Friday 20 August 2021


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The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard (translated by Douglas Robertson)   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Not so much a mental cripple, as Douglas Robertson has translated whatever Thomas Bernhard wrote in German, not so much a mental cripple as an intellectual cripple, he thought, not someone who is crippled mentally as the phrase mental cripple might imply but someone who is a physically crippled intellectual, perhaps even someone physically crippled by their intellectuality, crippled by their mentality, maybe the translation is alright, someone who has allowed themselves to be physically crippled, in the instance of Koller in this book The Cheap-Eaters, someone who could be thought to have willed, if unconsciously willed, if that is a possibility, or whose fate rather accords somewhat with their will, which is the best we can be sure of, that a dog has mauled their leg to such an extent that it has had to be amputated, the dog of an industrialist, no less, in Koller’s case, in order to secure a settlement from the said industrialist which enables them to live, exclusively, the life of the mind, so to call it, to pursue, without the interruption of quotidian or practical concerns, his intellectual interests “to their utmost limits”, in Koller’s case a treatise on physiognomy, not that there is any interest these days in a treatise on physiognomy, not that Koller has even begun to write his treatise on physiognomy, though, he tells the unnamed narrator of the book, he is now ready to do so, having observed over many years a group of individuals who, like him, order only the cheapest food at the Vienna Public Kitchen, which observation will inform the central chapter of his treatise on physiognomy when he comes to write it, not that we learn anything about the physiognomy of these cheap-eaters or about any way in which Koller’s observation of these cheap-eaters or their physiognomies, if these can be distinguished, could inform any part of a treatise on physiognomy, even though Koller summons the narrator to meet him at the narrator’s regular café, the God’s Eye, to expound on the contents of the said central chapter of his yet-to-be-written treatise on physiognomy Koller never even begins to expound on this as he fills the entire period at the God’s Eye expounding and ranting on the circumstances that led him to be in a position to write his treatise on physiognomy, the treatise he never actually writes and of which we and the narrator receive not the slightest inkling of its thrust or what it might contain. Neither Koller nor the narrator consider that they may have mistaken Koller’s obsession for genius. “His existence had also always been a more perilous one than mine, the abysses into which he had gazed were undoubtedly always deeper, the altitude at which he existed had always been a much loftier one and a vertiginous one most of the time, an altitude for which I had always lacked each and every basic qualification.” The narrator, who is writing as a way of making “Koller’s communications clear to myself, in other words, of recollecting his recollections,” has known Koller since their high-school days, they had met at a pharmacy when picking up prescriptions, in the narrator’s case for a sore throat, in Koller the visionary’s case for inflamed eyes, but their relationship has always been been a very unequal one and the narrator had always been in awe of Koller: “I had to reconcile myself to the fact that from the moment at which he entered my life onward I would always have to be second best. … From my perspective, his presence very soon ceased to be able to have any other function than to weaken me, whereas he, thanks to the fact of my availability, had been able to climb higher and higher, and to the same extent that I had been weakened, to strengthen himself.” The narrator, an ordinary, well-balanced person, an unremarkable person, possesses none of the qualities that he mistakes for genius in Koller. “Koller had never wanted to be a different person, whereas I had very often wanted to be a different person. I had very often wanted to be him, but he had never wanted to be me. All his life he had remained himself, just as I had remained myself, but he had always remained himself more consistently though just as logically as I remained myself. … In point of fact he had never been a victim of his own insecurity, whereas I for my part had very often been a victim of my own insecurity.” And possibly it is only this insecurity that saves us from the monomania which has isolated and ultimately destroyed Koller without even granting him his desperate impossible treatise on physiognomy. Thought expends itself and leaves nothing. “These people who are preoccupied with their thoughts and who actually exist only through their thoughts descend little by little into total isolation, in which they think their train of thought and intensify it and ignore everything but this train of thought until they are overwhelmed and asphyxiated and annihilated. … Koller was an exemplary practitioner of such a lethal procedure. Finally everything within him and having to do with him was no longer anything but thought and intolerability.” But for Koller there was no alternative to his obsession: “To salvage so important an singular an essay as my Physiognomy, the writer of such an essay must under certain circumstances gradually withdraw from all people, must renounce all ties, must cut himself off completely, must cease to exist except on his own, so he said. … Anybody who did not from a very early age devote the majority of his energy to pushing back against the madness of the masses would ineluctably fall victim to feeblemindedness, so he said. … Life or existence was nothing other than the unceasing and actually uninterrupted and hopeless attempt to extricate oneself from everything in every possible department and drag oneself into the future, a future that time and again had nothing to offer but a renewal of this selfsame unending lethal process.” The individual may struggle against the masses but they will ultimately fail and be reabsorbed by those masses, they will ultimately fail and until their failure is incontrovertible they will pay the price of utter isolation in order to make a difference that is no difference other than the appearance of a difference. We learn from Koller that either we surrender to our own annihilation or we struggle against it and are annihilated nonetheless, but, really, this is the wrong lesson. The narrator is a person capable of friendship whereas Koller was not capable of friendship. The narrator may not be capable of writing a world-shaking treatise on physiognomy or whatever but Koller was ultimately also incapable of doing so and paid an unbearable price for what was ultimately nothing. This is possibly the wrong lesson, too. 

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