Art in the Novel: Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters through Don Delillo’s Point Omega
by Jordan A. Rothacker
Last year saw the publication of Don Delillo’s fifteenth novel, Point Omega. It is his fourth book since Underworld, all four marking a new direction of his career away from sweeping doorstoppers. The slim, considerate minimalism intrigued me about this book. It begins with a description of a visual art installation, which sounds fun, and as I was just in Spain, sucking up so much great visual art at Reina Sofia, the Prado, the Picasso Museum in Malaga, and then saw this book in English on a shelf in a bookstore in Seville, it crossed my path at the right time. And also, in all honesty, I have never read a novel by Delillo and this seemed like a nice quick way to jump into the work of this author I have respected from afar. Delillo has always seemed more cosmopolitan, artistic, and thoughtful to me than most other American authors of his generation and maybe I have been saving up his books and putting off getting into him. I have owned Libra and White Noise for some time but looking at them I have always wished I owned Mao II and The Names instead as greater points of entry (for my interests) into his oeuvre.
When I returned from Spain, with many new books on my immediate list, I went straight to this small and hopefully quick read. It was just that, 117 pages and an enjoyable breeze to read. Point Omega is a slim little slip of a book full of big, big ideas. I don’t mean to sound patronizing. Don Delillo is a true artist and I prefer willfully thoughtful books to cynical, ironic ones (like so many of my generation), cute for their own sake that don’t try to say anything.
The set up and plot of the novel are just as slim as its tangible form. There is a lot of blank space in the layout that encourages form and function of the work. The first page after the title pages merely tells us when the whole novel is set “2006 Late Summer/Early Fall,” which is followed by a preface-type chapter called Anonymity, the action of which falls on September 3, we are told. The last chapter of the book, a conclusion-type chapter, is called Anonymity 2 and happens on September 4. The main action of the book occurs within four numbered chapters between these. Prefacing and concluding chapters take place in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and focus around a spectator of Douglas Gordon’s 2006 installation of 24 Hour Psycho, a videowork of Hitchcock’s film slowed down to span twenty-four hours. These chapters are in third person.
The meat of the work (lean meat), those four chapters tell in first-person the story of a struggling documentary filmmaker James (Jim) Finley from New York (Brooklyn) visiting Richard Elster in the California desert far east of San Diego. Finley wants to make a movie of Elster, a retired “defense intellectual,” a theoretical architect for the Bush Administration war machine. Finley envisions Elster standing against a wall in Brooklyn, he has the wall picked out, where he will just be free to talk on film, talk as a man who was in the most important rooms of the early 00s and help the public understand the invasion of Iraq. For days the men, generations apart in age, talk in Elster’s desert house; they also eat and drink Scotch. In chapter two, Elster’s daughter Jesse shows up, she brings more life to her father and enticement to Finley, and eventually she disappears, not a trace as to where. The extra life she brought to the men is gone and then some and as they search and then fall apart they leave the desert for New York. That is the whole narrative plot, but it is not what the book is about.
Point Omega is full of many ideas that are backlit by the sparse prose as much as the sparse landscape of the desert in which it is set. The titular concept is from Teilhard de Chardin. Elster tells Finley, when talking about the early influence of de Chardin on him as a thinker and what the war room was like, “‘The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field’” (52-53).
In the first chapter, before we see Elster, Finley tips us off to all of this. “The desert was outside my range, it was an alien being, it was science fiction, both saturating and remote, and I had to force myself to believe I was here. He [Elster] knew where he was, in his chair, alive to the protoworld, I thought, the seas and reefs of ten million years ago. He closed his eyes, silently diving the nature of later extinctions… Extinction was a current theme of his. The landscape inspired themes. Spaciousness and claustrophobia. This would become a theme” (20). This also leads to the constant connection between space and time in the work. The title words even resonate with this motif.
