The [documentary] portrait commemorating Thomas Bernhard's fiftieth birthday was originally assigned to a prominent filmmaker. During one of my Ohlsdorf visits, Bernhard told me that he had declined to have anything to do with this person and had proposed me [as an alternative]. He made clear to the producers, “If I’m going to do this, it’ll be with Ms. Fleischmann, whom I know, or with nobody.” He wanted the film to be shot in
Mallorca, where he was planning to spend the month of November. At the beginning of the shoot, Bernhard made it clear that he would not be sticking to any sort of theme: I need a pleasant, face-to-face setup, he said; I want to be able to whet my fancy, to let my thoughts revolve. From my cameraman Wolfgang Koch he requested unconventional images, preferably those of the sort that he would ordinarily discard, and to me he said, “It’ll be your job to make a film out of them afterwards.”
On the balcony of his/our hotel, the Pallas Atenea del Sol at Paseo Maritimo in
, Bernhard recites the introduction of the film: Palma
BERNHARD: Of course I’m in
At Port d’Andratx. Bernhard heads towards the mole. We accompany him.
FLEISCHMANN: You are constantly being described as an expatriate in your own country. Does the concept of one’s own country, one’s “homeland,” actually mean anything to you?
BERNHARD: The concept of a “homeland” is a very real one for everybody, I think. But it leaves unanswered the question where this homeland is.
FLEISCHMANN: Where is your homeland?
BERNHARD: My homeland is wherever I happen to be. And so I’m always in my home, and I always feel at home.
FLEISCHMANN: When you are in
, do you feel as though you are in exile—intellectual exile? Austria
BERNHARD: No, because when I’m there I’m also back home, because of course I’m in my house.
FLEISCHMANN: You have perceived what’s known as the intellectual climate in
to be suffocating. Is that perception really accurate? Austria
BERNHARD: I don’t think so, because if it were I would have suffocated a long time ago. And of course you can feel suffocated for only so long. You can put up with it only for a certain amount of time. And then you go away, for example to where we are now, and then you lose the feeling of being suffocated.
FLEISCHMANN: So then do you miss
BERNHARD: Never in the first few days. I’ve never missed it at all then. But occasionally after a spell you do actually get bored and then, you know, you take off again for wherever. Or you head back home, right? But of course the air at the seaside is marvelous. And once you’ve seen how beautiful it is there with your own eyes, you can’t help finding it easier to work. It’s always nice to look at ships, and the sea is priceless. Better than the mountains. The mountains tend to be stultifying. Both the water and the sea dilate the veins, and maybe also the arteries. I don’t know.
FLEISCHMANN: And the soul as well?
BERNHARD: The soul, yes, maybe. Of course, I’ve never seen it, but perhaps it puffs itself up like a pair of bellows. But in each case, there’s more [by the sea] than [in the mountains].
Bernhard interrupts the shoot; he doesn’t want us to film any further shots of him standing or walking. He can’t stand it, he says. The two of us agree that we will both be sitting during all our conversations that are filmed. He says he doesn’t want to be followed by an interviewer, microphone, and camera while traipsing though a landscape like in the sorts of documentaries about writers you see all the time. Only much later do I realize the actual reason: it’s that Bernhard doesn’t want us to notice how short of breath he is.
FLEISCHMANN: What is the significance of landscapes in your work?
BERNHARD: A minor significance, I’d say. I really only write about inner landscapes and most people don’t see them, because they see practically nothing within, because they think that because it’s inside, it’s dark, and so they don’t see anything. I don’t think I’ve ever yet, in any of my books, described a landscape. There's really nothing of the kind in any of them. I only ever write concepts. And so I’m always referring to “mountains” or “a city” or “streets.” But as to how they look: I've never produced a description of a landscape. That's never even interested me.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you [at least] occasionally observe nature?
BERNHARD: I am observing constantly, if I'm not asleep; and even when I am asleep I'm observing; because a human being really does observe more intently when he's asleep than when he's awake, in other words, in a dream, or in whatever gets called a dream. And there’s hardly a human being alive who ever stops observing even for a single instant.
FLEISCHMANN: So then do you sometimes remember your dreams as though they were real events?
BERNHARD: Yes, practically all the time, in fact. Because I know exactly what I’ve dreamt, and I even know how long the dreams lasted, and can accurately repeat what happened in them. And I’ve always read that dreams last only a few seconds or minutes. That is pure nonsense. Dreams are absolutely capable of taking up long periods of time. I think it’s even possible for people to dream for literally hours on end.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you ever incorporate these dreams into your fictions?
BERNHARD: First of all, I can scarcely stand the very sound of the word “fiction”; it’s a word I can hardly even bring myself to speak; and of course you incorporate everything into what you describe, and that probably includes dreams, right? But I’ve never done it consciously. It’s quite possible that from time to time portions of my dreams have surfaced in my writings. But not consciously.
FLEISCHMANN: Are these dreams ever nightmares?
BERNHARD: Yes, of course they are sometimes; if you’re afraid when you’re awake you’re also afraid in your dreams. But I’ve often had dreams that lasted a long time and had nothing to do with anything scary! These are actually really lovely dreams, and I can quite consciously keep them going; in other words, I can actually observe my own dreams, and the dream is at my mercy. In other words, I can decide whether or not the dream will continue. But I’ve often taken great pleasure in prolonging my so-called nightmares. When something is especially gruesome and abominable, I sometimes actually find it fascinating, and then I say to myself, “Aha! I think I’ll let this keep going, right up to the point where it simply can’t go any farther,” until it’s actually making me suffocate, as you said earlier. That never fails to be most interesting.
FLEISCHMANN: Since the days of Sigmund Freud and the advent of psychoanalysis the interpretation of dreams has played a big role in
[n life]. What is your attitude to all that? Austria
BERNHARD: I’ve never spent enough time reading Freud to say anything intelligent about him. Freud has had no effect whatsoever on dreams, or on the interpretation of dreams. Of course psychoanalysis is nothing new. Freud didn’t discover it; it had of course always been around before. It just wasn’t practiced on such a fashionably huge scale, and in such million-fold, money-grubbing forms, as it has been now for decades, and as it won’t be for much longer. Because even in
, as I know, it’s fallen so far out of fashion that they just lay people out on the celebrated couch and scoop their psychological guts out with a spoon. America
FLEISCHMANN: I take it then that psychoanalysis is not a means gaining knowledge for you?
BERNHARD: Well, no; for me it’s never been that kind of thing. I think of Freud simply as a good writer, and whenever I’ve read something of his, I’ve always gotten the feeling of having read the work of an extraordinary, magnificent writer. I’m no competent judge of his medical qualifications, and as for what’s known as psychoanalysis, I’ve personally always tended to think of it as nonsense or as a middle-aged man’s hobby-horse that turned into an old man’s hobby-horse. But Freud’s fame is well-deserved, because of course he was a genuinely great, extraordinary personality. There’s no denying that. One of the few great personalities who had a beard and was great despite his beardiness.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you have something against beards?
BERNHARD: No. But the majority of people call people who have a long beard or the longest possible beard great personalities and suppose that the longer one’s beard is, the greater the personality one is. Freud’s beard was relatively long, but too pointy; that was typical of him. Perhaps it was the typical Freudian trait, the pointy beard. It’s possible.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you feel that people are swindled by psychoanalysis?
BERNHARD: To be sure, people all around the world are swindled by everything. So it makes absolutely no difference whether they are swindled by psychoanalysis as part of the package. In the final analysis, it’s all a swindle. A gigantic one, to put it hyperbolically. But everybody, as long as they live, feels like they’re in clover in the middle of this swindle, right? That’s how you see yourself, right? Every single day you run foul of some sort of swindle. Whether it’s a landlord or in a coffeehouse or at the seaside or in the mountains. At bottom everything is a swindle and a self-swindle—but actually marvelous. Without the swindle everything would collapse and cease to exist. The world as a whole is really just one big swindle, right? And the kingdom of heaven is yet another one, and hell is yet another one. So, you see, there’s a swindle above and below, and a swindle where you live, namely the earth. And when you die, that’s also a swindle. But perhaps when you get to heaven it will turn out not to be a swindle, possibly. Won’t you be thrilled if it turns out that way!
FLEISCHMANN: Do you believe in heaven?
BERNHARD: I’ve always believed in heaven. Since I was a child. The older I get, the more strongly I believe in it, because heaven is what’s especially beautiful. Because there people always have on freshly washed clothes. There’s no dirt, right?—there’s no chemical industry, no sanitation, because from the start everything is clean and pure. And everything is light and floating. I’m already looking forward to it. You’re completely weightless, you soar along above everything. No philosophy can swindle you anymore, or outwit you. Heaven is the ideal. So, you see, I’m one of the few people who actually believe in heaven. I don’t believe in hell. It’s too dirty, too hot, too black, too ghastly, and heaven is none of those things. And of course everybody gets to be an angel in heaven. And [when we’re angels] I’ll fly towards you in a beautifully embroidered white gown. And when my gown tears, perhaps you’ll mend it, if you enjoy doing that sort of thing, with specially made thread, with heavenly thread. Don’t you believe [it’ll be like that]?
FLEISCHMANN: I don’t believe in heaven, or in heavenly thread for that matter.
BERNHARD: Well, then, you’ll surely believe in it someday. You’ll see when you’re lying on your deathbed how you suddenly believe in heaven. There have always been plenty of very famous people who didn’t believe in heaven and all that and who just before they donned the paper gown clasped their hands together and believed in heaven and all that. These examples have made a tremendous impression on me. Emil Jannings—who throughout his acting career was a perfect example of one of these people who turn their noses up at heaven—when he died at his villa, which I believe was on the Wolfgangsee, he beheld the splendor of everything that awaited him: purity, lightness, beauty, truth, and the dear Lord God. His face was completely radiant, transfigured. At no point during his career as an actor did he ever succeed at putting on a face like that. All of a sudden on his deathbed, he smiled indulgently, as if he himself had been the Good Lord.
FLEISCHMANN: So then you believe that people need something to believe in?
BERNHARD: Well, they don’t need it, but they certainly always have something of that kind, because whenever they suddenly no longer have something to believe in, they’re obviously dead, right? Everybody invariably still believes at the very least that he’ll get a retirement pension or the minimum welfare allowance, and that keeps him clinging to life, right? When he stops believing in the minimum welfare allowance, he falls to pieces. But he actually never stops believing in it.
FLEISCHMANN: What is it that keeps you clinging to life?
BERNHARD: Well, first and foremost, my belief in the minimum welfare allowance. Perhaps along with a couple of other things, but in the main, I think it’s that. The white gown of heaven and the minimum welfare allowance. There’s nothing finer. But principally the minimum welfare allowance, because I am after all still here. The celestial gown first appears on the scene afterwards, when the allowance is all used up and the surgeon has made an incision in the wrong place, or I’ve been carried off by a coughing fit. And then of course I slip straight-away into the white celestial gown.
FLEISCHMANN: Of course as a writer you have no allowance.
BERNHARD: Of course I[’ll] receive an agricultural allowance. I’ve been paying into it for the past twenty years. And of course nobody has to starve to death anymore. Those days are long over. Nobody’s stupid enough to fail to take advantage of these rackets.
FLEISCHMANN: I almost feel as though you’re saying you’re sorry that people can’t starve to death anymore.
BERNHARD: Well, it really is a shame, isn’t it? It seems to me that in earlier times it was always still possible to think about people who might be starving to death somewhere or other, and to get a guilty conscience as a result. And today you never—at least in central
Europe—see people who are starving up close, and so it’s scarcely possible anymore to have a guilty conscience. On the other hand you might also say that the world is chock-full of guilty consciences nowadays, because guilty consciences come into being spontaneously. So there’s really nothing left but the longing for heaven and for the brocade on the celestial 24-hour gown. In heaven you always wear the same gown, day and night. So you pretty much never need to change clothes anymore.
FLEISCHMANN: How do you know that?
BERNHARD: Because that’s how I picture heaven. For many years I’ve maintained a single, fixed idea of heaven. I somehow or other have a very clear idea of it. One that includes all its resident angels.
FLEISCHMANN: OK: before you carry me any farther off on this tangent, let’s just stop!
BERNHARD: OK: we’ve stopped!
FLEISCHMANN: I guess I’m a pretty good medium for you, right? I keep acting as though I pretty much know nothing about you or anything else, and ask you questions as if I were totally clueless.
BERNHARD: Yes, but that’s hardly a clueless way of going about it!
FLEISCHMANN: Anybody who has read your books really doesn’t need to ask you any further questions.
BERNHARD: But keep asking cluelessly away; there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.
At the Puerto de Pollensa by the sea, alongside the swimming-pool of the Hotel Illa d’Or, surrounded by sunbathers. Bernhard is so smitten by the atmosphere, the unpretentiousness and unobtrusiveness of the building and its layout, that he spontaneously resolves to stay here during his next Mallorcan sojourn. He allows himself to be shown some rooms and insists on leaving his name with the management.
BERNHARD: It’s always important to take vacations. “Because they’re relaxing,” as they say. Because you need to get back your power to concentrate. Because you need a change of scene and a change of faces. You get to a point where you can’t stand those same faces any longer, and you effect a change of scene and go on vacation. But when I go on vacation, I for the most part get the most work done. At home I naturally get less done, because I’m too distracted. During a so-called vacation I can finally sit down and actually do something.
FLEISCHMANN: How do you work?
