Bernhard and Walser

  Some writers naturally belong together- the Greek dramatists, the Lake poets, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. What about Thomas Bernhard and Robert Walser? Do they belong on this list? Both men wrote in German and both  based their styles on the monologue but that’s the limit of what they had in common- unless you count a shared acquaintance with extreme mental states, which nonetheless finds very different expressions in their work.   

 Walser was born in 1878 in Switzerland, lived long and died in 1956. It used to be believed he stopped writing after he entered a mental asylum in 1929. This is now disputed, but certainly the early 1930s marked the end of his creative career.

The Austrian Thomas Bernhard wasn’t born until 1931, when Walser was coming to the end of his productive life. He died in 1989, at the relatively early age of 58, of a heart attack, having been a semi-invalid all his life since catching pleurisy and TB in his youth..

Our men then lived and wrote at different times, and in different countries, where their work met with diametrically opposite receptions. Bernhard became famous early on and spent his life as a cultural Euro-star, laden with prizes and awards, which he had a habit of throwing back in their donors’ faces. Walser struggled in poverty and obscurity, in the end unable to make a living from his chosen line of work. 

As for their literary personas, Bernhard is the great poet (I’m tempted to say the great prophet which is something that can happen to writers who are poets by temperament but prose writers by trade) of madness, rage, impotence, despair and suicide. Walser on the other hand is light-hearted, romantic, jocular, modest and optimistic to the point of naivete. The monster sacre versus the holy fool.

 So how am I going to persuade you that this Odd Couple belong together? That they  make a couple? Well, the fact that they were both German-language writers gives them a stronger common identity than, for example, the fact that Salman Rushdie, Seamus Heaney and John Updike all write or wrote in English. Bernhard and Walser were published by German publishers, read by German readers, and reviewed by German critics, the German cultural area being based on language rather than frontiers.

 Both writers were also Modernists despite Thomas Bernhardt’s very late dates for Modernism, a movement that roughly coincided with the emergence of mass, industrial society at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. We’ve lived in Modernity’s scientific-industrial world, with its ever-increasing bureaucracies and state surveillance, multi-national conglomerates and global technologies, for over a hundred years now. It’s hard for us to imagine the profound impact Modernity had on the first generations to confront it, a confrontation in which German literature had a couple of advantages.

 First, German writing, rather than featuring the individual as social actor, tended to examine his or her inner life- according to Claudio Magris German prose was “a symbiosis of poetry and philosophy”. A literature of inner life always ends up, sooner or later, confronting the question “how should one live?” and Modernity gave this question a new urgency sharpening it from a moral to an existential issue. Society was no longer a familiar network of personal relations but metamorphosed into a vast, impersonal mechanism that couldn’t care less whether you lived or died. And, as the First World War was about to demonstrate, dying was now a very real option.

 German literature’s second advantage was technical. It relied heavily on the soliloquy or monologue, which had long been a major element in German drama. To Anglo-Saxon tastes, German classical drama consists of people standing around on the stage declaiming speeches at one another. There’s not a lot of action (or interaction). It’s kind of static. However, if you’re a prose writer looking to reposition the novel as a study of the individual from the inside out, as a close-up rather than as a wide shot like the traditional British novel, in which the hero is seen in the context of society as a whole, then the monologue has got to be your tool of choice. The soliloquy or monologue is a very powerful instrument. It’s the individual voice par excellence, a stranger talking straight at you- probably from the heart, and certainly in your face. Joseph Brodsky spoke of “the energy of the monologue”, something any actor, or better still any stand-up comic, will attest. Technically speaking, the choice of the monologue as  prose form puts a heavy emphasis on the writer’s style. There’s a long-standing relationship between “monologue” and “monotony”-revealing the soliloquy’s disadvantage when employed at length- so if you write exclusively from an “I” point of view, your “I” had better be interesting. Add in the old truism about a writer’s style being his or her morality, and we have a key that will help us unlock the work of  Bernhard and Walser.

 Both our men are writers whose styles are inseparable from what they have to say. Isn’t that true of every novelist? Well, yes and no. If you want a purely linguistic creative effort, you usually have to look to poetry. In Bernhard and Walser language does the work that other prose writers divide up and parcel out among their style, their characters, their plots, the chunks of history or sociology or philosophy they insert into their texts, and so on and so forth. In other words, Bernhard and Walser operate more the way poets are used to operating than the way novelists operate, which shouldn’t surprise us since one of the features of Modernism was to break down the barriers between art forms, to cross-pollinate them, if you will. Neither man was any respecter of formal frontiers. Bernhard started out as a journalist, wrote poetry and autobiography and was as prolific a dramatist as he was a novelist (his plays are very popular in Austria though they haven’t travelled as well as the prose). Walser also wrote for newspapers, and a great deal of his published work (there is more still waiting to be mined from posthumous manuscripts) is in the form of feuilletons. The feuilleton has no contemporary, English-speaking equivalent. The closest thing for us would be the newspaper column but feuilletons were more eclectic, both more literary and more occasional, with elements of the pocket essay, the lyrical sketch and the comic monologue, as well as topical political or social satire, all thrown in).. In any case, the use Walser made of the feuilleton was so unique newspaper editors eventually stopped publishing him after outraged readers wrote in threatening to cancel their subscriptions.



What did our two writers do with their first-person singulars? What persona did they adopt when talking to us, because the persona is crucial in this area? A great actor can hide behind his characters but a great comedian has to create a stage character out of his or her own private self, using whatever strategies he can. Robert Walser’s strategy was fantasy. Thomas Bernhard’s was exaggeration.

 Bernhard piles exaggeration on exaggeration, whipping up the comedy in ways that are the verbal equivalent of slapstick comedy and rest on the same principle of excess: if somebody dropping a plate raises a smile, somebody dropping a tottering pile of a hundred plates is worth a belly laugh. Bernhard famously dispenses with chapters or paragraphs in his novels. Instead, they’re seamless chunks of prose. He also makes frequent use of repetition. “We need someone for our work, we also need no one. Sometimes we need someone, sometimes no one, and sometimes we need someone and no one,” (from “Concrete”) are typical Bernhard sentences. The fact that Bernhard himself thought of his style as modelled on music rather than slapstick needn’t concern us here.

 The banana skin in Bernhard’s dark comedies is language itself, which is the only medium we have to apprehend the world and therefore contains within it the secret of our failure, our inability to live comfortably on and with the planet (hence the long and futile search in Western thought for an ideal or perfect language, one that would represent reality as it is instead of filtering it through the murky prism of human desires, fantasies, resentments etc). Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, as another great Modernist, TS Eliot, wrote. According to the Buddhists, the shadow is ourselves, our attachments, meaning our desires and the consequences of achieving, or failing to achieve, our desires. All of which is reflected in our language, especially, though by no means exclusively, in those sentences beginning with “I”.

 Rather than trying to purge his language of solipsistic elements, Bernhard goes the other way and over- saturates it with those same elements, which, if you think about it, mostly fall under one of two headings. They’re either versions of “I want” and “I desire”; or they’re versions of “I haven’t got and I can’t have”. On occasion, we try to be more philosophical about ourselves, a trait also reflected in Bernhard who frequently refers to great thinkers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, above all, Wittgenstein. Bernhard had two men he seems to have regarded as imaginary brothers and with whose spirits he conducted a lifelong creative dialogue. One was Wittgenstein and the other was the pianist Glenn Gould.. In fact, Bernhard’s novels are full of imaginary brothers just as Walser’s work is full of imaginary female soulmates. In both cases, we’re not dealing with the longing of a man for his mate so much as the longing of the monologist for an interlocutor.

Robert Walser’s use of language is as striking as Bernhard’s. He too derives his stylistic effects from exploiting a single strophe. For “exploiting” read “exploring” since in the author-language relationship, language is the element in charge, the North Pole or Dark Continent that exercises a magnetic influence on its would-be discoverers. Walser’s single strophe is fantasy. We’re not talking about the genre of popular fiction called the “fantasy novel” which comes with pictures of elves and wizards on the cover. Walser’s fantasy falls under the regular, workaday use of the word. It’s the daydreaming that we all indulge in when we perform the mental equivalent of loosening our belts, slackening our conscious control over our own thoughts. When the average person fantasises, it’s not very creative.  Conventional fantasies are sexual fantasies, romantic fantasies, heroic fantasies, fantasies of becoming rich and famous etc., with revenge fantasies coming somewhere lower down the scale.

 Walser eliminates these grosser emotions from his fantasising. His favourite method for doing so is especially ingenious. He stifles them in deliberate banalities or clichés like “dear”, “sweet”, “good” and so on. Like Bernhard’s comic exaggerations, Walser’s fantasies start from reality and build outwards (or upwards) rather than imposing a wish-fulfillment on existence. Walser disciplines his fantasy so that it can lift off the surface of the world, just far enough to give us a fresh perspective on what’s been left behind, or below. As an aesthetic strategy this requires as much nerve and precision engineering as a space shuttle flight. If you want to measure that distance, to plot the exact height fantasy can achieve before it loses touch with reality altogether and turns into tales of the supernatural, then the best place to look is in the visual arts rather than in literature. A painter like Marc Chagall, for example, paints the everyday life of an East European shtetl straight on, with a generic flatness, except that people and animals appear upside down or their sizes are distorted or one of the villagers has taken to flying through the air while the faces of the others have turned green or purple.

 The point about fantasy of this sort is that it’s transfiguring.  It’s the world turned inside out, like a coat turned inside out to reveal its lining. To make such fantasy work in prose, Walser has to use almost the opposite stylistic techniques to Thomas Bernhard. Whereas Bernhard’s style is repetitive, rhythmical, recombinant-the same handful of obsessive thoughts and ideas coming back and back, often pages after their first appearance, being constantly reworked in new combinations-Walser’s style is abrupt, changeable, choppy and so full of content that at times every sentence launches a fresh topic or reports an observation or impression that’s not only different from the one announced in the previous sentence but seems to have no connection with it whatsoever.

Walser can turn on a dime. In his earlier work especially, his style was so deceptive that it fooled as shrewd a critic as Walter Benjamin into believing Walser had no style at all: he was pure content. Walser’s style was a work in progress that went on developing throughout his career in a way we again think of more in connection with painters, whose art is often divided into periods, than with prose writers. And in the end Walser achieved a real breakthrough, something completely new, where language itself becomes the fantasy, or the embodiment of fantasy. In his later writing, the lift-off is pure rocketry, supercharged and straight up, so powerful it can even survive translation intact (both Walser and Bernhard have attracted first-rate translators. In Walser’s case, they include Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky).

Listen to this description of one of the multiple heroines in Walser’s posthumous novel ‘The Robber’:

She sat right in front and was dressed all in snow white; and her cheeks, down these cheeks plunged a red like a dauntless knight plunging over a cliff into an abyss in order to break the spell over the countryside with his sacrifice.

Or a few lines farther on:

“He’ll pay for this”, flashed electrically through Edith, as though her figure had become glass and a resolution quivered through the vitreous unity of her being, making it ring.

Walser here goes beyond inventing some highly original similes. He’s writing on a whole other level of supra- or sur-realism. The only comparable development I can think of is Dickens, in a couple of scenes in ‘Great Expectations’, where he leaves realism behind and soars off into the nano-sphere.

 If our private fantasies represent reality how we’d like it to be, then disciplined fantasy, whether individually disciplined like a poem or collectively disciplined like myths and fairy stories, shows reality as in some sense it really is. The sense in question is that part of reality everyday language leaves out or rather, obscures (“obscures” because we’re dealing with a more active principle than mere omission). Disciplined fantasy is therefore a form of alchemy. Just as alchemy attempted to turn matter against itself, forcing it to reveal its true nature, whether base metal into gold or the stone by the wayside into the Philosopher’s Stone, so disciplined fantasy forces language to work against itself until it cracks open to reveal the parts it can’t ordinarily reach. Both procedures imply a criticism of the way our world is at the cost of a certain detachment from it. They purchase a vision of wholeness at the price of making that vision look utopian, with no way to get from here to there. That’s why alchemy ended up splitting into chemistry on the one hand and mysticism on the other; and why myths and fairy stories gave way to (self-) conscious art.

 Being highly self-conscious artists, which is to say being modern artists for whom their own consciousness is the point, the prima materia that has to be addressed and transformed, Walser and Bernhard understand this trap. It wouldn’t take much for either man’s work to lose contact with the real world altogether and turn into the ravings of a crank. Language being neither a cutlass nor a rapier but a very double-edge sword, these authors wield its natural propensities to exaggeration and fantasy like masters, giving dazzling exhibitions of swordplay, but always aware that they’re a millimetre away from chopping their own heads off. Hence the critical importance of balance in their work, the feeling they give-to switch analogies- of being tightrope walkers teetering across a vibrating rope of language. From time to time they stage a deliberate slip, as if they were about to fall off, to the oohs and aaahs of the crowd. And they always leave us exhausted and breathless at the end of each performance, each verbal high-wire act. A signature of both men’s styles is that they constantly correct their  positions, taking a step forward then a step back, shifting their weight from side to side, changing their grip on the pole. Walser works more by elision and (apparent) nonsequitur; Bernhard works with paradox and self-contradiction. Bernhard no sooner makes a statement than he contradicts it, presents the opposite case. Walser no sooner says something than he changes the subject.

 What would happen if our men lost their balance-if they fell off the tightrope? Where would they fall to? Beneath all tightropes lies the abyss, in one form or another. Since Bernhard and Walser are Modernists, whose subject is their own consciousness, the abyss for them is mental. In short, it’s madness. Both men’s sanity has been questioned. Walser was actually certified insane and spent 33 years in an asylum, though his diagnosis as a schizophrenic wouldn’t hold up today. Once inside the asylum, Walser went on writing, for a while anyway. Today, an arts council grant or state subsidy together with a couple of weeks “in rehab” might have solved his problems, which is ironic because, by Bernhard’s day (and in Bernhard’s Austria) such state-subsidised art and the “state writers” who lived on it were among Bernhard’s bete noirs  As for Bernhard, he escaped Walser’s clinical fate but he was often considered unbalanced- not least by the Austrian political and religious establishment Bernhard excoriated mercilessly in his books and plays, and who were happy to return the favour.

 For both these authors, then, their work ended up reflected in their lives rather than the conventional, other way around. Seen from the perspective of their work, both men were supremely sane investigators of the roots of madness. A typical Bernhard character isn’t mad, which would make him merely incoherent. Instead, he’s aware that he lives on the brink of madness. Sometimes he has to take extreme measures to preserve his sanity. He may resort to self-protective, neurotic rituals like counting the passage of time or pacing up and down a room to calm himself. He may construct his whole life around the circumstances he feels indispensable to his mental equilibrium such as living in a particular house or apartment, living in the city, living in the country, living in a different country altogether, taking refuge only in certain thoughts or with certain individuals and so on. All too often, in Bernhard, the refuge becomes a prison (or an asylum?). His people stay put. They stay indoors. They don’t leave the house or their don’t leave their favourite room in the house or they don’t leave their favourite chair in their favourite room. They reproduce in their surroundings and their way of life the conditions inside their heads, which is a clinically accurate observation on how neurotics behave. A typical Bernhard character’s experience of life can be reduced to looking out of the window, a metaphor for the eyes looking out of the head, his head being where the character really lives.

A typical Walser character, on the other hand, is always out and about. He spends his time wandering around in the open air- “The Walk” is the eponymous title of Walker’s best-known short story-or moving from place to place, and he’s described as anything between a flaneur and an out-and-out vagabond. Walking is both his inspiration and his therapy. Walser’s alter egos are itinerant poets, youthful apprentices and virtual vagrants whose poverty performs the same structural function as their private incomes (or academic sinecures) do for Bernhard’s characters. Their poverty frees them from the daily routine at the same time as it isolates them in their own minds. The difference between poverty and private incomes is the difference between historical periods. Walser’s turn-of-the-century, early-modern Germany and Switzerland had more room for asocial wanderers and “masterless men” than Bernhard’s post-World War Two Austria. You could be poor and free in the old world whereas in the new, poverty is just ugly and debasing, nothing honourable about it. Walser’s harping on dreaming and idling also need to be taken with a pinch of salt. As in Baudelaire, it should be set against Walser’s own hard-working habits, when dreaming and idling become a metaphorical defence of the creative process against an increasingly regimented industrial society.

By Bernhard’s day, vagrancy had a different connotation, forcing Bernhard to select another milieu or (anti)social identity for his isolated characters. Bernhard’s “Is” are private scholars or artists manqué or frustrated intellectuals.  Symbolically, too, the creative process has hit a dead end by Bernhard’s time. His protagonists are critics and intellectuals rather than poets or writers and even then they’re blocked in their work, they never finish anything. Capitalist society has closed down the space that was still available-just- to a Baudelaire and a Walser. The outcome is not only the stunted lives but also aborted productions that tend towards silence but in that silence there remains the impossible obligation, the primal necessity, of saying something. Remind you of anyone? If Baudelaire and Walser belong together so do Bernhard and Samuel Beckett. Bernhard’s characters substitute for creativity the kind of logorrhoea that Beckett puts on stage in a yet more extreme, stripped-down form.

We’re tracking a progressive narrowing and closing down that takes place from Walser’s figures walking and wandering the Swiss countryside, dreaming and poeticising, to Bernhard’s eccentrics locked in their own rooms, their mental powers curdled into neurosis, to Beckett’s disembodied torsos or mouths screaming, gibbering and talking to themselves in the dark. The resulting stylistic curve could be plotted on a graph against the development of capitalist society  from the early 20th century onwards, together with associated changes such as the change in the status from vagabond to antisocial outcast. This whole complex of problems comes into focus with the Beats, who tried to live out the role of the outlaw-artist or poet-vagrant in 1950s America, followed by the fate of the hippies and the 1960s youth movement that took their cue from them.

 Back to Bernhard and Walser. The difference between Bernhard’s and Walser’s characters reflects a difference in their psychological circumstances. In other words, they’re coming from a different place mentally as well as historically or geographically. Bernhard’s people take a byzantine, obsessive view of things, verging on outright paranoia. Walser’s men and women, with some exceptions, are full of lightness and air. They’re a lot like recovering addicts and alcoholics whereas Bernhard’s people resemble practising addicts without the alcohol, or “dry drunks” as they’re known in the trade.

For a recovering alcoholic, acknowledging his or her powerlessness in the face of his own desires and fears, of his own attachments (in his case hypostasised into a single, physically fatal one) frees him to live in a world shorn of self-will and the power relations that spring from self-will. If he takes an optimistic and seemingly superficial view of things, it’s not because he’s unaware of complexity and darkness but because he knows that, for him, “that way madness lies”. The parallel for Bernhard and Walser is the emphasis both these writers place on the idea of correction. As in, correcting your attitude or recovering your balance.

