Monday, June 29, 2015

A Translation of "Midland in Stilfs," a 1971 Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

Midland at Stilfs

Outsiders, people not in on the secret of our upbringing, are inclined to regard our demeanor, when the Englishman is here, as an insane demeanor; they, we ourselves, are inclined to regard our atmosphere at Stilfs as an artificial, insufferable atmosphere.  Even though we exist in perpetual fear of our friend suddenly seek using out—for the entire year from one moment to the next we dread that happening at Stilfs—we are thinking at the same time the whole time: if only our friend were really suddenly to turn up, wouldn’t that be something!, for nothing is more frightening, for none of us more menacing at this time of year, especially towards the end of winter, than to be here at Stilfs, in the hills, or rather, in the mountains, which reign supreme as manifestations of absolute nature, over long, indeed the longest stretches of time, to be here alone, dependent entirely on ourselves, without a single interloper, a single foreigner.  We dread, indeed we loathe visitors, and at the same time, with all the despair of those who are cut off from it, we cling to the outside world.  Our destiny’s name is Stilfs, everlasting solitude.  In truth we can count on our own fingers the people who seek us out every now and then in the capacity of so-called desired persons, but we are afraid of being sought out even by these so-called desired persons, because we are afraid of everybody who could conceivably seek us out; we have developed a colossal fear of being sought out by some other human being even though there is nothing we await with more desperate eagerness than some other human being’s—and we often think: it doesn’t matter what sort of human being, let him be an inhuman being for all we care—seeking us out and interrupting our montane martyrdom, our lifelong exercitation, our solitudinous inferno.  We have made the best of existing on our own, and yet we are always thinking somebody could come to Stilfs, and we don’t know, when somebody does seek us out, if it is senseless or detrimental, or detrimental and senseless, that this person is seeking us out; we ask ourselves whether it is necessary for this person to come up here to Stilfs; whether it is not an ignoble violation of our code of solitude or our salvation.  In point of fact, we think of most of the people who make it up here, the few who still dare to trust themselves around us at all—experiences and rumors of course make it difficult for them to screw up the necessary resolve, render them incapable of seeking out Stilfs—as vermin.  Once such a person is gone again, we meditate all day long on the degree of destruction he has induced in us.  At such a time we say nothing and attempt by means of our silence and redoubled and retripled manual labor in the stables and on the barn floors and in the woods first to tolerate and then to palliate and nullify the paralysis that this visitor has induced in us.  When we are suddenly assaulted in the shortest time and with the utmost force by one of these surprise visitors, when we intensify our attention to our domestic chores, work one another to exhaustion in our manual-laborial exaggeration, we become conscious in the most horrifying manner of what a colossal punishment Stilfs is.  The truth is this: the thing which we wish to escape from, but which is imprisoning us with ever-greater ruthlessness, has grown into an insuperable permanent condition, Stilfs, which we of course love out of habit, but also for rational reasons abhor with the utmost profundity, indeed loathe with a downright humiliating obsessiveness; this, thing, Stilfs, is what is sought out by these people whom we have known from our earliest, early, and later childhood and post-childhood, from the most various sites of holidaying and studying, who seek Stilfs out for the most various purposes, for recreational or defamational or demolitional purposes.  These people, to a man and a woman, are unrelated to us; our relatives no longer come here.  And in the future they won’t either, and even if they do it will be only against their wills for the purpose of dying or securing a legacy.  The people who seek us out are not related to us, and we query ourselves for points of contact.  All these people are nothing but nosiness personified, and the majority of them talk loudly and misuse everything, and yet, we think, it’s nice for a change to have different turns of speech from our own, different thoughts than our own, at Stilfs; then we think, nonetheless this person has let us down, now we are traitors to ourselves, for days, for weeks, we think why didn’t we throw this person over the wall within the very first hour etc.  To us the visitors who come up here signify a waste of time and hence disaster.  There are, however, some of them, the fewest of the few, the rarest of the rare, who make us happy.  The Englishman is such a visitor.  But even he, when he is here, talks about what Stilfs is, says that we do not know what it is, that we do not own up to what it is, that we loathe Stilfs, that we incessantly defame Stilfs in the most criminally egregious fashion, etc.; he cannot comprehend, and why should he?, that for us Stilfs is satiety, apathy, despair.  Repose and the possibility of concentration, he says; these are words that we have heard time and again, that are familiar to all of us, who know that Stilfs is the opposite of them.  What is more all these people commit the felony of garrulity, of telling us incessantly, at every opportunity, what Stilfs really is, what we don’t realize that it is, these people who live year-round on moronically trustful terms with the entire world and satisfy all their needs in the big cities.  As some imbecile of a layman flush with all the brazenness of the present age and with unbridled arrogance tries to explain to a craftsman his own craft: thus do our visitors try to explain Stilfs to us.  Everything that comes out of their constantly open mouths says that they know what we do not know.  They are incessantly replying to questions regarding Stilfs that in their opinion we have incessantly posed in exactly complementary phrasing, even though we have never posed a single question regarding Stilfs to our visitors.  Because we know all about Stilfs.  Our visitors’ opinions regarding Stilfs are of no interest to us, because we have been acquainted with it for centuries.  But even the Englishman, who all told has spent no more than fourteen days and nights at Stilfs, tries to explain Stilfs to us.  The Englishman says that as he walked away from the grave of his sister, who exactly fifteen years ago today plunged headfirst from the high wall into the Alz to her death, he became conscious that we, and he means not only Franz and me but also Olga and Roth, all of us, exist in the most ideal locale.  He says that he cannot imagine a more ideal locale for us.  Indeed, he suspected us of deliberately keeping silent about the fact that here at Stilfs we were developing in ideal conditions; probably, he openly conjectured, we had jointly or separately accomplished scientific work that, in being commensurate with our clear heads, was of enormous value.  He was joking, of course; he said “epochal intellectual produce,” but he meant what he said, in all seriousness.  He says that he feels when he is here at Stilfs, when he is walking across the courtyard, when he is inhaling and taking into consideration everything subsumed under the concept of Stilfs, he perceives the colossal dimensions of the material that we, Franz and I, have already processed under the auspices of a science that has long since ceased to be alienating, a science that even in reality we have not given a thought to in a very long time.  He supposes that we had completed a book-length work of natural history but that for reasons he cannot fathom we declined to publish it.  We were entrenching ourselves behind our shyness of the world in the most senseless fashion.  He said that what was no longer possible outside Stilfs for him or any other person was possible here.  He said he had proofs of our development, that everything about us was proof that we were as advanced as we only allowed ourselves to dream of being.  He said that in our midst at Stilfs he felt like a laggard.  That everything he had ever done was still snarled at the rudimentary stage.  That all attempts on his part to cope on his own with the primordial rubbish in his brain had as it were foundered on the shoals of external nature.  That all his life the megalomania of an environment of confirmed ruthlessness had been a lethal disaster for him.  In the big cities merely in order to avoid being suffocated by their feeblemindedness he had been compelled to expend, squander, all his energies on social life, without, however, managing to live at all as a consequence.  (“The masses have been worn and torn away completely!”)  We, though, were saved, he said, saved at Stilfs; we had recognized Stilfs for what it was, we had pounced on it, the most precious of all possessions.  He said the future was already present to us, a future free of obstructions.  Franz, he said, was going his way, and I was going mine.   At Stilfs, he said, everything concerning us was clear to him, hyperclear.  And how untrue everything he says is; the opposite of what he says is the reality.  Minor difficulties, he says, lest we should be frightened to death by him in our good fortune, and he paints on the wall a list of Stilfsian virtues for us, nothing but a succession of gruesome blemishes and a couple of ludicrous ones, but the minor difficulties and blemishes that he enumerates to us—thoughtlessly, we feel—are in reality the greatest ones imaginable, and Stilfs is, as I said, not any sort of ideal thing, but rather lethal to us.  Our existence is a lethal existence.  Stilfs is the end of life.  But if I say what Stilfs is, I will be taken for a madman.  For the same reason Franz also refrains from saying what Stilfs is.  And Olga is not asked and Franz is incapable of answering.  Naturally we are all insane.  But if a person is incessantly asserting something that is not only completely untrue and omits no opportunity of adducing this assertion, if indeed at bottom and in reality he exists only in virtue of this assertion, in every case only any longer in virtue of this assertion, then one’s nerves are tested to their very limits.  Stilfs!  I of course, as I know, just like Franz, at the moment at which I, like Franz, was sentenced in the coarsest and therefore most inexcusable fashion to Stilfs and to the Stilfsian penal system in force, regarded even my most elementary thoughts from the point of view of insanity and relinquished them.  To be sure I, like Franz, still believed down in Basel, in Zurich, and in Vienna, that at Stilfs, which I more than any other person always regarded as an embodiment of stillness and meditation, whereas in reality it has never been anything but a high-elevation hotbed of invariably extraordinary dim- and dull-wittedness, a center of cultural dull-wittedness, that at Stilfs it would be possible to think what I could not think in Basel, in Zurich, in Vienna, and finally in that thoroughly intellectually malnourished town of Innsbruck, that what was impossible for me (and Franz) in all those university towns would be possible, namely to develop in a manner commensurate with my utterly auspicious intellectual talents, and Franz also believed that he could be saved from academic inconsequentiality down below by diving headlong into this Stilfs that was waiting for us up here, that frightfulness would be turned into fruitfulness, imprecision into precision, unclarity into clarity on this estate sited on the lofty, trust-inspiring mountain, that mental oppression would be turned into mental elation, etc., but I was mistaken, and Franz also was mistaken: at Stilfs nothing has issued from us but the pitifulness of two utter washouts.  Down below we thought of amelioration.  Up above radical deterioration had made its entrance.  At night I often wake up and say to myself: at Stilfs you have annihilated yourself!, or: at Stilfs they have annihilated you!  Stilfs is nothing but masonry, rock, the breath of balderdash.  Stilfs is nothing.  And the people come up here and tell us what Stilfs is.  They come up here with their perverse intellectual short-circuit, like the Englishman, the son of wealthy parents, who is now, as I observe him through my window, pacing up and down the courtyard.  I see him; he does not see me.  “To apply the lever, to change the world, at Stilfs!”—that is what I hear him saying.  He arrives inside and goes to his room and takes a bath and talks about the ideas that he has (and that we do not have) and about how he believes everything is going to be actualized through the realization of these ideas.  He uses German as skillfully as English, uses both of them so well that one would think he had always spoken both of them.  French words are stationarily present, subordinated to a rhythmic principle, in his German-English sentences.  He does not expect anybody to interrupt him.  He revels in his own art of formulation.  He imparts a steady, unvarying intonation to his voice, as though he were occasionally adding and withholding emphasis at unexpected places out of principle.  One immediately thinks, this is a man who is inured to the most exacting demands.  From Franz comes metaphysics.  It would appear, he says, that by now Stilfs has turned into an entirely political mind.  Civilization, he says, is interfused with illness.  He says that science does not yet know how to describe the illness.  But that the illness is a terminal one.  The highest velocities in his head.  About writers he speaks with intellectual coldness.  About philosophers with contempt.  He says that he detests science as well as the Church.  That nowadays the common people are also nothing but bellyaching dullwittedness.  That creation is destruction.  The manic fanatic talks of clearing the old furniture out of all the nation-states.  Thus speaks the man who a couple of hours ago said that everything was obnoxious in the extreme.  What an incredible fascination this man exerts on me, I think, this man who is endowed with all the hallmarks of a world that for years we have known only by hearsay, a world about which we, to be honest, no longer have the faintest notion, a world to which, indeed, we would not venture to return if we were suddenly granted the possibility of returning to it, to the world, which has already become completely incomprehensible to us and from out of which Midland with his own peculiar art of surprising has surfaced all of a sudden, as if upon the outer shell of an adamantine mass of infinity, at Stilfs, in which there is no longer an out there or a down there for us; I observe him as in a rapid series of gestures he—what a young, good looking physique, I think—sketches a geometrical figure on the floor of the courtyard, which has been dyed a cold, artificial green hue by the morning sun, as he, a Briton to the core, whose father twenty-five years ago studied with my father at the University of London, which was then still struggling with their insignificance; I observe how the Briton, apparently ever-mindful of the effortlessness with which he is capable of endowing the mastery of his own body with ever-more-refined elegance, bridges the interval of time in which he is at Stilfs, the handful of hours before he sets off again.  It is, I think as I observe him, his habit to affix the thoughts that preoccupy him to his brain by means of prearranged and too-loudly-uttered words pertaining to these thoughts, a habit by means of which a precise distribution of all the thoughts in his brain is to be attained.  Although throughout the evening he spoke on the most various topics, rhapsodized about a heap of news from England and elsewhere in Europe, I noticed that there was but a single thing that interested him: how it would be possible for him to misrepresent everything that his brain had appropriated in the course of nearly three decades, and had accumulated in the same period in the most decisive fashion, as a product of his own entirely unique self; for years he had been thinking nothing but of ratifying that colossal arsenal of ideas, which he had acquired from nature and which was already brimming over, by means of a work in black and white, a work that would also be derived from the external world and hence from the world outside his own mind.  It is not without significance that he, probably without being aware of this circumstance himself, often utters the word actualization, and nearly everything he says has to do with the concept of realization.  Then he leaves, this man who once a year visits the grave of his sister.  He himself says that he feels nothing at his sister’s grave, that her face is no longer conceivable for him, that after so long a time he pretty much can no longer picture his sister at all; that when he stands next to her grave, he feels nothing but the embarrassment that every grave-visitor feels, that self-loathing, self-contempt wells up within him on these occasions.  That the cult of the dead is unappetizing in the extreme, more repulsive than any other cult.  