Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard, tr. Ewald Osers (The University of Chicago Press, 1992)
"Stifter is no genius, Stifter is a philistine living a cramped life and a musty petit bourgeois and schoolmaster writing in a cramped style, who did not even meet the minimum requirements of the language, let alone was able to produce works of art, Reger said," wrote Thomas Bernhard. "All in all, he said," Bernhard wrote, "Stifter is one of the greatest disappointments of my artistic life. Every third or at least every fourth sentence of Stifter's is wrong, every other or every third metaphor is a failure, and Stifter's mind generally, at least in his literary writings, is a mediocre mind." The creaking complaint almost echoed Prospero's lament, in an inverted sense,"And thence retire me to my Milan," Shakespeare wrote, "where / Every third thought shall be my grave." This last line formed the epigraph of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, a lacerating lengthy monologue on sex and mortality. The same lashing voice, unflagging in intensity, characterized the comic novel Old Masters. But where Prospero consigned himself to resignation, Bernhard's tempest was only starting to brew. It was only the beginning of inspired verbal lashing. He was a cultured dragon spewing fire and brimstone and vituperation at the mediocrity and pettiness of writers and artists in Austria, represented by Adalbert Stifter, Heidegger, and the composer Bruckner. He breathed fire and scorched everything in the path of his fire-breath.
In a novel of art criticism, raw and extreme, his call was as much for the rejection of anything hopeless and base—like Stifter's "unbearable provincial raised-finger kind of prose"—as for the celebration of excellence, for the "highest art". Even if that kind of art, Bernhard wrote, was a strange mix of utter sublimeness and revulsion.
Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said. But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we should despair. Even though we know that all art ends in gaucherie and in ludicrousness and in the refuse of history, like everything else, we must, with downright self-assurance, believe in high and in the highest art, he said. We realize what it is, bungled, failed art, but we need not always hold this realization before us, because in that case we should inevitably perish, he said.
What lent authority to Bernhard's voice, what made his narrators convincing, was not so much his aesthetic pronouncements but his delivery, his style. His characters, Reger and Irrsigler and the narrator Atzbacher, were his stand-ins, refracted through a loop of successive narrative appropriation. This tendency for perfect attribution was demonstrated early on (p. 4):
The art historians only swamp the visitors with their twaddle, says Irrsigler, who has, over the years, appropriated verbatim many, if not all, of Reger's sentences. Irrsigler is Reger's mouthpiece, nearly everything that Irrsigler says has been said by Reger, for over thirty years Irrsigler has been saying what Reger has said. If I [Atzbacher] listen attentively I can hear Reger speak through Irrsigler. If we listen to the guides we only ever hear that art twaddle which gets on our nerves, the unbearable art twaddle of the art historians, says Irrsigler, because Reger says so frequently. All these paintings are magnificent, but not a single one is perfect, Irrsigler says after Reger. People only go to the museum because they have been told that a cultured person must go there, and not out of interest, people are not interested in art, at any rate ninety-nine per cent of humanity has no interest whatever in art, as Irrsigler says, quoting Reger word for word.... Reger hates Reni [the painter], therefore Irrsigler hates Reni too. Irrsigler has achieved a high degree of mastery in appropriating Reger's statements, indeed he now utters them almost perfectly in Reger's characteristic tone. [my underlining]
Irssigler was almost the alter-ego of Reger, and Atzbacher was proving himself to be the alter-ego of both Irrsigler and Reger, their willing mouthpiece. Atzabacher quoted them accurately and perfectly like a journalist. Did Atzbacher serve as the alter-ego of Bernhard too? This supposition was a trap for the reader. Whatever the case, the novelist and his characters were not self-styled aesthetes. They are stylists. Therein lay their authority and believability. It didn't matter whether the reader agreed with his (with Reger's) literary taste or not, with whether Stifter was a dumbass quack or not. What matters was the conviction with which he banged his literary gavel, his emphatic judgement, his didacticism and mad belaboring.
I am a critical artist, he said, I have been a critical artist all my life. Even in childhood I was a critical artist, he said, the circumstances of my childhood made me a critical artist in an entirely natural way. I certainly regard myself as an artist, that is as a critical artist, and as a critical artist I am of course also creative, that is obvious, hence a performing and creative critical artist, he said. What is more, a creative and performing critical artist of The Times, he said. I certainly regard my brief reports for The Times as works of art, and I think that as the author of these works of art I am always in one person and simultaneously a painter and a musician and a writer. That is my greatest delight: to know that as the author of these works of art for The Times I am a painter and a musician and a writer in one, that is my greatest delight. I am not therefore, as the painters are, only a painter, and I am not, as the musicians are, only a musician, and I am not, as the writers are, only a writer, you must understand that I am a painter and a musician and a writer all in one. That is what I perceive to be the greatest happiness, he said, to be an artist in all the arts and yet reside in one of them. It is possible, he said, that the critical artist is the one who practises his own art in all the arts and is aware of it, utterly and totally aware of it. This awareness makes me happy. To that extent I have been happy for over thirty years, he said, even though by nature I am an unhappy person.
So much remains to be said about this relentless comedy, its protagonists and writer, a critical artist of "the times" who panned from one topic to the next. Reger was an extension of Bernhard for they were in sync temperamentally. Bernhard in his collected memoirs Gathering Evidence was as vocal and ceaseless and unforgiving and invigorating as Reger in Old Masters. Reger abhorred the small-minded and the provincial, the "twaddle" of authority (art historians), the "universal anti-intellectual meanness" in Austria, the brutal and corrupt and Catholic Austrian education system, the politics of (compromised) art.
The "old masters" had to be questioned, were not to be easily trusted. They represented a kind of stale idea and "twaddle" that must be interrogated time and again. The critic must not be beholden to old masters.
The old masters, as they have now been called for centuries, only stand up to superficial viewing; if we view them thoroughly they gradually become diminished, and when we have studied them really and truly, and that means as thoroughly as possible for as long as possible, they dissolve, they crumble for us, leaving only a flat taste, in fact most of the time a very bad taste, in our mouths. The greatest and most significant work of art ultimately weighs heavily on our heads, as a huge lump of baseness and lies, rather as an excessively large lump of meat might weigh on our stomachs. We are fascinated by a work of art and ultimately it is ridiculous.
If an artwork survived the scrutiny of truly discerning art critics, then it was safe for now. The artist, wherever in the afterlife, could heave a sigh of relief. The true works of art will withstand re-readings and re-viewings. But no work does, as all great works are fallible. Some texts fall out of taste and fall out of touch to the contemporary art world.
In the disillusionment we experience upon discovering that the greatness of the one we have venerated and loved is no greatness at all and never was such greatness, but only an imagined greatness and is in fact pettiness, and indeed baseness, we experience the merciless pangs of the deceived. We quite simply pay the price, Reger said, for having lent ourselves to blindly accepting an object, moreover for years and decades and possibly for a lifetime, and even to venerating and loving it, without time and again putting it to the test. If only, let us say, thirty or even twenty years ago, or fifteen years ago, I had put Stifter to the test I should have saved myself this late disappointment. Altogether we should never say this or that person is the thing, and will then remain the thing for all time, we should again and again put all artists to the test, because we keep developing our art scholarship and our artistic taste, that is unquestionable.
There lay the pragmatism of Bernhard's critical faculties. He recognized the value of ongoing criticism in deciphering the present and future value of art. There was a dynamic stock market of art appreciation. Works depreciate according to how they were defended and how they (helplessly) respond to the changing values and judgements of 2015 or say, 2045 or 2035 or 2030—30 or 20 or 15 years from now.
I'm only a third of the way through this novel and I can't help but write my own twaddle on it. Every third sentence of Old Masters is excruciatingly funny, every fourth is darkly refreshing, and every fifth leads to a trapdoor.