Sunday, January 14, 2007

MANY TYPES OF AMBIGUITY: The enigma of Ingeborg Bachmann

First published in the Harper's Magazine

Robert Boyers

The enigma of Ingeborg Bachmann

Discussed in this essay:

Letters to Felician, by Ingeborg Bachmann. Edited and translated by Damion Searls. Green Integer Books, 2004.95 pages. $9.95.

Malina: A Novel, by Ingeborg Bachmann. Translated by Philip Boehm. Holmes & Meier, 1999. 256 pages. $15.95 (paper).

There is mischief in formulation. Write something striking and decisive, and you are bound to open up as many questions as you sought to resolve. When a character in a story by Ingeborg Bachmann declares that "well said is half lied," he is uttering a "truth" and bearing witness to the inherent slipperiness of formulation, especially when it is terse and provocative.

Bachmann was a relentless formulator. She was drawn to language as if it held the key to every human hope. "No new world without a new language," one of her characters intones. It is like Bachmann and her characters to say all sorts of things with conviction, without knowing quite what they entail. Bachmann was not committed to irrationality, but she mistrusted elementary reasonableness and took refuge in formulation, presumably in the hope that it would carry her past ambivalence and confusion. Although she suggested that the truth was unsayable, she nevertheless said, repeatedly, what she took to be the truth. "This inhuman fixing," she called the impulse to unimpeachable assertion, "this insanity which flows from people and is frozen into expression." If she was one of the great writers of the last century, she was, all the same, deliriously dissatisfied with her medium, and her characters likewise often insist that words "are only words" and merely allude to the fact that "something exists."

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1926 and died in Rome in 1973, in a mysterious fire that some have suggested was, in fact, a suicide. She won early fame as a poet but devoted the last fifteen years of her life to fiction, which initially seemed to many readers a disappointing species of "women's fiction"; later, however, her stories and her novel Malina made her one of the most celebrated writers in Europe. Although her works are available in excellent English translations, and a number of films have been made from her fiction, she has never had much of a following in the United States, and it is fair to say that even in American feminist circles she is rarely invoked as an exemplary figure. The publication of a slender volume of Bachmann's letters to a fictional addressee, written when she was eighteen, encourages us to ask why an indisputably major writer should have remained so little known here.

It may well be that Bachmann's failure to attract an enthusiastic readership in the United States has had mainly to do with her unreliability. Although inclined to decisive pronouncements, she seems always ready to disown what she says. Her most famous utterance, which can be found with variations in a number of different works, has it that "fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman." This idea also is cited in books and essays devoted to Bachmann's work. Again and again, critics take Bachmann to have been concerned, above all things, with the violence done to women by men, their "exploitation at the hands of men," as Damion Searls has it in the introduction to Letters to Felician. Nothing, it seems, could be more definite than the sentiment inspiring Bachmann's resounding formulation.

And yet there is, at the center of that formulation, a metaphor. To say that "fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman" is not to say that gender relations are the same as relations between, say, Nazis and Jews. Metaphor, to be sure, is always suggestive, but it operates best when it is not taken to be coercive. We yield to the logic of Bachmann's metaphor about "fascism" without believing that, if we are to read her sympathetically, we must accept that men are fascists and women their victims.

There are readers, however, who will want to believe precisely that, and who will therefore be disappointed when a writer like Bachmann makes it difficult for them to uphold such a simple, terrifying view of men and women. Such readers might find more satisfaction in the work of another Austrian woman writer, Elfriede Jelinek, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature last October and to whom, therefore, much greater attention has lately been paid. Jelinek is best known in the United States for her 1983 novel, The Piano Teacher, which was made into a feature film a couple of years ago, and she is rightly described by the Nobel Prize committee as "a dauntless polemicist" with an instinct for "burning issues." But one might also note that she has an instinct for what Ruth Franklin, in The New Republic, calls "incomprehensible pseudo-philosophical musings," "banal . . . propaganda," "pornographic" imagery, and a succession of crude "gender stereotypes" to which she unremittingly subscribes. Whereas Bachmann was fiercely, and fruitfully, conflicted about everything, Jelinek is in doubt about nothing. Whereas Bachmann evokes the bitter, the desperate, and the indescribable in a language tense and unstable, Jelinek has an appetite for slogans, simplifications, and rant. If, in Bachmann, one is always alert to how much is withheld, unsaid, in Jelinek one feels that nothing is left out and that there is nothing this writer will not say for effect and attention.

Bachmann is invested in a delicately patient examination of consciousness and never confuses the moral life with the striking of ideological postures. Although she sometimes wrote with the baffled anger of a woman with grievances to express, she was never a mere grievance collector, and her descents into hysteria were oddly balanced by a miraculous and deeply serious lucidity. Attracted as she was to fashionable ideas about the unbridgeable gap between feeling and reason, she was inveterately skeptical about categorical distinctions, and could be playful even in the face of the standard platitudes she entertained.

In a long essay on "The Feminist Reception of Ingeborg Bachmann, Sara Lennox reports that German feminists have long fought among themselves about the meaning of Bachmann's work and its relation to the "theoretical assumptions" informing views of women as "victims of the dominant [patriarchal] order." Did Bachmann urge women to "keep their distance from men"? Did she believe that the culture in which her women lived--the culture of the European middle classes--"was determined to destroy them"? Many feminist critics read Bachmann as if she intended to promote such views. Others argued that "Bachmann's feminism is always full of unresolved paradoxes" and that only "wishful thinking" could account for the attempt to make Bachmann "conform to our ideas about... the proper form of feminist (or other) theory and practice." Some even went so far as to challenge the equation of "patriarchy with other structural forms of oppression" (like fascism), maintaining that Bachmann was far too intelligent to believe what some of her more ideologically inclined readers attributed to her.

It will not do, with a writer like Bachmann, to defend her by suggesting that she is not really interested in ideas, or that gender relations in general do not matter to her. She is not a writer who writes just about herself. For all of the formal chaos she sometimes allows, she does not let her narratives wander where they will, or drift in and out of relevant involvement with what seem to be her principal concerns. Her characters are never permitted to be entirely free of the ideas that define their importance to her. Even where the surface of the prose is given over to the mercurial fever dreams of one or another character, the current of thought is directed by the author's obsessive engagement with recurrent issues or problems. It may not always be easy for us to hang on to the thread that binds one thought to another, but we are never in any doubt about the general direction of the thought process. The center in Bachmann--the sense that certain things are indisputably essential--tends always to hold, however blurred or splintered the many radiating perceptions or sensations.

In fact, the new translation of Bachmann's Letters demonstrates how her work grows out of a relatively small number of basic concerns. Letters to Felician is by no means "Bachmann's first mature work," as Damion Searls willfully contends; the letters are the affecting outpourings of an adolescent writer who, in 1945, was apparently experiencing love for the first time and somehow managing not to connect her state of mind with the war that had just come to an end. To regard these items as "mature," one would have to pretend that they were not mawkish or sophomoric, not the effusions of a young person who fancies herself to be "enchanted" and "pure." We can locate in this work signs of the darkness and internal contradiction that mark Bachmann's mature fiction, but here they are merely signs, fragmentary foreshadowings, nervous eruptions without context or discernible purpose. When we read in these letters that "two people are in me, neither understands the other," we can say only that this comes from a divided, gifted, possibly disturbed young woman. We do not know what more to think of her, because she offers us no situation in which to place her, no "before" or developmental sequence that would make her more than the symptoms she displays.

What is most striking about these letters, though, is the pattern they exhibit. The author, or persona, is alternately submissive--often to the point of self-extinction--and assertive. The beloved is for her "everything," her "only altar," the one she is forever "ready to serve." She, on the other hand, is "ordinary and small," prepared to "lose all dignity" in the service of her "Lord." Yet she is also fearful, open and vulnerable before "a mouth trying to drink from me." Exalted by the sacrifice she is prepared to make, she is yet "in the kingdom of bitterest joys," alert to the fact that the consummation she seeks will leave her "by the wayside somewhere," not ever truly satisfied. The one who is devoutly urged to "come and cast your will over me" is unfortunately going to leave her with "nothing" she can call her own. Her assertions of "unbelievable happiness" are balanced by feelings of "inconsolable depression." Although she is "unworthy," she nonetheless refers to "everything that's missing," and she can almost bring herself to imagine that she has coming to her more than she has. She may be, as she says, "incapable of thinking anything rational," but she will not altogether accept that impoverishment.

To read only these letters by Bachmann is to wallow with her in a pathetic species of confused desire and self-contempt. Nothing here is worked out, nothing gets Bachmann beyond what reads like adolescent mania or neurosis. Those who wish to read the letters as windows "onto the human condition" or as blueprints for a theory of women's bondage to men are of course free to do as they like, but then they also ought to ask themselves why the persona here should be regarded as exemplary or typical when she is so often hysterical or delusional and given to exaggerated effusions of balked hero-worship.

So much that we find in Bachmann's mature writing is absent from Letters to Felician that it is futile to cite but a single missing element. In Letters we have the combination of unsatisfiable desire and willed, hysterical identification with, or worship of, a powerful other. But as Bachmann's work ripened, the longing was increasingly represented as impossible, exaggerated, ludicrous; the objects of worship made to seem unworthy; the self-immolation depicted as strangely sick and fascinating. The standard Bachmann persona, early so defenseless and small, came later to seem intermittently fierce, brilliant, and always fatally complicit in her sorry fate. If in the letters the "two people" locked together were unable to understand each other, in the mature fiction the victim and her "other" are often in fruitful communication. In Bachmann's novella Three Paths to the Lake (1972), Elisabeth Matrei finds her life "poisoned" by her lover Trotta, and is consumed by that "undertone of contempt [toward other persons] which had always been characteristic of Trotta." But she finds as well that, once he is out of her life, "Trotta's voice" can be important to her, can become the foundation for "her own voice," strengthening her, separating her from the weak voices of others less determined than she to confront the "real things" in life. For every token of subjection in the mature Bachmann there is some countervailing urgency, however little the instinct to self-assertion can sustain itself.

Another way to say this is that there is a fundamental tension in Bachmann's mature work, a vitality that is, if never completely effectual, at least desperate and often savage. She says no to the forces within her that press her to disappear; she imagines escape, retribution, even as she suffers her condition, strangled by fear and ambivalence. The despair of Bachmann's characters is often robust. If they are prisoners, lifers, they are not altogether maimed or impotent. Their thrashings about and eruptions of fitful protest or indignation are unmistakable signs of life. They will suffer and accept, but they will continue to ask why and they will not go gently.

There are exceptions to this pattern in Bachmann's fiction, characters who are treated as objects of satire, figures who are merely pathetic, for whom it is impossible to feel genuine compassion because they are entirely symbols of a condition they can do nothing but reflect. Such characters exist to prove a point and so do not exist for us as if they were fully human beings. That Bachmann was after more than this--more than an indisputable demonstration of the terrible lives to which women are irrevocably consigned--is clear in the great majority of her stories and in her central masterpiece, the novel Malina (1971). Tempted as she was to banish from her thoughts variety, surprise, and optimism, she resisted total capitulation even as she yielded a part of herself to the terrible, reductive impulse. "Dead," thinks Charlotte in the 1961 story "A Step Towards Gomorrah." "Dead was the man Franz and dead the man Milan, dead a Luís, dead all seven whom she had felt breathing over her... those who had sought her lips and been drawn into her body." That reduction of all men to one man, of all life to no life, of otherness to irrelevance or extinction, is a powerful force in all of Bachmann's work, an expression of a savage recoil from the encompassing sense of subordination. But the work lives in the alternation from the one instinct to the other, in the refusal of Bachmann's imagination to settle for a complacent victimization.

Mary Gordon gets it exactly right when, in a 1986 review of Bachmann's stories, she observes that "the relations of men and women call up at once Bachmann's profoundest dualizing pessimism and her most visionary hopes." Just so, Bachmann moves from pessimism to hope when she thinks about the capacities of women. At one moment her character Charlotte wants to teach her disciple to speak "slowly, exactly, and not permit any clouding by the common language," but almost in the same breath she scorns the available "language of women," which is, she observes, good for nothing but "a jumble of judgments and opinions."

However various and contradictory Bachmann's fictions, they do, all of them, enact the struggle of characters--not always women--to get free of something: an oppressive partner, a feeling of indifference, a homesickness, a dependence. Often they are disgusted by their own capacity to dissemble, to be dutiful, to pretend to pay attention though they are wholly self-absorbed. In "Word for Word" (1972), one of Bachmann's best stories, Nadja reflects that she herself "talked about everything with the same superficiality." A gifted and successful simultaneous translator, "she lived," Bachmann writes, "without a single thought of her own, immersed in the sentences of others," and although the story allows her moments of wild, sometimes punishing humor, she is never sure what she wants. Nadja often indulges in wishful thinking and indiscriminate criticism. Her repudiation of everything around her is "hopeful" only in the sense that Nadja will not settle for what she is. We understand that the real issue is not her immersion in "the sentences of others." If she is ever to get free, in fact, she will need--so Bachmann suggests--to acknowledge her own complicity in the circumstances that control her.

