Wittgenstein's Nephew

by Thomas Bernhard
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Wittgenstein's Nephew

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1776

The late Thomas Bernhard’s view of life as farce, which comes out in his plays and novels as well as his autobiography Gathering Evidence (1986), seems the result of artistic temperament coupled with the painful burdens imposed by a chronically diseased body. That everything is against a person from the beginning and that only two options exist—suicide or incessant rebellion—a reader is more easily convinced of when preached to by the likes of Bernhard. His illnesses, particularly tuberculosis, forced him regularly away from his writing table for the company of terminally ill in sanitaria and hospitals. Choosing the rebellion option, though regularly tempted by suicide, Bernhard fought the medical institutions as one more evil of the delusive world. His code for living advised that whatever forces itself on a person as true or right should be resisted.

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Wittgenstein’s Nephew, an attractively slender volume meant to be read at one sitting, is the memoir of Bernhard’s close friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, a nephew of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and member of the wealthy Vienna Wittgenstein family. At the time he met Paul, Bernhard’s code of distrust applied to human relationships: “I was deserted by everyone because I had deserted everyone—that is the truth—because I no longer wanted anyone.” This statement expresses the tone of the book. It is not merely a book devoted to the memory of a friend, but to an inward evaluation by Bernhard of his own humanity. Bernhard sees Paul’s appearance in his life at a time of deep gloom as nothing less than an act of grace, however temporary the salvation from self which Paul’s personality brought.

The poles of Paul Wittgenstein’s existence reflected Bernhard’s own. Devoted to music with an obsessiveness that even Bernhard could only marvel at, he was a madman who had to be hospitalized regularly for what the doctors called manic depression. If Paul was healthy, he could be found nightly at the opera. Conductors feared his presence on opening nights, since his derisive whistling could turn the audience against their performance. Signs of Paul’s illness would chronically appear in the form of threats on people’s lives and hugging frenzies, during which he would apply bear hugs to people on the street and burst out crying. The illness landed him in the hospital with a straitjacket in a room with other howling patients. This pattern of devotion to art accompanied by terrible sickness and hospitalization paralleled Bernhard’s experience, and Bernhard sees his friend’s problem as the result of the same attitude toward life, a fearless stepping out of the self into the world to perform in full individuality. The tame institutional mind can only label Paul with psychological categories and strap him to a table.

The deepening of the friendship occurs when Bernhard and Wittgenstein are hospitalized in the same Vienna complex. Bernhard wakes up from six hours of anaesthesia, during which a surgeon removed a “fist-sized tumor” from his chest, and learns that his friend is hospitalized as well across the courtyard. Bernhard realizes that only a person such as Paul will ever understand him, one who not only shares his interests but also is undergoing a torture like his own:Having abstained from friendship for many years, I suddenly found myself with a real friend, who understood even the maddest escapades of my far from simple and indeed quite complex mind, and was prepared to become involved in them—something that the others around me were never willing to do because they lacked the capacity.

Some readers will balk at this sort of pronouncement, though it seems more the result of cold reflection than vanity. Bernhard’s justification is that both he and Paul have developed their lives in the face of death and madness, year after year, and are necessarily different from healthy people, who naturally lack the capacity to share their feelings:“A sick person is always deserted—to say anything else would be a gross lie—he must try to develop a quite superhuman energy if he wants to carry on from where he left off months before (or even years before, as I have had to do more than once).”

Wittgenstein’s Nephew is full of insights into illness which transcend medical diagnosis to display the alienation of sick people from the most genuine efforts of help. “A sick person needs the most unobtrusive help, the kind of help the healthy cannot give.” And, “In reality, a sick person is always alone, and whatever help he gets from outside nearly always proves merely vexatious.” Given this shared alienation from health and their parallel genius, Bernhard and Wittgenstein form a bond characterized by shared impulse and total acceptance and affirmation. When Bernhard wants to read the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, he and Paul traverse Austria in all directions, ending the day with two hundred and twenty miles driven and no Neue Zurcher Zeitung. “Paul supported me in my craving,” Bernhard recalls; “indeed it was actually he who urged me on through half of Austria and as far as Bavaria.” On another occasion, Bernhard receives the Austrian State Prize for Literature. Again it is Paul on whom he relies to confirm his feeling that accepting such a prize is an act of perversity; in turn the newspapers accuse Bernhard of insulting the official who presented the prize, who had in fact never read Bernhard’s work and called him an author of adventure novels. Nothing existed, it seems, which Bernhard and Wittgenstein could not see through. Everything, whether poverty, wealth, nature, politics, had its fraudulent aspect simply because each of these was a concept manipulated by human beings. This radical distrust, which some readers may choose to label paranoia, extended on another occasion to the performers of a Bernhard play whom Bernhard accused of deliberately condemning the play by their style of acting. Other friends assured him that the play was a success, but Wittgenstein shared Bernhard’s perception. Wittgenstein’s agreement with his friend took the form of a scolding rather than sympathy: Bernhard, said Paul, should have had the foresight never to allow the play to be performed at the Burgtheater.

Though alike in such essential ways, the two friends were different in ways which superficially would seem to deny the possibility of their relationship. Paul loved Formula I racing and entertained the likes of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart in his family estate. Paul was not an artist but a critic, and unpublished at that. Yet it is Paul’s differences that Bernhard prizes:Paul the madman unquestionably achieved a standard equal to that of Ludwig the philosopher: the one represents a high point in philosophy and the history of ideas, the other a high point in the history of madness—that is, if we insist on adhering to the conventional designations of philosophy, history, ideas, and madness, which are nothing but perverse historical concepts.

Though the brilliant nephew never published anything, much less composed anything in quantity, he is to be commended, his friend asserts, for he “put his brain into practice.” This phrase is italicized in the text, as are other phrases throughout Bernhard’s writing. Often the italics signal the intentional use of a commonplace, but in the above the italics signal the release of something wholly unique, perhaps previously unformulated. Paul for Bernhard was just such a new and treasure-laden personality on the drab human scene.

Bernhard’s greatest claim about his friend is that Paul kept Bernhard’s mind alive. If his thinking about music became static, he merely visited Paul for stimulus. It is typical of Bernhard’s style to omit just what went on in such conversations; the reader must accept a general description of what passed between them. Such conversations went on for hours, the time passing swiftly between two men who were perfect complements to each other when addressing questions of mathematics, politics, music, or philosophy. One direct quotation stands out, however, which Bernhard recalls from a meeting with Wittgenstein during their stay in the same hospital complex. Halfway between their respective wards, Bernhard’s lung clinic and Wittgenstein’s wing of straitjacketed mental patients, they sit together on a bench: “Grotesque, grotesque! he said, and began to weep uncontrollably.” Bernhard is writing a memoir, not a proof text of his friend’s genius: “I want to see him clearly again with the help of these notes, these scraps of memory.”

That much is grotesque about life, about sickness, and about death is Bernhard’s testimony. Genius, passion, art work against a backdrop of blackness. Finally even friendship fails. When Paul weakens, loses his fortune and the charm of earlier days, Bernhard cannot face him. The memoir spares no details of Bernhard’s flight from the dying Wittgenstein, which seems a function of Bernhard’s integrity and desire to face the worst that can be said about himself. His tendency to hyperbole works against himself with as much bite as it does the general run of humans, who with minds like “overgrown potatoes” spend life “eking out a pathetic existence that does not even merit our pity.” After Paul’s death, Bernhard recognizes his parasitic tendencies:I had traced his dying over a period of more than twelve years. And I had used Paul’s dying for my own advantage, exploiting it for all I was worth I was basically nothing but the twelve-year witness of his dying, who drew from his friend’s dying much of the strength he needed for his own survival. It is not farfetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible.

So, in an unexpected way, the memoir of the friendship with Wittgenstein is one more mode of survival for Bernhard. Life for him consisted of turning away again and again from what was deathly, all the while being himself on the brink of death. Other modes of survival included “playing the part of the considerate, unobtrusive, self-effacing patient, the only part that can make sickness endurable for any length of time,” and learning how many steps he could take away from his sickbed without incurring complete collapse. The condition of survival, however, is a terrible loneliness, including in its scope a turning away from a most loved friend: “I know that only eight or nine people attended his funeral. I was in Crete at the time, writing a play, which I destroyed as soon as it was finished. To this day I have not visited his grave.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

Booklist. LXXXV, December 1, 1988, p. 616.

Chicago Tribune. February 24, 1989, V, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, November 15, 1988, p. 1621.

Library Journal. CXIV, April 1, 1989, p. 109.

London Review of Rooks. X, February 4, 1988, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Rook Review. March 5, 1989, p. 4.

The New York Times Rook Review. XCIV, February 19, 1989, p. 16.

The New Yorker. LXV, October 9, 1989, p. 132.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, November 11, 1988, p. 41.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 28, 1987, p. 933.

The Washington Post Rook World. XIX, March 5, 1989, p. 11.

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