O Lord God grant me the grace to produce a few good verses, which shall prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.
Charles Baudelaire, “At One O Clock in the Morning”
What would a commitment to art that has passed through the postmodern critique of art look like? The recent return to aesthetics has largely proceeded by either denying or ignoring this critique. Pierre Bourdieu presents the postmodern case in perhaps its most elegantly distilled form. The tradition declares art is about experience; actually it is about status. The tradition declares great art is timeless; actually its motives, meanings, and effects are circumscribed by the conditions of its production. The tradition declares the value of art is produced by formal relations within the work; actually it is produced by social relations between antagonistic groups.1
The new aesthetic criticism reverses these reversals. The experiences and affects provoked by art are not covert claims of status; they have their basis in living bodies.2 Artistic form is not a disguise for social relations; it offers an opportunity for analyzing those relations.3 The aesthetic is not the means of establishing social distinctions, but “the site of an unprecedented equality.”4 The artwork is not bound to its social context; artistic form enables the work to maintain relations across time and space.5
The extrication of art from the postmodern critique—perhaps institutionally necessary for a profession that bases its claims to social value on the value of art—has been aided by the critics’ critics. We have learned from critics like Bruno Latour and John Guillory how to be suspicious of the epistemological grounds of postmodern suspicions.6 We have learned from critics like Michael Fried and Rita Felski to be suspicious of the sleight of hand with which postmodern writers and artists make the possibility of absorption or defamiliarization vanish from their works, thus showing what postmodern theorists cannot prove.7 With the help of these critics, we are learning how to carry art over or around the postmodern morass.
But what would it mean for art go through it? How can art accept that every aesthetic experience or judgment is a fraudulent disguise for social relations without becoming anti-art, without dedicating itself to the exhaustive (and now exhausted) exemplification of the critique?8 How might art learn from the postmodern critique? How might it benefit from the exposure of the falseness of its effort to defeat time, to create experience, to renew sensation? How can it possibly learn from this exposure without dying of it?
From the depths of the postwar period’s most rigorous critique of art, in the midst of its most relentless exposure of every actual and imaginable artwork as “pseudo art,” Thomas Bernhard looks around at the assembled cultural elite of Vienna and finds them guilty of “pretense,” “social climbing,” “lies,” “desperate” bids for “social recognition.”9 This Austrian writer, who began life under the nazis, devoted his late work to exposing the experience of absorption in a work of art as a form of social domination, and the creation and consumption of artworks as concealed pleas for social distinction.10 And yet, this dismissal of every artwork that passes before him is not only compatible with a commitment to art as the highest human value, that commitment motivates the critique. His most damning attack on his contemporaries is that “they’ve quite simply failed to achieve the highest, and as I see it only the highest can bring real satisfaction” (W, 54).
Written in the 1980’s, Bernhard’s Woodcutters is not unusual in its insistence that the audience’s relation to art works is a disguised way of relating to others. It is unusual in taking this condition as a challenge to art to realize its pretensions. The urgency of this challenge is not purely or merely artistic. The postmodern critique of art relations as disguised social relations is so damning to art precisely because the social relations in question convulse with anxiety, compulsion, degradation, and pain. Imbrication in the social world compromises art because the social world described by the postmodern critique is inherently compromising.
Bernhard agrees with critics like Bourdieu in denouncing art’s covert parasitism on the networks of social status. But he disagrees about what to do. Bourdieu wants to jettison the ideal of the aesthetic as disinterested attention to form. This might annihilate some forms of snobbery. But it is hard to imagine that settling accounts with Kant will do much to change the social world’s basic nature as a hierarchy founded on fear and pain.11 Bernhard, with a deep understanding of how art has been infected by the social relations described by postmodern critics, reacts more rationally. Don’t get rid of art; get rid of social relations.
The satisfaction of the highest art for Bernhard thus defines a human space both replete with value and outside society. In this it does not look so different from the Kantian ideal of aesthetic experience. But there is a crucial difference. For Bernhard, accepting the truth of the postmodern critique means accepting that every relation between an artwork and an audience becomes enmeshed in status relations. Bernhard faces the consequences squarely. The “real satisfaction” of art can never be achieved by the audience of a work, but only and solely by its creator.
The speaker of Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters—whom I follow the Austrian courts in identifying as Thomas Bernhard—has been invited to an “artistic dinner” following the funeral of an old friend.12 His hosts, the Auersbergers, are friends he broke with several decades ago. Upon entering the Auersbergers’ apartment, Bernhard takes a seat in the semi-darkness of the anteroom, a position which affords him a view of the music room where the other guests have assembled. As readers of the novel have noted, his position is that of a critic viewing a performance.13 He proceeds over nearly two hundred pages, without paragraph breaks, to present his damning judgment on the Auersbergers, their friends, himself, and all actually existing art.
A typical passage, on the furnishing of the music room, will illustrate his procedure. He notes that the chamber is furnished with priceless antiques. But these objects are compromised by the Auersbergers’ intention in displaying them, which is to convey to others their own superior taste. “The Auersbergers, who have always been credited with what is called taste, have never had any real taste, but only a secondhand surrogate, just as they have no life, but only a secondhand surrogate” (W, 138).