In Bernhard, this correcting or balancing process takes place when obsession and exaggeration collapse under their own weight into absurdity. In Walser, it occurs when romantic fantasy trips over everyday reality and the ineluctable existence of other people. Bernhard’s characters generally defy all attempts to change them, leaving it as a posthumous job to be done by the author. On the other hand, few of Walser’s comic heroes lack a team of what Saul Bellow would call “reality instructors”- girlfriends, landladies, tailors, bank managers, schoolmasters- pulling at their coattails and urging them to reform before it’s too late. They may resist for a while on the grounds of preserving their existential freedom, but they are usually ready to see the justice of the criticism and end up by at least promising to change.

In Walser, then, we have a traditional, moral notion of correction while in Bernhard the same impulse mutates into a manic urge towards self-destruction. Bernhard’s characters reject external criticism, instead correcting themselves over and over again, aiming at the final crossing-out, which will be their own extinction. Hopelessly confused as between self-analysis and self-loathing, they end up with a pride that expresses itself as suicidal despair. Suicide is generally considered an egotistic act. But so is the innocence amounting to irresponsibility of many Walser heroes. Correction turns out to be a necessary theme for both men. It’s also a tricky process to manage. All too often, our sincere attempts to exhume our faults, and our best efforts to reform them, end up by giving another twist to the spiral of the self, another boost to the ego. There is nothing the “I” cannot take and run wild with, which is why living demands a constant process of correction.

Another way of putting this is to say that Bernhard and Walser are realistic writers after all. Rather than writing about eccentrics or special cases, they are simply reporting on the well-known paradox that it is very difficult to find a man (or woman) who admits to being an evil person. Most men consider themselves good and that they act out of decent, justified motives. So how are we to account for the existence of so much evil in the world? Like all great artists, Bernhard and Walser relate the flaw in the world to the flaw in ourselves. Their central subject is the subject-the ego-and therefore the condition of the ego, which is sanity. Astonishingly, what they have to tell us is that sanity equals madness.

Or rather, madness is a disease of the ego, a cancer of consciousness which goes on growing out of control until it colonizes our entire mental universe. Our authors are able to tell us this thanks to their own sanity, the condition of their own egos, which take a prominent role in their work. In their books, the creator stands side by side with his creations. The author steps out from behind the curtain and joins the actors on the stage. While this is by no means a unique move in 20th century literature- it’s almost a modernist cliché- Bernhard and Walser make the move in subtle ways. Rather than inventing characters called ‘Bernhard’ or ‘Walser’, for example, or lacing a third-person narrative with a first-person commentary, or using any similar stage-magic, they let their styles carry themselves into their writing like a fifth column. Style performs a double function for Bernhard and Walser. It’s both the voice of the (largely first-person) characters and the author’s own voice incorporating itself into the text as a guarantor.

What does this authorial over- or under-tone guarantee? It guarantees that the characters in the story don’t have the last word. There is more to the story than the characters think, or know. This other, balancing perspective (balance being the legal definition of sanity among other things) is located in the fact of the story being told in the first place. The existence of their art is the ultimate correction in Bernhard and Walser. In their fictions, the viewpoints of the characters are constantly being corrected, adjusted and brought back into balance by the language used to create them. This is the real “correction of the correction of the correction” endlessly discussed by Roithamer, one of the two leading characters in Bernhard’s “Correction.” Roithamer has killed himself after correcting and re-correcting, writing and re-writing, an autobiographical manuscript with the aim of crossing it out of existence just as he ends up crossing himself out of existence. But his prideful despair, the arrogance that leads him to madness and suicide, is corrected by the triumphant existence of Bernhard’s novel relating these events: a “Correction” that adds to life and to the world rather than subtracting or deleting from it.

Roithamer’s example shows how insanity or madness operates- by extending sanity beyond its proper limits. Does this mean the ultimate origins of madness lie within sanity itself (since we can disregard the brain chemistry which after all is common to both states and can’t answer questions of value, only questions of fact)? Raising this issue is Bernhard and Walser most profound, joint contribution to Modernism, which can be defined as an agonised disassembly of the bourgeois subject, the unreflective I. If  in our own day the disassembling process has come to the conclusion that there is no I, and that the so-called de-centred subject is no more than a Lacanian lack or a Freudian futility, well, we may not have the last word either.




For all their concentration on the minutiae of consciousness, Bernhard and Walser are both highly political writers.  It’s impossible to imagine Thomas Bernhard’s work without Nazism and Austria’s complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich. He devotes scores of pages in novel after novel to attacking Austria’s refusal to take responsibility for Nazi crimes and the way Austria has retreated into a faux-Habsburg culture, all cream cakes and Viennese waltzes, while, according to Bernhard anyway, the country remains riddled with National Socialist ideas and sympathies.

As much as this makes Austria a crucial subject for Bernhard, it makes Bernhard a typical Austrian writer. According to Frank Kun, “There is a sense in which Austrian literature right down to Peter Handke can be very largely seen as a rhetorical ritual of exorcism. In the works of Schnitzler, Musil, Broch and most contemporary Viennese writers, the spiritual muddledom and what is frequently referred to as ‘the sickness of the Austrian mind’ (in the widest sense of the phrase’s geographical and teleological meaning) has been consistently on trial- a trial which normally ends with the hero condemned to silence.”[1]  Bernhard is a key figure bridging the earlier group and Handke. By Bernhard’s day, the “sickness” had become all the more terminal  due to Austria’s complicity with Nazism and its post-war refusal to acknowledge its own culpability. The resulting need for exorcism, and the hysterical tone of the rhetoric involved in such a ritual, were consequently that much greater.  Bernhard’s novels indeed end- whatever their actual last words- in silence, just as silence is the natural ending for all the 20th century’s exhausted soliloquists.   

Paradoxically, Austria’s very political paralysis, the preservation in aspic of extinct social as well as cultural forms, was what enabled Bernhard to think and create as a Modernist long after the Modernist project was over in more progressive parts of Europe. We see the same phenomenon of a frozen culture and politics prolonging the vitality of outmoded artistic forms  in the Soviet Union, only there it caused writers like Pasternak and Solzenytsin to write in the classic realist tradition, as if Modernism had never happened. In both instances, the effect on a handful of great talents was different from, and bought at the cost of, tremendous amounts of dross, be it faux-Hapsburg nostalgia or Soviet socialist realism.

Is that all there is to Bernhard’s politics? Is it a purely national affair, the rejection of Austria by one of its leading talents? The original Modernist moment was an explosive one, overturning the old order, destroying to create, tearing down a bankrupt, bourgeois 19th century, aesthetically at least.  If Modernism often produced art with a revolutionary edge, the German version was the most political. After defeat in 1918, followed by left- revolutionary upheaval, also defeated, and then Weimar’s teetering democracy, the emphasis in Germany between the wars was on the destructive side of the Modernist dialectic, together with its overlap into politics- using the discoveries of modern art as the basis of a political (meaning revolutionary) praxis. So you have Walter Benjamin in 1934 talking about a “new, positive notion of barbarism” that has come out of modernism, a destructive energy that can be made constructive by yoking it to a political discipline, which in Benjamin’s case  meant Communism (in his essay Experience and Poverty). Jaques Derrida, examining another Benjamin text, the Critique of Violence, found a “thematic of destruction that was very widespread at the time” but that took a different form in different thinkers, for example in Benjamin and Heidegger.[2]

This line of thought turns out to be one that Bernhard is still mining in books like Correction and Extinction. Murau, Extinction’s narrator, tutors a young, upper-bourgeois Italian named Gambetti, implanting in him subversive ideas which the pupil will one day use to “blow up” his parents’ world.

“Gambetti has heard my views on how the world should be changed by first radically destroying it, by virtually annihilating it, and then restoring it in a form that I find tolerable, as a completely new world- though I can’t say how this is to be done, only that the world must be annihilated before it is restored, since it’s impossible to renew it without first annihilating it.”

 By Bernhard’s time, the “thematic of destruction” had lost any link to an “actually exisiting” politics or movement. Murau “can’t say how this is to be done” .  To put the point another way, a Modernist art-revolutionary sensibility remained a more viable tradition in the German- speaking world after 1945 than it did elsewhere in the Western world, in part because the German-speaking societies either never owned up to or fully purged themselves of the guilt of Nazism. As a result, it was possible to view their social orders- as Bernhard’s viewed Austria’s- as hypocritical shams. Rather than forcing a Modernist aesthetics into politics, politics and history in these lands seemed to confirm or demand a Modernist diagnosis.

Contemporary critics claim such rhetoric of destruction led to actual destruction. In the backlight of the Final Solution and the Soviet Gulag, Modernism’s attacks on reason and objectivity, its rejection of bourgeois liberal democracy, look less audacious and more reckless, “haunted in advance” (as Derrida says of Benjamin) “by the themes of radical destruction, extermination, total annihilation”. More recently, the “thematic of destruction” stands accused of fathering a dream of revolution that ended in the reality of terrorism, violence and crime among 1970s groups like the US Weathermen, Italy’s Red Brigades or Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang.

That’s the indictment. But it’s important to remember that it’s both retrospective and (still) controversial. While it’s easy to condemn the violence involved in calls to tear down the system, it’s also easy to forget that the system, the existing society, may be responsible for tremendous amounts of violence to which we have become more inured or more cynical than were the early Modernists.

Unlike Bernhard, Walser seems, on first glance, to be wholly apolitical. He didn’t address political subjects directly in his stories. His detachment from world events was so great that he managed to live and write through the First World War without making a single reference to the war that I’ve read (apart from an inconsequential aside in ‘The Robber’). Even for a Swiss, that must be some sort of record. But Walser’s interest in the miniature and the marginal, along with his constant discussion of modesty and humility as character traits, are not just matters of personal taste. They’re part of Walser’s conscious opposition to and rejection of power in all forms. Far from being apolitical, you could argue that, Walser was the most political of writers since he sees power relations and the structures of domination everywhere, including among his fellow artists. When Walser wants to criticise his famous colleagues like Thomas Mann, who write big books on big themes and turn themselves into public figures, he borrows his satire from politics and calls them “the imperialists” (shades of Bernhard’s attacks on “state writers” which sprang from a similar impulse in different times). Where Bernhard rants and rages against power and assaults it head on, Walser turns his back on power and does his best to ignore it, taking as his motto his own aphorism: “God is the opposite of Rodin”, meaning that God is more interested in what’s in front of His face, in the details of His creation, than in puffing the whole thing up into stupendous god-like bronzes.

Walser’s tries to view the world freed from the power-games that men play. That necessitates his taking standpoint of redemption, which Theodor Adorno called the only responsible philosophy in the face of despair. Walser wasn’t the happy-go-lucky naif, the sweet-natured clown with a talent to bemuse, that some make him out to be. On the contrary, he was a self-conscious, committedly professional artist who wrote that “my vocation, my mission consist mainly in making every effort to keep my audience believing that I am truly simple. I give them the illusion that unspoiledness and naivete still exist.”[3]

 The standpoint of redemption is what gives Walser’s books their strange beauty, since such a world would indeed be glorious, transfigured- or, if you follow Eastern philosophy, it already is glorious and transfigured only we’re too blinded by our personal purposes to see it.  The same standpoint also gives Walser’s work its subversive quality, the tension he maintains between hope and despair, since, whether through blind ignorance or due to the more theologically proactive Western concept of sin, the world as we know it is not a redeemed world. A lot of the time it’s a plain ugly one, and trying to live as if everything was sweetness and light creates the sort of stresses and strains that come with living out a fantasy. The hippie movement tried to live the way Walser describes in his fiction, quasi-medieval and fairy-story references included. Like him, they took inspiration from old romances and fairy tales. But as a scrupulously honest artist, Walser was careful to record the disjuncture involved in living this way for his characters, the inevitable stresses and strains, the hypocrisies, the mis-fits, the tragicomic consequences of pretending you’re a free spirit in the modern (and Modernist) world . It’s a rare Walser hero who escapes having his creator question his bona fides. Is he a hero or a rogue? A life-affirming free spirit or a dissembling wastrel? Translated into 1960s terms, is he a long-haired rebel without a cause or your friendly neighbourhood drug dealer?

Bernhard and Walser occupy the two political poles of modernism. Bernhard occupies the pole of destruction- overturning the old world- explosion- “blasting”- destroying to create. The revolutionary pole, since authentic revolution is not about replacing the current state with a new state but about overturning organised power and repression once and for all. Walser occupies the other, complementary but less-publicised pole of finding the new world in the existing one, the lineaments of utopia in our fallen creation.

If Bernhard’s work was written under the sign of Extinction, Walser’s was written under the sign of Creation. Its politics are in its assumptions, in every line he wrote which assumes a world “fit for heroes”, as the saying went in the aftermath of the great European wars. Walser’s world is a world in which men aspire to be heroes of the fictional, storybook sort. Men are gentle parfait knights, women are beautiful, virtuous muses and love and harmony reigns between the sexes, between the classes, between individuals and between humanity and nature. This is the world redeemed and much of the comedy in Walser comes from the misfit between this perfect world and the world as it is. In modern society, free spirits can’t be shining knights but rather turn out to be vagabonds, good-for-nothings, even robbers. That’s a measure of the gap between redemption and reality. At the same time, Walser’s work is a biting critique of the Romantics who arrogated heroic qualities to themselves, thereby committing an artistic version of the sins of power and domination.




Bernhard and Walser create characters who look backwards as well as forwards. Bernhard’s protagonists are like the heroes of Dickens or even Poe. In other times and places, they would have been the rational men, the ones who solved the mystery, puzzled out the world, not neurotics who create hopeless mysteries for themselves inside their own heads. On the other hand, some of Walser’s characters hark back to larger-than-life, Romantic heroes, like Schiller’s Robber, as legendary a character in German literature as Robin Hood is in English (Walser’s artist brother painted the teenage Walser dressed in costume as Karl Moor from Schiller’s classic play). But in Walser’s work heroes are not what they seem. The Romantic rebellion has curdled so that a rebel may now be merely a selfish wastrel whose attempts to live heroically create havoc for everyone else. At best, he may manage to subvert and criticise his own “heroism”, though the resulting self-doubt cripples him for necessary action in the world.

Walser’s characters tend to be young people in crisis looking forwards while Bernhard’s heroes are older, looking backwards, but also at a point of crisis,. The archetype for a Walser character is the flaneur, only the time for flanerie is past, and he knows it. The Walser flaneur is poised on the very brink between the old world and the new. His position as outsider is no longer tenable, nor are crowds and the city any longer sources of inspiration and psychic integration as they used to be in 19th century Paris. Instead, they’re the spawning grounds for deracinated, mass man. Flanerie for Walser doesn’t mean strolling the boulevards but consists in walking out of the (Swiss) city into the countryside, as yet unspoilt or only on the verge of being spoiled. DH Lawrence’s petty bourgeois characters were doing the same thing at the same time, walking out of English provincial towns into the surrounding countryside to escape the “dark satanic mills” when it was still possible to accomplish this in a short walk. You didn’t have to travel for miles to leave the city behind and be in nature.

Walter Benjamin defined the origins of flanerie as follows: “the old Romantic sentiment for landscape dissolv(ed) and a new Romantic conception of landscape emerg(ed)- of landscape that seems, rather, to be a cityscape.” But a city is not a landscape, so the flaneur’s gaze can never truly be in harmony with its subject. His gaze is actually an alienated gaze since that’s what the rise of the modern industrial city portends, a final alienation of Man from Nature with a capital ‘N’, as well as from his own nature. The flaneur can’t sustain his beneficent mask. Coming along after flanerie’s brief golden age had already passed, Walser in his story The Walk compresses the whole history of flanerie within its single, moral arc: the hero starts out as a free-spirited flaneur jumping up from his desk and running out of his door into the streets of the town or city; but then he turns into the walker or hiker who has to flee the city for escape. His encounters along the way with his fellow human beings are exercises in disillusion. At the very end of the story, he must come to terms with his own dark side.

            Walser himself was the artist as flaneur, if we accept Benjamin’s view that “in the person of the flaneur the intelligentsia becomes acquainted with the marketplace. It surrenders itself to the market, thinking merely to look around, but in fact it is already seeking a buyer. In this intermediate stage in which it still has patrons but is starting to bend to the demands of the market (in the guise of the feuilleton) it constitutes the bohemia.” That’s virtually a capsule sketch of Walser’s life and career. The only differences that need accounting for are the timing- as a Swiss in the first part of the 20th century Walser faced historical conditions that had occurred in Paris fifty years early-and Walser’s personal temperament. Walser constituted his own one-man bohemia rather than being part of any organised one. Walser was a flaneur of genius apres le lettre for whom Benjamin’s “intermediate stage” meant falling between two stools, since Walser was unable to gain enough recognition or income either from old-fashioned patrons (a rich woman subsidised him for a couple of years) or from the new mass-market journalism. His novels didn’t sell. His work gradually became unpublishable.

Walser’s greatness consists in being able to use himself as a type, to become that contradiction in terms- a flaneur whose “gaze” was directed inwards rather than at the landscape or cityscape through which he walked. In Walser’s day, the option of walking out of the city meant walking out of the modern world characterised, as Marx revealed, by commodity fetishism. Walser longed for that option, rehearsed it endlessly in his fiction, and reported with ruthless objectivity how and why it didn’t work. By Thomas Bernhard’s time, the very possibility itself no longer existed: that option had closed. Bernhard’s characters are flaneurs in spirit who typically sit at their desks or pace their rooms like caged animals but never leave their houses. Their flanerie is all in their heads: that’s where they do their endless walking. The external flaneur has metamorphosed into the internal flaneur, the intellectual, the dreamer, the would-be artist. In other words, they’re essentially the same types as Walser’s characters but at a later time. The historical shift is often symbolised by an age difference. Bernhard’s people are older, embittered, half- impotent. They’re the people Walser’s characters might become after they’ve been shorn of their youthful promise.

When a Bernhard anti-hero does go out, or is made to go out and perform some action, it generally becomes a round trip or a dead end. Circular journeys, repetitive journeys, returns to homes you can’t go home to, journeys that end in a suicide or a death. A doctor’s rural rounds. A daily, ritual visit to an art gallery. A return home for the funeral of the hero’s parents and older brother, whose own final journey ended in a fatal car crash. Travel to and fro between Austria and Cambridge for the two protagonists of Correction, one of whom interrupts the routine cycle by hanging himself. Suicide, a constant theme in Bernhard, is the last resort, the final ploy these characters have to avoid their fate. Both Bernhard’s and Walser’s characters are flaneurs who are desperately trying to avoid the destination of flanerie as described by Walter Benjamin,  i.e. the flaneur’s absorption by the marketplace, which stands in for the artist’s and the individual’s subsumption by modern techno-industrial society, his becoming just another line of code on the supercomputer, another blurry image on the CCTV surveillance cameras. When flanerie revives in the 1950s with the Beats- driving instead of walking, and with America as a whole replacing a single city like Paris- the new idlers and flaneurs are alienated children of both the city and the middle-class. They have to make a conscious decision to tear themselves out of their situation in order to adopt the flaneur identity.



