Friday, March 8, 2013

Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously - Thomas Bernhard's Viennese cultural history

Next week I am on vacation.  The advertising robots have become aggressive lately, so I will turn up the juice on the comment bug zapper while I am gone.  Sorry about that.  Temporary.

Let’s go back to where I started three weeks ago.

Bruckner is just as slovenly a composer as Stifter is a slovenly writer, both of them share that Upper Austrian slovenliness.  Both of them make so-called devout art which in fact is a public danger, Reger said. (36)

Who could that be but Thomas Bernhard, in this case a character in Old Masters (1985).  What did poor Bruckner do to anyone?  But Bernhard is not really attacking Stifter and Bruckner (or not only attacking them):

I certainly do not come from a musical family, he said, on the contrary my people were all unmusical and altogether completely hostile to the arts…  We had many beautiful, expensive paintings hanging on our walls, he said, but they never looked at them once in all those decades, we had many thousands of books on our shelves but they never read a single one of those books in all those decades, we had a Bösendorfer grand piano standing there but for decades no one had played it.  If the lid of the piano had been welded shut they would not have noticed it for decades, he said.  (51)

The age of the characters puts his childhood back in the 1910s or so.  His parents are children of the decorative “roast chicken” era in Vienna.  Those books and paintings might seem to undermine the completeness of his parents hostility, but the character agrees with Broch that it is all for show.  Thus Bruckner and Stifter, creators of that era, are necessary targets in whatever war the character is waging, not that he restricts himself to that period (“basically Beethoven is an utterly repulsive phenomenon, everything about Beethoven is more or less comical, a comical helplessness is what we continually hear when we are listening to Beethoven: the rancour, the titanic, the marching-tune dull-wittedness even in his chamber music,” 61) or to artists (“Vienna is quite superficially famous  for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories,” 81; this theme is pursued for several pages).

All of this is more or less declaimed in front of a Tintoretto painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a painting and room you can see for yourself if it is not closed on the day you visit, grumble grumble.

For this character, and for the comparably vitriolic narrator of Woodcutters (1984), art is the only source of ethical values, the only ground worth fighting on.  I had wondered about the attacks on Viennese institutions like the Burgtheater, but I had been mistakenly guided by the French or American model where the argument for art is so often anti-bourgeois, anti-philistine.  Bernhard’s characters live in a world that has embraced art, is engorged on it.  The Viennese artist’s struggle is from within the center of the culture, not on the fringe.  Bernhard is aligned with Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, and Hermann Broch in his simultaneous attack on and defense of art.

Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said.  But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we should despair. (37)

I keep quoting Old Masters, but the stuff in Woodcutters is just as good.

Both Woodcutters and Old Masters turn out to be, hidden behind all of their acid, love stories – love for people, a woman, I mean.  Old Masters is almost sentimental, as sweet as Adalbert Stifter.

All our writers nowadays, without exception, speak and write enthusiastically about Stifter and follow him as if he were the literary god of the present age.  Either these people are stupid and lack all appreciation of art, or else they do not understand anything about literature, or else, which unfortunately I am bound to believe, they never read Stifter, he said.  (37)

Now I have read Stifter.  Judge accordingly.


  1. A very strange place Stifter has in literature, no one seems to give a hoot about him, and yet he's everywhere.

  2. Outside of the German tradition Stifter is only a curiosity. Perhaps all of the Sebald readers will change that. I have now done my share of the work!

  3. The museum was the setting for my German Literature Month excursion this year - it was a traumatic experience...

  4. Tony, I saw that. I didn't understand it, but I saw it. Actually, it was more the comments that were puzzlers.

    Big laughs on every page of that novel.