Why is their taste “secondhand?” Because they want people to admire them, “when in fact people admire only their polished cabinets and sideboards, their tables and chairs, the many oil paintings on their walls, and their money” (W, 138). Their taste is “tasteless” because it is an effort to acquire social distinction by means of the distinction possessed by art objects. The dim lighting of the apartment accentuates the objects’ role as status symbols. Bernhard can recognize the famous names, the celebrated styles. But there is light enough only for him to identify the aura of prestige, not to become absorbed in the forms.
Literature, philosophy, and music are not immune to the mania for self-aggrandizement that degrades the furniture and paintings. Bernhard recalls the scene when the Auersbergers forced themselves on his attention in the street in order to invite him to their tasteless party on the eve of their mutual friend’s funeral. “Before rushing off with all their parcels they told me that they have bought everything by Ludwig Wittgenstein, so that they could immerse themselves in Wittgenstein during the coming weeks” (W, 10).
But to describe the works as compromised by the use to which the Auersbergers put them is to leave open the possibility that the beautiful works themselves are worthy objects of genuinely good taste. To remove the Auersbergers’ paintings from the Auerbergers’ clutches—to install them in a well-lit museum, perhaps—would be to free them for disinterested contemplation. Bernhard quickly forestalls this possibility. He expresses gratitude that the dim lighting prevents his being able to see “these art treasures” properly, “for I would undoubtedly have been sickened by the sight” (W, 139). The very perfection of the art treasures is another, distinct source of their tastelessness. “Such perfection, which hits you in the eye and crowds in upon you from every side, is simply repellent” (W, 139).14
Here the sociological critique joins with an older anti-theatrical critique to proclaim that taste itself is tasteless.15 It is practically impossible to escape the fact that the sole function of these art treasures is to proclaim the wealth and sophistication of the social-climbing couple. But even if you could bring yourself somehow to bracket the Auersbergers completely, and to place yourself before these masterpieces in rapt attention, the objects themselves would betray an intrinsic tastelessness. Masterpieces demonstrate their “ostentatious” lack of taste in the brutal way their very beauties force themselves upon you in a desperate effort to compel your attention (W, 139).
One of the innovations of Bernhard’s novel is to house the sociological critique of taste in the context of the anti-theatrical critique. Most of the novel unfolds while the dinner party is suspended, waiting for hours for a “celebrated actor from the Burgtheater” to appear. Some of its funniest pages are devoted to attacking the theater, describing, for example, how not just the “sensitive Kleist” but “even the great Shakespeare falls victim to the butchers of the Burgtheater” (17). Bernhard’s critique of the Burgtheater follows the same procedure as his critique of the Auersbergers’ “art treasures.” The Burgtheater is known to be one of Europe’s best theaters. This distinction is tastelessly exploited by the Austrian nation to distinguish itself as a center of world culture. But even were one able to bracket the Burgtheater’s function in the cultural status hierarchy of Europe, the very perfection of Burgtheater acting would “sicken” you by the way each word and gesture proclaims its “pretense.”
Bernhard can link a Bourdieu-style sociological critique of art to an anti-theatrical critique of art because both the sophisticated collector and the actor depend on the pretense that they are not doing what in fact they are doing: asking you to recognize them. People make judgments of taste in order to be recognized by others. Painters paint paintings, actors deliver lines, poets write poems in order to be recognized by others. The objects they create come into the world deformed by their attention-grabbing fineness of line, color, and phrase.
The anti-theatrical critique can contain the sociological critique because it is more radical, more wide-reaching. The Auersbergers’ taste is tasteless because they want you to recognize them as superior, and this claim to be superior is offensive. The ostentatious perfection of their art treasures is tasteless because they clamor to be recognized, and this clamor to be recognized is itself offensive.
The Auersbergers’ demand for recognition turns the Auersbergers half-lit masterpieces into monsters. The masterpieces’ own demand for recognition turns themselves into monsters. And social life, oriented as it is around the demand for recognition, turns people into monsters. “For more than two decades,” Bernhard writes, he had avoided the Auersbergers and thus avoided “any further contact with these monsters as I could not help calling them privately” (W, 44). Later he describes people with a noun that more accurately represents the “unnatural” distortions caused by the desire for recognition. People are “gargoyles” (W, 172-3).
Art is infected with the social disease.16 The problem with artworks is that they ask to be treated like people. The problem with people is that they demand to be recognized. As Michael Fried has shown, the history of art is tolerable for the anti-theatrical critic only insofar as he allows himself to be convinced by a given work’s pretense. The pretense is that it is not asking the viewer to recognize it. Art thus pretends that it is not pretense. Bernhard tries this out as a social strategy.
“Actually I’ve always dissembled with the Auersbergers, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and here I am again, sitting in the wing chair and dissembling once more: I’m not really here in their apartment in the Gentzgasse, I’m only pretending to be in the Gentzgasse, only pretending to be in their apartment, I said to myself. I’ve always pretended to them about everything—I’ve pretended to everybody about everything. My whole life has been a pretense…I drew a deep breath and said to myself, in such a way that the people in the music room were bound to hear it: You’ve always lived a life of pretense, not a real life—a simulated existence, not a genuine existence” (W, 60).
To be present at a social gathering is to present a claim for social recognition. Bernhard, despising the social demand that one must turn oneself into an object to be appreciated by others, tries to duck making this claim. So he pretends not to be at the artistic dinner. Structurally, this is identical with the way the viewer before the work of art tries to forget his position in front of the work. The viewer with good taste tries to lose himself in contemplation of the work. So Bernhard sits in the semidarkness, observing the dinner as theater. He tries to lose himself in this observation. He gradually becomes absorbed in the pretense that he is not there. Finally he becomes so absorbed in his pretense that he succeeds, he truly does forget himself. At this point he begins speaking aloud, attracts the attention of the other guests, and thus spectacularly demonstrates the failure of his pretense and the reality of his social presence.
Bernhard is a gargoyle. His own social being as a subject tied to a pathetically recognition-soliciting object is just as monstrous as everyone else’s. This is vividly brought home in an episode where he remembers seeing Auersberger and a companion in the street.
I recalled how I had turned around, quivering with revulsion, and set off towards the Stephanplatz after the pair had disappeared into that dilapidated building. I was so sickened by what I had just witnessed that I turned to throw up against the wall in front of the Aida coffeehouse; but then I looked into one of the mirrors of the coffeehouse and found myself staring at my own dissipated face, and my own debauched body, and I felt more sickened by myself than I had been by Auersberger and his companion. (W, 14)
Art has a social problem. Art has caught the social disease. This is the truth of the postmodern critique. Relations to art works are always disguised forms of relations between persons. The passage where Bernhard pretends not to be in the Auersbergers apartment is his experiment with the solution proposed by anti-theatrical aesthetics. Seen “accurately and radically” absorption is, in the end, only pretense.17 After and before its tricks, the work stands there asking to be looked at. In the same way, even so vehemently antisocial a man as Bernhard is, in the end, just another person begging pathetically for our recognition.
He struggles mightily against the social problem. He tells us that he has perfected “the art of being left alone” (W, 24). “At precisely the right moment,” when he is listening to someone speak to him, he looks down at the ground. But of course this behavior only succeeds in making a spectacle of himself. His “art of being left alone” suffers the same fate as the Auersbergers’ “art treasures.” In Bernhard’s prose we overhear art telling itself the postmodern truth: “You’ve always lived a life of pretense, not a real life.”
And yet, one of the works Bernhard describes in Woodcutters does attain a partial solution, and represents a partially effective cure for the social disease. One work is presented as not “totally” bankrupt. He tells us that Joana, the friend whose suicide provided the occasion for the “artistic dinner,” was once married to a “tapestry artist” named Fritz. Joana was “not cut out for a career” herself (W, 77). Instead, she put all her considerable artistic energy, all her artistic effort, into shaping and advancing Fritz’s career. And Fritz’s work was transformed. His tapestries became famous, and now hang in the best “museums and office buildings” all over the world.
“Fritz was her one work of art” (W, 78). “She fashioned Fritz into this colossal work of art” (W, 78). The narrator is utterly unimpressed by the value the world finds in what he disparagingly calls Fritz’s “carpets.” But he is fascinated by Joana’s creation of this Fritz-work. His reflections generate this remarkable passage:
I will go further and say that Fritz’s art, the works he created, all the tapestries which now hang in famous museums throughout the world, are really Joana’s, just as everything he is today derives from Joana, is Joana. But obviously nobody takes an idea like this seriously, even though of course such ideas, which are not taken seriously, are actually the only serious ideas and always will be. It is only in order to survive, it seems to me, that we have such serious ideas which are not taken seriously. (W, 79)
Bernhard spares Joana’s artwork from the intense sarcasm that drips from every other of his references to art. But he cannot describe Fritz’s career as an “artwork” entirely seriously, either. Here we see a modulation in Bernhard’s description of art, from sarcasm to “unseriousness.” In this modulation we discern the outlines of a new vision, the ultimate achievement of which we will see reflected not in the content but in the form of the novel. Yet even here, in this provisional and only partially successful art, the outlines of the “highest” form become clear. Joana’s Fritz work is different from other works in that it is structurally impossible for Joana to gain or expect recognition from this work. Channeling her creativity through Fritz, she has set up the visible form of the work at a distance from her creative relation to that work. Fritz’s visible authorship acts as a kind of fetish; he is a sacrificial victim taking upon himself the degrading recognition dynamic that is the fate of all art in the social world. What the audience sees in Fritz’s work is the work of Fritz. Joana’s animating intention remains concealed.
Joana’s Fritz work lies outside the networks of recognition. Its very existence as a work is not recognizable, but must be put forward as a kind of serious joke. Her authorship is concealed in a much deeper way than that of an artist who uses a pseudonym, or who allows another to claim authorship of a work she has created with her own hands. Joana does not create Fritz’ work with her own hands. She creates by somehow causing Fritz to create, by subtly influencing him in a thousand small ways over a period of years. This kind of authorship is something no court could recognize, something that no one could take seriously.
The aesthetic value Bernhard finds in Joana’s Fritz work—its authenticity, its lack of pretense, its purity—lies in Joana’s relation to that work. She is the creator of a work immune to recognition. And yet the concealment of authorship is not the only criterion. The form of the work also plays a role. Bernhard’s treatment of the aesthetic value of the tapestries themselves is very subtle. He acknowledges that they are acclaimed as beautiful. He does not admire this beauty; far from it, they possess exactly the kind of “perfection” that makes all taste—even the best taste—fundamentally tasteless. And yet this beauty is not irrelevant to the status Joana’s Fritz-work has for him. One can imagine that if Fritz produced tapestries which left everyone cold, Bernhard would not consider Joana’s creation of this career to be a “colossal work of art.”
Aesthetic values are formed in public, in the social world, and the aesthetic properties of observable artworks are fundamentally social phenomena. Here Bernhard is in entire agreement with Bourdieu, for example, and against Kant. Aesthetic values, however, are not extrinsic to the “highest” art, the art free of recognition. They matter, but only insofar as they provide evidence of the quality of the act of creation. Their value as something to be looked at, something accessible to an audience, is for Bernhard below negligible.
In fact Joana’s Fritz-work is only partially successful. Eventually this work, so far from providing “real satisfaction,” simply “crushed and destroyed her” (W, 78). This is because the work’s freedom from public relations is ultimately parasitic on a relation that is, if not public, nevertheless intractably social: her marriage to Fritz. Intimacy, and especially the “matrimonial hell,” is not a valued space for Bernhard in any case. But in this instance, her inflation of Fritz’s career brought him the adoring attention of the world, which made him susceptible to the wiles of a younger woman, with whom he absconded to Mexico, leaving Joana to the consolation prize Bernhard reserves for those who have searched nobly for satisfaction but failed. She commits suicide.
But reflecting on her one artwork has led Bernhard to articulate, for practically the only time in his late work, the core of his belief in the possibility of the highest art. “The serious idea which [is] not taken seriously” is that of a work of art not oriented to recognition, and the benefit of which is entirely realized by its creator.
Here we confront a problem that the thematic level of this text will be of only limited assistance in solving. The aesthetic value of Fritz’s tapestries is valuable to Bernhard only insofar as they speak to the quality of Joana’s act of creation. But what is this quality? It cannot be the Kantian quality, the disinterested feeling of pleasure in contemplation of the beautiful. Rather, we will see that this quality is fundamentally transformative. The satisfaction of the highest art is the feeling the creator has of becoming something other than a monster. The form of the work is the visible channel of this transformation.
Once the artistic dinner has finally come to an end, Bernhard takes his leave. He tells his hostess what a pleasant time he has had, while cursing himself inwardly for his nauseating pretense. Once he exits the building he begins to run. He runs through the streets, possessed by a strange excitement, a sudden feeling of “love.” Here is how the novel ends:
And as I went on running I thought: I’ll write something at once, no matter what—I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City—at once, I told myself, now—at once, at once, before it’s too late. (W, 181)
Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Woodcutters ends with the narrator about to write the narrative we’ve just read. The joy and urgency he now associates with writing, so anomalous in the context of the 181 pages of excoriation of art and artists that precedes it, presents a puzzle. Facing the prospect of composing the novel we’ve just read, the narrator seems enthralled by a premonition of the “real satisfaction” of the “highest” art. This satisfaction is, after all, almost the only positive affect that Bernhard has named in the course of delivering his stream of invective against the Auersbergers, their guests, and himself. It seems then, an appropriate name to give to the prospect that excites him as he heads home to begin the process of composition. So the deep question that confronts the reader at the end of Woodcutters is: Has Bernhard been justified in his premonition? Has the transformation that Joana approached actually been realized by Bernhard in writing the work we’ve just finished?
We have only the evidence of the novel. We know beforehand that we will not find the “real satisfaction” as a possible affective response by the reader to the work. So our own experience is quite irrelevant as an index of Bernhard’s success at attaining “the highest.” The satisfaction of the highest, if it exists, is foreclosed to us as readers from the outset.
We must instead seek traces of Bernhard’s satisfaction. We must go back over the book, looking for signs of the author’s successful disappearance from the social world, looking for evidence of the social Bernhard—the gargoyle-Bernhard—giving up the ghost. Approached in this way, the form of the novel might betray traces of what Bernhard has declared, at the level of content, to be the only “real satisfaction” possible in art and life.
In form the novel is uninterrupted first person narration. No quotation marks divide the unbroken speech of the narrator. He reports the speech of others without notation of any kind, and without departing from his characteristic tone and style. We have no access to others save through the narrator’s language.
A problem intrinsic to narratives of this form is the difficulty of discerning the difference between the narrator’s sense of things, and the way things might appear to others. Critics have traditionally dealt with this problem under the heading of the ‘unreliable narrator.’ But in the closest ancestor of Bernhard’s novel—the fiction of Samuel Beckett—this problem becomes magnified to a degree that ‘unreliability’ undergoes a change in kind. Here the problem of the novel’s enclosure within its narrator’s subjectivity takes on metaphysical features. The first person narration developed by Beckett and brought to its highest pitch in his trilogy brings into the world a kind of subjectivity that cannot be identified with—that cannot identify itself as—any object. Further, as we shall see, the closer this subject comes to any object, including any object (face, body, voice) likely to house another subject, the border where the self stops and the other starts vanishes.
Formally, Woodcutters represents a precise and limited transformation of the mode of first person narration defined by Beckett’s fiction. This transformation offers us the best evidence of the novel’s success in terms of Bernhard’s particular and demanding criteria. But why should our interpretation of Woodcutters privilege Beckett? At one level, of course, Bernhard’s indebtedness to Beckett’s work is obvious and has been noticed by most readers. The negativity, the pared-down language, the dark humor, the characters’ obsession with mysterious projects mark Bernhard as among Beckett’s successors both in prose and drama. But Woodcutters goes beyond these family resemblances in establishing a specific relation to one of Beckett’s texts in particular. This relation is worked out through one of the novel’s most peculiar formal features: the uncanny symmetry between the narrator and the actor from the Burgtheater. This symmetry replicates the way Beckett’s Molloy is balanced between the first person narration of Molloy and Moran.
