Authors: Thomas Bernhard
We went to the distiller’s. The way was along the whole of the forest path and beyond, where I hadn’t yet been. My companion kept on stopping to exclaim: “Look, look at the silence of nature! Look, look!” He hobbled along like the hunchback I once saw in Floridsdorf. Our feet were like balls
of ice. He kept on stopping to say: “Nature’s resigning!” “Look, nature’s silent now!” Yes, it’s silent. “It doesn’t stop, it stops, it doesn’t stop … Do you understand?” Thoughts, he said, went simultaneously up and down. He pointed out animal tracks: “A stag, look! Rabbit, there! Here, a deer! There’s a fox! Aren’t those wolves?” He regularly sank into the snow, and was embarrassed because I had to take the end of his stick and pull him out. “I’m pitiful,” he would say. He listed constellations, said: “Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Orion.” He would disappear and then re-emerge. If I dropped back, he would command me to go on ahead. “Always deeps and surfaces,” he said, “deeps and surfaces.” Tree trunks he described as resembling “famous judges.” He said: “They pass great judgments! Extraordinary judgments!” The distiller’s was a favorite port of call for him. He always claimed he wouldn’t survive another year, “not another winter, and each time I come, I find him.” He described the distiller as the most taciturn man he had ever met. He really didn’t say one word. The painter kept pressing us to walk faster, even though he was responsible for our slow progress. And then the distiller’s house was in front of us. That was where he lived, with his two daughters, as in a cave. “He sits on them, and is afraid they might abandon him, they’re afraid of him. Before long, they won’t be marriageable anymore.” He would keep staring at them, and giving them orders like: “Bacon! Bread! Soup! Milk!” Apart from that, he wouldn’t speak all day. They obey, the way children obey. “If he’s disgusted by his own daughters, he shuts them up in the attic, where they have to spin linen. When they’ve finished, they’re allowed down. Not before that.” The two were handcuffed, “not so as you could see, but unbreakable.”
• • •
The painter knocked on the door, and there stood a man, long and lean and somehow wooden. “Well,” he said, nothing more. Led us inside. His daughters pulled up a couple of chairs, ran down into the larder, and came back with bacon and schnapps. Laid the table. We ate and drank with the distiller. Each time we finished something, he would say: “Bacon,” or “Bread,” or “Schnapps,” and the two girls would run down to the larder. We stayed there for two hours. Then we got up, and the distiller said, “Well,” when we were standing by the door, and he locked up again. We were back at the inn for supper.
“Listen,” said the painter suddenly, after our walk, “listen to the dogs barking!” We stopped. “You never see those dogs, but you hear them. I’m afraid of them. Afraid maybe isn’t the right word: they kill people. Those dogs will kill anything. Their howling! Their yelping! Their whimpering! Listen!” he said. “This is a dog’s world.”
“In the summer you have to deal with millions of mosquitoes all the time. It’s the swamps. Before long, they drive you crazy, and you hide out in the middle of the forest, but even
in sleep they pursue you, the mosquitoes, the swarms of them. You start to run, but of course that’s no use either. Every time, my body is covered with stings. You have to imagine my sister’s torments, because of her sweet-smelling blood they almost eat her up. After the first few stings, you’re tossing and turning in bed, making your condition worse … By morning you feel you’ve aged by several years. Your body is feverish from all the mosquito poisons coursing through it … and out of that terrible affliction you awaken and you realize: it’s mosquito season once more. Don’t imagine I’m exaggerating. As you’ve already observed, I’m not at all inclined to exaggerate. But you should take care not to travel here during the mosquito season … You won’t be back.… All during that time, people will greet you with profound irritation; it’s not possible to speak to them. I myself, as already said, wander around, looking for refuge. And then on top of that there’s the heat, everything is deserted. The skies are black with mosquitoes. Probably caused by the rivers that have hardly any water left in them,” he said, “the swamp.” He was wearing a red jacket that day, a red velvet jacket, his “artist’s jacket.” For the first time, he was going around looking like you’d imagine a painter would look: mad! He appeared outside the window and pressed his face against the glass, while I was sitting in the breakfast room. Got my attention by rapping on the window frame. A large, increasingly yellow stain. He had walked out at half past four in the morning, intending “to catch the spirits of the dead.”
