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Arguments from a Winter’s Walk
Thomas Bernhard
translated by Adam Siegel



TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

“It seemed to come out of nowhere”—Thomas Bernhard’s first novel, Frost, published by Insel Verlag in 1963. The work that preceded this bombshell gave no indication of the breakthrough to come—a neat caesura from the “routine” lyricism of Bernhard’s poetry (On Earth and in Hell, In hora mortis) to the “verbal fury” of the painter Strauch.
      But the true breakthrough—what one German critic called “the birth of the coroner, the invective hurler, the egomaniac, the conjurer of catastrophes”—has been rediscovered. “Arguments from a Winter’s Walk” was published in 2013 by Suhrkamp as “Argumente eines Winterspaziergängers,” together with a companion work, “Leichtlebig.” Both were written in the winter and spring of 1962. While the earlier fragment, “Leichtlebig,” is similar in style and tone to Bernhard’s apprentice prose work (the abandoned novels
Schwarzach Sankt Veit and Der Wald auf der Strasse), “Arguments,” written for publication in the Austrian literary journal Wort und Zeit, is Frost in nuce: It strips away the latter’s narrative interludes, devoting itself solely to the monologues of the unnamed doctor (several of these monologues appear, with slight variation in wording and placement, in Frost). “Arguments” is both dry run and distillation, a palm-of-the-hand version of the work to come, and the closest look we have of the Bernhard laboratory at zero hour.






It was a terrible fear of others, you should know, that kept me from killing myself … then came the deliberations, from out of the darkness, how I deal with myself most of all … my own refined sense of normality … but I have the right to provide the rationales and convictions of my own human nature … this state of immense development, both of the mind of its inner world … Nonetheless, I have been able to suppress thoughts of suicide, these innumerable instances of boundless disappointment, said the doctor, these excesses, these crimes, all this my inheritance … these inhuman difficulties … you should know, throughout my life I have dealt almost exclusively with extraordinary people, the world in which I have moved, and still move, is, mind you, a difficult world, a lawless world mostly … unable to be grasped … I was always too indifferent, you should know … forever the man of resolve, the man of contradictions, whose thinking always led to—no points of reference …








As though walking into a cloud, said the doctor, or even floating … the feeling that my head is my body and vice versa … certain tentative yet skillful kicking motions with my legs … all seemingly filled with poisonous gas, you should know, although I would take it to be the greatest relief if someone were to punch a hole into my head … and reveal my head to be composed of some sort of solid substance … which might then be shattered … I’m afraid of running into hard objects, sharp objects that might tear me open … this is absurd … a huge growth that hangs over my eyes, my nostrils, enormous openings, like the gills or nasal passages of some sort of prehistoric animal … I have this feeling—my nose consists of countless suckers … suckers into each of which I, or rather this scientist’s impulse of mine, might descend … the lung, you should know, no longer functions by instinct, it is unbelievably overburdened, I’m constantly afraid that it might be torn apart … the lung is the only organ that causes me no pain … and this frightens me, you see—one of the bronchial passages might be unable to withstand the pressure—a chain reaction, some knowledge on the part of my body’s innermost nature—I can read and feel each organ, each organ is a known quantity, a self-contained pain—kidneys, liver, spleen, these three afflictions … in addition to the affliction in my head that I have described for you … the affliction of the head and the affliction of the body, mutual, diametrical, you should know—in addition to the afflictions of the mind and the afflictions of the soul and the entire subterranean realm of afflictions … I could break my head down into all its millions of components and determine its laws—this work of destruction! this bright land of pain—no horizons, no laws of perspective, no reprieve from consciousness …








Terminal illness, you should know, leads its sufferers to deliver themselves up … this is something I have always observed, and the clinical medical textbooks bear this out … the terminally ill succumb to terminal illness first in wonder, then in submission … terminal illness shows its sufferers how to live, their illness becomes their world … the terminally ill grow addicted to this delusion and from then on they live within this delusion, within their terminal illness, in the illusory world of their terminal illness, rather than in the real world … the illusory inner world of their terminal illness and the real world are diametrically opposed concepts … the terminally ill do not entrust themselves to the world of (their) reality, they deliver themselves up to the illusory world of their terminal illness … terminal illness is a convenience dictated by the timetable of religion … people walk into them as though walking through a garden … and suddenly (you know that this has to do with terminal illness, with its lengthy course, with the time to get used to the feeling of being terminally ill), suddenly, abruptly, death is there … terminal illness is an exotic landscape … a radical course of action for one’s inner egotism …








Out here are peculiar valleys, said the doctor, and in these valleys are castles … one goes into them and there is nothing more in the world to seek out, the world whence one came … doors open, and behind them, enthroned, sit people in expensive clothes, as though drawn from nonexistent portraits, unheeding … one enters … one is addressed, seemingly without ever hearing a voice or language … having always been untutored in this art … I know nothing of words … nothing of answers … one doesn’t speak, one just listens—everything has a serviceable name, a label, none of it applied in error, you should know … they say simple things that float above you like a cloudless blue sky … nothing fantastic though it all stems from fantasy … nature—the greatest simplicity, opulence, amiability, nary a trace of sin … not even a hint of discord … a perpetual honeymoon, you should know, just cool reason and the innateness of concepts … all our days and all our nights—comely faces for now and for always … sleeping and waking … the air wrought so clear … my God—how apt! … the slow effect of ideas, feelings, climaxes, feigned amazement … laws that lack the punitive element have a certain validity, mind and temperament united in human nature—logic set to music … old age capable of beauty, youth rising like foothills … in the afternoon the shadows fall … truth lies in the bed of the river, they say, the inscrutable as realization … this is, said the doctor, more like a revelation from a dream, but truer than most means of contemplation …








