Monday, February 05, 2024

All's Well That Ends Well

In his 2021memoir of his half-brother, Peter Fabjan writes, “The director Jean-Luc Godard called Thomas Bernhard the greatest writer of our time.” As an admirer of the corpuses of both Bernhard and Godard, I was delighted by this sentence on reading it for the first time about a year ago, and as a student of both corpuses I was (for reasons that I shall presently divulge) not entirely surprised by it; but as a comparative ponderer of those corpuses, I could not but be more than slightly bemused by it; first because to the best of my recollection, no passage by Bernhard had ever struck me as even vaguely Godardian and no scene in a Godard film had ever struck me as even vaguely Bernhardian, and second, because another film director, one of Godard’s most illustrious contemporaries, had long since been semi-officially anointed as Bernhard’s cinematic analogue: in 1975, Werner Herzog had declared Bernhard his “spiritual brother,” and I was fairly certain that somewhere (although I have not yet managed to rediscover where) Bernhard had subsequently declared himself gratified by this act of self-affiliation. As it happens, in the intervening year I have come to descry certain subtle but significant affinities between Bernhard and Godard—to notice, for example, that throughout his films Godard is as emphatically non-naturalistic in his treatment of dialogue as Bernhard is throughout his plays; and that in certain Bernhard works such as “The Weatherproof Cape” and The Celebrities the displacement of the human subject by the inanimate commodity as the basic social unit is as obliquely pivotal as in the 1960s Godard films like Made in USA and A Married Woman that most explicitly address this theme.  For all that, the affinities between Bernhard and Herzog have never required such long incubation to come to light to anyone, and the justness of Herzog’s embracement of Bernhard is immediately evident from the most cursory reflection on his filmography: its almost exclusively rural or Central-European settings, its preoccupation with homicidal and suicidal loners like Büchner’s Woyzeck  and his near-namesake, the eponym of Stroszek, and with tyrannical monomaniacs like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo; its incessant evocation of the topoi of German Romanticism; and last but not least, its assignment of one of its most prominent roles, that of Harker in Nosferatu, to Bruno Ganz, one of Bernhard’s favorite actors and the star of the premiere of his second play, The Ignoramus and the Madman, are all flagrantly Bernhardian. But in assembling the catalogue in the immediately preceding sentence, it has occurred to me that Herzog’s affinities with Godard are themselves quite numerous and none too subtle, that at the very least Herzog was the most Godard-like of the directors of the New German Cinema in his solitary, maverick approach to filmmaking; that Godard was after all Swiss not French, and hence something of a Central European himself; that for all Godard’s primal association with Paris thanks to Breathless, many of his later films have a Swiss and hence something of a Central-European setting; and that certain of Godard’s central personages (notably those played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) are as death wish-haunted as Herzog’s; and this occurrence has in turn impelled me to find Godard’s filmography much more Bernhardian than I found it only yesterday. In