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It soon becomes clear to the reader of Gathering Evidence that for Bernhard writing is a therapeutic act, an attempt to liberate himself from his own personal hell of conflicts and recurring nightmares. Like Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, he proudly proclaims: “I study myself more than anything else. That is my metaphysics and my physics. I am myself the king of the matter I treat, and I am accountable to no one.” Focusing entirely on the investigation of self, Bernhard summarily dismisses any thought of the writer’s responsibility toward society or mankind as a whole. Many readers may be surprised by Bernhard’s nearly total disregard of the important political and historical events of his youth. His memory is centered on events which touched him directly, such as death and destruction in Allied air raids or the fact that he, the poor student and ridiculed son of the wife of a lowly barber, received the highest honors as a sprinter in his pre-Hitler Youth sports group. This small success in sports provided him with a momentary relief from the endless pressures of being the underdog in search of a way out.

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By claiming for himself the right to treat matters as he wishes without being accountable to anyone, Bernhard is able to present the realities of his existence not as others may have perceived them but distorted into nightmarish apparitions. For example, Bernhard vividly describes the horror of suffocating in Salzburg’s makeshift air-raid shelters, indicating that thousands of bodies were thrown out and carted away within a period of only a few months. No doubt such deaths did occur, but the numbers cited by the author are a figment of the imaginative visions of a deeply scarred and suffering mind.

Considering the possibility that Bernhard describes himself in his autobiography as having been on the analyst’s couch, where he tried to recall every potentially traumatic experience of his early life, the sequence of events, as originally presented by the author, is significant. As often happens in psychoanalysis, the initial gathering of evidence, beginning with his teenage years in Salzburg, did not yield the desired results. It was based on the questionable premise that Salzburg—a city with an unusually high suicide rate—which had been home to his family for generations, was the cause of all of his troubles. When that premise proved inconclusive, Bernhard was forced to deepen his probe, leading him further back into his early childhood and the origins of his difficult love-hate relationship with his mother and nearly every person close to him. As he states in the account of his teenage years, “I have had three experiences: that of my grandfather; that of all the others, who were of lesser importance to me; and my own.”

Until his death shortly after Bernhard’s eighteenth birthday, and in some ways even beyond his grave, his grandfather was the main character in the evolving drama of Bernhard’s life. He provided the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere in which the otherwise neglected young artist could hold on to his potential and begin to realize his talents. Bernhard’s mother, clearly lumped in with “all the others,” is given no special consideration at this point in the story. Yet her relationship to her first-born was eventually the most significant in shaping his existence as a human being and a writer. Her inability to bring about the proper mother-child bonding precipitated his failure to forge the kind of satisfying relationship with family and peers which sustains young people. In and out of school, the boy led the lonely life of a misfit and troublemaker continually rejected by others. His relationship to society at large was never one of belonging; it was always confrontational. He describes himself as always “going in the opposite direction.” To understand the process of discovery, the...

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Critical Context