By Thomas Bernhard, from the short story “Montaigne,” which appears in Goethe Dies, a collection that was published last month by Seagull Books. Bernhard was the author of numerous novels and plays. He died in 1989. Translated from the German by James Reidel.
From my family and thus from my tormentors, I found refuge in a corner of the tower. I had brought with me a book from the library after I had read a few sentences in it, a book by Montaigne, as it turned out, to whom I am related in such a close and truly enlightening way as I am to no one else.
On the way into the tower, I had pulled the book from the shelves in the gloom, as though nothing else could have saved me, chosen it without the faintest idea what it was about except that it would be philosophical, as my family for centuries had shelved so-called philosophical books on the left side of the library and so-called belletristic books on the right, though I knew, obviously, that the book I chose from the left side could have been by someone else entirely, not Montaigne but Descartes or Novalis or Schopenhauer.
On the way into the tower, I lit no lamp, given the mosquitos, and I exerted the most intense concentration to guess whose book I had pulled from the shelf. All those who ran through my head were philosophers, but they were not Montaigne.
Since no one had gone from the library into the tower for so long, I soon plunged my head into hundreds of cobwebs, and before I even arrived at the tower I felt as though I were wearing a cap of cobwebs. So thickly had the cobwebs wound around my head on the way from the library into the tower that I felt the cobwebs on my face and my head like a bandage, one I had wound around myself on the way from the library into the tower by walking alone and by repeatedly turning my head from side to side and my body entirely around because I was afraid that my family might have seen me entering the library and then leaving it in the direction of the tower. Even to breathe was difficult.
Now I had a fear of suffocating because of the many years I suffered alone with my weakened lungs. I had another fear too, one more excruciating still, from the cobwebs wound around my head. That whole afternoon, my family had tormented me with their business affairs, and while they continually talked on and on at me or treated me with total silence no matter what had been discussed, they reproached me because I was their misfortune; they said that I had made it my method to be against them and their relationships, against their affairs and their ideas, which were also my own.
That I made it my habit to undermine their thinking, to mock it, to destroy and exterminate it. That I enlisted everything at my command to undermine and destroy and exterminate it. I dwelled on nothing else day and night, and when I woke up I worked against it. They said that I was not the weak invalid but that they were the invalids and the weak, I had tyrannized them and not the other way around: I was their oppressor, it was not them against me but me against them.
But I will hear this for as long as I exist. From birth I was against them, they said. I held my very existence against them, this wicked, never-speaking child just perpetually staring at them and their perfidious monstrosity. From the very first this watchful child unsettled them because it had been against them. Instinctively, from the very first, everything in me turned against them, and ultimately, with the arrival of a brain in my head, with an ever-greater determination and ruthlessness.
I am their destroyer, they said once more today, while I, meanwhile, relentlessly convey that they are my destroyers, committed to my destruction ever since I was conceived. My family has me on their conscience in each and every thing I say, while they reciprocate in each and every thing they say and think, and in their relentless dealings, such that I would have them on my conscience. They incessantly tell me that I was born into such a fine neighborhood and into such a fine home and that nevertheless I mocked and scorned them relentlessly.
In every one of my statements there was nothing but this mockery and scorn in which they will one day perish, but I think that one day I will perish in their mockery and scorn. On the way from the library to the tower I realized that I have not escaped them in all my forty-two years, even though in these forty-two years I have had nothing else in my head but to escape them. Withdrawing from them was never possible. Not even for the briefest time did I withdraw from them, as it would have been merely a token withdrawal, not to mention escape, to which I no longer lend credence. Their care had always been the most considerate, their attention always the greatest, but at the same time their despair in regard to me was always the most appalling.
So many paths they had paved for me, and I had taken not a single one of these paths, as I told them once more today. All the paths they had pointed out for me and paved, which were the best for me, all these paths they already saw me taking, all their paths for me would have destroyed me from the outset. I said to them once that I never wanted to take a path, but their misunderstanding and thoroughgoing vulgarity in this most unabashed conspiracy made me see instantly the absurdity of my remark, and I didn’t let myself repeat this remark, that I never wanted to take a path. Every remark of mine was met by their misunderstanding, and with this misunderstanding their assiduous vulgarity. Thus over the decades I have said less and less and finally nothing more, and their lectures have become ever more ruthless.
I had gone into the library and pulled a philosophy book off the shelves for myself in the full knowledge of committing a crime. In their eyes, just going into the library was a crime, and taking a philosophy book off the shelves was that much greater a crime, but my withdrawal from them was still the only thing that counted as a crime. They said that they had bought a house in Encknach in order to enlarge it and then, in a year, sell it at a tenfold profit, they said that they had combined two farms in Rutzenmoos and made a profit of 30 million overnight. We must buy when the weak are at their weakest, they said at the table, beat the intelligent with a more ruthless intelligence, they said, with a more perfidious perfidy. They don’t discuss these business deals directly but only indirectly; even when they discuss something they see as philosophical, namely, the loneliness of Schopenhauer, about which they have indeed, as I know, read everything but understood nothing, they really only discuss their business: how to cheat intelligence with a more intelligent intelligence. They spooned their soup and came to the defense of a dog that had bitten a passerby and in this canine cant they nevertheless were still only talking about their business. My parents and my siblings have always been united, they have always acted in a conspiracy against everything and against me. We have always loved you, my parents said again today, and my siblings watched and listened to them without objection while I thought that they had only hated me all my life, just as all my life I hated them. We say that we love our parents but in reality we hate them, we cannot love our begetters because we are not a happy people, and our unhappiness is not something we are talked into, unlike our happiness, which we talk ourselves into daily so that we have the courage to get up, wash ourselves, dress, take the first sip, swallow the first bite.
Inevitably we are reminded of this every morning, that our parents made and whelped us in this horrific self-esteem and in their literal megalomania for breeding put us in this more dreadful and odious and deadly than encouraging and conducive world. We owe our helplessness, our awkwardness, every one of our difficulties that for a lifetime we can never overcome to our begetters. First it was said you could not drink this water because it was poisoned, then it was said you could not read this book because this book was poisoned. When you drink this water you will die from it, they said, then when you read this book you will die from that. They led you into forests, they stuck you inside gloomy nurseries in order to destroy you, they introduced you to people whom you immediately realized would be your annihilators. They showed you landscapes that would be fatal for you. They tossed you into schools as though into dungeons; ultimately, they drove your soul from you to let it perish in their swamp and in their desert. In this way, early on, they gave your heart its compliant rhythm until you became, as the doctors say, terminally ill, because they gave you this heart of yours that never rests.
They stuffed you into green clothes when you wanted to wear red ones; if you wanted to walk, you had to run; if you wanted to run, you had to walk; if you wanted rest, they gave you none; if you wanted to cry, they plugged your mouth. You have observed them for as long as you can remember and seen their hypocrisy and studied them and told them over and over again that they were doomed, something they refused to believe even though they knew they were nothing but doomed the whole time they had been under your observation, all the way down to the present. What they have always denied is that they are shameless, unscrupulous, dangerous. Then they accused me of telling the truth, so to speak. But when, so as to tell the truth, I occasionally said that they were good-looking, intelligent, they accused me of lying. Thus have they accused me all my life of telling the truth sometimes and of lying sometimes and of telling the truth and of lying quite frequently, but essentially they have accused me of telling the truth and of lying all my life, just as I have accused them of lying and of telling the truth all their lives.
I can say whatever I want, and they will accuse me of either telling the truth or of lying and it is not clear whether they accuse me now of the truth or of lying, as I am not so often clear when I accuse them of lying or of the truth, because inside my mechanism of accusation, which has already turned into my disease of accusation, I can no longer tell whether it is the truth or a lie, just as they can no longer tell a lie from the truth with me. Earlier I was in a state of mortal terror taking a lump of sugar from the dining-room tin, that is why I am in mortal fear today taking a book from the library, and in the greatest mortal fear if it’s a philosophical book. I have always loved Montaigne like no other. I have always escaped to my Montaigne when I felt mortal fear. With Montaigne I conduct and control myself and, yes, lead and mislead as well. Montaigne has always been my savior and redeemer. If I mistrust everyone else in my infinitely large philosophical family, which I can only describe as an infinitely large French philosophical family where there are a few German and Italian nephews and nieces who have all, I must admit, died rather prematurely, I have always been in good hands with my Montaigne.
On the way into the tower, in the library, and in the darkness because of the mosquitoes, I wanted to cling to some member of this French philosophical family after I had freed myself from the clutches of my own, but at no time did I think that in this greatest darkness I securely gripped my Montaigne. My family ate their soup and meat with like rapaciousness, something I always found odious about them, how they put spoon to mouth, something that says more about them than anything else: how they slice meat on the serving tray, take salad from the bowl. How they drink from their glasses and pull apart the bread, not to mention the way they talk about something and fight over it or make fun of it, all of which has always been odious and embarrassing to me. I have always taken my meals with them, I have been forced to do so all my life, to be together with them, to be at their mercy because of my illness.
First they made me dependent on them, then they accused me of being dependent on them. From that time on, when I could no longer get out of being dependent on them, it was my natural state, my excruciatingly natural state. From a certain point in time, I had to tell myself the only way there is is to be with them.
We want to escape, to flee, but we can’t anymore. They (and we ourselves) have bricked up all the exits to the open air. Suddenly, we see that they (like us) have walled us inside. Then we wait for the moment when we choke to death. Then we often think whether it wouldn’t be better to be blind, perfectly deaf to our other crippling diseases, which we have to recognize as fatal because then we will see nothing more, hear nothing more, but at once that becomes self-deception, too. We wanted to be healed when no cure was expected because one was no longer possible. We wanted to break out where there was no more breaking out.
My family was too late in seeing that they had bred their destroyer and annihilator. And I understood too late. I understood when it was too late to know or understand. How often they said that they would have preferred a dog to me, because a dog would have guarded them and cost less than me, who only watches and scorns and subverts and destroys and annihilates.
If you go to the well, we will beat you to death, they said when I was four or five years old. If you go into the library, you will see, they said, and they meant nothing less than that I would be beaten for it. Thus I am forever like that four- or five-year-old child secretly at the well and like this grown-up, so to speak, always secretly going into the library. Thus did they always give me to understand that I would acquire this so-called excess baggage at the well and fall irretrievably down. And they always gave me to understand that in the library and very specifically, but without directly saying it, in philosophical books, I would acquire this excess baggage and fall irretrievably down. How I went secretly into the library from the age of four or five, until my soul froze inside, going into the library for so many years in secret, behind their backs, so to speak.
Each time it seems as though I have entered a trap, because they have always told me or given me to understand that the library (like the well) is a trap for me. I am forty-two years old and enter the library like a trap. The trap would snap shut, they said, as I entered the library for the first time. Each time, when I enter the library, I think the trap snaps shut. It could also be Descartes, I thought, or Pascal. My God, I thought, how I love all these philosophers, as I love nothing else in the world! But here was Montaigne, my beloved above all, Montaigne! I sat in the deepest recess of the tower and read and read and might have cried out for joy had I not long ago repressed such a grotesque display of wonderfully letting go with this thought: When we cry out irrepressibly and don’t see ourselves as a result and don’t regard ourselves at this opportunity, we are even more ludicrous than we have already made ourselves out to be. Thus I saw myself as though I had cried out and regarded this truth without really and actually crying out.
I read from my Montaigne by the fastened shutters in this most absurd way, for it is very hard without artificial light, up until this sentence: Hopefully nothing happened to him! That sentence was not from Montaigne, but from my family, who searched for me under the tower, back and forth.