Earlier I described how Bernhard’s hostility to the actor helps to situate the novel’s critique of art in the anti-theatrical tradition. Now I want to examine how his view of the actor undergoes a transformation. Bernhard’s expression of his thoughts regarding the bankruptcy of art, of Austria, of society, and of the Auersbergers dominates the first half of Woodcutters. The actor’s expression of his thoughts regarding the bankruptcy of art, of Austria, of society, and of the Auersbergers dominates the second half. The content of those thoughts is identical. The actor, repulsed by the Auersbergers and their guests, tells them: “You talk incessantly about art without having the faintest notion of what art is” (W, 167). He addresses a guest particularly odious to Bernhard in terms she “deserved,” and which the narrator reflects that he himself could have used. “Words like vicious, rude, insolent, hypocritical, infamous, megalomaniac, stupid, rained down on the company,” to the narrator’s delight, but also to his bafflement, given that these are his thoughts and feelings the actors is so uncharacteristically expressing (W, 167).
The actor expresses both Bernhard’s abundant social disgust, and his positive commitments. “We don’t attain the highest just by wanting it,” he says (W, 117). “Absurd ideas are the only true ideas,” declares the actor, mirroring Bernhard’s private insistence that only “unserious” ideas are worth taking seriously (W, 161). Finally, the actor links disgust with society with belief in art: “How I hate gatherings like this…How I long to be left in peace” (W, 169). Like Bernhard, he understands that escape from the social cannot be simply a matter of misanthropy and solipsism, but entails a radical transformation of the self. “If only I’d become a completely different person from the one I have become, a person who is left in peace” (W, 170).
It is important to note that Bernhard does not exactly hear the actor delivering these lines. He overhears them as the actor speaks, as it were, to himself.18 The actor really gets going only when he realizes that he has completely lost his audience, that he is no longer “inhibited” by the other guests (W, 118). Bernhard describes his audience thus: “Every now and then they nodded, either looking straight at the actor or gazing down at the tablecloth, or else staring in bewilderment at the person sitting opposite; they had no chance whatever of participating in the actor’s performance, with which he was regaling them so uninhibitedly, knowing that none of them could inhibit him” (W, 118). This is more than a performance animated by the fiction of an unawareness of audience. The actor’s speech is made possible by the audience’s incomprehension.
This “performance” scrupulously avoids both ordinary social intercourse and audience-oriented drama. Thus the actor’s speech has the same structure as the narrator’s own in the passage when he forgets himself, causing his private monologue to break into audibility. Earlier I used this passage as an example of Bernhard’s failure to completely disappear from the social situation. The actor, who wishes he had “become a completely different person,” also suffers from this failure. Uncomprehending staring is, after all, a form of social recognition, no matter how attenuated. Although he cannot disappear, the actor, like Bernhard, makes his effort towards the “art of being left alone.” And the speech that issues from this effort to escape the social, while not exemplary of the “highest,” nevertheless attains a kind of provisional freedom.
Bernhard is the one listener who does hear and understand the actor. But this is a strange kind of listening. He is able to hear the actor’s meaning only because he has been thinking—and occasionally muttering aloud to himself—identical thoughts. Uncertainty as to the space in which it occurs characterizes this listening. Is the actor’s voice inside Bernhard’s head? Is the actor somehow giving voice to Bernhard’s own thoughts? Or is the source of these thoughts the actor’s interior? Does his interior—his thoughts and feelings—just happen to closely resemble Bernhard’s?
We have all had the experience of reacting to something someone says with the thought: that’s just what I think! There is an uncanniness to this kind of listening experience. Ordinarily, hearing another express ideas we hold, we feel drawn to the other. We feel that a bond has been established, that a friendship has begun. Our natural impulse is to get to know this mind that mysteriously, and in isolation from us, evolves thoughts so resonant with our own.
Nothing like this happens between the actor and Bernhard. Reflecting on the way that the actor’s speech thrilled him, he writes: “But this does not mean that I should take to him now, were I to meet him again. He remains for me the unattractive and essentially superficial stage character he was from the start” (W, 175).
The thrilling relation between the actor and the narrator can never occur in social space, where they confront one another as monsters. They are the same kind of monster. The narrator observes with disgust as the actor take his leave while fulsomely praising the hosts whom he has just been castigating. Moments later Bernhard himself takes his leave, observing with the same disgust his own false assurances to the hostess that he has had a wonderful time.
Bernhard does not take the uncanny communion between himself and the actor as evidence of the possibility of establishing a good social relationship, a friendship. Rather, he speaks of the actor as having been, for a time, “transformed.” The actor underwent “a truly philosophical metamorphosis” (W, 172). The actor became the “completely different person” he wanted to be. When he became this person, he communed with Bernhard, not in social space, but in a space interior to this transformed “person.” His speech took on the qualities of Bernhard’s own internal speech; it carried the conviction and power of internal speech.19 This transformation, the “absurd” prospect of which tantalizes the actor, represents the attainment of the highest. Bernhard affirms that—for a brief time—the actor attained this ultimate freedom. “He underwent a philosophical metamorphosis.” Does this mean Bernhard has also undergone this sea change? The answer to this question depends on how we understand their relation.
