What is a “Disintegration”? Monologue and Subjectivity in Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard


One of the key burdens of this post will be to underscore the ways in which Beckett’s and Bernhard’s fictions foreground the constitutive relationship between ethos (character) and language, or to put it more precisely, between forms of enunciation (above all, that the narrating “I”) and character.  That is to say, fictional character, including that overwhelmingly powerful central figure of voice that dominates the first-person narration of Beckett’s trilogy Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnameable  and Bernhard’s final magnum opus Auschlöschung,  must be understood as positional within the discourse of these novels, derived  from the configuration of images and voices woven into the fictional text and not, in contrast, acting as their controlling instance, to be assumed in advance.   This may sound like a truism of structuralist, post-structuralist, and post-modernist criticism of the novel, and in a certain sense, it is.  Such criticism taught us that “character” follows from the complex interaction of formal and stylistic functions of written language that allow readers, in the act of reading, to constitute figures of voice, agency, and consciousness analogous to those we impute in everyday life when we deal with other persons.


Critical recognition of this operative, language-dependent nature of character is, of course, almost unavoidable in Beckett; simply to read Watt  or Molloy or How It Is  at all requires us to abandon much of our naturalized faith in the fictive persons we reify out of linguistic figures of action and voice.  Though the radicality of Beckett’s destruction of this faith, which cuts deeply into the related distinction between real and fictive persons as such, has been tamed by assimilating it to the limited concept of meta-fiction, this recognition of the linguistic artifice of Beckett’s characters at least stands as a generally established tenet of Beckett criticism.  In relation to Bernhard, however, this insistence on the positional, derivative, language-dependent nature of character may still carry some provocative sting, and this is one point where the comparison to Beckett that this session proposes may become fruitful.  For behind much Bernhard criticism—and even more so as an almost natural temptation for the still, unfortunately, hard-to-find common reader of Bernhard—stands the Bernhard myth, which tempts the projection of the literary image of voice back onto the author himself, whose biography then, circularly, becomes the basis to clarify that shadowy narrational subject that looms into view through those thick veils of invective, mediation, opinionating, and sheer syntactic momentum that constitute the typical Bernhard novel.  In Bernhard’s case, this biographizing impulse is often also linked to a contextual reading of his books as a kind of thinly fictional cultural critique.  His books, then, would appear to express through the premise of Bernhard-like fictional narrators the author’s own pessimistic assessment of modernity, his dissection of the inauthenticity of Austro-German cultural life and its representatives, and his relentless assault on the stultifying effects of conservative Austrian Catholicism and on the Austrians’ fatal repression of their Nazi past—unquestionably prominent concerns for the angry, troubled person of Bernhard himself.

Thomas Bernhard, Obernathal 1982 © Sepp Dreissinger

These two basic paradigms that govern the interpretation of Beckett and Bernhard respectively—Beckett as the experimental metafictionalist, Bernhard as the cultural polemicist who is only marginally novelistic—extend into a view of the political and historical significance of their works.  Beckett, with his highly self-conscious erasure of the cues of context and cultural specificity, would appear to remove his works by design from the domain of historical reference and action, into a wholly fictional realm, in effect, confirming Fredric Jameson’s view that the trajectory of modernist writing is the repression of history from narrative structures.  Bernhard at first glance appears almost the antipode of Beckett, a writer akin to the Austrian (anti-)publicist and playwright Karl Kraus, so polemically engaged with his historical and cultural context that his writings only partially emerge from it into a distinct fictional world.


I want to pursue two main points in relation to this putative contrast between Beckett and Bernhard that I’ve just adumbrated:

1)    Despite evident stylistic differences and differences of approach, Beckett’s and Bernhard’s narrative apparatuses are in illuminating ways comparable.  This should raise serious suspicions about the attempt to assimilate Bernhard’s first-person narrations to a thinly-disguised autobiographical mode, in which the narrators function primarily as a mouthpiece for the author’s idiosyncratic cultural criticism.

2)    Both Beckett’s and Bernhard’s works employ the first-person narrator primarily reflexively rather than expressively.  That is to say, rather than forging a narrator-character who speaks or writes in order that this figure’s insight into himself is communicated explicitly or symptomatically to the reader, both authors question the historical, generic, linguistic, and psychological preconditions and limitations of self-knowledge.  Both dramatize the processes in which self-knowledge and its failure are inevitably intertwined in a—literal—syntax that makes any figure of the self already divided and multiple, and hence thoroughly incapable of acting as a stabilizing instance for the play of the text.


I. Narrative Apparatus

Much critical ink has been spent in describing the narrative structure of the novels of Beckett’s trilogy, especially the strange two-part, imperfectly mirroring structure of Molloy and the fluctuating inventions of the narrator of Malone Dies, whose writing appears to end with his violent death at the hands of a character he has invented.  The comparison of Bernhard’s Auslöschung (Extinction) to these works is instructive, even at a fairly superficial and abstract level.

If Beckett’s book, in the opening section devoted to the eponymous character, offers a first-person, retrospective, written testimony of the return of an errant son to the house of his (apparently dead) parents, so too Bernhard’s book recounts, in first-person retrospective narration, the return of writer-scholar Franz-Josef Murau from Rome to Wolfsegg, Austria, to liquidate the family estate after the death of his parents and older brother in an automobile accident.  Like Beckett’s Molloy and Malone Dies, Auslöschung has at its center a dying man engaged in the act of writing against—or perhaps, towards—his death, and the burden of this writing is less to offer a “true” account as to liquidate a personal and familial history before death.  Analogously, then, the metafictional elements are key to Bernhard’s book as well: Auslöschung is not simply the title of Bernhard’s book about Mureau’s dealings with his family, but also the fictive title of the book that Mureau resolves to write (within the narrative that he may or may not have actually succeeded in writing) when he has returned to Rome to write and die.

Like Molloy, Auslöschung has a two-part, hinged structure, across which themes, stylistic leitmotifs, patterns of thought communicate: the first half, called “the telegram,” is focused on the narrator’s thoughts when he receives a telegram telling him that his father, mother, and brother have been killed in an automobile accident.  The second half, called “the testament,” finds the narrator returning to the family house, dealing with his sister and the friends of the family, and taking part in the funeral.  The first half deals primarily with the conflicts between the family members and the narrator in personal and intellectual terms, while the second half recovers the same ground in much more historical and social terms, the key issue being the degradation of Austria by modernity and the repressed legacy of Nazism.  The plot ends with the sudden decision of the son to give the entire estate as a legacy to the Israeli Cultural Community in Vienna.  Though not nearly as openly enigmatic as Beckett’s diptych structure, which both invites and foils the attempts of readers to coordinate the first and second halves of the book, any attentive reading of Bernhard reveals numerous unresolved contradictions between the two parts of his work as well.

Finally, the ending of Bernhard’s Auslöschung approaches the ambiguity of those of Molloy and Malone Dies.  At the level of plot and theme, as Gita Honegger has pointed out, the decision of the narrator to give the estate away to the Jewish community has a disquieting edge: “If the Jewish community accepts the gift with `everything that comes with it,’ including its lethal legacy of guilt, ambition, repression, and self-delusion, will it once again cynically affirm the cycle of the victims as heirs of the criminals?. . . In the patriarchal context of the culture, the family line is extinct.  What’s left is a barren post-Holocaust landscapre of guilt and retribution.  Is it the desert, once again, through which the modern tribes of Israel have to pass yet another time to pave the way to the promised land for everyone?”  Certain structural and stylistic features reinforce Honegger’s intuition of something amiss with the ending.  Withheld literally until the final one of six hundred fifty pages of almost unbroken monologue, it has as much the feel of a fictional ending by fiat, a violent killing off of the garrulous narrator and his world, as in the novel-closing, comically sudden ax murders of the characters and narrator of Malone Dies by the mad keeper “Lemuel.”  One might well indeed see Bernhard’s ending as a dramatization of Murau’s ultimate perplexity before history, up to and beyond the end, as if the narrator believed the crimes of Nazism might be expiated by the impulsive act of a neurotic aristocrat—or its continuing heritage in Austria rendered extinct by an angry author seeking to end a book called Auslöschung.


Beyond these fairly superficial affinities, however, there is a more notable deep structure, which I will call, following an early lecture by Jacques Lacan, the “individual myth” of the psychically disturbed first-person narrator, whose “I”-position is continuously destabilized by fundamental splitting that occurs within a four-term structure.  The aim of Lacan’s lecture, delivered in 1953 (thus nearly contemporaneous with Beckett’s writing and publication of the trilogy), was to call in question, within psychoanalysis, the reductive tripartite myth of the Oedipus complex.   The figure of the father, Lacan argued, was itself divided between a real father, who was inevitably disappointing and more or less inadequate, and an ideal father or “master,” who provided an image that supported the narcissistic identifications of the son.  In keeping with his philosophical readings in Hegel and Heidegger, Lacan interprets the dynamic of narcissistic identification in temporal and speculative terms, seeing in it the subject’s inadequacy to his idealized concept, his “anticipatory relationship to his realization,” and hence ultimately, as an imaginary relationship to death (since to be in time is also to be complete only at the end of one’s finite life).  The “fourth element” of the family romance, the idealized  father, or the Master, or the imagined death, is for Lacan none other than the primal cleaving of the subject into an empirical self and an imagined, anticipated self that makes the “I” never one, never fixed, never “in being,” but requires it perpetually to shift positions within discursive and social configurations, that is, to speak, to act, to become.

