Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Translation of "In Flammen aufgegangen. Reisebericht an einen einstigen Freund" by Thomas Bernhard

(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex)

Burst into Flames.  A Travel Journal to a Former Friend.

As you know I have been on the run for more than four months now, not southwards as I gave you to understand, but northwards, it was not warmth to which I was ultimately drawn, but cold, not architecture, my dear architect and building-artist, but nature and in actual fact that quite specific[ally] northern nature, of which I have spoken to you so often, the so-called polar circular nature about which I wrote an essay a full thirty years ago, one of the innumerable secret essays, secreted essays that are never destined for publication, [but] only for annihilation, for I have indeed recently recovered my intention of continuing to live, not of merely prolonging my existence, [for] I am bent on continuing [only] in a [state of] absolute libertinage, my dear architect, my dear building-artist, my dear charlatan of superficies.  Secretly, secretively epoch-making, so to speak, my dear sir.  At first I had thought that I would never write to you again under any circumstances, as it really does seem to me that our relationship has actually and irrevocably been standing at its terminus for quite a number of years, above all has reached its intellectual terminus, never again to establish contact with you had been my intention, naturally never again to write you any lines, every additional line to you has appeared to me for quite some time to be a complete absurdity addressed to a person who once decades ago was a friend, an intellectual companion, but ultimately [and] for quite a number of decades has only been an enemy, an enemy of my thought, an enemy of my existence, which of course is nothing but an intellectual existence.  I had written to you several letters in Vienna and in Madrid, ultimately in Budapest and Palermo, but not sent these letters, I had actually put addresses and stamps on these letters, never sent them, in order not to make a sacrifice to a vulgar piece of tastelessness.  I have annihilated these letters and sworn to myself not to write any more lines to you, to refrain from writing to you as [I refrained from writing] to everybody else.  I permitted myself no further correspondence.  So I have been traveling for several years through Europe and North America, possibly in a [state of] unavailing madness, as you would say, without contacts, without correspondence, because my pleasure in communicating had died at once, after I had denied myself [this pleasure] for years on end.  I went, so to speak, into myself and no longer came out of myself.  And yet I cannot say that this period was a total loss for me.  In a word, I wrote several articles for the Times, [articles] that naturally did not appear, because I did not send them to the Times, after I had settled in the truest sense of the word in Oslo Oslo is a boring city and the people there are unintellectual, completely uninteresting, like possibly all Norwegians, that is a [piece of] empirical knowledge I certainly [acquired] much later when I reached the [latitudinal] altitude of Murmansk.  [In Norway] I became acquainted with a breed of dog hitherto completely unknown in central Europe, the so-called Schaufler, [but] the food is lousy and the Norwegian[s’] taste in art is [abysmally] trashy.  A completely unphilosophical country, in which every form of thinking is stifled in no time flat.  I attempted it in a nursing home in Mosjøen, a small town with an impoverished populace, [who] stave off their boredom by playing the piano; reportedly one family out of every two has a piano in Mosjøen, I myself in a house in which I spent, or rather, survived my first night, saw and was obliged to listen to a Bösendorfer grand that was so [well] tuned that even the most tasteless music of for example Schubert [sounded] interesting [when] played on it; via their [well-]tuned piano the people of Mosjøen, like Norwegians in general I assume, acquired a concept of so-called contemporary modern music, I can assert this more or less automatically, because they have not a clue about [such music].  But these Norwegian adventures, which had robbed me of practically all my hopes for the future and which actually exhausted themselves in the counting of fur caps and felt slippers and felt boots and as I mentioned, in the most perverse of all piano-playing possibilities, are not what is [impelling] me to write these lines to you.  I had a dream and in it you were the collector of dreams, I have no intention of withholding from you the dream I dreamt in Rotterdam, for I am, as you know, an unconditional booster and partisan of the sciences and in particular of yours, and I [shall] quite simply disregard the absolute frigidity of our [mutual] connection and journalize to you about this dream that I dreamt in Rotterdam, after I left Oslo, [lived] for a while in Lübeck and Kiel and in Hamburg Station, even a couple of weeks in the obnoxious city of Bruges, in which I attempted just as in Norway to be a nurse, certainly there as a nurse of error, dreamt [it] and made a mental note [of it], for as you know I dream literally every day, but I do not make a mental note of all these dreamt dreams.  How few actually dreamt and noted dreams there are as far as I am concerned!  As you know, I have for some years been on the run from Austria to a better place than Austria and I refuse under any circumstances ever [to go] back to Austria, as I now [feel] as though I am being forcibly impelled thither.  So I have been traveling, or rather erring for years now in Europe and as you know North America hither and thither with the intention of finding a better locale, in which I can elaborate my plans, specifically my plans for a philosophy of existence, of which I spoke to you so often and [at such length], until I could no longer put up with you, above all in South Tyrol, above all on the Ritten.  For I had no wish to become an Oxford brain, nor a Cambridge brain; keep your distance above all [and] at all costs from all universities has been my perpetual watchword in recent years, and as you know, I have been denying myself indeed for years also all books on academic subjects, avoiding philosophy when I can, literature when I can, pretty much [avoiding] reading-matter altogether when I can out of fear of being driven mad and insane and ultimately being killed off by this reading-matter; [out of this same fear ending up] passing through pretty much the entirety of Europe and North America.  Asia I have always had the greatest horror of and my Indian journey had of course ended in a total fiasco, as you know, because I am, as you know, of a delicate physical constitution.  And Latin America has become all the rage and I find it repulsive, every Tom, Dick, and Harry from Europe goes there and squeezes into the cloak of social and socialist good will, which in reality is nothing other than a loathsome degenerate strain of Christian-Social European officiousness.  Purely for the sake of escaping from this lethal European boredom, the Europeans bore themselves to death and meddle in every single corner of the so-called Third World.  Missionary work is a German vice that has hitherto brought the world nothing but misfortune, that has never done anything but plunge the entire world into crisis.  The Church has poisoned Africa with its obnoxious Good Lord, now it is about to poison Latin America with him.  The Catholic Church is the world-poisoner, the world-destroyer, the world-annihilator, that is the truth.  And the German on his own is perpetually poisoning the entire world beyond his borders, and he will not give [it a] rest until the entire world is fatally poisoned.  Thus I have retreated from my wrongheaded mania for trying to help people in Africa and South America, [retreated] some time ago completely into myself.  Mankind is past all help in our world, which has been chock-full of hypocrisy for centuries.  The world like mankind is past all help, because both of them are utter and total hypocrisy.  But of course you have heard [all] this from me [before], and it is quite beside the point anyway.  The fact is that I am writing to you only [and] hence intend to impart to you only what I dreamt today, because the way I think is useful to you.  I dreamt about Austria with such intensity because I [had] flown from Austria as from the most detestable and most ridiculous country in the world.  Everything that the populace of this country have always perceived as beautiful and admirable was more detestable and ridiculous than ever [before], indeed always nothing short of repulsive and I discovered not a single point in this Austria that could [ever] have been acceptable in any respect at all.   I perceived my country as a perverse wasteland and a horrible [locus of] stupidity.  Nothing but ghastly mutilated cities, a uniformly forbidding landscape, and in these mutilated cities and in this forbidding landscape [a] trashy and vulgar and mendacious populace.  There is no telling what has made these cities so mutilated, this country so much a wasteland, these people so trashy and vulgar.  The landscape was as vulgar as the populace, as trashy, as mutilated, the one was just as lethally forbidding as the other, I will have you know.   I saw people who had only vulgar mugs where they should have had [a] face[s], I opened [some] newspapers, I was compelled to vomit [all over] the trash and [all over] the stupidity printed in them, everything I saw, everything I heard, everything that I was obliged to take notice of nauseated me.  I was condemned to watch and listen to this obnoxious Austria for weeks, I will have you know, until finally despair occasioned by this lethal watching and listening had emaciated me down to a skeleton; on account of my [visceral] aversion to this Austria I had ceased to be able to eat a bite [of food], to drink a [drop of liquid].  Wherever I looked, I saw nothing but hideousness and vulgarity, a hideous and mendacious and vulgar nature and hideous and vulgar and mendacious people, the absolute vulgarity and filthiness and trashiness of these people.   And do not believe [for an instant] that I saw only the government and only the so-called upper strata of this Austria, all of a sudden I found Austrianness in its entirety supremely hideous, supremely moronic, supremely repulsive.  In a heavily damaged condition, as you would say, I finally sat down, after I had run through this detestable and trashy and moronic Austria, in my characteristically breathless way, I will have you know, on a conglomerate boulder on the Salzburger Haunsberg, from which I looked down on the city of Salzburg, totally stultified by its inhabitants, totally annihilated by its architects, your colleagues, but for all that still basking in its [own] megalomania.  What have the Austrian people made out of this European jewel in only forty or fifty years?  I thought as I sat on the conglomerate boulder.  A unique architectural abomination, in which the Salzburgers qua Catholic and National Socialist anti-Semites and xenophobes ran to and fro in the tens of thousands in their horrible leather-‘n’-loden uniforms.  On the conglomerate boulder on the Salzburger Haunsberg I was obliged to snooze my way, so to speak, out of the exhaustion of the world, Sir, for all of a sudden I awoke on the Kahlenberg in Vienna.  And just [try to] imagine, my dear architect and building-artist, what I got to see from the Kahlenberg, once I had woken up, sitting not on a conglomeration boulder like on the Salzburger Haunsberg, but on a rotting wooden bench at the upper part of the so-called Himmelstrasse: this whole obnoxious, ultimately nothing but bestially stinking Austria with all its vulgar and trashy people and with its world-renowned ecclesiastical and monasterial and theatrical and musical buildings burst into flames and burnt down.  With nose pinched shut, but with eyes and ears wide open and with a colossal observational gusto I watched it burn down slowly and with the utmost theatrical impressiveness on me, watched it burn down until it was nothing more than an initially yellowish-black, then grayish-black stinking expanse of glutinous ash, nothing else.  And when I descried in this stinking, grayish-black incinerated wasteland nothing but scarcely recognizable Christian-Social and Catholic and National Socialist remains of the Austrian government, which, as you know, has always been the most moronic government in the world, and of the Austrian Catholic clergy, which has always been the wiliest in the world, I breathed a very deep, albeit cough-stricken, sigh of relief.  I sighed [so deeply and] so relievedly that I woke up.  Very luckily for me in Rotterdam, in that city that is nearest and therefore dearest to me, as you know.  If this ridiculous Austria has not been worth mentioning for literally decades and in any context, it is nevertheless interesting, above all to you, that even after so many decades I have once again dreamt about it.                                        


Translation unauthorized but ©2012 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Goethe schtirbt.  Erzählungen (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010).