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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The first book I read by Thomas Bernhard was Frost, after reading a review of the new English translation by Michael Hofmann that came out a couple of years ago. I really like the book. The language is thrilling, the subject matter is relevant, I am generally sympathetic to the points of view which are often presented with such force that just reading them can be a release. Here’s one excerpt to illustrate my point.

Strauch, the story’s hero, was a fine-art painter in the Vienna scene, presumably around and after WW2 times. He quit art and went to live in a backwater village in a valley deep in the mountains where he walks around a lot and fulminates over the state of things. Here he comments on artists:

“You know,” the painter said, “that art froth, that artist fornication, that general art-and-artist loathsomeness, I always found that repelling; those could formations of basest self-preservation topped with envy … Envy is what holds artists together, envy, pure envy, everyone envies everyone else for everything … I talked about it once before, I want to say: artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers, and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet, its disgusting cramps, its perpetual puffings and swellings, its pustular secretions … I want to say: artists are the great emetic agents of the time, they were always the great, the very greatest emetics … Artists, are they not a devastating army of absurdity, of scum? The infernality of unscrupulousness is something I always met with in the thoughts of artists … But I don’t want any artists’ thoughts any more, no more of those unnatural thoughts, I want nothing more to do with artists or with art, yes, not with art either, that greatest of all abortions … Do you understand: I want to get right away from that bad smell. Get away from that stink, I always say to myself, and secretly have always thought, get away from that corrosive, shredding, useless lie, get away from that shameless simony …” He said: “Artists are the identical twins of hypocrisy, the identical twins of low-mindedness, the identical twins of licensed exploitation, the greatest licensed exploitation of all time. Artists, as they have shown themselves to me to be,” he said, “are all dull and grandiloquent, nothing but dull and grandiloquent, nothing …”

 

Mania is a narcotic: speed and cocaine together. It’s a high, for sure, a powerful one. Work is easy and you get a lot of it done. Ideas flow freely, new concepts arise without effort. Creative output is voluminous. You don’t tire, don’t sleep, you keep at it, whatever it is. You have confidence and, in particular, self-confidence, enough to tackle audacious projects and dissolve social inhibition. Productivity and imagination is immense, be it prose, poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computer programs or whatever.

But one utterly crucial characteristic of mania is loss of critical judgment. You are convinced of the originality of your ideas, the beauty of your art, the power of your music and the life-changing significance of the concepts you have understood. You are essential, inspired, brilliant, shining like a sun, superhuman — the evidence is everywhere but you don’t have the critical sense to know if it is real or an illusion.

When sobriety returns it does so with embarrassment. Even if there is no depression in the aftermath there is the evidence of your creative bender. Bad poetry, unfinished texts full of confused ideas, art that is after all neither original nor good. The philosophical theories you thought would change the world turn out to be incoherent.

It’s trite, worn-out and banal to mention it but what they say about the 90% perspiration is true. Inspiration is involved but seldom is it sufficient. Great works require a great amount of work. And they require the critical editorial eye. You didn’t produce a masterpiece throwing paints around all night in a hypomanic flight of virtuoso inspiration before going at dawn for coffee and deciding instead to write an opera. To your sober self what is on the canvas is a worthless embarrassment. Mania can’t make you superhuman — nothing can make you capable of producing works of genius with ease. It may give you inspiration but it robs you of the sense to judge which inspirations are worth anything.

Mania is a narcotic — your work is garbage but it makes you feel like god.

Mania is a fraud.

In her book, “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Jamison avoids exploring this aspect of manic depression. And that’s very strange. It would be one thing if she were just talking about herself, if she were just a bipolar sufferer who refuses to discuss the evidence that the upside of mania is fake. But she’s a practicing clinical psychologist treating manic depressive patients and a scholar specializing in mood disorders with status as a world-class authority on the topic.

So she must have encountered this aspect and dealt with many patients who were dubious of the value of their manias. I spoke to my own therapist about this and she said that there are some patients she’s had who cherish their manic experiences, associate them with creativity and would fear loss of that part of their lives but that there are many others who, like me, are skeptical and fearful of mania and the intoxicated trash it generates.

Towards the end of her book she writes nostalgically of her earlier manic episodes. In the epilog where she says she would rather have the disease than not, she avoids making claims that anything of value came from the manic episodes but elsewhere in the book she does not. For example, she speculates about the possibility of eradicating the disease from the world and what a loss to society that would be: “The disease appears to convey its advantages [to the individual and society] not only through its relationship to the artistic temperament and imagination, but through its influence on many eminent scientists, as well as business, religious, military, and political leaders.” The astonishing thing here is the bald presumption that the disease confers any benefits at all. To Dr. Jamison this appears to go without saying. But many of us with intimate experience of the disease (I’ve had it for 25 years) disagree. I prefer my artistic temperament and imagination sober — the productivity may be lower but at least the product sometimes has value.

This book is not just a personal memoir. Dr. Jamison uses her platform as respected expert in the field to offer also an objective layman’s introduction to the disease. As such I consider it irresponsible to omit mentioning that it is nothing more than her personal opinion (and indeed a controversial one) that the disease has benefits and can, in balance, be a good thing.

Mania and hypomania obliterate critical judgment and reliable self-appraisal. Recognizing this, as Dr. Jamison does in her account of her manias, how could one fail to be suspicious of the accuracy of the memory of the experience or of the work products? One would have to have a motive to ignore this blindingly obvious line of thought.

I can understand that it may be hard to accept that what one recalls as the most creative moments of ones life were perhaps hollow or that which has distinguished ones life from the ordinary was possibly nugatory. I can see why people would avoid exploring these possibilities. But I cannot accept that this, of all books, should seek to avoid their mention. With her books such as this, Dr. Jamison seeks, among other things, respect and acclaim as a professional and an expert. I accord her that. But I consequently expect corresponding standards to apply. By those standards, I regard this obvious omission as irresponsible.

When he first appeared as a potential candidate, my impression of Obama was positive. He seemed intelligent, competent, decisive and ready to work hard. But soon enough my opinion started to change and I wasn’t really sure why. Eventually I noticed that I couldn’t accuse him of pandering (which is about all Mrs. Clinton does) because he hadn’t said anything substantive at all. Yet he was making Democratic partisans weak at the knees in stage performances in which he managed to avoid saying anything. He has the magical tongue. Listen to him and you risk falling in love.

And I was reminded of a passage from Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun”, one of the most interesting books I read. This is from the first chapter in which Huxley is introducing the book’s central figure, Urbain Grandier.

The Good Fairy, who visits the cradles of the privileged, is often the Bad Fairy in a luminous disguise. She comes loaded with presents; but her bounty all too often, is fatal. To Urbain Grandier, for example, the Good Fairy had brought, along with solid talents, the most dazzling of all gifts, and the most dangerous – eloquence. Spoken by a good actor – and every great preacher, every successful advocate and politician is, among other things, a consummate actor – words can exercise an almost magical power over their hearers. Because of the essential irrationality of this power, even the best-intentioned of public speakers probably do more harm than good. When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without over-simplification. But you cannot over-simplify without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents.