Previous excerpts here. The first one I will probably, not being Austrian, never fully understand, but I find it a remarkable specimen of a rant.
My family was highly susceptible to National Socialism, which suited them down to the ground, because in it, one might say, they discovered themselves. Now, in addition to their great God, who in any case was only their dear God most of the time, they suddenly had their great leader. Although National Socialism had long been a thing of the past by the time I reached the years of discretion, as they say, I still felt its baleful effects. For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era; in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element in their existence; they could not live without it. Hence, although the National Socialist period had long been over, I was given a National Socialist and Catholic upbringing and thus subjected to the Austrian mixed-power regime that has such a dire effect on the growing child. This combination of the Catholic and National Socialist elements, of Catholic and National Socialist educational methods, is the norm in Austria. They are the commonest and most widespread methods, applied everywhere without restraint, and produce atrocious and devastating effects on the whole of this essentially National Socialist and Catholic nation. National Socialist and Catholic educational methods enjoy unrestricted authority in Austria. Anyone who denies this is a liar or an ignoramus. And the laws of the land are nothing other than National Socialist and Catholic laws, which operate as a mechanism that brings devastation and destruction. That’s the truth about Austria. By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. In this country and this nation Catholicism and National Socialism have always been in balance — now more National Socialist, now more Catholic — but never just one or the other. The Austrian mind thinks only in National Socialist and Catholic terms. And this is true also of Austrian philosophers, who use their unappetizing National Socialist minds no differently from their compatriots. If we take a walk in Vienna, the people we see are all essentially National Socialists and Catholics, who behave at times more as National Socialists, at times more as Catholics, but usually as both simultaneously; this is why we find them so repulsive on closer acquaintance and closer scrutiny, whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, I told Gambetti. Any article we read in the Austrian press is either Catholic or National Socialist, and that, it must be said, is the essence of everything Austrian — doubly mendacious, doubly vulgar, doubly anti-intellectual. If we talk to an Austrian for any length of time, Gambetti, we soon have the impression that we’re talking to a Catholic, not to a free and independent human being, or else we have the impression that we’re talking to a National Socialist — but in the end we have the impression that we’re talking to an out-and-out Catholic National Socialist, and we are very soon revolted. The Catholic National Socialist spirit — if I am to besmirch the word spirit by using it in this context, because I can’t do otherwise — has always reigned supreme at Wolfsegg and always will. My brothers is imbued with the same spirit, which is in fact a negation of the spirit, a peculiarly Austrian form of mindlessness, as I’ve said before. I withdrew from its ambience, Gambetti, but I’ll have to contend with it all my life, because it’s inborn. Inborn spirits either can’t be exorcized at all or can be exorcized only for a time, at a tremendous cost, and never permanently. The whole of my existence has been a struggle to throw off the disease of Austrian mindlessness, I told Gambetti, which constantly re-infects me. No sooner do I notice the symptoms of this archetypal Austrian condition than I summon up all my strength to fight it off. In 1931, I thought, looking at the picture taken at Victoria Station in 1960, my parents were newly married. My mother had scored her triumph and was riding high, as it were. My father, of course, had not yet realized his ambition of begetting an heir. Men like my father do not want a child, they want an heir, and they marry late in life, for this one compulsive purpose. In their desire for an heir they rush into marriage with a virtual stranger, about whom they know hardly anything. By the time an heir is born they are fairly debilitated and can already be described as old. The mother promises to give her husband an heir and then proceeds to rob him of more or less everything. The new father, for his part, feels that he has done his duty to himself. Once the heir is born he loses interest in his wife. Most of the time he punishes her by ignoring her, or, if the mood takes him and she gives him cause, he reproaches her for having grossly exploited his generosity and married him only to get her hands on his fortune. In due course they reproach each other with everything, and life becomes hell. Their marriage does not produce the mutual respect or the comfort and succour that one should have of the other. It does not generate sympathy and mutual understanding but gradually degenerates into a shared hell. The spouses accommodate themselves to this hell and end up hating each other, but they soon recognize this hatred as inevitable and use it to quite good effect as a means to enliven the remainder of their lives. As my father turned against my mother and gradually withdrew into himself, she began to look around for a sphere in which she could give expression to her womanly whims and passions, which were far from spent; in other words for a Spadolini, I told myself as I contemplated the photos. By a happy chance, these more or less unhappy circumstances brought her together with an archbishop, who had not only an enviable physique but one of the brightest minds. I am told that when she is happiest with Spadolini she calls him my nuncio. Such a scene must be unbearably touching, I told Gambetti. I was furious, as I always am after speaking about the dubious Spadolini. It’s absurd, I told myself, that I should not only be teaching German literature but have the megalomaniac presumption to teach German philosophy, that I should pretend to a knowledge of German literature and German philosophy, or at least some acquaintance with it, when in fact I am only part of the Wolfsegg riff-raff, the very thought of which makes me cringe. Having come to Rome from the provincial hell of Wolfsegg, I presume to talk to everyone about Schopenhauer and Goethe. Quite perverse, I told myself. When I take Wolfsegg and my family apart, when I dissect, annihilate and extinguish them, I am actually taking myself apart, disseccting, annihilating and extinguishing myself. I have to admit that this idea of self-dissection and self-extinction appeals to me, I told Gambetti. I’ll spend my life dissecting and extinguishing myself, Gambetti, and if I’m not mistaken I’ll succeed in this self-dissection and self-extinction. I actually do nothing but dissect and extinguish myself. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I think of is setting about my work of dissection and extinction with a will. Our parents led us only to the brink of the abyss but did not show it to us; they never let us look into it but pulled us back at the critical moment. They always sought to lead us just to the brink, without showing us what it was that was ruining us. Billions of parents do the same, I told Gambetti.