BERNHARD: Very concentratedly. As much as possible early in the morning. From five to , then I go for a walk, fetch the newspaper, and drink a cup of coffee, take pleasure in doing absolutely nothing, in the splendor of the sun, the cloudlessness of daylight, the mountains; and other people are also suddenly splendid. At I have an ample lunch; I eat as much as possible, as heartily as possible; I really tuck in. And then from four onwards, I work again, usually even better than in the morning. And then, at around seven, seven-thirty, I’ve had enough; I take another walk, and then eventually it’s suppertime. But supper is really just a snack. A sip of wine, a glass of mineral water, a half a melon, a bit of cold ham, and that’s it. And then a bit of television. Even if it’s in Spanish. You watch the faces on the screen and try to imagine what’s going on. And if you don’t understand the language, it’s quite refreshing, because you always read more into the images than what they’re actually saying. Whereas back home you watch the images and you understand everything, and it’s pure bullshit. And here it’s probably also pure bullshit, but you don’t notice that because you can’t understand it. And then as far as work goes it’s of immeasurable importance, for me at least, of course everybody’s different, to be in a country where you don't understand the language, because you have the feeling that people are only saying pleasant things and only speaking on truly important philosophical subjects. Whereas if you understand the language they’re simply talking bullshit. And so in
bullshit becomes philosophical for me. Imperial or royal bullshit— Spain is, after all, a kingdom. Spain
FLEISCHMANN: Don’t you at least occasionally need to be around unpleasant things in order to write? Around things that annoy you?
BERNHARD: I don’t need to worry about that, because of course unpleasant things will follow you wherever you go, even to
. And at bottom I only write only on account of what’s unpleasant, on account of the presence of things that are exceedingly unpleasant. The sorts of things everybody deals with. Just getting up in the morning is unpleasant, right? And then when you think about everything that’s going on back home, about what has maybe gone on there, that’s all exceedingly unpleasant. And that is essential. At bottom I really only write from the bottom, because a lot of things are unpleasant. Because if everything were pleasant then I probably couldn't write at all. Nobody would write if that were the case. You really can't write from the point of view of someone in a pleasant situation. Besides, you’d have to be an idiot to write if everything were pleasant, because you pretty much have to give yourself up completely to whatever is pleasant, right? You really are obligated to take advantage of it. And if you're in a good mood and sit down at your desk, then you actually destroy that good mood. And why should I destroy a thing like that? I could even imagine myself living an entire lifetime being always in a good mood and not writing anything at all. But since, as [I] said, you enjoy good moods only by the hour, or for brief intervals, you always come back to writing. Spain
FLEISCHMANN: Have you ever occasionally been angry at your fellow men and women?
BERNHARD: Most of the time I’m angry at them and occasionally I’m not. You don't need to worry about your anger towards your fellow men and women, because most of the time you are indeed annoyed by them. When you're in a coffeehouse and it's quite pleasant, at the end you have to settle up, and basically you're already angry about that in a way—because—well, why, actually? And when you're crossing the street and a car comes along, you get angry. Why does this car of all things come along when I'm crossing the street? You really don't need to worry about anger at all. It’ll come! At the moment I'm pretty much not angry at all. I’m actually beginning to find it a bit spooky that there’s no anger on the horizon.
FLEISCHMANN: How are you feeling at the moment?
BERNHARD: Extremely content, I have to say. The water's splashing, the sun is shining; simple Spaniards and Englishmen who can't be understood [are talking]—an ideal constellation. But it won't last long. All of a sudden the whole thing is struck by a bolt of lightning that destroys it completely. But perhaps today it’ll last all the way through till night; anything’s possible. Occasionally everything’s nice for a couple of days at a stretch.
FLEISCHMANN: You are often accused of having a negative outlook on life; is that pretty much a fair appraisal? Are you a negative individual?
BERNHARD: No. I have a totally normal outlook on life, an outlook that’s probably exactly like that of all other normal people; and it isn't simply negative, but it's also not exactly positive, right? Because you really are confronted uninterruptedly by everything. This everything is what life is composed of. There is of course no such thing as a purely negative state of affairs; the whole idea of it is of course nonsensical. But there are people who want to see things that way, to be sure. People really find it quite handy to call such-and-such a person a fool, right?—such that all his life he's a fool, right? And he will always figure as a fool, until the day he dies. And a certain other person is a lyrical writer with his head in the clouds from his twentieth year onward, and likewise remains one until the day he dies. And that's the starting point for the critics and the [other] people you have to deal with and can pretty much never shake off. And some other guy writes some Punch and Judy plays, whether they're stupid or not is again of course another question, or no question at all, and he remains Punch for life. And I'm probably The Negative Writer for life, but I must say I feel quite comfortable in the role, because it doesn't irritate me in the slightest. Because people say I'm a negative writer and at the same time I'm a positive human being. And so nothing can hurt me. Do you disagree? Am I in a dangerous position? I don't know. I find it all quite pleasant. Especially when I'm far from home and surrounded by pleasant people and palm trees, and there’s a slight breeze blowing, and I’m drinking a good cup of coffee.
FLEISCHMANN: But you yourself were once a lyrical writer with his head in the clouds, to start out with.
BERNHARD: I think that all writers start out with their heads in the clouds, because simply rising to the occasion of pursuing something like this automatically involves ascending into the air, because what exactly is writing? Putting things down…and a bit of extra altitude certainly can’t hurt. And of course your head’s already up there anyway, right? I can easily imagine that you yourself have your head in the clouds for shorter or longer periods. Nobody’s immune to it, thank God.
FLEISCHMANN: But how is it that you have managed to avoid becoming one of the countless would-be successors of Kafka; that you’ve become instead Thomas Bernhard, with a voice that’s entirely his own?
—and then, because it was after all over eighty years old, it died. They really should have put it into a child’s coffin, a white child’s coffin, because at bottom it was a child; but because on the other hand it was over eighty, it ended up in a black coffin, because of course no others were available at the time. She was always telling me this story. So there are mothers—and I was quite fond of my grandmother—who give birth to old people. It sounds tragic, but it’s also quite touching and sweet. And one can talk about it so flippantly because the woman whom it affected, whom it never caused any pain, survived it all and is now lying in the cemetery and can no longer hear the grotesque [rubbish] her grandson is spouting, in Salzburg . Thank God she can’t hear any of it any longer, because she’d come running after me like a maniac, with good reason, and stab me to death with her kitchen-knife. Or perhaps not. Somehow, [because] she was so good-natured, I think she’d leave me in peace and say, “For the love of God, let’s leave him alone; let’s leave the poor fool in peace; let him say what he wants; why not? We too loved life, he also loves it; so let him be. And why did he go to Spain , after all, if not to be left alone and to live in peace and to know nothing of lethal kitchen-knives[?]” Spain
“marquis” is marquês. Here it’s marques, and in Portugal it’s marquis. The Marquis of Prose. “Whoever pokes himself jokes himself,” or “Whoever jokes himself loves himself.” But love is something completely different for everybody. Love is everything, right? Love can be everything, because everything that exists in the world can be loved by someone, and so love comprises everything. It’s a completely different story with the word truth; you can't say the same thing about it. You can’t write a description of love. You can only write the word love, but you can’t write a description of love. It really is a very simple statement. You simply cannot describe love. In cheap romantic films, love is never described, but merely kitschified. When you describe love, it’s a kitschification, because love is everything, practically, right? When I look at you, it’s love, right? When I look away from you, it’s love also. When I look at that tree, it’s love, right? Every form of love invariably verges on kitsch. It all depends on how far you carry your love and how wide you open your mouth. If you open your mouth a bit wider, it's already kitsch and no longer love, right?, and you close it again, it's quite lovely. Again, this is something different from love...It's nice, isn't it, the noise of the crowd? Of course I very much enjoy noise. That almost rhymes. The real reason I like noise so much is that it's so very quiet where I live. Back there, if I just turn over in bed, I always get the feeling that there are burglars in the room. And I really do give a start. When I turn over here, it doesn't bother anybody else or me either because there's so much noise here, day and night, that it never attracts any notice. But given how quiet things are where I live, you can easily see how I think there are burglars in the room whenever I turn over in bed. France
FLEISCHMANN: Burglars--once again something negative has come up.
BERNHARD: Everything is negative; there's no such thing as anything positive. Depending on the constellation of your life, you experience everything as either positive or negative. You experience vanilla ice cream as positive, and the next person finds it negative and abominable, right? And you see a human being and regard him as a wondrous figure and as the ideal of creation, and your neighbor laughs or is appalled at your bad taste and regards the whole thing in a negative light.
practically everybody talks about gassing people, without giving much thought to the matter. “There’s one Hitler let get away” and “those people deserve to be gassed.” And if somebody’s wearing platform shoes or walking a little funnily, as they imagine, he should have been gassed ages ago. Austria
Source: Thomas Bernhard--Eine Begegnung. Gespräche mit Krista Fleischmann (Vienna: Edition S, 1991).
FLEISCHMANN: But how is it that you have managed to avoid becoming one of the countless would-be successors of Kafka; that you’ve become instead Thomas Bernhard, with a voice that’s entirely his own?
BERNHARD: I’ve never had a mentor and never even wanted to have one. I’ve never wanted to be anybody but myself, and I’ve never written to the dictate of anything but my own thoughts, and so I’ve never been in any danger of being sucked in in that way by any mentor. Of course, comic material always has to do with something missing, with a deficiency, right, some sort of spiritual or physical defect. After all, nobody laughs at a clown who’s completely normal, right?; instead he has to walk with a limp or be one-eyed or fall over every third step, or (laughs) his ass [has to] explode and shoot out a candle, or whatever. People laugh at that sort of thing, always at deficiencies, and at horrible afflictions. What else has anyone ever laughed at, really? Or some ancient, on-stage grandmother repeats herself every third sentence and is constantly saying "My [Eineizwilling]" or something of that kind; then people laugh. But of course no one in the world has ever laughed at completely normal, so-called normal people. As for laughing on your own, you only do that when you pinch yourself or whatever? Then you laugh up a storm. When my grandmother would burn herself on one of her plates in the kitchen, I would laugh like crazy, right? And when a week passed without that happening, it was a week without laughter in our house. For some reason or other it was actually completely boring. And when it got too boring for me, I would go into the broom cupboard—there was a curtain there, where the brooms were standing—and right when I knew grandmother was about to pass by, I would let my hand fall out from behind [the curtain], and she—with a terrible scream, right?—would practically fall over dead of a stroke, because I frightened her, child though I was, because I was bored. But there are always afflictions and horrors. No schoolboy has ever laughed at his teacher for coming in straight through the [classroom] door every day; he only laughs at him when somebody pinches him, or has hidden his chalk; we’ve all laughed when that’s happened. Or say when a sailing ship is on the high seas you detach its rudder behind the captain’s back—that’s hysterically funny, until you sink. Then the funniness vanishes with the last water-gargling chuckle. But of course you had something important you wanted to say.
FLEISCHMANN: I didn’t have anything important to say; I merely wanted to ask if you ever write with the explicit intention of making people laugh? Perhaps occasionally?
BERNHARD: No, but that happens automatically. I don't need to trouble myself about that very much. I myself sometimes actually burst out laughing, right? I think to myself, “Wow, that’s actually really funny.” But occasionally certain people feel—when I burst out laughing, right?—as I’m writing, or even afterwards, as I’m revising, I do actually laugh out loud, and these people don’t find it any great laughing matter. I really don’t understand that, right? For example, if you read Frost, I’ve always produced plenty of comic material. It’s actually a side-splitting laugh every second. But I don’t know, do people just not have a sense of humor or what? I don’t know. It’s always made me laugh; it still makes me laugh today. If I’m bored or I’m going through some tragic episode, then I open one of my own books and I start laughing straightaway. Does that not make sense to you? That isn’t to say I haven’t also occasionally written serious sentences to make the comical sentences hold together. That’s the glue, seriousness is the glue of the comic project. Now of course you one might also argue that this is a philosophically comic project that I somehow or other concocted more than 20 years ago, when I started writing. Of course a dry, an exclusively serious philosophy isn’t funny, is actually just terribly boring. But I can laugh even at Schopenhauer. The glummer he is, the funnier he is. But people take it all so tragically seriously. But how seriously can you take a man who’s married to a poodle; from the outset you just can’t take him seriously. He’s a comic-cum-philosopher, right? These are the great historical jesters—Schopenhauer, Kant. Hence, at bottom, the most serious people in the world. Pascal ranks among them too, in his own Catholic, mysterious, religious way—these really are the great comic philosophers. And the lesser ones, the second category, they’re all basically boring, because they just chew the cud that these philosophical jesters have written out for them beforehand, and I don’t read them anyway, because if I’m going to read anything, it’s naturally got to be something by one of the greats. But you need some time in order gradually to figure out who’s great and who’s not so great. It takes literally decades. No one ever tells you that,
because in school everything’s categorized in the same way, right? There’s a lumping together of the philosophers, right?; they’re all lined up in front of you like a group of package tourists or an army—there are, of course, thousands and hundreds of thousands of philosophers--and, of course, you have to pick out the greatest on your own. And, of course, nobody helps you pick them out. But if you’re a kind of philosophical vulture, as I was quite early on, then you know which of them to pick out. And among others, you pick out Kant and Schopenhauer; they’re hysterically funny. Don’t you agree? Have you never laughed while reading Kant? Invariably, by the time you get to the end of a chapter of his, you’re laughing hysterically. You’re laughing, and it’s funny each and every time. With experience comes knowledge. And yet for all that when you’re fifty years old you’re sporting a fifty-year-old experience of your first cry, when you sprung out [
or] with the help of a midwife, naturally, all glistening and hideous, and straight away pissed into the world. When you’re a baby, one thing follows another so smoothly: you have your first experience, and you start to cry. It’s actually quite amusing; it’s even funny. In connection with birth I always think of my brother, of the way he was born—we always had a midwife, and so my mother was never in hospital when her children arrived—and how when the midwife laid him on the table he pissed in my face. That was his way of saying hello. That was also very funny. Everybody laughed uncontrollably at it, because in my enthusiasm about having a brother, I naturally opened my mouth, and before I knew it my mouth had a stream of piss in it. A life was beginning, in all its intensity. And out of such an abominable little whelp—it’s really horrible and disgusting; of course you first have to dry it off with a dishtowel or something of the sort—a specialist in internal medicine was somehow or other fashioned, and he went on to pull similar abominations out of various maternal bellies.
FLEISCHMANN: How did your birth go? Where were you born?
BERNHARD: I wasn’t there, but I think it went completely normally. It wasn’t a Caesarean section or an episiotomy or a protracted labor or anything like that. But you asked where, and I’m rather shabbily digressing from that question. It was in
, in a convent for fallen young women, as such a place is known. My mother of course, because I was an illegitimate child, had to leave her village, and she had a friend in Holland who told her “Of course you can’t be under my roof when this present arrives from there,” and of course her belly had already grown quite big, “but I know of a convent [here], where some kind nuns live, and I’ll take you there at the last minute.” It was probably like that. This was in Holland , not in Heerlen proper, because this was in southern Holland , which is not called Holland but the Holland . I was there another time later on; the most interesting thing about the place is that it’s [in] a coal-mining area, a massive coal-mining area where the slag-heaps are so massive that the houses are all tilted at an angle, because the soil above the coal-seams collapses, and then the houses sink into the seams. The houses are all tilted, but their curtains all hang straight. It’s an incredibly beautiful sight. That is where I was born. Perhaps the convent was also tilted. I don’t know. I’ve never found out. Perhaps it’s completely collapsed. Along with the fallen young women the convent also fell. I was indeed born under compulsion; I was indeed a compulsory newborn, an illegitimate child, born compulsorily in Netherlands to be sure, in a convent. In all likelihood my mother got some of the convent’s house soup, and I got some of the convent’s house pap. Plastic spoons had yet to be invented then, but metal spoons of some kind were doubtless to be had in that convent. I was rubbed down, probably on my bottom, with an ointment, and it was smooth sailing from then on out; you can actually make it all the way to eighty with a rubdown and a smack on your bottom, and it’s smooth sailing all along. Such was Thomas Bernhard’s cloistered life in a convent in Holland . But afterwards I left the cloister; because once the child has arrived in the world, a mother and her child are invariably given the boot, because there are always reinforcements coming in from Austria or wherever, who always need places and beds for their compulsorily newborn children; and so my mother headed for Rotterdam, and of course the harbor was full of poor people who had fishing-sloops, and who were glad to help out [women in her situation], and so she found a boat, and “farmed me out,” as they so prettily say, to a wet-nurse on a fishing-sloop. And so I spent the first [few] months of my life not at the seaside but on the high seas. Holland
FLEISCHMANN: Have you ever resented the fact that you never had a father?
BERNHARD: Quite frankly, I have to say I never missed him, because he was never there. I even pretty much imagined that I’d never had a father—which, as I later discovered, is technically quite impossible. I always just thought, “Well, my mother had me, and that’s the end of the story.” I think I was already in school when it occurred to me that literally everybody had a father. Up until that point, I hadn’t even gotten as far as knowing that. In the first place, I never even knew I had a father, because no such person ever materialized; nobody ever talked about him, and he was never present. And we weren’t even allowed to talk about it. And then I thought that I actually had no organs, unlike the people around me, the other boys; I never gave any thought to the girls, because they were different in any case. And I can still precisely recall how my best friend in those days, he was, I guess, seven or eight years old; I always used to play with him, he was the child next door, Fakler Gusti was his name—Fakler is a Bavarian name, this was in Traunstein—who, within a couple of days he was dead: I mean of appendicitis. And then I thought to myself, my God, poor Fakler Gusti, who has to die because he had appendicitis, which I can never have, because I haven’t even got an appendix, probably. I always [thought] that I simply didn’t have whatever could make you die. And so why, and from what, could I die? And so I felt pretty lucky. I think I was already ten years old when it occurred to me that I also have organs that could make you die. And so the basic idea was, “There’s no father and no organs and on the whole nothing near me that’s mortal.” I think that was one of my main assumptions for years, I mean for many years. Until roughly the age of twenty. No, not until twenty (laughs), because by then I was already deathly ill. Until when, then? Until fifteen, sixteen, right? All right, then, it was then that I realized “No, no, my dear fellow, you too, right?, you, too, can go the way of all flesh. And death can stretch out his hand toward you and take hold of you at his pleasure, right?" It really was then that I first realized that. But I think that at 14 or 15 I pretty much had no inkling of it. I didn't know what breathing was either, [or] what lungs were. I pretty much didn't perceive myself physically. Like all healthy children, I imagine; they’re simply unaware that such things exist.
FLEISCHMANN: And what about sexuality?
BERNHARD: And as for sexuality, with which this corporeality first emerges—to be sure, it's pleasure afterwards, of course—and beforehand, of course, it's simply a feeling of suspense. Sexuality was for me in this respect greatly curtailed, because at the moment when it was first up and moving, right?—and I somehow noticed that, "Aha!, there are these mysterious forces that suddenly carry you along, to specific objects (laughs)—then I really did become deathly ill. And so for many years, and starting very early on, it was very much dammed up and curtailed, right? Which is really a shame because at precisely the time when sexuality probably has the greatest allure, namely at its quote-unquote "awakening"—and when "your little fellow is up and about" as we say in German, well, then I was in the hospital. Then everything pretty much tapered off, more or less—and I was bedridden indoors and it was simply neutralized. And when I got out I was at first tired and a bit weak. OK, so between the ages of 20 and 30, I imagine, everything was entirely regular and normal in that department. It was even quite enjoyable, with all its ups and downs, literally and figuratively speaking. You needn’t feel embarrassed about this. At the seaside nobody is embarrassed about anything. Are you really feeling ashamed?
FLEISCHMANN: No, no.
BERNHARD: Well, anyhow, look: that’s all nonsense in any case.
FLEISCHMANN: Have you ever occasionally felt ashamed?
BERNHARD: Well, yes, I mean, sure, every now and then one feels ashamed, of course; afterwards one wonders why one felt that way, so it always balances out. But one has certainly felt that way plenty of times, right? Most often because one has treated other people badly or whatnot—that sort of shame. But shame about sex or anything like that is of course absurd. Because to be ashamed of nature, which is the most normal thing there is, would be downright ridiculous; even if nature is universally repressed. Wherever you look there are simple people who are ashamed, or feel ashamed, as it’s so nicely phrased. And at bottom they all go running around like little runts, because they don’t make the most of their lives. You even see it here; these people are all sitting around, instead of circulating amongst one another, and saying, “What do [those people] there want anyway? They’re just disturbing our siestas.” They’re all standing around interested, inhibited and inspissated—after a hearty lunch, to be sure—an assemblage of “yel-low-bel-lies.” To be sure, when one is in a hotel like this, one also does whatever the herd does. So, one would, like the hotel’s sheep—at bottom that’s all guests are; we, too. are sheep—go out there and sit down in the blazing sun with one’s stuffed-to-capacity, kangarooesque stomach. All the same, it’s a noble hotel, despite all the sheep and the stuffed stomachs.
FLEISCHMANN: Speaking of noble hotels, what does the idea of luxury mean to you anyway?
BERNHARD: I have never asked myself questions like that. At most I’ve occasionally felt that where I was at the moment was an instance of luxury. For example, right now I have the feeling that this is luxury. And occasionally I find myself somewhere that other people maintain is the acme of luxury, and I feel as though it’s an example of rubbish but not of luxury. This hotel is of course hardly a luxury hotel; I imagine it’s a third-tier hotel at best, but it impresses me as much as if it were the acme of luxury.
FLEISCHMANN: At home you also enjoy a certain degree of luxury and comfort.
BERNHARD: The lynx and his luxury. The wall-lynx and wall-luxury, there are of course walls there—whitewashed walls. And the lynx and with his luxury withdraws into them and emerges from them. He’s constantly coming and going. Well, after all, you did say that I was luxury [personified], right? Luxury is coming. Here they call it lucho. Which is written l-u-j-o. I assume it’s pronounced lucho—in Spanish. But here it isn’t even actually Spanish; I like it very much.
is the only country that doesn’t seem Spanish to me. Spain
FLEISCHMANN: And what about the people around you?
BERNHARD: They’re just Englishmen and Englishwomen, and I’m quite partial to the English, because they’ve completely vacated their castle; now they’re just living out in the open air. Which is actually quite nice; it’s made them gentle and somehow caused them to renounce that pompous attitude of theirs. In the old days, when you ran into an Englishman on the sidewalk, you’d literally and immediately leap out of his way in deference to him. You have only to think of Gandhi, whom they of course literally beat to the ground with their whips. That kind of thing is no longer to be seen; even the upper class, in other words the ruling class, of
, has renounced it. They have cremated their whips somewhere on the coast, probably at the foot of the cliffs of England . Now that they no longer have any whips, they behave in a bearable manner. In the old days, the English were unbearable. Dover
FLEISCHMANN: Isn’t that a prejudice?
BERNHARD: Actually, there are only prejudices. My judgment can only be a pre-judgment. There are at bottom only prejudices, because even judges who pass incontestable sentences are at bottom only passing on prejudices. There’s really no such thing as a well-adjudged sentence. I mean, one is continually passing judgment qua judgment on people and circumstances, but all one’s judgments are only pre-judgments. Alas! Alas! Alas! And so you’re always prejudging the entire world, and your judgment is nothing but a prejudice. Don’t you agree? Or do you believe in some withered, addle-brained old judge in a gown, a man who has to be helped to his feet, and who says, “I hereby sentence you, because you have strangled your wife” or “stolen five farthings, to X number of years of imprisonment with hard labor”[?] Of course, that never happens any longer; there’s nothing left but the standard punishment. And nobody is famous enough to escape whipping. Only in
are there no whips, because the Viennese actors have never heard of whips, unfortunately, and that’s why they’re so awful, right? You have only to go to the theater in Vienna [to realize this]; the boards are trod by pensioners alone. At thirty they're already claiming a retirement pension. And the young actors are actually already retirees. They promenade not at Vienna Mallorca but along the Burgtheater boardwalk at . Even the little girls and boys. [They’re] quite talented, but unfortunately they already have the pensioner’s gait, and they know in exact numerical terms what they’re guaranteed to earn, because they’re supported by the stage actors’ union, and that’s why they put on the worst theater in the world. Ringstrasse Beach
FLEISCHMANN: Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?
BERNHARD: And a prejudice to boot; that’s just how it is, you see. It's all exaggeration, but without exaggeration you can't say a single thing; because even if you simply raise your voice, you’re already exaggerating, because what are you raising your voice for anyway? If you say anything whatsoever, you’re already exaggerating. Even if you simply say, "I don't want to exaggerate," you’re still exaggerating. This proposition is irrefutable. You can’t possibly come up with a single objection to it.
A waiter arrives and serves us drinks.
BERNHARD: And now comes the majestic sherry. Marvelous. Whenever I’ve ordered a sherry in
, they have always brought me a cherry brandy, because they haven’t the faintest idea of what sherry is. But when one is at home, one also naturally pronounces it “cherry,” and so the whole thing turns out cherry-flavored and spoiled every time. Unfortunately. Austrians are so sweet, and so incorrigibly imbecilic. Austria
FLEISCHMANN: Mightn’t it sometimes simply be a failure to communicate?
BERNHARD: What do you mean, “a failure to communicate”? Nobody can accuse me of that. But maybe you’re talking about communicating [in an ecclesiastical sense]? It has admittedly been a good thirty years since I did that—thirty or forty.
FLEISCHMANN: Did you often take communion?
BERNHARD: Well, sure. Every young Catholic boy goes to communion and especially to confession. And every time I entered the confessional box I would wet my pants, out of terror of Almighty God, because I thought, “He sees everything right now and is observing what's going on here,” and I was afraid in the presence of the sacred. And every time I knelt down I was already wet all over, and then I would feel terribly embarrassed, because naturally all around me there was, to be sure, an enormous amount of laughter; and then I would think, "This is for God's sake, for God who is now behind me, who sees what this dreadful event has set in motion." All that naturally had repercussions. Inasmuch as the church was supposed to do a world of good by means of me, but it couldn’t, because it was too imbecilic. It has a human life on its conscience.
FLEISCHMANN: In what sense?
BERNHARD: The church[?] Well, logically, because it caused me to pee at the confessional, right? These are dreadful repercussions indeed: the threat of hell and all that on a young child. Of course, you’ll say a child is always young, or won’t you? You’ll say a child [can be] old? Such children really do exist. My grandmother gave birth to three children; two of them survived—my mother and her brother, my uncle. And a newborn child, she was always saying—and I’ve already mentioned this somewhere in some book—looked like an octogenarian, had a hideous, wizened face, like that of an old man, a downright decrepit old man. She was always saying this. A mother must find the whole thing quite horrifying. And the child even survived eight or ten years—this was in
A day later, on the terrace of the Son Vida Hotel, on a hilltop high above
. It is late afternoon; we are drinking tea. Bernhard [is] in a merry, exuberant mood, but unwilling to be filmed. Our cameraman Wolfgang Koch urges him to reconsider on account of the especial loveliness of the oblique incidence of the sunlight. Bernhard lets himself be brought round. Palma
BERNHARD: By the way, I have still never been to a cemetery here. Do you want to go with me to a cemetery in
? It seems quite odd to me that I haven’t been to one yet, given that there are signs for them absolutely everywhere, [for] these symmetries. But you, you’re gazing into your empty tea-mug like a fortune-teller. Palma
FLEISCHMANN: Do you often go to cemeteries?