But where is the “art” (as in visual art) and why those two book end chapters? Ah, that is the brilliance of Delillo. It is all there in the text, the theme and the narrative scenes that illustrate the theme. At just another evening of Elster, Jesse, and Finley sitting on the porch looking out at the descent, the didactic patriarch speaks about the location, “‘There’s none of the usual terror. It is different here, time is enormous, that’s what I feel here, palpably. Time has preceded us and survives us’” (44). Jesse asks about “the usual terror” and he says it is from the way he feels time in a city. “Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There is an endless counting down, he said, When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure. The epic poem, the bedtime story” (45). Finley then chimes adding film to this list and the conversation turns back to the film of Elster that he wants to make and probably never will.
However, for the reader there already is a film in mind, 24 Hour Psycho. It is planted there at the beginning and if you flip ahead in the book as you are reading, you know it is there to bring you out of the work. Actually, two pages after this conversation about the terror beneath reality that art was meant to cure, we find out that Finley has taken Elster, on their second meeting, to see 24 Hour Psycho at the MoMA. Elster never tells Finley what he thinks of the film/installation, but we (and Finley) find out through Jesse what he thought, “‘it was like watching the universe die over a period of about seven billion years… it was like the contraction of the universe… the heat death of the universe’” (47). These weighty lines fit the line of thought we already know about this man who goes to the desert soon after this, as well as adding something to our memory of the first Anonymity chapter.
The third-person narrator of Anonymity describes an unnamed man watching 24 Hour Psycho. The narrator describes the film/installation and what the man watching sees and thinks of what he sees. At one point two men walk into the room and the narrator watches them watch the film/installation and after page forty-seven we know who those two men are. It is the fifth day that the man has come to the museum to watch this and tomorrow, the last day of the installation, he is back, which we read in the final chapter Anonymity 2. What does the man get out of the experience of dedicatedly viewing this piece of art? “The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point, to see what’s here, finally to look and know you are looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion” (5-6), the narrator tells us, and we are given wonderful art criticism of this piece. The whole chapter is full of wonderful art writing about this piece.
Reading Point Omega makes you wonder how it was written, where the germ began. Could it be as simple as Delillo viewing the film/installation, being profoundly affected by this piece of art and creating the unnamed man in the chapter out of himself? Maybe he even saw the two men described walk into the dark room and the back story (and forward story) he imagined for theme became the book? Either way, it all fits together perfectly and harmoniously.
After the body section set in the desert, when we return to the MoMA for Anonymity 2, we are given a possible crux of the work. Viewing on this last day, the man notices an error in the sequence where Detective Arbogast is stabbed and falls backwards down the stairs. He reflects on the error, “Maybe the error is not detectable at 24-frames per second. He’d read somewhere that this is the speed at which we perceived reality, at which the brain processes images. Alter the format and expose the flaws. This was a flaw that a person might tend to excuse unless he was a man of attenuated viewpoint. If that was him, then that was him” (103). For the reader, Elster seems to be just this attenuated person, and so does Delillo, the grand architect of all of this. The episodes in the desert, the thoughts of Elster, 24 Hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon, the description of experiencing 24 Hour Psycho, all feed and fold back into themselves, all one within this slim book, a skinny Ouroboros.
Point Omega is a beautiful and brilliant book (beautifully brilliant) and made me want to try more Delillo, but first it made me want to experience more thoughtful books that featured a piece of visual art in its thought process. How many books do this? Written art criticism is as old as writing itself. Directing my mind to the ancient world, I first flash upon Herodotus and his descriptions of Egyptian architecture. But how many novels make a piece of art that already exists out there in “the real world” the centerpiece of their narrative or theme?
Hugo does this for the Notre Dame Cathedral in Hunchback of Notre Dame, but of course that piece of architecture has served as more than a mere “piece of visual art” to millions of people over hundreds of years. That century gave us Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, James’ Portrait of a Lady, and Zola’s The Masterpiece, but again none of those involve visual art from “the real world.” Last century and this one so far have a slim selection of example—none really come to mind (in non-fiction, Miller’s Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast are wonderful though)—except for the likes of The Da Vinci Code and The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and other thrillers or historical romances. There is actually a whole genre industry of art history mysteries, but I am trying to focus on literary fiction here.
A fun example I can draw from my shelf, though not quite a novel is Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989). This very thematic collection of stories contains one called Shipwreck, that not only gives a narrative of the events leading up to the incident that inspired Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa, an analysis of the painting, but also a fold out color print of the painting right there in the book. Barnes and his publisher go above and beyond to give us the painting, but his analysis does provide a detailed prose rendition of the painting. That is what I am looking for. The prose rendering of a work of visual art that exists already outside the narrative of a novel.
This literary phenomenon I liken to sampling in music or collage in visual art (or even the whole medium of photography or film, if you want to go further with the argument), the writer is trying to appropriate the aesthetic impact of another artist’s work into his own. The big difference from sampling and collage is that those involve pre-existing works incorporated into another work of the same medium. The prose rendering of a work of visual art that already exists is just that, a prose rendering. The writer is recreating the work in a new medium and must play upon to some degree the reader’s associations. This literary phenomenon requires and deserves an essay (maybe a book) or exploration unto itself and thankfully I have chosen another book to hold up next to Delillo’s.
Also on that same book shelf in that bookstore in Seville was Old Masters (1985) by Thomas Bernhard, an author I always wanted to read and a book by him that already sat in my amazon wishlist. I owned Correction, but as in the case of Point Omega, this one seemed a nice short book of subject matter that interested me to employ as a point of entry into Bernhard’s work. What I knew already, and was confirmed by the book’s back, was that Old Masters was about two men conversing at a museum in front of a painting, Tintoretto’s portrait, White-Beard Man. It was not a painting I particularly knew, but this book seemed to perfectly suit my purposes so I was off to reading.
With Old Masters, the experience of reading the book seems as necessary to describe as the work itself. Initially, it seems that this is an author who has strong ideas on form and function in aesthetics and a possibly deep contempt for the reader. Bernhard is certainly not one to baby a reader, that is sure enough, but reading the thoughts and words of his characters it is clear that this also corresponds to a greater intention in the work. What I am getting at, firstly, is the way the book is laid out. It is only 156 pages, not too long, a short novel really, just a bit longer than Point Omega. However, look more closely, it is a solid 156 pages, no chapters, so no chapter breaks, and not a single indention, not for a paragraph nor a quotation of dialogue. The book is a solid block of text from start to finish (I checked, and Correction is just like this too). That puts this novel in the 250 or maybe even 300 page range of conventional novel format.
That is not that long really, but there is a weight to the reading experience. The quick plot is that Atzbacher, a philosopher, is going to meet his older friend Reger, a musicologist and columnist, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna on a Saturday in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Reger sits in front of this painting on the same bench every other day in the morning and has done so almost without fail for almost thirty years to think. Atzbacher saw him here yesterday and Reger asked him to meet him again the next day. This is rare, because Reger never goes two days in a row, never on Saturday’s and never asks Atzbacher to meet him. As far as action goes, that is the plot at its thickest point. There is also a museum guard named Irrsigler who is in the room and has kept that bench reserved for Reger these thirty years.
The actual process of reading this block of text and therefore the process by which Bernhard tells the story is quite crazy and brilliant in its own right. Here is the first sentence:
“Although I had arranged to meet Reger at the Kunsthistorische Museum [his italics] at half-past eleven, I arrived at the agreed spot at half-past ten in order, as I had for some time decided to do, to observe him, for once, from the most ideal angle possible and undisturbed, Atzbacher writes.” (1)
That “Atzbacher writes” is the only indication that this work is in third person, literally until the very end; seriously, the last half page gives us a couple “Atzbacher records,” but otherwise the whole work is told within what Atzbacher is writing or recording. His present tense narration is minimal since all he is doing is looking at Reger and eventually sits by him. Mostly he is thinking of Reger and flashing back to many things Reger has said or said someone else said. This leads to some amazingly beautiful and hysterically convoluted sentences. The perfect example I kept showing people while reading this to demonstrate the extreme of Bernhard’s style is on page nine:
“Discretion, that is your very strong suit, I said to Irrsigler, I reflected, while regarding Reger who was in turn regarding Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man and who, for his part, was being regarded by Irrsigler.”
