Riff on Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters

Out of the four or five Bernhard works I’ve read, Old Masters is so far the least enjoyable, at least in terms of “heart.” Concrete and The Loser were both concerned with acceptance of one’s limits, his/her incapacity to be great in the face of their insistence on trying to get there. Here, it is mainly the folly of aesthetic representation, and how achievement and authority in an “old master” is false and arbitrary and patronizing. It seems like it is the most obvious excuse for Bernhard to rage against the art world, and of art making in general. On a formal level, though, it might be the clearest example of what Bernhard repeatedly performs: it is a “staged fiction,” insofar that techniques of theater are implemented through the mode of the “novel.” Bernhard, as always, beautifully writes paradox, ambivalence, and futility in this seamless meshing of form and content. This is the structural dipole–its largest–that is mirrored within the text on levels of theme, syntax, and joke.

The form itself–an uninterrupted stream of text, information, echo, relay, rumor, etc.–is a stage. There is only a transparent illusion that a story in the conventional sense will be performed; really, a hyperbolic anecdote will tell us about the story that will be told. The anecdote of omniscience.

Although I had arranged to meet Reger at the Kunsthistorisches Museum at half-past eleven, I arrived at the agreed spot at half-past ten in order, as I had for some time decided to do, to observe him, for once, from the most ideal angle possible and undisturbed, Atzbacher writes.

I added this last emphasis because Bernhard suggests there is an omniscient narrator, and thus an a priori truth. Reger, the “musical philosopher,” almost stands on top of the stage that is Atzbacher, the “private academic” and true narrator of Old Masters, punctuated by dialogue tags (“Reger said.”) I posted a quote on this blog previously about Reger’s relationship to the museum guard, Irrsigler, that describes him as a “state-sanctioned corpse.”  Atzbacher/Reger continues:

Reger, who has been coming to the Kunsthistorisches museum for over thirty-six years, has known Irrsigler from the first day of his employment and maintains an entirely amicable relationship with him. It only required a very small bribe to secure the settee in the Bordone Room forever, Reger told me some years ago.

The stage props: The Bordone Room inside of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, its settee, Irrsigler, Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. The museum is not only a mausoleum for the art, but for the “living” inside of it. Irrsigler, in spite of his preference for fine clothing, cannot wear anything but his museum guard uniform, that he is a “state-sanctioned corpse,” that he shoos away tourists and visitors when Reger is in the Bordone Room because he has been paid to do so. Irrsigler is a museum guard, and therefore also a funeral home director, and the grim reaper. He appears and disappears to remind us that we will have to pay for our cadavers to be interred, and that a living person will guard our bodies.

Notice, too, that Atzbacher observes Reger just as Reger observes Tintoretto: but for what? We can impose a reading that postures the “story” as a wandering, fruitless attempt to find a concrete reality in aesthetic theory, but Bernhard’s point, I think, is to show us that, yes, while aesthetic theory is essentially only theory and aesthetic, our lives are aesthetics. Our understanding of concrete is suggested in art, literature, and music.

This is exemplified in the “two Tintorettos” scene, which is also another fine example of Bernhard’s dipole structural blending of theater and fiction, anecdote and scene, reality and aesthetic. An explanation of the superiority of the Bordone Room over the Ambassador Hotel takes us away from the “setting” and pulse of the novel, and then an incredulous event happens: for the first time in 30 years, Reger shares the Bordone Room. Its theatricality lies in Bernhard’s posturing both Reger and the Englshman as uncanny.

…[An] Englishman in plus-fours had sat down on the Bordone Room settee and was not to be induced to get up from the Bordone Room sottee, not even in response to Irrsigler’s insistent pleas, not even in response to my pleas, it was all no use, the English remained seated on the Bordone Room settee, Reger said, and took no notice either of me or of Irrsigler. … And now I [the Englishman] am sitting here and I see that my Tintoretto does in fact hang on the wall here at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. See for yourself, the White-Bearded Man in the reproduction here, the one that hangs in my bedroom in Wales, is the Tintoretto that hangs here on the wall at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Englishman said, Reger said, and once again the Englishman held open the black leather book before my eyes. … The Englishman rose from the settee and stepped quite close to the White-Bearded Man and for a while remained standing in front of the White-Bearded Man. I observed the Englishman and admired him at the same time, because I had never yet seen a person with such positively superhuman self-control, Reger said, I observed the Englishman from Wales and I reflected that, faced with such a monstrous situation, that is to say down to the last hair the very same picture hanging at the Kunsthistorisches Museum as in my bedroom in wales, I would have completely lost my self-control.

I think what’s raised here is: Who owns art? Is there one experience of art? Is any art original, is life original? Do we make art in a vain attempt to defeat death, when that very effort (the product) can haunt and persistently remind us of our mortality? Paradoxically, it is the pursuit of art making–to defeat death–that drives this novel “forward,” while simultaneously reminding us that it is ultimately futile.

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