What is it about?

Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73) grew up under National Socialism, obtained a doctorate in philosophy after the war, and rose to become one of Austria’s most celebrated authors. Her work engages with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and uses literary language games to address societal problems that were discouraged in public discourse. Bachmann’s so-called Todesarten (manners of death) stories portray subtle, socially sanctioned murders that are allowed to take place because a society turns a blind eye. Her 1971 novel "Malina" is a haunting postmodern account of a smart, talented, anonymous author living in postwar Vienna who is traumatized by the men in her life and ultimately vanishes into a crack in the wall, murdered by her male alter-ego. While Bachmann’s engagement with Wittgenstein has been noted, I diverge from previous studies by approaching "Malina" through the lens of key ideas in Wittgenstein’s later work. Understanding the Wittgensteinian language games in Malina allows the novel’s philosophical underpinnings to enhance our understanding of its aesthetic and social-critical qualities.

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Why is it important?

This paper argues that language itself is of paramount importance in granting legitimacy to traumatic experiences. Specifically, language games in "Malina" reveal that one of the most destructive aspects of trauma occurs through silencing, i.e., when language becomes impossible. Every society has both favored and discouraged narratives, making the topic of repressed trauma universally relevant. Bachmann wrote during a historical moment in which multiple narratives about Austria’s crimes in the Holocaust, the Jewish experience of the Shoah, and the gendered experience of women in patriarchal postwar Austria were repressed within families and by broader sociopolitical forces. During Bachmann’s lifetime, her work was often praised for its beautiful language rather than seen for its cutting social critique, and she has only belatedly been recognized for bringing uncomfortable subjects into public discourse. The literary forms Bachmann used to portray trauma perpetrated by an entire society’s thought and language connect with the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most famous yet often misunderstood philosophers of the 20th century. This paper serves as a case study for how Wittgenstein’s ideas were adapted by someone who had engaged on a technical, academic level with his work and later wove Wittgensteinian language games into her creative work.

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This page is a summary of: The Beetle in Pain: Private Trauma in Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina, Journal of Austrian Studies, January 2020, Project Muse,
DOI: 10.1353/oas.2020.0060.
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