Here, again, Beckett’s Molloy provides a stark and radical model.  The book divides into a quaternary structure of two halves, each governed by two pairs of terms: Molloy-his mother, Moran-his son.  In turn, the two halves mirror one another in further replications of this structure: Molloy-his mother, Molloy-Lousse; Moran-his son, Youdi (or Molloy)-Moran.  If, as some commentators have suggested, both halves of Molloy can be thought of as something like two alternative drafts or variants of a common story, written by a single narrator hiding behind the manifest “I” narrators Molloy and Moran, then the invisible narrator of the whole must be thought of as a macro-version of the divided “I” narrators of the first and second halves: as a speaking subject structured by an interminable quaternary play that is ultimately mediated by the imagination of death.

I can only allude here to what a reading of Bernhard’s novel in such terms would look like.  As in Beckett, the quaternary structure is on the surface clear: the mother and father are key to the structure, but, as the narrator himself notes, the older brother is important only insofar as he was the heir, and his death in the car accident has eliminated any further significance he might have for the younger brother and for the family’s society.  Other figures in the book, the Catholic hierarch Spadolini occupy the position of the idealized father, although ultimately his love affair with Murau’s mother and his cynical colloquy before the funeral demote him to the position of the actual, inadequate father.  An important question, regarding the troubling closure that I have already mentioned, is whether the the Viennese Rabbi Eisenberg, the narrator’s university friend and “Geistesbruder,” has not simply been elevated into the position of the ideal that Spadolini has vacated.  This would suggest that even the final donation of the estate remains, from a historical and psychological view, still under the sway of Nazi father and hence an inauthentic, inefficacious, and symptomatic act.  Death, however, the death of the parents that sets the narrative in motion and the death of the narrator that brings it to an end is a constant presence in the book, compelling it towards the total negativity of the “auslöschung” that gives it its title.  Death is the “fourth element” that mediates all the narrative relationships in the book.

II.  Reflexivity and self-knowledge

I have suggested that both Beckett and Bernhard use first-person narrators primarily reflexively, rather than expressively.  By this I mean that their primary interest lies with the speaker rather than, on the first order, what is spoken.  Both focus primarily of the patterns of thought and speech as self-exposing performances by their narrators, and what is spoken receives its significance only insofar as it inflects and affects these performances.


I will confine myself to two remarks under this heading.

First is that both Beckett and Bernhard conceive the primary modality of subjectivity as failure rather than accomplishment.  This “fail, fail again, fail better” mode is so prominent in Beckett as to require in this context no further comment.  I will, however, quote two passages from Bernhard that illustrate a similar conception of the subject as defined by its failure to think and act.  The first appears in the section entitled “The Telegram” and concerns the narrator’s sudden doubts about the philosophical discussions he has been conducting with his pupil, Gambetti:

“We imagine we’ve reached a stage where we’ve become a thinking machine, but we can’t rely on its thinking.  This machine works unremittingly against the brain, I said.  It generates thoughts, but we don’t know where they come from, why they were conceived, or what they relate to.  The fact is that this nonstop thinking machine overtaxes us.  The brain is overburdened but has no escape, as it’s inevitably linked up to the machine for the rest of our lives.  Until we die.”

In the latter section of the book, “The Testament,” further generalizes the failure of thought, so that thought—or any form of subjective agency—is itself consubstantial with failure:

“At this point it struck me that what I had just been thinking was total nonsense, or at any rate a piece of mental foolery that led nowhere, a mental dead end. . . . I was doomed to failure, as so often in my thinking, hoodwinked by a fallacy, by a philosophical impertinence. . . It is in the nature of things that we always fail, because we suddenly fine it impossible to order our thoughts, because the process of thinking requires us to consider every thought there is, every possible thought.   Fundamentally we have always failed, like all the others, whoever they were, even the greatest minds. . . . Thinking means failing, I thought.  Acting means failing.”

My second remark is that both Beckett and Bernhard employ narrators whose very loquaciousness is fatal.  Speech is compulsory, but it dooms the speakers to self-betrayal: to turning against themselves and their own ability to think and act. 

Not I -  Sky Arts

In Beckett’s case, throughout the trilogy, his narrators often get themselves out of a limb by continuing to blab, opening up story lines when they should be closing them down, raising questions they can’t answer, even setting in motion syntactical machineries they are in no position to fill with content, as in this instance from the opening of The Unnameable:

“The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter.  And at the same time I am obliged to speak.  I shall never be silent.  Never.”

Bernhard’s narrator has a similar lapse of thought in his dealing with his pupil Gambetti, in a passage appearing shortly before the metaphor of the “thinking machine” I’ve just quoted:

“Instead of the promised description of Wolfsegg, I delivered myself of a few words about Nietzsche that would have been better left unsaid, something quite nonsensical about Kant, something about Schopenhauer that seemed at first uncommonly apposite but then rather silly, and something about Montaigne that even I did not understand the moment I had said it.  For no sooner had I uttered my observation about Montaigne than Gambetti asked me to explain it.  I could not do so, as I no longer knew what I had said.” (78-79)

More grave dangers lie in the narrator’s propensity to exaggerate and carry on speaking in the internal power struggles within the family, which he inevitably loses by betraying himself:

“Caecelia remained silent and let me go on.  This was the method she always used—letting me go on until I had said far more than was good for me, more than it behooved me to say, until I had given too much away and she was able to score the winning point.  Again I said too much and gave myself away.”

In both cases, the narrators suffer, in verbalizing their stream of thoughts, from what Adorno and Horkheimer, in reference to the unclever prating of the otherwise cunning Odysseus, called “the dialectic of eloquence.”  “Speech,” Adorno and Horkheimer write—

“though it deludes physical force, is incapable of restraint.  Its flow is a parody accompanying the stream of consciousness, thought itself, whose unswerving  autonomy acquires an aspect of foolishness. . . once it enters reality in the form of discourse, as if thinking corresponded with reality, when in fact thought is superior to reality merely by virtue of distance.  But this distance is also anguish.  Therefore, it is intelligent tongues. . . that are always ready to talk by the dozen. . . Too much talking. . . prompts those who are to be feared always to commit the very action that is feared.  The mythic compulsiveness of the word in prehistory is perpetuated in the disaster which the enlightened word draws down upon itself.”

These figures cannot bear the very distance from their situation that their ability to think offers them, and hence they betray themselves and thought itself into the hands of a hostile reality by saying too much. 

III. Conclusions

If my hypothesis about the convergence of Beckett’s and Bernhard’s narrations is accurate, then we need to rethink the ways in which both their works might participate in history and in the critique of the cultures out of which they emerge.  We need to avoid reading Beckett’s work as fictively “removed from history,” just as we need to avoid taking Bernhard’s works as avoiding fictiveness in favor of cultural polemic.  I want to suggest that for both we need a different model (or models) for understanding the rhetorical action of fiction within historical contexts, and I have proposed one, which takes the question of subjectivity as its leitmotif.  Both Beckett and Bernhard give voice to a fractured or damaged subject, whose failures of reflexive self-knowledge are refracted into the narrational patterning of the text, whose configuration then provides the indices of that subjectivity’s social and historical character.  It is the gaps, the divisions, the blank spots, the repetitions, and the syntactic oscillations of the narrating self that provide a figural (that is, fictional) depiction of the structure of domination in those societies of which these subjects are the literary precipitations.


In effect, methodologically, this claim amounts to reasserting, in the name of a thoroughly political and contextual hermeneutics, the value of that careful attention to the details of works that has, in recent days, been scornfully dismissed as old-fashioned “close reading”–which, it is taken for granted, must be both narrowly formalist and willfully unconcerned with context, history, or politics.   My renewed emphasis on careful, detailed reading—which I have only been able to carry out to a limited extent in a post of this limited scope–follows from a conception of fictionality not as a failure (epistemological, moral, political) to come to terms with the compulsions of context, nor as a repression of history, nor simply as a passive reflex of it, but rather as the very medium in which historical “contexts” may be selected, framed, explicated, and transformed.


Far from being removed from history, fiction is a privileged entry into it.  Fiction is a medium of rhetorical action in the historical present of both writing and reading, and close attention to the formal and stylistic features of fiction is the unavoidable means for discerning such fictive acts and judging their efficacy.



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