Georgette FleischerIngeborg Bachmann's Malina (1971): Wittgensteinian Poetics out of the Austrian National Socialist Past

by Georgette Fleischer



That the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) was a Wittgensteinian writer, though she came to his philosophy late, has been no secret since the publication in 1996 of Marjorie Perloff's Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary.(1) In "Border Games: The Wittgenstein Fictions of Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann," Perloff employs a methodology that is comparable to the one Wittgenstein describes in the foreward to his Philosophische Untersuchungen [Philosophical Investigations] (1952), the first part of which was written during World War II: "[T]he nature of the investigation itself," he writes, "forces us to travel a wide field of thought, criss-crossing in all directions.--The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a collection of landscape sketches that have emerged from this long and complicated journey." (2)

It is Wittgenstein's criss-cross pattern [kreuz und quer] that structures Perloff's chapter on Ingeborg Bachmann and her compatriot Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989). Moving from the early lyric of one to the early lyric of the other, from the late fiction of the other to the late fiction of the one, we follow a game of chess instrumented by one critic for two players, or one reader for two writers. With her unfailing eye and ear for the poetry in the text, Perloff demonstrates that Bachmann's and Bernhard's relinquishment of lyric was not a relinquishment of poetry at all, but rather its reinvention within the framework of prose narrative, which in the case of Bachmann's Malina finds dramatic expression in the broken "telephone sentences" tentatively offered by the "Ich" narrator to her inaccessible lover, Ivan:

1 Hello. Hello?

2 I, who else then

3 Yes, of course, excuse

4 How am I? And you?

5 I don't know. Tonight?

6 I hear you so poorly

7 Poorly? What? You can then

8 I can't hear you well, can you

9 What? Is something?

10 No, nothing, you can even later

11 Of course, I'd better call you later

12 I, I should actually with friends

13 Yes, if you can't, then

14 That's not what I said, only if you can't

15 In any case we'll talk on the phone later

16 Yes, but around six o'clock, because

17 But even that is too late for me

18 Yes, for me too actually, but

19 Maybe today doesn't make any sense

20 Did someone come in?

21 No, only now Frau Jellinek is

22 I see, you're not alone any more

23 But later please, definitely please! (3)


What Perloff calls "the rigidly restricted register of this phrasal poetry" (WL 171) is most expressive, I would say, in a devolving pattern sequence that runs through lines 7: "You can then" [Du kannst also], 8: "can you" [kannst du], 10: "you can even later" [du kannst mich spaeter noch], 13: "if you can't, then" [wenn du nicht kannst, dann], 14: "only if you can't" [nur wenn du nicht], which speaks in stops and starts of the "Ich" narrator's inability to translate her impulses to connect with Ivan (hence the "telephone sentences" and the interference they later experience on the line) into actual contact, or later, conversely, her inability to translate physical contact with Ivan into real connection with him. We see that the "Ich" narrator, a well-known but reclusive writer, and Ivan, who goes to work regularly on the Kaerntnerring (Vienna's financial district) but at a mysteriously unspecified job, are only comfortable with each other when engaged in that quintessential Wittgensteinian activity, a game of chess, during which they drink whiskey and smoke a lot of cigarettes. The portrait is sad and familiar.

In the "Ich" narrator and Ivan's use of "telephone sentences" [Telefonsaetze], "teaching sentences" [Lehrsaetze], "example sentences" [Beispielsaetze], "the first little saying-nothing sentences" [die ersten kleinen nichtssagenden Saetze], and so on, Bachmann plays on the double sense of Satz in German, which means both sentence and proposition, welding a verbal pun out of her dual interest in language and philosophy.

But Bachmann creates "phrasal poetry" in Malina within the prose form as well. The "Ich" narrator, who suffers from disturbances of memory (in this she is meant to stand for Austrians generally), has difficulty separating in her mind a series of painful experiences. The first of these, "[t]he first discovery [Erkenntnis] of pain," occurred when she was a schoolgirl of six, and was slapped in the face by one of a couple of boys slightly older than she: this happened on the Glan bridge. The second occurred when she was a young woman of nineteen, and was kissed for the first time at the beginning of the Sea promenade by the Woerthersee, only to be left for a more sophisticated woman of thirty five. The third occurred when she was older, and endured a painfully lonely birthday aboard an oceanliner that made a policy of serving cake to all the passengers and singing "happy birthday to you." This is how the phrasal building occurs (in each case, the paragraphs are complete):

It was on the Glan bridge. It was not the Sea promenade. (22)

It was not on the Glan bridge, not on the Sea promenade, it was also not on the Atlantic in the night. I only travelled through this night, drunk, toward the worst night. [Ich fuhr nur durch diese Nacht, betrunken, der untersten Nacht entgegen.] (23)

It should be clear that the 'family resemblance' among these memories derives from the fact that all present the narrator in various phases of mistreatment at the hands of men. In the first memory she is the object of physical violence (a slap), in the second the object of emotional violence (a kiss, only to be abandoned), in the third her aloneness becomes a public embarrassment on the populated oceanliner (cake, birthday song).

Pain is the sharp edge by which Ingeborg Bachmann lays bare Austria's collective social and psychological illnesses, including importantly in Malina and the remainder of her unfinished Todesarten Zyklus [ways of dying cycle] (Der Fall Franza, Requiem fuer Fanny Goldmann) illnesses that have arisen from Austria's inability to come to terms with its National Socialist past. As Bachmann makes clear in the second of her two Wittgenstein essays, a radio essay written in 1953 and broadcast the following year from Munich, "Sayable and Unsayable--Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophy," illnesses are to be cured by means of language, a belief that will define the poetics of Malina, as will be seen further on:

First Speaker: And because language is a labyrinth of paths--as [Wittgenstein] calls it somewhere else--philosophy must by means of language take up the struggle against the bewitchment of our reason. It must destroy castles in the air and lay bare the foundation of language, it must be like therapy, because philosophical problems are illnesses which must be cured. He orders not a solution, but a cure.(4)

Born in the southeastern border town of Klagenfurt in 1926, (5) and so only eleven years old at the time of the Anschluss with National Socialist Germany in March 1938, Ingeborg Bachmann came of age toward the end of World War II and was a young woman during the immediate postwar years when Austria was divided into zones and occupied by the Allied powers (1945-1955). These experiences are inscribed in the "Ich" narrator's need to delimit the limits of her world, to remain enclosed within her "Ungargassenland" (as she joyously calls it in a paean to Ivan, who is Hungarian), bounded by Ivan's house at Ungargasse 9, hers at number 6, and the geographic anchor of the Stadtpark.

There are two other male figures who together with Ivan bind the "Ich" narrator in a triangulation of pain. The ambiguous gender of the eponymous "Malina" reinforces the suggestion that he, who lives with the "Ich" narrator at Ungargasse 6, is an alter ego for her. According to the "Ich," Malina does not live "so convulsive a life" as she, he doesn't "waste his time on trivialities," worrying about his appearance, making himself late, "stammering apologies," yet he is not irritated by her ways: even though they can hardly overlook each other in the daily conduct of their lives, he notices her or not as he pleases. She concludes:

It seems to me then, that his quietness is due to the fact that I am for him too unimportant and familiar a person [Ich = literally "ego"], as if he had ruled me out, a waste [einen Abfall], a superfluous incarnation, as if I were only made out of his rib and always dispensable to him, but also an unavoidable dark history, which his history wants to accompany and complement, but which he delimits and separates from his own clear history. (M 19)

This passage is key to an understanding of the novel Malina, and to an understanding of Bachmann's Todesarten Zyklus as a whole and the way in which, in it, the figure of the woman, specifically the woman writer in Malina, bears the burden of "an unavoidable dark history." One wonders if this is why she becomes the object of such hostility for the male figures, particularly Malina and the "Ich" narrator's erstwhile National Socialist father. Ivan's mistreatment is circumscribed, a matter of indifference toward a woman whose love he does not return, and his status as a Hungarian places him somewhat at a distance from the shameful period of Austrian National Socialism which is the dark, repressed history of the other figures. (6) But even though Malina's ethnicity is ambiguous (he might be Slavic, he might be Slovenian), his work as a government official (Staatsbeamter der Klasse A) in the Austrian Army Museum, as well as his academic major, history, ties him to the National Socialist period that haunts the dreams of the "Ich" narrator throughout the shortest chapter of the novel, "The Third Man," (7) which focusses on the National Socialist father as her tormentor, completing the passage from the introductory section of the novel quoted above, the one that alluded to a fugitive "worst night":

[My father] wears the blood-stained white butcher's apron in front of a slaughterhouse at dawn, he wears the red executioner's cloak and climbs the steps, he wears silver and black with black boots in front of an electric barbed-wire fence, in front of a loading ramp, in a watch tower, he wears his costume for the riding whips, for the shoulder rifles, for the shot-in-the-neck pistols, in the worst night the costumes are worn, blood-stained and horrible.


My father, who does not have the voice of my father, asks from afar:


And I say over a long distance, because we come ever farther apart and farther apart and farther:

I know who you are.

I have understood everything. (M 246)

But it is not only the father as National Socialist that torments the "Ich" narrator, for he is also her incestor. Here Bachmann exploits the etymology of the word for incest in German, Blutschande, which literally means "blood shame." The word Blutschande rivets etymologically the senses in which the postwar generation has been shamed by heredity, both by the historical legacy of their National Socialist parents and by the racial legacy that ties them to the perpetrators of violence against those whose blood was considered inferior or degenerate. Furthermore, Blutschande is a word whose 'meaning in use' was perverted under National Socialism, when it was used to designate not impermissible endogamy (incest), but exogamy that was made impermissible by the Nuremberg laws of 1935, interracial sexuality, or 'miscegenation.' (8)

Bachmann employs phrasal echoes both in the passages that reveal the father as incestor, and in the "Ich" narrator's declaration in the final line of the novel: "Es war Mord" [It was murder]. In "The Third Man," the narrator states that her mother knows everything, "Blutschande, es war Blutschande" (M 188), and on the following page she breaks down, hangs on her mother, and cries, "ja, es war das, er war es, es war Blutschande" [yes, it was that, he was it, it was incest] (M 189), an expressive chiasmus and catachresis of pronouns.

The long phrasal echo: "es war Blutschande" (M 188, 189), "Es war Mord" (M 356), serves to hold up the two violations, incest and murder, as equivalent in their emotional valence, in their shamefulness, in the force of their repression. Such a reading is supported by the ways in which the chapter "The Third Man" places the "Ich" narrator in the stead of the victims of National Socialism, most pointedly in the first of the dream sequences, in which the father attempts to gas her. There is then a certain inevitability (in hindsight, at least) that it is her murder which is recorded in the final line, Es war Mord, her final line. Immediately prior to this stark ending, an ironic inversion of the murder mystery format, which usually starts with the announcement of a murder and works backward to seek its causes, the "Ich" narrator disappears into a crack in the wall. From there she records Malina's disposal of her effects (eye glasses, coffee cup, unfinished letters) and an overheard telephone conversation in which he denies her very existence, a literal "Vernichtung" [annihilation]. Yet she insists "Es war nicht Malina" [It was not Malina] (M 354), which suggests that it was instead the father and all that is associated with him (incest, National Socialism) that has murdered her, in other words, that it is the not yet worked through past that is the primary cause of her destruction, and the destructive relationships with the men in her life, her lover and her alter ego, are secondary effects, or to borrow Bachmann's medical metaphor, symptoms of an underlying illness of history.


It was during the immediate postwar years, the years of the Allied occupation of Austria (1945-1955), that Ingeborg Bachmann wrote a dissertation at the University of Vienna under the direction of the philosopher Victor Kraft. (Her minor fields, not surprisingly, were psychology and German studies.) Bachmann's thesis, which was accepted in January 1950, was entitled "The Critical Reception of the Existential Philosophy of Martin Heidegger," a critique she apparently undertook in order to discredit Heidegger. As Sara Lennox writes:

Later interviews indicate that, in some contrast to the Heidegger enthusiasts of the fifties, Bachmann took Heidegger's early support for the Nazis seriously and was also prepared to connect his political opinions to his philosophy. In a 1973 interview she declared that she had refused to write a poem he had requested from her for the Festschrift on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, and it was still with some glee that she reported her certainty that her dissertation had demolished his philosophy: "Denn ich habe damals gemeint mit zweiundzwanzig Jahren, diesen Mann werde ich jetzt stürzen!" [Because I thought at that time, at twenty-two years old, I would now overthrow this man!] (9)

I would suggest that the positive side of Bachmann's partisanship contributed to her fierce admiration of the Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He became nothing less than an intellectual hero to her. He is quoted only once in her dissertation, in the closing remarks, as Sigrid Weigel explains:

In connection with the problem of justifying Heidegger's attempt to grasp the realm of the inexpressible by rational means, described as the "second science," [Bachmann] states: "The result will always be the dangerous half rationalization of a sphere that can be touched with one word from Wittgenstein: 'Of that which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.'" (Diss. 115) (10)

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muB man schweigen, the final proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), was arguably the Wittgenstein proposition that was most important to Bachmann, a proposition which acquired a new tension in the years after World War II as the need to speak about the past became pressing. Sigrid Weigel points out that in Bachmann's citation of the proposition here, written into the end of her dissertation in 1949, Wittgenstein appears as "the mentor of a commandment to silence" (H 93). But Bachmann's relationship to the proposition changed, to a certain extent in response to her deeper understanding of Wittgenstein, but also in response to what she needed to take from him. In the first of her Wittgenstein essays, published in July 1953, Bachmann writes:

Not the clarifying, negative propositions which restrict philosophy to a logical analysis of scientific language, and leaves the investigation of reality to the special fields of natural science, but his desperate attempt to get at the unspeakable, which charges the Tractatus with a tension in which he himself is sublated--therefore his failure to attain a positive regulation of philosophy, which in the other Neopositivists becomes a frightful ignorance--this is worth a renewed, ever renewing, attention to his thought.(11)

It is Wittgenstein's "desperate attempt to get at the unspeakable" that Bachmann strove to emulate in her Todesarten Zyklus. It was in between her first and her second Wittgenstein essays, probably in 1953, that Bachmann read the Philosophical Investigations for the first time. She may not have read or thought through them very carefully at the time she wrote the radio essay "Sayable and Unsayable," whose title already tells us a lot about Bachmann's preoccupation in it. For instance, Bachmann glosses over the fundamental differences in methodology and belief represented in Wittgenstein's World War I and World War II works (the Tractatus [1921] and the Philosophical Investigations [1952], respectively). Instead, she takes up in the Philosophical Investigations the threads that had already interested her in the Tractatus, namely, the relationship between philosophy, thinking, and especially language. More often than not, the propositions she quotes argue for the power of language:

"A whole cloud of philosophy can be condensed to a drop of grammar [Sprachlehre]!"

"Language itself is the vehicle for thinking." (SuU 123)

There are other examples, but it is from the following that one can best extrapolate the poetics of Bachmann's Todesarten Zyklus:

First Speaker: Because philosophical difficulties are discovered to be residing in language, we understand why Wittgenstein's work contains a theory of language. We will see how one can "depict" the world in correct and meaningful propositions, how we can "speak" about the world, and what philosophy as critique of our speaking about the world can achieve. (SuU 107)

In addition to the critical dialectic suggested in the last line, it is Bachmann's discovery that philosophical difficulties are "residing in language" that is salient here. From here, I would like to suggest, she substitutes for philosophical difficulties residing in language, collective social and psychological difficulties, specifically those difficulties which are the legacy of Austrian National Socialism and the Second World War. I would furthermore like to suggest that even though she did not comment on it directly (as far as I know), Bachmann apprehended and made internal to the poetics of her Todesarten Zyklus an extended section of language philosophy contained in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein's skeptical consideration of the possibility of 'private language' (sections 243-360).

It is not possible in a short space to follow the numerous arrows of Wittgenstein's criss-crossing research into the question of 'private language,' nor is it possible to capture the mercurial quality of his quicksilver thought. Briefly, though, he begins with a simple question:

Now in what respect are my feelings private? (section 246)

From the beginning, pain is the feeling Wittgenstein uses to test the limits of 'private language.' According to Wittgenstein, only I can know if I am truly in pain, another person can only suspect it. What's more:

The other person cannot have my pain. (section 253)

And so it makes sense to say, my pain is the same as his, only so far as we can both have the same pain. Here one might rewrite Wittgenstein's Tractatus proposition, to state that the limits of my language are the limits of my internal world, or my knowledge thereof. The following section, with which I will conclude this brief sketch, is particularly important in Wittgenstein's investigation of 'private language' and culminates in the principle that cinches claims made throughout the Philosophical Investigations: (1) the claim that the function of language derives from its use; and, relying on Wittgenstein's most celebrated metaphor of the language game, (2) the claim that it is only because of its place within a set of already established rules that a word takes on meaning:

257. "How would it be, if people could not express their pain (not groan, not grimace, etc.)? Then one could not teach a child the use of the words tooth pain.--Now, let us assume that child to be a genius who invents itself a name for the feeling!--But now, however, it could not make itself understandable with this word.--Therefore it understands the name, but can no one explain its meaning?--But what does it mean then, that he 'has named his pain'?--How has he done that: to name pain?! And, whatever he has done, what is its purpose?--When one says "He has given the feeling a name," one forgets that a lot must be already prepared in language, in order that the mere naming have sense. And when from there we say that someone gives pain a name, it is the grammar of the word "pain" that is already prepared here [so ist die Grammatik des Wortes >>Schmerz<< hier das Vorbereitete]; it shows the post on which the new word will be placed.

It is "pain" to which I would like to return in Bachmann's Malina. I have claimed that it is pain over the not yet worked through Austrian National Socialist past that is the foundation of the "Ich" narrator's suffering. Clearly pain over a collective past is anything but 'private.' Though frequently interrupted and incomplete (in addition to broken "telephone sentences," she is troubled by unfinished letters, an unfinished fairy tale she attempts to write for Ivan, "The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran," and a taped interview with a Herr Muehlbauer that is troubled by more than technical difficulties), the "Ich" narrator's language does figure her pain for us, right up until her final line, Es war Mord. Actually, it is in her madcap interview with Herr Muehlbauer that the "Ich" explains the poetics of Malina and the Todesarten Zyklus. Her pain arises not only because she bears "an unavoidable dark history" within her, but also because as a writer she bears the burden of working it through in language. "One must suffer away the past" [muB man die Vergangenheit ganz ableiden], she explains to Herr Muehlbauer:

[O]ne must suffer away the things other people have no time for in their countries, in which they are busy and plan and act, they sit in their countries, truly anachronistic because they are without language, it is the people who are without language who rule for all time. I will give away a terrible secret: language is punishment [die Sprache ist die Strafe]. All things must enter into language and must be worn away in language according to their guilt and the degree of their guilt. (M 98)

This is a terrible secret, but the "Ich" narrator is able through her language to give it away, and Ingeborg Bachmann is able, through the multiple forms of her language, to figure for us the arduous process of suffering away so shameful a historical past.



1. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Citations will appear in the text.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Werkausgabe in 8 Baenden. Band 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 1989: 231. Subsequent citations will be given by section, rather than page number. Except where otherwise noted in endnote 5, translations throughout this essay are mine. I thank Willi Goetschel for helping me negotiate the more difficult translations of Bachmann.

3. Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina (1971). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1980: 36.

4. Ingeborg Bachmann, "Sagbares und Unsagbares--Die Philosophie Ludwig Wittgensteins" [Sayable and Unsayable--Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophy] (Broadcast 16 September 1954). Ingeborg Bachmann Werke. 4 Baende. Band 4. Edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, Clemens Muenster. Muenchen, Zuerich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1978: 124.

5. Bachmann wrote the following biographical sketch "sometime between May and September 1952 for a radio broadcast" according to Mark Anderson's Appendix:

I grew up in Carinthia, near the border, in a valley that has two names--a German one and a Slovenian one. And the house inhabited for generations by my ancestors--Austrians and Wends--still bears a foreign-sounding name. So near the border is yet another border: the border of language. I felt at home here and on the other side, with the tales of good and evil spirits from two and three countries. For behind the mountains, just an hour away, is Italy.

Mark Anderson, In the Storm of Roses: Selected Poems by Ingeborg Bachmann. Translated, edited, and introduced. Princeton University Press, 1986: 193. Bachmann's figuration here demonstrates her fondness for one of the propositions from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), written in the trenches during the First World War: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." [Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.]

6. It should be remembered, however, that Hungary was a beneficiary of the compromising Munich Pact of 1938, acquiring a swath of southern Slovakia, and subsequently signed the Axis Tripartite Pact in November 1940, supported Germany's invasion of Russia in June 1941 (the Barbarossa campaign), and declared war, joining the Axis forces.

7. Surely Bachmann is alluding in her chapter title "The Third Man" to the 1949 Orson Wells film of the same title, based on the novella by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Set in postwar Vienna, the film features Wells as a charismatic figure who stages his own death in order to elude punishment for crimes committed during the war years. "Harry" diluted penicillin in order to sell it for profit, which led to the crippling of children in Vienna's hospitals.

8. I thank Mark Anderson for offering the final meaning of Blutschande, its use under National Socialism for 'miscegenation.'

9. Sara Lennox, "Bachmann and Wittgenstein." Modern Austrian Literature. Vol.18, nos.3/5 (1985): 246.

10. Sigrid Weigel, Ingeborg Bachmann: Hinterlassenschaften unter Wahrung des Briefgeheimnisses. Wien: Paul Zsolnay Verlag, 1999: 93. Weigel's monumental intellectual biography of Bachmann is a major event. She will be giving a paper based upon it at the 1999 Chicago MLA, entitled "Ingeborg Bachmann: Literary Bequest by Protecting the Secrecy of Letters."

11. Ingeborg Bachmann, "Ludwig Wittgenstein--Zu einem Kapitel der juengsten Philosophiegeschichte" [Ludwig Wittgenstein--Toward a Chapter on the Most Recent History of Philosophy] (July 1953). Ingeborg Bachmann Werke. 4 Baende. Band 4. Edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, Clemens Muenster. Muenchen, Zuerich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1978: 13.

BIO: Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1926, and died in Rome in 1973. Even before she received her doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Vienna in 1950, she had begun writing lyric poetry. She also produced short stories, radio plays (Hoerspiele), opera libretti, critical essays, and an unfinished (Todesarten) cycle of novels. Bachmann received numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Georg-Buechner-Preis in 1964, and the Anton-Wildgans-Preis in 1971. Today, a literary prize is awarded in Klagenfurt in her name.

BIO: Georgette Fleischer is a doctoral candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She has published on Djuna Barnes (Studies in the Novel, Fall 1998) and on Postmodernist Poetics (Contemporary Literature, Summer 1997), as well as reviews for the Nation and the Germanic Review. Her current project, Genre Departures: Women Writers and the Crisis of Representing National Socialism and World War II, has a chapter on Ingeborg Bachmann.



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