22 déc. 2018


16 nov. 2018

Thinking Outside the Box:
 Walter Benjamin’s Critique of ‘Dwelling’

This post takes off from reflections on two notebook entries in Walter Benjamin’s long, uncompleted research into the space and culture of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project or Passagenwerk, notes that he dedicated to the problem of dwelling (Wohnen).   I’ll come back to these soon. But first a few preliminaries to set up the broader context for where I’ll be heading, which is Benjamin’s rich meditations and criticism about “interiors,” which embraces in his writings a complex set of topics and interconnections between them, including modern cities and their reconfigurations of inside and outsides through enclosures and the use of glass in architecture, the culture of the bourgeois household of the 19th century and of Benjamin’s own childhood, and the psychological interiority so intensively elaborated by modern culture from lyric poetry, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and modern art to psychoanalysis and new-age spirituality.
Dwelling was a problem that had long occupied Benjamin, not least because of its immediacy in his own uncertain, transient life as an expatriate and exiled writer, a life which he conducted largely out of cheap hotels, rented apartments, and borrowed rooms of friends in cities throughout Europe, until his suicide in 1940. As a passage from his 1928 book of aphoristic writings, One-Way Street, indicates–

–Benjamin connected the contemporary forms of dwelling with the increasing economic, political, and social compulsions that weighed on the individual’s freedom of residence and movement. Alluding to the economic and political crises of the early Weimar Republic after World War I, Benjamin writes:
“Any human movement, whether it springs from an intellectual or even a natural impulse, is impeded in its unfolding by the boundless resistance of the outside world. A shortage of houses and the rising cost of travel are in the process of annihilating the elementary symbol of European freedom, which existed in certain forms even in the Middle Ages: freedom of domicile. And if medieval coercion bound men to natural associations, they are now chained together in unnatural community. Few things will further the ominous spread of the cult of rambling as much as the strangulation of the freedom of residence, and never has freedom of movement stood in greater disproportion to the abundance of means of travel.”
As we know, the problem of dwelling has played an enormous role in the discourse of modern architecture and urbanism, but also in philosophy, where Martin Heidegger offered extensive treatment in late essays and lectures such as “Building Dwelling Thinking” and “Poetically Man Dwells. . .” and especially in his idiosyncratic writings on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georg Trakl. In these various writings, Heidegger suggested that dwelling—meaning the various historically differentiated forms in which human being’s inhabit the earth–and Being, the origination and passing away of all that is in time, stand in a complex, intertwined relationship to one another that should itself become the occasion for thinking. In turn, he argues, the human practice of building for habitation is not merely a matter of bodily shelter and survival, but rather a primordial component of the way we feel, speak, think, and occupy our finite historical worlds. At the conclusion of “Building Dwelling Thinking,” like Benjamin he too evokes a crisis-situation in dwelling, which, however, Heidegger sees as not having really been given sufficiently radical questioning and thought:
“What is the state of dwelling in our precarious age? On all sides we hear talk about the housing shortage, and with good reason. … However hard and bitter, however hampering and threatening the lack of houses remains, the proper plight of dwelling does not lie merely in a lack of houses. The proper plight of dwelling is indeed older than the world wars with their destruction, older also than the increase of the earth’s populartion and the condition of the industrial workers. The proper plight of dwelling lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the proper plight of dwelling as the plight? Yet as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling.”
Here, Heidegger suggests that the plight of dwelling is not just a modern problem, but rather that human being’s habitation of the earth is that of never being “at home,” never being fully at peace and at one with the earth, but that of being always in strife with and uncanny to itself, out of place. Thrown into the spaces of the earth, human beings make places by building, which means that their placement, their dwelling, their habitation can never be taken for granted. Looked at in this light, Heidegger suggests that human beings always dwell historically, that is, in time-bound, poetically made, and linguistically and architecturally disclosed relations to the earth that can never be definitively settled, which hence are always subject to crisis, destruction, change, and renewal. The contemporary situation of the destruction and rebuilding of large cities, housing shortages, and mass displacement and influx to the city from the countryside are, perhaps, particularly dramatic and dangerous manifestations of this historicity of dwelling. But the greatest danger, he suggests, may be to fail to recognize in this historicity the most important spur to thought, the most important clue to what the contemporary crisis of dwelling means, and hence the only hope to find our way to historical renewal. Such thinking about the plight of dwelling, Heidegger suggests, would have to encounter even the most devastating phenomena of the present day as part of humankind’s long, defining confrontation with our lack of a fixed abode on earth and our need to pay constant heed to dwelling’s question and offer new historical, cultural, and architectonic answers to it.
Similar in this regard to Heidegger, Benjamin saw his own crisis-ridden time between the two world wars in relation to fundamental changes in the nature of dwelling, which also meant dramatic changes in the ways that modern people gave shape to dwelling by building, reflected on their habitation of spaces such as metropolitan cities, and interacted in new ways within modern built environments. Although of course Walter Benjamin, having died in 1940, would know nothing of the later Heidegger and was in many respect, most obviously politically, antithetical to Heidegger, I would suggest that in his focus on the question of dwelling and the various historical forms and forces that structure it, Benjamin too shared this holistic conception of the architectural realm. Perhaps even more strongly than for Heidegger, for Benjamin dwelling was a richly determined form of thinking and experiencing—and, moreover, a form of thinking and feeling in which the philosophical question of the “subject,” the individual subject of “lived experience” that was so much the focus of late 19th-century neo-Kantian thought, hermeneutics, and modern psychology, was profoundly implicated. At the heart of the issue of dwelling for Benjamin was the problematic status of its association with the “interior,” with “interiority”—whether that inner space implied the privacy of the bourgeois household or the inner depths and memorial folds of the bourgeois self. Indeed, what was at issue most forcefully for Benjamin was the dramatically altered relations between the psychic and architectonic manifestations of interiority that were being experienced as rifts and crises across the array of cultural, political, and personal life in his day.
