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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Bernhard in Mann

This is the first of Thomas Mann’s work I’ve read—and I’m only sixty pages in, at that— and I’ve only read a handful of Bernhard, but even this early in Doctor Faustus, it seems that one of Bernhard’s blatant tactics is a reductio ad absurdum of Mann’s style.  That may or may not be a product of my limited reading, but I’m finding it impossible to ignore Bernhard as I’m reading Mann.

The narrator of Faustus is always tentative about first-hand material.  When speaking of his home town, he says, “I really would rather speak in the past tenses, since it is the Kaisersaschern we knew in our youth of which I speak.”  When speaking of his biographical subject, Adrian Leverkühn, he sticks mostly to transcriptions of conversations and to physical descriptions of reactions, and usually throws in a comment about how unwilling he would be to suppose the motivation of such a great artist.  (Interestingly, the narrator also says that, “thanks to my friendship with Adrian, the artist’s life functions as the paradigm for how fate shapes all our lives, as the classic example of how we are deeply moved by what we call becoming, development, destiny—” but you can probably figure out what I’d have to say about that, harping as I do on intention and interpretation and the role of art and all that.)

And here is where my Bearnhard hypothesis enters: The more layers between the narrator and the subject discussed, the more wild the description and supposition become. In Chapter 8, the narrator is remembering lectures he attended with Adrian as a child, given by a stuttering organist and family friend, and attended by virtually none but his and Adrian’s family.  After a rather phenomenal description of the lecturer’s stutter, the narrator gives a lengthy description of a lecture he gave about Beethoven’s last sonata, in which he “describes Beethoven’s state in 1820,” discourses on the boundless subjectivity of harmonic expression, “as opposed to  polyphonic objectivity,” and proposes that Beethoven surpasses the subjectivity of his middle period to achieve a form of objectivity in his late work.  The lecture culminates in a fevered, but inhibited outburst:

In these structures, the lecturer said, the subjective entered into a new relationship with the conventional, a relationship defined by death.  And at that word, Kretzschmar began to stutter violently; holding on to its initial consonant, his tongue set up a kind of machine-gun fire against his palate, setting jaw and chin pulsing in sync, before they came to rest in the vowel that allowed one to surmise the rest.  But once the word had been recognized, it did not seem appropriate for someone to relieve him of it, to do what we sometimes did and call it out to him in jovial helpfulness.  He had to complete it all on his own, and he did so.

Then comes some more postulation about the mythic and collective and objective and whatnot that all tickles my fancy, but the comedy and torture of this passage (these diametric reactions to the lecturer’s stuttering having been previously set up by the narrator) strikes me as a lesson Bernhard learned well.  The emotional content is carried somewhat by the prose style and rhythm (in translation, at least), but the description of the lecture is mostly of the body, and the content of the speech, which makes for a hilarious rendition of the piece under discussion, as Kretzschmar ends the lecture playing the piece while shouting and gesticulating his points the whole time: “‘Chain of trills!’ he yelled.  “Fioriture and cadenzas! Do you hear convention abandoned? Here—language—is—no longer—purged of flourishes—rather flourishes—of the appearance—of their subjective—self-composure—the appearance—of art is thrown off—for ultimately—art always throws off—the appearance of art. Dim—dada! Just listen, please, how here—the melody is overwhelmed…'”

So, as frequently in Bernhard, the narrator’s companion’s interpretation is lampooned in situ, as the narrator simply (though never that simply—he is always also himself lampooned) records his companion’s wild interpretations (*ahem*) of someone else’s life or work (and the two are never far apart in Bernhard, an idea Mann is obviously building to).  But the Bernhardian extremity comes when the next lecture culminates in an apocryphal story describing not only Beethoven‘s emotional state as he writes the Credo of Missa Solemnis, but the emotional state of his servants as he bangs away behind his closed door: “[H]is disciples could hear him working behind the closed door.  The deaf man sang, howled, and stomped over the Credo—the sound of it so horrifyingly moving that the blood froze in the eavesdroppers’ veins.  Just as they were about to depart in great trepidation, the door was flung open, and there in the doorframe stood Beethoven—what a sight! What a horrifying sight!”  This is all, of course, unquoted; the narrator is recounting from memory what the lecturer said years ago, an approach Bernhard takes to its extreme, so when the passage ends with this paragraph, the desperate comedy Bernhard specializes in comes shaking through the whole, chapter-long endeavor:

We did not know the work, we only heard about it. But who would deny that it can also be instructive just to hear of a great unfamiliar work? To be sure, a lot depends on the way in which it is spoken about.  Returning home from Wendell Kretzschmar’s lecture, we had the feeling that we had heard the Missa, and that illusion was not a little influenced by the picture he had impressed on our minds of the haggard and hungry master there in the doorframe.

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Filed under: Bernhard, Mann

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