Conjunctions:32 Eye to Eye

The following is an excerpt from Bernhard’s Walking, the full text of which appears in Conjunctions:32.

This is the first English translation of Thomas Bernhard’s novella Gehen, origin published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1971. The novella is a seminal work, quintessential to the understanding of Bernhard’s complete oeuvre. In it he treats, and distills, many of the themes that are central to both his dramatic and his fictional writings: the problems of identity, mortality, suicide, ethics, perception and of spiritual and personal liberty in the face of unbending authority are all explored with the full force of Bernhard’s mordant wit, narrative genius and philosophical acuity. In a true Bernhardian spirit, I have tried to preserve the author’s often idiosyncratic punctuation and sentence structure, particularly in the case of quotations within the text which form such an integral part of this remarkable novella. 
     I am deeply indebted to Bradford Morrow for bringing the novella to my attention and asking me to translate it, but my gratitude is greatest for the intellectual care and devotion, to say nothing of the hours of editorial work, that he has lavished on this project.


There is a constant tug-of-war going on between all the possibilities of human thought and all the possibilities of a human mind’s sensitivity, and between all the possibilities of human character. 

Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesdays, now I go walking—now that Karrer has gone mad—with Oehler on Monday as well. Because Karrer used to go walking with me on Monday, you go walking on Monday with me as well, now that Karrer no longer goes walking with me on Monday, says Oehler, after Karrer had gone mad and had immediately gone into Steinhof. And without hesitation I said to Oehler, good, let’s go walking on Monday as well. Whereas on Wednesday we always walk in one direction (in the eastern one), on Mondays we go walking in the western direction, strikingly enough we walk far more quickly on Monday than on Wednesday, probably, I think, Oehler always walked more quickly with Karrer than he did with me, because on Wednesday he walks much more slowly and on Monday much more quickly. You see, says Oehler, it’s a habit of mine to walk more quickly on Monday and more slowly on Wednesday because I always walked more quickly with Karrer (that is on Monday) than I did with you (on Wednesday). Because, after Karrer went mad, you now go walking with me not only on Wednesday but also on Monday, there is no need for me to alter my habit of going walking on Monday and on Wednesday, says Oehler, of course, because you go walking with me on Wednesday and Monday you have probably had to alter your habit and, actually, in what is probably for you an incredible fashion, says Oehler. But it is good, says Oehler, and he says it in an unmistakably didactic tone, and of the greatest importance for the organism, from time to time, and at not too great intervals, to alter a habit, and he says he is not thinking of just altering, but of a radical alteration of the habit. You are altering your habit, says Oehler, in that now you go walking with me not only on Wednesday but also on Monday and that now means walking alternately in one direction (in the Wednesday-) and in the other (in the Monday-) direction, while I am altering my habit in that up till now I always went walking with you on Wednesday and with Karrer on Monday, but now I go with you on Monday and Wednesday, and thus also on Monday, and therefore on Wednesday in one (in the eastern) direction and on Monday in the other (in the western) direction. Besides which, I doubtless, and in the nature of things, walk differently with you than I did with Karrer, says Oehler, because with Karrer it was a question of a quite different person from you and therefore with Karrer it was a question of quite different walking (and thinking), says Oehler. The fact that I—after Karrer had gone mad and had gone into Steinhof, Oehler says, finally gone into Steinhof—had saved Oehler from the horror of having to go walking on his own on Monday, these were his own words, I would not have gone walking at all on Monday, says Oehler, for there is nothing more dreadful than having to go walking on one’s own on Monday and having to walk on one’s own is the most dreadful thing. I simply cannot imagine, says Oehler, that you would not go walking with me on Monday. And that I should have to go walking on my own on Monday is something that I cannot imagine. Whereas Oehler habitually wears his topcoat completely buttoned up, I leave my topcoat completely open. I think the reason for this is to be found in his persistent fear of catching a chill and a cold when leaving his topcoat open, whereas my reason is the persistent fear of suffocating if my topcoat is buttoned up. Thus Oehler is constantly afraid of getting cold whereas I am constantly afraid of suffocating. Whereas Oehler has on boots that reach up above his ankles, I wear ordinary shoes, for there is nothing I hate more than boots, just as Oehler hates nothing more than regular shoes. It is ill-bred (and stupid!) always to wear regular shoes, Oehler says again and again, while I say it’s senseless to walk in such heavy boots. While Oehler has a wide-brimmed black hat, I have a narrow-brimmed gray one. If you could only get used to wearing a broad-brimmed hat like the one I wear, Oehler often says, whereas I often tell Oehler, if you could get used to wearing a narrow-brimmed hat like me. A narrow-brimmed hat doesn’t suit your head, only a wide-brimmed one does, Oehler says to me, whereas I tell Oehler, only a narrow-brimmed hat suits your head, but not a wide-brimmed one like the one you have on. Whereas Oehler wears mittens—always the same mittens—always, sturdy, woolen mittens that his sister knitted for him, I wear gloves, thin, though lined, pigskin gloves that my wife bought for me. One is only really warm in mittens, Oehler says over and over again, only in gloves, only in soft leather gloves like these, I say, can I move my hands as I do. Oehler wears black trousers with no cuffs, whereas I wear gray trousers with cuffs. But we never agree about our clothing and so there is no point in saying that Oehler should wear a narrow-brimmed hat, a pair of trousers with cuffs, topcoats that are not so tight as the one he has on etcetera, or that I should wear mittens, heavy boots etcetera, because we will not give up the clothing that we are wearing when we go walking and which we have been wearing for decades, no matter where we are going to, because this clothing, in the decades during which we have been wearing it, has become a fixed habit and so our fixed mode of dress. If we hear something, says Oehler, on Wednesday we check what we have heard and we check what we have heard until we have to say that what we have heard is not true, what we have heard is a lie. If we see something, we check what we see until we are forced to say that what we are looking at is horrible. Thus throughout our lives we never escape from what is horrible and what is untrue, the lie, says Oehler. If we do something, we think about what we are doing until we are forced to say that it is something nasty, something low, something outrageous, what we are doing is something terribly hopeless and that what we are doing is in the nature of things obviously false. Thus every day becomes hell for us whether we like it or not, and what we think will, if we think about it, if we have the requisite coolness of intellect and acuity of intellect, always become something nasty, something low and superfluous which will depress us in the most shattering manner for the whole of our lives. For, everything that is thought is superfluous. Nature does not need thought, says Oehler, only human pride incessantly thinks into nature its thinking. What must thoroughly depress us is the fact that through this outrageous thinking into a nature which is, in the nature of things, fully immunized against this thinking, we enter into an even greater depression than that in which we already are. In the nature of things conditions become ever more unbearable through our thinking, says Oehler. If we think that we are turning unbearable conditions into bearable ones, we have to realize quickly that we have not made (have not been able to make) unbearable circumstances bearable or even less bearable but only still more unbearable. And circumstances are the same as conditions, says Oehler, and it’s the same with facts. The whole process of life is a process of deterioration in which everything—and this is the most cruel law—continually gets worse. If we look at a person, we are bound in a short space of time to say what a horrible, what an unbearable person. If we look at Nature, we are bound to say, what a horrible what an unbearable Nature. If we look at something artificial—it doesn’t matter what the artificiality is—we are bound to say in a short space of time what an unbearable artificiality. If we are out walking, we even say after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable walk, just as when we are running we say what an unbearable run, just as when we are standing still, what an unbearable standing still, just as when we are thinking what an unbearable process of thinking. If we meet someone, we think within the shortest space of time, what an unbearable meeting. If we go on a journey, we say to ourselves, after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable journey, what unbearable weather, we say, says Oehler, no matter what the weather is like, if we think about any sort of weather at all. If our intellect is keen, if our thinking is the most ruthless and the most lucid, says Oehler, we are bound after the shortest space of time to say of everything that it is unbearable and horrible. There is no doubt that the art lies in bearing what is unbearable and in not feeling that what is horrible is something horrible. Of course we have to label this art the most difficult of all. The art of existing against the facts, says Oehler, is the most difficult, the art that is the most difficult. To exist against the facts means existing against what is unbearable and horrible, says Oehler. If we do not constantly exist against, but only constantly with the facts, says Oehler, we shall go under in the shortest possible space of time. The fact is that our existence is an unbearable and horrible existence, if we exist with this fact, says Oehler, and not against this fact, then we shall go under in the most wretched and in the most usual manner, there should therefore be nothing more important to us than existing constantly, even if in, but also at the same time against the fact of an unbearable and horrible existence. The number of possibilities of existing in (and with) the fact of an unbearable and horrible existence, is the same as the number of existing against the unbearable and horrible existence and thus in (and with) and at the same time against the fact of an unbearable and horrible existence. It is always possible for people to exist in (and with) and, as a result, in all and against all facts, without existing against this fact and against all facts, just as it is always possible for them to exist in (and with) a fact and with all facts and against one and all facts and thus above all against the fact that existence is unbearable and horrible. It is always a question of intellectual indifference and intellectual acuity and of the ruthlessness of intellectual indifference and intellectual acuity, says Oehler. Most people, over ninety eight percent, says Oehler, possess neither indifference of intellect nor acuity of intellect and do not even have the faculty of reason. The whole of history to date proves this without a doubt. Wherever we look, neither indifference of intellect, nor acuity of intellect, says Oehler, everything is a giant, a shatteringly long history without intellectual indifference and without acuity of intellect and so without the faculty of reason. If we look at history, it is above all its total lack of the faculty of reason that depresses us, to say nothing of intellectual indifference and acuity. To that extent it is no exaggeration to say that the whole of history is a history totally without reason, which makes it a dead history. We have, it is true, says Oehler, if we look at history, if we look into history, which a person like me is from time to time brave enough to do, a tremendous Nature behind us, actually under us but in reality no history at all. History is a history-lie, is what I maintain, says Oehler. But let us return to the individual, says Oehler. To have the faculty of reason would mean nothing other than breaking off with history and first and foremost with one’s own personal history. From one moment to the next simply to give up, accepting nothing more, that’s what having the faculty of reason means, not accepting a person not a thing, not a system and also, in the nature of things, not accepting a thought, just simply nothing more and then to commit suicide in this really single revolutionary realization. But to think like this leads inevitably to sudden intellectual madness, says Oehler, as we know, and to what Karrer has had to pay for with sudden total madness. He, Oehler, did not believe that Karrer would ever be released from Steinhof, his madness is too fundamental for that, says Oehler. His own daily discipline had been to school himself more and more in the most exciting and in the most tremendous and most epoch-making thoughts with an ever greater determination, but only to the furthest possible point before absolute madness. If you go as far as Karrer, says Oehler, then you are suddenly decisively and absolutely mad and have, at one stroke, become useless. Go on thinking more and more and more and more with ever greater intensity and with an ever greater ruthlessness and with an ever greater fanaticism for finding out, says Oehler, but never for one moment think too far. At any moment we can think too far, says Oehler, simply go too far in our thoughts, says Oehler, and everything becomes valueless. I am now going to return again, says Oehler, to what Karrer always came back to: that there is actually no faculty of reason in this world, or rather in what we call this world, because we have always called it this world, if we analyze what the faculty of reason is, we have to say that there simply is no faculty of reason—but Karrer had already analyzed that, says Oehler—that actually, as Karrer quite rightly said and the conclusion at which he finally arrived by his continued consideration of this incredibly fascinating subject was that there is no faculty of reason, only an under-faculty of reason. The so-called human faculty of reason, says Oehler, is, as Karrer said, always a mere under-faculty of reason, even a sub-faculty of reason. For if a faculty of reason were possible, says Oehler, then history would be possible, but history is not possible, because the faculty of reason is not possible and history is not possible, because the faculty of reason is not possible and history does not arise from an under-faculty or a sub-faculty of reason, discovery of Karrer’s, says Oehler. The fact of the under-faculty of reason, or of the so-called sub-faculty of reason, says Oehler, does without doubt make possible the continued existence of Nature through human beings. If I had a faculty of reason, says Oehler, if I had an unbroken faculty of reason, he says, I would long ago have committed suicide. What is to be understood from, or by, what I am saying, says Oehler, can be understood, what is not to be understood cannot be understood. Even if everything cannot be understood, everything is nevertheless unambiguous, says Oehler. What we call thinking, has in reality nothing to do with the faculty of reason, says Oehler, Karrer is right about that when he says that we have no faculty of reason because we think, for to have a faculty of reason means not to think and so to have no thoughts. What we have is nothing but a substitute for a faculty of reason. A substitute for thought makes our existence possible. All the thinking that is done is only substitute thinking, because actual thinking is not possible, because there is no such thing as actual thinking, because Nature excludes actual thinking, because it has to exclude actual thinking. You may think I’m mad, says Oehler, but actual, and that means real, thinking is completely excluded. But we call what we think is thinking, thinking, just as we call walking what we consider to be walking, just as we say we are walking when we believe that we are walking and are actually walking, says Oehler. What I’ve just said has absolutely nothing to do with cause and effect, says Oehler. And there’s no objection to saying thinking, where it’s not a question of thinking, and there’s no objection to saying faculty of reason where there’s no possibility of its being a question of faculty of reason and there’s no objection to saying concepts where they are not at issue. It is only by calling actions and things, actions and things that are in no way actions and things, because there is no way that they can be actions and things that we get any further, it is only in this way, says Oehler that something is possible, indeed that anything is possible. Experience is a fact about which we know nothing and above all it is something which we cannot get to the root of, says Oehler. But on the other hand it is just as much a fact that we always act exactly or at least much more in concert with this fact, which is what I do (and recognize) when I say, these children, whom we see here in Klosterneuburgerstrasse, have been made because the faculty of reason was suspended, although we know that the concepts used in that statement, and as a result the words used in the statement, are completely false and thus we know that everything in the statement is false. Yet if we cling to our experience which represents a zenith and we can no longer sustain ourselves, then we no longer exist, says Oehler.

Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) was a novelist, playwright, and poet. His works include CorrectionThe Lime WorksWittgenstein's NephewThe Loser (all Vintage), as well as Histrionics and The Voice Imitator (both University of Chicago). Bernhard, who lived in Austria, is widely considered one of the foremost writers of his generation.
Kenneth Northcott is an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and an esteemed translator.