It is not wrong to find humor here, Bernhard indicates as a subtitle that this work is “A Comedy,” and it is this sentence where I draw my first comparison to Delillo. On page eight of Point Omega you have a moment in the MoMA where the narrator describes the moment where the unnamed man observes Elster and Finley in the installation room: “Everybody was watching something. He was watching the two men, they were watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole was watching Janet Leigh undress.”
Before more comparisons, there is more that needs to be understood about Old Masters. Delillo, with sparse and exacting language lets images fold back in on themselves, while Bernhard gives a process of language or thought folding back in on itself. It is through language that Ouroboros takes form in this novel. It is an angry, vicious, twisty, turny rant. Flipping through my copy of dense text I see so much of my own marginalia, like breadcrumbs in a forest, and many sentences I have even marked with my own little drawings of a snake about to eat its own tail. By page fifty the notes I was jotting about this book refer to it as “punk,” with a righteous anger always on the line of nihilistic-anarchism. Reger hates institutions; he also has a lot of anger towards Austria specifically (maybe this is where a lot of comedy lies, in self-parody, since Bernhard was notoriously critical of his own country).
On page twenty-four, mid-rant about art historians who tour groups through the museum he blurts out that, “The teachers are the henchman of the state, and seeing that this Austrian state today is a spiritually and morally totally crippled state, one that teaches nothing but brutalization and corruption and dangerous chaos, the teachers, quite naturally, are also spiritually and morally deformed and brutalized and corrupt and chaotic.” And on page twenty-eight, “Humanity today is only an inhumanity of the state, I reflect. Man today is only a state man, and in consequence he is today only a destroyed man and a state man as the only humanly possible man, it seems to me.” This punk political attitude continues through the whole book and relates to the title and the White-Bearded Man centerpiece. “State-commissioned art is what Reger calls the paintings hanging on these walls, including even the White Bearded Man [his italics]. The so-called old masters only ever served the state of the Church, which comes to the same thing… Just as so-called free man is a utopia, so the co-called free artist has always been a utopia” (29). Reger finds “the old masters most profoundly repulsive and again and again I continue to study them” (31) and warns to “beware of penetrating into a work of art… you will ruin each and every one for yourself, even those you love most” (32). The method he gives to handle all of this is to turn anything we observe for a long amount of time, a picture, “our parents, our superiors, if we have any, into caricatures, and the whole world into a caricature” (57) noting that “we only control what we find ridiculous” (59).
More personal than punk (but doesn’t the political always begin personally?) Reger gives us some explanation for his rage, for in his own twisted logic he blames the great institutions of society for his wife’s death (just a year before the book is set). In his words, “A crime has been committed against me, a municipal-governmental-Catholic-ecclesiastical atrocity that I can do nothing about” (126). It is here I should note that the last half of the book shows a strong rise of new dominant theme, the master/slave dialectic. It is subtly there all along, in the didactic relationship Reger has towards Irrsigler and Atzbacher, initially a master pupil relation, but by the end the reader is given constant examples of master/slave. On page one hundred and four Reger shows his place in the dialectic, “I have to go to the old masters to be able to exist, precisely to the so-called old masters, who have long, that is for decades, been abhorrent to me, because basically nothing is more abhorrent to me than these so-called old masters here at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and old masters generally, all old masters, no matter what their names are, no matter what they have painted… and yet it is they who keep me alive.” After this it is everywhere, Reger’s dependence on his wife for not only her love, but her economic support, and yet she was his pupil and he gave her daily lessons in poetry and philosophy (and then the pupil is teacher: “we must quite simply and quite ruthlessly brush aside… any philosopher whom our wife fails to understand… and move on” (131); and even with their own housekeeper: “surely the housekeeper is the mistress nowadays, not the other ways around. The so-called powerless are the powerful today” (149).
As I mentioned earlier, the Ouroboros of this work is in Reger’s tangents and his turning of each point back in on itself. It is a dialectic in itself and it begins early. On page sixteen Atzbacher relates that Reger has said, “Actually, I have never, ever since childhood, hated anything more than museums, he said, I am by nature a hater of museums, but it is probably just because of this that I have been coming here for over thirty years, I indulge in this doubtlessly mentally determined absurdity.” This six pages after it is mentioned that to Reger the Kunsthistorisches Museum is his “mental production shop.” One of the finest examples of this is towards the end where Reger states that “Anything kitschy is human… there can be no doubt about that. And so is high art and the highest art” (97).
At one point in all the mess of his ranting, Reger does lend some thoughts to my own side investigation as to what is happening when a writer does a prose rendition of a piece of visual art. For Reger it is an act of possession, and not only possession, but through literature assuming the role of an artist of another medium. He says, “ I certainly regard myself as an artist, that is as a critical artist, and as a critical artist I am also creative, that is obvious, hence a performing and creative artist… That is my greatest delight: to know that as the author of these works of art for The Times I am a painter and a musician and a writer in one” (52). This is also an indication of how Regers mind and rhetoric works. Positive or negative the thought, he always takes it as far into transformative abstraction as he can. Most of his thoughts are negative though and that leads to creating a general tone for the whole work.
What role does Tintoretto’s painting have to do with all the rest of this novel? There is constant mention of the painting, the presence of the painting, but not once is there the description or “prose rendering” of the painting. Though Reger identifies as a painter since he is able to make the arts he writes about in his criticism of them, Bernhard doesn’t see fit to perform this role. For Atzbacher we have a moment where he notes his thoughts on a Reger-inspired rant “while observing Reger and simultaneously, through Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man, gazing into my childhood” (25). He is able to use the painting as a transformative tool, a trick he must have learned from Reger. And Reger has sat here for over thirty years, and this painting has changed his life, he met his wife here, on this bench in from of this painting. Grateful for that, he continued to return, even bringing his wife, to this “mental production shop.” Towards the close of the novel we can finally here Reger say, “Looking at the White-Bearded Man… I have always really loved the White-Bearded Man. I never loved Tintoretto, but I have loved Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. I have looked at this painting for over thirty years and I still find it possible to look at it, there is no other painting I could have looked at for over thirty years” (150-151).
The constant repetition in the way Reger speaks (or the way Atzbacher relates Reger’s speech) is ultimately very musical. By the end of the book I was suspecting that there is a grand form here of refrains on subjects and repetitions of not only words and phrasings but also ideas to the point of leitmotifs. I wished I could read more of it at one sitting, could experience the work at the speed and attention level that Bernhard must have intended and maybe deserves, but I got the idea. It reminded me of Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom, in how there same story is told and retold and each time there is just a little more information and by the end of the book you have the whole story. Here at the end you have Reger’s whole life up to the present moment in the museum. The true comedy comes at the end of this crazy work, which I won’t give away in case anyone wants to read this book and have a difficult but fulfilling literary experience, but I will confirm, that a book that is constantly vicious and angry with many arguments towards suicide or nihilism does end humorously, and not even by way of black comedy.
It is mere coincidence that I chose to read and review both of these novels together. For me in my deciding, they both looked slim, both by authors I had never read before, and both contained a piece of visual art from the real world. After those obvious shared traits, coincidences mounted towards synchronicities. Both books are bookended by third person (the Anonymity chapters on Point Omega and the subtle indication of the third person state of the whole work in Old Masters). Elster is to Finley as Reger is to Atzbacher, and Atzbacher gives voice to Reger in the way Finley hopes to give voice to Elster. Both show an anger towards institutions that have failed us (the administration that led to the Iraq War, rendition sites, and torture in Point Omega and the every institution in Old Masters). In both there is a missing woman who once had a didactic relationship with the patriarchal figure (the daughter Jessie who disappears in Point Omega and the deceased wife of Old Masters).
And finally, in regards to these losses, these old men, masters in their own rights, have come to similar conclusions. Reger tells us that, “All our lives we rely on the great minds and on the so-called old masters… and then we are mortally disappointed by them because they do no fulfill their purpose at the crucial moment” (144) and then Finley reiterates this while observing Elster, “I thought of his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck, half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All man’s grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not” (98).
And notice how well, and in the same way, both of those quotes employ their respective titles? I believe that all those characters (by the ends of the books surely) and even their creators would scoff at my amplification of these coincidences to synchronicities, but I couldn’t relate them if they weren’t there.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia.