Saturday 19 October 2019

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Wittgenstein's Nephew by Thomas Bernhard    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
"It is a folk art of sorts, always longing to kill oneself but being kept by one’s watchful intelligence from killing oneself, so that the condition is stabilised in the form of lifelong controlled suffering,” wrote Thomas Bernhard in Correction. In the ‘autobiographical’ novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A friendship, Bernhard explores the conditions needed for continuing to live in an intolerable world by at once both aligning and contrasting his accommodation of the contradictory impulses for survival and self-destruction with the accommodation or lack of accommodation made between these impulses by his friend Paul Wittgenstein, whose resulting madness periodically incapacitated and ultimately destroyed him. The novel opens with the narrator and Paul both confined to departments in the Baumgartner Höhe hospital in Vienna, “isolated, shunted aside, and written off:” the narrator in the pulmonary department, not expected to live, and Paul in the psychiatric department, receiving brutal electroconvulsive therapy and kept in a caged bed. The two had met at the apartment of a mutual friend at a time when the narrator was afflicted by suicidal thoughts, when at the height of his despair Paul appeared as his “deliverer”, a man who, like the narrator, ''loved and hated human beings with equal passion and equal ruthlessness.” Whereas the narrator writes because “I am forced to defend myself and take action against the insolence of the world in order not to be put down and annihilated by it,” Paul has no such defence. “Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness: one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine. … Paul had only his madness to live on; I have my lung disease as well as my madness. I have exploited both, and one day I suddenly made them the mainspring of my existence.” Both the narrator and Paul exhibit neuroses (such as “the counting disease”) as a means of resisting the pull of annihilation, and share a passion for music (‘culture’ itself being a neurotic mechanism for collectively resisting the pull of annihilation). All efforts, though, to act as if the intolerable is tolerable are increasingly difficult to maintain. “As we get older we have to employ ever subtler means in order to produce such endurable conditions, resorting to every possible and impossible trick the mind can devise.” The narrator knows that continuing is always only a postponement of the moment at which continuing becomes impossible: “I had behaved towards myself and everything else with the same unnatural ruthlessless that one day destroyed Paul and will one day destroy me. For just as Paul came to grief through his unhealthy overestimation of himself and the world, I too shall sooner or later come to grief through my own overestimation of myself and the world.” Paul is destroyed by their shared madness, but the narrator is not yet destroyed. He survives by, in effect, sacrificing Paul. The narrator at ones both claims and disavows Paul as his alter ego, both emphasises and denies their shared identity (is that not always so with friendships?): “We gradually discovered that there were countless things about us and within us that united us, yet at the same time there were so many contrasts between us that our friendship soon ran into difficulties, into even greater difficulties, and ultimately into the greatest difficulties.” When Paul, debilitated by his bouts of madness and the brutality of his treatment, desperate for some practical demonstration of friendship, invites the narrator to his apartment and the narrator sees in its squalor and hopelessness “the last refuge of a failure,” he feels a sudden revulsion for Paul and flees, leaving Paul weeping on his sofa (the last remaining artefact of his squandered former wealth). The narrator finds despicable what he once found admirable. His own destruction yawns too near his feet and he abandons his friend. He sees Paul as spent, as a man dying. “I myself could naturally not feel the same about Paul’s shadow as I had about the real Paul of earlier days. … I preferred to have a bad conscience rather than meet him [for] we shun those who bear the mark of death.” When the narrator returns from a period overseas he learns of Paul’s death in a mental hospital in Linz a few days after attacking his cousin in his final madness, and of Paul’s lonely, abject funeral. “To this day I have not visited his grave,” he states. Paul’s death could be seen as the narrator’s displaced suicide, as a way in which the narrator has continued to exist. “I had met Paul, I now see, precisely at the time when he was beginning to die,” he says. “It seems to me that I was basically nothing but a twelve-year witness of his dying, who drew from his friend’s dying much of the strength he needed for his own survival.” He goes on: "It is not far-fetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible." This book is both a tender tribute to a friend, written in guilt, and an unflinching examination of that guilt. 

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