“Horrific,” he said, as he came in. The landlady had drawn the bolts for him very early, “in return for a five-schilling piece,” which she then hadn’t accepted. He said: “I could hear
the river from up there. No machinery. Nothing. No bird-song, of course. Nothing. As if everything had been locked under a sheet of ice.” He had found himself in “a roughly similar condition.” Had scattered malformations of ice and snow with his stick. Spread his arms and legs and dropped onto patches of white virgin snow. “Like a kid.” Had remained lying there for so long he thought he would freeze. “The frost is all-powerful,” he said. He sat down. Said: “Nothing is more incredible to me than the fact that I’m taking breakfast.” Early risers were in a position to admire an implacably majestic frost, if they went out betimes. “The discovery that frost owns everything is nothing terrifying, after all.” To early risers, the world revealed itself with wonderful clarity and distinctness. The “pitiless world of frost” contradicted them, and forced them to their knees. Well-rested early risers had a sense of the world as “safe from insanity.” He was now going to take off his artist’s jacket again, he said, he had only put it on “to give himself a morning torment.” “Naturally, in the world’s eyes, it was an aberration of mine that I put on this jacket,” he said. “That I pretended I was the man I once used to be. Now I’m another, like a man after a further millennium. Maybe. After so many errors.” The landlady brought coffee and milk, and brought a young man sitting in another corner “whole mountains of food,” as the painter put it. “A proper person, he looks to me. I wonder what he’s doing here? Possibly a relation of the engineer’s. Possibly.” The landlady brought him a train timetable, which he flicked through for a while. Was it a good idea to take the shortcut, to get to the station, he asked. Generally it was, she replied, but in winter, it was impassable. The stranger got up, paid, and left. “My artist’s jacket,” said the painter, “is a ruin all of its own. When I took it off, I took off the ruin too.”
That was the last time he would be wearing his artist’s jacket, he said.
It occurs to me that it’s my twenty-third birthday today. No one, not a soul, was aware of the fact. Or if they were aware, then they didn’t know where I was. Except for the assistant, no one knows where I am.
“There is a pain center, and from that pain center everything radiates out,” he said; “it’s somewhere in the center of nature. Nature is built up on many centers, but principally on that pain center. The pain center, like all the other centers in nature, is built up on more-than-pain, over-pain, it’s contiguous, you might say, with monumental pain. You know,” the painter said, “I could walk upright, but it’s not possible for me. I stoop more than most people, don’t I? Excuse me for walking with such a stoop. Probably it makes me look pitiful. But then you have no notion of the enormity of my pain. Pain and torment have moved in together; my arms and legs may fight back, but increasingly they’re becoming relegated to the status of innocent victims. And on top of that, this wet snow, those vast quantities of snow! There are moments in which I am incapable of supporting my head. Such an exertion, ten normal people wouldn’t be capable of supporting it, unless they’d had special training. So think: I have the strength of ten highly trained athletes, which enables me to raise my head from time to time. Imagine if I’d been able to develop such strength for myself! You see the way I fritter my strength on such a meaningless activity: because it’s meaningless raising a head like mine. Or if I’d been able to invest
one-hundredth of this strength in myself, somewhere where it might have been of significance … I could have overthrown every scientific idea and theorem. Reaped all the celebrity the intellectual world has to bestow. A hundredth of that strength, and I could have become something like a second Creator! Mankind would have been unable to oppose me. In the blink of an eye, I could have gone back thousands of years, and reset our development in another, healthier direction. But as things are, my strength has had to be concentrated on my head, on my headaches, and it has gone to waste. This head, you see, is useless. At the center of it there is a crude glowing planet, and everything else is full of fractured harmonies!”
“Memory is a sickness. A word pops up that reveals entire neighborhoods. Ghastly architecture. You stare into crowds of people: futile to approach them! The day is over.” Ninety-eight out of a hundred people had a compulsive delusion with which they fell asleep and woke up. “Everyone is continually wading through the depth of an idea, some a long way down, others even further down. Until the darkness shows them the futility of what they’re attempting; police cells with their afternoon quiet, full of sleep and the reek of prisoners. One man thinks pretty much what the man next to him thinks: the human porridge of the traffic accident, weeks ago, or years. Cornfields like whirlpools: forests, meadows, country roads, sections of fairs, torn apart by the imagination, rivers rumble in slices, workers pull long blades through the brains of paupers.” There were quite literally ancient dreams, a so-called “science of simple people.” A law by which all things permanently repeat themselves, while at the
same time being unrepeatable. Everything at once in a cycle of permanent return, and terminally entropic. Joy attracts more joy, sins attract sins, exhibition exhibition, love love. “What connects me to myself is the thing that is furthest away from me,” and “time is no means with which to engage with time,” and “I am a victim of my theories, and at the same time their controller.”
