Revelation and spectacle: dead cows as seen from trains in Monterroso and Bernhard

“While I was traveling on the train the other day, I suddenly stood up, happy on my own two feet, and began to wave my hands with joy, and invite everyone to look at the scenery and see the twilight that was really glorious. The women, the children, and some gentlemen who interrupted their conversation all looked at me in surprise and laughed; when I quietly sat down again, there was no way for them to know what I had just see at the side of the road: a dead, a really dead cow moving past slowly with no one to bury her or edit her complete works or deliver a deeply felt and moving speech about how good she had been and all the streams of foaming milk she had given so that life in general and the train in particular could keep going.”

“Cow”, Augusto Monterroso, Complete Works and Other Stories, translated by Edith Grossman

“Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them cut all to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pick-ax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.”

“The Milkmaid”, Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.

Why does Monterroso’s narrator take such joy in the sight of the deceased cow? Why does Bernhard’s remain aloof? No essayist in their right mind aspires to the truth, in the strictest sense, so with that in mind, I’ll venture a notion or two.

 Of primary important is the fact that, in Monterroso’s story, the cow is seen, presumably, by only the narrator, whereas there is a “we” present in Bernhard’s, and, given the duration of that stop, it seems likely that many interested parties aside from the narrator and his immediate coterie saw the grisly results of the collision. In a sense, what we have is the difference between a revelation and a spectacle. Being the sole recipient of the sight of the cow, Monterroso’s narrator experiences something like a religious fervor, a desire for others to come and see, a responsibility to communicate to others the sacrifice that has been made, by an artist no less (echoes of Mayakovsky, “the wheels of a locomotive will embrace my neck” (t. Pierre Sokolsky)). But he is received indifferently by the other passengers, who only briefly interrupt their conversations. As Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, “Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication.” Therefore, the revelation loses not only its luster but its content once Monterroso’s narrator seeks to convey it to his fellow travelers. Bernhard’s narrator, on the other hand, is part of a group that witnesses the spectacle firsthand of the cows running headlong into the train, and, presumably, with the delay it caused, even more passengers would view the grisly aftermath. There is a cold indifference on the part of Bernhard’s narrator (indifference being one of Bernhard’s great themes), but neither does he mention much of a reaction from the others, even an impatience at having their express train delayed (an impertinence Monterroso’s passengers would certainly not have withstood without comment). In this case, there is no responsibility; everyone has seen it, the milkmaid plays the mourner, and the train company’s employees must deal with the bloody remains with their pickaxes. Meanwhile, what can be said of meaningful content in a scene we all observe simultaneously, a scene like many we have seen before, furthering Debord’s point that the spectacle must be confronted and critiqued as “a visible negation of life.”

 If Bernhard’s great theme is indifference, its counterpart is surely annihilation, and the short stories of The Voice Imitator approach this theme in a variety of ways, exploring the forces of nature, society, and self that cause us to break, that ultimately lead to the annihilation of human beings, the indifference of others—and here lies the crux of Bernhard’s critique (or utter disdain) for the kind rewriting of Austrian history by the prevailing cultural forces of his day—being perhaps chief among them. Here I might also venture a Freudian reading of the two stories, an idea I take from Fernando Valerio-Holguín’s 1999 paper, “La Perversio’n del texto en ‘Obras Completas (y Otros Cuentos)’ de Augusto Monterroso”. The death instinct, which, as he explains, prefigures an ultimate moment of relaxation, comes in response to the tensions of life, often as a result of serial displacement, a mourning for a more authentic mode of existence. (On the case of mourning, I couldn’t get past this essay without mentioning as a potential source of inspiration Platonov’s (considerably longer) short story, “The Cow”, in which a mother, having long her calf, wanders into the path of a train, which is to be taken as a suicidal gesture, and very likely, a nod to Anna’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Oddly enough, “The Cow” was made into an Oscar-nominated children’s animated feature in 1989.) In this way, a more modern story might instead feature deer encountering semi-trucks, a more relatable symbol of the tension between man and nature, as man segments nature according to his needs, leaving the deer in a state of tension resolvable only, in the Freudian sense, by death. You can imagine, in Monterro’s story, the long passenger on a crowded bus to notice a dear on the side of the road, or in Bernhard’s, a more forceful impact, a doe and fawn, that causes a stop to tie off a loose bumper and replace a radiator cap.  

 But cows are not the most reliable symbols of nature, their habitats are human-made, therefore already segmented, and I would conclude, ultimately, that the two stories can be most effectively read as a Debordian critique of the spectacle. Cows, divorced from nature proper, are commodities, as real as commodification gets, physical impediments. As György Lukács put it, “all the social and economic conditions necessary for the emergence of modern capitalism tend to replace ‘natural’ relations which exhibit human relations more plainly by rationally reified relations.” In the scenes from the two stories, you have the image of the cows, reified commodities, mediating the relations between the people aboard the train. Monterroso’s narrator may then therefore be exemplary of the pre-spectacle individual, who experiences the dead cow with nerve endings bared, while the individuals aboard the train in Bernhard’s story—and for that matter, the others in Monterroso’s—are the dispassionate observers of a spectacle, or, in the latter case, perhaps even too wearied to participate at all. The experience of the cows, in all the gruesomeness of the scene, is no longer lived directly.

There is another sense in which annihilation is important to both Bernhard and Monterroso. In the aforementioned essay, Valerio-Holguín more broadly associates the idea of death with Monterroso’s recurring theme of the “complete works”, a motif which appears in three stories in the aforementioned collection. In Bernhard as well, the pursuit of completion or perfection in a work of art is frequently tied to the destruction of either the art or the artist, most famously in The Corrections, but sprinkled liberally throughout his oeuvre, including The Voice Imitator, in which a chorister is beheaded for singing a wrong note, a comic actor throws himself off a ledge to escape the trail of laughter that follows him (he fails), and a first-time playwright murders his audience for an incongruous reaction. I do not think Bernhard had this intention while writing “The Milkmaid”, but it draws an interesting parallel to what Monterroso may have had in mind with “The Cow” and other of his stories in Obras Completas. 

 What then stands as my thesis? Well, that this was an interesting coincidence.

 We pull the string. The cow says nothing, because it is dead.

— Joshua Rothes