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.
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...
(The entire section is 1776 words.)