But he says that it has probably been a very long time since his dead sister, who has long since ceased to be present to him in any sense, has been the reason he comes to Stilfs every year; this dead woman with whom he did not enjoy a particularly close relationship even during her lifetime.  He says that it is not his sister, but rather Stilfs, whereas until now it has not been Stilfs but rather his dead sister.  That his sister, “that nullity under the stone slab of that grave” (Midland), seemed a complete stranger to him during her lifetime; that he never loved her, let alone had any attachment to her; suddenly once she was dead, after the accident—and even in connection with that he no longer recalls the death itself but only the circumstances that led up to it, the mountain ledge, the roar of the Alz—suddenly after her death, he had been harrowed by guilt.  He said that all the while his sister had been living beside him, as he put it, he had paid her no mind whatsoever.  That she had been a person quite devoid of substance for him, that she had always seemed to him an individual of absolutely no concern to him.  That by now even this guilt had turned into a habit.  That it was not his sister that kept him coming to Stilfs; it was Stilfs.  That it was us.  That he came to Stilfs.  That he was delighted.  Midland, I think, who is always close enough to being in a good mood to get back into it every time; unlike us, who no longer ever allow ourselves to be in a good mood, let alone to enjoy what he calls the lust for life.  I have often seen the Englishman laugh and when he laughs he is not at Stilfs but in England or some place even farther away from Stilfs, and I see him in my mind’s eye, as I often do in moments of deep despair; I see him laughing.  He says his father was “a facetious person,” his mother “a wicked falsification of the miracle of nature.”  The art of surprising.  Not a trace of fatigue, even though he had just traveled from Nepal in the course of a single day; he was full of impressions of his journey, impressions with which he—a person who is incapable of retaining whatever is dammed up within him for more than an instant under any circumstances—bombarded us immediately and ever more pedantically until five in the morning.  He often derives the most unalloyed enjoyment from something that we can never even bring ourselves to find bearable anymore.  He reads books, newspapers, the oldest as well as the newest among them, with the greatest attentiveness, which is why he has such interesting things to talk about.  He never tires of studying the incessantly changing world, and as he studies it, he criticizes it, multiplies it, divides it.  He is an elucidator of general as well as particular intellectual insanity; he lines up one experience after the other, and in the end in every case he sees nothing but lies, deceit, abysmality, infamy.  His mistrustfulness is superlatively dexterous.  He says he would not be an Englishman, a Midland, if everything did not have two sides for him, two sides of which one never knows which is the greater, the grosser, the baser, in its vileness.  The Europeans, he says, are deeply mired in their own complexes, and they will never manage to extricate themselves from these complexes; their histories are now definitively concluded.  Revolution in Europe, he says, is mere horseplay; it is only indurating and obsfuscating something that for centuries has been nothing but pure agony.  But today, he says, not only Europe is at its end, at the end that “we are privileged to be living through”; the world itself is at its end.  And yet at the same time, he said, this was opening up enormous possibilities, an extremity of concentration on outer space, on the immensities of the universe.  Unlike the others, the Englishman is not forever coarsening his utterances; in point of fact in his total, transparent fearsomeness he amplifies and illuminates everything he talks about; unlike other people, he is not forever hemming in his talk; he makes each of his topics into an infinitely expansive topic; whereas other people’s topics are forever dwindling, in most conversations, as we know, the topic shrinks down to a puny scrap of subject-matter, and very quickly to nothing.  To and fro, to the well and back, the Englishman paces and waits for Franz or me to tell him that breakfast is ready, that he can come in.  In observing him I get the impression that he is well-rested, even though we did not retire to our rooms until six in the morning; after that, I think—and the thread of light under his door proved it—he stayed up another hour reading a book.  I reflect that after only two, three hours many young people can be completely well-rested, can have gathered enough energy to normalize their minds and bodies, whereas we, Franz and I, although not Olga—and Roth also needs plenty of sleep—have to sleep six to seven hours, which means that we go to bed relatively early; that we have to run the farm, as we always have done, not to mention the correspondence relating to the farm, that we have to converse with all sorts of doctors regarding Olga, with the district and regional law courts regarding Roth.  Originally, two hundred years ago, this farm was meant to be staffed by two or three-dozen servants and laborers, but we run it, in its original form, on our own.  And we run it with greater intensity than our predecessors, even though it is less profitable; indeed, every day it becomes clearer and clearer to us that agriculture, especially at such an altitude, is a completely pointless enterprise.  Running a farm like this is suicidal.  For decades, and this is the truth, we have been overworked completely pointlessly; that is the really horrible thing.  But there is nothing left for us to do but work ourselves to death here.  