any case, whether intentionally or not, Herzog himself has very recently encouraged the coalescence or confirmation of a Herzog-Bernhard-Godard constellation in the publication of his autobiography Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, which I first learned of from Stephen Mitchelmore’s excellent essay on it, and whose English translation, Every Man for Himself and God Against All (Englished, incidentally, by Michael Hofmann, the translator of Bernhard’s first novel, Frost), appeared only three months ago as of this writing (January 19, 2024). The title recycles in its entirety that of Herzog’s 1974 film about the early nineteenth-century real-life proto-Tarzan, Kaspar Hauser, but that title in turn is a modification of a late-medieval proverb, “Every man for himself and God for us all,” which The Dictionary of Clichés tells me existed in mutually near-verbatim versions in most of the major European languages including English, German, and French. In this original wording, the proverb effectively means, “Mind your own affairs, and God will take care of the human race as a whole.” It is not so much a prescription of selfishness as a reminder not to waste one’s time thinking about the big picture qua something beyond one’s control. Herzog’s variant (which Wikipedia tells me Herzog claims to have “been inspired [whatever that means] by a sentence” in a novel by a Brazilian writer called Mário de Andrade of whose writings I know nothing) puts a Satanic, or at the very least gnostic, spin, on the proverb: it effectively means, “Human beings are completely selfish, but their selfishness is ultimately perverse and futile because God has it in for them from the beginning”—perhaps with the implication that God has deliberately engineered humanity’s selfish streak for the sake of savoring its very perverseness and futility. In point of fact Herzog’s (or de Andrade’s) is not the first such spin on the proverb, because (per The Dictionary of Clichés) the common English extension of it, “Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost” dates from at least as far back as 1574, although here the quasi-blasphemous addition imparts a slightly different semantic effect to it, causing it to mean something like, “Anyone who doesn’t look out exclusively for himself deserves to lose.” Employed on its own, minus any extension, “Every man for himself” has tended to function as an order rather than as a proverb: it is a phrase uttered by, say, the captain of a sinking ship to signal to the crew that they are no longer under an obligation to try to save passengers or keep the vessel afloat. This unextended form of “every man for himself” is the standard English translation of the French expression Sauve qui peut and the German expression Rette sich wer kann. Unlike Jeder für sich, these expressions do not map grammatically or lexically onto their English counterpart at all, but they are very nearly verbatim renditions of each other: Sauve qui peut literally translates as Let him who can save, do so and Rette sich wer kann as Let him who can save himself, do so; in other words, by employing a reflexive verb the German makes explicit that it is oneself that is to be saved. In 1980, Godard made a film called Sauve qui peut (la vie). I have so far found no explanation for his appending of the parenthetical la vie, but a passage from the Wikipedia article on the film perhaps provides at least the ghost of clue thereto. The passage reads:

In his initial proposal for the film, a 20 minute video known as Scénario de Sauve Qui Peut (la vie) (included as a supplement on the Criterion Collection DVD), Godard suggested a guest appearance by Werner Herzog that is not in the finished film, including a still photo that is apparently of Herzog doing a backflip. Perhaps this is a joke, Herzog having made Every Man for Himself and God Against All six years earlier.

If, as this passage conjectures, Godard employed Herzog’s inclusion in his proposal-video as a jocular allusion to the movie about Kaspar Hauser, he could have done so only had he been aware of the semantic quasi-equivalence of Jeder für sich and Sauve qui peut and hence mindful of the presence of the reflexive particle “sich” in Jeder für sich, and further hence, mindful of the absence of a reflexive form from Sauve qui peut, and further still hence, mindful of a certain exploitable ambiguity in that expression. Sauve qui peut read or heard in isolation elicits the question, Save what (or rather a French question like Que doit-on sauve)? And so perhaps by adding (la vie) in parentheses he intended to remind his viewers that it is always a life that is expected to be saved when Sauve qui peut is uttered, that Sauve qui peut is only ever uttered in life-and-death situations. As to why he wrote la vie—the life—instead of writing sa vieone’s life—and thereby bringing the phrase more explicitly into line with Jeder für sich and Rette sich wer kann more explicit, the most obvious plausible answer is that he didn’t need to write sa, for by default la vie in such a context is understood to be the saver’s own life because that is how French works: in French, as in German, the definite article tends to be used instead of the possessive adjective even when referring to articles possessed by a specific person or thing. (In English, as a rule we make the possession explicit, but there are exceptions to this rule: while we say, I know this place like the back of my hand and give me your hand we also say She took me by the hand.) At the same time, as la vie can in almost any context be construed as “life in general” (for after all, C’est la vie means That’s life), perhaps Godard chose this form in order to leave open the possibility that life itself or everybody’s life was expected to be saved by the saver. After all, French has a reflexive verb, se sauver, its equivalent of retten sich, that he could have used had he wanted peremptorily to confine the saving to self-saving. Weighing, however lightly, against an inference of intentional equivocality is another sentence from the above-cited Wikipedia article (I know it’s terrible form, the very antithesis of comme il faut, to cite Wikipedia as an authority, but sometimes [and if one is honest, one must acknowledge that these some times are quite close to being most times] there is no available source that is closer to being authoritative): “Godard has stated that a better title in American English would be ‘Save Your Ass.’” After all, if there is in American English one metonym of egoism more vivid than one’s own life it is one’s own ass. In any case, the sentence’s apocryphalness impinges not a jot on its illustration in negative of another characteristic of both Sauve qui peut and Rette sich wer kann, a decidedly scabrous characteristic thereof for any would be Englisher thereof—their couching in the subjunctive mood. As my earlier super-literal renditions of them make plain, the subjunctive forms here are not of the kind with exact English equivalents like if I were you and be that as it may; they are, rather, of a kind that must merely be approximated via the super-stiff formula beginning with let. And because this let-led formula is grammatically speaking not in the subjunctive but the imperative mood—because, in other words, the person expected to do the letting is the “you” implicitly addressed by the expression, it is quite tempting simply to make the expression not only grammatically but notionally imperative, to pare “let him save” down to “save,” which is exactly what Godard did in devising his suggested improved title. Of course, this destiffening comes at a certain cost: by expecting the addressee not merely to let the saving take place but actually to do the saving, the save-beginning version of the translation makes the expression sound more personal; moreover, because relative pronouns can’t be used in conjunction with the imperative mood the “who” has to go, which is perhaps why Godard simply stopped short of Englishing the qui peut part entirely. Not that he would have had to look far to find a perfectly serviceable workaround: because Let him who can save himself, do so is notionally interchangeable with If he can save himself, let him do so, one can simply change the who-beginning clause into an if-beginning conditional clause, and so one ends up with, in a translation of the original French phrase, Save if you can; in a translation of Godard’s modification of that phrase, Save (your life [or ass]) if you can, and in a translation of the German version of the phrase, Save yourself if you can. Alternatively, if one doesn’t care a jot about even approximate lexical or grammatical mapping of the phrase, one can simply translate it as “Every Man for Himself,” and that is exactly what the American distributors of Sauve qui peut (la vie) did in supplying the film with an English title. “Fast forward,” as they say, to ca. 2014, when I was preparing the first draft of my translation of Thomas Bernhard’s play Am Ziel or, in English, The Goal Attained (itself only an approximate mapping of the original, but that approximation is, as they say, “the subject of a separate essay” [or, rather, sentence or two in a separate setting]), a play in which Rette sich wer kann repeatedly figures as the title of a play written by a playwright who is a character in the play. As neither lexical nor grammatical mapping initially looked as if it were going to be a priority, I initially opted for Every Man for Himself. After all, Rette sich wer kann was and is as common an expression in German as Every Man for Himself is in English, and I ideally wished to preserve the ring of familiarity. What was and is more, the character of the Mother praises Rette sich wer kann as a “title reminiscent of Shakespeare,” by which, as she also mentions that her deceased husband’s pet phrase was All’s Well That Ends Well, the namesake of a Shakespeare play, I inferred that she meant that Rette sich wer kann reminded her of Shakespeare play titles like All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing—titles identical to established English expressions. So this was yet another good reason for preferring Every Man for Himself to Save Yourself if You Can. But at a certain point it became clear to me that I was not going to be able to hold onto Every Man for Himself without doing violence to the dialogue. This is a moment when shortly after praising Rette sich wer kann for its Shakespearean overtones she praises it for another reason [for readability’s sake I am simply going to quote from my finished translation; perhaps not quite needless to say, every occurrence of “save” in the following passage corresponds to Rette or some other inflection of the verb Retten in the original]: “Magnificent isn’t it / it’s quite in my vein of thought / Save Yourself If You Can / and nobody can save himself / nobody has ever saved himself / not a single person out of all those millions and billions / not a single one / and so you call your play Save Yourself If You Can / You’re a bold individual a brazen one.” Here the Mother tenders a deconstructive interpretation of Rette sich wer kann—both as a self-contained expression and vis-à-vis its significance in the play-within-a-play—that is radically incompatible with an Englishing of it as “every man for himself.” First, merely in taking a close reader’s approach to the expression—in pondering the significance of its individual lexemes in relation to each other—she imposes a close mapping of the lexemes on the translator. Any attempt at a transposition of her approach to “every man for himself” would perforce result in her debunking that expression along entirely different lines than those of the original’s of Rette sich wer kann; it would result in something like the following: “…nobody can ever be for himself / nobody has ever been for himself”; it would make her seem to be saying, “Everybody is at bottom an altruist, however strongly he may fancy himself an egoist,” or, less plausibly, “Everybody is his own worst enemy.” (I suppose the second of these possibilities is at least compatible with the playwright’s being “bold” and “brazen”; the first would make him seem to be a Pollyanna’s Pollyanna.) Second, in taking as her point of departure a part of the expression, “wer kann,” that is not even implied in “every man for himself,” she imposes a burden on it that “every man for himself” cannot even be asked to bear. “Every man for himself” merely enjoins a stratagem of universal egoism; it is completely silent on the matter of the outcome of that stratagem, on its chances of improving the fortunes of the employer of it. The “wer kann” in Rette sich wer kann axiomatically posits a distinction between those for whom the effort to save themselves will be successful and those for whom that effort will fail and leaves open the possibility of a world in which everyone who tries to save himself fails to do so. And it is as just such a world that the Mother envisages the extant one: “nobody can save himself / nobody has ever saved himself / not a single person out of all those millions and billions / not a single one.” Her dismal conclusion is that not even the practical philosophy vectored exclusively toward the end of self-preservation, egoism, is capable of attaining that end (or, yes, goal!) because even the egoist is doomed to perish—or at any rate, to fail to save himself. This may seem to be a distinction without a difference, but Retten, like sauver and save, has a long soteriological history, a long association with Christian concept of the salvation of the soul: in German, Christ is known as der Retter just as he is known as the Sauveur in French and the Savior in English. Accordingly, although escape is an accepted rendition of rette sich and perhaps slightly preferable to “save yourself” in the context of secular emergencies like the foundering of ships, I never seriously entertained the idea of translating rette sich as “escape.” This is not to say that I believe Bernhard is using the Mother as a mouthpiece for the affirmation of Christian soteriology but merely that I think he wishes us to be mindful and scornful of modern secularists’ claims to have alighted on a universal raison d’être more compelling than the hope of eternal salvation. In other words, I think there is more than a whiff of Foucault’s “You may have killed God but don’t imagine you will make a man that will live longer than him” in the Mother’s words.

In short, for several ineluctable reasons, I had to opt for Save Yourself If You Can rather than Every Man for Himself, for having not yet read the Wikipedia article on Sauve qui peut la vie, I had not yet learned of Save Your Ass, and I was evidently insufficiently American to have thought it up on my own—not that I would have been likely to opt for it even if I had (although I own I do find it enormously entertaining to imagine the Mother saying, “Nobody can save his ass / nobody has ever saved his ass / not a single ass out of all those millions and billions of asses has been saved…You’re a bold-ass individual with an ass of brass.”)

But of course I mustn’t forget to make the blindingly obvious observation that in including the expression Rette sich wer kann in his play Bernhard established an allusive connection to Godard even more solid than Herzog’s in the title of his memoir. Whether it is a particularly significant connection is admittedly debatable. I can’t say that I find The Goal Attained more Godardian than most of Bernhard’s other works, let alone that it resembles Sauve qui peut (la vie) in any striking way (and the totality of intelligence its dialogue discloses about the near-eponymous play within the play is too scant to furnish significant parallels between that play and the film), but the fact that Bernhard wrote The Goal Attained in 1980, the year of Sauve qui peut (la vie)’s release, suggests at least that he had no desire to discourage comparisons between the play and the film. I am unaware of any documentary evidence that he ever saw it, but it seems unlikely that what with his being an avid newspaper-reader he would not have at least caught sight of an advertisement for it. And as for any potentially significant connections to Godard or Bernhard supplied by Herzog’s memoir: of Godard or anything made by him there is nary a trace therein, but this is hardly surprising, as Herzog has never taken much of an interest in the work of other filmmakers. The book certainly doesn’t much read like something penned by a “spiritual brother” of Bernhard, even the Bernhard of the four autobiographical volumes, although, as in Herzog’s films, the mere referencing of mid-to-late-twentieth-century Central-European locales cannot but prove slightly evocative of Bernhard (even if, what with these locales being more specifically Bavarian, it cannot but prove much less slightly evocative of Sebald).  To be sure, there are occasional sentences that sound Bernhardian, and even one paragraph that might have been “sourced” entirely from Bernhard works:

I’d rather die than go to an analyst, because it’s my view that something fundamentally wrong happens there if you harshly light every corner of a house, the house will be uninhabitable. It’s like that with your soul; if you light it up, shadows and darkness and all, people will become “uninhabitable.” I am convinced that it’s psychoanalysis—along with quite a few other mistakes—that has made the twentieth century so terrible. As far as I’m concerned, the twentieth century, in its entirety, was a mistake. 

But the Bernhard pastiche-like quality of this passage ultimately proves unsurprising, for only pages before the end of the book, Herzog intimates that his ancient assertion of spiritual kinship with Bernhard is traceable to the most substantial of material foundations—namely, an acquaintance with the lineation of his prose at its finest-grained resolution:

I’m a slow reader because I often depart from the text in front of me to picture scenes and situations and only then return to the words on the page. There are some books, like Thomas Bernhard’s Walking, that took me two weeks to get past the first paragraph. The opening lines of that book are so stupendous that I never got over my amazement.

Anyone who has felt compelled to devote so much time as a reader to those opening lines of Walking—of the work that Stephen Mitchelmore has rightly termed “the breakthrough work for Bernhard’s famous style,” the style characterized by an “undertow” of long, breathless sentences uninterrupted by paragraph breaks, cannot but have felt more than a superficial affinity with Bernhard’s entire cast of mind in the light of the mutual inextricability of his style and subject-matter. Tantalizingly enough, though, the habit or disposition that compelled Herzog to dwell at such length on Walking is intensely evocative of the work of another writer, a writer who, although he seems not have been often compared to Bernhard, seems often to be admired by readers (such as the present writer) who are also Bernhard fans; namely, Gerald Murnane, who, in pursuance of the observation that “the act of reading is much more complicated than some people seem to acknowledge,” has dedicated much of his own writing to recording and exploring “the multitude of…often distracting but sometimes enhancing…imagery [that] appears during the reading of a text.” (Both of the just-quoted passages occur in Murnane’s purported final work, Last Letter to a Reader .) But the immediately preceding sentence perforce marks the start of a new constellation, and one constellation is quite sufficient for an essay of the scope of the present one, that scope being a decidedly peculiar sort of telescope whereby the present writer has hoped  to focus long and intently enough on his sole constellation of choice to bring into view an as-yet-invisible star thereof that will somehow produce a significant connection between all the phenomena discussed above and the as-yet-apparently-merely coincidental near-conjunction of the publication of Every Man for Himself and God Against All with that of Save Yourself If You Can, a collection of the present writer’s translations of six of Bernhard’s plays, including The Goal Attained and The Ignoramus and the Madman—but having failed so far to realize his hope in the present essay, the present writer now willingly resigns possession of the telescope to his readers.