Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Joys of Bitter Laughter

Anecdote has it that when Kafka was working on The Trial he had friends over to read them the opening. According to Max Brod, the writer's friends "laughed quite immoderately" at this first reading. "And [Kafka] himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further."

It isn't often enough recognized that our most despairing and nihilistic writers--CĂ©line, Beckett, Kafka--are essentially humorists. Or at least that there is usually a substratum of humor beneath their bleakest work. What kept them writing was a perception of the dismal hilarity of the world, the ludicrous absurdity of social life, and in particular the overweening claims of language to be able to make sense of or transcend such a world. As Beckett had it: "I can't go on, I'll go on." He was never quite through blasting away at French and English, struggling to dispel the miasma of euphemism that allowed language to obscure the landscape. And the grim humor of the blasting, more than any real hoped-for epistemological gains, is what made the work worthwhile in the rough day to day.

Thomas Bernhard is part of this tradition of gleeful, methodic destruction. His novel Woodcutters is a two-hundred page one-paragraph rant against Vienna and one married couple, the Auersbergers, who host a dinner party the narrator reluctantly attends there. The calculated and recursive bitterness of the narrative voice, after sixty or seventy pages, finally has one grinning and occasionally laughing aloud. The novel follows the narrator's musings as he waits among the guests, people he's been avoiding for decades, for his hosts' "artistic dinner" to begin. I quote the latter part of a long and brilliant passage that lays out the many ways the cultured Viennese around him, and indeed he himself, are almost insatiably mean-spirited in their dealings with one another.

Or else we try to curry favor with them and they push us away, and so we avenge ourselves by slandering them, running them down wherever we can and pursuing them to their graves with our hatred. Or they help us back on our feet at the crucial moment and we hate them for it, just as they hate us when we help them back on their feet, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We do them a favor and then think we are entitled to their eternal gratitude, I thought, sitting in the wing chair. For years we are on terms of friendship with them, then suddenly we no longer are, and we don't know why. We love them so fervently that we become positively lovesick, and they reject us and hate us for our love, I thought. We're nothing, and they make something of us, and we hate them for it. We come from nowhere, as people say, and they perhaps make a genius out of us, and we never forgive them for it, just as if they'd made a dangerous criminal out of us, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We take everything they have to give us, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and we punish them with a life sentence of contempt and hatred. We owe everything to them and never forgive them for the fact that we owe everything to them, I thought. We think we have rights when we have no rights of any kind, I thought. No one has any rights, I thought. There's nothing but injustice in the world, I thought. Human beings are unjust, and injustice prevails everywhere--that's the truth, I thought. These people have never done anything but pretend to be something, while in reality they've never been anything: they pretend to be educated, but they're not; they pretend to be artistic (as they call it), but they're not; and they pretend to be humane, but they're not, I thought. And their supposed kindness was only pretense, for they were never kind. And above all they pretended to be natural, and they were never natural: everything about them was artificial, and when they claimed--in other words, pretended--to be philosophical, they were nothing but eccentric, and it struck me again how repellent they had seemed to me in the Graben when they told me they now had bought everything by Wittgenstein, just as twenty-five years earlier they had said they had bought everything by Ferdinand Ebner, with just the same tasteless pretense to a knowledge of philosophy--or at least to an interest in philosophy--because they thought they had to for my benefit, since they believed then--and probably still do--that I have a philosophical bent, that I am a philosophizer--which I am not, for to this day I really have no idea what the words philosopher and philosophize mean. (93-4)
Seated in the "wing chair," off to the side and only half-observed by fellow guests (this verbal tic of the "wing chair" recurs as a kind of musical device over the entire text) the narrator thinks through the many bases of his disgust with both his Viennese circle and himself. But this is but a handful of sentences from what is an almost epic rant. The sheer volume of pent up bitterness and hypocrisy, the pages upon pages of it, ever repeating the same accusations or similar ones in the same exact tone, only occasionally taking up new objects of disgust to add to the simmering stew of hate and recrimination--the effect is ultimately comic. It partakes of one of the most important devices of comic art: human subjects fallen into mechanical repetition. Beckett too is a master of this, particularly (as far as the novel is concerned) in his wartime work Watt.

I've recently also been reading a more current writer, the novelist Tao Lin, and it would be worthwhile to consider how his work relates to these great 20th century novels. Tao Lin's disgust plays out in the post-digital and slavishly consumerist America of the new century, and he's especially a master of narrative boredom and how boredom and aimlessness come to underpin a kind of flippant linguistic drift that itself makes for much of the content of the work. His early novel Eeeee Eee Eeee stands apart for this.

Check out:

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters

Samuel Beckett: Watt

Tao Lin: Eeeee Eee Eeee

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