Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Translation of "Unsterblichkeit ist unmöglich" by Thomas Bernhard

Immortality Is Impossible [1]

A trait shared by all the members of my great family—a family whose roots may be doggedly traced into the darkness of history, this gene pool stocked with all the categories of human possibility and literally (nomen est omen) projected back uninterruptedly from every point of the compass on to the large, hundred square kilometer-sized tract of land south of the Wallersee, a family whose authorial scion I feel myself to be—is contempt.  Those of them who have property contemn those who have no need of property, the sedentary contemn the restless, the rich the poor, the poor the rich, the religious the godless, the country people the city people and the city people the country people and so on.  But as characterological subtypes certain of the country people contemn even certain of the other country people, and certain of the city people certain of the other city people; the farmers contemn the butchers, the butchers the farmers, the brewers the tanners, the tanners the brewers, the innkeepers the truck-drivers, the truck-drivers the innkeepers, the pig-farmers the pig-farmers, the parish priests the parish priests, the schoolteachers the philosophers, the philosophers the schoolteachers, the schoolteachers the schoolteachers, the philosophers the philosophers…each of them contemns each of the others.  In contempt (and most of all in self-contempt) they have cultivated their unmistakable style, their unmistakable regulations.  Their intellect is as of yet (this is how clever they are!) dreaded only by themselves.  What they lack is the stupidity that makes life bearable.  Until they either (as half of them do) voluntarily throw it away, kill it off, or, in virtue of their aptitude for taking disciplined delight in a wretched existence, rush headlong with passionate intelligence into a natural death, they lead what is when all is said and done a more or less glorious but unbearable life.  In conformity with the principle,
Death makes everything unbearable.
the only principle nobody can gainsay, they have annihilated themselves, continue to annihilate themselves.
My family always strikes me as a kind of infinitely capacious cupboard containing all even barely conceivable possibilities of development, each of which in its own way seems almost impossibly absurd by comparison with all the others.  Very early on this cupboard’s inexhaustibility, which stretches into every compass-point of human purposelessness, became for me a state of consciousness hoisting me out of the horizontal vacuity of the common run and into complete freedom.  I always had the option of making myself into anything, whence I eventually became what I am for the time being.  Even today I find it infallibly fascinating vis-à-vis my tribe, and secondarily, the system of nature, to reflect on the astonishing fact that I am as many characters as can be imagined, characters that I must bring to heel by means of ever-more refined varieties of continence (and incontinence).   I could have followed the path of the butcher or the path of the sawmill worker or the path of the parish priest or the path of the common criminal, could have emerged at the best (or last possible) moment out of indecisiveness, out of the fatness of childhood and youth into a normal profession or into a layman’s excuse for one (e.g., real estate speculator), but I became none of these things, unfortunately, rather I am everything all at once, and even the speculation that I am more or less everyone and everything is theoretical.  Thus I devote my time to trying to be everyone and everything and devote my thoughts, thoughts that are ever-more complicated because they are first and foremost productive of tidiness in every cranny of my inner self, to my experience of being a pathetic wretch.   From time to time the network of kinship that has engendered me acknowledges—without in truth (as its tenacity proves) being intrinsically scared to death by this acknowledgment—that it is a corps of Alpine-foothill walk-on artists, a corps that has become routinized and anaesthetized over the course of the centuries, a corps of more or less healthy or sickly physical or mental competencies occupying a center of theatrical activity that has completely ceased to exist.  But it is precisely this no longer-extant center of refractoriness, of stealth, of brutality and of the poetry of possession and dissipation (on a stage that is always the same and yet always changing) that is the cause of the illness that finds no solace in this cause, the illness in which vigilant perfidy and chill-ridden melancholy (in me, as in the others) shamelessly, endlessly alternate.
