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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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Excursus - The Ohlsdorfer Bauernbündler and the “Little Shit” from Brooklyn: Thomas Bernhard in the Light of Henry Miller 125


Excursus The Ohlsdorfer Bauernbündler and the “Little Shit” from Brooklyn: Thomas Bernhard in the Light of Henry Miller I think it safe to say that Henry Miller is not the first, nor the second, nor the tenth – maybe not even the nth – writer that comes to mind when musing on kindred literary spirits of Thomas Bernhard. Indeed, American writers generally cast barely the slightest of shadows over Bernhard’s writ- ings as, for that matter, does America itself (with the notable exception of the 1944–5 American bombing raids on Salzburg, which cast a good deal more than shadows). The “high”-art, extraordinarily successful Austrian is seemingly leagues away from the coarse, vulgar, failed petty-bourgeois and self-proclaimed “little shit from Brooklyn.” But there exist striking similari- ties between the two authors, and these suggest aspects of Bernhard that reveal him as an at times distinctly plebeian, indeed materialist writer.1 I look at four areas that reveal these meaningful, though sometimes surpris- ing, similarities between Miller and Bernhard: 1) an intense subjectivity (and its subset: stereotypy); 2) the deauraticization of Western “High” Art; 3) a fondness for pre-capitalist economic systems and 4) the attempt to abolish social class. 1 Hans Höller, in his biography of Bernhard, was one of the first to point to this aspect of Bernhard’s writing (Thomas Bernhard 71). 126 Excursus Intense Subjectivity The marked subjectivity – the apparently global refusal to acknowledge the other, the idealizing tendencies of both writers’ protagonists – is the most obvious of the...

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