What is more, we are aware that the whole thing is ridiculous.  At the end of each day, we are exhausted, and we have always been, as long as we have been at Stilfs, exhausted; at Stilfs we have only ever existed in a single state of exhaustion.  Our natural state is this state of exhaustion.  Against our wills we exist in the extremity of exertion, which induces fatal exhaustion.  The moment we were sentenced to imprisonment at Stilfs—sentenced by the dread powers that be, our parents—we thought, if we are going to have to spend the rest of our lives here at Stilfs, as we are already too weak to think of escaping, we might as well not let Stilfs fall into ruin.  And so Stilfs is impeccably intact; its farming infrastructure is intact, but its residential buildings are not intact.  In point of fact, the degree of neglect in the residential buildings is extreme, unimaginable.  Whereas the farming infrastructure is now in better shape than it ever has been—because we have long since concentrated on nothing but the farm; the farm is the only reason we are still here; we have long since totally surrendered ourselves, by which I mean totally surrendered ourselves for the sake of the farm—the residential buildings are more dilapidated than any other such buildings I have ever seen.  Everything about them makes a demoralizing impression, an extremely demoralizing impression; the floors and ceilings are sagging; specifically they look as though they are sagging under the weight of the mice that are proliferating beneath and above them with incomparable ferocity; the walls and the furniture are the very picture of neglect, and their interiors are permeated by a foul stench that seeps into the surrounding air, such that their vermin, teeming in the billions, now reign unchallenged in every nook and cranny of them; everything is dank and musty and you feel as though you are bound to suffocate.  As for the furnishings, those potentially highly valuable remnants of our ancestors’ idyllic flight into the realm of taste: they are entirely beyond our expertise.  Every object in every room has been abandoned to the ravages of time for literally decades.  For example: the upholstery of the wing-chairs in our drawing room is now completely in tatters.  In the cabinets and chests of drawers there are heaps of sawdust.  Over the years the paintings on our walls have fallen down of their own accord, and by now for the most part we don’t even bother picking them up.  After every tremor that erupts from the earth—and the earth trembles several times a year at Stilfs—the devastation gets a little worse.  We no longer lay a finger on anything.  We never pick anything up; we climb over it.  It must be told that all our rooms are cluttered to the bursting point with baroque and Josephine artifacts—there are tabernacle chests and secretary desks all over the place; I shudder to think of our mother’s mania for the Empire—with tables and chairs, etc., etc., along with heaps of the kitschy bric-a-brac of childhood.  In the briefest of instants, I think to myself, everything here at Stilfs has been smashed to pieces, has been rendered irreparable for all time.  If we really wanted to conserve, to safeguard, this thing that has kept us from breathing for decades and in the midst of which all of us have always believed ourselves destined to suffocate, this thing that is nevertheless basically the most valuable thing at Stilfs, namely its interior furnishings, its arty-crafty trinkets, the majority of which are three hundred, four hundred years old and hail from every corner of the globe, these hundreds of heirlooms made of the costliest noble woods, not a few of which heirlooms were conceived and constructed specifically for Stilfs over several years by craftsmen who must be regarded as artists; if we really wanted, I say, to conserve, to safeguard all this stuff in the midst of which we little by little grew up possessed by an initially hazy and then ultra-suddenly pellucid and hyper-elementary hopelessness, two-dozen people would have to be employed round the clock on this work alone, quite apart from the fact that the outbuildings like the huntsmen’s house, the conservatories, etc., are also here, that they too are literally falling into decay day by day with even greater finesse, and will continue to do so until they have fallen into decay in their entirety; money would not be allowed to play any role whatsoever in this, even though it of course plays the most important imaginable role in everything, and we ourselves would be required to bring to bear expertise on this thing that over time has been ruined by time, even though in reality we have not the merest scintilla of such expertise.  Everywhere one is reminded by all these art-objects on the floors and on the walls of the fact that Olga, who loved all these things, has been confined to her invalid’s chair for ten years and is effectively no longer present here at all.  Olga reproaches Franz and me for our brutish and dimwitted disposition to these art-objects.  In point of fact, all our lives we have found these furnishings of ours oppressive and have loathed them.  If everything is an anachronism nowadays, as the Englishman said yesterday, what a mighty anachronism must Stilfs be!  It would be logical, it would be self-consistent, Franz said yesterday evening, for us to skedaddle at a second’s notice, for us to kill ourselves without hesitation, because, as Franz said, the sole possible logical act still left to us was to kill ourselves; it made no difference how we did it, the quicker the better, but we are too weak to do it, we talk about it, and quite often we talk for hours, days, weeks on end about it; to be sure we think, to be sure we know how senseless it is for us to keep living, for us to keep existing, but we fail to kill ourselves; we fail to follow the examples of those who have already killed themselves; and quite a number of people our age have, for quite ridiculous reasons, as we know, already killed themselves, for reasons that seem incredibly ridiculous when compared with our reasons; we fail to kill ourselves and each day we fight another running battle with every possible manifestation of pointlessness, we waste the day on pointless handicraft and on dissecting our memories, we plague ourselves and feed ourselves and terrify ourselves and do nothing else and that is precisely the most senseless thing in the entire world, the fact that we plague and feed and terrify ourselves, that is the most repellent thing of all, but we fail to kill ourselves, we make suicidal thoughts our only thoughts, but we fail to commit suicide.  We had already had our supper when the Englishman, who is now standing in the courtyard, suddenly, without knocking—the doors and gates had not yet been locked and bolted—turned up in the drawing room.  Franz and I had just had a talk about Roth, who over supper had once again threatened to burn Stilfs to the ground.  We had drawn the lad’s attention to the fact that he—and here we pointed at him—could be locked up merely on the basis of this threat, locked up for years, we said, and we added that it was up to him to decide whether he preferred to be locked up in the asylum or in the penitentiary; whereupon he calmed down and promised not to burn Stilfs to the ground.  We are quite fond of the lad and need him; we provide him with meals just as we provide ourselves with them, and at bottom he is better off at Stilfs than anywhere else, as nowhere else can keep a madman, especially a madman as burly as him, so well fed with such a minimum of fuss.  If he were not at Stilfs, he would have long since been left to the company of convicts and lunatics.  This place is the most important thing that he knows, and as long as he doesn’t burn Stilfs to the ground and stops stabbing the cows with the kitchen knife and stops inflating the chickens with the bicycle pump until they explode, the fact that he is insane will make no difference to us.  We are well aware that Roth is a problem, but we ourselves are a problem for ourselves and our problem is a bigger one.  We have conferred about the fact that it is getting ever more difficult to curb Roth’s excesses, that we cannot allow ourselves to forbid him his visits to the guesthouse--in the summer he swims in the Alz in his shirt and trousers and walks soaking wet all the way to the inn--to the contrary, he must be allowed to go into the valley and through the Alz and into the inn whenever he likes, because however late at night he comes back, be it at three a.m. or even later, he is always completely pacified by then.  If we did not have Roth, utter chaos would reign at Stilfs and Olga would have nobody to look after her, for as it happens we, Franz and I, cannot be bothered to look after our sister; we forget about her most of the time, but Roth does her many kindnesses that surpass the minimum necessary duties.  He is a hard worker who, when he is instructed resourcefully and with good humor, performs to our satisfaction the toughest jobs, the most arduous jobs, the most thankless and unthinkable jobs.  Because we work just as hard as Roth does and do not spare ourselves the most oppressive tasks, he has no dodges at his disposal.  He respects us.  His parents died young; his father hanged himself; two years ago his only brother bet ten schillings that he could swim across the Mur when it was in flood, and because he actually dived into the Mur—the Roths are Styrians—he drowned; ever since then Roth has complained about no longer having anybody in the place he comes from.  His best and only friend threw himself in front of a train in March.  The Englishman lingeringly perused the obituary and the accompanying picture of the unfortunate man.  Doomed to suicide, Roth’s friend, an inmate at an asylum, had been released from the institution every weekend so that he could visit his parents; the last time instead of returning to the asylum he went to the railway embankment.  The Englishman said that Roth’s friend had pitched himself in front of the train on no other date than March 11, his birthday.  Roth inherited the unfortunate man’s clothes, among which was a pair of lederhosen whose legs go all the way down to his ankles.  Now the only clothes Roth ever wears are those of his dead friend; immediately upon the arrival of the Englishman, Roth had donned the suicide’s Sunday best and gone down from Stilfs to the inn via the Alz.  He had already taken his leave and the Englishman had given him a tip, a pound note, as he always does during his visits.  He has always given Roth a pound note; by then Roth had already rushed out to the stables and killed the three chickens that we are going to eat today; on Saturdays he kills the chickens that we eat on Sunday; he swings them round above his head with his outstretched arms and decapitates them.  Already clad in his Sunday outfit, every single garment of it, he directed the Englishman’s gaze to a point just below the drawing room door and said that the chicken was perfectly normal but for the fact that it was missing its head; he picked up this remark from Franz, who used to make this remark all the time, until he suddenly got sick of it, at which point Roth adopted it.  Thoughts of previous visits by the Englishman—who now gives me the impression that he doesn’t know whether he is supposed to wait for us or come in of his own initiative; he is waiting for the invitation to come in for breakfast; nobody is calling him, Franz is not calling him; I am not calling him—thoughts of his previous visits obtrude upon my mind as I stand at the window and observe him; it is possible, I think, that down in the valley, at the inn, people are waiting for him and he wants to leave; it may also be the case that down on the bank of the Alz he left a young woman, a girlfriend, to spend the night on her own at the house of one of those impoverished people with rooms to let, for here at Stilfs he only ever shows up on his own, and never with others; it would not be the first time people had stopped off at the guesthouse down below—two years ago a group of Swedish archaeologists, north Germans, Italians (he is friends with so many people from all sorts of countries) were waiting for him—while he was up here at Stilfs.  On no account, he once confessed to me, would he ever come up to Stilfs with another person.  I reflect that Franz, too, is standing at his window and observing him, that Olga is observing him from up in the first floor, that Roth is probably also observing him from a window in the stables.  Whenever the Englishman is here, he infects us with his restlessness.  We owe him stimulation, so much food for thought, so much news.  But he has no sense of our paltriness and pitifulness.  To the contrary.  All his previous visits have given us much to think about, months of mental nutriment.  In point of fact he always comes at just the right moment.  What could we possibly know of events down below, when we are absolutely isolated up here.  In reality it has been more than a year since Franz and I last went down to the Alz.  Roth alone still maintains personal contact with the world.  But he always comes up from the inn full of the same trashy rumors.  It is Roth who takes the milk to the Alz.  Roth carries the provisions that we need, matches, sugar, spices.  It is Roth who reads the newspaper down in the valley.  We ourselves have not read a single newspaper in years, because one day in the blink of an eye, after decades of being smitten with newspaper-reading, we came to abhor the reading of newspapers, and ceased to permit ourselves to read them.  We strictly forbade him to bring any newspapers up here to us.  But when the Englishman brings us newspapers, we pounce on them as though dying of hunger for newspaper-reading.  We don’t listen to the radio.  We enjoy listening to music, but we are never in our sister’s company; at most we see her once a day, when we say Good morning or Good night.  If only the Englishman knew how far we have already estranged ourselves from everything.  But it would really be pointless to tell him the truth, in other words to tell him the truth in order to convince him of it.  For what purpose would it serve to swear to him that our existence is no longer anything but a bestial existence.  It has been years since the colossal library--in which three enormous bequests of books have been consolidated, one from the brother of one of our great-grandfathers, the doctor in Padua, one from the brother of our maternal grandfather, the judge in Augsburg, and one from our uncle, our mother’s brother, who owned some mills in Schärding—it has been years since this colossal library was last entered by any of us.  If only the Englishman knew how much we loathe the very act of reading.  When he is here, we mimic his interest in written matter; when he is gone, we have not the slightest interest in it.  If only he knew that we have locked up the library and thrown its key into the Alz!  If only he knew that!  If only he knew that we have a made a virtue of the necessity that Stilfs is to us, that the moment we realized that Stilfs marked the end of our development, we did everything in our power to accelerate this end.  We do not kill ourselves, but we accelerate our natural end, which is most certainly not a natural end.  At Stilfs, I think, the Englishman is surrounded by cluelessness.  But Franz is right when he says we cannot take the Englishman into our confidence, for the moment we do that we will destroy the thing in him that we find so immeasurably valuable; perhaps we will even destroy Midland himself and the consequences of that would be the very dreadful ones we dread.  If the Englishman stopped coming to Stilfs, we would await his arrival in vain.  We make him privy to everything except the truth, but in this case nothing is more exigent than the lie.  We cannot get away with making his Stilfs turn into its antithesis, into our Stilfs, in his eyes.  Franz often warns me against saying too much, for nobody is more strongly tempted to say everything about Stilfs all at once than I am, because the Englishman is the person to whom I am most strongly inclined to say everything about Stilfs; the Englishman is the person, the first person, to whom I would divulge what I cannot get away with divulging to him, the truth, but Franz more than any of the rest of us suddenly and unwarily says or does not say what one can or cannot get away with saying to Midland.  To the extent that we do not tell the truth about our situation, and fail to vouchsafe anybody, even the Englishman, a glimpse into our lives, we are concealing a secret, a secret of which the Englishman is incessantly speaking, a secret that is actually directly opposed to what he supposes it to be.  The proof of this will come and can only come from our deaths, when it will be seen that we never existed independently of disorder, of an unimaginable chaos.  To call everything into question, he said yesterday.  Everything is nonsense.  There he goes, I think and I think how crazy this man is, this man with whom Franz and I have nothing in common but our age and otherwise nothing but diametrically opposed qualities, this donor of unease, this caller into question.  He may indeed even think, if he thinks, as I do, that everything that we, Franz and I, and he himself as well, along with everyone else in existence, are made of—namely, the past—is dead.  