Austrian Bernhard Inverts the Novel of Ideas

'Correction' by Thomas Bernhard (Vintage)

At this year’s Convocation, President Drew Faust advised the class of 2014 to “find that part of you that will take a chance on an idea or an ideal, the part of you that is willing to fail.” It was, essentially, a throwaway statement: completely uncontroversial, intended to encourage the class’s diversity of thought. But Faust’s remark was possibly more perceptive than intended. Certainly there is enough noise about maintaining a spread of ideas—but how often does anyone question the worth, or note the dangers, of abstract ideas in themselves? Ideas can lead to failure. Indeed, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard went further—ideas, he thought, lead to destruction. As one of the characters writes in his 1975 novel “Correction,” “We never think with the utmost analytical rigor, because if we did we’d solve, dissolve, everything.” Bernhard’s fixation with how even the most well-intended ideas can—and logically must—end in terror, lends his work freshness that makes it well worth revisiting today.

“Correction” focuses on Roithamer, a brilliant scientist at Cambridge University determined to build a cone-shaped habitation for his sister in the center of Austria’s Kobernausser forest. He works out the proofs in the garret of a taxidermist named Hoeller, whose home is built to perch in a dark gorge over the waters of the Aurach River. After Roithamer’s death—a suicide—a friend from Cambridge arrives at the garret to sort through the posthumous papers. The first half of the book is composed of the narrator’s thoughts; the second half is Roithamer’s manuscript itself.

In some sense Bernhard wrote the same book again and again; his novels are all semi-autobiographical monologues, narrowing in slow revolutions about the same themes: the work-in-progress, the obsessive genius, the suspicion toward “nature.” But it is in “Correction” that these themes develop most obviously. Bernhard’s characteristically long sentences bear the weight of his relentless logic; so hypnotically repetitive is his language that each piece of information arrives with a tiny jolt—like the impression a new idea makes before it melts away into one’s previous conception of the world.

Amidst this claustrophobia, ideas take on a sinister aspect. Bernhard works both within and against the Austrian literary tradition, in which intellectualism is revered for its own sake: think of the ecstatic prose and heady swirl of ideas in novels like “The Magic Mountain” or “Auto-da-Fé.” Mathematics and science are particularly aestheticized, but the content of all ideas almost ceases to matter—so malleable are they that they can be transformed even into their opposites.

Roithamer elevates the concept of building, for instance, into an art form: it is not just architecture, but also psychology, and ethics: “The Cone’s interior corresponded to my sister’s inner being, the Cone’s exterior to her outward being, and together her whole being expressed was the Cone’s character.” The question of statics haunts Roithamer, because the problem of the Cone’s construction is the problem of his sister. When finished, however, the place intended for her happiness is totally isolating; the pressure on his sister’s psychology drains her of the very will to live.

This slow drift into horror occurs within the manuscript, which from a blueprint becomes a reminiscence of Roithamer’s unhappy childhood in Altensam, ultimately predicting his own “self-doomed” death. Roithamer continuously condenses his manuscript to “correct” it, but each time he does so its meaning alters drastically. From the first 800 page draft, he revises it to 300 pages; the third version has only 80. On his journey to attend his sister’s funeral, he begins revising even that draft to a mere 20 pages: “I’d realized that nothing in it expresses the reality as it actually is, the description runs counter to the actuality, but I did not hesitate to correct everything, and in the process of correcting everything, I destroyed everything.”

Some of these ideas come from Wittgenstein, with whom Bernhard was obsessed. The walls of Roithamer’s garret are papered with pages taken from that philosopher, alongside those of Montaigne, Novalis, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Bloch. In his unfinished “Philosophical Investigations” Wittgenstein corrects the views of the earlier “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” on language and meaning to the point of overturning them completely. “Correction” is in many ways a thinly veiled fictionalization of both the philosopher (who spent years building a house for his sister) and his ideological reversal.

Then again, the allusions to Western philosophy in which the novel is steeped (Heidegger’s notion of “clearing” as a positive space for being is lampooned, for instance, in Roithamer’s choice of a forest clearing to hang himself) are only another trap. The last notes Roithamer scribbles on some slips of paper are: “in the end nothing matters all that much” and “it’s all the same.” When the narrator catches himself searching for significance in a yellow paper rose, he cuts himself off: “If we keep attaching meanings and mysteries to everything we perceive... we are bound to go crazy sooner or later.” Bernhard avoids description; he uses hardly any adjectives. Yet an undercurrent of “meanings and mysteries” persists despite the absence of anything in the text to suggest it.

Indeed, though Bernhard’s work demonstrates in countless ways the fatal tendency of the idea, even he continued to be enamored by its mysteries. Life void of thought was merely “stupid externals.” His greatest contempt was reserved for Viennese society, which he believed—though outwardly enthralled by ideas—lacked true convictions of its own. The problem for Bernhard was not ideas, but ideas without purpose.

In the liberal West, where it is not uncommon to take on intellectual projects out of convenience rather than true passion, the character best embodying the “age” would be not Roithamer but Ulrich—the protagonist of Robert Musil’s modernist opus “The Man Without Qualities.” Ulrich lacks even what Bernhard calls “the minimum of necessary energy, qualities such as courage, decisiveness, adding up to a spiritual power of decision.” “Correction” is bleak, but it speaks to a secret yearning. What begins as contempt for Roithamer corrects itself into admiration for his ability to pursue his own, self-chosen enthusiasm with near-religious fervor. Whatever the project or its consequences, he has chosen it for himself.

—Staff writer Jessica A. Sequeira can be reached at jsequeir@fas.harvard.edu.

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