The identity of the actor’s thoughts with Bernhard’s puts the relation between the actor and Bernhard—affectively marked by Bernhard’s alternating repulsion and fascination—into question. This uncanny symmetry between two beings distributed between two halves of a darkly comic first person narration also describes Molloy, the first novel of Beckett’s trilogy.20 The actor/Bernhard escapes from others, not by leaving them behind, but by somehow expanding to include them. And he accomplishes this feat though artistic means. “We don’t attain the highest just by wanting it” (W, 117). The profound mechanisms of the metamorphosis attempted by Woodcutters exploit the artistic method developed by Beckett in Molloy. Briefly examining the transformed persons of that novel will clear the way for understanding Bernhard’s.
Molloy is a key work in the development of what Anthony Uhlmann has recently called “Beckett’s art of nonrelation.”21 Beckett explores the contours of this art through the form of first person narration, a form that dominates his prose writing from 1946 to 1964.22 Hugh Kenner, in one of the earliest accounts of the trilogy that occupies the center of this period, shows how the first person form gives rise to nonrelation. Beckett “carries the Cartesian process backwards, beginning with a bodily je suis and ending with a bare cogito.”23 The novels are inhabited by a subjectivity that cannot fix itself to any object and, through this lack of objecthood, encounters no firm boundaries between itself and everything it perceives.
Molloy/Moran is continually trying to place himself; trying to determine and delimit what is inside by trying, unsuccessfully, to find an object that is unambiguously outside. A few sentences will give the flavor of his experience.
“I must have been on the top, or on the slopes, of some considerable eminence, for otherwise how could I have seen, so far away, so near at hand, so far underneath, so many things, fixed and moving. But what was an eminence doing in this land with hardly a ripple? And I, what was I doing there, and why come? These are things that we shall try and discover. But these are things we must not take seriously. There is a little of everything, apparently, in nature… And I am perhaps confusing several different occasions, and different times, deep down, and deep down in my dwelling.”24
Molloy cannot position himself in relation to things. He is constantly unsure whether a given apparition is next to him, far from him, imagined, or remembered. In part this condition is thematized through the speaker’s famous trouble with objects, from his bicycle to his “sucking stones.” In part it is thematized through the complete failure of the social recognitions that serve, as the Hegelian tradition tells us, to delimit us as isolate and integral selves.25 If I become myself by identifying with the object you recognize when you see me, Molloy’s “I” cannot be recognized. “I was now becoming…unrecognizable,” Moran says, summing up his dealings with others (M, 233). Encountering him, others see nothing solid, nothing real, and so Moran’s sense of his own phantom objecthood gradually melts utterly into air. Molloy’s encounters–knocking on his mother’s teeth or trying unsuccessfully to explain himself to a policeman—similarly fail to yield recognition.
And yet there are a number of examples of successful communication in the novel. Every instance involves Molloy/Moran talking to himself.
And the voice I listen to needs no Gaber to make it heard. For it is within me… Yes, it is rather an ambiguous voice and not always easy to follow, in its reasonings and decrees. But I follow it none the less, more or less, I follow it in this sense, that I know what it means, and in this sense, that I do what it tells me. (M, 180-81)
Intrasubjectivity replaces intersubjectivity as the space of successful communication. More radically, since this self cannot be fixed by reference to an object, the very meaning of ‘self’ is transformed. The voice Moran hears is an “ambiguous” voice. It is not quite his own, but neither does it come from without. Without any determinate boundary to the subject, voices inhabit Molloy’s experience like a world. This “I” becomes a hive of voices.
Daniel Katz notes that Beckett creates Molloy’s condition in part by radicalizing formal features of first person discourse. “Anyone can say ‘I’—‘I’ refers only to the person saying ‘I’ at a particular moment.”26 “Subjectivity, then, comes to depend on enunciation—if ‘I’ refers only to the person saying ‘I’ at a particular moment, then the moment and the utterance both make possible and are logically prior to any subjective designation, rather than simply being the expression of a moment at which the subject already happened to find itself.”27 First person discourse produces subjectivity without regard for psychological consistency, and Beckett exploits this effect to create the illusion of an infinitely capacious subject.
For Katz, the point of noticing the dependence of Molloy’s subjectivity on the curious properties of first person discourse is to argue, in familiar poststructuralist terms, that subjectivity is the effect of the operation of a system. “I” compulsively personifies Molloy as a side-effect of its workings. The objectivity of the system comes to seem in such analyses the determining factor.
But what is so remarkable about Molloy is the extent to which this subjectivity, created by language, itself causes the materiality of language to vanish. Molloy’s discourse makes the materiality of its support disappear. It disappears, granted, only for him. But the novel is a record of Molloy/Moran’s experience, and of the process by which Molloy/Moran composes his experience as discourse. This is a novel that thematizes writing. Molloy begins by telling us he is writing, and Moran ends the same way. Thus his condition is identified as a condition of writing. For this author, the process of composition, so far from revealing the resistant materiality underneath subjectivity, annihilates it.
The deconstructive reading accurately registers the structure that enables the curious experience embodied by the novel. To do this it must approach the text distantly, as a reader who can distance himself from instances of another’s written ‘I’. But if we ask how things are for Molloy, how things are for the writer of the ‘I,’ a quite different perspective emerges. To move from an interpretive position dominated by the reader’s relation to the text to an interpretive position dominated by the writer’s relation to the text is here to switch the basic question we are asking. Now the question is not: How can subjectivity be unmasked as objectivity? The question is: What kind of subjectivity dissolves all objects? Viewed from the perspective of the writer Molloy, the space of a written first person narrative is a space in which subjectivity becomes boundless.
