Thomas Bernhard: Infamy, Brutality, and Literature (In-Person)

Instructor: Lauren K. Wolfe
BISR Central
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Thomas Bernhard, perhaps the most notorious figure—lauded, reclusive, scandalizing—of postwar Austrian literature, takes up the “inexpungible inheritances” of his native country in novels of obsessive detail and unrelenting vitriol. From the death camps of WWII to Catholicism’s crypto-Nazism, from the vacuity of the culture industry to the sterility of bourgeois art forms, Bernhard’s fulminating, monologuing narrators are at once canny and ailing—avatars of the cultural malaise they both diagnose and recapitulate. An aging music critic, lamenting his numbness to art, spends hours each day for decades of his life sitting in front of a painting contemplating his loss of feeling. A young medical student, tasked with clinically observing the psychic contours of a reclusive artist, becomes inextricably bound up in the ostensible madness of his subject. A play commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the Austrian national theater is transformed into a reckoning with another anniversary—the Nazi annexation of Austria. In a long tradition of skepticism and caustic critique stretching back to Karl Kraus, Bernhard poses a crucial question: Does literature serve extra-literary purposes, how, and to what ends? Does art that seeks to show the world its folly—and its crimes—have redemptive value, and, if so, for whom?

In this course, we will read selections from Bernhard’s prose, drama, and memoirs in an effort to situate his creative output in the context of postwar Austrian political and social life. We’ll examine Bernhard’s techniques (monologue and repetition; the rant as fugue; the novel as a “structure of opinion”) in their relationship with the material and historical conditions to which Bernhard is responding (the culture industry; national memory and national identity; persistent authoritarianism and anti-Semitism; state and class complicity in genocide). We’ll spend some time with Bernhard’s forebears in the literary, dramatic, and even philosophical traditions that he takes up, including Karl Kraus, bourgeois theater, and Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Austrian brand of skepticism and language critique. We’ll look at the social function of the artist in those traditions and Bernhard’s ambivalent participation in them. We’ll pay close attention to his obsessions—with illness and death, not just in the human body, but in cultural forms, the natural landscape, and political formations; with genius, perfection, frailty, and failure; and with obsession itself: how obsessive themes call forth obsessive forms, and whether and how obsession works as a critical strategy. What’s at stake when a writer both criticizes and participates in a prurient and exploitative culture industry (and why does this industry celebrate a person whose vocation was to debase it)? Can we locate humor, pathos, or any hope for alternatives in Bernhard’s particular brand of “infamy” and “brutality,” in the way he drives an idea to exhaustion, in the excesses and fury of his narrators? What is, after all, the writer in relation to their community?

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 17 — November 07, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open

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