And yet at bottom it is this thought alone—namely that everything that is, meaning everything that has been, is dead, that even the present, because it is, is by its very nature dead—that preoccupies all of us, all human beings, exclusively, whatever they do and wish to be and in the midst of that which they term life, being, existence, progress, advancement and divestment, because they are incapable of calling it anything else.  Scarcely any other human being is more of a stranger to us and scarcely any other is nearer or dearer to us than him.  Because he thinks in and speaks several languages and has these languages at his command as a highly musical and mathematical art, he is superior to us.  Thanks to us, he believes that if he had been confined to a single locale and a single field of knowledge, he would have long since managed to erect a rational edifice of colossal dimensions.  But confinement to a single field of knowledge, specialization, is not possible for him, probably because it is anathema to him.  He is a person who has to be constantly correlating everything with everything and incessantly judging everything in terms of everything.  Therein lies the root of his inability to develop any of the thousands of ideas that are constantly and quite naturally merging into one another in his brain, that brain trained to pursue the universal.  There he goes, I think, he who speaks of the ancient as well as the modern human and social sciences as if they were a compost heap in which evil causes engender even more pernicious effects.  There he goes, he in whose eyes the axis of the universe is not straight.  How often this man has injured me, and how often must I have injured him, I think.  For ruthlessness, the unabashed thinking-ahead-butt, has often been the only means by which either of us can get away from the other.  Intellectual intimacies, said the Englishman tonight, obtained between people like us.  By which he meant, of course, that unnatural ones obtained between him and me, and the most natural ones possible obtained between him and Franz.  He explained himself; we understood.  He said that Franz’s way of thinking, his views, were diametrically opposed to his own way of thinking and views, but in a completely natural way; and that my way of thinking and views were just as precisely diametrically opposed to his way of thinking and views, but in an unnatural way.  That every word that we, Franz and I, said when we were together with Midland confirmed that we had different fathers.  That our contrasting kinship through our mother was decisive.  That it had been our lot at some time, at some place, to suffer the catastrophe, the circumstances, that were the worst circumstances of all, to have been born into this world.  That he uninterruptedly sensed in our demeanor how reluctantly we resided in the truth.  That it was this misfortune that had to be bridged if one approached us, spoke with us, before reaching us.  To be sure, he said, nobody had yet dared either physically or mentally to approach us in an attitude utterly devoid of suspicion.  And this suspicion, which had always been a quite specific kind of suspicion, had strengthened over the years; this suspicion, he said, would someday become impossibly aggravated in the briefest amount of time, would even make it impossible to make any sort of contact with us.  In a state of absolute contactlessness, but possibly the most ideal of states, in an ideal condition reproducible by ourselves alone, we would someday, he said, be able to actualize our goal completely unmolested.  It would be wrong to describe yesterday evening’s chat, which in reality was a farrago of thousands of precipitate thoughts, as a conversation.  Yesterday evening we saw quite clearly that what we think is vaguely similar to what he thinks, which was precisely what we found so refreshing.  But whereas last night it became quite clear that the Englishman still has a future, it also became clear to us, Franz and me, that we no longer have a future.  If only one of us still had the strength to descend from Stilfs just once, to turn his back on Stilfs, to surrender ourselves to the mercy of the world below, I think, to leave Stilfs behind for good, even at the cost of incurring the accusation of having thereby committed a crime against our sister Olga, who is utterly dependent on us, of having annihilated her!  What is impossible for me and too late for me ought still to be possible for Franz and not too late for him, but everything is too late for both of us.  The moment when what is no longer possible, escaping from Stilfs, was still possible, now lies so far back in time for us that it cannot even be specified anymore.  Of course, like the Englishman, we once believed that Stilfs was our salvation, that its conditions were the ideal conditions for us, and when we saw and understood that Stilfs was not our salvation, that its conditions were not and never could be the ideal conditions for us, that to the contrary, it spelled our annihilation, we began hoping that Olga, who by then was already completely incapacitated, would die.  But she has not died; who knows when she will die.  And now that all three of us are weakness incarnate, there would no longer even be any point in abandoning her.  It is all a question of time and this question no longer terrifies us, because we know we have reached the end and that life no longer has any point for us.


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 111-132.  Originally published in Midland in Stilfs (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971).

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson

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