Benjamin’s conjunction of a changing metropolitan space with new modes of psychic experience, mediated and expressed through various sorts of modern social behaviors and cultural artifacts, has a genealogical precursor in the writings of Georg Simmel and later, under the influence of Simmel, the early Georg Lukács. The most explicit development of this reading of Simmel can be found in the Italian philosopher `Massimo Cacciari’s consideration of late 19th– and early 20th-century German social thought, in his book Metropolis, where he discusses Simmel’s essayistically deploying the city itself as the real solution to long-standing Kantian and neo-Kantian antinomies of thought. Cacciari writes:
“In Simmel, the city is called upon to concretize Kantian teleological judgment. Here, the themes and key problems of neo-Kantian philosophy all reappear.”
And he goes on to argue:
“As long as the value of the city is simply the synthesis of form and function in the original apperception of its totality, the temporal dimension will remain absent. . . . Time, as well, [however], must be reconciled. And for time, there must be a form. Not for Kantian time. . .But for the time of Erleben [lived inner experience], the time of the actual products of history. And the form of this time must be the city.”
Putting this in somewhat more vernacular terms, the city comes to stand as a set of experiential forms—shapes of time, dynamized spaces—that give literally concrete dimension to the articulations of the inner-subjective and outer-objective realms. This is true both for the actually-existing capitalist city, in which reification (Lukács) or “objective culture” (Simmel) predominate both outer and inner experience, or for the utopian-future city virtually latent in its bricks, streets, hoardings, and walls. In this sense, too, we can understand the continuity of the products of artistic modernism with the broader domain of urban modernity, insofar as both involve the invention and / or reappropriation of cultural forms to project new modes of experience, new ways of configuring the spatial and temporal schema of modern experiential “worlds.” As Jon Goodbun has written:
“For Simmel. . . the metropolis provided the particular conditions in which the ‘space’ of concrete experience (super-individual ‘society’) and the ‘space’ of inner experience (individual subject) are translated (almost in the mathematical sense, that is to say, ‘mapped’) onto each other. And this is one of the senses in which we can begin to understand the object of this other modernist genealogy: as a store of transformation matrices between inner and concrete experience.”
In his own writings, Benjamin, in fact, makes explicit reference to Heidegger in an early note to the Passagenwerk, in which he writes: “[It is] of vital interest to recognize, at a particular point of development, currents of thought at the crossroads—namely, the new view on the historical world at the point where a decision is forthcoming as to its reactionary or revolutionary application. In this sense, one and the same phenomenon is at work in the Surrealists and in Heidegger.” Both the Surrealist exploration of Paris as a kind of exteriorized space of dreams, forbidden connections, and unacknowledged desires, he suggests, and Heidegger’s angst-ridden existential individual Dasein suffering the inauthentic chatter of das Man, are important diagnostic symptoms of the present-day crisis of dwelling, despite their manifest differences of idiom, intention, and political ideology. Another passage from One-Way Street, entitled “Minister of the Interior,” punningly plays off several connotations of “interior” to suggest more what Benjamin means: that there is a single crisis of dwelling, a disturbance in and drastic reconfiguration of previously stable relations between public and private life, conducted in exterior and interior spaces, that are susceptible to polarized political interpretations and uses. The full passage of “Minister of the Interior” reads:
The more antagonistic a person is toward the traditional order, the more inexorably he will subject his private life to the norms that he wishes to elevate as legislators of a future society. It is as if these laws, nowhere yet realized, place him under obligation to enact them in advance, at least in the confines of his own existence. In contrast, the man who knows himself to be in accord with the most ancient heritage of his class or nation will sometimes bring his private life into ostentatious contrast to the maxims that he unrelentingly asserts in public, secretly approving his own behavior, without the slightest qualms, as the most conclusive proof of the unshakeable authority of the principles he puts on display. Thus are distinguished the types of the anarcho-socialist and the conservative politician.”
Although there is an element of satire of the conservative politician’s hypocrisy as he publically espouses values that he then blatantly ignores in his private life, Benjamin’s point here is not primarily a moral criticism. It is rather that the questions of inside and outside spaces, private and public orders, have taken on increasingly consequential social and political dimensions, thus elevating them to a historically decisive importance in the coming general crisis (recall that this was written in the early 1920s and published in 1929, amidst the rise of Nazism and the economic collapse of 1929).
Now, at last, I return to Benjamin’s Passagenwerk notes on dwelling, where he explicitly addresses this term and concept. These two entries on dwelling appear in Notebook I [“The Interior, the Trace”] where, associating dwelling with the interior and domestic space, Benjamin adopts a resolutely critical note towards this theme. The first reads:
“The difficulty in reflecting on dwelling: on the one hand, there is something  age-old—perhaps eternal—to be recognized here, the image of that abode of the human being in the maternal womb; on the other hand, this motif of primal history notwithstanding, we must understand dwelling in its most extreme form as a condition of nineteenth-century existence. The original form of dwelling is existence not in the house but in the shell. The shell bears the impression of its occupant. In the most extreme instance, the dwelling becomes a shell. The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case. . . . The twentieth century, with its porosity and transparency, its tendency toward the well-lit and airy, has put an end to dwelling in the old sense. Set off against the doll house in the residence of the master builder Solness are the “homes for human beings.” Jugendstil unsettled the world of the shell in a radical way. Today this world has disappeared entirely, and dwelling has diminished: for the living, through hotel rooms; for the dead, through crematoriums.”

