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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 Four - The Social(ist) Construction of Art in Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister 135


Chapter Four The Social(ist) Construction of Art in Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister Both before and after Thomas Bernhard’s death, much scholarly and bel- letristic discussion neglected to put Bernhard’s oeuvre in a historical and political framework. Discussions such as those of Walitsch, Martin, Helms- Derfert, Hens and Long, for example, though impressive in their way (philosophical, hermeneutic, geschichtsphilosophisch, narratological) are for the most part text-immanent critiques. With respect to politics, critics have viewed Bernhard as either a nihilist, so contradictory and self- cancelling in his/his characters’ utterances, that he is in ef fect apolitical, or relying on his membership in the Bauernbund (and the iconic plate on the Ohlsdorf tractor), as a “Conservative” tout simple. From the biographical perspective (not the approach of this essay), for what it’s worth, they have ignored, for example, Hennetmair’s repeated assertion to Maria Fialik, that “Er [Bernhard] war Edelsozialist.”1 All too often, the reason for such judgments lies in a narrow definition of politics that restricts the term to 1 The exchange between the two is worth quoting for its typical character with respect to the construction of a political image, even when the datum doesn’t fit the image: “Fialik: Und daß er kein Sozialist ist, habe ich von allem Anfang an gewußt. Hennetmair: Er war ja ein Edelsozialist. Da haben Sie ja schon wieder daneben tippt” (Fialik, 1991, 201). A page later: “Fialik: Sie meinen, eine Überzeugung gab es nie? Auch nicht für die Sozialistische Partei?” Hennetmair [understandably frustrated...

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