Letter to Thomas Bernhard
I don’t know why I’m bothering to write to you. You’re dead, for one thing. All we really share is a love for Glenn Gould and long sentences, probably that’s the same love in different forms. Forms of art. I think it’s mostly because I want to borrow your complaining tone. Really, your skill at complaining and making the reader keep reading, even liking, the diet of groans, the antiphonal maledictions of your characters. Such skill, skill indeed. But immer schimpfend, said a woman in Vienna years ago when I said I liked your work, she didn’t like it, you were always bitching. Maybe some other word, meaning to complain and to blame, at once.
You survive in me. Any me, of course, not this particular grieving animal who addresses you now, you would have put that in italics so I will, this grieving animal who speaks to you now. Am I trying to flatter you by writing like you, a little, not that I could really write like you, your gravitas, humor, skill, charm, rhythm, but I can certainly seem to be trying to — is that flattery, or mockery? No paragraphs, no quotations marks, no let up ’til the end, just like you know what. I have a lot to complain about, and who else can be trusted to listen but a dead man, a man what’s more who in some sense chose to be a dead man at this very time when I need a living man, a man four years older than I am, in fact, no older than my first wife, a woman who died the same year that you died, if my facts are straight, they seldom are. Dead man, will you be my friend? Or at least listen, that’s the least you can do. Maybe even the most, but I can’t say. What do I know about the dead? It’s the living, of course, I suppose, that are the problem. The living, and the way we set about to be living. For one thing, the most terrible thing of all probably, I hate grown-ups. I have hated grown-ups all my life, I hate grown-ups and now I have become one. Isn’t that horrible? The way Saul woke up and found he was himself a hated Christian. Only no toppling swoons and flashing lights for me, just the slow inexorable Work of the Mirror that paints time’s grisaille on my cheekbones, time’s sly etching technique using no mordant fiercer than the nervous hours. What can I do? I hate grown-ups, the way I hate nature. Nature will kill you every time. As you know perfectly well, I’m just reminding us both, from nature there’s no way out but out. I hate grown-ups and I look just like a grown-up, who would know the truth looking at me? The way you changed in your television interviews, from the smooth cheeked shy author of the late 1960s to the blotched skin and annoyed celebrity, almost arrogant, of the late interviews, but who can blame you, such dumb questions, your books said it all, what did they want you to say that language had not already told them? You looked like a man in bad health in those last interviews, and so you were, and sure enough you came to die. Stories are told about that but I’m not interested in stories. Not now. Before, you were alive; after, you were dead. And what accesses of choice or refusing to choose, of will or negation of will, may have come between those two states, that’s not on my mind now.
You did what you had to do. Bless you, my heart goes out to you, glad to have heard you, a little, glad to have read you. You did me good. What I can do for you is another matter. You did what you had to do. Bless you, my heart goes out to you, glad to have heard you, a little, glad to have read you. You did me good. What I can do for you is another matter. Nothing, I suppose. Though we both come from people who believed, or said they believed, in praying for the departed souls, the souls in Purgatory, praying for them, their happiness in whatever follows life, does anything, doesn’t matter, praying for them is at least praying for other people, that can’t be wrong, can it? Can’t hurt might help we say. Yet selfishly we pray for our dead, our own departed. And what about all the billions unknown to us, nameless to us, not our dead at all, not ours at all except by species, if even that. But at least we pray. So this letter is a little bit praying for you, you who are off in some condition that likely is wholly imaginary, in the course of a survival that is to say the least problematic, and which, if it has any currency at all, that is to say, if it exists, is likely to be of a sort splendidly (or glumly) impersonal. You survive the way the world survives. You survive in me. Any me, of course, not this particular grieving animal who addresses you now, you would have put that in italics so I will, this grieving animal who speaks to you now. Am I trying to flatter you by writing like you, a little, not that I could really write like you, your gravitas, humor, skill, charm, rhythm, but I can certainly