The second, shorter note follows up the thought of the shell, while offering a grammatical observation that invites being contrasted to Martin Heidegger’s etymologizing approach:
“‘To dwell’ as a transitive verb—as in the notion of ‘indwelt spaces’; herewith an indication of the frenetic topicality concealed in habitual behavior. It has to do with fashioning a shell for ourselves.”
As such, these notes appear in relative isolation: Benjamin did not take up the theme of dwelling as directly in the rest of the Arcades Project, although clearly dwelling is indirectly at issue in the numerous notes on interiors, the house, and figures such as the collector and the flâneur. Yet these two specific notes remain significant for several reasons.
First, the theme of dwelling appears with a much more positive accent in one of Benjamin’s key sources of information and theoretical concepts about architecture: the historian Siegfried Giedion’s book Bauen in Frankreich (Building in France), which Benjamin admired and noted extensively. Giedion was a fervent follower of the architect Corbusier, functioning as the chief propagandist for the modernist architectural movement in Corbusier’s mold. Although Corbusier’s work embraces a vast range of projects, Giedion especially celebrates Corbusier’s modernization of the house in his innovative family villas of the 1920s.

Giedion had written of 19th-century architecture as a kind of psychic structure, in which the technological and industrial character of materials like iron and glass were being repressed into a subconscious dreamlike interior existence:
“Architecture, which has certainly abused the name of art in many ways, has for a century led us in a circle from one failure to another. Aside from a certain haut-goût charm the artistic drapery of the past century has become musty. What remains unfaded of the architecture is those rare instances when construction breaks through. Construction based entirely on provisional purposes, service, and change is the only part of the building that shows an unerringly consistent development. Construction in the nineteenth century plays the role of the subconscious.   Outwardly, construction still boasts the old pathos; underneath, concealed behind facades, the basis of our present existence is taking shape.
It was especially in industrial buildings such as train stations, depots, gasometers, silos, and so on that the new architectural “construction” openly showed its face in the 19th-century; it was most effectively repressed in the nostalgic, decorative, velvet-lined, and thing-stuffed spaces of the bourgeois house. Corbusier, Giedion thought, had brought the industrial age to the house at last. Thus one might indeed argue that dwelling, reinvented in a modernist mode, is the positive, utopian telos of Giedion’s whole account of modern architecture. As he writes in the introduction of Building in France: “The task of this generation is: to translate into a HOUSING FORM what the nineteenth century could say only in abstract and, for us, internally homogeneous constructions.” And returning to this point in his conclusion, he asserts: “our age has one primary demand: the creation of a humane and unconfined human dwelling that meets minimum standards.” It is, he suggests, only when the technological materials and practices evolved earlier in industrial contexts like train stations and factories begin to transform the foundations of human dwelling that architecture may be truly completed / overcome in modern urbanism.
Benjamin, in contrast, does not, like Giedion, embrace modern architecture for its utopian potential to solve the problem of dwelling by reinventing it under modernistic, technological forms. Rather, for him, modernist architecture is to be celebrated precisely for its negative, nihilistic aspect towards dwelling and its anticipation of new life forms beyond dwelling. Modern architecture, in his view, is not a means to restructure dwelling, harmonizing it with technology and urban collectivism, but definitively to abolish the already residual existence of dwelling in the twentieth century. Although it is true that Benjamin’s work as a whole may exhibit a more ambivalent attitude to the question of dwelling than I am describing here with reference to the Arcades Project, I believe the basic direction he adumbrates is the liquidation of dwelling, an active project of necessary destruction. I thus have to disagree respectively with Hilde Heyden’s otherwise excellent account of Benjamin, when she concludes: “The most striking feature in all this is Benjamin’s strategic attempt to understand modernity and dwelling as things that are not in opposition to each other.” I will return to this point in my concluding discussion.

Secondly, Benjamin’s notes reveal that he occupies an extreme position in a wide spectrum of positions among German sociologists, philosophers, cultural critics, and literary-artistic intellectuals from Nietzsche and Tönnies to Weber and Simmel to Spengler and Heidegger about the problem of dwelling. Alongside this catalogue of German thinkers, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen also merits special mention for his interrogation of the bourgeois household as a space of modern tragedy in plays such as A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Little Eyolf, and The Master Builder. For Ibsen’s late play The Master Builder (1892), from which Benjamin cites the modernist leitmotif phrase “homes for human beings,” represents one of the profoundest literary echoes of the problem of dwelling at this time. For example, Ibsen clearly articulates the connection between building and renunciation that would become so essential for the functionalist aesthetic of modern architecture. In Act Two, the master builder Solness tells Hilde: “To be able to build homes for other people, I have had to renounce. . . for ever renounce. . . any hope of having a home of my own. I mean a home with children. Or even with a father and mother.” In passages like this, Benjamin detected Ibsen’s nostalgic lament about the social “homelessness” of the builder (notably, Solness rejects the title “architect” in favor the Heideggerian “builder”) who, because of the profession’s embrace of technological means and a competitive ethos, increasingly has had to subordinate his personal “art” to the utilitarian, impersonal function of providing “homes for human beings.”

For these cultural intellectuals, the concept of dwelling became the intersecting point of reflections on such various issues as the problem of community, the nature of metropolitan experience, the relation to tradition, the question of technology and technical knowledge, and even, as Nietzsche’s and Ibsen’s examples suggest, the death of God and the potential nihilism of the individual will. Especially insofar as dwelling was seen by these intellectuals as threatened or obsolete in the modern metropolis, it became the focus of various melancholic diagnoses of decline, nostalgic wishes for return, and utopian desires to reinvent dwelling in the womb of technology and metropolitan life.   Architectural modernism and the avant-garde were touched by each of these attitudes, often in contradictory and incoherent amalgams. In contrast to his predecessors, Benjamin—like Emmanuel Levinas and in fact even the late Heidegger, in Francesco Dal Co’s view—accepts the irreversible dissolution of the sphere of dwelling as a given and even desirable outcome of metropolitan development. He thus implicitly renders equally obsolete cultural discourses that mourn dwelling’s loss, those that yearn for its retrieval from the ruins of history, and those that strive for its utopian reinvention in the coming age.