… this landscape is the ugliest I know, said the doctor, ugly and perpetually ominous, it is wild and filled with shards of bad memories … a landscape that brutalizes people … with its darkness, you should know, its wild beasts, its rotten misery … its bottomless caverns, its crevasses, brown specks, overgrown brambles, split tree trunks, this hostile countenance, you should know, this heedlessness, you should know, and moreover all of it impregnated with the stink of wood pulp … no aristocracy, nothing but workers, machinists, truck drivers, railway workers … all in torn trousers and stockings … the birds flutter helplessly no matter where you look, the long shadow of the karst face falls, more or less … nowhere on earth is the cold so great or the heat so unbearable … it is not by chance that I am here …








Because everything is death, this thought—death has let fall its mask—life, this immense force, darkness, and the opposite of darkness … this immense commonweal … death, without question, is the infinite, you should know—both the times of triumph and the other times, the times of defeat … all with such tremendously advanced precision … so that in my twenty-fifth year I knew my greatest successes, as far as my scientific work was concerned, you should know, I had my findings, my results … apart from that I was always a hard worker … I’ve always been hardest on myself … the most important thing when I was twenty-five—everything unfinished—the natural sciences, said the doctor, a field lacking any rational basis … I’ve written a couple of books, for specialists only, books in which everything that I devoted so little time to was sketched in its broadest outlines … for the sake of posterity—this head!—posterity is praxis … the theoretical has no future … the hope in every scholarly endeavor is, as you know, to seize hold of the future, the product will always appear only once it has been abused ….








First, said the doctor, I was deluded in thinking there was a treatment for my head, a method … but all at once I looked behind the curtains of the medical profession—I rejected all of the methods, I already had a number of treatment methods, many treatment methods, one after the other … the medical profession, all of them delusional!—a doctor is no artist, an artisan, maybe … with workaday medical tools, with nothing more to do with purely medical treatment methods … granted, a doctor can’t just toss his patients on their heads … of course medicine is just a kind of superficial physical pacification—raise the head? lower the head? I’ve raised heads and I’ve lowered heads … the pain comes whenever it wants … or like so, so that the intensification one undergoes, down to the slightest variation in detail … this entire construct of pain, said the doctor … now, we’re not talking about illness—illness is a robust topic for discussion and a popular one, illness loosens the plebeian and the aristocratic tongue alike … you know, one needs to know whether the other, his interlocutor, might suffer more than one does … one speaks of compassion … down there at the hospital one hears about all the various mishaps—the states of catastrophes, the botched operations, the reconstructive surgeries, the overlooked symptoms, and so on …








But you see over there on the opposite side of the valley, the so-called dark side, there’s an underground reservoir … if you look closely you can see the entire outline … the road you see there is a project of the Ministry for Energy, the farmers have benefited enormously from having this road run by their farms! … their financial contribution has been minimal, an absurdly low amount, subsidized by the Ministry for Agriculture … there used to be just a bumpy and narrow dirt path running out to these farms … you see it—the construction site, the point where the river is to be dammed and harnessed, the power plant has to be built, you see, right on the river … there’s a track that leads from the power station, you see … this foehn! … usually it’s not this clear … eight hundred workers, said the doctor … the water evaporates, you see! … in three and a half years twenty men have been killed, the price of nature … you can see the difficulty of the enterprise … the job itself is much worse, one can say so, but that barely expresses the extent of it—people just get tired of life … used up and tired … a life sentence, this anthill, a project costing billions! …








… how much scientific research have I devoured, said the doctor, such immense riches, such great fortune! But it is none of it relevant … I’m finished, there’s a tenacity, you should know, unformulated … I’m not interested in anything anymore … shards, fragments, habits lying about, thoughts, trains of thought, the wreckage of thoughts …








… I often get up, said the doctor, in the middle of the night, you know how I can’t sleep! Just imagine having a head like this! Once I’ve managed to make my way out of bed I start feeling my arms and then my legs, I begin to slowly move around, which is extremely difficult, because I have a hard time finding my balance … it’s this head, you should know, that makes me dizzy when I first get up—I must take care not to get up too abruptly … I stand totally naked, and listen, seemingly no movement whatsoever outside, it’s as though mankind has gone extinct … just birds sitting in the branches, motionless … if you go over to the window and look outside, you should take a minute just to look at all the birds sitting there, what fat bellies they have … I don’t know what kind of birds they are, but they’re always the same birds … I try to pace my room a little bit, so as not to subject my head to too much pain, the pain that always comes when I walk … do you know what it means to be a human being condemned to such unbearable pain, walking and breathing at the same time? I sit at my table, very carefully, and I begin leafing through my manuscripts … I try to work on a letter to my stepsister that I started writing some days ago … everything I’m working on is in this letter … of course, we all conceal the most important things … they’re always the most terrifying … but then you get an idea and you’re convinced that it’s a good idea and you should expand on it … the nights, you must know, are my martyrdom … I try to pass the time by examining my body—I sit in front of the big mirror in my room and look at myself … you can’t just constantly choke back such utterly relevant questions … so now I’ve come to spend long periods devoted to pure contemplation … this is my sole satisfaction—it ameliorates my pain, my head is free of turmoil, heat, agitation … I can make it through the night, this terrible despair, you must know, it makes itself manifest on the walls that I scratch my fingers against until they’re raw … you see, the doctor said, my fingernails are all broken, it’s such an unimaginable pain emanating from my head that I cannot even describe it …







Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. In addition to Frost, his novels, plays, and autobiographical writings include Woodcutters, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Extinction, The Force of Habit, and Gathering Evidence.

Adam Siegel is a writer and translator in Northern California. Recent and forthcoming translations include the work of Bernhard, Hubert Fichte, Viktor Shklovsky, Hans Henny Jahnn, and George Saiko.