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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Wittgenstein's Nephew

by Bernhard, Thomas

on 20/04/2012

Price: £10.00

Published: Oct 2012

Format: paperback

No Pages: 108 pages


ISBN-13: 9781400077564

Category: Biographical

What follows below is an attempt to highlight certain aspects of this novel that I think are vital in his oeuvre and in the reader's attempts to surmount the difficulty of reading Bernhard. Mainly these hundred pages are a vehicle for Bernhard's enchanting prose, his harsh pessimism and anger and his clever, if sardonic wit.

Thomas Bernhard illustrates his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein (nephew of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) in a unique style, which will be outlined below, that has rarely been applied by any author. The novel consists of long monologues by the author regarding his stinging views on various social topics including award ceremonies, ‘so called’ intellects, superficial and fake attitudes of patronisers of art, the emptiness of Austrian society amongst other things.

The narrator highlights his attitude toward illness, both his physical illness and his friend’s mental illness. We are made to understand that the friend, Paul, suffered from appears to be a Bipolar Affective Disorder.

His attack on psychiatry is outlined in one such attack as below:

‘Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science.  All my life I have dreaded nothing so much as falling into the hands of psychiatrists, beside whom all other doctors, disastrous though they may be, are far less dangerous, for in our present day society psychiatrists are a low unto themselves and enjoy total immunity…Psychiatrists are the real demons of our age, going about their business with impunity and constrained by neither law nor conscience’

Through compulsive reiteration, self-assured self-contradiction, and invigorating exaggeration the narrator describes his disgust at the state of psychiatric care in Vienna. He believes that Paul is hospitalized to drain him of his life forces. Paul is given electro-convulsive therapy, medications, and treatments and put in an environment designed to sap the life out of him. When he is as close to death as he can be, he is discharged until he gets sick again, usually in four or five months. The symptoms that plague Paul sound very much like manic depressive disorder - pressured speech, volatile moods, strange movements, serious depression, obvious mania, narcissism.

I am looking forward to reading more of Bernhard’s works. I urge my colleagues to pick a copy and be immersed in a new reading experience.



Vasudevan Krishnan

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