Bachmann's insistence upon the necessary struggle to get free did not cause her to write as if she had a fixed agenda. Nothing in her work is consolidated, nothing stands still. Unable to live an ordinary life, Bachmann's characters are always burning with rage or impatience or grief. "Bachmann's vision," as Gordon has written, "is structured by a series of mutually annihilating pairs: thought and action, life and truth, female and male." Like her characters, Bachmann has little use for comfortable accommodation, though she imagines she wants nothing more. No sooner does she opt for "truth" than she allows herself to prefer instead "life," pleasure, happiness. If men, or patriarchy, would seem to signify oppression, then in due course such terms must also be shown to signify more--even, perhaps, some promise of liberation. The "pairs" in Bachmann are "mutually annihilating" because she thrives on opposition and antagonism, sees things not simply as they are but as they might be. No principle or person exists in Bachmann without its complementary or oppositional other. And because Bachmann sees and thinks in this way, she is never susceptible to the simple charity that allows things merely to be. Turmoil is an essential ingredient of her medium, and although she is powerfully drawn to defeat, she never quite allows herself to assume the posture of the principled victim.

Bachmann's greatest work is Malina, though this fact is sometimes obscured by scholars who are more excited by the unfinished novels she left behind. Those--The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann--contain traces of an ideological agenda Bachmann would likely have submerged and obscured had she lived to complete them. The translator of these fragments, Peter Filkins, writes in his admirable introduction of his efforts to "rearrange" passages so as to produce "readable" texts, but he concedes that we cannot know what the "final shape" of the novels would have been.

But we do know that Bachmann published Malina and completed it at the time she was working on the unfinished books, which were intended for inclusion in a cycle of novels entitled "Ways of Dying." These novels, says Filkins, "would chronicle the multitudinous ways in which individuals, particularly women, are 'murdered' by a society that Bachmann felt erased and silenced them." But such accounts of Bachmann's intentions are at once plausible and misleading: plausible because Bachmann sponsored such accounts in interviews and speeches, and misleading because the fiction itself by no means supports such a summary.

At the heart of Malina we find a trio of figures. The female narrator, a distinguished Austrian writer, more than a little mad, is in love with Ivan, the divorced father of two young children, though she lives with Malina, a minor writer and functionary upon whom the woman extravagantly relies. Throughout a fragmentary narrative that contains letters, interviews, fairy tales, dreams, the woman gravitates from the one male figure to the other, now dreaming of "happiness" with the fatherly Ivan, elsewhere identifying with the "omniscient" Malina, who seems to know her better than she knows herself.

Is the woman "victimized" by these men? Do they represent the standard torsions of male "power" and patriarchal privilege? Everywhere in the novel there are signs that may be taken for the effects of male power. Ivan wants her to write only happy books, and briefly, dutifully, she tries to satisfy him. Once she fears that Malina will catch her "prostrate before the telephone... like a Moslem on his rug," hoping against hope that Ivan will call her. When, at another time, Ivan casually lifts his hand, she flinches as if he were about to strike her, and as he pins her arms back, apparently to stop her from some fit of hysteria, he asks, "Who's done this to you, who's put such nonsense into your head," thereby invalidating her, denying that she has in fact anything to fear. In addition, the novel often refers to war, rape, and murder. "Most men usually make women unhappy," the woman says. When you get right down to it, she reflects, "every man really is sick," and if things are worse in Vienna than elsewhere, that is because it "is made for universal prostitution" and "all the ramifications of the male disease" are readily played out there.

But the woman who furnishes these observations is clearly disturbed. What is more, she consistently resists or undercuts her own "insights." If she did not, the novel would read like a psychotic rant. To be sure, writers such as Toni Morrison have used "madness" to identify the pernicious effects of racism and sexism on women, and there are other writers for whom "madness" functions--however improbably--as an affirmation of female selfhood. But Bachmann does not portray madness in this way, and in Malina it is represented as disabling, terrifying, and totally unproductive. When Bachmann's narrator says, "No normal man with normal drives has the obvious idea that a normal woman would like to be quite normally raped," she does not affirm her character's selfhood or cheer her on. In fact, the narrator's sweeping and irrational generalizations are routinely made to seem symptomatic of her illness, if also unnerving by virtue of the partial truths they express.

Were the narrator herself reliable, that is to say, a credible witness, we should of course credit what she tells us as if it were, simply, the truth. But she herself often does not know the difference between what she fantasizes and what she remembers, and the brilliance of Malina has much to do with its combination of attributes, its existing at once as meditation, parable, dream vision, fairy tale, and prophecy. If the novel as a form typically assumes a more or less rational relationship between the individual and her world, Malina challenges that requirement, forcing its readers to ask not only what things mean but also why meaning in Bachmann must always be problematic.

The key to understanding the narrator's pronouncements on "men" lies in Bachmann's treatment of the character Malina. When the woman imagines that her father had ordered her bookshelves "to be torn down," she tears "the French books from his hand, since Malina had given them to me," suggesting, as she does at many other points, that Malina is by no means to be associated with oppressive patriarchs and that she deeply values what he has tried to do for her. When she is possessed by despair and self-pity and tells herself the lie that the Ivan who clearly does not love her was the "one single beautiful human being" who might have saved her, Malina urges her to "stop falling down all the time. Get up. Go out, have fun... do something, anything!" Supposing that she is made to be the grateful consort of a man like Ivan, made to be a mild, uncomplaining partner and the obedient caretaker of two darling children, she is corrected by Malina, urged to "learn a new style of struggle," to accept that, if she is ever to be at one with herself, she will renounce the idea that she is a "normal" woman with "normal drives" and a fate that resembles that of women with whom she has virtually nothing in common.

That Malina himself should be seen as a tormentor is entirely understandable when particular lines are isolated or ripped from their proper context. Even the woman is occasionally afraid of him, though most often she expects from him, and receives, encouragement, protection, and a species of tough love not at all reducible to popular clichés. In fact, for all of her fear and agitation, the woman understands much better than many of Bachmann's readers what Malina means when he says that "you can only be of use to yourself by hurting yourself" or when she imagines him saying of Ivan, "Kill him! kill him!" Whether or not Bachmann intended us to regard Malina as the woman's alter ego--the suggestion has been widely entertained--he exists unmistakably in the novel as a substantial being with physical traits, speech patterns, and a disposition altogether distinct from the woman's. And the fact that he is a male figure endowed, for better or worse, with what the woman takes to be distinctly male characteristics-"steadfast and composed," one who understands "without my having to explain it," a man with "nothing to settle"--cannot but suggest that, for Bachmann, the woman's essential failure is her inability to break out of the prison of her own narrowly constructed female identity.

Such an idea will hardly find favor with readers bent upon wringing a partisan "message" from Malina, those who want to find in Bachmann what Ruth Franklin has called the "particularly virulent sort of radical feminism" epitomized by last year's Nobel Prize winner. But again, Malina is not a polemical novel. If we say that Bachmann's narrator allows herself to be destroyed, permits her mentor, Malina, to help her destroy what is inauthentic within her, needs him to emerge within her as the strength to deny what she cannot truly want for herself, do we thereby betray or violate a "truth" about "patriarchy" and gender relations too sacred to be challenged? Do we thereby compromise our sense of Bachmann as a writer who had the nerve to get to the very bottom of a woman's experience without fear of melodramatic exaggeration?

To contend that no virulent formulation we can pull from Malina begins to capture the spirit and meaning of this novel is to contend, simply, that Bachmann invests everything she writes with a scrupulous uncertainty and misgiving. Bachmann is not committed to a rational program or a critique of any existing order, much as her work serves, at least in part, as a demonstration of the terrible effect that the established order can have on a deeply intelligent and deeply feeling person. No one who reads Malina--really reads it--can suppose that it provides answers to the questions Bachmann raises or adequate political responses to "fascism" or the vicissitudes of ordinary gender relations. The air of excess and extremity that circulates in her pages should not distract us from the essential seriousness of her desire to understand what baffles and pains her. To read her as if she had a program to propose or a constituency to represent is fatally to misread, and lose, a major writer.


By Robert Boyers