From within this narrative, Molloy reaches fruitlessly for objects, for something or someone outside his own consciousness. “To restore silence is the role of objects,” he writes (M, 16). He equates the discovery of a firm boundary between self and not-self with the cessation of language. This quixotic quest to discover objectivity within the world of the first person text generates a bizarre fantasy. Molloy imagines blackening the sheet of paper. He imagines “fill[ing] in the holes of words till all is blank and flat” (M, 16). This desire for writing to become an object makes vividly clear the fact that writing here is not an object. Writing—first person writing, writing that says ‘I”—is the medium of a total, object-devouring subjectivity. The writer cannot tell if he is perceiving, remembering, or imagining. He cannot tell if a given object is inside or outside him. The writing makes the identification of a boundary or limit to his experience impossible.
And yet this seemingly total subjectivity has a seam. Molloy did not, after all, write Molloy. Brian McHale has located the fissure caused by the nonidentity of actual and fictional author in the trilogy’s frequent references to god. Molloy, Malone, and the Unnamable know they must have come from somewhere; they must have a creator, and they pursue this creator, with increasing urgency, across the trilogy. The nameless narrator of the trilogy’s final novel, for example, knows “he can never get outside his own imaginings to the reality of his ultimate creator… The god whom the unnamable can never reach, is of course Samuel Beckett himself, and the retreating ceiling is the unbreachable barrier between the fictional world of the unnamable and the real world which Samuel Beckett shares with us, his readers.”28
Thomas Bernhard’s revision of Beckett’s first person narration is simple. He erases this barrier between the ‘I’ that comes to consciousness in the text and ‘I’ of the author.29 We have seen how the features of Beckett’s first person narration supply for the consciousness it enshrines all the criteria of Bernhard’s “highest art.” This consciousness has passed beyond all social relations. Bernhard, in writing Woodcutters, seizes the true satisfaction this consciousness represents.
This withdrawal from relation totally transforms the “I.” The nonrelational “I,” the “I” of radical first person narration, has nothing in common with the “I” in relation, the “recognizable” I, the “gargoyle” I. It has undergone what Bernhard calls a “philosophical metamorphosis.” In Molloy, a character who is not Samuel Beckett undergoes this metamorphosis. This character’s strange condition is an object of interest for readers, who have for sixty years explored the manifold relations his condition obtains with “the real world.”
In Woodcutters, the subject that has undergone the transformation is the creator, the author. If the form of first person narration supplies the mechanism of this transformation, the themes of the novel articulate the desirability of the transformed state as the only “real satisfaction” possible in art or life. This change, though small, is not minor. To establish the identity of author and narrator is to transform the meaning of the post-Beckett novel. It is to supply the motive, the desire for this kind of novel, the desire that this kind of novel uniquely satisfies. It is to place this desire—for freedom from social relations and from social being—and the satisfaction of this desire, at the heart of the meaning of the form. Molloy writes because he has found himself writing in a book called Molloy. Bernhard writes because he wants, in writing himself into a book like Molloy, to become free, to achieve the highest goal of art/life.
One way of capturing what is new in Bernhard’s autobiographical project is by comparing it with Paul de Man’s account of autobiography. “We assume,” de Man writes, “that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life…by the resources of [the] medium?”30 For Bernhard, the resources of first person narration first revealed by Beckett do indeed determine the form of life, the “real satisfaction,” of the referent of Woodcutters’ first person. The point here however, is not to expose, with de Man, the constructedness of a putatively extra-literary consciousness. It is rather to celebrate what that construction makes possible: a life free of recognition, an unrecognizable life.
Of course, this celebration depends on bracketing the ‘undecidability’ that the imbrication of sign and referent, trope and grammar, life and text, meaning and matter, create for de Man. But this bracketing, it turns out, is rather easy. As sophisticated literary readers, and against the Austrian courts, we will admit, for example, that to identify the Auersbergers with a particular couple from Bernhard’s extra-textual life is problematic for many reasons. The distortions introduced by the book’s thematic identification of art with fraud, to take just one reason, introduce a fictional element into the representation of these particular artists and collectors. We might imagine, further, that in orchestrating the boundary-evading textual turns of his own ‘I’ that Bernhard is performing another artistic fraud.
And we might be right. But we must remember our place. We are only readers. Undecidability is a problem for readers. It is our problem, not Bernhard’s. It does not mar the joy of the creator of Woodcutters. And the joy with which he greets the prospect of true artistic satisfaction at the very end of the novel he has just written means, of course, that this is the joy of satisfaction achieved.
Bernhard’s belief that authorship entails a transformation of the writer derives much of its plausibility from the testimony of centuries of authors who declare themselves transformed by writing, and by the conventions that associate artistic speech with a quasi-divine apotheosis of the voice.31 Woodcutters’ innovation lies in specifying the mode of the transformation, articulating a form adequate to that mode, and declaring this transformation of the author to be the sole and highest value of the work. This value is the result of what modernism learns from postmodernism.
