Monday, September 02, 2013

A Translation of "Ein Wort an junge Schriftsteller" by Thomas Bernhard

A Word to Young Writers

What you young writers need is nothing but life itself, nothing but earthly beauty and squalor; in other words the tenant-field of my father and the incredible stamina of my mother, the struggle of your soul, into which you must be driven by your own hunger and your own squalor, the thirst for glory, which tormented Verlaine and Rimbaud at the “Elysian Fields.”  What you must have is not health insurance policies and stipends, prizes and grants; it is the homelessness of your soul and the homelessness of your flesh, the daily inconsolability, the daily forlornness, the daily frost, the daily reverses, a single crust of daily bread that once upon a time brought forth such majestic and pathetic creatures as Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, and Whitman, cities, landscapes, in other words memoryscapes erected as fortifications against the dust, the tidings of a tortured irremediable mode of existence that eats away at itself from one hour to the next for the benefit of the creation of new, powerful poems.  What you need is every place where a man drops dead as soon as he stands up, where rocks are bathed by rain and where the sun swells to agonizingly huge dimensions.
But where are you, who so complacently allow yourselves to be mollycoddled as our nation’s laureates, who walk across the throbbing asphalt in the characters of your future collected works?  Where are you?  What drives you forward along with your age, which is here only once for you, only once for all of us, and that is melting in your mouth before you have even tasted it?
I picture you not as denizens of the violent, strife-ridden life, but rather as clean, embittered official wardens of index card files, as henchmen, well-rewarded specialists at the nature conservation authority or at some rural or municipal cultural bureau.  You cower in the coffeehouse, tearlessly and humorlessly, loathing yourself and your surroundings, miles away from life, from the forests, from the mountains, from your community, miles away from all poetry…You have prostituted your character and an overpowering fear of necessity, fear of your own thoughts, fear of your wickedness, fear of fields and the floors of barns, of clamping irons and shovels, fear of the truth, of your own inferiority, of your own greatness.  You capitulate unconditionally to small-mindedness, to the title “Doctor,” to the Party, to the municipal authorities today, to the arts section of your backwoods local news rag tomorrow; your toadying is indescribably abject; you bow and scrape to every good-for-nothing who happens to be “influential.”   And you have so handily contrived things that this age of lyrical corporations and prose-trusts is also the age of insurance companies and bottom line-oriented production.  But what kind of work can one expect from bottom-line oriented poets?  From you bottom line-oriented lyricists, who have started up a joint stock company with the newspapers P. and L., and who have worked out with our manufacturing concerns an agreement guaranteeing you a monopoly of all the prizes awarded by our academies?
The books you write are insufferably tedious, they are made of pure bumfodder, your diction is phoniness exemplified (you have long since lost the ability to speak your native dialect), you spurn the diction of Hölderlin, of Whitman, of Brecht; your books are fit only to garnish All Saints’ Day wreaths, and your verses reek of the cheap wood schoolroom writing desks are made of.  It is as if you had never experienced a single real event, as if your entire life had been built out of some books bequeathed to you by an elderly cousin, as if you’d been gorging yourselves at breakfast, lunch, and dinner on nothing but that lifelong consumptive Rilke and his pallid kinsmen, as if your grandfathers had not been brewers, meat-smokers, grain-merchants, soldiers, market-drovers, gypsies—and true poets.
Your prose has neither spring nor summer, neither autumn nor winter, it is neither black nor red [2]; it dribbles into one’s stomach like unsalted gruel.  But because you do not live like brewers, meat-smokers, market-drovers, and gypsies, because you are perpetually stricken with dread of father time’s walking-stick and of your own despair, you have nothing left to say.
The age in which you prided yourselves on your own hunger, the age in which young writers took stands against presidents of whole countries, the age in which you fomented revolutions, is long past!  Long past is the age when Hamsun roamed the streets of New York as a vagrant, when Sillenpää could not collect his Nobel Prize because he, who lived in a real sense, who had indeed seven children, nevertheless had not a single penny for train-fare in his suitcase.  And long past is the age when you sang out your lute-accompanied verses from on high.  Out of a nation of poets there has been forged a nation of the well-insured, a nation of civil servants and party-members, a country of weaklings, a passionless landscape of shareholders.  Out of a nation of visionaries there has been forged a nation of procurers!
Needless to say, nobody is any longer perishing in some remote corner of the globe!  Nobody any longer goes to rack and ruin for the greater glory of poetry.  But nobody is any longer in touch with the grass and the rivers either!  And if you keep regularly and phlegmatically paying your insurance premiums right on through to the age of sixty, and bowing and scraping to the buffoons and housewives of the lyrical and philosophical broadsheets, you will never become a Lorca or a Gottfried Benn or a Charles Péguy, let alone a Whitman.  The grant schillings you live in expectation of spell your inevitable annihilation. 

[1] Editors’ note.  First appeared in Berichte und Informationen, published by the Austrian Research Institute for Economics and Politics in 1957. 
The publishers prefaced the text with the following remarks:
“Here a young writer addresses other young writers.  He speaks the language of youth with all its incantatory rhetoric.  But can an ardent spirit of the younger generation at all help feeling provoked by zealous favor-seeking and pressure-driven bottom-line oriented production in lieu of unbridled gusto in living?  We ourselves would once have been grateful for an opportunity to express such views.”

[2] i.e., neither right-wing nor left-wing (DR).


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

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).

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