I walk to and fro, lately in my thoughts and not in reality, into an intellectual mélange of naïve despair and calculable curiosity, whence I emerged thirty-five years ago into the landscape of my tribe (and of its sub-tribes) and I talk myself into believing the whole time I was there I was aware of where the center of my cataclysm was supposed to be, as I seek what I do not find, what I cannot find (The “Nevermore!” of ridiculousness swells to maddening proportions!), my incognito, and I deform myself into my lost youth, my lost childhood for purely academic purposes—and I discover myself.  The fact that (and of the fact that it is a fact there can be no doubt) I am a victim of these objects that I subsequently recognize as my own progeny is quite clear to me.  Thou art the cause, O geographical compartment, thou perverse substructure of existence! I cry and am instantaneously left alone with the echo of my own voice.  Nature is serious and deadly.  The personal catastrophe of every individual may be reconstructed from the mystification of his later years, of his conditions in later life, which are medical conditions, thence passing across the fraudulent vertiginousness of self-accusation, through which is attained a degree of destruction that cannot but elicit not so much our compassion as our revulsion, thence effortlessly into the landscape of childhood and, bereft of especially intimate knowledge of the by-then depleted material, as a form thereof that is spectacular only when seen from without ourselves and merely tentative.  And so I practice etiology vis-à-vis my own person (in rivers and streams, hills and valleys), in doing which I brush against fatality, i.e., conjectures on the theme of the loss of meaning and purpose in general, but in particular on momentary flashes of enlightenment, under whose auspices I understand what I am (and at the same time what I am not), and thus equally momentarily fashion my mother- and fatherland into a precise certainty for myself: I step into houses and bedrooms, into sitting-rooms and into dungeons filled with the battle-wounded, I ruminate on pig roasts, in sacristies.  I search for the origin of my debacle.  I investigate, intervene.  But the homeland naturally manifests itself to him who wishes to convey it as an arrogance, an ignorance, that has grown nauseating.  Irritated by a substance that I do not comprehend, I swap seasons, people, and people’s methods, along with their theatrical backdrops, with stratospherically astonishing dexterity.  I befuddle myself in handiwork and in bodies of thought (which are derivative of handiwork) and in tradition and conscience.  I ruminate in [my] heritage.  I wander about and multiply and divide.  I draw from theirs my own conclusions, I infer from theirs my own potency, impotency, insanity.  Is it the nights slumbered away in the innocence of childhood or the nights saturated with precocious perfidy and megalomania and horror that preoccupy me?  Is it the natural or the supernatural moments of emotion that enchain me?  Does not my discomposure by this childhood not escort me aloft into an emotional eminence that has long since seemed lost (off-limits) to me?  Who was my mother?  Who was my father?  I ask these questions because I do not know the answer to any of them.  How often have I asked them!  I loved only my grandparents, my mother’s parents.  By them my childhood had been launched.  Into improbability, to be sure!  There at that spot (under that tree) and at that moment I discovered more than twenty-five years ago that thinking is the one great folly.  I always loved the hill lands directly behind which are the mountains.  Almost everything must still be explored, for example: a lake that you can jump into and drown in, a stream that you can jump into and drown in, a person who could kill you, a forest in which you inevitably get lost, and so on.  I have, probably I have still not been able to speak [of], discovered a philosopher who discovered me, who defines me: my grandfather.  We play a game that lasts twelve years, until his death, and in which I (because I was the grandson) never lost.  I am introduced to natural science, to the human sciences.  I learn to understand people.  All of a sudden I have a plan: I am going to live several lives at the same time.  Overnight the world is composed of philosophical elements.  There are laws.  Natural laws.  All of a sudden there is the illusion, concepts, nothing but concepts.  One fine day the word “tragedy” is so hollow that I, a six-year-old, suddenly cannot help laughing at it.  It hurts, it doesn’t hurt, in this game of bankruptcy I learn to tightrope-walk on the human level.  I have teachers who affix themselves to mental torpor.  “Who is the teacher?” I ask penetratingly.  I receive no instruction from a Montaigne, a Pascal, a Schopenhauer, names that I often hear.  I draw (accurately) a picture of an oil lamp and am publicly (in my elementary school) applauded.  I see: suspicion is warranted.  But my intelligence is a stumbling block for me, as I now realize.  I am good at geography and at history and love mathematics, which accounts for my predilection for music.  But when I wish to have “the symphonic” explained to me, it is execrated.  I have a friend who lives on the biggest farm I have ever seen and resolve to grow up on this farm (Hipping) because it is a farm in another place.
