Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Full of bile

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 09 February 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d845
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

No writer can have expended more bile on his homeland than Thomas Bernhard (1931-89). Not only were his books and plays extremely insulting to his country, Austria, but in his will he directed that none of his books should be published there (“whatever form the state takes”) and none of his plays should be produced on its stages. Of course, such obsessive rancour is not always easy to distinguish from love, albeit disappointed love.

Bernhard was infuriated by the distinction between the great natural beauty of Austria and of its human monuments and cultural achievements, on the one hand, and its moral obtuseness and will to amnesia after the war, on the other.

But there was another possible source of his misanthropy in general and his Austrophobia in particular: his illness. All his life he struggled for breath, and eventually he died of pulmonary sarcoidosis. He spent much of his early adulthood in hospital, he could never take the simple act of breathing for granted, and he often alluded to the fear of death as the motive not only for his creativity but for all creativity. Chronic illness calls forth heroic fortitude in some, but it exasperates or embitters others.

His last book, My Prizes, published 20 years after his death, consists of reflections on, and the memories evoked by, the many literary prizes that he was offered in the German speaking world during his lifetime. In general he pours forth his bile on those who awarded him the prizes and especially on those who attended the ceremonies at which they were presented. We meet ministers of culture who snore on the platform (and are famous for doing so) and ministers of culture who, until recently, were commissioners of agriculture. Bernhard views the whole process of giving literary prizes as a vulgar and hypocritical sham and accepts them only because he needs the money.

The esteem in which he holds the medical profession does not seem to be much higher than that in which he holds ministers of culture. He tells us that he accepted the prize of the cultural circle of the Federation of German Industry in 1967 only because he needed to pay the fees of the supposedly outstanding hospital for pulmonary diseases (“still attached to the Steinhof lunatic asylum”). “I was in the Hermann pavilion, where there were seven rooms with two or three patients each, all of whom died during my stay, except for a theology student and me.”

He had been given up for mortally ill with cancer by his doctors, but a Professor Salzer took a biopsy and diagnosed an incurable but not immediately fatal “Morbus Boeck” (sarcoidosis). Bernhard did not think much of the professor, before whom everyone grovelled: “Even if he couldn’t perform miracles and could only, with the best of intentions and with extreme skill, cut and mutilate living patients, I used to see him every week in the process of sending, according to a carefully elaborated plan, the victims of his noble science to the grave, much more quickly than if he had let nature take its course.”

Bernhard did not mince his words. He resigned from the Darmstadt Academy of Language and Literature on the occasion of the election to it of the former president of the federal republic, Walter Scheel. Bernhard pointed out that he often received black edged notices of the deaths of the academy’s members, but he soon hoped to receive such a notice of the death of the academy itself. He didn’t please everyone.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d845

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