Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

The light in my bathroom, where every day I read for a while in the bath, recently broke. So I read Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles by candle-light.

Bernhard was notoriously antagonistic to plot, which isn’t to say that nothing happens in his books. In Gargoyles The voice of the narrator is that of a young man home from school to visit his widowed father and his sister. He has recently written his father a long letter explaining his sense of what is wrong in their family, that they don’t communicate, that their mother’s death has cast a serious pall over their relations, that he is worried about their sister who has exhibited suicidal tendencies. And he expects that they, his father and him, will have a serious discussion about these things. They are preparing to do so when they are interrupted by an emergency call. His father is a doctor. His father is called to attend to an inn-keeper’s wife, who has been struck by one of the inn-keeper’s clients, and is lying, bleeding to death, on a bed in the inn. Father and son heed the emergency call. This is only the beginning of the visits they make together to increasingly bizarre places: a capitalist who lives in very purposeful solitude with his half-sister, working on a book that he burns the draft of each day. Some brothers living in a mill who are systematically killing the contents of a menagerie of exotic birds behind their house. A musician whose twisted body has deprived him of music and is gradually depriving him of sanity, whose sister takes care of him, occasionally imprisoning him in a cage. And finally, a mad prince, who lives in the castle of Hochgobernitz, overlooking the whole territory through which father and son have traveled that day, and whose fascinating monologue accounts for half the book’s pages. Father and son never really have that talk. Though they talk at each other on several occasions.

But I think there is very clearly a plot here. I deny that any discourse with a viewpoint and a problem can fail to be a narrative. Gargoyles is a narrative. And it is a narrative about solitude, and trying to communicate, and trying to listen.

1. Bernhard is at his best in furious, intense monologues, like that of the prince which takes up over half the book. In the course of these monologues, he typically eschews paragraph breaks, and repeats at close intervals his attribution tags (I mean, “the prince said,” or “I told him,” etc.). These two choices have the effect of adding to the logical structure of the monologue itself a musical structure. Without paragraphs breaks to help articulate collections of sentences, the repeated attribution tags serve that purpose instead, but these tags moves away from communicating anything and toward sounding, like a timpani, a point of rhythm, an articulation of sound rather than sense.

This makes sense, because Bernhard was a musician. He experiences prose partly as music.

2. But we should not neglect the logical structure of Bernhard’s trademark monologues. Bernhardophiles, in my opinion, have a tendency to elevate the musicality of his texts above their meaning, as if he aspired to some kind of sonorous or jagged nonsense. It is not so. Instead, the content of a Bernhardian monologue is an intricate dialectic, dealing with the details of person and place. It reminds me of Kierkegaard at his dialectical best.

For example, the beginning of the prince’s monologue concerns an ad he placed in the newspaper for a new steward. That morning three people called to apply for the position. The prince analyzes in excruciating detail the appearance and conversation of each applicant, as well as the difficult cerebrations and emotional responses he himself went through in his attempt to decide which of them was suited to the job. It would be impossible for me to convey the intricacy and logical progression of these thoughts in a reasonable quotation—they take place over about twenty pages, and are clearly meant to be experienced in full. But I can describe them, as I just have, and I can offer, in Bernhard’s own words, in his prince’s words, an explanation:

At the climax of the discussion I told my listeners what a discussion is, told them that a discussion is something entirely different from what people nowadays think a discussion is. I had the impression that the people assembled in the library were completely transformed, that they were not horrible relatives, but receptive people, capable of thought, capable of trains of thought, capable of developing trains of thought, able to engage in discussion.

That is what these monologues are: (1) the presentation of characters capable of thought, (2) capable of trains of thought, (3) capable of developing trains of thought.

I think it significant that Bernhard writes monologues not streams of consciousness. He is not interested in the flitting fragmentariness that characterizes an inner monologue by Joyce or Woolf. His characters appear mad because the kind of repetitive and detailed picking of the way forward which characterizes focused thought is a kind of obsession, a kind of madness. I’m familiar with it because it’s precisely the kind of thinking that characterizes philosophical reflection. That’s why I can identify Bernhard’s monologues as dialectical excurses. They are not mad music-driven developments of essentially aural melodies. They are the rational development of trains of thought. There is something to be learned from them, something to be admired, something to be imitated.

3. Though there are many sisters in this book, they never speak. Not the sister of the narrator, not the sister of the industrialist, not the sister of the musician, not the sisters of the prince. There is something to tease out of that silence, and the key to teasing it out would be this passage:

 It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsessions. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves.

4. Finally, my favorite passage, also from the prince’s monologue:

All the things that people say are said only in monologues, the prince said. “We are in an age of monologues. The art of monologue is also a far higher art than the art of dialogue,” he said. “But monologues are just as pointless as dialogues, although in a way much less pointless. Whenever you engage in a dialogue with another person (with yourself!) because otherwise you are suddenly afraid of suffocating, you must be prepared for his doing his utmost to undercut you. That can be done in the subtlest, the most elaborate, but also the nastiest manner. Whenever people talk they undercut one another. The art of conversation is an art of undercutting, and the art of monologue is the most horrible kind of undercutting. I always think,” the prince said, “that my interlocutor is trying to push me down into his own abyss after I have just barely managed to escape from my own abyss. Your interlocutors try to push you into as many abysses as possible simultaneously. All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.”

There is so much worth unpacking here, but I want to do it somewhere else, at greater length. A list of things that ought to be unpacked, however, would not be inappropriate:

  1. What is the pointlessness that dialogue and monologue share? And is this pointlessness a bad thing?
  2. In what way does dialogue reduce to monologue, because even a dialogue is a dialogue with yourself?
  3. In what sense does all spoken communication amount to undercutting someone?
  4. What is the abyss into which interlocutor’s try to push each other?
  5. What do these truths—because I think reflection on them reveals them to be true—have do with dialectical reasoning, with philosophical method?