Blesok no. 46, January-February, 2006
Correspondence with Time
Where does the Earth touch the sky? Is the pointed mountain peak the entrance hall to its unknown depth? Crystal clear figures delineated by the stars glitter at the end of the long tunnel like an apparition. Or like a promise. A bit further down, among the centuries-old fir trees, is a mountain farm. Firmly fused with the kingdom of primeval, untouched Nature, stubbornly solitary and self-sufficient. Life in an Alpine valley seems senseless running about in the void, cut off the big source, the veins of Nature and its endless permutations. Winter is no longer a sordid mess of snow, summer no longer numbing humidity. The seasons glimmer in their endless cycle, in sprouting and growth, in sowing and harvest. Winter frost is no longer the emptiness of defeat, but a pause, a firm promise of the renewal of a cosmic circle. A pleasantly tired traveller knows this. A look towards the rocky peaks assures him that the solitary sky is almost within his reach.
The image of the sky above a mountain homestead is one of the fundamental archetypes of Alpine peoples. It seems that their entire emotional charge was condensed in a little heroine from the end of the 19th century, the yet unsurpassed invention of self-confident bourgeoisie – the legendary Heidi. The little queen of mountain landscape runs among the goats, gathers beautiful mountain flowers, somersaults down pastures, sleeps in the hay and watches the starry night just above the roof of Grandfather’s humble, but warm cottage. It almost seems that Heidi does not have earthly parents: she is the child of the immaculate mountain air, tame animals and heart-warming plants. A little Alpine queen, filling everything around her with sunshine, melts the cold armour of her lone grandfather, amuses her sick grandmother, and keeps company to the quiet shepherd Peter. And most importantly – with her innocence, gentleness and human warmness she wins over the rich townspeople who in Frankfurt, the artificial colossus, have forgotten about the power of primitive Nature. Heidi, the divine conductor, is a true miracle-maker! Her powers are firmly supported by Alpine medicaments: air, greenery, rocky faces, milk (in ample quantities, at every step), cheese, the murmur of ancient trees and many other effective props. A girl from town, Klara, lame until that moment, regains her ability to walk. And not just anywhere, but where the little healer has all the natural circumstances at her disposal in the most condensed form – on a mountain pasture. Heidi is a little generator of human warmth, which heats up the world surrounding her.
The myth about little Heidi, the patroness of a kind of Alpine Arcadia, has experienced countless adaptations and reflections, all of them intoned with a desire for natural innocence and candid human relations, which – in this kind of setting – are one of the consequences of the indestructible and miraculous mountain landscape. However, if the inventor of Heidi, Johanna Spyri, perceived her little heroine as a happy child of Alpine idyll, a picture of a similarly remote place from the second half of the 19th century can be completely different. In a masterpiece of the film world, The Inheritors, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky depicts a split between the idyllic beauty of Alpine landscape and the local people surrounded by the dark angels of egomania and hatred. A mountain farm offers a new picture: the silence between people is not a gentle silence, but a deaf abyss between the souls surrounded by rocks. The master is not a mild and just patron of the herd, but a tyrant and rapist. Work in the fields and stables is not invigorating gymnastics, but a painful fight with uncaring Nature, a struggle for survival. There is no solidarity among the landowners, only fighting for land, fighting for power and control. What reigns is the law of domination; somebody has to give orders and commands. The inheritors – the hired hands, who unexpectedly inherit the land of the murdered master – fail, because they are unable to turn their former equality of slaves into a new hierarchy of the free: they don’t elect a new master. Masters can sit down at the table only with their equals; they have no use of a bunch of different opinions. The decision to liquidate the malign formation, a kind of commune disturbing the village calm, is just a matter of time. Pure mountain air suddenly smells of sticky human blood.
People in the valley still gaze wistfully at the peaks sensed behind the foggy screen of the city conglomerates. They still dream the happy dreams that once they would leave the concrete jungle and set off to Heidi’s Mountain, breed goats, produce milk and cheese, work a modest field, make fire in a good old stove, chisel wood. Abandon themselves completely to the charms of mountain landscape – the true, the untouched – and during long winter nights, when they don’t warm themselves at the stove, make friends with kind highlanders. So, the super-modern people are dreaming up a prettier, almost true possibility of their existence. The hollow solitude among the four walls of a sky-scraper, the empty looks of accidental passers-by, the wall of silence concealing the faces of their loved ones, everyday automatic gestures expressing nothing – all this will disappear. Or rather – surface in a new form filled with vitality. Solitude will become a holy encounter with the self, and at the same time a promise of a joyful meeting with others freed of the veil of strangeness. Everyday, routine actions will acquire a higher meaning, become part of the great ritual of Nature and its life-renewing laws. For a moment the TV set disappears, the dull walls shine with the lustre of ancient wood, the microwave emanates the warmth of a fireplace, a whiff of hay drifts in from somewhere, huge firs can be seen from the window, the roar of engines stops, the levitating capsule of space fills up with the murmur of the wind, rattling of branches and distant bleating of goats.
With elated imagination the Alpine town-dwellers invented Alpine iconography, because they were able to populate mountain ridges with their own mentality. The mountains responded kindly: they sent back their reflection – in a beautified, almost ideal form. Their introversion, introspection, diligence – everything was given a shiny aura. The danger that the ingrown characteristics of Alpine people might materialise in loneliness, coldness, reserve and pedantry is over. They appear as glory, an ode to oneself. Mountains, as always, will purify spirit and body, free them of the burden of sin and provide new strength. Heidi, too, always wanted to climb the highest peaks, the nesting places of lonely and noble birds of prey.
Art frequently reacts to a topical discourse, which it recognises as a mythic glue of community. Satire of Alpine life, or rather its gilded iconography, which is a genre with a long tradition, has recently begun to bet on the well-recognisable card – the conflict between the local and the global. Locality – a kind of original Alpine soul – at the end of the 20th century found itself caught in the vice of global shifts. Satirical language questions the march of globalisation, and above all the pragmatic reaction of the local people. The Swiss playwright Marcus Köbeli presents the dilemma almost soberly in the black comedy Peep Show. The protagonists in the play, the Holzer family, are aroused by the idea of providing the tourists stopping at their farm in order to have a leak a voyeuristic peek at original Alpine life. And charge for it, of course. And what could – according to the general perception – better depict mountain life but a village play, and then – who else but Heidi? The business starts, commissions are paid, costumes designed, the buses are coming. Until the protagonists, the grotesquely silly naturals, who are supposed to play themselves in idyllic disguise, end up losing their nerves. They leave the homestead, finally reconciled with the fact that their mountain identity, or rather its illusion, is gone. However, the tourist industry keeps on running. From now on the roles of Grandfather, Heidi, Peter, Klara and other heroes will be played by asylum-seekers accommodated in the village; it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s all the same what kind of illusion is acted out in a kitschy peasant room. The only thing that matters is that it be surrounded by a sweet and peaceful aura.
Globalisation is the central socially relevant part of the plot in the movie parody by Niki List. Once more the world trend is made concrete in tourism and its unforeseen possibilities of development. Heroes in Tyrol is an incredibly vivacious fairy-tale, skilfully playing with the notions of life in a mountain village. Like every fairy-tale it has good heroes on the one hand, and bad ones on the other. The protagonist on the side of evil is the mayor, a true local Godfather. His vision is a transformation of the village into a tourist paradise, where fees would be charged at every step – in dollars, yens, euros, whatever. The mayor is a surprisingly far-sighted and after all ambitious man. He won’t be selling only Alpine air, enchanting views and various mountain illusions; he will diversify into sex tourism and bravely challenge Thai competition. His antagonist Maks Adler – or Eagle, if you want – is a completely different type of hero. After travelling extensively all around the world he returns to his native village to protect it from the profit-seeking brood. His project is ecological: the Alpine village is to remain an oasis of untouched Nature, its inhabitants – whatever their origins – are to live a relaxed and joyful life. Adler is the one who will create a kind of commune, where sex, drugs and pure mountain air are in perfect harmony. The clash of visions is accompanied by a ruthless fight for a young bride, a local Heidi. Of course, in the end Heidi belongs to Maks; with him she will stroll along the untouched pastures and crawl over rocky overhangs. And if the hero’s mini ecological project succeeds, he and his young wife will be the ones who will send the hippies of all countries the best naturally grown marihuana, eco bunk-beds under the thatch roof and all others indigenous goods friendly to people and Nature.
If with the film The Inheritors Johanna Spiry is in retrospect denounced as a cheap mytho-maniac petty-bourgeois of the 19th century, Köbeli and List delivered a fair blow to their Alpine contemporaries. And tried to remain as topical as possible. The play and the film expose globalisation as the flood of mental alibis accessible to all. Locality – a kind of original Alpine tune – features only as a market commodity. In its fervent desire to articulate current problems, satire can at first glance be very accurate in pinpointing the symptoms of its time. The theme dividing the public into two camps becomes the fundamental lever of the plot. The tourist industry, as a kind of embodiment of the globalisation spirit, becomes the central point around which the relevant action is revolving; heroes are obsessed by the vision of the future – either as a promise or as a lethal threat. Their voices are points of view in a fervent public debate. In the above-mentioned satire, globalisation is something which forces the viewers to face and question their own attitude towards the general phenomenon. The public debate, the round-table discussion about the consensually accepted topic, is confirmed and strengthened. In Köbeli’s and List’s cases the language of art is included in the relevant intellectual debate; with its capacity to convey meaning it functions as the clearly recognisable part of the debate. However, in addition to unmasking the false guises of the actors of the present, intellectual debate is always seasoned with futurology – if it wants to be constructive and answer the questions which trouble the self-defined audience of a local community. The community is always worried about the unknown, about the future, the territory, which virginally dwells in the meanders of non-existence, and will soon come into tangible life. In order for predicting the future not to be just an eccentricity, but a legitimate product of the mind, it must be condensed around a notion embodying the exact social project that Fate has in store for the unknown future. The present and the future are forming a circle for acting out a critical social discussion. The rules are clear, it is known when a certain view – either ultra red or utterly conservative – is part of the established polemic or not. When either criticism or confirmation is part of the social reality and when it is beyond the notions that establish that reality.
Art, of course, always shifts the dominant theme of the intellectual debate into concrete life, into the sphere of the senses. Obviously, tourism is a very popular synonym for globalisation; for instance, it is the central theme of Houellebecq’s novel The Platform. Here, a foreign culture is only the exotic scenery, which is to reawaken the dead sexual desire, take advantage of the immense potential of financial markets. However, unlike the Alpine parodists, Houellebecq is above all interested in an intimate story. Intellectual debate – and art flirting with it – is always centred on the general conditions of existence, around the objectively given margins that every human being stumbles upon. That is its focus. Socially engaged art: the art, which we can quote in our comments on social reality without any guilty feelings. For its theses about contemporary society are firm and crystal clear. They eagerly await critical intellectuals, who will recognise them as wisdom. And perhaps shed a tear or two at yet another recognition of sharp reason in the irrational artistic act.
However, we must not be fooled by the emphasis on globalisation in the latest mental products of Alpine satire. The excitement over the planetary future is above all directed at the old theme – criticism of the local identity or of what constitutes a specific collective awareness. Köbeli and List slam the ‘homestead mentality’, unable to face the alleged plague of globalisation. The cause of this inability seems to be the same as in the time of Johanna Spiry. What lies behind the embellished Alpine iconography is empty staring, roughness without warmth, in short – loneliness. For Köbeli and List this state of affairs is a kind of basis, a starting point for a critical creative process. They try to prove the thesis of the hollowness of the Alpine peoples through a phenomenon, which is much wider than the local obsessions, and the status of which is the laws of fate. Globalisation is the territory, where firmly rooted mental models prove to be absurd. The highlanders must face the tourist industry; they must enter the world of global appearances, play with sugary images and calmly count the cash. They are a kind of test animal in an unfathomable laboratory. In remote Alpine regions tourism is a topic, which perfectly fits in the discussion about the local community and globalisation. It is established with all the necessary criticism and scepticism about simple solutions. This kind of artistic practice is always an exclusive correspondent with the current period, because it talks about the generally accepted central dilemma. The age of globalisation will actually have a strong influence on the structure of local identities, and no person who trusts his or her own judgement can or should doubt that. And the question of who or what is local identity appears at the beginning and at the end of any serious reflection on globalisation.
Is only art, which is emerging in a certain time and reflecting it, entitled to talk about the central dilemmas of this time? The Alpine world gave rise to a fair number of unscrupulous spirits, who ruthlessly dissected the local mentality and its self-glorifying projects. Are their portraits of society mere curiosities, or are they expressing something which, in the age of uniformisation of the planet, might seem an exciting response to the present time? For instance, what does the warrior among the warriors Thomas Bernhard posthumously think about globalisation? If we turn to him for an answer, for a yes or a no, if we look for clues of a clearly expressed view in his work, we won’t get very far. Bernhard’s prose does not contain a recipe for the future; his writing is a report about the present, devoid of any prognosis. At the turn of the millennium thinking will no longer be possible. Indeed, Bernhard was no prophet, and yet his vivisection of the sub-Alpine mentality is striking.
