Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Translation of "Eine Zeugenassage," a 1963 Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

A Witness’s Statement
I went from a first-class compartment into a second-class compartment and then back into a first-class compartment; like my father, I was constantly changing places; I was irritable; I am ill, I sought out a quite ordinary peaceful place in which I would be able to jot down my notes, those records that I told you about earlier, those short snatches of reminiscence; soon it will be winter; then it will no longer be possible for me to jot down these notes; the arduousness of my work as a clinician makes it impossible for me to write down even a single sentence, and so I sought out an auspicious place; for my purposes I need a place that I can obfuscate, obnubilate, as I see fit…but people have an aversion to darkness; for some inexplicable reason they dread darkness; even quite ordinary travelers dread it…all the while I was busy studying the various characters, the individualistic types and the mass types; I fairly found myself duty-bound to construct, to reconstruct, them day after day for my purposes; I step into human beings, into their vulgar, unprepossessing processes of decomposition; as one steps into cities, I step into human beings; I do not shrink back from this abjection; a colossal misunderstanding of all the sciences in the aggregate enables me to enter into human beings…until I suddenly stand aghast in the fantastic geometry of disagreements, in the queasiness of two millennia, where concepts like nightmares wantonly play tricks on the mind, until finally, all at once, triumphing over each and every acrobatic feint, I descry in my ruined brain the untruthfulness of my own truth…all this is of course very perplexing, but you have of course ordered me to describe my encounter with the murderer, that encounter that I shall never forget, I never forget any encounter, not even the most insignificant one; that is indeed the most terrifying aspect of my make-up, the most lethal element of my nature, that is indeed the most monstrous facet of my essence!  I am doubtless a person possessed of a superlative refinement of all instinctual capabilities, barring pure scientific observation; I am doubtless a person endowed with great freedom, with the utmost degree of freedom, with the most profound, the most radical freedom imaginable; a person who time and again, day after day, is striding deep into the cursed physical aspects of thoughts, into the gargantuan amorphousness of emotions…at bottom my calculations are uniquely situated within the perimeter of both opinions and laws…wherever I go, I think only of the immense quantity of academies, convocations, associations, of those enormous heaps of perfidious lineage with their stinking applause; the truth is that I, taking the world into account, repose upon a misunderstanding, on the greatest of all the misunderstandings with which I have become acquainted, of all the misunderstandings perpetrated by me in the course of time, I can doubtless say that my glory is that nothing is…as everything reposes on a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding of the history compiled by millions of apparently, I say apparently cracked brains; for years I have been working on a text about misunderstandings, about the general misunderstandings of our age, about the misunderstandings of all ages, of all history, of all events, of all thoughts, of all phenomena, of the uphill and downhill development of the world; the world is a world that is constantly involved in the untruth of damnable, lethal procedures…at the age of thirty I suddenly, one afternoon, in my uncle’s house at the timberline of the Limestone Alps, began to study the maladies of my generation; I attempted to explain and exhaust them to my own satisfaction out of the graves, out of the graves of the war and out of the graves of the air, out of the graves of millions of thoughts; I knew how to pursue this flash of inspiration in unlimited security, and it preoccupied me for an entire decade, but the deeper I penetrated into this thought, I always remained merely in touch with it, merely in touch with this thought, with this world, with this air, with this generation…I was noting something very precise about the general human condition, about the imperfection of all things divine, when I was obliged to leave my compartment; a gentleman, a lady, presumably they had been traveling quite a bit longer than me, chased me out; I recall now precisely: a cursory inspection of their suitcases, of their clothing; the gentleman spoke in loud phrases a fairly clear but completely political stream of nonsense, the woman incessantly of a rampaging shark offshore...with the utmost intensity I studied the gentleman’s footwear, the lady’s jewelry; noisily, an insignificant child of his parentage, he slept; the lady asked several times: “Where are we?,” expressing the unreliability of woman, of her sex; an object of desire, in truth contactless, I was still thinking in the corridor: people don’t belong together, they belong only apart, just as everything belongs only apart; nature, the wedge between the sexes…the smell of people, of railway people, of traveling people…I am constantly colliding with a human being, it is of course precisely what you dread most that happens to you, precisely this appalling ugliness, this egregious treachery…I had an argument with the steward, he had begrimed my trousers, suddenly begrimed them; instead of begging my pardon he assailed me with terms of abuse; people hurl their terms of abuse in my face; to put it clearly and succinctly, I went into the dining car; I took a seat as far away as possible from the kitchen, at a window…that wasteland of a landscape, those monotonous colors, those ridiculous attempts of brainless economizing…I no longer remember what I ordered; butter, bread, water; at bottom I preoccupied myself with the problem of urgency, with the causes of existence, I tried to figure out how numerous the individual is in reality, outside of every truth; an attempt that was bound to miscarry, as all attempts are bound to miscarry; one problem pulls the next one up out of the water and throws it back in; all problems undergo an incessant experience of drowning, an experience of asphyxiation…I aimed at a million window-panes simultaneously…suddenly I was appalled by an incivility; I stood up and paid and walked through the car and looked for my compartment; witlessly I went in the wrong direction, I was heading, while thinking those thoughts, towards the end of the train, not towards the engine…the lady was constantly, maliciously opening the window, even though I was constantly shutting it…the man, the gentleman, also a symbol of loneliness, said: “The power-struggles!”…you may picture to yourself a middling civil servant who travels to the opening of every session of Parliament, an absolutely revolting, ridiculous, peremptorily pitiful apparition; I saw a rather large number of cows standing in the rain; one of those particulars that inspire sudden, brief bursts of confidence, all of a sudden I beheld the countryside; after the appalling wasteland and its ordered organization I beheld variety, disorganization; everything seemed imaginary; waterfalls and gorges, the evening; you know what that means: I all of a sudden beheld the evening…all those people exuded a pitiful loneliness, a mendacious, sluggardly parochialism; through a forest of malodorous clothes, of stupid faces, I flogged myself through the cars, through all those dilapidated railway cars; everywhere there was the stench of urine, the din of doors that no longer shut properly, of cracked windows; everywhere there were discarded scraps of paper, waves of remorseless sweat…it suddenly struck me that this could obviously only ever be described as felonious; I was suddenly struck by the phrase “establishment of the truth”; I experienced an appalling feeling of sickness on thinking of the phrase “true proposition,” of the word “elementary”…I thought to myself that man is certainly not knowingly a framework; that he himself is not anything; that he is not himself without himself, not himself with himself and in himself; indeed, that man certainly is not anything and is not nothing, certainly can never be nothing and yet is nothing, because he is not true; that he was not and cannot be anything, cannot be anything of his own initiative… I felt as though I had been delivered over to the torture of the researches, to all even merely imaginable books, to all imaginable explanations, influences, arithmetics, mathematical balancing acts …perhaps it is true that I walked all the way to the end of the train, that may very well be true, but I cannot remember; in one fully occupied compartment I saw a thin, gray, intelligent, moribund face, a face that had long since ceased to engender confidence; such natures die off even before they have become law…the intellect dislodges them, the intellect perforates them…I have become acquainted with a succession of such natures and lost them, lost out on something of which I know nothing; it may be a country, a mountain, it may be…in all these interconnections the concept of “creation” avows its own incompetence, with concepts everything perishes and yet, as I know for a fact, agreement subsists…the young man is astonished at what the old man actuates with the word “hypothesis”…synthesis, parenthesis…logic, the sister of the big sister of the laws of gravity, is a phenomenon like truth, like untruth, nothing but agitation…old age is always only a witness of quite grand execution ceremonies…everybody is executed, all these people are constantly living in the consciousness of being obliged to die away, to vanish; it is also the truth that once one has attained adulthood everything turns to rot; suddenly everything people inhale is rot, everything they exhale is rot; suddenly the more intelligent among them descry the all-destroying symptom of rot in everyone and everything…everyone speaks, talks, moans, wheezes, swears nothing but rot…I remember I was already at the station an hour before the departure of the train; after that third sleepless night I had ceased to be able to bear being in my room; I organized my papers; I packed up my books; I organized, organized and thereby procured myself the greatest disorganization imaginable; I did not eat breakfast; I did not eat anything at lunchtime either; I ran all over the city for such a long time, to the administrative bureaus, to the houseware stores, across the river and back, into the park and back out of it, into the lower streets, into the upper streets; I no longer knew where I was; this of course is also a consequence of my sleep-deprivation; I am mistaken about every name, every impression, every consideration…so then I had finally fled into the train station; at the train station, I thought, I shall manage to calm down…but in that silence that prevailed at the train station, in the train cars and on the platforms…not a single arriving train was in sight or earshot, nor a single departing one; I was clinically suffocating; I realized all of a sudden what a terrible mistake it was to believe that repose was what I was looking for; for somebody like me repose is of course the greatest tormentor, the most horrible punishment, the greatest feloness…how glad I was to hear the first passengers walking through the car, to hear running feet, to hear laughter, to hear weeping, how glad I was…then I suddenly loathed humanity once again, imprecated upon them and execrated them, I loathed humanity with my vital energies, with my heart’s entire capability of contempt, in all equitability…so for a half an hour I ran all over the platform in the hope of making myself bearable to myself, but it was no use; I could not run away from myself, I am always running away; that is of course the really horrible thing, that I am running away from myself and I cannot run away from myself…people term this condition despair…probably despair is unbearable when it reaches the point where one is trying to run away from oneself and cannot do so…probably it is also a matter of the prefiguration of all destruction…you must manage to see that the centuries are incessantly ambushing one another in every human being, but nobody can withstand this state of affairs, these constant eruptions, these monumental conceptual detonations, the galvanic churning of responsibility…suddenly I made the discovery that I had left my book somewhere, that book about The Unexplorable in Nature, that book with the astonishingly highly sophisticated chapter about the ineptitude of nature that had changed me from the ground up over the course of the year; in point of fact, I thought, at some point I left this book lying somewhere, in this state of affairs, on this journey, in this express train, which was running more than hour late and therefore had long since ceased to deserve to be designated an express train; do you understand; the people, the passengers should have been issued refunds at the destination station in a polite, amicable, self-evident manner; but can you really imagine that?—that anything in our country would ever happen in a polite, amicable, self-evident manner?; to put it shortly and sweetly, I was obliged to go back to the dining car once again; the whole time I was wondering how I ever could have come to leave behind the book, that dog-eared, muck-encrusted, completely broken-spined book, whose very touch would have induced the most violent nausea in most people’s, all people’s stomachs; as this book invariably made such an appallingly foul impression, I was hopeful that I would find it again, that I would get it back; I had not been mistaken; the book was still sitting in its place; even though the dining car was now fully occupied, nobody had sat down at the table on which my book was sitting, and, you see, I picked up the book, I took it into my custody, pressed it under my arm, and a couple of people immediately sat down at the table…but they are all of course sitting at a coffin, I thought; all the people here are sitting at a coffin and spooning it up, and the dining car itself is a coffin, and the people wear nothing but dead people’s clothes…in the stewards I incessantly beheld only pallbearers, only sweaty pallbearers…the idea of this coffin on wheels is almost driving me mad…so now I had my book back under my arm, and the people regarded me as mad, suddenly I thought: yes, I am living in a horrible, physiognomic era!...and ran away; I stumbled over a row of boxes and bottles and declined to get into an argument; I was asked to get into an argument; I was even taken to task; I said that in all dining cars in the world the boxes and bottles were stored in the aisles, in the aisles intended for the exclusive use of passengers, which was horrible, I recall a series of contretemps in dining cars, never mind in which trains, never mind in which country…to put it shortly and sweetly, I was suffocating within myself, yet again, for the hundred thousandth time I was suffocating within myself…now the train was suddenly headed towards its destination at a speed faster than the maximum allowable one; I now saw in a single glance how the localities were being flung out the window, how the trees were bursting asunder, along with the clattering of the maladroit cars, the tracks’ cries of woe…again I had walked in the wrong direction, downright remarkably stupid faces, foul-smelling crops of hair, an irreparable, instinctive, somnolent lovelessness…above all I was struck by the ghastly tastelessness of the men’s neckties…over time, I thought, everybody gets accustomed to this gruesome life that is going further and further out of its mind and getting further and further out of joint; they have long since drowned, suffocated in their own revolutionary youth…an immeasurably repellent contentment will soon take hold in individual characters and in the mass activities of human beings…youth ultimately disavows its finest, its supremely intimate, its supremely sensitive impulses, it ultimately disavows even its own existence… as an analphabetic retardation youth is ultimately ushered out of life by the grown-ups, out of life, which now consists entirely of literally compressed, toothless heads condemned to silence…life, say the old people, is no longer worth talking about, and wherever one looks and wherever one goes, one ubiquitously sees: life is no longer worth anything…I finally reached the actual end of the train; absorbed in these thoughts, quite simply abstracted into these thoughts, I all of a sudden reached the end of the train…as you know, that is a long train, the express train, indeed, listen, if I had not left my suitcase in the first-class compartment, along with my coat, my hat, in the compartment, I never would have gone back, but anyway, I actually saw the young man; I remember precisely; he squeezed past me; he was not wearing a coat, no, no coat, of course I didn’t see his shoes, in the narrow aisle I couldn’t see any shoes, I was struck by the shortness of the arms he had; I wanted only to get past quickly; his necktie was black; his shirt filthy; I can precisely remember, it was too tight for him, like the shirts of all these young people you encounter nowadays, his shirt was too tight, filthy and much too tight; he forced himself rather ruthlessly past me; all this lasted only a matter of seconds; naturally I was expecting no apology; indeed, he had shoved his arm into my back; he said something; I didn’t understand it; no, no apology, no coat, no hat on his head either, no hat; immediately thereafter the train pulled into the station; all of a sudden the car grew dark, and I realized that it was my car; indeed, I saw that I had encountered the man in front of my compartment; he had in truth given me the impression that he was an intellectual; in point of fact at that moment he rather struck me as an intrinsically despairing and self-despairing, anarchistic, filthy worldling, as one of those deplorable great human beings of our age.

Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 355-362. Originally published in Das Inselschiff. Neue Folge, H. 6 [The Insel Ship. New Series, No. 6], October 1963. 

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson