Thanks to Dave Lull for sending me a link to a 1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard at the punningly named Sign and Sight. Present in the interview, as in his fiction, is Bernhard’s gift for the unexpected. His mind, contrarian by nature, impish by whim, appears to have operated without templates of convention. His books are grim (albeit hilariously so), therefore we expect his conversation, his outlook, to be correspondingly grim. Enjoy the spectacle of Thomas Bernhard on the virtues of fun:
“Everything fails in the end, everything ends in the graveyard. There's nothing you can do about it. Death claims them all and that's the end of it. Most people give in to death at 17 or 18. The young people of today are running into the arms of death at age 12, and they're dead at 14. Then there are solitary fighters who struggle on until 80 or 90, then they die too, but at least they had a longer life. And because life is pleasant and fun, their fun lasts longer. Those who die early have less fun, and you can feel sorry for them. Because they haven't really got to know life, because life also means a long life, with all of its awfulness.”
On the one had: “…everything ends in the graveyard.” On the other, six sentences later: “…life is pleasant and fun.” I don’t find this inconsistent – or ironic – though I find it human. We are bifurcated, and Bernhard feeds on that bifurcation. The same division shows up when the interviewer, Werner Wogerbauer, says to Bernhard, “Your characters and you yourself often say they don't care about anything, which sounds like total entropy, universal indifference of everyone towards everything,” and he replies:
“Not at all, you want to do something good, you take pleasure in what you do, like a pianist, he has to start somewhere too, he tries three notes, then he masters twenty, and eventually he knows them all, and then he spends the rest of his life perfecting them. And that's his great pleasure, that's what he lives for. And what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly. With the whole world. With up and down, back and front, ugliness and beauty, perfectly normal. There's no need to want this. It happens of its own accord. And if you never leave the house, the process is the same.”
That’s as humanly apt an explanation for writing as I know. It reminds me of something William H. Gass wrote in “Rilke and the Requiem,” collected in A Temple of Texts:
“Most poets fail…because they bewail their state instead of describing it; they evaluate their feelings instead of forming them; and although they believe their joys and sorrows should be known, they are unable or unwilling to transform their consciousness into an adequate poetic language, they fail to make of their poem ‘a thing’ that can sit in the world as fat and steamy as a teapot…”
Compared to words, life is distracting. Compared to life, words are demanding. I speak almost daily with engineers, people for whom algorithms are oxygen and for whom arranging units of sound and information in meaningful patterns ought to be an amusing diversion. Instead, few of them relish the challenge of artfully arranging words – like the mediocre poets Gass indicts. Three-quarters of the engineers I interview, when words prove inadequate, resort to drawing diagrams or graphs. I think of Bernhard, Gass and others as engineers of language, solving problems they set for themselves, building elegant structures and connections, savoring the notes.