelve years after The Lime Works, the newspaper Die Zeit printed his short story Goethe Schtirbt (sic), which has just been published for the first time in English translation and which stresses what I mean by this.

Goethe Dies is narrated by an unnamed member of a circle around "not only the greatest man in the nation but also the greatest German of all to this day" who, on his deathbed, so it is reported by the scholar Riemer, has been preoccupied with Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the point of believing it superseded his own work. So preoccupied is he that, so it is reported, he ordered his secretary Kräuter to England in order to bring Wittgenstein to Weimar, an order that Eckermann, the author of the famous Conversations with Goethe, is said to have opposed and was thus banished from Goethe's company; a convenient fiction given that he is the only person who would likely have recorded the event. Otherwise we have only the narrator's precise reporting of what happened via Riemer and Kräuter.

Goethe is said to be especially preoccupied with Wittgenstein's idea of Das Zweifelnde und das Nichtzweifelnde, which James Reidel translates as The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing, noting that it is an invented phrase derived from entry 6:51 of the Tractatus. In his italicised translation:
Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.
(But perhaps not entirely invented, as in On Certainty Wittgenstein writes: "Zweifelnde und Nichtszweifelnde Benehmen. Es gibt das erste nur, wenn es das zweite gibt", which Anscombe/Paul translate as: "Doubting and non-doubting behaviour. There is the first only if there is the second".)

What can this mean? It's a very odd starting point for a story given that Wittgenstein was born 57 years after Goethe's death. The comedy of the conceit somehow emphasises Goethe's questing motivation as his admirers fuss around him. The great author is dying and perhaps thereby suddenly aware of that which allows for questioning is that which puts an end to questioning. He is alleged to have stood at the window with great attention: "Look here, Kräuter, at this ice-covered dahlia! Goethe allegedly exclaimed and his voice was as strong as ever, This is the Doubting and the Doubting Nothing!" Perhaps then to have Wittgenstein present, the man Goethe claims is his "philosophical son, so to speak", is thereby his preservation and his death, just as the ice preserves the dahlia by putting an end to it. Except it turns out Wittgenstein had died before Kräuter had a chance to bring him back to Weimar, so Goethe's final wish is unfulfilled and he becomes the ice around the dahlia. 

Our narrator then confesses that Goethe's final words were not the famously ambiguous "More light" (mehr Licht) but "No more" (mehr nicht), which would confirm the bad news by leaving no doubt, no possible escape. The shame of this deception is said to have killed Riemer and Kräuter while he, the narrator, says he still suffers from it "to this very day". And so too perhaps Thomas Bernhard for inventing such a comically paradoxical story – an ice-covered dahlia, a preservation of doubting determined by the doubting nothing – which places him by his own hand in the same company of the two great men of German letters, and so might have been retitled Bernhard Dies, as the gift of his writing is this state of still suffering, of being still alive, whereas, in the dominant mode of fiction, there is no doubt; every flower encased in ice.

NOTE: You can read Douglas Robertson's translation Goethe Dighs on his blog. It is spelled like this to match Bernhard's unconventional German.


  1. Looking forward to reading this. As it happens, I'm re-reading Demons at the moment!

  2. Ah yes, the multiple versions of the title: The Devils, Demons, The Possessed. Google Translate suggests the last is the literal meaning. That settles it then...

    Goethe Dies is only 18 pages long, so shouldn't take too long. I should have written about the other three in the book – there's plenty more to say.



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