Pitiless, insatiable, man-eating monsters

June 12, 2008

A recent conversation with my friend Ken touched on the astonishing drama that fills the lives of many of the students at the community college at which he works and how starkly this contrasts the lives of his own milieu. I described my view of the opposite regime: the middle-class suburb where the safe standardized environments of home, school, church and neighborhood enforce strict bounds on thought and behavior and indoctrinate their own narrow values and aspirations to produce a homogenized, neutered humanity. Later the same day I happened to read the following passage in Thomas Bernhard’s memoir that addresses the same issue but in Bernhard’s dazzling prose.

Background to the excerpt: Thomas Bernhard, was a sensitive child and had a mostly very unhappy childhood which spanned WW2. His family was impoverished but essentially middle-class in values, behavior and ambition. Shortly after the war, living in Salzburg, Bernhard was attending grammar school, which he hated, when one day while walking to school he took the opposite turn on the Reichenhaller Strasse from the direction to the school and instead visited a labor exchange where he got a position as apprentice at a grocery store in the blighted Scherzhauserfeld Project.

The excerpt is from Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard, chapter 3: “The Cellar: an Escape” pp192-194 in the David McLintock translation published by Vintage in 2003.

What I was seeking was something different, something I had not known before, something that might be stimulating and exciting, and I found it in the Scherzhauserfeld Project. I did not go there out of any feeling of pity: I have always detested pity, and especially self-pity. I did nor permit myself to feel pity; my only motive was the will to survive. Having come so close co putting an end to my life, for every possible reason, I had the idea of breaking away from the path I had taken for many years because I was too stupid and too unimaginative to choose another, and because I had been set upon this path by those who brought me up to fulfill the dreary ambitions they entertained on my behalf. I did an about-turn and ran back along the Reichenhaller Strasse. At first I simply ran back, without knowing where I was heading. From this moment on it’s got to be something different, I thought—in my excitement this was the only thought in my head—something that is the very opposite of what I have done up to now. And the labour exchange in the Gaswerkgasse was exactly in the opposite direction. Under no circumstances would I have turned again and gone in any other direction. The farthest point in the opposite direction was the Scherzhauserfeld Project, and it was on this farthest point that I set my sights. The Scherzhauserfeld Project was the farthest point in every respect, not just geographically. There was nothing there to remind me even remotely of the city and of everything in the city that had tormented me for years and driven me to despair, to thinking of scarcely anything but suicide. Here there was no mathematics master, no Latin master, no Greek master, and no despotic headmaster to make me catch my breath whenever he appeared. Here there was no deadly institution. Here one did not continually have to keep oneself under control, keep one‘s head down, dissimulate and lie in order to survive. Here I was not constantly exposed to the disapproving looks I had found so deadly. Here no outrageous and inhuman demands were made on me. Here I was not turned into learning and thinking machine. Here I could be myself. And all the others could be themselves. Here people were not constantly being pressed into an artificial mould as they were in the city, in a manner that daily grew more sophisticated. They were left in peace, and from the very first moment I set foot on the Scherzhauserfeld Project I too was left in peace. One could not only think one’s own thoughts: and one could express them, when and how one liked and as loudly as one liked. One was not in constant danger of being attacked for being headstrong. One‘s personality was suddenly no longer suppressed and crushed by the rules of the bourgeois social apparatus, an apparatus designed to destroy human beings. In towns where stupidity reaches such alarming proportions as it does in Salzburg, human beings are constantly tweaked and shaken, constantly hammered and filed into shape, and they go on being hammered and filed into shape until there is nothing left of the original human being but a revolting, tasteless artifact. In towns of medium size (I will say nothing of small towns, where everything is grotesque) every effort is directed toward turning human beings into artifacts. Everything in these towns is opposed to human nature; even the young are nothing more than artifacts from A to Z. The human species today can preserve itself only in the unadulterated country or in the unadulterated big city—only in the unadulterated country, which still exists, or in the unadulterated big city, which also exists. In such conditions one still finds natural human beings—beyond the Hausruck or in London, for instance, and as far as Europe is concerned one probably finds them nowhere else. For in Europe today London is the only genuine big city; admittedly it is nor on the continent, but it is in Europe all the same; and beyond the Hausruck I can still find the unadulterated country. Everywhere else in Europe one finds only artificial human beings, people whom the schools have turned into artifacts. Whoever we meet in the rest of Europe turns out to be an artificial human being, a tasteless replica of the real thing. The number of such products runs into millions and—who knows?—will perhaps shortly run into billions; and all their movements are controlled by various educational systems, which are in reality pitiless, insatiable, man-eating monsters. All the time our ears are assailed, if we are still capable of using them, by the sickening din of mass-produced marionettes with not a single natural human being among them. It is possible that in the Scherzhauserfeld Project I experienced the Hausruck or London effect, but I was not conscious of this at the time. I had obeyed my instinct and gone in the opposite direction.

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