The wedding guests were so vulgar and stupid, I thought. We are pleased to see someone we have known virtually all our life and shake hands with him, but in no time we find that he has meanwhile become an idiot, I thought. And the young people are even more stupid than their elders, in whose stupidity there is usually at least a modicum of the grotesque. We always imagine, mistakenly, that others will have developed, in one direction or another, as we have. But we are wrong: most of them have stayed put and not developed in any direction, becoming neither better nor worse, but merely old and totally uninteresting. We expect to be surprised to find how somebody we have not seen for ages has developed, but the real surprise is to discover that he has not developed at all, that he is simply twenty years older, that he is no longer slim but has a paunch, and that he wears big tasteless rings on fat fingers that once were attractive. We expect to have much to talk about with this or that old friend, only to find that we have nothing to say to each other. We ask ourselves why, and the only answer that occurs to us is that the weather has changed, that there is a national crisis, that socialism has now shown its true colours, and so forth. Having imagined that our friend of long ago is still our friend, we discover in no time that this was a cruel error. With this woman you can discuss painting, with that woman you can discuss poetry, or so you think, but you are wrong. The one knows as little about painting as the other knows about poetry: all they talk about is cooking — how potato soup is made in Vienna and in Innsbruck — or what a pair of shoes costs in Merano and a similar pair in Padua. What good conversations you were once able to have with a certain person about mathematics, you think or with another about architecture, but it turns out that the mathematical interests of the one and the architectural interests of the other got bogged down twenty years ago in the morass of growing up. You can no longer find any purchase, anything to hold on to, and they are put out of this, without knowing why. Suddenly you are just someone who annoys them.
It is always ridiculous when the bride says I will, but even more ridiculous when the bridegroom says it. This struck me again on the present occasion. How, I wondered, can we take the bride’s I will seriously, when we know it to be a lie, no less a lie than the bridegroom’s — this double I will that has to be uttered and inaugurates decades of martyrdom? The marital vows inaugurate the matrimonial yoke. Nothing else. And there is nothing people long for more than to say I will and thereby surrender themselves to their own annihilation, I thought. It seemed to me as though I had witnessed a little self-contained comedy or farce, and I felt a great desire to applaud when the priest had delivered his last line and disappeared with the altar boys, my litte six- and seven-year-old cousins. But again I controlled myself. I was anxious to remain inconspicuous, for if I had caused a stir it would have been quite impossible for me to stay on at Wolfsegg, and I had no wish to draw attention to myself and cause anyone to remark that the troublemaker was at it again. The little centuries-old nuptial drama, I thought, culminates in the words I will, whereby the Catholic Church takes full possession of those who have uttered them.
This stuffy office was practically my father’s home, I thought. It was to this desktop that he fled from his family; on this desktop that he wrote all those senseless business letters, like the one still lying on it. Sometimes he would mount a tractor and endure the stench and rattle of the engine in order to get away from his family; at other times he would flee to his office. In the last ghastly years of his life he was totally isolated. Pitiful, I thought. But then he courted such isolation and did nothing to counter it. Father was too weak to counter anything, I thought — it wasn’t his way. He preferred to follow this miserable path leading to total atrophy. Such tremendous natural beauty, I thought, and such a tremendous estate, yet Father led this pathetic office-bound existence! The office was to blame for the expressionless face he had in the end. The office ultimately destroyed him. His twice-yearly cultural trips, so called, no longer brought him any benefit. He set out on them reluctantly, already worn out; when he returned he was still worn out, sickened by yet another failure to escape from himself, and the office was once more his refuge. By imperceptible degrees he wa being destroyed, partly by the family, who were bent upon his destruction, and partly by the office, where the accumulation of bureaucratic imbecilities seemed calculated to crush him and his existence. Yet Father took refuge in these bureaucratic imbecilities, I thought, to escape his hysterical wife, my mother, and most of the time he locked himself in. Only the huntsmen had free access, no one else. The family had to make appointments to see him. If they knocked on the door unannounced they were not admitted. His implacable destroyers were forbidden to enter. I won’t let myself be destroyed and annihilated by this office, I thought. It won’t be my refuge. I won’t make the three-ring binders my secret, silent companions, as Father used to do for half a day or a whole day at a time and often, obscenely, for half the night, even the whole night. Father often called his office the captain’s bridge, but that’s not what it’ll be for me, I thought. I felt a sense of personal humiliation on recalling how my father used to call the office the captain’s bridge, for he never wielded a captain’s authority at Wolfsegg. The real authority was wielded by my mother, who let him go on prating about the captain’s bridge because she knew how ludicrous it sounded. No, this won’t be my office, I thought. I won’t let myself be tyrannized by the three-ring binders. Millions are tyrannized by three-ring binders and never escape their tyranny, I thought. For the last century the whole of Europe has let itself be tyrannized by three-ring binders, and the tyranny is increasingly oppressive. Soon the whole of Europe will not only be tyrannized but destroyed by them. I once told Gambetti that it was above all the Germans who had let themselves be tyrannized by three-ring binders. Even their literature is subject to their tyranny, I told him. Every German book written in this century is a product of this tyranny. German literature has been tyrannized and almost destroyed by three-ring binders, I said. And this present-day literature, produced under this tyranny, is naturally the most pathetic there has ever been. No other age has seem such a helpless, pathetic literature, a ludicrous desktop literature dictated by three-ring binders. At least that’s how it seems to me whenever I read a recently written book. All these books are utterly pathetic, I said, written by authors who all their lives have let themselves be totally dominated by three-ring binders. All we have now is a petit-bourgeois bureaucratic literature, I told Gambetti. This applies even to the great figures in German literature, I said, even to Thomas Mann, even to Musil, whom I rate highest among all these exponents of bureaucratic literature. Even Musil produced only dreary bureaucratic works. The whole of this literature is middle-class through and through, and for the most part lower-middle-class, I told Gambetti on the Pincio. Even Thomas Mann and Musil, in every line they wrote, let themselves be dominated by three-ring binders.
Every so often we feel fully competent to create a work of the mind, even one like Extinction, which has to be written down, but then we shy away from it, knowing that we shall probably not be able to stick it out, that we shall make quite good progress at first and then suddenly fail, with the result that all will be lost, and not just the time we have spent — and therefore wasted — in the attempt. We shall have made utter fools of ourselves, maybe not in front of others but on front of ourselves. Not wanting to expose ourselves to such discomfiture, we refuse to make a start, even when we think we are capable of doing so. We procrastinate, as though afraid of being grossly embarrassed, I thought of grossly embarrassing ourselves. We expect others to perform well, outstandingly well, but we ourselves don’t perform at all; we don’t come up with evevn the most risible mental product. But that’s how it is, I thought: of everyone else we demand the highest achievements, but we ourselves achieve nothing. Not wishing to lay ourselves open to the awful humiliation of failure, we repeatedly shelve our plan for a written product of mind and take refuge in any excuse, any subterfuge, that serves our turn. We are suddenly too craven to begin. Yet all the time we have this product of the mind in our heads and want to produce it, come what may. We’ve decided on it, we tell ourselves, and for days, weeks, years, perhaps even for decades, we go around telling ourselves that we have decided on it, yet we never get down to it. What we have in mind is something tremendous, we tell ourselves; but all we are capable of is something utterly risible. I’m going to write something tremendous, I tell myself, yet at the same moment I am afraid of it, and in this moment of fear I have already failed and can no longer begin. We say grandly that what we have in mind is something unique and tremendous. We do not shrink from such an assertion, yet at the same time we lower our heads, take a pill and go to bed, instead of starting on this unique and tremendous project. That’s how we are, I once told Gambetti. We pretend we’re capable of everything, of the very highest achievement, but can’t even pick up a pen and write down a single word of the unique and tremendous work that we’ve just announced. We all succumb to megalomania, I told Gambetti, in order to avoid having to pay the price for our constant ineffectuality.