seem to be trying to — is that flattery, or mockery? No paragraphs, no quotations marks, no let up ’til the end, just like you know what. What we’ve been talking about all along. And whereas this business of death — almost a commercial concern, Death, Inc. — for the sake of which life seems to be conducted, Death as the exclusive beneficiary of all our sweat and so forth, fluid after fluid, has preoccupied writers of every kind from before the beginning of the alphabet to this day, it is not death that is the problem here, the one I entered into this (dreary as it must be for you) correspondence to examine and deplore. No, it is in fact birth. Birth is hard. It is degrading. I am complaining about birth. Not, as usual with so many of us, complaining, blaming, schimpfen, about being born. No, being here is fine. Or ineradicably as it is, no question. No question about being here makes sense. But having to get born to get here, that’s just wrong. The fact that for thousands of years, as they say, since the ice, we have been being born from inside someone else’s body. What a humiliation! What a degradation of the woman, of the child. This is intolerable. It is time to change it. The fact that we have accepted this state of affairs, this outrageous, post-Edenic way of making more of us is the worst of all our practices, and not doing anything to change it is the worst failure of human imagination and skill since we let Atlantis founder. That we worm our way out of the flesh, are born like maggots, soft and defenseless and foul-smelling and bedewed with our mother’s agony, this is not how it should be. This is not art. This is not science. This is not culture. This must change. Don’t ask me how. How isn’t your business, not any more, and certainly not mine. I have certain pictures of my own in my head, about how that change might look if it did happen. Pictures of pale chambers lit by an eternal unnatural light, like the magic caverns of Damanhur or the crystalline abysses in the Mines of Falun. In these places there would be wandering about, and from these chambers, caves, grottoes of the future, there would come, quiet happy grown-ups full of kindness and wisdom, yes, there could be such beings in the time to come, grown-ups wandering, wandering purposefully through the luminous definition, watering and tending and pruning and whispering little fairy-godmother spells of pure DNA. Intentional. Carefully thought-out. Tender. Humming a new song for new cells. They would coax one another into being, new being. By chemicals and word of mouth we would grow, lit by a curious light spilling out of the mind itself, amplified unnaturally by some bizarre disposition of crystals, think Novalis: In crystal grottoes reveled a luxuriant folk. They move, we move, in a light in which we would grow each other. I hear in my surmise some of Blake’s raving against the rational. Nature is the most rational of all, all of ‘her’ escapades have rational purpose and foundation. Nature is the enemy, here. Nature is the enemy. Not Novalis’s sense of it as our mind in luminous nexus with everything there is, growing and being grown at once. No. Nature as it is understood by the austere simpletons who use the word as their supreme accolade, natural life style, natural food, natural childbirth. I hate nature. Nature is what happens to us, you know that, and what happens to us is what we must despise. If we have anything pure at all, it is our will, maybe, our will to be better and. And. And what. Something beyond nature. I hate nature. Nature is my Austria. So it is time for a poetry of pure flesh, or, if that sounds too poetic, for a flesh healed by poetry, flensed of its penchant for begetting, its tendency to swell up inside victim-women its new identities, alien arrivers. These beings who purport to come from our testicles and ova, who demonstrably ripen in our wombs, who are they? Children are horrible, I’ve always hated them, hated to be around other children when I was a child, hated them even more than I hated adults, but I knew that adults were incurable, but there might still be some hope for Paul or Raymond or Joan or Miriam, my little friends. No doubt I was wrong, and they’re all just grown-ups now, or dead, like you. Who knows where children get to? They are always running out of the house. Sometimes they don’t come back. Sometimes when they don’t come back they’re not dead, like you, or grown up, as I seem to be, but are just gone. Gone as a condition, gone as a state of being all its own. They are not some abducted changelings like Rilke’s ‘early-snatched-away,’ not at all, instead they vanished into being who they are. As perhaps I may one day too, and as you probably did. Neither child nor grown-up, not woman and certainly not man. Who are we, Thomas, who are we really?
Who are we, Thomas, who are we really? I appeal to you, because of the savor of your elevated, abstruse condition, a condition that is bounded by certainties of all kinds, tell me. I love my country with a corrosive scorn like the tender and detailed hatred you affected towards your Austria, all emotions are one, isn’t that finally so, all emotions are just kleshas, just ways we feel, habitual energies prompted into doing. I appeal to you, because of the savor of your elevated, abstruse condition, a condition that is bounded by certainties of all kinds, tell me. I love my country with a corrosive scorn like the tender and detailed hatred you affected towards your Austria, all emotions are one, isn’t that finally so, all emotions are just kleshas, just ways we feel, habitual energies prompted into doing. Who cares what we feel? A feeling is just something you feel. So what. Call it love, call it hate, I slept almost eight hours last night for the first time in months, and I had no dreams for the first time in weeks. I woke uneasy, knowing they were up to something, as it is said, never specifying, never even knowing, who ‘they’ are. The children, I thought, it might be them, the hated and hate-filled children might be starting at last their long-deferred crusade against the grown-ups and their messed up world. The children, they are detestable, they can’t talk, they don’t read, they don’t love, they don’t care about anything that I care about, my poetry and your noble prose are trash to them, and trash to the adults they are likely to become. But still I’m on their side, because they march out, maybe even this very day, with slingshots and tasers and ninja weapons, against our common enemy, yours and mine, you called it Austria, I call it Nature, grown-ups, the president, the pope, the people. Any collective that has no living beings in it, but only members. A member is a thing incomplete, a hand without an arm, an arm without a torso, a torso without a man. These children are still children, alas, not the dream people I foresee and whose coming into our world, full in flesh but dripping from no agony, gleaming only with the radiance of the technology from which they are spoken into the world, whose coming into the world I demand, demand, no weaker insistence. Come them into us! Maranatha, new child! Such raving your silence lets me give vent to, you who pretend to be dead, how well you hear for a dead man, you hear like your dead emperors in the Kapuzinergruft, I have stood there and heard the banal sanctity of their anthems, the tumultuous alchemical racket of their longaeval bones, ash, crumble, greasy leftovers of more than one kingdom stuffed in marble. At her grave also have I stood, you don’t need to hear her name yet again. When I went down those stairs and stood alone among the dead, why was I alone, where were the tourists who should have elbowed me aside with their digital cameras, their cold little remembering machines, how had the chill November rain managed to keep them in their snug buses? I stood there and listened to the dead, as I listen to you now, and hear you hearing me, and that Möbius-like infolding of our hearing lets me talk, it seems, confident of your acoustic eternity. If the Hapsburg croakers could hear me, so can you. And you know what I’m asking for, I detest children, so of course I don’t want any more of them in the world, but I do want people, people of a sort, of a quality, a limpidity, a torsion, fluid in limb and welcome in fold, people who are born with Bach inside them, children who are never young and adults who are never grown up, these betweeners I yearn for, pretty girls and boys remind us of what they might look like, these yet-to-come, and listening to, say, the Third Partita gives us a sense of what their minds and hearts would be busy with all day long, and quiet at night, and no time for flowers. Flowers are left for the rest of us, we leftover infantile adults that the world endures as well as it can, its artists, writers, swindlers, crocodile wranglers, mountain climbers, gardeners, composers of serious modern music. For I would be flesh, and would discourse with my own, and my own have not come into the world. Or they have fled from it, suicided or snatched away by grisly ailments the doctors pretend to name and throw vile-tasting drugs at, or using their radiation and their surgery, grow obscenely rich by maiming those they cannot heal. Someone not born of woman comes to rescue me from my life. I will write again should that person come, or I will come walk with you in the all-too-formal gardens of the afterlife. They may be just like the Schönbrunn you detested, the emperor’s palace, his lopsided Versailles with the land’s first zoo full of uneasy animals serving life sentences, all of it a pale yellow, color of winter sunlight fading. The name means pretty fountain, doesn’t it, or spring, water of the afterlife. When life finally begins.
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