Walser’s and Bernhard’s respective dislocations in time and space were central to their art.  Walser in early 20th century Switzerland and in Berlin faced much the same sociohistorical conditions as Paris or London had seen fifty years before, on the cusp between the old agricultural world and the modern industrial one To all intents and purposes, Walser was a writing at the close of the Romantic age and the very beginnings of modern capitalist industrial society, and his response to that situation makes him the anti-Baudelaire.

A half century later, Thomas Bernhard faced a 1950s Austria that was effectively frozen in time since 1900, when the crisis of modern capitalist society was first felt in the rest of Europe. Bernhard’s response makes him an anti-Walser, or a Walser who has emerged from the asylum to find that, yes, indeed, the madness is not just in his head, it’s out there all around him.

Because of the peculiar historical conditions surrounding them, and the extreme versions of “the persistence of the ancien regime in Europe” in which they lived, Walser and Bernhard between them encompass the origins of the modern world and that world’s acute crisis in the course of their own, overlapping lives. Though both men were more realistic writers than they appear at first sight, both also mediated their relations to history and to society through a particular artistic form, namely, the fairy tale.

As Walter Benjamin pointed out, “fairy tales are the way of handing down the tradition of victory over the (forces of myth)”. Over millennia, mankind, in the persons of the heroes of fairy tales, dragged himself out of night and unconsciousness and out from under the domination of Nature and the gods and mythologies bred from Nature. He achieved this through the exercise of his reason as well as with the aid of friendly animals and animated forces belonging to Nature herself. The process is incomplete- that’s why they’re fairy tales- but fairy tales keep alive the promise of our ultimate liberation. At long last modernity arrives and with it science- industrialism- for the first time in human history, all the conditions are present for the promise to be fulfilled. Industrial production creates the surplus over mere survival necessary for everyone to live in the just society, while the Enlightenment and the French Revolution have already created the theoretical structure for that society in liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. The Industrial Revolution had for its delivery system capitalism, a social relation of production that re-enchanted the world, re- activated the forces of myth (in the modern form of the commodity), and re-enshrined class division, exploitation, barbarism and war.

Walser, like Baudelaire before him, is the poet of the moment when the promise of modernity appears and simultaneously got foreclosed- foreclosed in both directions, because there is no going back to pre-capitalist society either, however imperfect it may have been. That means there can be no going back to the society one of whose great artistic and intellectual achievements was the fairy tale. Walser doesn’t want to go back. Walser wants to go forward. Walser takes the promise seriously as his great anti-fairy tales (Cinderella and Snow White) demonstrate. If the fairy tale is an antidote to myth, then Walser’s “anti-fairy tales’ are the antidotes to fairy tales. According to Walter Benjamin, the characters in fairy tales,  “struggle to free themselves from suffering,” but  “Walser begins where the fairy tale leaves off.” Walser’s interpretations of Cinderella and Snow White are his farewell to the fairy tale and the launching pad for his own version of exactly how “they lived happily ever after.” Walter Benjamin again, “(Walser’s characters) come out of the night, where it is darkest… ..from madness, that is, and from nowhere else. These are figures who have put madness behind them and can thus remain so laceratingly, inhumanly and unfailingly superficial. If we wish to find one word to describe what is pleasing and uncanny about them we may say: they are all cured.”[4]

In Walser’s versions of the two famous stories, their heroines have grown beyond their own stories. They go back to re-inhabit those tales, to re-live them, as if putting themselves through a long self-psychoanalysis, only this time around, already “cured” as Benjamin notes, they dismantle and deconstruct the tales themselves. They refuse to play their customary parts in the action, dissolve the drama and deflate the evil they struggled to overcome in the original versions. Since that drama and that evil symbolised unconsciousness, Walser’s Cinderella and Snow White, as fully conscious beings, no longer have need of them- any more than they need handsome Princes or Wicked Stepmothers. Snow White, like a successful analysand, returns to the scenes of her old traumas where she argues away the poisoned apple, the conspiracy between the huntsman and the Queen, her own death and the Prince’s awakening kiss until all the characters can agree that none of it ever happened; or, if it did, none of it mattered- a fictional way of making the point that our reality is principally psychic. Our reality is what we make it in our heads. We can’t control our circumstances, but we can control our reactions to them.

So do Walser’s anti-fairy tale heroines live happily ever after? The tragedy of Walser’s work-and of Walser himself- is that they don’t and can’t do so, because there is no society available that can accommodate them. Cinderella and Snow White are now so enlightened, almost like Buddhist bodhisattvas in their level of consciousness, their self-knowledge, their psychic independence and their capacity for love and compassion that they belong in the perfect, just society or the Messianic Age. They represent what human beings should and could have become in the modern world if conditions had been right, instead of turning out like, say, Kafka’s K. or Baudelaire’s anti-hero, full of sin and spleen.

Walser wrote his two fairy tales when he was in his early twenties. Thereafter he takes his characters and plots (if any) from fictionalised autobiography or from Romanticism or from popular fiction. Whatever their source, all exist on the cusp of self-knowledge, or of being “cured” themselves, but all of them remain outcasts, solitaries, sometimes wanderers-vagabonds and robbers- sometimes students or servants. If they do have social roles, those roles are temporary and marginal. Their society has no real place for them any more than it does for a Snow White or a Cinderella . This is the double movement in Modernity that created the opportunity for liberation only to re-impose the chains of history. Walser’s characters took “the promise of liberation” seriously, found the way to liberate themselves in so far as any solitary individual can achieve liberation, but they can’t complete the process because in the final analysis none of us can be, or indeed are, solitary individuals. We’re all bound together in society, and that society is wrapped in what Walter Benjamin called “the collective dream” of capitalism. Walser’s heroes “wake up” to self-consciousness at the very moment that the society around them falls into this collective narcosis. The discrepancy gives Walser’s stories and novels the atmosphere of fairy tales themselves- real-life fairy tales, which of course is a contradiction in terms and can only be written in a prose that is itself a constant to-and-fro of contradictions, antimonies, lost connections, fresh starts.

 This same discrepancy dooms Walser’s heroes to their outcast status, leaving the heroes in limbo, as it were, half way between a fairy tale and historical materialism. It’s not so much that they reject society as that society doesn’t see the point of them. It dismisses them as flaneurs and wastrels because they’re not involved in the greed and acquisitive envy that capitalist society sees as a necessary commitment. They’re not part of “the system” in the 1960s phrase. In a classic fairy tale, the hero or heroine leaves home, goes out into the forest or the wilderness, faces all sorts of struggle and evil, frees himself or herself by defeating the monster, and then returns home to live happily ever after. Sometimes the hero’s achievement of psychic wholeness is symbolised by his marriage to his sweetheart, sometimes a rescued Princess, his “other half”. Walser’s tales begin with the return: his heroes and heroines come home, freed from their demons, “cured”, only to find that their home no longer exists. They have no home. Their home has been torn down and a factory or a sweatshop or a commodities futures market put up in its place. At best their home has become a modern, mass city like London or Paris: at worst it’s the Wasteland. It’s no accident that Walser himself ended up in an asylum, the “monastery of modernity” as Elias Cannetti called it.

Nor do Walser’s heroes generally get to marry.. The sexual failure (Walser himself is known to have been a virgin) shows how, under modern conditions, wholeness can only be achieved by putting aside the connection to others and to society that is symbolised by marriage. But a wholeness that is virginal- or monastic- is a one-sided achievement: it lacks the other social (and sexual) dimension. Walser’s work is crowded with anonymous women the writer/hero constantly meets, sees, encounters, sometimes talks to and adores from a distance, subjects to the operations of his infinite (and evasive) courtesy but never manages to make a date with, let alone have sex with or go on to engage in a mature relationship. This kaleidoscope of female possibilities represents several things but one of them is society: marriage is about taking one’s place in society more than it is about individual desire or sexuality. As such, it’s a step that neither Walser nor his characters are able to take. Their inability symbolises the gap between an evolved consciousness and a society that has no place for it because society depends on its own unconscious to repress any realisation of its inequalities and barbarities.

Fifty years on from the moment of promise and of the promise’s defeat that Walser lived through, prospects have darkened considerably for Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard’s landscapes are Walser’s landscapes but seen from the angle of disillusion and threat rather than hope and promise. The forests are dark and wild instead of pleasant woods suitable for a morning walk. People hang themselves in the glades. The fairy-tale castle on the crag is the home not of a fairy tale prince but of a clinically insane one. Bernhard shows us how the world looks after modernity’s collective dream has externalised itself in the nightmares of the 20th century-the two world wars, fascism, the Holocaust, the Gulag. Bernhard’s protagonists resemble Walser’s characters, only they’re failed versions. Rather than striding forwards into the future out of a fantasy past, they’ve regressed, gone farther back even than the fairy story into a (new) mythological age. They’ve become trapped in myth- this time in the myth woven by modern society, in Benjamin’s “new nature” or Lukacs’ “second nature”, rather than the original kind. As a result, they’re broken figures before they can even think about living happily, let alone “ever after”. The only faculty they have left with which they can show that they’re not completely defeated or deadened into “mass man” is their ability to rail and rage against their world and their own situation. Although doing so involves the risk inherent in rage and all obsessive states, that they will end up raging against and destroying themselves.

Adorno once said that Walter Benjamin wrote “as if thought took (the promises of fairy tales and children’s books) so literally that actual fulfilment became conceivable to knowledge”.[5] This is the plateau or the point on which Walser, Bernhard and Benjamin meet, like three companions who meet at a signpost then head off in different directions. Benjamin created his own “fairy scene” as he called it, in his materialist history of the 19th century ‘The Arcades Project’ with the specific aim of “awakening” people from the collective capitalist dream to revolutionary consciousness. Thomas Bernhard records, like some fierce recording angel, the exact movements of a consciousness that has not been so awakened but has passed through another world war plus a Holocaust, a bankrupt Soviet experiment and a further tightening of mass society’s “iron cage”. Walser, alone of the three, inhabits and brings into being Adorno’s “ actual fulfilment” but only in words, and only to prove it tragically unwelcome and unsustainable by an isolated individual in modern society riven with exploitation and injustice. Walser exposes the unspoken logic of “happily ever after” : either everyone has to live that way or no one can.

  Classic fairy tales themselves form a kind of chart like to those maps decorated with spouting whales and mermaids combing their hair where X marks the spot for buried treasure. They preserve man’s “victory over the forces of myth”. Then, virtually synchronous with the great collection of those tales by the brothers Grimm, comes the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism to re-enchant the world and re-activate the myths in the form of commodity fetishism. So powerful is this new collective dream that it swallows the old fairy tales themselves: Jack and the Beanstalk becomes the Jolly Green Giant selling canned vegetables; Snow White and Cinderella turn into Barbie dolls; the tale itself becomes the TV commercial. In this context, Walser’s work fulfills the authentic role of fairy tale as an “antidote” to myth; only the myth in question is the modern myth that capitalism conjures out of “new”, technologico-industrial nature. Walser’s writing and his own life (since he regarded all his work as part of a single “book of myself”) testify to “victory over the forces of myth”, but it’s an isolated and unique victory on his part, out on a limb, while society remains sunk in its collective coma. Walser ends up with nowhere to go except into his “modern monastery”.

Thomas Bernhard shows us what happens to the fairy tale after Walser, when it turns into a history of literal dis-enchantment. For Bernhard’s characters, the effort to avoid the collective dream leads to eccentricity, madness, and self-destruction, all of it based on their intolerable isolation. They truly belong in an asylum but their message is, so do you. Don’t think you’re any different. Lacking any social validation or shared social mission, “heroism” can’t produce creative triumph or even revolutionary fervor, only curdle into sour pride and arrogant despair, as the narrator’s sister points out with brutal precision in “Concrete”. Bernhard’s characters are like Kafka’s after the Trial and the Castle have moved inside their own heads; they put themselves on trial and wander through their own labyrinthine mental bureaucracies without the need to move from their chair- in fact, without being able to move from their chairs. Walser’s characters may be impotent but they still flirt, fancy, adore, even revere women. There are hardly any women in Bernhard at all and almost all of them are ugly, mean, crazy, vindictive, apart from a couple of token “good wives” who exist mainly as third parties, adjuncts to their husbands’ stories.

It’s no longer enough to retire to an asylum by Bernhard’s day. Now you have to die. The only way to come to terms with your past is to extinguish it. Walser’s Snow White transcends, and thereby cancels, her own story and makes her peace with her mother The Queen (“It was the tale said this, never you nor I…”). Bernhard’s Murau, on the other hand, relinquishes none of his spleen but seeks his resolution in the material world, as most of us do, expelling his embittered Ugly Sisters from the family estate with its quasi-Nazi past before donating Wolfsegg to the Jewish community. Whereupon he promptly dies.

 In classic fairy tales, the action is all external, full of dramas and monsters and hair-raising adventures, while the resolution “and they lived happily ever after” stands in for an event in consciousness. In Walser’s prose pieces (and novels), the two elements are almost equally balanced: the pieces bounce to and fro between elements in the external world and their impact on the narrator’s consciousness; and the peculiar Walserian “atmosphere” is actually a physical sensation, generated by the speed and brio with which Walser intensifies the alternation, bouncing to and fro faster and faster until the prose fragments and the reader comes close to vertigo, but Walser never quite loses control.

By the time we get to Bernhard, the fairy tale has fully reversed itself. All the action is now internal, it all goes on in the narrator’s mind; the external drama exists solely in terms of its emotional and mental effects on the isolated consciousness; but the resolution takes place in the external, material world, often in the form of a suicide or other death. Bernhard’s central novels are fairy tales, but fairy tales of defeat in which the forces of myth are too strong for the protagonists until the traditional measure of defeat- death- unconsciousness-extinction- paradoxically becomes the only conceivable victory. Bernhard’s work is a literary analogue to the social conditions of late capitalism. The original, disciplinary society associated with factory production has given way to the new society of total control associated with information production and the production of affects and of culture. In Foucault’s phrase, “the police” now “include everything”. The mechanisms involved in power and social control are no longer kept within the walls of the prison and the mental asylum. Instead, they’ve invaded every aspect of society plus- and crucially- the individual himself in the form of  “biopower’. The power Walser was able to reject, albeit at a grave cost, now reaches out from the body politic to the body social and into the body (and the mind) itself, until there is no “outside” to the system, no standpoint beyond the dream and its enforcers, those nightmare dream-figures with their jackboots and their whips. Rather than withering away, the state has become subsumed into a total machinery of state-economy-society-individual body and mind. Bernhard’s characters are the ones who have failed to swallow this internalisation of social power, or swallowed it imperfectly, or choked on it. Their bile is the stuff of their monologues.



 Bernhard and Walser are both monologists. But a monologue is actually a dialogue with a silent partner. Bernhard and Walser address different parts of their own unconscious. Bernhard’s monologue as dialogue is always with an imaginary brother. Walser’s is always with an imaginary female who is pictured at first as a love object, except that for Walser a love object was always more spiritual than sexual. Bernhard writes impotence but Walser probably was impotent or at any rate undeveloped sexually, so that a potential girlfriend becomes a potential soulmate. From that position, he has only a short stretch to making her his sister-soul, or in Jungian terms his anima.

Brothers and sisters. According to Jung, the brother is the shadow or double while the sister is the anima. Since both derive from the unconscious, they’re fluid figures without strict edges or identities. For a man-which both our authors were, of course- the shadow or double belongs to the same sex. He’s the imaginary brother, and he’s the repository of everything about yourself you don’t want to own or admit to. He’s a dark figure who personifies the unacceptable, anti-social aspects of your character. The anima, on the other hand, is female, which in a man means she’s the contrasexual part of the character and she has the female virtues, she’s creative, she’s indefinable, she’s a feeling figure and she’s also elusive. For a woman, these two roles play out the other way around.

The shadow and the anima aren’t static figures. They’re actively at work, playing their parts in a dynamic system that we’re all involved in, like it or not. Jung called this system individuation and he believed it’s what we’re on this earth to do: just as our bodies grow to maturity so our psyches seek maturity too, but in the case of the psyche it doesn’t happen automatically, at least not on any timescale equivalent to a single lifetime. Hence the need to lend the process a conscious hand. Jung himself described his system in an ahistorical way, with innate, archetypal images in a collective unconscious. But it’s possible to make use of Jungian categories like the anima and the shadow while agreeing with Walter Benjamin that the exact form these images take is a function of concrete historical experience, as summed up in the current social order.

You still have to do the work. You have to intervene and make individuation a conscious process by bringing your unconscious mind up to the surface, into the light of day, as it were, and somehow marrying it to your conscious mind. And the shadow and the anima are the key figures encountered along the way. The person who has a proper relationship with his shadow-who has made his shadow into his brother for real rather than his imaginary brother- owns his own evil, which means he can’t go around doing wrong unconsciously any more. He not only knows what’s right: he does what’s right. And the person who has made a proper relationship with his anima- who doesn’t treat her as a sex object he can possess but as a sister, as his sister soul he respects and serves- achieves insight and compassion and becomes a creative individual. Technically speaking, when the conscious mind achieves the right relationship with the shadow, the shadow turns into the higher self; and when it achieves the right relationship with the anima, the anima leads to, or is returned to, the bosom of the Universal Mother, the creative matrix and ground of all things.

That’s the background to one of  artistic Modernism’s key strategies, which was to break with bourgeois realism, reach behind it and try to re-connect back to these deep structures of existence. Both Bernhard and Walser show you what goes on behind the scenes. Bernhard’s monologues qua dialogues are with his imaginary brothers- there is always a double or brother or best friend or protege in a Bernhard novel. Sometimes more than one. In Gargoyles, there’s a father whose wife is dead so his relationship to his son is more like a brother than a father. Bernhard is always trying to relate to the shadow and to push the shadow towards its reorientation as the Higher Self.  Bernhard’s books are full of shadow emotions-rage, anger, bitterness, and resentments. He works through them in his dialogue with the imaginary brother until, hopefully, they turn into compassion, friendship, into brotherly love. Extinction has the grandest metaphor for the process when Murau gives his parents’ entire estate, where they succoured Nazi war criminals and held SS reunions, to a Jewish charity. Throughout his fiction, Bernhard comes to terms with his own dark side- and this was a man with a serious dark side for reasons that become obvious if you read his autobiography, Gathering Evidence. As with any first-rate artist, Bernhard raises individual pathology to a universal level.

With Walser, it’s the same story but a different pathology. Walser’s dialogue is with women, which is why his work is full of anima emotions, all light and airy and a little wishy-washy maybe, always about to float off into the ether altogether, but never quite doing so because Walser struggles to make the relationship with the anima come about. He goes backwards and forwards between emotions or aspirations that belong to the female principle, and the earthier emotions and aspirations that belong to real women as potential love objects or mistresses. As we know from Jung, that’s how the anima works in everyday life: when we find a woman who attracts us and engages us, sexually and romantically, what we’re really falling for is her resemblance to our own anima. And of course the fit is never perfect or complete, which accounts for the numerous difficulties involved in romantic relationships.

Walser’s characters (often simply an “I”) start off time and again wanting such a love relationship with a woman. Often they choose an obvious type like a waitress, the type of woman a solitary writer living on a subsistence income might be expected to meet. But as soon as the narrator’s interest fixes on her, his carnal feelings go into spiritual overdrive. He switches to wanting a spiritual relationship with the anima as his sister-soul. Precisely because he can’t consummate the conventional relationship, he doesn’t stop there and get distracted by sex, as most of us do.  He’s able to push on through and find the anima waiting to awoken like Sleeping Beauty in the classic anima fairy tale.

And yet- and this is the pain that lies just below the surface of Walser’s work at all times- when he finds her, he never quite manages to awaken her. He can’t bring himself to deliver that vital kiss. He can only to admire her, as it were from afar. In story after story, piece after piece, Walser charts an almost medieval courtship of advances and retreats, flirtations and withdrawals, ending in failure and breakdown every time. Walser’s romantic heroes are funny sorts of heroes. They may be heroes of consciousness but they buy their insights at the cost of their impotence. Walser’s analysis of current world conditions shows that it’s impossible to have both. Consummate a relationship with an anima under present conditions and according to Walser you can’t help but involve yourself in circuits of power and domination. One of his most succinct and devastating stories of this kind is A Cigarette (1925) in which the narrator describes his relationship with the anima under the old motif of a knight rescuing a damsel in distress. But at the last minute he won’t go through with it. He turns the traditional fairy tale motif on its head. Faced with the chance to commit to the would-be beloved, he declares instead “to me rescues are intolerant by nature…I shall never let myself be rescued, nor shall I ever rescue anybody.”




  The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a 1616 alchemical text, includes an episode where the hero or adept sees the naked Venus asleep in her bed. In occult terms, this is supposed to be an historical turning point, announcing the birth of the modern world, because it’s the first time anyone has been allowed to see Venus. That means it’s the first time we can approach in full consciousness the complex of values involved in Nature, Eve, the soul, the feminine, and the unconscious; and therefore the first time we can consciously attempt the Holy Grail or the unio mystica, rather than having those spiritual and unconscious processes filtered through myths and legends or, in the case of the alchemists, a symbolic chemistry.

 The Venus scene in Chymical Wedding is like a gun going off to start a race. On the one hand is the behemoth of the modern world, which overtakes everything and swamps everything with its scale and power, while on the other hand is the new level of consciousness modernity brings and that comes from seeing Venus. The race is to decide which one will triumph..

In The Robber, the extraordinary, riddling text that is Robert Walser’s final work (as far as we know) this passage appears:

“Over and over she sang the same thing, yet it was always new, she spoke and sang this sameness differently each time, and now the paramour arrived and with a storm of tempered triumph, with tumultuous self-mastery he embraced her, singing, sang his way into her arms. Before, in other words, he could sink into her embrace, he was obliged to sing, to perform aesthetic exercises, never would he have been allowed to embrace her before successfully completing the Aria of the Embrace. When he then sank into the arms of his own singing, for his sweetheart was, after all the subject of his song, his feelings themselves had become song, and his universe his own soul. She, yes, was he and he was she, and even if the two of them were to be unhappy together they belonged to one another….”

With minor alterations, that could have come from the Chymical Wedding written four centuries earlier. Vice versa, you could take portions of the Chymical Wedding and insert them into The Robber. Both texts are talking about the same thing, the conjunctio with the anima, the union of self and soul, of conscious and unconscious, the creation of wholeness in both man and the universe, since somehow the latter depends upon the former. Other terms for the same process would be the alchemical marriage of the King and Queen or the reconciliation of humanity and nature. There are many different ways to put this mystical, heretical element in Western thought. Mystical because it’s the ineffable unio mystica. Heretical because it says that man can work out his own salvation, that he can find the secret within himself, whereas the Church preached extra ecclesia nulla sallus. Revived in the Renaissance with the rediscovery of classical tests like Hermes Tristmegistus it was preserved, like a bacillus suspended in a solution, by Protestantism, of which the German version was the most radical in its stress on individuality and inwardness.

And here it is, turning up again in a modern work like The Robber, revisioned and recast through the prism of Romanticism, which among other things was religion naturalised after the Enlightenment. The difference is, Walser is an artist not a mystic. He sets the conjunctio at one remove. In the quoted passage he’s actually retelling the performance of an opera, while in his main narrative the hero never achieves the desired union. The Robber revolves around the hero’s relations with the feminine and why the conjunctio can’t or won’t take place due to the hero’s flaws or character defects. Although Walser doesn’t say so explicitly, we readers can add that his character defects result from his social role. He is The Robber after all, and in Schiller’s original play Karl Moor was a kind of Robin Hood figure righting the wrongs of an unjust society. The Robber’s failings are more the failings of a society that can find no place for him than his own villainy. Schiller’s Moor has been wronged so he goes for an outlaw, becomes the head of a robber band, wreaks revenge on the society that wronged him and then, because he is a tragic hero and not a cheap brigand, he turns himself in, submits to society’s justice and lets himself be executed.

Walser’s “The Robber” is like a custard pie thrown in the face of Schiller’s original play. Walser writes a modernist novel par excellence not only because of its technique, the free-jazz improvisation of its prose, but also because it’s a critique of Romanticism, the movement Isiah Berlin argued was “the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world”[6]. The Romantic hero is the last hero in the Western tradition: after him there are only anti-heroes. In fact the Romantic hero is already on the way to becoming an anti-hero because he’s no longer a hero in the traditional sense as the saviour or the defender of his society: the Romantic hero becomes a hero precisely by defying and resisting his society, as well as fate in general. He’s the superior man whose superiority is a measure of society’s failings and sickness. He stands up for himself against society and is destroyed. And if you want to identify the moment that this new concept of the tragic hero comes into being, then, again according to Isiah Berlin, it’s in Germany some time between the 1760s and the 1780s and the key work is Schiller’s The Robber. Karl Moor is the Romantic hero par excellence.

 So Walser’s lifelong connection to Schiller’s play is more central than non-German-speaking readers may realise. It’s more like a British writer having a close connection to Shakespeare and shaping his own work in the light of that connection. By calling his novel The Robber and evoking the Karl Moor figure, Walser is evoking the quintessential Romantic hero, but not in order to revive the character or  give him new adventures. On the contrary, Walser is out to dismantle him, to take apart the Romantic ideal, this ideal that in some complex way is bound up with the failings of Modernity. As Walser shows him to us, The Robber is the hero who seeks the Grail, seeks the conjunctio. At the same time, he’s also the main obstacle to achieving his own aim. Instead of a dashing Romantic hero, The Robber is- or is equally- an egocentric and predatory wastrel who needs to “reform” in Walser’s word. If you think about it, the same is true of all spiritual heroes who attempt the conjunctio, from the knights of the Grail to Christian Rosenkreutz. These stories always stress moral reform and purification before the hero undertakes the quest.

The unnamed (and therefore universal) hero of The Robber turns out not to be a real robber at all. He’s a thief of other people’s thoughts and ideas, which he writes in books ie he’s the author and ie again he’s a hero, or anti-hero, of consciousness. He’s a representative figure for his time, operating at the limits of the consciousness that is allowed or enabled by current socio-historical conditions. Walser shows him attempting relations of various kinds with various women, all of whom are aspects of the anima. In other words, the anima figures become fluid and interchangeable at this level, which is the level of myths, fairy tales, folklore and dreams- all of them products of the unconscious. Down here there isn’t any principle of non-contradiction where A can’t be the same as B. Our rational minds may see the world as pairs of opposites, sets of dualities but in the unconscious those splits start to dissolve, meaning potentially they can be healed in a unity or union. According to the old texts, the conjunctio develops in widening circles. First the individual man becomes whole, then he heals his split with nature, then man and nature both are reconciled with god and the cosmos in a final conjunctio. That’s the spiritual ur-text that lies behind romances, where it gets reinterpreted on an everyday level. Rather than uniting with the anima, the hero gets the flesh-and-blood girl. The Robber doesn’t get any of his girls, so Walser here is overturning a whole tradition of storytelling, disassembling its literary machinery and taking us behind the scenes.

The Robber is a novel that isn’t a novel with a hero who isn’t a hero and in the end he doesn’t get the girl. That’s not a bad formula for a Modernist work. Musil’s Man Without Qualities deals with the same problem-the relation with the anima, which in these terms means the possibility of redemption or salvation in the modern world, under modern conditions- and he reports the same confusion between a romantic union and a unio mystica on the part of the central characters, the hero and his sister. The result is the same breakdown and lack of resolution. Musil left The Man Without Qualities as an unfinished work.

 Musil and Walser’s respective heroes may have their faults but at least they are still trying to win through. They’re still in the race. By the time we get to Thomas Bernhard, the whole enterprise has been abandoned as an impossibility- a nonsense even. Bernhard’s narrators don’t have anything to do with women, at any rate not romantically. There aren’t any romance-objects, let alone sex objects in Bernhard. His women, typically sisters and mothers, are hostile forces. They’re negative animas or femme fatales who will destroy the hero given half a chance. Even a passive female figure, like Roithamer’s sister in Correction, unwittingly triggers disaster: when she can’t live in the house her brother has designed for her, she dies and Roithamer hangs himself in turn. That’s what happens when relations with the anima go wrong or take place under a negative sign. Instead of a conjunctio you get a suicide pact (even if only one of the signatories actually dies, like the Persian woman in YES after her lover abandons her).

Many of Bernhard’s women are full of critical energy while his male heroes are passive, desiccated, and unable to act. Their sexlessness symbolises their general frustration and paralysis. In these circumstances, their principal relationship is to themselves-to their shadow brothers. Bernhard’s fictional heroes are incapable of action. Meanwhile the great works of Western culture, the products of “dead white males”, have also lost their living force, become mere reference points. Bernhard’s narrators recall them constantly: they repeat the names of great philosophers and artists over and over, as if they were fondling precious heirlooms, but their accumulated wisdom means nothing. Reger in Old Masters spends the entire novel telling us that great art is useless, that the great artists and philosophers- the sum total of Western civilization- count for nothing when it comes to staying alive and getting through the day. Yet Reger spends every morning sitting in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait. He even claims that this habit somehow saves his sanity. There’s a typically Modernist tension in Bernhard between a tradition and a past that have become almost inaccessible, cut off from us by the revolutionary historical change that came with industrialism and Modernity, and the contemporary world, which is our only reality but which seems drained of the meaning expressed in the eponymous Old Masters.




For all their similarities, Bernhard and Walser were also opposites in many ways. Bernhard was the great rejecter and Walser the accepter. They occupy two psychological poles: at one pole total rejection of the world and the human condition and at the other, unconditional acceptance of life as it is. In their own lives, one could say that both men got what they needed. Bernhard the great rejecter, met with immediate acceptance and fame, which gave him plenty to reject. Walser, the great accepter, was rejected and ignored, giving him plenty to accept. When pushed to their extremes by these writers, however, the two poles reveal an underlying identity of purpose, since each represents a route to the absolute. One way rejects the world and everything in it because it’s not absolute enough (and never can be since it includes death). The other accepts the world and the human condition in the hope of transforming it into the absolute or finding the absolute within it. Both ways mandate a turning away from life in its quotidian, everyday aspect. They are ways suited to the rebel and the outcast, or the saint and the mystic- another pair of apparent opposites that overlap. The characters created by the Luciferic Bernhard can have a strangely saintly, spiritual aspect to their monomanias while the Christlike Walser often chooses alter egos who are vagabonds or scamps, if not outright “robbers”.

Each way has its own dangers and temptations. The left-hand path, the path of rejection, of the rebel, of the Luciferic, can lead to self-destruction and suicide, the last being rejection of the world taken too literally. The right-hand path, the path of acceptance, of meekness, of self-sacrifice, can lead to isolation, madness, and retreat into fantasy. One way results in the collapse and extinction of the self; the other in breaking down and multiplying of the self. In both instances, the key symptom of impending collapse would be a splitting of the self into two (or more) independent parts. Bernhard and Walser present their work in this dual form with character and author always present and together on the page. Walser goes farther than Bernhard in multiplying and splitting his central character and playing between the results, back and forth, dissolving narrator into subject and vice versa.

As for the social roles assigned to these characters, the important thing is not just that they’re outsiders to society, but what kind of outsiders they are. Both Bernhard and Walser favour pre-modern types, displaced out of their time in the modern world. Walser uses stock figures from traditional German literature- windbags, lazybones, petty thieves, vagabonds, Taugenichts (Good for Nothings), loveable rogues. Bernhard deals in superannuated Habsburg princes, backswoods squires in the Central European marches, valetudinarians, private scholars, failed artists. These are people who have lived past their due date, comic exaggerations drawn from the anachronistic social order that persisted in rural Austria in Bernhard’s day. Because they have no proper place in modern life, our authors’ characters appear as backlit, transparent, and this gives them the lightness that Walter Benjamin identified and related to fairy tale characters. In Walser’s case, he relates to the heroes and heroines from fairy tales who are “cured”; while Bernhard’s people are like the bad characters from fairy tales, the witch, the ogre, the evil wizard, the angry king, but they’ve been stripped of their power to harm. Their now- impotent rage reveals itself as a spiritual principle as significant as the “good” characters’ naiveté and innocence.

 The same thing is true of form as it is of character. Both authors start with an existing form which they subvert until they finally explod it. Walser began with the feuilleton. Bernhard began by writing Heimatromans, an Austrian genre of novels about the virtuous, natural life of the peasants-a kind of anti-genre to Socialist Realism.  Socialist Realism was the Soviet Union’s response to the collapse of Imperial Russia, defeat in the First World War and revolution: the Heimatroman was Austria’s response to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, defeat in the First World War and the absence of revolution. The two genres had the same patriotic, didactic purpose at heart. Bernhard’s first three novels take the form of Hiematromans turned inside out and subverted. Rather than being about the moral, muscular sons (and apple-cheeked daughters) of the earth, the leading characters, along with Austrian rural society as a whole, are exposed as diseased, criminal, insane etc.

 These early Bernhard novels are also acts of ventriloquism, with his trademark monologue split up among several characters with several different voices.  All writers search for their own voice, but with Bernhard you can actually follow the process on the page and witness the moment that he finds it- half way through his third anti-Heimatroman, Gargoyles. The narrator, a student, accompanies his doctor-father on his rounds among the remote forests and gorges of Styria. The patients they meet are all “gargoyles”, each one crazier and more degenerate than the one before, until finally they arrive at the castle belonging to Prince Sarau. The Prince welcomes them, starts talking and doesn’t stop. The last hundred pages of Gargoyles are Sarau’s monologue. He runs away with the novel or, it would be more true to say, he bursts the bounds of the form. From that point on, all Bernhard characters are Prince Saraus except that over time they shed their noble titles and Gothic trappings. They come down to earth from their hilltop castles and turn into writers or scholars, alter egos for Bernhard himself.

They still have to face the problem of living in a world they scarcely understand and that has no place for them. Robert Walser’s characters were able to retain their individuality- just- while living as outsiders, albeit at a crippling psychological cost. Either they had to set up as vagabonds outside society and engage in all sorts of morally dubious activities or they tied themselves into agonising knots of self-effacement and self-abasement trying to stay within society by working as servants to other men. Irrelevance or invisibility was the only opportunity left for independence and individuality in his time, according to Walser.

When we get to Bernhard, the price of trying to be an individual has risen again. Bernhard’s people are frankly split personalities. They suffer from an acute paralysis as actors ie they no longer have any purchase on society at all, combined with a manic verbal energy as talkers and complainers. Psychologically speaking, this corresponds to the way that the dangers of splitting your personality, and thus falling into a mental illness, increase the farther you venture down either of our two paths- the path of rejecting the world entirely or the path of accepting the world in a passive and self-effacing manner. Either means a loss of “soul”, the old-fashioned way of saying you lose yourself. 

For both Bernhard and Walser, their art was also a tool, a way of wielding consciousness, like holding up a light when travelling through a dark tunnel. They show how, when pursued to the limit, both paths can lead to objectivity as the highest goal, where you turn your own life and feelings into work, which is the nearest human beings can come to translating the absolute into the existent, or remaking the Old World as New

  Their objectivity, the way they turn themselves first into style and then into what lies behind style, into language itself, is the measure of Bernhard and Walser’s achievement, an achievement each man realised in full acceptance of its personal price. Walser ended up in a mental asylum, where his talent subsided or was bludgeoned into silence. Bernhard lived a sort of internal medical exile in the Austrian countryside, while at the same time he became so alienated from his native land that even in his will he tried to ban all future performances, publication or reading of his work in Austria. 





[1] Franz Kuna, essay on Vienna and Prague 1890-1928 in ‘Modernism: A Guide To European Literature 1890-1930’ (London: Penguin, 1991).  p. 131

[2] Jaques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority in ‘Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice’ ed. Cornell, Rosenfeld and Carlson ( London?NY: Routledge, 1992)  note 6.

[3] Cited by Martin Walser in ‘Unrelenting Style’ essay in ‘Robert Walser Rediscovered’ ed. Mark Harman (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1985) p. 155.

[4] Walter Benjamin’s 1929 essay on Walser-  reprinted in ‘Robert Walser Rediscovered’ ed Mark Harman.

[5] Adorno on Benjamin quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The Dialectics of Seeing’  (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989)  p. 275.

[6] Isaiah Berlin ‘The Roots of Romanticism’ (London: Pimlico, 2000) p.1. Berlin’s remark seems to skip over Modernism or see it as a late appendage to Romanticism rather than Modernism being, as I’d argue, another and separate major change in Western consciousness that partly continued Romantic themes but in other ways (and among other Modernists like Walser) represented a critique of Romanticism.  In this sense, Modernism arose from the breakup and interpenetration of both Romanticism and its opposite, the central Western rational-scientific tradition, under the impact of  socio-historical change in the last part of the 19th century. All contents © mike bygrave 2014