Wittgenstein’s Nephew ~ Thomas Bernhard

You can read this hybrid novel/memoir either as a very short book or a very long paragraph (there is only one). But at just 100 pages, it is the intriguing and reflective story of the author’s (Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard) friendship with the nephew of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul. It’s reminiscent of another Austrian writer, W. G. Sebald, and indeed, Sebald has noted Bernhard’s influence. Though it must be said that Sebald is the kinder, gentler version.

It’s 1967, and both his friend Paul W. and himself are recovering at Vienna’s Wilhelminenberg hospital: Bernhard (never named) in the lung ward (the Hermann Pavilion) and Paul W. in the psychiatric ward (the Ludwig Pavilion). These two ‘pavilions’ are separated by a fence and there are not supposed to be cross visits between the two wards. And though Bernhard thinks about it all the time, and actually attempts to cross over, he never makes it. Eventually though, Paul does come to see him and they make arrangements to meet again. They do, but that is the last time they meet while still recovering.

As Bernhard writes about this friendship, he touches as well on a wide range of topics with a rapier like wit (and the rapier is most likely poisoned at the tip) that can really get deadly depending on whom the intended focus is. Yet, there’s humor here as well, although with a bitter aftertaste.

Here is TB on psychiatrists:

At every turn they would use the term manic or depressive, and they were always wrong. At every end and turn they would take refuge (like all doctors!) in yet another scientific term in order to cover themselves, to protect themselves (though not the patient). Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal their incompetence and cloak their charlantry…Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science.

How does he really feel, do you think? The above is just one example of his opinions devastatingly turned on some institution or another. And there is a whiff of the repetitive cadence (at every turn…at every end and turn), which is much more pronounced elsewhere.

Exploiting your disease for art:

TB makes a distinction between his own madness and that of Paul’s: whereas Paul’s madness totally dominated his life, and was given over to it, whereas TB exploited his madness for his own purposes.

The trouble with Paul was that he was as profligate with his intellectual fortune as he was with his financial fortune, but his intellect, unlike his finances, was inexhaustible. He never ceased to throw it out the window, yet it never ceased to grow…We were alike and yet completely different.

Paul W. came from a rich family and had plenty of money, but he plowed through it, spending and giving it away. In the end, he dies virtually penniless. TB exploited his diseases (pulmonary problems and madness) to produce art, but Paul was never able to take control of his disease. Paul never saw the whole picture, only the surface of things.

While I saw through the whole scene, Paul saw only the surface – the distress of the innocent child, not the monstrous mother in the background.

Paul could not see, while TB could not fail to see. Bernhard certainly had a much more pessimistic view of humanity than did his friend Paul (see “Potato Heads” below).

The Mad Philosophers:

TB also compares the philosopher Ludwig with his nephew Paul. An interesting, and subtly important distinction (and another example of his writing and forms of argument throughout:

Paul the madman was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig, while Ludwig the philosopher was just as mad as his nephew Paul. Ludwig became famous through his philosophy, Paul through his madness.. The one was possibly more philosophical, the other possibly more mad. But it may well be that the philosophical Wittgenstein is regarded as a philosopher merely because he set his philosophy down on paper and not his madness, and that Paul is regarded as a madman because he suppressed his philosophy instead of publish it, and displayed only his madness.

Potato Heads:

For let us not deceive ourselves: most of the minds we associate with are housed in heads that have little more to offer than overgrown potatoes, stuck on top of whining and tastelessly clad bodies and eking out a pathetic existence that does not even merit our pity.

In Sickness and in Health:

TB has an insightful section on the sick and the healthy. They are both impatient with each other, for different reasons. There is no mutual understanding of their respective positions. They each find it difficult to cope with the others condition, each others needs.

…there is nothing more difficult than to recognize genuine kindness, genuine helpfulness, and genuine self-sacrifice; there is nothing harder than to distinguish between the genuine article and the sham.

City Mouse, Country Mouse

For health reasons, TB has to alternate between time in the country and time in the city. It’s obvious which he prefers the city, while finding nature “sinister” and “hostile”. For TB the country “robs a thinking person” and gives nothing in return.

I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my own body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can. The truth is I am a city dweller thorough and through who can at best tolerate nature.

Spread out that Sunday Paper

Following is a tale of several pages regarding the search for a particular newspaper (and very funny) while in the country that just cannot be found. Speaking of newspapers, TB prefers Swiss, English or French papers. German?: “little more than garbage sheets” and Austrian?: “not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper”. Ouch and double ouch!

There are wonderful sections as well and traveling and arrival and something he calls the counting disease. I recognize both of the conditions in myself – especially the latter. And the sketch of his accepting a literary prize is a classic

The book is short, but jammed with exquisite observations and thoughtful insights, but not so jammed as to slow the reader down. I read it in a few hours this morning.


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