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Mind boggling

Mind boggling

The philosopher Peter Natter reads a book against the backdrop of the Bregenzerwald. In this edition: Ingeborg Bachmann

That people in Bregenzerwald don’t jump at every trend whizzing by like a train, may have something to do with the fact that their railways are closed. But perhaps it’s worth examining the abrupt end of Bregenzerwald’s train system once more, whilst keeping this strongly idealistic aspect in mind rather than focusing on purely economic (or geological reasons for that matter) aspects.Perhaps the death of the railway was indeed more drawn out, like that of a slow-moving train?

Historical railway photos taken at some of the various special rail events depict magnificently decorated stations and train cars, i.e. for the celebratory reception of Olympic Champion Toni Innauer in 1980. These images are a reminder that there were indeed times in which the people of Bregenzerwald were keen to jump on the train of modernity, to seek connections, and to participate. But what about today? A museum train that runs on an unnaturally short track is a bit lacking, wouldn’t you say? Suspiciously little.

‘Venerate the old and greet the new’: These words expressed by Bizau poet Gebhard Wölfle (1848 – 1904) form an often repeated, yet tired sentiment. Generally speaking: Where there’s little, that little bit becomes overtaxed. That’s normal, but not necessarily positive. What does it mean then, really, to venerate the old and greet the new? And how exactly do we honour the old and welcome the new? Does showing reverence mean putting something in a museum? When is the right time? And then what? Is greeting the new unconditional?What does it mean (getting to the heart of the matter) to venerate a poet? Showing respect could simply mean giving her words a fresh read? Or for many (finally) reading them for the first time?

Finally reading Ingeborg Bachmann’s (1926 – 1973) poetry, even if she does indeed belong to a different time and a very different place, is a worthy endeavour.But does literature belong in a particular locality? Does literature belong to a particular scene? Does anything really belong to someone or somewhere? And what does belonging mean anyway? It’s true, what US-American Poet Walt Whitman writes: “It makes such difference where you read.” Yet I think, once again, that this has more to do with the reader than what’s being read because “In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self,” as postulated by French Novelist Marcel Proust.

Back to reading Ingeborg Bachmann in Bregenzerwald in a quiet house in the Sieban hamlet of Großdorf, on a foggy, rainy late-summer weekend… This is the first volume of a new collection in which the poet is venerated and her works welcomed in the present day. It’s a noble collection featuring a linen binding, a silky reading ribbon and a carefully crafted book jacket. It’s a fitting honour for a venerable author. After all, Bachmann was a great poet. So here the greeting is heartfelt, in other words not a passing hello, but more of an empathetic hug, a true dialogue. Within the book this takes on the form of comprehensive editorial commentary, which helps to provide context in the present, or better said, is meant for us lost souls today who are unable to connect to that which came before or to orient ourselves properly to that which is coming. (Because the fact that something was is just as abstract as the knowledge that something is coming, constantly.)

Returning once more to the metaphor of the train, either jumping on or joining in, may indeed be justified when necessary and a good thing. But at other times, of course, it exactly the opposite: jumping off or opting out. The question is: Which of these is the harder task? In my opinion it is the latter. Jumping on or joining in is relatively harmless. From the moment you’re on board, on the first step that is (in former times there really was such a lower step on trains), and the wind is racing past your ears such that you can no longer properly hear or see, then jumping off or opting out is indeed belaboured. Before you know it you’ve raced ahead with a tempo that’s not entirely yours to control. This is exactly what’s described in this new volume on Bachmann. Under the heading “Male oscuro. Notes from a time of sickness” the author describes very private texts from Ingeborg Bachmann: notes from dreams, letters, letter and lecture ideas from a difficult time, a disastrous affair with Swiss author Max Frisch, who was also someone who found it easy to start things but not to stop, the end of the relationship, the break that was difficult to make, a nervous breakdown, obsession, doubt and confusion.

Good that it’s so foggy outside because sunshine would be out of place with such reading. This material bores deeply into the private world of the poet: “Is interest in the autobiographical truth not sacrilegious for the study of literature and literary criticism?” opines the author in the book’s foreword. “Is publishing such traumatic material, letters, speeches and drafts an affront to discretion that goes against the secret nature of letters and the protection of the private sphere? Yes, the texts collected here violate confidentiality, which should protect sick people, but these rules, though well intentioned, may also have the opposite effect. Ingeborg Bachmann was nearly destroyed by this confidentiality and misunderstood discretion.” And the circle is complete: Jumping aboard, going with the times, or letting some trains pass you by, to be silent or to speak, to keep secrets or to tell: dogmatic solutions are always the most problematic.Because to venerate the old and greet the new: these are not two separate things, they are one and the same! The old is contained within the new and the new is always measured against the old.The old is not junk, nor does the new represent salvation.The Ingeborg Bachmann Collection is neither a historical train or an intercity express.Instead, this volume is more like a long, long train such as the Trans-Siberian, the Orient Express, something, or something of that ilk. That I had to go to Großdorf in the Bregenzerwald to discover this, is in itself an important lesson.

Author: Peter Natter

Ingeborg Bachmann:
Male oscuro.
Notes from a time of sickness.
Suhrkamp Piper, 2017