From Thomas Bernhard’s Novel Gargoyles, The Story of the Deceased Teacher

While we ate, my father also told me the following story about the deceased teacher. Once when he was a boy, his grandmother had taken him along into the deep woods to pick blackberries. They lost their way completely, wandered for hours, and could not find the way out of the woods. Darkness fell, and still they had not found the path. They kept going in the wrong direction all the time. Finally grandmother and grandson curled up in a hollow, and lying pressed close together, survived the night. They were lost all the next day and spent a second night in another refuge. Not until the afternoon of the second day did they suddenly emerge from the woods, only to find they had all along gone in a direction opposite from that of their home. Totally exhausted, they had struggled on to the nearest farmhouse.

This ordeal had quickly brought about the grandmother’s death. And her grandson, not yet six, had had his entire future ruined by it, my father said.

You could always conclude that the disasters in a man’s life derived from earlier, usually very early, injuries to his body and his psyche, my father averred. Modern medicine was aware of this, but still made far too little use of such knowledge.

“Even today most doctors do not look into causes,” my father said. “They concern themselves only with the most elementary patterns of treatment. They’re hypocrites who do nothing but prescribe medicines and close their eyes to the psyches of people who because of their helplessness and a disastrous tradition entrust themselves completely to their doctors. And most doctors are lazy and cowardly.”

Putting yourself at their mercy meant putting yourself at the mercy of chance and total unfeelingness, trusting to a pseudo-science, my father said. “Most doctors nowadays are unskilled workers in medicine. And the greatest mystifiers. I never feel more insecure than when I’m among my colleagues. Nothing is more sinister than medicine.”

In the last months of his life the teacher had developed an astonishing gift for pen drawing, my father said. The demonic elements that more and more came to light in his drawings shocked his parents. In delicate lines he drew a world “intent upon self-destruction” that terrified them: birds torn to pieces, human tongues ripped out by the roots, eight-fingered hands, smashed heads, extremities torn from bodies not shown, feet, hands, genitals, people suffocated as they walked, and so on. In those last months the bony structure of the young man’s skull became more and more prominent. And he drew his own portrait frequently, hundreds, thousands of times. When the young teacher talked, the disastrous way his mind was set became apparent. My father had considered taking some of the drawings and showing them to a gallery owner he knew in Graz. “They would make a good exhibition,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who draws the way the teacher did.” The teacher’s surrealism was something completely original, for there was nothing surreal in his drawings; what they showed was reality itself. “The world is surrealistic through and through,” my father said. “Nature is surrealistic, everything is surrealistic.” But he felt that art one exhibited was destroyed by the very act of being exhibited, and so he dropped the idea of doing anything with the teacher’s drawings. On the other hand, he was afraid the schoolmaster’s parents would throw away the drawings or burn them—thousands of them!—from ignorance of how good they were and because they were still frightened, anxious, and wrought up about these drawings. So he had decided to take them. “I’ll simply take them all with me,” he said. He had no doubt they would be handed over to him.

The teacher’s parents must have kept thinking of their sick son’s unfortunate bent whenever they looked at him during his last illness, my father said. “What a terrible thing it is that when you know of some deviation, some unnaturalness, or some crime in connection with a person, as long as he lives you can never look at him without thinking about that deviation, unnaturalness, or crime.”

From his bed the teacher had a view of the peak of the Bundscheck on one side and the rounded top of the Wölkerkogel on the other side. “You can feel this whole stark landscape in his drawings,” my father said.

The teacher’s parents said, however, that during his last days he had not spoken at all, only looked at the landscape outside his window. But the landscape he saw was entirely different from theirs, my father said, and different from the landscape we see when we look at it. What he depicted was an entirely different landscape, “everything totally different.”

—From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Gargoyles.


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