Gathering Evidence

by Thomas Bernhard
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101

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.

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 psychoanalytic aspect of Bernhard’s inquiry into his own past, the reader must keep in mind the original order of the five volumes of the autobiography.

This order proves equally important for the reader who wishes to follow Bernhard’s development as a creative writer. He shows an ever-increasing skill in creating the appropriate language and style for his material. Writing becomes a shedding of the layers of assumed positions and points of view, taken on, in four of the five volumes, for the purpose of creating effects or hiding his feelings rather than presenting himself with authenticity. Not until the chapter “A Child,” appearing as chapter 1 in Gathering Evidence although it was written last, does the mature writer emerge. In “An Indication of the Cause” and “The Cellar: An Escape,” he plays the role of an angry young man blaming society for every evil in the world. He presents himself as a cynic with nothing but disdain for his surroundings and for himself. There seems to be a need to punish the reader with endless repetitions and tirades against the city of Salzburg, the ineptness of parents, and the Catholic church and religion in general.

“Breath: A Decision” and “In the Cold” show a self-absorbed writer feeling profoundly sorry for himself. Yet these two chapters also begin to show Bernhard’s flair for the dramatic, which he apparently repressed in the earlier chapters. The dramatic mode originates, in part, in the tension resulting from concentrating on the momentous while describing these events in detail. In addition, Bernhard essentially tells his story as a dramatic plebeian antithesis to Thomas Mann’s epic novel Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), which revolves around tuberculosis in a thoroughly bourgeois setting.

In the last volume to be written, the chapter later titled “A Child,” the author finally arrives at a stance unmarred by superimposed attitudinal overtones. He has now found a narrative voice which transforms conventional literary devices, such as metaphor and symbol, into vehicles to express his personal view and individual experience. The story of his early childhood begins with a strongly symbolic tale of his first bicycle ride; it reads like the account of a sudden changeover from a brief manic to a long-lasting depressive state of mind. His own apocalyptic vision of his childhood is symbolized by the image of a collapsed railroad bridge, with the tracks, his future, trapped in an abyss. To appreciate fully the maturing of the writer in the years from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s, the five autobiographical narratives should be read in the original order. On the other hand, when reading them for mere insight into the events of the author’s early life, a chronological reading may prove more useful.

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