He asked what that was: memories, scraps of singularities that one no longer understood. Memory stayed behind and carried on producing itself everlastingly, in the same form in which, not yet memory, one had first left it behind. As on a stage, people receded. Kept receding onto one and the same plane. His head was like the wings of an infinite theater. And? The volume would diminish, and finally also the impression “that the eyes have of the thing that, years earlier, they were forced to withdraw from. Over the years, all things become air.” Eventually, every so often, an image would surface out of the stream, become distinct and magnificent as the thing in which you despair. The past: childhood, youth, pain that is long since dead, is not dead, a piece of winter, a piece of spring, of summer—which summer?—whatever you loved most dearly. Gravel paths and roads, the burial sites of family and loved ones: men carrying a woman’s coffin, the whole thing darkening, draymen loading up barrels, brewery employees, cheesemakers, a broken bough in front of his parents’ house: the fear going down to the lake. The accumulation of coincidence turned what had been healthy into equally inexhaustible morbidity. “Everything in the world is just an essence of one’s self.” It was an effortless procedure for holding together a fantastic creature like a human being.
Memory was merely preference. “If not, it will destroy everything, even the toughest substance in oneself.” Madness, joy, contentment, stubbornness and ignorance, belief and unbelief were at all times at its disposal. “It’s pure pleasure, dissolving even death.” To stand in relation to memory as to a human being, from whom one might part from time to time, only to welcome him back with renewed cordiality into one’s home, that was the thing “that benefits the memory and the man who has it, more with each occasion.” Memory followed a plan that remained unexecuted. A plan. Many plans. Looking back, it seemed that, though capable of charity, it wasn’t always prepared to give. Caused birthday surprises, document forgeries. Turned funerals into softly resonant afternoon ceremonials. It pretended to be deaf, just as the world was sometimes deaf, and often addressed one in unwittingly harsh tones, in the manner of a beloved brother, say, asking after his sister. It grew increasingly refined, between the theory and the feeling of a human being, a character, and, it appeared, “always turned up at precisely the right time.” Never a lie. Calculation, yes. Not mind. Not stinting. Sunk way down in the possibilities of memory, a human being went around dumbly, deaf to everything that didn’t stir from memory. It was a perpetual “thinking and-immediately-feeling-sad,” not just for its own ends either: for “daily unclarity and daily despair.”
“I have such pain today,” he said, “that it’s almost impossible for me to walk. Every step is agony. You must imagine: that enormous head and these tiny shriveled-up legs … that have to support it. Way at the top that massive head, and right down at the bottom, incessantly those frail, weak little legs.
Imagine some liquid in your head, something like boiling water, suddenly stiffening to lead and striking against the inside of your skull. Now I have the feeling this head will never fit anywhere, not even in the landscape. Only pain. Pain and darkness. I can follow your words, I can follow the sounds of your feet. Some time, I know, my head will open. I have various notions of various endings,” said the painter. “If I permit it to come to a natural end; but I won’t permit it to come to a natural end. Suicide: primal thing in nature, quite naturally the hardest, toughest, nothing … the whole of development is confined to the investigation: the generations are seated in a sort of pretrial room … The pains in my head, at a fixed unscientific degree of unbearableness … you want to see in yourself what you are capable of: on the way to extreme insensitivity and oversensitivity in graduated torments up the pillar of pain at intervals of time … the temperatures given in thousands of degrees … I’m supporting a head in which the horizons are reeling. If I could offer you a hint which is more than a hint … I confine myself to the cursed propensities of age; and so it is possible for me to keep step with my agonies. You see those pegs,” said the painter; “I could happily drive every one of them into my brain! And my feet are hurting, my ankles. Everything. Nothing in me that is not in pain. You must think I’m a gigantic fusspot! But you can’t imagine what it’s like: suddenly everything swelling up and functioning on an enormous scale. Always the same roads,” he said, “it drives you crazy. Freely adopted pains that I find for myself, in addition. From clumsiness or calculation. From ignorance and too much knowledge. Freeze, because you forgot to take a precaution? … And then an infinite amount of raw data going through my head: things to do with journeys, with business, with uncontrollable, religious
schemes. You understand: everything is divisible! Just as: nothing is divisible! And the pain is driven on and up. It leaps more and more dementedly into the air. Capable of astonishing turns, it plunges down on me like a hawk. You hear?” said the painter; “you hear?” And I heard the dogs.