Finally, Benjamin’s references to “addiction,” “habit,” and “shell” suggest that his notes on dwelling and interiority should be connected to the more central problematic of the affective and cognitive dimensions of urban “shock” experience. Drawing upon the metaphorics of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Benjamin implied that the interiorized shell of dwelling—the dream house of the collective—was first and foremost a sheath of rigid, deadened matter to defend a vulnerable interior subjectivity against the shock of urban experience. The breaching and disintegration of this shell—which Benjamin believed was happening under the pressures of modern technology and collective life—is traumatic, and new forms of experience will not be mastered without various regressions, conservative retrenchments, and false reconciliations in the face of the danger of awakening from the protective dream. If the final, tragic fall of Master Builder Solness in Ibsen’s play represents at once the culmination of the dream of dwelling and a catastrophic awakening from it in the moment of death, the task that Benjamin sets for future constructors is yet more daunting.   Neither to reinvent the sacral roots of dwelling with sublime chuch-like houses (the fatal project of Ibsen’s Solness) nor construct utopian “castles in the air” (as the young Hilde Wangel wants Solness to do), but rather to survive and master the interminable fall into secularized space. (In a strange anticipation of Ibsen’s fiction, the arcade architect Giuseppe Mengoni, designer of Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, whose allegorical features were intended as a secular counterpoint to the cathedral in the adjoining piazza, fell to his death from the triumphal arch shortly before the opening ceremonies in 1876.) In this sobering air outside dwelling, which surrounds the destruction-construction sites of the metropolis, architecture must seek the authentic spur to radical creation.


June 15, 2014 · by tyrus63 
 Tyrus Miller
We are the bees of the invisible. (Rilke)

5 nov. 2018

A Translation of "Ich könnte auf dem Papier jemand umbringen" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed in Der Spiegel on June 23, 1980)

I Could Kill Anybody on Paper [1]

QUESTION: Mr. Bernhard, in Germany it’s become common to classify writers as either rats or blowflies.  Are you a rat or a blowfly?

THOMAS BERNHARD:  A hybrid of a rat and a blowfly, probably.  In Austria we haven’t yet alighted on the idea of calling writers rats and blowflies, but there are certainly people here also who at least go around with [such a distinction] in their heads.

QUESTION: What’s the reason for that; why is the tone in Austria so much nicer?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t know if it’s any nicer.  But nobody dares to call writers rats and blowflies outright…

QUESTION: Even though you have done plenty to provoke your fellow Austrians to do something to that effect.

THOMAS BERNHARD: In order to be reviled as every possible species of vermin, I’d have to go to Germany or be a German; perhaps then I’d still stand a chance of receiving an honorary degree there.

QUESTION: What were the causes of your being reviled in Austria?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Writing on its own was enough.  Basically even in my early poems there was enough to make people call me a skunk.

QUESTION: On the other hand, you have a tendency to view other people [as existing] in a state of decay, of dissolution, you depict them as ailing and having gone to seed.  Your characters have often lost the ability to walk, to see, to hear; the only thing they really can still do is grouse and rant and browbeat their surroundings.  Is your heroes’ illness there as a kind of camouflage, something that perhaps allows them to see and hear even better [than other people]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I certainly don’t camouflage my characters; I release them from their cage as they are, and they’re bound to go wherever they like.  I no longer have any influence over these characters; I’m obviously not a very good herdsman.

QUESTION: The most recent of your characters for the theater has a highly remarkable job-title: he’s a “World-Improver.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: Improving the world is obviously an insane idea; the world can’t be made any better than it is.

QUESTION: But you’re having a go at it anyway?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have a go at it, at making the world a better place, every time I get up in the morning.  A go at making myself better and the world better…

QUESTION: But are you especially horrified by the people who are in power?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m certainly no lover of power; I don’t care either for individuals who wield power or for groups of people who wield it.

QUESTION: But are you not a lover of chaos either?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Chaos is basically impossible in the so-called civilized world, although I personally am quite partial to chaos in the abstract.

QUESTION: Are your plays and books meant to promote chaos?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Basically I think they are, yes.

QUESTION: And how is that supposed to function?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The moment it functions, there’s obviously no more chaos.

QUESTION: But the purpose of your writings could still be to frustrate power.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I find the word “purpose” almost as repellent as the word “power.”  Purposes [or ends] always seek out means, and with means you also always get power.

QUESTION: A thorough survey of your heroes reveals that they are sometimes—as in the case of your President—politicians, at other times philosophers, at still   other times artists.  Are artists as much wielders of power as politicians?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Artists sometimes have every bit as much power as politicians.

QUESTION: Does their power disturb you every bit as much?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Their power would disturb me if I were ever confronted by it.

QUESTION: Am I right in detecting a hint of self-disgust in what you just said?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Probably.  But it’s not just that.  I don’t see life just as something that’s disgusting…and I don’t see writing that way either.

QUESTION: Your texts are centered on death, disgust with life, suicide.  Do you write to avoid hanging yourself?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Maybe, sure, why not?

QUESTION: You’ve said you’re not a very good herdsman of your characters.  Despite this you’ve recently prohibited the Viennese theaters from staging any of your plays until further notice.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I wasn’t being particularly serious when I said that.  But I don’t willingly commit my characters into the care of people who are habitually cruel to animals.

QUESTION: Have you had bad experiences with the Burgtheater in Vienna?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have had nothing but bad experiences with the Burgtheater, but I don’t take those very seriously.  It’s just that I don’t want any play of mine to be performed there.

QUESTION: Is the performance of your plays by the Viennese a forbidden act?

THOMAS BERNHARD: “Forbidden act”—it sounds so melodramatic.