My grandparents (mother and father are unknown quantities for me) instruct me, my grandfather in philosophical subjects, my grandmother in all the rest, when I am not at the farm.  I grow up with horses, with cows and pigs and with spectral philosophy.  At night I have everything at my command.  I have concluded a friendship agreement with the farmhands (boys and girls), now my relationship with the “universal errors” (Grandfather), with the minds and superminds, is perfect.  I do not read, but I hear how it is.  Impartiality, like suspicion, is an instrument by means of which the cornucopia of “personal nature-capacities” allows itself to be engrossed in the most purposive way.  We, my grandfather, the philosopher, and I, we are in the forest, we are here and there, we bypass the greatest distances in the shortest time, we are masters of detachment, of the lack of detachment, we are, when he is not working, when I am not at the farm, together.  I attend the school of silence.  The school of irony.  The school of independence.  I am interrogated and I interrogate.  Our togetherness is a perpetual court of inquiry.  My childhood is, like his old age, tremendously effortful.  And yet, we tell each other, nothing is regrettable.  Death makes everything possible.  We live in restlessness.  We live in the world of doubt.  We enjoy contemning as we enjoy loving.   We observe the world as though it would be nothing without us.  We have two lives, two actual worlds for our excursions, we have two executive powers, probably: what sad word!  We live through two completely different, completely identical decades, we live through two wars, I live through my war, my grandfather lives through his war.  On my way to school I suddenly hear the middle-of-the-road woman of the house next door [saying]: “I’ll pack your grandfather off to Dachau yet” [cf. “Drei Tage”].  What is Dachau? I ask and I don’t understand the answer.  What is the “fatherland”?  Bombs fall on the town where I go to grammar school.  What is it for me?  What, if not an ordeal?  As I grow up I step out of the hell of boarding school [and] into the hell of the city and out of the hell of the city into the hell of boarding school.  I exist for myself, I continue to exist for myself.  Every night in the dormitory it is as if I am drowning in a turbid, noisome, feculent pool of human urine.  Salzburg: this mental torpor is criminal!  My grandfather’s philosophers, who have become my philosophers, no longer have their say.  The city is becoming an anxiety-ridden psychosis for me.  It is becoming more and more detestable as I grudgingly learn English, French, and then forget [them].  I am forced to play the violin.  Suddenly a squadron of American bombers annihilates all the prerequisites for my studies, for my residence in the detested city.  My hair is burnt away, my violin case is smashed.  I am perturbed, but I live.  At home I work in the fields and stables.  The war swells to an ever-louder, ever-more ruthless din.  But I am in the custody of Montaigne, Pascal, Goethe.  While the world is bleeding to death, my grandfather teaches me how to comprehend active preoccupations, to comprehend by means of active preoccupations.  Over everything hangs a pall of gloom that I do not see.  Political turmoil, what’s that?  Be afraid!  What you don’t sleep through is pain.  Don’t discriminate!  But to be ill of epilepsy indiscriminately is abhorrent in the extreme.  [Your] childhood is immured in the greatest political dilemma in history.  Everything that you hear, that you see, that you inhale, is lethal.  You now behold as corpses many people who used to be dear to you.  You hear of those who were shot dead, you see those who were shot dead, you see those who shot [them].  By reading aloud from Cervantes—no, not from the Brothers Grimm!—your grandfather tries to distract [you] from the prevailing universal death.  You hear that your father has been shot dead.  But of course you have never seen him.  Eventually, the war is over, you are fourteen, you meet your mother, a beautiful woman, as you now notice for the first time.  Today everybody I have mentioned is dead.  But most of the people I haven’t mentioned are also dead.  Practically everybody is dead.  Practically everything is dead.  The very landscape of my childhood is dead.

[1] Editors’ note: First published in Neues Forum, Vienna, Vol. 15, Nos. 169-170, January-February 1968, pp. 95-97.

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).


No comments: