Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Translation of "Das Ganze ist im Grunde ein Spaß" (Thomas Bernhard interviewed by Brigitte Hofer on April 12, 1978)

The Whole Thing Is Basically a Joke [1]

THOMAS BERNHARD: [Well, you see], Breath can’t be read from; a person can’t read aloud about his own illness; it just doesn’t work.  [You’re thinking of] The Cheap-Eaters, which is a manuscript that I cobbled together recently, [and] from which I’m going to read an excerpt.  It’s an argument between the Vienna Public Kitchen people, the God’s Eye people, and the Zoegernitz people; it takes place in the 19th District, and they’re [all], you know, suspicious of each other, right?  Each [group] thinks it’s the best one.  The V. P. K. people triumph [in the end], I think.

BRIGITTE HOFER: An essay that is scheduled to appear shortly?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It might come out in the autumn; I don’t know yet.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Will you read something from Immanuel Kant?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No [I can’t do that one] either; I’ve never yet read [from] that play; you’d have to break it [all] down, literally make yourself into [this or that] comic character at [a specific] moment…it doesn’t work; I mean it would be too grotesque.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Of course that [play] is about to have its premiere—in Germany.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’ll be on Saturday, in Stuttgart.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And why in Stuttgart and not in Vienna?

THOMAS BERNHARD: [Well, you see], Claus Peymann is there, [and] I like working with him best; he understands me, so we don’t need to do a lot of talking, so [everything] functions [well].

BRIGITTE HOFER: Has any Viennese theater yet shown any interest in putting on this play?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, none at all.  No, I’m not trying anything on my end either; I haven’t done anything at all either, and now we’ll just have to see what things are like there.  You never know that.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So in other words, if a Viennese theater had wanted to stage it, you would have sent them the manuscript.  But [so far] no Viennese theater has gotten in touch with you.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I keep an eye on who the actors are in which places; in my plays it’s obviously very important for first-class actors to be involved, and in Vienna there are of course some superlative actors, but they end up regressing into lousy ones because behind the scenes you’ve got these lousy general managers [of the theaters] standing [around]; so [even] the best actors are of no use when behind the scenes there’s no [supporting] wall, and so everything always crumbles and collapses.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What about the director?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, I haven’t even heard of any director[s]; certainly not [of] any at all here. 

BRIGITTE HOFER: Are you going to continue to work on your [auto]biography, after The Cause, [The] Cellar, and Breath, in which you have dealt with your youth in Salzburg, in grammar school, in boarding school, and your commercial apprenticeship, as well as even your time in hospital?

THOMAS BERNHARD: If I survive I’ll certainly do that before other people do it and let their own flowers spring up, these flowers that won’t gibe with anything that really happened.  And I intend to do it all myself, before other people have [even] done the sketches for their painting.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Of course you could also do it in a completely different form.

THOMAS BERNHARD: In my own form, full stop.  I mean, it keeps going; I want to keep the whole thing going, until it just ends when I’m 23, before I’m [completely] grown up.  Of course I’m no memoirist; I don’t want to do anything like that at all; it’s really just [my] childhood.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In other words, now you ought to work on your involvement with music.

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, what should come next is what I’d almost call a burlesque about the doctors and the sanatorium and all that.  Then comes my leap back into music, in other words, the study of music, [of] dramatic theory actually, [of] acting, pretty much everything I did until I got my diploma.  But with my diploma in hand—I of course put all that behind me back then at the Mozarteum—I walked out the door and swore to myself that I’d never have anything more to do with it.  At that point it was all behind me.  [It wasn’t just] my studies [that] were behind me, it was the whole thing.  Maybe that’ll take up five books or six, seven, I don’t know.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What does this process of summing up your life in a literary mode entail?  What kind of an effect does it have on your own life, and on literature?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I really don’t know whether it has anything to do with literature.  I’d say it’s just me reworking my memories, and that it happens pretty much automatically.  Even stylistically I don’t have any problems; I haven’t set myself any sort of agenda; I’ve never assigned it any sort of literary…value, I guess; rather, I just sit down and reminisce and write it down, without any problems of form.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Sure, but what’s the basis of the premise that it’s valid for you to share your personal experiences with a large number of people?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have to do it myself before other people do it.  I mean, when I open the newspapers, I’m confronted by the most impossible statements, and “my path [led me] hither and thither” and everything having to do with life and philosophy and the simple life and this and that—it’s all been wrong so far.  And then comes the moment when you’re [totally] horror-stricken by one of these statements, and then you sit down and try more or less to impart some authenticity to it.  Naturally you’re only approximately successful, as with everything; most of it you forget again afterwards.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In other words, the interpretation of the work can only arise from the work [itself]?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I think that the literary works that I have written are pretty much stuck in limbo until somebody eventually comes out and asks point-blank, “Where does all that come from?,” right?  So I have to give it some stability.  And now after 20 years I’ve got a feel for what I’m doing.  And probably it’s also good to operate in this way.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Yes, and that’s also how you [can] account for the pessimism in your works.  Mightn’t one interpret it as a means of enlightening, albeit a very severe means?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am trying to enlighten and to clarify [things] via these [auto]biographical jottings.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In Breath, you do indeed write that while you no longer cling to the fragments of your childhood and youth, they [still] point towards the development of a broader existence.  Might one say that you have now found your rhythm of existence?  Do you yourself find this to be the case?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I believe that from the beginning I’ve had a certain rhythm, which intensifies, which logically progresses as I get older, and I’ve never interfered [with it].

BRIGITTE HOFER: Will you continue working on your autobiography, and will the next chapter then be dedicated to this involvement with music?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I’d like to do that; maybe a year from now.  For the moment I’m through with it; now I’m writing a prose piece, in other words a novel, a longish one, and a play.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What sort of novel is this you’re writing?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s called Unrest; it’s going to be another longish piece, which I’ve been working on for four or five years.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So is it also about your own life?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s a stylistic problem, and because it’s language and hence not life that’s in the foreground, it has nothing to do with me in and of myself…insofar as everything has nothing and [yet] actually everything to do with one[self], right?, which of course is something one can’t get away from.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And [what about] the play you’re writing?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s quite simply called The Milk Can.  It’s a play for Minetti and Therese Affolter, and we’d like to have it performed in Stuttgart before Peymann leaves town.  So probably by this winter.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And what’s the structure of this play; is it comparable to [that of] your earlier ones?

THOMAS BERNHARD: It[’ll] be written in my way, [won’t it?]

BRIGITTE HOFER: A comedy, a drama, a satire?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, it’s about an old, a very old, philosophical man, a character who has retired to the woods, who’s recapitulating [the events of] his life, and who is living off the milk that this young girl brings to him through the woods at six in the evening every day. [2] And the kind of tension that arises out of [this situation], in other words between an elderly person and a person who’s almost still a child, who always, whenever she goes to him, has got to walk through more or less [total] darkness, and this is what produces these elements of tension and this [force]field of tension that the play is based in and built on.  And a problem of form—I simply wanted to [write] something else for Minetti, and for this young girl.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Now [let’s turn] to the play Immanuel Kant, which is about to have its premiere in Stuttgart.  It tells of how during a sea voyage to America, Kant along with his entourage—his wife, has parrot, and his manservant—meets various people, including a millionairess, an admiral, an art collector, a cardinal, and a captain.  What’s distinctive about these people is their profound narrow-mindedness: they can converse only in formulaic, empty phrases, behind which lurks brutality.  This brutality comes to the fore especially when they’re talking about real-life problems—for instance, indigence and illness among the poor.  Is this roughly what you were trying to get across?

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it’s a society on the high seas, where the possibility of sinking is always present at every minute, so everything can always go under.  This society [exists] entirely on the surface and then [it] kills, throttles, this fusspot Kant, who is a madman, like all great philosophers, whether they themselves know it or not.  At the very end he enters an insane asylum, which is just the normal course for a thinking person, right?, to end up in an insane asylum.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Tellingly, he ends up in an insane asylum in America.   

THOMAS BERNHARD: He ends up in the world or in history, which of course is an insane asylum also.  And the position a philosopher occupies in history is actually the same as the position occupied by a cell in a madhouse, when one describes the world as a madhouse.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So the difference between the Old World and the New World isn’t particularly relevant in this case, in your opinion?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I don’t think it is, no.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So Immanuel Kant could be rewritten with a completely different cast of characters?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I could just as easily have [called it] Schopenhauer.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Or Fichte or Hegel or Schelling…

THOMAS BERNHARD: That might not [work] quite as well, because Kant is of course…he’s the one who really towers over all [the others]; that’s why I picked him.

BRIGITTE HOFER: But this play is after all a comedy.  How does it work on the level of entertainment?

THOMAS BERNHARD: The whole thing is basically a joke, [and] it will also come off like one, I hope.  Perhaps it’ll even be a farce, which I think would be nice.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Mightn’t one now echo Kant himself by saying “The comical is a failed attempt at the sublime?”  That would fit perfectly with this interpretation.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, it clearly [would be] a perfect [fit]; it could serve as the epigraph of the play.  Unfortunately that quote didn’t occur to me when I was writing it.

BRIGITTE HOFER: The theme of virtuosity keeps cropping up in your work; even Kant is a virtuoso.  Could you imagine this virtuosity occupying a different place, as a manifestation of decadence, or is taking up arms in any way against virtuosity even a possibility for you?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I would never want to do that, because for me virtuosity has always been the whole [point] of the joke [that is] literature and art.  For me how well something works has always been less important than how [well] it’s done.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Yes, but in your plays it really does come across more as a manifestation of decadence, which means you don’t see it that way at all.

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s the way it’s going to be; probably I’m also decadent, sure.  And that’s why it comes across that way, the way I am in the final analysis.

BRIGITTE HOFER: As you’re writing, do you have a dialogue partner with you, or do you concentrate on yourself?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, I picture actors, I picture figures, that I’m writing for.   And they’re assigned names and functions and meet one another and go their separate ways afterwards.  I of course have no interest in designing plays, not to mention characters [or plots], the sort of the thing the drama has always had and has always required and that people have [always] gone for.  I compose musical notation for actors.  And what I write, my words, are really just note-heads, and [the actors] then have to perform them, that’s when the music first comes through, so I don’t know what [they’ll] be like when they’re read [aloud], because even musical scores should be read [aloud]; [on their own] they don’t live as music, or really as plays either.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Do any points of identification exist for yourself; could one for example view Kant as some form of self-criticism?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I am of course also very much a figure who walks into a social situation, from time to time, who pulls those kinds of pranks, shoots his mouth off, talks about himself, naturally; what’s more, people want to persuade, they want lead [somebody] someplace, preferably into the abyss, like philosophers, or all people who philosophize, and even on a ship, right?, perhaps Austria is an ocean liner like that; it could very well be one.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Are you really saying that in all seriousness—that you want to lead people into the abyss?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That of course is a powerful [fantasy whose allure] people [feel] from childhood onwards, right?, [the fantasy] of allowing yourself to be actually coerced into walking to the abyss, or the desire push another person, or whole masses of people, into it.

BRIGITTE HOFER: In other words, you see yourself as the Pied Piper.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I can’t picture myself as anything of the kind [right] now; it’s all too fairytailish for my liking, I think.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Something written by you was supposed to appear in an anthology of [writings by] Austrian [authors].  Your contribution was rejected by the publisher [of the anthology], who happened to be your own publisher, Residenz.  You [then] published this article in a West German newspaper.  So your stance towards Austria is essentially one of permanent confrontation.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I can only describe the things that went on in connection with this piece.  The publisher said he was producing this anthology, and that I should write something about Austria.  And I said I’m not about to write anything about Austria, because of course [everybody] will have a pretty good idea of [the sort of thing] I’d write.  But when the publisher wouldn’t leave me alone, I said, fine, I’ll do it.  So I wrote it; the reader [from the publisher’s office] came [to me] and said, this is the best segment in the whole book, this is really something special, and [he] was enthusiastic and wonder[-struck].  Three weeks later the publisher comes [to me] and says he can’t do it.  He presented the segment to a lawyer, and the lawyer said, no, this is actionable, the national government will sue or some crazy parish priest will come along and sue and he’ll have trials [to deal with] again, right[?]  And I’m supposed to revise it a bit, and I said, I’m not doing any revising; [you] take it as it is or not at all, and then we went our separate ways.  If I’ve written what I’ve been commissioned to write, it really ought to be published.  So I sent it to Die Zeit, in an envelope, and that’s where it was published.

BRIGITTE HOFER: What are the essential points of your critique?  After all, a lot of people haven’t read this article in Die Zeit.

THOMAS BERNHARD: I think it can be summed up in the following couple of propositions: that it would be good if something in this country were radically changed, namely if [there were] some genuine political [changes] and consequently economic [changes], cultural [changes]; that whole lot has been fast asleep for [a while now], namely about eight, nine years…which is quite simply too long.  I think that every five, six years a proper political sea change should take place; the doors, the windows, should be thrown open again; new people should be [shown] in.  They’re all hunkered down [there], and they’re really bringing the lot [of us] ever closer to the abyss I spoke of earlier.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Doesn’t this very situation argue [eloquently] in favor of your critique—the [situation] that an article that attacks Austria so scathingly [has not been] publish[ed] in Austria?

THOMAS BERNHARD: In and of itself it’s more typical than any other example I know of in recent memory.

BRIGITTE HOFFER: [Let’s talk about] Breath just once more.  Just as in the Cause and in the Cellar, in Breath you describe scraps of your childhood and youth; these are meant to illustrate a logical development [leading] to your later existence.  In Breath, [you deal with] the time when you were bedridden in hospital, a period when you were very much on your own, but because of that also discovering in a special way a path to your later existence.

THOMAS BERNHARD: My problem was first of all [the one entailed] by writ[ing] it so soon, then [there was] the question [of] whether I [could] write it, and in the third place whether a person [should] publish something like that, [something] about himself, in such a way.  Then I pretty much stopped asking myself those questions and simply wrote it and published it and stopped thinking altogether about any of those questions.

BRIGITTE HOFFER: It really ended up being very much a concrete book about you, a book that formally speaking diverges somewhat from the others.

THOMAS BERNHARD: In my view it’s not really a literary work at all, because of course it’s not a made-up story; there aren’t even any stylistic issues [to deal with] in it, in my view.  It’s a book that simply emerged from my personality, from my memory, more or less spontaneously.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And [a book] that contains a genuine life-or-death decision on your part to live.  Mightn’t one put it that way?

THOMAS BERNHARD: That’s the logical consequence, why I’m alive today, right?, [it] really explains…explains everything.  Otherwise I obviously wouldn’t still be here.

BRIGITTE HOFER: But it also presents a very critical depiction of, for example, the situation in a hospital, which you at one point call a “death factory.”

THOMAS BERNHARD: I think that everybody who has gone through something similar experiences that, everybody who’s been in that kind of position in that kind of hospital; I mean, that’s going to happen over and over again in every similar case; there’s nothing particularly outrageous about it in and of itself.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Yes, you describe there the difference between the rooms where the patients who were already given up for dead were housed, and the rooms where things were much “friendlier,” as a [certain] chief physician at one point puts it.  [Actually] I don’t think he [uses the word] “friendly,” what does he [actually] say?

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, he says “friendly”; he wants to put me into a “friendlier” room because he no longer has any idea of what it is anymore and also no longer has any idea of how to juggle concepts.

BRIGITTE HOFER: So the terrible solitude of these people and the impossibility…

THOMAS BERNHARD: No, these are people who have already been shoved out of the world, [and] in whose company one subsequently just finds oneself.  [People] with little prospect of being shoved back in, right?, because that’s something nobody any longer has any desire whatsoever to see happen.

BRIGITTE HOFER: And there [there’s] also the virtual impossibility of communication between people, even [with] people whom one really loves or to whom one feels closest, hence [with] members of [one’s] own family.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, they’ve already said their goodbyes to you, right?, or you yourself in your own mind have said your goodbyes to them, and so there’s no longer any possibility of understanding whatsoever there, quite apart from the fact that you no longer [find] it physically possible either, right?  But naturally [there’s] probably a residue of willpower that[‘ll] bring you back to life, if you[’ll] only just take it by the hand and rally all your forces.

BRIGITTE HOFER: Your relation to the theater always comes through again, for example in the metaphor of the marionette show, when the people in their hospital beds are attached to the tubes that they take nourishment from with the last of their strength, or during that—as you call it—“perverse display of lubrication” of the last rites.

THOMAS BERNHARD: Well, in order to make these horrible things even slightly bearable I always, starting when I was a child, envisioned this detour through the theatrical, right?  [Envisioned] the horrible reality in the final analysis never as a tragedy, but rather as a comedy.  For me that was the only possibility—and it still is even today.

[1] Editors’ note:  First broadcast on ORF[, the Austrian state broadcasting network,]  on April 12, 1978.

First published in Von einer Katastrophe in die andere, edited by Sepp Dreissinger (Weitra, 1992), pp. 49-62.  The interviewer was Brigitte Hofer.  The printed version was prefaced by this note: “On April 12, 1978 Thomas Bernhard gave a reading at [a meeting of] the Austrian Society for Literature.  Late that morning Bernhard met Hofer for the interview at the Café Bräunerhof.  [Because] it was too loud in the café, the two of them continued the conversation in Ms. Hofer’s car[.  They] first discussed the program [of the meeting], in which a reading from Breath had been announced.  The following is a complete transcript of the recorded [interview]:  

The Bernhard book referred to at the beginning of the interview, The Cheap-Eaters, was published in May of 1980. 

[2] This is obviously an early version of Einfach kompliziert (Simply Complicated), which received its premiere on February 28, 1986, at the Schiller Theater in Berlin.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 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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