Of course, one cannot overlook all his infamous insults to the Alpine republic of Austria. A mere thought of this crippled and derelict, and after all degenerate Austria makes me want to throw up, is a typical sentence from the end of his last novel Extinction. It is well known what harsh words he uttered about his native country. Bernhard considered his fellow countrymen stubborn national-socialists and clericals. In fact, it would be hard to enumerate everything that many called defiling the nest. And yet Bernhard’s literature is a more severe criticism of the sub-Alpine mentality than all the scandals and fights over its correctness. In a decade after the author’s death the scandals have more or less been forgotten. Or in other words: they waned into legends of cultural history. In his writing Bernhard aristocratically took revenge on those elites who were supposed to symbolise the civilised strata of the society. Truly fascinating is his ecstatic rage, which in a ceaseless monologue bites into a chosen piece of social flesh – a segment of society that was the target of his ruthless blade. Bernhard was quite merciless in choosing the material for his writing. He did not acknowledge the authority allegedly granted by History to the chosen mortals for their merits; nobody has the right to identify himself with a social role and to start believing in the reality of his act. For the Great Play of historical shifts is not directed according to any clear plan that would assign elevated positions. At its heart reigns the law of chaos. At the beginning of the 1920s, the period full of illusion, Bernhard’s fellow countryman Robert Musil admitted to similar blindness: So, this is what world history looks like from up close: you can’t see a thing. Bernhard bore testimony to what he perceived through his transient and necessarily limited awareness.
The above-mentioned Romanesque testament Extinction is a thorough report above contemporaneity. In it, we follow the mighty flow of consciousness of a certain Murau who, being a black sheep in a rich noble family, moves to Rome. However, despite feeling disgust for their way of life and thinking, he never completely severs all the ties; after all, for many years he keeps receiving a considerable sum from the estate in Wolfsegg for his rather leisurely Roman life. The whole of Extinction is a monumental dissection of the narrator’s closest family. The sharpness of the narrative is accentuated by the time span: we follow the narrator’s stream of thought from the moment when he receives the telegram about the sudden death of his parents and brother to the moment of their funeral. Every single member of the family – father, mother, brother and each of the two sisters – is meticulously studied, and their personalities and relations described. His judgments about the acts and the mental level of the relatives are defeating; Murau says: It has become my habit to constantly think and say: my mother is repulsive, my sisters even more so and stupid on top; my father is weak, my brother is a poor fool, and all of them are simple-minded. The narrator’s main reproach, which actually hangs in the air and cannot be chased away even by the tragic event – is in fact even sharpened by it – is the futile pretending that the family, because of tradition, is playing some important social role. The noble family allegedly possesses the sceptre of culture, the light of civilisation, the essence of the nation, the inspiration of faith and what else not. For the expelled narrator, Wolfsegg is a puppet theatre, the hypocritical shows of which he is unwilling to attend. The spirit hanging above the estate is burdened with rigidity and insidious melancholia. This bitter numbness hangs above the place, from where, according to the narrator, it is possible with a single glance to embrace the entire region from the Tyrolean to Lower Austrian mountains. No similar place can be found in all Austria. The view without the disturbing human figures, the charge of whitened rocks, the only legitimate pathos of the expellee.
Bernhard the narrator is sceptical of the notions which, according to some higher logic, are supposed to provide a focus for a society. His position is consciously marginal: from his solitary viewpoint the entire social structure seems grotesque, and his bitter laughter springs from the realisation that people constantly pretend that they are aristocrats, artists, hunters or priests, without being able to face their own solitude and the mortality abiding in it. Bernhard’s accusation has no inherent objective assumption; its form is a chaotic charge. This spitting is a totally individualised voice, well aware of the fact that it is tailoring what he reports about the victims of his mental murder. For him, exaggeration is the creative and existential style. Everything is exaggerated, but without exaggeration it’s impossible to convey anything. When you raise your voice, it’s already exaggeration. Why raise it otherwise? Whenever anyone says anything, it’s exaggeration. Even if they say that they don’t want to exaggerate, it’s exaggeration. Bernhard does not assume that he has been given the privileged position of a diagnosticist, who in a single word places a curse on his native soil. His attacks are not systematic enough, their obsessiveness contains too many paradoxes for a sane mind. While, for instance, at some point in Extinction he sings a praise to the virtues of the plebs, elsewhere in the same novel the healthy, pink peasant faces seem utterly stupid to him. Bernhard is a lumberjack who cuts where the axe falls, but most willingly where he senses a great deal of pretence, the ideal ground for the sprouting of the grotesque.
This flaming rage, this analysis of the grotesque forms of human existence, points at what sits at its heart – loneliness which, no matter how celebrated, isn’t a precious privilege of the mind, but a punishment. Only a fool advertises solitude, for to be alone, utterly alone, means nothing else but to be utterly mad. Hence his obsession with his native environment. Bernhard’s prose – despite all the sparks of bitter rage – is above all a report about the terrible loneliness of an individual and a community in general. The report about great distances separating people, no matter whether they evade this fact with learnt ways of vegetating or simply step out of the collective game. And the exit – and this is an important experience in Bernhard’s creativity – is never final. Bernhard is preoccupied with the social context, but as a writer he is not interested in either social justice or the level of literacy or capital flows. In its erratic nature Bernhard’s narrative view is focused on mapping the all-pervading loneliness, on tearing off its masks. Loneliness cannot be measured by objective standards. Thus the literary speech, through a radically subjective stance, makes its way to the very base of the social structure, to the deepest fears, which time and again renew the theatre of the masses.
Present time is the child of great visions transferred into earthly life. From the vertical of the sky the utopia descended to the horizontal of the earth. Despite the general faith in an idyllic future, harboured by intellectuals as well, doubts about the illusion of heaven have always been present. The promised brotherhood of men has often proved to be a skilful trick of the greedy rulers. Today, the so-called critical intellectual has difficulty believing that collective projects are sensible, and his doubt contains some instilled self-preservation tactic. In what the Alpine dwellers recognise as their positive identity, the Alpine satire as a manoeuvre of contemporary criticism sees nothing but the hypocrisy of impotent hollow men. Here starts the debate about the mental physiognomy of Alpine nations, about their reservations and tensions. Everything will be dissected, and it seems just.
What lies behind this entire obsessive context called the ‘other’, ‘neighbour’ or, if you want, ‘somebody from the other side of the barbed wire’? Bernhard and those like him might cut into this self-questioning afresh. Into the often hardened typological exercise. Art is the boat, which is smuggling into the future a premonition of man’s unrest, an echo of what originally concerns us: an echo of unique human existence. Now matter how worn out, lacerated and kicked at. Bernhard settles in the very heart of Alpine loneliness and produces such an accurate report about it because he leaves behind the world of general categories and moves into the sphere of the individual. This is what art can do, and what – on the intimate altars – often places it above any intellectual reflection. Bernhard obsessively circled around the Alpine intellect, but his dissection is consistent in its subordination to the laws of literary autonomy; about his time and place he speaks in a special literary language. He renounces the exclusiveness of intellectual correspondence with his time. For people like Bernhard, literature becomes the homeland, from where they are sending us signals and revealing the masks and various acts of cosmetic surgery. And in so doing constantly besiege what lies at the very heart of hollowness.
Art addresses us because of the time delay; it is never a correct part of its age, its very nature contains an anarchistic insensitivity towards the mental operations reigning in the social present. Its explosiveness is muffled, and yet it can erupt a long time after it was conceived. Art is a corridor between times, the passageway for secret messages. How will Bernhard’s riddle be solved by the children of the United Planet? Let us not resort to shamanistic prophesies. Bernhard has a great deal to say to the present time, and is definitely very well understood by the Alpine people. Although he tried so hard to renounce his Alpine mentality, Bernhard is its thorny flower. The black box of Alpine awareness. The rocky sky is erased, utterly solitary. Neither the ‘Heidiland’ spectacular shows nor the accompanying critical debates will significantly shatter the structure of the relations which have for a long time defined the place of the maladapted individuals in Alpine societies. Perhaps the Alpine man will sooner or later become extinct, but – measured by the yardstick of human life – it will be a slow death. Landowners under the Alps will persist for a long time to come, so sensitive about every stretch of land, so accurate in counting the honours expressed to them. And for a long time to come all this will be a grotesque mask for the loneliness symbolised by the archetypal image of a solitary mountain. The mountain, which for Bernhard is not a gentle haven, but the disintegrating, yet only true reality.