Tag: bernhard

Mildred Pierce #4 & John Berndt on Bernhard-Kinski-Theodore

by on Feb.16, 2011

Hello! It has been some time. I’ve been hiding out while finishing up the fourth issue of Mildred Pierce, a (maga)zine I co-edit with John Bylander, themed Comedy and the Grotesque. This post is promotional as well as sincerely in conversation with recent posts on atrocity kitsch and trauma and performance.

Mildred Pierce #4 has among its contents a really fascinating essay by experimental musician and performance artist John Berndt which argues for the work of Thomas Bernhard, Klaus Kinski and Brother Theodore as constituting a particular genre of art that performs a (histrionic, deranged) Hitlerian mode. Here’s an excerpt:

Even without unpacking the full context that elevated Hitler to become a unique reference point of 20th century evil, something remains quite communicable and riveting about the Hitlerian personality, the Hitlerian performative style. This archetype is a threatening genie that is difficult to put back into the bottle. A serious trauma to social self-conception imperatively calls for transformative re-enactment, as those effected by the trauma of the trauma attempt to integrate “impossible” information, creating hybrid experiences that branch and dilute the underlying meaning in multiple unexpected directions—a dangerous, potentially important game. …

Three brilliant and transformational artists who emerged in the wake of World War II, who were each deeply personally scarred by events during the war, and had direct contact with frighteningly absurd elements of the Nazi reality, and who were each able to make immense use of the Hitlerian mode were the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), the Polish/German actor Klaus Kinski (1926-1991), and the German/American comedian Brother Theodore (1906-2001) (collectively “B-K-T”).  Each was deeply personally scarred by events during the war, and had direct contact with frighteningly absurd elements of the Nazi reality. …

With all three, there is a house-of-mirrors relationship between the characters they created (impossible, aggressive, imploding madmen) and their own private lives, which seem to have involved quite real anti-social tensions, as well as various public masks or simulations of unreasonableness they created, the artifice of larger-than-life mythologies. Therefore, three superimposed levels of sustained impossibility (relating to the actual artist, his characters, and the quasi-fictional-autobiographical overlay to the artist’s life) are common to each of them. This unstable boundary between performance, performer, and self-conscious legend, a major focus in Bernhard criticism, is equally strong in the cases of Kinski and Theodore.

Raul Zurita, in the q&a after his AWP reading, explained that when writing, “everyone else is writing” — “in writing you are allowing other bodies to occupy your body.” Kinski, according to Berndt, admits to no shared experience; and all three of Berndt’s examples led mainly anti-social lives, and moreover their literary and stage performances are basically anti-social. The Hitlerian mode is megalomaniacal, of course — it’s mad, a worldview that admits no infiltrators who could potentially reenvision it. Versus Zurita, this is a much different approach to embodying or channeling or performing collective trauma artistically – or is it? Zurita’s compassion is a far cry from Theodore’s crankiness but they seem to share an instability/multiplicity of voice, as well as a vividly accusing anger — and confusion. I don’t know Zurita’s work well enough to say much more, so I’ll leave it there, the question is open.

The full essay, which Berndt is planning on expanding into a book, is available in Mildred Pierce #4 — ordering info and a full TOC are available here.

Here’s a performance by Brother Bernhard Kinski at the MP release party in Baltimore last week:

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