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Fr. 374

August 20, 2013

If one were to put Thomas Bernhard, the 20th century Austrian author, poet and playwright, in dialogue with Novalis, the late 18th century German romanticist, what might come of this encounter? Such an imagining might center on their seemingly different takes on the process of “making ideas into reality”, as Bernhard describes the process in his novel Korrektur (translated as Correction in English). This process is likewise described by Novalis as one half of “magical realism”, that midway point between idealism and realism, the other half being “making reality into ideas”.

If the two thinkers here seem to single out and describe one and the same process, from where would their differences come, such that a true dialogue might take place? Notably, for Bernhard, the fact of making ideas into reality can only kill the holder of those ideas. The would-be protagonist of Korrektur, at least as captured by the novel’s narrator, seeks to bring into existence an innovative piece of architecture, the Cone, to serve as a home to his sister, a design which, prior to its realization, can be found only in his mind and on the scraps of paper that litter the floors and cover the walls of his lodgings. Yet the process of bringing the Cone into being takes its toll. Such perfection requires much from even the most exceptional human being, and, perfection attained in the form of the Cone, there is nothing left for which to strive. The protagonist takes his life, dead twice over: once for the superhuman effort required by bringing his intellectual designs to fruition, a second time for the void and stasis brought on by attaining perfection, leaving nothing outside of it. Bernhard’s vision of creation is a killing one.

Such cannot be said for Novalis and his view of this same process wherein, through working on reality, projecting and bringing one’s ideas to bear on that same reality, one gradually expands one’s scope of self and world and overcomes alienation. In other words, through the application of personal symbols, meanings and images (“poetry” in short) to the world around, the romantic subject on Novalis’ view comes more readily to see herself in the world and as part of the world. The end result of this process is thus coming to feel at home in the world, at once everywhere in the world, hence the synonymy of magical realism and becoming god (or becoming like god). Although this subjectivist current is tempered by a dose of realism from the inverse process (making reality into ideas), the tension with Bernhard’s position stands out.

Might there not, however, be some way in which these two views approach one another or even coincide? Insofar as Bernhard’s “making ideas into reality” necessitates the death of the alienated and striving subject, his view could be said to issue in an altered understanding of the subject, one in which the singular awareness of the subject or individual is dispersed and no longer set up in an antagonistic relationship towards nature and the world (perhaps by default). Novalis’ position could be presented in much the same way in that the romantic subject attains to a higher degree of subjectivity or consciousness quite unlike that of the alienated subject. On the basis of this altered subjectivity, it does not seem implausible to make the case that, to some extent, Novalis’ gods could be considered dead Bernhardians.

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