BERNHARD: With you I would be glad to go, at dusk. I would hide from you behind a gravestone.
I try not to yield to his playful tone and take up a subject Bernhard—now practically euphoric on account of the fresh air, the pleasant, mild weather, and its positive effect on his breathing problems—spoke of earlier.
Because] You said that here in one can recover one’s health. What sort of role has illness played in your life and in relation to your writings? Palma
BERNHARD: None whatsoever. Why do you ask such intense questions? Questions that are so intense they send one to intensive care straight-away[?] Why? You could always just ask me, “Are you enjoying your tea?,” or “Do you like the tablecloth?,” or “Have you soiled yourself today?” When you ask “What sort of role does illness play in relation to you?,” it’s obviously such a colossal question, one whose sheer bombasticness just [bowls a person over]. There’s pretty much nothing one can say in answer to it. Would you like another mug of tea? Or a cup, because I imagine here people more often say cup, there are certainly no Austrians about, who say mug, right? But the Styrians don’t say mug either; they also say cup. But of course they’re hardly proper Austrians, the Styrians. They’re winegrowers and turnip-farmers and lumberjacks, but not Austrians. Don’t you agree? You’re just letting me rattle on and on. Is it possible?
FLEISCHMANN: Today I’m in my naysayer pose!
BERNHARD: I keep saying “Is it possible?” you and say nothing in reply; that’s probably because what I’m saying is so imbecilic.
FLEISCHMANN: Perhaps because I’m such an imbecile?
BERNHARD: No, of course that’s out of the question. Above you is suspended the half-moon…
FLEISCHMANN: If you knew that you had only a very short time left [to live], what would you do?
BERNHARD: The theme of every single one of Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s novels—in which the end of the book generally coincides with the end of the lives of its main characters—is the shortness of time. But human beings are so mendacious that even sexagenarians are constantly saying they still have plenty of life ahead of them. And so they end up wasting time. Only when a person is completely white-haired and lying on his deathbed does he find it impossible to say he still has plenty of life ahead of him, no? The less time one has left, the more one lives to see.
FLEISCHMANN: [What] if you had only one day left to live?
BERNHARD: Of course it’s impossible to apportion a single day. If you yourself already feel as though you’re going to live just one day longer, then you couldn’t care less; if somebody else tells it to you, then you’re happy when the day is over. Perhaps. When I am sleeping well and am comfortable in my bed, I’m not cross. But because staying in bed is neither pleasant nor healthy, one ought to get up [as early as possible], because otherwise your thoughts turn to rubbish—physically or mentally speaking, right? You’ve really got to leap out of bed first thing.
BERNHARD: Staying in bed is quite spiritually harmful. Then you start brooding or savoring it; and any craving one perchance indulges after waking up early in the morning is actually quite pernicious.
FLEISCHMANN: If it’s fun why not indulge it?
BERNHARD: That’s precisely when it’s most dangerous, I think, because then it somehow originates from a certain kind of boredom. Clever people leap out of bed and brush their teeth, provided that they have any left.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you feel then that one must often exercise self-control?
BERNHARD: Self-control is of course quite a splendid quality, in my view, and a truly important one as well. Because if you’re completely uncontrolled, then that lack of control is a part of you, and when it goes down you go down with it. When you let yourself go, you’re like a driverless car, as they say, racing towards an abyss; anybody can tell that one way or another it’s going to end up smashed to pieces. And it’s the same way with a human being when he lets himself go. Everybody genuinely needs rules, right? The Church imposes rules, the State imposes rules, and a human being must also impose rules on himself. Indeed, without rules nothing works at all. But every rule, when it’s enforced too strenuously, is harmful in its own right. A rule imposed by a dictator is intrinsically harmful, but a rule that a people more or less impose[d] on itself and trained itself to obey would be healthy. But the popular majority is incapable of doing this and falls to pieces, and then the so-called strongman comes along, and he puts everything to rights, in other words, in the final analysis, into a state of chaos and corruption.
Bernhard notices that his toying with a packet of sugar is being filmed.
BERNHARD: It’s the play-instinct; I always have to have something in my hand[s]; and to be sure I’ve been tearing up little packets of sugar like this in coffeehouses for decades. And en route I always tear up leaves and pulverize them. My greatest passion is tearing up bay-leaves, which are fairly sturdy and yet pleasant to tear. For some reason tearing bay leaves and sugar-packets to shreds is wonderfully satisfying. Haven’t you [done this kind of thing] out of nervousness?
FLEISCHMANN: Yes, but do you sometimes feel that you’re a [rather] inhibited person?
BERNHARD: Well, of course everybody has inhibitions at some time and place or other. Naturally, [even] the most liberated person is inhibited in some respects. There’s no such thing as a completely liberated human being. For example, even if you’d quite enjoy stepping out of the hotel stark naked, you still get dressed in the morning, because you’re inhibited from doing otherwise. In the morning, you don’t step straight out of bed with nothing on, into the elevator, and press button “L” for “Lobby,” and ride downstairs, and step into the lobby stark naked, because you know full well that “That’s not the sort of thing I allow myself to do, because if I did then something indefinable would happen down there in the lobby.” (Laughs heartily.) Then the manager would come in and go “Tsk, tsk!,” right? Everybody is inhibited. And yet at the same time uninhibited people exist also. But uninhibitedness is again something different. An uninhibited person is not somebody who lacks inhibitions, but rather somebody who all of a sudden expels his inhibitions and explodes. His uninhibitedness amounts to his having thrown away, etc., his inhibitions and to his, you know, running from them and embracing the world. But he can’t keep this up for long. Paul Wittgenstein was obviously a guy like that; from time to time he was indeed genuinely uninhibited. But uninhibitedness has a certain charm when everybody is inhibited, right? When everybody’s uninhibited, the charm quickly wears off. But when somebody in an inhibited society suddenly turns uninhibited, it’s a novelty and something out of the ordinary.
FLEISCHMANN: I think I’m going to order something now; never mind what.
BERNHARD: Now you’re just trying to give me the slip.
BERNHARD: And to avoid looking me in the eye.
FLEISCHMANN: Yes, perhaps.
The conversation is over, but we do not part company. Bernhard wants us to stay together through dinner.
Later still, in the hotel bar, we dance.
After , Bernhard, delighted at knowing such a large proportion of their lyrics by heart, loudly and articulately sings [several] opera and operetta arias as well as popular tunes both to the accompaniment of the band and in defiance of it. Towards the end of the night, we resist the temptation to confront Bernhard with the camera.
In a sidewalk café on the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Paseo de Born, amid the roar of traffic. At a table next to us is Gabriele, a young widow from Miesbach in
. Bernhard later incorporated her plight—her husband’s unexplained fall to his death from a hotel balcony in Santa Ponsa—into Concrete. Bavaria
BERNHARD: It’s all a matter of perspective. Everybody has a different one. Thank God. And you yourself always have the right one, even when other people consistently maintain the opposite one. For you your own perspective is always the right one. But other people always make you have doubts. And then you give up your perspective and then you’re finished, at least as regards the thing on which you’ve given up your perspective. Then why are you giving it up?
Gabriele joins in the conversation
You come from
; you’re a poet, a writer, right? Austria
Bernhard continues speakingI told her that I wrote poetry. I’ve written poems, then prose, and then nothing but prose. The Marquis of Prose. In
FLEISCHMANN: Burglars--once again something negative has come up.
BERNHARD: Everything is negative; there's no such thing as anything positive. Depending on the constellation of your life, you experience everything as either positive or negative. You experience vanilla ice cream as positive, and the next person finds it negative and abominable, right? And you see a human being and regard him as a wondrous figure and as the ideal of creation, and your neighbor laughs or is appalled at your bad taste and regards the whole thing in a negative light.
Bernhard glances across the street at Canaellas, a perfume-shop.
BERNHARD: They’re offering a 60% discount on perfume. If you’re in the mood, go over there; you can spray yourself with Jacques Fath [or whatever—]don’t ask me what they’re all called. That’s the main reason I don’t go into the theater; because most ladies who sit near you have hairspray in their hair, and when that mixes with sweat it’s unbearable within a four-to-five square-meter radius. You simply can’t put up with that for two hours. And
, which lasts for six or seven hours, is altogether unbearable, right?, because they all spray themselves with this stuff, and on top of that in the theater you’ve got the fumes [from] the footlights and the dryness. It’s an incredible stench, genuinely unbearable. The more feathered-up the hairdos at the theater are, the more intolerable theater-going is. And what’s more, most people who attend the theater don’t wash their hair anywhere nearly often enough. It really is very difficult to take part in [such an activity]. Not to mention that one doesn’t know how much one stinks oneself; one might also stink, but generally speaking, one of course doesn’t notice one’s own stench because one has gotten used to it. Moreover, one ought to use as little soap as possible, because people catch all kinds of diseases, right? And the more a person washes, the faster he gets to the cemetery. The cemetery certainly was very lovely. Naturally, you can only think of it that way if you’re not lying there yourself. More paper rustles there than in the literary world. But a literary season really is nothing but the opening of a new cemetery, right? When a hundred thousand new publications are put on display in Bayreuth Frankfurt, it’s like a hundred thousand newly-opened graves, with paper wreaths, everything rustles there. It can’t be helped. The[se] ladies are talking about a fish soup. I’ve always been absolutely horrified by fish soup. They chop up [and throw] into it all the leftovers of the past three weeks. They all end up in the fish soup. But it’s never actually poisonous, because it’s boiled. But of course I mustn’t under any circumstances lap up the leavings of dissatisfied customers with gusto [and a] sliver spoon. I have little desire to do that. Besides, I’m not much of a fan of fish in general. Where we come from there aren’t any decent fish apart from [Reinanken] and trout, and they’re good only in May or June, and after that they’re invariably inedible. And seafood is horrible everywhere. I certainly never dare to touch it; those days are long over. But of course this was already common knowledge a hundred years ago; people used to go to and on their honeymoon they always ate oysters, and most of the time as an immediate result some newlywed would end up in the cemetery. Of course oysters are the most dangerous. Of course you can’t eat any of that stuff anymore; of course it’s all poisoned and nasty and [worse] besides; it looks really lovely, of course, but even that’s all fake. Venice
A day later, in an unassuming bar in the port-street of
Porto Cristo. The menu is priced at 250 pesetas for domestic customers, [and]at 450 for foreigners. An injustice, as Bernhard observes. He recounts his bad experiences with single-occupancy hotel rooms[:] most of them are tiny, uncomfortable, and in some [out of the way part of the building]; if you want to upgrade, you have to pay double. But he hardly sees in all these [inconveniences] a reason for vacationing with another person.
BERNHARD: Vacationing by oneself is of course quite splendid. Half-and-half is ideal—one half alone, the other in company. Being alone too long is unbearable, and so is being too long with another person. In my opinion. A lettuce salad, mixed grill—none of that sounds like anything one would want to embrace.
FLEISCHMANN: Is there anything you [would] want to embrace?
BERNHARD: I have arms mainly not so that I can embrace, but so that I can write and tie my shoes and wash and eat and get dressed. But one is seldom in the mood for embraces [anyway].
Because the bill of fare indicates that the meal is for two, Bernhard orders for both of us rice with seafood, two green salads, mineral water, and crème caramel. Then he swaps the menu for a newspaper.
BERNHARD: With most of them you already know what they’re going to say, because they like the one guy and they don’t like the other; they understand the one guy and don’t understand the other. And as these people don’t change, because once they’re affiliated with a paper they stop changing, because they never learn anything further, there’s really no such thing as news anymore. I prefer it to be written by a positive person rather than a negative person. Anyhow, by some person. It’s important for it to be really long. Because there’s more in it [then], right? It’s like when you’re hungry and getting something to eat, [when] it’s nice to have a lot on your plate rather than nothing at all or a little. A writer is certainly to be pitied if he only ever gets dessert, if he always gets just five lines in the bottom left-hand corner, if he always gets either just crème caramel or nothing. And he very much would have liked to have an appetizer, soup, an extra-large main course, a beefsteak—a huge beefsteak with every possible [side-dish]—and additionally still, whenever possible, an extra-large buffet where he could have chosen for himself what to partake of. He writes for another three years, he gets another three olives, and is already finished. And so of course they end up killing themselves at some point, because they are settled there. But when it (i.e., the newspaper) has as many pages as this one, it’s quite nice; this is a substantial menu, so it [i.e., insufficiency (i.e., of space?)] isn’t an issue at all, in either a positive or a negative sense.
FLEISCHMANN: What are you saying that writers get too little of from the newspapers—space or money?
BERNHARD: I’ve always gotten too little money. But I can’t complain about not getting enough space in the newspapers. In proportion to the number of words written [i.e., about me] over the years and the amount of hot air generated, I’ve been paid far too little. Probably I [should earn] what the critics have earned, what they must still be earning, from their articles. They pocket the money, even though of course it’s actually mine, because when I’m not around [they] of course have nothing to write about. And freelance contributors are paid at a certain rate per line, but if they’re freelancers they usually don’t actually earn it; they hardly even earn a space, living-space. A freelancer has no living-space. And if, on the other hand, a writer is a permanent member of the staff, he has no interest in producing anything worthwhile, because after all he’s got a secure job, and so he just squeezes out his articles as if from a tube, until he turns sixty and the tube is empty, if he hasn’t already had a stroke by then. But it’s like with toothpaste, [which even I have heard of], Colgate—it comes out tasting exactly the same every time. Blend-a-Med too. But in the end they all write Lacalut, because they’re old; so it’s prosthetic hackwork. Book reviews are put to soak overnight in glasses of water like dentures. Then [in the morning] they appear. They’re a Lacalutinized form of writing—old and prone to coming unstuck.
FLEISCHMANN: Are you saying you’re actually in favor of pure meritocracy and against subsidized labor?
BERNHARD: It would be simple common sense if people were paid for what they’d produced instead of for what some anonymous trade union had fought for in their name, right? So that, of course, they no longer do anything. Nowadays, of course, people are union-members from birth. All crying and wailing is unionized from the start; when a little child comes into the world, he cries himself straight into the bosom of the union. But when he gets there the union also has little to offer. It invariably sides with those in power rather than with those who are not, whom it simply shuts out completely. So that you forfeit your right to union wages, and to health insurance as well. People who are sick for too long, who are blackballed by the union and are goners, fall prey to public assistance. And groups who don’t fit in with the union are also kicked out and essentially blackballed. And that’s why the unions form a unified front with the government and dance hand-in-hand with the government into heaven.
FLEISCHMANN: Are you saying that the government is against the individual?
BERNHARD: Naturally it can’t help being against him, because at bottom it is threatened by him. Every government must show that it has won the masses over to its side—whether at the football pitch or just in the trade union hall—and that it is doing its level best to liquidate or ignore individuals. It obviously has no other choice. When the individual revolts, he enters [the halls of government] and kills everybody there, if he has any kind of impetus. This is the way it is everywhere, even in a country like ours where the individualist is completely isolated and therefore pulverized and rendered harmless, [and] declared to be a fool. Then you’re rid of him. In dictatorships he’s incarcerated and killed. To be sure, our governors would do the same if they could, but their hands are tied. A person in power will always make use of every means at his disposal to get rid of his enemies. Our village priest would very much like to kill everybody who is not a Catholic, as he quite openly admits, but he can’t because that would be in conflict with the law. They all talk nonstop about gassing people.
FLEISCHMANN: The village priest talks about gassing people? That’s obviously impossible.
BERNHARD: In what sense? In
FLEISCHMANN: And the corruption of our government—what do you think that is all about?
BERNHARD: By all means it’s about the baseness of our government. Wherever there’s power, corruption also flourishes, logically. This is why people who have power are once again deprived of their power as quickly as possible, because the moment they establish themselves they’re like ivy on a tree, a creeping vine; if the state may be likened to a tree, then the government hardly fosters its growth; rather, it stifles it, in the final analysis. That’s what’s so ideal about
; there nobody can gain a footing, because at the end of a year they’re out of power again. In Switzerland , things are set up so that if some guy starts wondering, “How could I squeeze some sort of capital out of my position?,” because the position lasts for only a month, as soon as he starts considering this question carefully, his replacement’s already arrived. And so this wondering is completely unproductive. But Switzerland is productive of other horrors. Truth to tell they’ve got nothing of their own but their fat paunches, and they certainly haven’t got any geniuses. Switzerland
FLEISCHMANN: What about
has always had more geniuses than Austria but of course also more criminals. The Swiss have always impeded both types. There’s actual statistical proof of this. To be sure, the geniuses aren’t included in the statistics, but the criminals are. Switzerland
FLEISCHMANN: Do you really believe that
has an unusually large number of criminals? Austria
BERNHARD: I don’t believe it; it’s a fact. Just as
leads Austria Europe in the suicide statistics, it’s also pretty much at the top in the crime statistics. Per capita an incredible heap of crimes devolves upon . Austria
FLEISCHMANN: Why is that the case; why is
so far ahead in the statistics; what do you think? Austria
BERNHARD: Undoubtedly people commit so many crimes because they are bored. They steal just like crows and kill one another. And our government supports every sort of abomination; it has yet to support anything positive. The only positive thing it’s supported so far is its own present conveyance into the abyss. That’s the only positive thing, as far as I’m concerned, that it has achieved in the past half-decade. And like every government that starts out with high hopes, it has ended up completely broken-winded, soot-blackened, debt-ridden, worm-eaten. An unprecedented quagmire in which we are all immersed.
FLEISCHMANN: What can the individual do to resist it?
BERNHARD: Nothing whatsoever, as an individual he can do nothing; at most, the Good Lord, if you consider him an individual, because of course supposedly there is only one God, and he drags everything back down to hell, to Satan, to the devil. So they’re all going to the devil anyway, [so that] one pretty much has nothing to do. But they are bound to be succeeded by equally abominable people. And when you know that, it’s hard to get worked up about it. Whether black or red, politicians are always the same riff-raff. Unmusical, businesslike—indeed, invariably abominable; they operate only by means of hypocrisy, just like the church. And every small-time politician from his churchgoing childhood Sundays onward learns that this is how you have to operate if you want to get into power. Because every small-time parish priest demonstrates this to his congregation. How one [needs to be] as hypocritical and priggish, and in actuality as piggish, as possible.
FLEISCHMANN: You’ve just spoken as though you believed that the church were the origin of [all] abominations.
BERNHARD: I’m quite convinced of it. My first confrontation with sanctimoniousness was with the church, when I was a child. Because of course a mother who has brought a child into the world isn’t sanctimonious. How after all could she be sanctimoniousness when she had neither saints nor money? But afterwards, when you get out of the house and you start going to church—so really lies and sanctimoniousness, I think, were the first things I was confronted with in church. With scene-making. That’s hardly a negative thing; people need it, of course, so really on the other hand it’s quite beneficial. There are indeed millions who are completely helpless without church. It would be like tearing pornographic magazines out of the hands of young people to confiscate prayer books from the elderly. The way that young people look at naked women and men, old people look at Christ on the Cross, right? [Who’s] also a centerfold of sorts. One who’s stayed in the magazines for the longest time, up until the present, and brought in the hugest circulation figures. The earliest porn magazine is the Bible. In which, moreover, everything has always been exposed; nothing has ever been airbrushed out of the picture. Of course I’m [very] grateful. The earlier you are confronted with abominations, the better off you are, because you arm yourself, so to speak. So you naturally keep getting stronger. Whatever [part of you] is beaten is stronger afterwards. Once the skin is scarred, it doesn’t tear. Which is of course quite salutary.
FLEISCHMANN: Have you grown strong because in your life you have lived through so many abominations?
BERNHARD: Probably, yes. When you’re very ill you’re naturally also stronger, right? When you’re not ill, you catch a [cold] and you’re a goner.
Bernhard reads further into the newspaper and thereby ends up talking about one of the Pope’s many trips.
BERNHARD: Wouldn’t you have liked to see the Pope?
BERNHARD: No? But that’s quite obviously not true. I would gladly have gone to see the Pope with you. Hand in hand. You would have had to wear a black veil; of course, ladies have to be wearing some sort of headgear when they call on the Pope. And I would have given you a little push, and before you knew it you’d have fallen to your knees before the Pope.
FLEISCHMANN: Which would have pleased you no end!
BERNHARD: And then he would have given you an indulgence.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you like the current Pope (John Paul II)?
BERNHARD: No he’s very much a Pope for the peasantry, in other words, a nonentity; they’re so callous. He’s too Catholic for my taste. In other words, a cipher and specifically an extra-bigoted cipher, after the manner of Carpathian villagers, or rather, dull, insignificant peasants, who think that way. And they think that by being jolly and affable on the street they can make everything all right again. I liked Pius XII better; he was even my [favorite]. Not counting John, whom everybody loved, right? Whom you also loved. He was the Pope that everybody liked. Except you? You’ve never liked a Pope, never been in love with a Pope? I could easily imagine your being in love with the Pope and sneaking into Castle Gandolfo. And the Pope’s palace—it’s always made the strongest impression on me. It’s a very simple building, and quite musty up to the second story, hence quite idiotically constructed; and at the back of the palace lives a carpenter. Well, actually he doesn’t live literally in the palace but in a house built right next door to Castle Gandolfo—I always used to think that it was very much an isolated and separate building, as the church is naturally very savvy—there the carpenter has his house. And as I was walking by, 15 years ago or something like that—this may still have been during the reign of John—[I saw] hanging—downstairs the Pope’s long johns were hanging on a clothesline, and behind it was a little railing and on it were the carpenter’s underpants—which were also long johns. Because it’s a very raw climate there, and so they wear long johns even in the fall. And that made a tremendous impression on me, that the underpants of the pope and of the little carpenter of Castle Gandolfo, who was probably the coffin-maker there, that they were fluttering in the breeze right next to each other. Then it occurred to me that the Church, if you take a closer look at it, has always been unrivalled in point of sheer finesse. Which here [i.e., in the case of the carpenter’s underpants (DR)], it has proved yet again. On the one hand [it’s] aristocratic, aloof, grandiose, stately, and on the other hand it’s [always] pulling in everything it can get on any kind of familiar terms with, quite deliberately—even in its architecture, as in this case. The Pope and the carpenter. There’s an opera, Tsar and Carpenter. A sequel could be written to it: The Pope and the Carpenter. In the first act, when the curtain rises, the underpants of the pope and of the carpenter are fluttering in the sunshine. And then it occurred to me that you could have sneaked into the Pope’s house from the carpenter’s house, right? Every lass is surely game for a bundling-session with the Pope. A rope ladder and—you’re out [i.e., presumably, of the carpenter’s house (DR)]! Or perhaps on the tendril of a grape-vine; it would have been quite sensible for you to bench-press your way up the papal wall and climb into the Pope’s presence. And with your little eyes all a-twinkle, right? After all, it needn’t always be peasant-lads who get up to such [shenanigans]. But perhaps the current Pope would run away as soon as you appeared; I imagine [he would]. With an almighty shriek he would run all the way through the palace, right up to the front-door [and no farther], because it’s barred from the outside.
FLEISCHMANN: Why would he run away?
BERNHARD: Because he’s afraid of women; he’s said so himself. It’s quite impermissible even to look at them, according to his proclamation.
FLEISCHMANN: Does the Catholic Church really still need a Pope like this in times like these?
BERNHARD: At the [present] moment, just as a union needs a president, the Church [
also] needs a boss. Every organization needs a boss. The Association of Livestock Farmers needs one; political parties need presidents; the International Communist Party needs a president, and the church also needs one, right? The only bit of hard luck for the Church is that it’s a lifetime job, so that the Church is often presided over for literally years on end by a total cripple and imbecile. Because he always voluntarily abdicates in his dying moments, or he is killed in his Papal bed.
FLEISCHMANN: Would you have liked to be Pope?
BERNHARD: I would like to be Pope. I’d say yes like a shot to that.
FLEISCHMANN: So you would like to wield power?
BERNHARD: I’d like to be Pope; I’d love to be Pope. But I’m afraid there won't be another Pope in my lifetime.
FLEISCHMANN: The Pope of the
? Church of Literature
BERNHARD: No, nothing at all like that; I don’t want to have anything to do with these literary titles. Neither the Prince of Literature nor the Duke of Literature nor the Earl of Literature nor the Baron of Literature, nor the Free and Independent Citizen of Literature. Of course I have no choice but to run through the whole list from top to bottom. None of those titles matter. [No], I want to be a proper Pope, the true Pope. Has there ever actually been a Pope Thomas? No? Then I'll just stick to my own first name. Thomas I.
FLEISCHMANN: Why would you like to be Pope?
BERNHARD: It’s a spontaneous thought, one that’s never occurred to me until now. It’s a question nobody’s ever asked me before; and since you’ve asked me out of the blue if I’d like to be Pope, out of the blue I’ve answered yes. And thus has my genuine response been determined. Of course you can try to get me installed as Pope! If you climb into the bedroom of the current Pope and put in a good word for me.
FLEISCHMANN: First I have to know whether you have the appropriate beliefs.
BERNHARD: And maybe you’ll poison the current Pope, and I’ll climb up behind you and slip into the night-shirt of the current Pope, have a bit of plastic surgery done, and walk out as the Pope the next day and then be the first Pope to change his name during his official residence. To say “From now on I’m calling myself Pope Thomas and no longer [calling myself] John Paul II.” I’d like to be Pope, to be something I unfortunately can no longer be. I mean, as a private citizen one can also go on world tours, but one hasn’t got the backdrop, so one doesn’t have twenty million people who travel separately to where one is and who observe even one’s slightest gestures. One is for the most part thrown back on to self-observation when one isn’t Pope.
FLEISCHMANN: So you’re saying you just want to be worshiped.
BERNHARD: As Pope, yes. Of course [the idea of] a Pope who doesn’t want to be worshiped is asinine—it’s downright nonsensical. To say nothing of the fact that the Pope has always maintained that in worshiping him one is also worshiping his chief, i.e., the Good Lord. He is God’s deputy, so whatever is done to him is naturally also done to God, right? Indeed, the Church has said so.
FLEISCHMANN: And do you, too, believe it?
BERNHARD: I don’t believe it because I don’t believe anything.
FLEISCHMANN: You [just] said you didn’t believe. Do you believe in nothing?
BERNHARD: I believe that at half-past five it’ll get dark, for example. That’s a genuine belief that I have at the moment and that I can defend. And I believe that tomorrow morning I’m going to get out of bed again and get dressed. Fine: I believe that, but one can’t know anything for certain.
FLEISCHMANN: [What about] in matters of religion?
BERNHARD: I am very religious, but without any beliefs. Such a person can exist. In any case, religion has no connection to belief. That’s only the case in proper religions with official charters. In officially chartered religions, they have dealings with belief. But I’ve found it to be absolutely unnecessary. I have no need to be called up as a number. There’s your licensed Lord Thy God for you, right? There's absolutely no need for it.
FLEISCHMANN: At the same time, do you occasionally still go to church?
BERNHARD: Well, very rarely; [
so] every couple of years I do go to church, but not on account of my beliefs or for religious reasons but just because I’m interested in what’s happening inside anyplace. So I go to church to see what's going on inside that [specific] church, and how the priest is preaching, what he’s saying. Here of course it’s all about how he’s saying what he’s saying, because I don’t understand what he’s saying. And above all, it’s about the acoustics, which can occasionally be very moving.
FLEISCHMANN: In other words, you regard a church sermon as a theatrical performance?
BERNHARD: [Well,] of course that’s all it is. Indeed, everything in the world is a theatrical performance. Even the Pope is a great actor; [if you] set aside the total trashiness of the role he’s had to learn, [you can see] he’s naturally one of the greatest interpreters. The Pope and Ronald Reagan and Brezhnev, it’s the same with Bronner, Farkas, and Wehle on a lower level, but at bottom it’s all a kind of cabaret that occasionally degenerates into great theater. But then, insufferably, it occasionally has to shrink [back] down into a cabaret. And there the high and mighty act very nicely as an ensemble. Today it’s Carter, Reagan and Woytila and then it was Il Duce and Hitler and Franco. Every age has its various leading actors. And then once in a while Eva Peron or whoever comes along. The same with Liz Taylor on the world stage. That’s no different either. It’s not for nothing that they call it a world stage, this thing that makes absolutely no sense. It’s all one big theater. Then the villain Khomeni—from stage right, right?—enters. And little Kreisky from downstage, who says, “The horses are saddled.” But it’s all very amusing.
FLEISCHMANN: And what about your role?
BERNHARD: Well, of course I don’t appear at all onstage in the theater of the world. So [my role is] somewhere up above, at the gridiron. You can’t even raise one of the backcloths on your own, but millions or billions of people are pulling on it, right? And so somehow or other the background changes. But this pair of characters in front of it keep performing their parlor drama. And the character of Dignity is portrayed by the pope, right?—with his white gown. And Inscrutability, which mostly emanates from the east, along with Redness, Darkness, Formidability, is for the moment being played by Brezhnev, already badly beaten up by old age. Then somebody or other plays the clowns, which are never absent, right? They’re played by types like Helmut Schmidt. Then [the hero’s] drinking buddies, boon companions enter, [his] fat cousins. It’s a version of the Everyman play. And the stage is so smooth and round, like the globe. At bottom, when you open up a newspaper, you see the play. That’s why newspapers are so marvelous, the curtain rises every day in them. And you can have it all for sixty pesetas. And of course it’s quite magnificent when one of them suddenly has a stroke right there on stage. The audience is always waiting for that to happen. And it’s really for some reason quite exquisite, the thought of Reagan and Brezhnev sitting there having coffee and the Pope bursting into laughter and pitching over stone dead, and the other [two] pretending to be dismayed, right? It’s actually quite beautiful, the great theater of the world. But it’s no play for women; that’s the awful thing about it. Women are mostly only in the background, and when they do come into view, it’s only briefly, and they are instantly yanked offstage because they always come on at the wrong time; most of the time they miss their cues, and so they somehow have to be dragged backwards by the skirt right back onstage. So that’s why they’re there only for brief spells. But I think that great drama can’t survive clear voices, and the feminine voice, unless one is drunk, is much too high-pitched for great drama, right?
FLEISCHMANN: That is yet again another prejudice; have you got something against women?
BERNHARD: No, absolutely not; but I am a man of the theater, and typically one can stage tragedies only with women who have dark voices, almost borderline masculine ones. You can’t put on a tragedy with a leading actress who has a completely natural, feminine voice. And one hardly need rack one’s brains [trying to come up with evidence of this], because history offers conclusive enough proof.
FLEISCHMANN: A prejudice!
BERNHARD: Well, sure; as a woman you’re bound to say that it’s a prejudice, and you even have a right to do so. And women’s principal right, from one century to the next, has always been the right to say that men are living in prejudices. They haven’t had many more rights than that until today. But from time to time they’ve been granted that right. And even in Parliament they are allowed to say it, but [by that same token] they haven’t really said much more than that men invariably traffic in nothing but prejudices.
FLEISCHMANN: But in a world dominated by masculine principles, even that is very difficult.
BERNHARD: Why is it dominated by masculine principles? Why don’t you dominate it? Everybody is free to do a bit of dominating.
FLEISCHMANN: Because history has always been a harsh repressor of women.
BERNHARD: Well, not history; probably nature. That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way human society is. It won’t do you any good to resist it, because there are of course women, millions of your fellow women, who are also raising a fuss, and it doesn’t do them a bit of good either. Above all, women also lack staying power; they simply haven’t got it. They always give up far too soon. They enter the scene with a great hue and cry, and when push comes to shove they’re all struck dumb; they lie down on the ground exhausted at the very moment when they should be getting started. They just don’t tough things out very well; that’s what it amounts to. Apart from the world-weariness that comes with bearing children. Which is of course an atrocity and a source of great suffering. But for the most part, of course, it’s also really the
. high point
FLEISCHMANN: And so for you women are [essentially] second-class humans.
BERNHARD: I generally don’t rank human beings in classes. For me they’re all pretty much the same, but each of them has a specific function. Which of course doesn’t mean that one is inferior and the other superior; it doesn’t mean that at all. I don’t even know which [sex] is higher up and which is lower down. But there’s a division of responsibilities, just like in the theater, right?
FLEISCHMANN: Yes, but of course people’s behavior is also historically determined.
BERNHARD: I’ve already said that history is a determinant. There’s no point in racking one’s brains over this or asking very many questions about it, because history goes its own way. There is of course nothing one can do to change it. And because a house without a roof gets soaked with rain, houses are built over and over again with roofs rather than without them, because it wouldn’t make any sense to do otherwise. There are certain things that simply are the way they are because they have to be that way.
FLEISCHMANN: Yes, but until now women have had very few rights.
BERNHARD: Those rights have also fluctuated a great deal throughout history. There have even been periods, millennia ago, in which women were the determining force. It was the women, not the men, who were expected to hold their own in the world.
FLEISCHMANN: Of course the laws were made by men.
BERNHARD: Well, then, the women should [have] overturn[ed] them. Why don’t they do this? Nothing could be simpler. Because their courage deserts them, in the final analysis. One witnesses it time and again; women are such big mouths in the newspapers or in their anonymous little collections of essays, whenever they cobble together anything written, any kind of polemical anti-male screed; and when they’re actually elected to Parliament and make their [first] appearance [on the floor], they speak with a tremulous voice; everything’s shaking, even their papers; whenever they have to read out a speech, they start to tremble, and they aren’t even capable of articulating their words. That is the honest-to-goodness truth. Women are in no fit state even calmly to set forth their own problems, let alone to change a single thing in the so-called male-dominated world. You can of course observe that in our own Parliament, right? There are these three or four female MPs who get the floor every now and then, and they act like so many Kaethe-Kruse dolls; their little eyes goggle this way and that a couple of times; the text of the speech is completely unintelligible; it was unintelligible to begin with on paper, and when you add a woman's voice to it it’s absolutely ineffectual. It gives an impression of utter ineptitude and of sentimentality. That is no way to go about trying to get things done. They’d have to act like some kind of hyperdimensional clone of Rosa Luxemburg ; then maybe they’[d] accomplish something. But probably even that wouldn’t work, because when she got too strong, the men did her in.
FLEISCHMANN: But for women there’s also always a learning process.
BERNHARD: But that’s not men’s problem; everybody has to shift for himself.
FLEISCHMANN: But we live in a world in which the masculine principle has been elevated to the status of a ruling principle.
BERNHARD: That may well be the case, but it sounds too bombastic to my ears. Besides, none of it rings true. Anything so bombastically formulated strikes a false note from the start, because why are you formulating it so bombastically? Because you yourself doubt whether you’ve got permission from the proper authorities to fire your cannons. And that’s the way women always act. Instead of advancing their cause gradually, by one small step at a time, and throwing themselves into the thick of things. [But] of course they don’t [bother] throwing themselves into anything at all. How else can you explain the fact our Parliament has something like three hundred seats, and out of these three hundred, twenty are held by women[?] I mean, that’s simply laughable. Well, there must be some reason for that, right? And it can’t all be owing to sensitivity and honesty, because we say “the false cat [cat=Katz, a feminine noun]” and “the poor dog [dog=Hund, a masculine noun].” We don’t say “the false dog” and “the poor cat,” even though they make perfect logical sense, right?
FLEISCHMANN: These are sayings, proverbs devised by men.
BERNHARD: It’s impossible to trace them back to their point of origin, isn’t it? But we’ve gone through this already: it’s well-nigh perverse to say that things like this were devised by men. This points up the constitutional feebleness of women—the fact that they have to fling such [accusations] in men’s faces. Everything had to originate from something. From this fact women conclude that they simply have to liberate themselves from these proverbial idioms, in other words, see to it that men are banned from saying “a false cat.” Whereas a man never has any problem with being called “a poor dog.” It’s simply good form in him not to object to it. Why do women want to do away with “false cat,” and the like? It’s a false start. The mare of feminism is off to a false start.
FLEISCHMANN: But I don’t believe that; one has only to consult the historical record [to see that it’s not true]. In societies organized according to Christian principles, women are second-class citizens.
BERNHARD: Well, yes; after all God, is called the good Lord; a lord is after all a masculine entity, right? To be sure, they don’t talk of (laughs) “the good Lady Suzy” in church. There’s just no such being. Besides, who would worship her? (laughs) If she got pregnant every year, that would be quite painful, wouldn’t it? It just wouldn’t work. What does work, though, is a completely static deity that always stays the same; never mind how boring it is, at least it’s not constantly in flux and fat one [month] and thin the next. What were you saying about history?
FLEISCHMANN: History has been written by men.
BERNHARD: That doesn’t ring true at all. In the first place, history writes itself, and there have been plenty of famous women in history. Secondly, the kind of stuff that women write is often grotesque at best.
FLEISCHMANN: How so?
BERNHARD: Well, you see at bottom there really are no female poets; to be sure, I am exaggerating just a little. Nowadays, people practically swoon at the sight of female poets the moment they appear on the scene, because there used to be no female poets at all. But on closer examination they turn out not to be as great as all that, even if they’re old. So, there are neither female poets nor female philosophers, but this has already been said a hundred thousand times.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you think women should [just] sit at home and bear children?
BERNHARD: I have no business thinking such a thing, do I? Johanna Schopenhauer, who wrote a bunch of kitschy novels and made a ton of money, was a celebrity in her day. And her brother [sic], who gave university lectures attended by three people including his dog, made a grand total of 120 marks, over the course of forty years, from the first edition of The World as Will and Idea. That’s an absolutely typical scenario, so in what sense do men rule the world? In historical hindsight, sure; but historical hindsight is a totally absurd concept.
FLEISCHMANN: Men should instead be helping women, so that they can renounce their [traditional] roles.
BERNHARD: You’d have an easier time persuading a man unconditionally to renounce one of his legs; he has to run; after all, he has legs. No, there you’ll be wreaking untold havoc, because he’ll get up from his wheelchair if he possibly can, and then fall over and fracture his skull, right? It’s exactly the same as if you were to try get women to get up and take a stand against the male-dominated world and take up history and run with it. “Woman: stand up, take up your bed, and walk.” She can’t do that; it’s a thoroughly devastating proposition; it’s not possible.
FLEISCHMANN: I find such talk about women awfully cynical…
BERNHARD: You’re the one who’s being cynical, and in a typical feminine way, by labeling as cynical a thought and a discourse that’s following a totally normal trajectory, and that’s why women are never taken seriously, because they always argue by means of such labels; in other words, they don’t really argue at all but merely fling banalities into men’s faces out of nowhere, right? That kind of strategy won’t fly. It won’t get you anywhere in the male-dominated world.
FLEISCHMANN: But for centuries women have actually been oppressed and degraded by men.
BERNHARD: You can’t get away with saying that. It would be just as correct to say that for centuries women have been exalted to the heavens by men, which would naturally invite the question by what right? Because what does exalting someone to the heavens generally amount to? Reread the literary classics! You’ll read over and over again about how magnificent and how marvelous woman is, and about how people worship her and kneel before her, and woman [this], and mother [that], and so [on]. It’s a degree of glorification that no man has ever attained qua man, unless you count the good Lord. Who in any case is a different kind of being. One who admittedly stands above everybody and everything else. But woman has always been glorified just for being what she is in ordinary life. You yourself are well aware of this; that it actually still [goes on] today. Mothers are honored and rewarded simply for laboriously squeezing out a couple of strudel-pastries into the world; they have gold medals hung around their necks, right?, and once they’ve had their fifth child the family can practically live for free. It’s all for the benefit of the mother, so in what sense is it an example of the oppression of women? And when you’re crossing the street in heavy traffic, and some insignificant woman pushing an insignificant child in a stroller shows up, everybody stops dead in their tracks, and at that moment that child is the most powerful weapon in the world. The woman has literally everybody at her mercy. For centuries woman has had such power at her disposal that she never fails to persuade the world that man is oppressing her, and in reality all this time woman has been sitting at the helm of world history. Woman sits at the helm, and the ship invariably goes in whichever direction she turns the wheel. In the operation of that wheel, women are highly sophisticated; they live according to the policy that offense is the best defense, whence their incessant barraging of men’s skulls with accusations of cynicism and so forth. [But they will already know, why?] There’s no more spoiled creature in the world than a woman, be she single or married. That is the truth. And when you watch films from developing countries, [of] starving people, the camera always makes a beeline for the women; in these films you almost never see any men, who are probably loafing about like living skeletons in just as many thousands and hundreds of thousands, but the camera immediately focuses on the hungry women and children, right? There must be a reason for this as well. How is this an example of sexual discrimination against women? [
So] One never encounters in the [ Sahara] the kind of thing you’re talking about.
FLEISCHMANN: Women are still, for example, paid less for doing the same work as men, even in
BERNHARD: Well, first of all, I am not at all convinced that they get as much work done as men, and if you go into a factory or an equivalent kind of business, the managing director will be able to prove to you, in all candor and as dispassionately as a pair of scales, that they absolutely do not. And it is not in women’s nature to do so; they are simply not as productive as men. They may be as every bit as productive in their own bailiwick, but not in any other sphere.
FLEISCHMANN: But it actually all depends on which angle you look at it from.
BERNHARD: You have your diabolical feminist angle[, your corner of the room,] and from that corner you constantly throw little darts at me, but you forget that I, thank God, am wearing a kind of medieval knight’s suit of armor that they invariably rebound from slightly, right? But this was all proved centuries ago: that in any kind of physical work, a woman gets tired in three-quarters of the time a man does; in other words, on any assembly line, when the men are still fully operational, the woman is already trembling and dropping everything and putting everything together the wrong way. In every industry, in every trade, it’s like this. And I absolutely refuse to devote any serious scrutiny to their [performance] in the intellectual sphere.
FLEISCHMANN: Why not?
BERNHARD: [Because] in that sphere women are simply too emotional. They are almost entirely lacking in objectivity, as your living self proves by simply sitting there opposite me and sticking tenaciously to what has long since been [shown to be] transparently false.
FLEISCHMANN: So once again the world is being divided up: men have intelligence, and women have emotions…
BERNHARD: Men are in the more favorable position, because they have intelligence and emotions, haven’t they? That women have emotions nobody but a madman will dispute, but one is almost always safe in doubting whether they have intelligence. And when one scrutinizes feminine intelligence closely, which it is possible to do by way of their writings, because they’ve hardly produced any scientific work at all—one actually finds that are hardly any scientific or philosophical treatises by women; they simply don’t exist—so all the female scientists who have ever existed have only ever served as assistants to male scientists, right? So when you take a good look at their highpoints: Marie Curie’s work is one of them, but at bottom it was her husband’s brains [that were responsible for it]; she was the handmaid who only helped to bring it about. It was the same way with Lisl Meitner—at the moment I can think of only two highpoints—she, too, was only an assistant of a great male scientist. But when you [examine] the intellectual work that they have made public —perhaps they’ve kept all [their real work] hidden away for centuries, I of course have no way of knowing about that; I can talk only about what they’ve [actually] produced—their intelligence turns out to be really nothing but emotion. There have of course been women who applied themselves to subjects [normally] treated by men—Ricarda Huch and Isolde Kurz and all the rest of them right on up to Hannah Arendt and whoever else. And above all, they have sought out manly subjects; just as bad writers opt to write epic-length Westerns, women have always fixated on the great men of world history, on Herculean figures. So their works are always perfect specimens of emotional outburst, but for some reason they’re never intellectually rigorous enough by half. But it makes no difference. And whatever mind they’ve ever had has always been pedantic in essence, it’s always tacked on in the footnotes, most of which are subsequently denounced [as plagiarisms], thank God. Always an honest [modus operandi]. Plagiarism with footnotes is of course something honorable. One does women nothing but good in incessantly telling them that they have emotions but no intelligence, and one does them no good whatsoever in conceding to them that they have any kind of intelligence, because then one exposes them to winds that are stronger than they can withstand. Naturally, they tumble over straightaway, don’t they? Have you ever once seen a woman who has piloted an ocean liner across the
Atlantic? No. You’ll never come across a woman in any cockpit in the sky, in any flight crew that wants to minimize its chances of crashing, will you? You’ll never come across them there, because they are so muddleheaded, because they start to panic right [after takeoff]. When women are driving, seven or eight bumps are enough to make them insufferable. In any case, to sit in the passenger’s seat when a woman is driving is to undergo a trip through hell, because at bottom they are [simply] not cut out to drive. Women, I find, are at bottom not cut out for anything even slightly intellectually demanding, and driving in traffic naturally makes quite substantial demands on the intellect.
Here I terminate the conversation, as I have been chauffeuring him in every which direction all over the
to his complete satisfaction, as he has assured me each and every day. island of Mallorca
For our last day of shooting we have resolved to have a conversation at Bernhard’s favorite café, the
. To start with he demonstrated—as [he did] so often—his independence. The location and lighting established for the shot are not right for him. He wants to sit so that he can keep track of the goings-on inside the café and on the street. To our cameraman Wolfgang Koch’s objection that in the final television image he will have a huge halo around his head, he responds with a dismissive wave of the hand and a good-natured smile, and says, “Well, then, you’ll just have to do your best; I’m sure you’ll figure something out!” Miami
later underwent a change of ownership and traded its light and airy look for a somber and pompous one, Bernhard laconically remarked, “Now I’m through even with Miami .” Palma
He never went back to
BERNHARD: Aha, this will now be acoustic again. An acustica from the villa rustica, with the principessa with grandessa.
FLEISCHMANN: Why are you always cracking these kinds of jokes?
BERNHARD: I’m constantly asking myself that very question. Whenever I crack one, I ask myself, “Why did you do that?” And that question is itself a joke, because it’s a witty question, and so the one joke lends the other a hand, from one joke to another. You crack fewer of them than I do, even if every now and then you do crack one. But one person is literally born to be constantly cracking jokes, one right after another, and another person is born to crack fewer.
FLEISCHMANN: How is this affected by aging? Does getting older make a person essentially sad? Does he crack fewer jokes or more of them?
BERNHARD: You yourself of course have come to be older than you once were, and aging is naturally different for each person. There are of course people who can’t abide jokes and [who] throughout their lives frantically try to avoid cracking any; such people exist. I myself have relatives for whom all joking is out of the question, and whenever they genuinely can’t help laughing, they look around to make sure nobody’s seen them laugh at a joke. They themselves would never crack one. But I of course can’t really crack jokes either. At bottom jokes are things one hears and then tells to other people. My jokes are actually wisecracks, and a wisecrack at bottom is really just a poor man’s joke. These wisecracks of mine are simply half-jokes, like half-lives. They simply aren’t proper, finished jokes. A proper, finished joke is something that you have heard, that you have taken great pleasure in, and that you subsequently repeat over and over again wherever you go. Then you naturally end up telling bad jokes, right? But of course I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
FLEISCHMANN: OK: so it’s wisecracks [and not jokes] that you crack, [but] why?
BERNHARD: I do it compulsively [=zwangweise], right [? It’s] compulsive wisecracking. Being in a straitjacket [=Zwangjacke] makes one wisecrack compulsively, doesn’t it? And since everybody’s in a straightjacket, everybody wisecracks compulsively, right? On the other hand, one might also say that it’s funny that inside of the last half-minute you’ve let a mouthful of cake go down the wrong pipe, right? That’s funny [=witzig]; it’s no joke [=Witz], but it’s funny.
FLEISCHMANN: What does this straitjacket of yours look like anyway?
BERNHARD: Only you can see it, when you’re looking at me, right? But you see how cramped and crippled I am, and everything that comes out of me looks that way—namely, cramped and crippled. Doesn’t it? (laughs) Don’t you think so? Don’t you? Well that’s really curious. It’s usually like that. And people actually notice it immediately. This suit of medieval knight’s armor that one is wearing, [this suit which is] so crustaceous, a shell by which one is [completely] enveloped. Why is your hand shaking like that?
FLEISCHMANN: My hand isn’t shaking at all, but your foot is constantly stamping on the floor…
BERNHARD: I do indeed always beat time down there with my toes when I'm speaking up here. Haven't you ever noticed? Naturally, you can hardly look at my mouth and my feet at the same time. In my case the two are perfectly harmonized with each other; they’re contrapuntal. I have to do this, because I'm a musical creature. I beat time to everything I say, my time with my feet. The only time one can’t do this is when one is lying in an operating room and strapped down, right? But one is also not so talkative there. Haven't you heard it? My time-beating down under? All right, I have to be musical. I've already said that. When I can hardly speak a word, without giving time with my toes, I have to be musical. It’s become part and parcel not only of my flesh and blood, but also of my hand and foot, right? I do it with my thumbs as well. But that’s a quirk of mine [.] Look: ‘Ei’ is always with the thumbs apart, [for] ‘O’ I close [them]. You learn that in your foreign language classes. O—that goes down, ‘Ei’ and ‘I’ is up. But you don’t see what the foot’s doing with that. It’s holding the whole thing together. The same way with everything I say…has something symphonic about it: always. Don’t you think so? It actually appears that people of an unhappy and tragic [cast of mind] are quite a bit more musical [than others]. Not for nothing are people [choked up] by music, because music is all about tragedy and sorrow. Supposedly everybody dies with music in their heads, I once heard. When everything’s gone for good, mind, people, memories, there’s always still music. And when a person’s clinically dead—[it’s even been] proved, you know what that means, “clinically dead”?—there’s still music in him. First and foremost the maggots come then and keep the music going. They come first into the corner of the eye. How many players there are in that orchestra!—on this person who’s already been dead how long, right? Because the first maggot hops in there, into the corner of the eye, already at the first second of death. But it can’t precisely be ascertained whether [it’s] the left or the right one. And that’s the crux of the problem for the forensic pathologists, because they’re still quarrelling today about that, about whether the first maggot springs into the left or the right corner of the eye. And there are symposia on it, that’s very fashionable nowadays, there are these Symposia on the Corner of the Eye. There was one in Gastein last year. But they didn’t figure out which of the corners [the first maggot] actually sprang out of.
FLEISCHMANN: There are of course also literary symposia.
BERNHARD: I don’t go to those, but I was quite happy to go to the Symposium on the Corner of the Eye.
FLEISCHMANN: What did you do there?
BERNHARD: Well, I attended the forensic pathologists’ symposium on the timing of the maggots’ eruption from the corners of the [human] eye.
FLEISCHMANN: But what did you learn [once you got] there?
BERNHARD: Well, [I learned] about death, naturally. “What happens to a human being after he’s dead,”—that was what they talked about. And one person stood up and said, “First comes the first worm,” right? And the rest of them were all enthused, because all of them had maintained the same thing up until then, and were confirmed in the certainty of their knowledge by this assertion. Then comes the second maggot, then the third; and the more quickly time advances, the more, the faster, the maggots naturally multiply. At the end there are only maggots left and nothing else. But one has the feeling, at a microscopic level, when one contemplates [the whole thing], that every maggot is playing a specific instrument, right? One of them fiddles away on a violin, another plays the cello, and a third one plays the piano.
FLEISCHMANN: The maggots’ quartet.
BERNHARD: Well, sure—a quartet up until the fourth one; upon the arrival of the fifth maggot it’s already—as you will have learned in music theory class—I daresay it’s already a quintet. What is it when the sixth one shows up? A sextet, then a septet, an octet—I never knew that when I was a child; I always pronounced it achtet; and people would say to me, “What are you, some kind of idiot?—the word is octet.” I straightaway reduce everything, every single idea, to a sum, for fear of being—here comes another rhyme—for fear of being [thought] dumb. It’s money that one has to cry out for as early and immediately as possible, because unless you scream at something your desire for it to approach you it will never come.
FLEISCHMANN: And you’ve always done this?
BERNHARD: I’ve never given much thought to it; it’s just the way I’ve always spontaneously behaved. When I was child they were already constantly telling me, “If you want money, you’ll have to ask for it straightaway; and when you see money, you have to snatch it up, because certainly nobody’s going to give you any.” One learns that early on from one’s parents. Unless you steal from them or threaten them and get them worked up into a tizzy, they won’t give you a damned thing. Children are of course quite cunning [when it comes to getting money]; later on one actually becomes much clumsier. Little children of course threaten [adults] with bloody murder when they don’t get their ten groschen to spend at the fair, and then they get a half a schilling. All that [is] always the same.
FLEISCHMANN: How were you as a child anyway? Did you also make threats?
BERNHARD: Childhood is of course not only invariably a threatening period, but also a period of threatening. Children naturally threaten parents much more than parents [threaten] children, because children are of course much craftier than parents. Parents, even young parents, are pretty much already ossified because by the time you turn twenty, the process of ossification is already underway, and children are completely raw. They have veins that are still smooth and unobstructed, and everything flows with miraculous ease through them, to every part of them. That’s why children see much more clearly. And adults of course live only in their imaginations, and children live for real, that’s the difference. Beginning at twenty you live for the most part only in your imagination. You actually live [vicariously] through books, through what you’ve learned, what’s been told to you. At bottom, people over twenty live through literature, for the most part no longer through reality. That lasts only till the age of twenty—children, young people under the age of twenty, live in reality. And old people actually live through a literature that’s completely yellowed [with age], logically. It’s like something out of some primeval library; and that’s what they live through, through dust and dry-rot. And children have always won the first prize. What do you still want to know? I really would like finally to be serious; I genuinely would like to do something other than crack jokes and make fun of things. I would like finally to discuss something serious with you.
FLEISCHMANN: What[’ll it be] then?
BERNHARD: Well, I don’t know. You have to bring up something serious, and then I can confront it with my [own] seriousness. Not confront it, but rather greet it; confrontation is of course a terrible thing.
FLEISCHMANN: Of course you don’t want this at all. Of course you have no desire to be serious.
BERNHARD: Yes I do; I’ve been trying to be serious the whole time I’ve been here. For fourteen days I’ve been trying to be genuinely serious. And I actually am quite serious; I am totally serious, essentially. The totality of seriousness. But you look at me like that, and somehow my seriousness…slips into unseriousness. Which naturally means that I suffer, because I’m actually happy only when I’m serious. But you rob me of this happiness, which is in fact my greatest happiness, using nothing but this Palman-gaze of yours. [You] really [do]. But when we went to the cemetery we became serious for some reason; the hints to become that way were certainly faint enough there. Graves, which are ordinarily quite serious things, were there quite cheerful. No sooner did we leave the cemetery, and find ourselves [back] in the madhouse, than our seriousness once again vanished. And for eight days now we have been unserious—I love seriousness. Not Ernst Meister [=a German writer whose name literally means “Seriousness Master”], but seriousness as one’s master, the master from
, not the Master from Austria . And this [master of mine] is once again death; it’s always the shadow of death, which naturally accompanies me at all times, and which I love for that very reason, because [in accompanying me] it guarantees my seriousness, doesn’t it? Death for me is like a long cape. One that I pull behind me whenever I’m walking. In other words, I’m not wearing it[:] it clings to me, and I draw it along behind me. Unfortunately, again, this isn’t serious. You rob me of my seriousness. Germany
FLEISCHMANN: Do you think about death in order to be capable of being serious?
BERNHARD: I generally don’t think about death, but death is constantly thinking about me. “When shall I carry him home?” Of course that’s [looking at it] from a different perspective. But I’m terribly loath to go home. “To go home” is the same thing as to die, and hence to be dead. “To be at home [is] to be dead,” said Pascal long ago. “When you’re at home, you’re dead.” Eternal repose, eternal at-homeness, is death. That’s why I’m so loath to go home. Because I have the feeling that when I get home, he’ll already be standing there with his black hand, and I’ll be walking through the front doorway—I always picture, whenever I’m walking through the front doorway of my house, this Curd Jürgens-like hand— [Curd Jürgens is an actor]; you know who he is: death in Salzburg with those skeleton fingers—and I walk in and then, “Cr-r-r-a-a-ck!” I feel this constant pressure here. Because of that I also have, if you look closely, a sunken shoulder here, because of this pressure of death. It can’t be taken away from me, or operated away either, at bottom; it’s my fear, which sits on my right shoulder like a—(laughs) well, the little bird of death, which has taken a permanent perch there. The whole thing of course can also be put very seriously, as I was planning to do. If instead of saying “little bird of death”—if instead you say it’s just “death.” Meager concepts that you can [reduce] with a single word to a cup of coffee, although, yet again, that’s not serious, right? Because if you can compare death to a cup of coffee, it’s again not entirely serious, right? Although naturally you can compare everything to everything. Literally. [Ingeborg] Bachmann was quite taken aback by this, because once I said to her—she was sitting on her bed, and I was sitting next to her—and I said to her that you can describe everything as being similar to literally everything, and everything is also simultaneous with everything. And that is naturally very irksome. How does one cover the pope—we were in
—how does one cover the pope with a coffee cup or tea cup when it’s the same thing? But one can by all means switch terms. Such that I could imagine a coffee cup on the papal throne at St. Peter’s, and the pope on the coffee table, right? Such that one could drink out of the pope and [be granted] an audience with the coffee cup. One can without further ado interchange [the two of them] if one wishes. If one has the requisite locomotive of seriousness. Rome
FLEISCHMANN: Can all concepts be interchanged like this?
BERNHARD: They can [indeed]; in this nature’s true charm or greatness consists. The human drama of course consists in the fact that not only are human beings determined by their upbringing and education and, above all, by literature and concepts, but [also] nailed down to concepts. Everybody has nailed-down concepts in his brain, and everybody is constantly tearing through the surrounding world [with these nailed-down concepts in his brain]. That’s the real drama of the world, isn’t it? Writers are [especially] like this. Omnipresent nails and concepts. Death, life, love, chastity, lust, all of that. That’s the real drama. Well, anyway: at this point some people cross their fingers, and I hold my tongue.
FLEISCHMANN: But are there no longer any such things as truth and falsehood?
BERNHARD: Those are both fully interchangeable; moreover, you’re absolutely correct whenever you call a truth falsehood, and absolutely correct when you call falsehood truth; but a judge wouldn’t see it that way, would he? Truth and falsehood are indeed the starring attractions in the world’s courts of law. The philosopher has nothing to testify before a court of law, because the judge is a philosopher-envying little man under a heavy—the cheapest possible, but still heavy—black cowl, and of course he hates everything apart from himself because everything depresses him. You can’t get very far with somebody like that. And if he has a sore throat, well then, you get an extra year; if he has a headache, you get two extra years; if he’s got cancer, you get a life sentence, because he’s so hopping mad. And if he’s in a good mood, well then, you get off with the minimum sentence. But because all judges are always in a bad mood, and I’ve never seen a judge in a good mood, it’s almost always the maximum sentence, because they’re all suffering from cancer, because their wives are always putting it into their heads that “Just you wait and see, you’ll come down with cancer,” right? It’s the ruination of the world, and the malady of jurisdiction. I of course have had a great many dealings with judges. I’ve always observed them standing at the buffet nibbling away judiciously; afterwards they’ve convicted a couple of poor people, and the more people they’ve convicted the better they’ve felt, haven’t they? Two sandwiches for one convicted defendant. That’s how arbitrary the [whole system is].
FLEISCHMANN: It’s also very subjective yet again.
BERNHARD: Everything is subjective and false[,] naturally. That is of course quite clear. I have never maintained that I’ve ever said anything that was true in any sense or judicious is any sense. So there you are.
FLEISCHMANN: You once wrote that one cannot describe oneself, that there’s no such thing as self-description. And yet just now you produced a self-description and a self-representation.
BERNHARD: A self-description can only ever be a self-reflection; so instead of “self-description” one would really always have to say “self-reflection,” right? Because all [reflections on oneself are reflections of oneself, reflexes of one’s self]. But I have no problem with anybody else’s calling it that [i.e., a self-description]. Given that there’s no such thing as truth and no such thing as falsehood and everything is [wide-]open—four billion people are four billion worlds, right? Thus no two people see the world the same way, because all four billion of them are completely different from one another, right? And two people who have four blue eyes will see everything absolutely differently. That still doesn’t mean anything at all. Do you want something serious? Yet you can hear that I’m talking the whole time, but even I don’t know what I’m saying, do I? Just ask a person if he knows what he’s saying, why don’t you? Even if he answers by giving you a lecture, right?, the whole thing will nevertheless be false, from beginning to end—a hash, as they say.
FLEISCHMANN: What questions do you ask yourself?
BERNHARD: I have, I believe, so far never asked myself a question. And the simple, so-called questions that get asked on their own I have no need to ask.
While the film and tape reels are being changed, we talk about the ORF, the costs of this production, and about the fees that are or are not paid to authors.
BERNHARD: Such enterprises always seem to me like some giant conveyor belt with all these splendid objects on it, and one always bashfully averts one’s eyes and doesn’t grab anything. It’s as stupid as that, isn’t it? One should allow one’s hand to roam the entire length of the conveyor belt and always try to clear away everything from [it]. Everything that they own, that they possess, and that they’ve been hoarding up for decades. These companies could pay salaries of millions of schillings to everyone, and not a single fee under a million schillings, because of course every single human voice is priceless. Whatever is uttered by a real human being is priceless; at any rate, it can’t be counterbalanced by [any amount of] money. And when I picture to myself a word on the right pan of a pair of scales, and [some] money on the left pan, no matter how much it is, [it’s not enough to raise the right pan.] Everything given. Every word a gift from
, Palma Mallorca.
FLEISCHMANN: If words are worth so much, what are thoughts worth?
BERNHARD: Well, thoughts are worth nothing whatsoever unless they’ve been turned into words, because thoughts are ubiquitous. The whole world is of course practically choking on thought. A thought becomes worth something once it been turned into words, but it’s especially worthy when those words are spoken, because the spoken word lives. And a word that’s written down on paper has actually been dead for a very long time; of course it’s basically worthless. But it’s really only the written word that people will pay for, because the world wants to be swindled, right? On paper a word is pretty much just a swindle, but a living word, with all the vibrations that the throat imparts to it—you’re familiar with that, right? You’ve studied medicine, right?—that is really worthy, irretrievable, priceless, naturally. Or [consider] how much two words of Goethe’s, “More light,” are worth, right? So for the past 150 years they’ve been appearing in all the schoolbooks and everywhere [else]; how insanely expensive are those two words? [Whereas] I’m convinced he didn’t say “More light [=Mehr licht],” but rather “No more [=Mehr nicht],” because he’d had enough. But nobody will [have] that. A German prince of poetry can never say “No more” at the end of his life because of course it smacks too much of suicide, and a suicide can never be made into a prince of poetry. And so as shabby as his world and his immediate surroundings were, people naturally made “no” into “light.” Which was indeed [a] very simple [thing to do]. It’s the greatest falsification in the history of literature, this transformation of “no more”—which in his mind would ultimately have been a logical inference—into “more light.” With light it goes a lot farther, unfortunately. But everything lives off of falsification, everything. Everything written is falsification. Everything written and everything printed, these [documents] are all falsifications, right?, even birth certificates. It's all contestable, everything printed.
FLEISCHMANN: And what about the theater—is it, too, not contestable? Is it worth anything?
BERNHARD: I said “whatever is printed.” A person who produces unprinted theater is doing something of immense value. Printed theater is not worth much. A falsification but an event in the annals of printing. Occasionally quite beautiful, but mendacious. And the value of the theaters is determined by the town councils, the financial backers, who have of course assessed the precise monetary value of their theater. The [treasury department] determines the value of a theater, who else? And the [broadcasting network] determines the value of an author in that it fixes the honorarium, right? At, I don’t know, twenty groschen a word, or whatever. But would you say that what I’m saying now—that each word [of it] is worth only twenty groschen? You personally don’t think that, but it’s impossible to teach [those] people that it’s worth more than that. The lot of them ought to be beheaded.
FLEISCHMANN: Who [ought to]?
BERNHARD: Well, all these enterprises ought to be made headless, really. That would be a revolution, a genuine one. That was what impressed me so much about
, how they arrested Spinola; at around in the morning all the managers were arrested, [all of them] in the entire country. There was no bank manager, no manager of the post office; all heads had vanished, and the torsos were [left] standing there helpless, right? At the time I was at Cook’s, in other words at a travel agency, and I was talking to the manager—he must somehow have been a straggler, because while I was talking to him, they led him away; they beheaded him right in front of me, didn’t they? That struck me as a brilliant idea. But unfortunately this revolution, like pretty much every other revolution in history, collapsed. It simply wasn’t made real, wasn’t made good on in reality. A brilliant idea typically isn’t for everybody. Isn’t that true? Isn’t it? Portugal
FLEISCHMANN: But aren’t revolutions also quite dangerous historically speaking?
BERNHARD: That’s what everybody always says. The general population, who are naturally stolid and pragmatic and own houses and funny outfits, or beautiful ones—they can also of course be quite beautiful—they’re always afraid of revolutions, whereas people who have nothing and go around naked of course have no need to be afraid; for them it’s an uplifting moment when the house of power burns down. That’s quite good, but everybody who owns a bit of something, be it even a single slice of bread and butter, wants to be able to consume it undisturbed. When somebody who has nothing [runs into somebody with something], he either beats him up or spits on him, which is unpleasant and repellent. Already as a schoolchild—in those days I always managed to snag an afternoon tea, a slice of bread—and no sooner had I gotten it than one of these have-nots in the interval would show up and say, “I’m going to get your bread no matter what,” and say it in such drunken tones, that I would always give it to him immediately. That was actually also a good method, wasn’t it? As soon as the revolutionaries realize that they have to spit on the general public’s property, that property is done for. To whistle at it isn’t enough; one has to spit on it. Right now you look as though you’re freezing to death.
FLEISCHMANN: When you say things like that, I do freeze inwardly.
BERNHARD: Oh, really? But it’s so nice and warm in
. The main point of this place is its November warmth, right? Of course that’s why all the old people come here. I actually feel primevally old myself. I’m a classical poet; I’m primevally old; that’s why I come here—to [this] warm [little] Palma Mediterranean [oven], right? But when I look at you, I start to freeze, and then I think to myself, “For God’s sake, why am I here?” Then I get the feeling that I have to run away from this place. In other words, you’re driving me away from . You are the fatal emissary from Palma . I really mean it. Because right now I am freezing. If one ignores this, the day after tomorrow I’ll be bedridden, [everything will follow its usual course], and I’ll wind up in the cementerio (cemetery) here. Which of course won’t be very nice; they [put you into] the stone chest of drawers and somebody writes your name in pencil, and three rain showers wash it away—it’s vanished! Vienna
FLEISCHMANN: And I suppose it’s beautiful when everything’s vanished?
BERNHARD: Well, sure: it would be more sensible if everything actually vanished completely, but of course that’s not what happens with decay—with decay you can still take a peek in twenty years on; in any case you can still make out the basic outlines.
FLEISCHMANN: In your case, of course, there’s also what you’ve written—that will endure.
BERNHARD: Oh, yes: I forgot about that; that’s true. Well, now my mind is once again at ease, because I know that I’m immortal. And how! You didn’t know that at all, did you? But now I’ve told you.
Source: Thomas Bernhard--Eine Begegnung. Gespräche mit Krista Fleischmann (Vienna: Edition S, 1991).
Translation unauthorized but ©2011 by Douglas Robertson