QUESTION: Back to matters Austrian.  You have never hesitated to saddle the Austrians with every conceivable form of wickedness.  In an article on the 1977 National Holiday you wrote that your governments in recent decades have been willing to perpetrate any crime against this Austria.  The governments had “committed every imaginable crime, they have finally transformed the exploitation of the vulgarity and brutality of this congenitally somnolent nation into their sole art, which masters them, and which they venerate, and with which they are positively smitten.”  That’s basically a blanket vote of no confidence against every Austrian government.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, against all these people who have gotten used to being in power and abusing power.

QUESTION: You spoke in similarly forceful terms when you left the German Academy for Language and Literature.

THOMAS BERNHARD: On closer consideration, the Academy for Language and Literature turned out to be the limit…

QUESTION: But it seemed that as long as Walter Scheel wasn’t in it you didn’t have a problem with it[.]  Was Walther Scheel’s election a welcome excuse for [you to] leave?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I found the [whole] appearance of the thing unsavory.

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s a difficult question.  Questions are always correct; answers are always wrong, erroneous.

QUESTION: Was it [the election of] Scheel as [an] individual that moved you to withdraw, or would any other president—say, Carstens or Heinemann—have served just as well?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Any of them would have served.  And I would have reacted in exactly the same way.

QUESTION: The same in the case of all three?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Also in the case of Giscard d’Estaing, even if Margaret Thatcher or whoever had come [to the ceremony] at the invitation of the [West German] government.

QUESTION: But at some point you must have participated in the academy’s activities; at any rate, that’s the impression one gets when one reads your maliciously punctilious accounts of the academy’s meetings, which you describe as a mixture of vanity, senility, idleness, and high-rollerism.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’ve never been to any of these meetings.  But [the spirit of] the academy is of course reflected in its publications.

QUESTION: You have refused to allow these publications into your house.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I can’t keep them out.  The postman chucks them in [through the front door].

QUESTION: Are you still a member of some [other] similar academy somewhere?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m a member of a group of health insurance policyholders.

QUESTION: And of what else?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Nothing else.

QUESTION: You haven’t always been especially consistent; for example, you’ve been known to accept prizes and honorary titles.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Nobody can be consistent; a person will always be able to catch himself out in some inconsistency or other.

QUESTION: In your [acceptance] speeche[s] you have of course repaid the awarders of prizes [with thanks time and] again.  Would you ever again accept a prize, for example the Nobel Prize?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Neither a prize nor a title or distinction.

QUESTION: In your new play you depict the ineluctable ridiculousness of a prize-awarding ceremony.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’ve always found such ceremonies ridiculous, ever since I was quite a young boy of fifteen or sixteen.  And there has of course always been an air of the comical surrounding all the prizes I’ve received.

QUESTION: Is a prize not also always an attempt to muzzle the artist?

THOMAS BERNHARD: [It’s an attempt] to pacify him, [and] thereby render him harmless.

QUESTION: What is it about writers that makes them dangerous?  In a brief prose sketch you write about an author sitting in a theater and shooting people who laugh during the parts of his comedy that aren’t supposed to be funny.  You yourself behave with much more equanimity at the theater, on those rare occasions when you go there.  What’s the difference between the written and the real?  You are of course aware that in Germany we’ve goat truly a truly ludicrous debate going on in Augsburg, because the theater and film director [Werner] Schroeter has fantasized about assassinating [Franz Josef?] Strauss with a veal sausage and has admitted that he’s in a killing sort of mood—much in the manner of your sharpshooting playwright.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I, too, could kill anybody on paper.  But only on paper.

QUESTION: And are you at all worried that some person somewhere could take what’s on paper for a prescription?

THOMAS BERNHARD: There’s nothing I can do to stop that.

QUESTION: Does one kill on paper in order to spare oneself in real life?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I can’t answer that [question].

QUESTION: Your penchant for morbidity shows you to be a kind of romantic writer who envisages a connection between illness and art, between madness and art, between anarchy and art.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, you’ve really hit the mark there.  I think it’s like with dreams; you have no control over the direction your dreams take; if need be somebody can wake you up; the worst things [imaginable] can happen in them, but you have no influence over them.

QUESTION: Do you think the criticism leveled at you is justified?
THOMAS BERNHARD: Every [instance of] criticism is justified, but of course you never know whether it[’s] hit its mark; everybody can say whatever he wants, and there’s nothing you can do to change it; why should anybody change any [piece of] criticism?

QUESTION: How then would you characterize your experiences with [book] reviews and newspapers?

THOMAS BERNHARD: As ranging from horrendous to thoroughly amusing.

QUESTION: Which one was horrendous?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It was really quite a long time ago; it was about fifteen years ago.
QUESTION: In other words, it was horrendous because at the time you weren’t yet capable of fighting back[--]

THOMAS  BERNHARD:  [--]because at the time everything was oversized.  When you’re a child or a very young man, everything is much bigger—the mountains, the snowdrifts.  The winters are colder; the summers are hotter.

QUESTION: So Thomas Bernhard has grown more mature, and he has fun reading newspapers, because he no longer feels as much of a need to get involved.

THOMAS BERNHARD: If I were to pack it in, in other words if I were to snuff it, and I could no longer move, I’d probably find it ideal to sit in a coffeehouse with the curtains drawn.  But not drawn so tightly that you could no longer read.  It would be nice to experience the world exclusively through the newspapers.  Then I[’d] stop reading the world except through the newspapers.

QUESTION: [Wouldn’t it be] even better to be lying and bed and also slightly ill?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That would be a great pleasure, I think.  Being slightly ill is of course very nice.  [And it’s nice no matter how ill you get], all the way to [death’s] door.  Even though naturally if you cross [the threshold] and you’re dead, that’s bound to be a great pleasure too.

QUESTION: Reliable reports on that [experience] are hard to come by.

THOMAS BERNHARD: The only [experience], I believe, that’s simply followed by nothing.

QUESTION: Whenever anybody in your books writes or contemplates, he always ends up genuinely suffering from the fact that he has conceived something and that now he’s shackled, enslaved, by the product of his conception.  Is that your [own] situation?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I think so.  When the book, or the manuscript, is completely finished, the period of enslavement is at an end.  A new one begins[—n]amely, of [enslavement to] not writing and not being shackled.

QUESTION: One gets the impression that your plays are also always iterations of one and the same play.

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s probably quite true.  Because of course the prose is also like that.

QUESTION: But surely the text isn’t as far gone and washed-up as that?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Basically it’s always the same [kind of] prose and the same way of writing for the stage.

QUESTION: But now suddenly there [has appeared] among all your characters, who are all also [part of] a single play [written] by you, a [character] who resembles [Hans] Filbinger.  Surely this character can’t have any relation to you?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Now please don’t misunderstand me.  I have the feeling that I and everybody else are [in some way] related to everybody.  That there’s even a Filbinger inside me and inside everybody else.  That the Good Lord is also in each of us and so is the girl next door and pretty much every other living person.  Each of us could identify with all of them.  That is the question: to what extent are we stifled and dominated by all these millions and billions of possibilities of people that we carry within us?

QUESTION: That is understandable.  But doesn’t it vex you when somebody interprets your plays so unambiguously and says that in Stuttgart there was a run of a play about Filbinger and the Filbinger affair?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, it’s nonsensical for anyone to say that it’s a play about Filbinger.  Because it’s got nothing to do with Filbinger.  [It’s] just about a person with similar personality traits.

QUESTION: And every similarity is purely coincidental?

THOMAS BERNHARD: …no, of course it’s not coincidental.  Thanks to the newspapers I’ve run into [plenty of] these fossilized Nazis.

QUESTION: Was the little mini-drama for Die Zeit in which a Nazi family are eating soup the first draft [i.e., of the play about the Filbingeresque character (DR)]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, that was a play I really didn’t want to write in the first place.  Heinrichs from Die Zeit asked me for a play.  I wrote it.  And as I watched it tumbling into the wastepaper basket I said, “Well, that’s enough of that thing.”  But then I fished it back out and typed it up and sent it off.

QUESTION: You have written a comedy about Kant in which the hero, who’s called Kant, is traveling to America for an eye operation.  “I’m bringing America reason,” he says; “America is giving me eyesight.”  Is this the motto that best sums up your relationship with your audience?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It was apt in that I actually had an acute case of glaucoma and was faced with the threat of going blind.  And to stave that off an operation was necessary.  But that was just the initial inspiration for the play.

QUESTION: So [it’s] really just [one of those] bioplay[s] about an artist?

THOMAS BERNHARD: [It’s] no such thing.  It’s a bioplay about a [pair of] eyes.  About the drama of [having] glaucoma.

QUESTION: What about [your] plays about the drama of being in a wheelchair?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Those have their place.  Obviously, just because your head is smashed in it doesn’t mean you’re unconditionally bound to write about heads.

QUESTION: And once you’ve delivered a play up to the people at the theater, do you keep tabs on what’s being done with it?

THOMAS BERNHARD: “Delivering up” suggests vomiting.  And the two acts may be genuinely dependent on each other.  And they probably really are dependent on each other.

QUESTION: But it is of course just a myth propagated by Thomas Bernhard himself that he for example never attends premieres.  He can in fact be seen at premieres, hiding out [in the wings], to be sure; but he does at least take a peek at each of his plays.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Sure, I’ve been to several [premieres].  Sometimes I’ve taken an interest in them, and more often I haven’t.  I’ve also actually walked out on them.  I saw The Hunting Party in Vienna from the start [of the performance] onwards, and from the first word I realized that the whole thing was a washout and dead on arrival.  I walked out in the middle of the first act and went upstairs to the gallery and got my coat from the wardrobe lady, and she said, “Oh, you don’t like it either?”

QUESTION: Have you studied acting?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, that’s what they say.  Nowadays I no longer have anything to do with it, or with music; everything I[’ve] studied I[’ve] had nothing to do with afterwards.

QUESTION: And have you perchance come back to it since?  And you have in fact become so strongly addicted to the theater that you have discovered an actor whom you regard as your ideal incarnation[—s]o much so that you have named a play after him.

THOMAS BERNHARD: With Minetti it’s almost as if I’d discovered my own self.

QUESTION: Even the play written for Minetti about Minetti is the dramatization of a catastrophe, of a failure.  Do you get high on catastrophe?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am after all a berserker; how can I put it[?]  I obviously want to write well, I obviously want to keep getting better [at it].  But that means I really ought to keep making myself more and more gruesome and [immerse] myself in ever more horrifying and ever darker [depths of] evil, so that I get better [at writing].

QUESTION: Do you have to make an effort to be so evil, so gruesome?  Is it something you actually have to decide to do, to say to yourself, “Now it’s time for me to get nice and beastly”?

THOMAS BERNHARD:  I think I’m evil by nature, and the basic outline doesn’t require any effort, but its execution is arduous.

QUESTION: You once actually wrote that Salzburg was the city with the most suicides.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, I actually just transcribed that; it’s actually been officially determined that there’s a [high] concentration of suicides there.

QUESTION: How do you account for that?

THOMAS BERNHARD: First of all on the basis of [the city’s] natural setting, the way it’s been carved into the rock-faces; Salzburg is really terribly humid…it rains suicides there, in the autumn, at the beginning of the school year; by October they’ve met their quota.  But these are all statistics and uninteresting.

QUESTION: So you found them interesting just that one time?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’d find it interesting if I killed myself and was able to observe myself afterwards.

QUESTION: Unfortunately that’s not possible.

THOMAS BERNHARD: The discovery that it’s not possible is my biggest disappointment.

QUESTION:  What sort of relationship does Thomas Bernhard have with his colleagues, with other writers?  Does he feel a sense of solidarity with them?

THOMAS BERNHARD: With which writers?  With living writers?

QUESTION: To start with, sure, with living writers.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I haven’t a thing to do with any of them.  Not as near as I can remember.

QUESTION: Because you think you’re better off going it alone?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s quite hard to say.

QUESTION: Well, we’ve already talked about the Academy.  Can you imagine what things would be like if the Gruppe 47 still existed?  Could you imagine traveling to that kind of annual gathering of writers?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I would have traveled to it fifteen or twenty years ago, if I had been invited to it then.  Back then I certainly wanted to receive an invitation, but I just never got one.  In hindsight I couldn’t care less.

QUESTION: So you wouldn’t go to it now?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, if there were a Gruppe 44 or 88 in existence now, I wouldn’t go, because I have no desire to hang out with writers.

QUESTION: What is it about other writers that bothers you?  Why don’t you want [to be around them]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: In the first place they bother me because they’re also writers.

QUESTION: [So it’s] envy of [your] competitors?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Of course every human being is a competitor.  Among the other things they do writers are naturally even bigger competitors.

QUESTION: But is there really not a single one of them who you think of almost as a brother, as a twin or as a buddy?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’ve got an actual brother.

QUESTION: Not [one who’s] a writer.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m absolutely sure I have no need of a [fellow-]writer[ly] brother, and I’ve never had one either.  I love Wittgenstein and Thomas Wolfe; these are [figures] who have kept company with me like brothers for decades, who I’ll love with all my heart until the day I die and beyond the grave, to use that wonderful expression.  But [as for] living writers?  Probably I don’t read enough either.  I mean, I obviously don’t read everything that comes out of South America.

QUESTION: Do you read everything that comes out of Austria?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, that would of course drive a person mad; to do that you’d have to read all day and all night, and you can only do that if you’re brain-dead.

QUESTION: When people compare you from time to time to other Austrians, to, let’s say, Handke, what’s your response to that?  Can you see any similarities, any points of contact, [between the two of you]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: [I see] no similarities whatsoever.  Handke is an intelligent lad, and there’s not a single one of his books that I’d be proud to have written, whereas [I am proud] of all of mine.

QUESTION: What about [Ernst] Jandl?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m completely against [people like him].  They’re schoolmasterly types who can never dissociate themselves from their line of work.  What’s more, they can’t be bothered to make the slightest effort to immerse themselves in anything.

QUESTION: And [as for] other playwrights?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I personally am [quite] enthusiastic about Hochhuth.  It’s ghastly, the stuff he writes.

QUESTION: And Botho Strauss?  You and Botho Strauss are among the most often performed contemporary German[-language] dramatists.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yeah, Botho Strauss.  I lump him in with Peter Stein and the Schaubühne [am Lehniner Platz company]: in my view the stuff that Stein does isn’t theater.  It’s like a church in which he builds an altar and then installs his [idols,] his God-proxies.  I don’t go to church.  Strauss is like an altar boy in Stein’s [church], and he’s still writing like one even now.  [It’s] very bracing and very charming; I enjoy it enormously, but ten years from now I don’t think anyone will be interested in what he’s writing now.

QUESTION: Does this mean that you are convinced that ten years from now people will still be conversant with your plays to some extent?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t think they’ll have forgotten them.  It seems to me that in Strauss’s [work everything] depends on his diction, his jargon, which is very, very, appealing in an evanescent sort of way, like the smell of lilacs at my front doorstep.

QUESTION: In other words, you’re saying your [own] diction is for the ages.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Absolutely nothing is for the ages.

QUESTION: But you are for at least an age or two; Strauss is on the fast track to obsolescence.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am for at least an age or two.  Maybe.  Sure.

QUESTION: And [everybody] else is on the fast track to obsolescence?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, you know, prospective obsolescence is also kind of nice.  There’s nothing more horrible than sticking around forever.  I certainly don’t care at all to have everything having to do with me survive; I find the prospect of that completely uninteresting; it’s just that [I think] my stuff is more likely to [last longer].

QUESTION: So Peter Stein’s theater reminds you of a church?

THOMAS BERNHARD: In my view, it isn’t theater at all, the stuff that Stein does—velvet, silk, purple [vestments]: it’s all so much churchy paraphernalia.  It’s all so…what’s the word?

QUESTION: Sacramental?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Sacramental.  It really has absolutely nothing to do with the theater.

QUESTION: What about when your [play]  The Ignoramus and the Madman was about to be premiered in Salzburg and even the emergency lights were supposed to be turned off during the performance because they supposedly threatened to disrupt the [intended] effect—was that also [a bit of] church[ery]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I didn’t witness any part of that imbroglio because I wasn’t present at the time.

QUESTION: But wasn’t it precipitated by things you had asked for?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, it was something that somehow arose among the people who were putting on [the play].  I had no say [in the matter], but logically I was on the side of the people who in the final analysis had been imposed upon there.

QUESTION: Do you enjoy going to the theater?  And what theaters do you go to?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I go to the theater once a year, and that’s [to see one of] my own play[s].  And naturally [the play in question] no longer belongs to me, because the actors and the director have made it their own, in the final analysis.  Of course it has the title I gave it; the characters have the names I gave them, but all the same, for what it’s worth, whatever they say is basically completely different from what I would have had them say, or thought they were saying.

QUESTION: So it’s [basically] been made worse…

THOMAS BERNHARD:…I wouldn’t say that; in certain circumstances it can [actually] be much better, but it’s [still] different.  It’s different and it’s also always a huge disappointment and a huge falsification, which is impossible in the case of my prose texts, because there’s nothing that needs to be changed in them.  Actually even with them [everything] is falsified from beginning to end.  [What] I mean [is that] the title alone [and] by chance remains the same.

QUESTION: What would you say to a theater that you wrote [all] the plays for, [a theater] where you produced [and directed] them yourself, and where you were your own audience?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’d find it infinitely tedious, and it would literally be enough to make me puke.

QUESTION: And yet it would be your ideal; you wouldn’t be disappointed.

THOMAS BERNHARD: From the very start I’d be disappointed in myself.

QUESTION: Can you ever [actually] be disappointed in yourself?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’m immeasurably disappointed every [single] day.  At [every] instant, at [every] moment[,] constantly.

QUESTION: What does Thomas Bernhard think of his public, of his readers?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t know them at all, and I don’t want to at all either.

QUESTION: Are there no exceptions?

THOMAS BERNHARD: If there are any they’re like what’s her name, Ria Endres, who’s written about me; well OK, there was actually a point to that; she was working on her doctor[al dissertation]; she could just as easily have written it about somebody else, but I happened to be around.

QUESTION: Ria Endres has portrayed you as a male chauvinist, as a misogynist.  And as a matter of fact your women are stupid, submissive victims of tyrannical men.

THOMAS BERNHARD: And in the real world there are also women who are happy with just being allowed to mop up the vomit of social underdogs.  I’m not responsible for Ria Endres’s problems.  Probably it would have done her some good if on account of me she’d go[ne] to Mexico and sat naked on a mountain.  But it’s nice that she managed to get a doctorate out of me.     

QUESTION: Even if you’re not improving the world you’re still helping [people] out, [helping,] for example, Ms. Endres to get her PhD.

THOMAS BERNHARD: One helps a lot of people get their jobs done and, to use that wonderful expression, earn their daily bread: stagehands, printers, workers at paper factories.  Not everything one does disappears into thin air.

QUESTION: So [by] now we’ve ascertained that you write because you have to write, but you don’t really write for anybody [in particular].

THOMAS BERNHARD: Have to, ought to—one doesn’t have to do anything whatsoever; I have to eat, to drink, and, sure, one simply has to keep polishing off all that food and drink; one has to do that, but there’s nothing else one has to do; probably there’s nothing at all one has to do, but it’s a predilection, a passion, I’d call it; it’s [something] one simply can’t stop doing.

QUESTION: You’ve said you live under pressure as long as you’re writing, until you’re finished.  And when you’re finished you live under pressure because you’re not living under pressure.

THOMAS BERNHARD: As a matter of course a writer lives under pressure [Druck], which is of course naturally bound up with printing [Drucken] and printers [Druckern]—but what I said just now was really just another bit of coquetry.

QUESTION: Do you manage to live off of your writing, to live well [off of it]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Oh, I live the way I like to live.

QUESTION: And were you able to calculate how you’d manage that when you started writing?  

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I didn’t calculate anything.  I was very calculating, but I didn’t calculate anything.

QUESTION: Does success gratify your vanity or doesn’t it?  Is success an integral part of the life of a writer; is it something he needs?

THOMAS BERNHARD: When a person is successful, you shouldn’t ask him what success is.  And the same goes for someone who’s unsuccessful: you shouldn’t ask him that question.

QUESTION: Can one [get away with] asking you if success is something you enjoy?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I enjoy it immensely.  I’m horrified by failure, even though failure is more useful than success.

QUESTION: So you enjoy success, but you don’t want to receive any prizes.  Is that logical?

THOMAS BERNHARD: In my view prizes have nothing to do with success; I don’t see any [evidence of] success in the fact that some [group of] people somewhere [have] worked up some rationale for getting up on a soapbox about something or other while handing out a prize; where’s the success in that? 

QUESTION: How then do you measure success?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Success is when I send a publisher a manuscript and he doesn’t ask me a bunch of questions about it; he typesets it; he prints it; for me that really is the full measure of success.

QUESTION: So just getting published is really enough for you; it makes no difference to you whether 200 or 200,000 copies are issued?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s enough for me if the book is printed as accurately as possible and with the fewest possible number of typographical errors, and without any silly graphical decorations.  And if I can continue living.  All the rest of it I can do without.  I always find what comes afterwards more horrible [than pleasant].

--Mr. Bernhard, we thank you for this conversation.


[1] Editors’ noteFirst published in Der Spiegel, Hamburg, June 23, 1980.
The interview was conducted by the Der Spiegel editors Erich Böhme and Hellmuth Karasek.  A box in the text of the interview contains the following note from the editors: “Thomas Bernhard lives two hours by car from Vienna and Munich, in an isolated farmhouse in the upper-Austrian village of Ohlsdorf; moreover, the great lone wolf of contemporary literature maintains no telephone connection to the outside world.  At the theater in Bochum the Bernhard veteran Claus Peymann is currently rehearsing a new Bernhard play starring Edith Heerdegen and Bernhard Minetti and bearing the sarcastic title The World-Improver; the premiere is scheduled for September.  [The premiere took place on September 6, 1980.]  In Bochum preparations are also already underway for the performance of his next play, On the Far Side of All Mountains Is Peace [The premiere of this play took place on June 25, 1982.]  In the past year Bernhard, whose favorite themes include the obsessions of the artistic vocation, as well as illness, the experience of pain, and the horrors of decay, has left the German Academy for Language and Literature amid much spewing of bile and venom and declared the Viennese theaters incompetent to stage performances of Bernhard plays.”
The “Play about Filbinger” referred to in the interview is Eve of Retirement; the minidrama published in Die Zeit on December 29, 1979 is The German Lunch Table; Ria Endres’s dissertation appeared in print under the title “At the End of the Line.  [As] Allegorized in the Delusional Darkness of Thomas Bernhard’s Portraits of Men.”

[2] This sketch is presumably “Ein eigenwilliger Autor” on p. 119 of Der Stimmenimitator (a.k.a. “A Self-Willed Author” on p. 70 of Northcott’s translation).

Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011).