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Thomas Bernhard’s Comic Materialism

Class, Art, and «Socialism» in Post-War Austria


Russell Harrison

Twenty-two years after his death, Thomas Bernhard’s work continues to fascinate, irritate, and please readers. This book analyzes Bernhard’s writings in the light of post-war Austrian history, challenging the prevailing formalist and psychological reception of his work. It does so by revealing the close connection between individual texts and contemporaneous economic and political events, such as the relationship of the 1969 story Watten. Ein Nachlass to the incipient decline of the social-partnership state, or the connection of the 1970 novel Das Kalkwerk to the shifting balance of power between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Furthermore, the book argues that much of Bernhard’s engagement in public life was an attack on the «pseudo-socialism» of the Austrian socialist party and especially of Bruno Kreisky. Bernhard’s critique is effected through what the author terms a «comic materialism» – an unrelenting focus on the material aspects of life – evident in his protagonists’ ludicrously obsessive fixation on the objects of everyday life and in his comic critique of Viennese society.


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Chapter One - Thomas Bernhard’s Anti-Proletarian Screed: The “Politische Morgenandacht” in its Historical Context 5


Chapter One Thomas Bernhard’s Anti-Proletarian Screed: The “Politische Morgenandacht” in its Historical Context What is history to me? Mine is the first and only world.1 — Wittgenstein Wie sehr diese Bücher die Zeit zeigen, was sie gar nicht beabsichtigen, wird eine spätere erkennen. — Ingeborg Bachmann (361) 1 Critics of Thomas Bernhard have occasionally suggested that something is lacking in the scholarly response to his work; that somehow, for all the hundreds – possibly thousands – of books and articles written on Bern- hard’s work, something important – perhaps even primary – has been obscured.2 It is my contention that this res abscondita is the working class presence. On ref lection, however, it should come as no surprise that the proletariat is an important factor in Bernhard’s oeuvre. After all, First-Republic Aus- tria had been driven to civil war by class conf lict, leading to the right-wing totalitarian governments of Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, which waged war 1 Janik and Toulman 243. 2 See the citation from an essay by Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler in note 12, below. 6 Chapter One on the working class, first politically and then by the resort to force.3 The 1938 Anschluss had, in large part, been directed against the proletariat and had decimated the left. Later there were significant class struggles around the wage/price agreements in the early post-war period, to cite a few high- profile proletarian metonyms. One result of these conf licts was the “conso- ciational” nature of the Second Republic, which had as its raison d’être the...

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