Bernhard thus endows the first person narrative with an entirely new meaning and value. That meaning and value utterly exhausts itself in the experience of its creator. What is verifiable from our readers’ perspective is the following: 1) Bernhard thinks, in good postmodern fashion, that the problem of art is a social problem. 2) He thinks through this postmodern problem to conclude that the ideal form of art will not be dependant on social relations. 3) Logically, such a form can give satisfaction only to its creator, never to its audience. 4) In freeing life from recognition, such a form will “transform” its creator, and give him the only “real satisfaction” possible in art or life. 5) The end of Woodcutters suggests that Bernhard sees in his novel just such a form. 6) Woodcutters’ exploitation of the first person narrative techniques of Beckett’s Molloy provides some limited evidence that the joy expressed at the end of the novel is the joy of real satisfaction at total transformation.32
I want to conclude by briefly facing a possible objection to my reading of Bernhard’s transformed modernism, and by even more briefly sketching a context for that modernism’s possible future triumph. The objection is that Molloy is unhappy, that Molloy is an unhappy book, and that to transform oneself into someone like Molloy inhabiting a book like Molloy is to suffer a misfortune, not to be satisfied. The objection, in other words, is that Bernhard must be ironic when he speaks of the satisfaction of anti-relational art, that the joy he expresses at the prospect of beginning to write must have a more pedestrian source.
“I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once.” Bernhard is excited, perhaps, by the prospect of composing a work that thousands of readers and dozens of critics will adore. He is excited by the prospect of cementing his reputation as the greatest living writer in the german language. Or maybe he is excited simply by the idea of working off some nervous energy. In any case, no one could be excited by the prospect of transforming oneself into a boundaryless ‘I.’ No one could want to be Molloy.
Unless, that is, one wants to become immortal. Molloy represents one of the great immortal figures of world literature, and perhaps the most powerful evocation of immortality in postwar writing. And Molloy is not immortal in the sense that generations of readers continue to read him; this audience-oriented immortality through fame is something Molloy has no sense of. How could you imagine being recognized through the ages when you can’t get your own mother to recognize you? Rather, Molloy is immortal in a more immediate sense. To become a subject with no boundaries and no objecthood is to exist in a state in which the question of one’s death is without meaning. Molloy endlessly refers to “my life without end,” to his “interminable life” (M, 18). “At the same time it is over and it goes on, is there a tense for that?” (M, 47)
But the mere fact of endlessness does not, of course, guarantee happiness. Far from it. Certain images of endlessness have long furnished hell, and Molloy can be seen as a close cousin to Sisyphus, the figure so beloved of the existentialists. But unlike Sisyphus, Molloy’s experience is not one of mere repetition, but of constant laughter and surprise. Wolfgang Iser has noted Molloy’s unlimited vitality. Sentence after incredible sentence is generated out of a condition lacking suspense, lacking teleology, lacking relationships. For Iser, Molloy is a “self set free to pursue a course of endless self-discovery…a supercritical chain reaction.”33
Finally, a case can be made that much of Molloy/Moran’s experience is best described as a species of mystical vision.
And I note here the little beat my heart once missed, in my home, when a fly, flying low above my ash-tray, raised a little ash, with the breath of its wings. (M, 223)
In this single moment of intensely observed particularity, the expansion of the subject’s feeling (“the little beat my heart once missed”) blots out the difference between observed and observer. The timeless quality of this moment lies in its utter severing from before and after; it obeys, as do so many sentences here, the logic of the fragment. Of course one might see in the fly an image of dirt and decay. Or one might see it—like the image of the fly that interrupts Shenryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind or the image of the fly that serves Dickinson as emblem for eternity—as an image whose nature repels the clichés that cling to winged things.
These brief reflections on the affective dimensions of Beckettian first person narration might give us some grounds for supposing that Bernhard need not be ironic when he describes the condition of the narrator of such a work as the only “real satisfaction.” But these reflections may be quite beside the point. When Bernhard talks about satisfaction, and when he expresses joy at the prospect of writing himself into this Molloyesque work, he’s not addressing us. The fact he’s writing to himself doesn’t, of course, mean he’s not being ironic. One can be ironic in addressing oneself. But if Bernhard’s own irony makes him laugh, then he is in the Molloy position and enjoying it. And if Bernhard is not being ironic at all, then he is in the Molloy position and enjoying it.34
I want to stress the word “ideal.” There is no question that the creative writing program as it currently exists—and as it has been so brilliantly described in Mark McGurl’s recent book—is hostile to Bernhardian transformation. As McGurl argues, the program is oriented towards “excellence,” the current preferred word for valuable recognition (The Program Era [Cambridge MA, 2009], 273-320). Furthermore, he makes a good case for why the preferred model for first person narration in creative writing workshops—Raymond Carver—operates in a regime of recognition. Carver’s minimalism provides a mechanism for lower middle class students to transform their lives in a process that McGurl calls “shame management.” The workshop trains the writer to create out of the materials of his life a less-embarrassing surface.
There are good reasons why actually existing creative writing is oriented towards recognition at every level. The program is, after all, embedded in the social world. But it doesn’t have to be. The materials of its ideal existence have already been assembled. 1) The infrastructure and staff for training millions of Americans to write. 2) The desire on the part of undergraduates to write about their own lives. 3) The absence of an audience for this writing. In addition, there exists 4) a vestigial, traditional sense that the value of literature lies in its exteriority with respect to the social world of work, ambition, and utility.
All that remains to start up the machine that will enable millions to definitively solve the social problem is 5) the replacement of the old writing-program models Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, and Flannery O’Connor with the new writing-program model: Thomas Bernhard.↑