Did Peter Handke deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature? The guidelines for this award of all awards require, in accordance with the will of Alfred Nobel, that the honored laureate “shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”2 If this requirement is understood to be some kind of humanistic mission, it is difficult to find such a commitment in Handke’s late oeuvre. This has been the view of many critics, which, in the autumn of 2019, triggered a heated public debate3 and even led to demonstrations in Stockholm on the eve of the award ceremony.
It cannot be denied that Handke’s early works won him a place in the literary canon rightfully; their merits are beyond dispute. Plays like his 1966 Publikumsbeschimpfung revolutionized the theatre, while his 1972 memoir Wunschloses Unglück about the suicide of his mother was a generational must-read for many. Yet his subsequent works diminished this canonical credit – a regrettable literary development that includes his vapid Versuche, his pointlessly bloated 1994 novel Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, and, above all, his texts on ex-Yugoslavia. The latter blatantly reveal the weaknesses of his poetics and confront us with their dark, non-humanistic side, while at the same time proving symptomatic of an attitude that goes beyond the purely literary – to the point of inviting the label of false idealism.
On the other hand, we can welcome the fact that the disputed honoring of Handke with the Nobel Prize has not only retrieved the still virulent war trauma of the West Balkans from public ignorance and oblivion, but also ignited a global debate about the relationship of author and work as well as of literature and politics in general. It is to this discussion that this article wishes to contribute by focusing on three problem areas in Handke’s work, two of which are well known, while the third offers a new take on the debate.
Handke’s poetics can be described by the term that Theodor Adorno coined for a much greater Schreibtischtäter, namely Martin Heidegger: as a Jargon der Eigentlichkeit that, long after the era of romanticism, aesthetically pursues the allegedly “right” word in the hope not only of proper representation, but of “poeticizing” – if not replacing – reality. This could also be termed a principle of “autistic empathy” (oxymoron intended) with subjectively perceived phenomena, an impressionistic “Gegengeschichte”4 that prefers to ignore certain so-called (historical) facts. This is not necessarily bad, as long as it does not tend to becloud our constructions of reality rather than make them better understandable, or even to produce what might be termed a kind of literary “fake news.” Yet book reviewers still remain divided as to whether they should be aesthetically convinced by Handke’s meandering verbal struggle that does not shy away from kitsch – striking some critics as infantilism5 – and leads to his notorious wor(l)d-building: an all-in writing rife with excessive compounds, substantivated participles or infinitives, and neologisms.
Handke’s “Poetik des Nebensächlichen”6 chooses a cursory literary phenomenology of the things and people “nebendraußen” (YU 77), i.e., a subjective focus on the periphery and its paraphernalia rather than on the centralities of our world.7 It thus performs a writing that attempts a new, exact observation in the tradition of Stifter, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, and others,8 which ultimately fails in the context of the Yugoslav Succession Wars in the 1990s. On that topic, Tilman Zülch published an extensive volume titled Die Angst des Dichters vor der Wirklichkeit (1996), which documents the most important objections to Handke’s “Yugoslav” texts; there was also a more apologetic volume by Thomas Deichmann, Noch einmal für Jugoslawien (1999), and several ensuing publications9 have pursued the debate ever since.
So what are the charges against Handke? As early as 1991, he made the public take notice of his literary farewell to his imaginary homeland Slovenia (Abschied des Träumers vom neunten Land) after the country, to his distinct displeasure,10 declared its independence from Yugoslavia. His essay and the later travelogues caused Slavoj Žižek (in (in “Der Balkan im Auge”) to accuse him of a special form of wishfully “reversed” racism11 that finds its desired authenticity12 embodied by the “noble savage” of South Eastern Europe – a structural problem that has haunted Handke’s writing on Yugoslavia from its beginning. As Žižek writes in his commentary Die Flitterwochen sind vorbei:
Was Handke nun stört, ist, daß das tatsächliche Slowenien sich nicht so benehmen will, wie es sein Privatmythos vorschreibt, und deshalb die Balance seines Kunstentwurfs stört. Die extremste Form des Rassismus ist der Wunsch, das ‘Andere‘, das Unverstandene in seiner spezifischen, begrenzten Form von ‘Authentizität’ festzuschreiben, einer Authentizität, die nur durch den Blick des Fremden definiert wird.13
Then, in November 1995, shortly before the Dayton Peace Agreement, which put a temporary end to the war in the Western Balkans, Handke traveled intentionally to the “wrong” country14 – i.e., not to the devastated and depopulated Bosnia-Hercegovina, but to Serbia. Only after the storm of indignation triggered by his first travelogue, Winterliche Reise, did he choose to travel briefly to Bosnia (for his Sommerlicher Nachtrag, 1996). In the winterly account, the author from Austria who had moved into a Paris suburb preferred to report mainly about Belgrade marketplaces and the appearance of people on the streets, as in the following reflections:
Wer waren die vielen alten Männer, welche tags darauf, fast ein jeder für sich, in dem von beiden Flüssen aufsteigenden, schon vorwinterlichen Nebel auf dem Gelände der Kalemegdan-Ruinen so schweigsam müßiggingen? Weder hatten sie, oft mit Krawatte und Hut, glattrasiert für balkanische [!] Verhältnisse, etwas von pensionierten Arbeitern, noch konnten derartige Mengen doch ehemalige Beamte und Freiberufler sein; zwar strahlten sie allesamt ein Standesbewusstsein aus, das auch […] ein sichtlich anderes war als zum Beispiel das mir von Deutschland und insbesondere Österreich bekannte gutbürgerliche. Und zudem wirkten diese alten, dabei nie greisen Männer weder europäisch noch freilich auch orientalisch [!]; am ehesten zu vergleichen mit Spaziergängern auf einer diesigen Promenade im Baskenland, wenn auch ohne die entsprechenden Mützen. (YU 85–86)
Handke’s literary gaze, which (not for the first time, cf. NT 35), is obsessed with hats as ethnic markers, pretends to be of an almost ethno-sociological nature. However, while the narrator is trying to place the passers-by (to whom he rarely speaks), he reveals his representations to be clouded by his search for Ursprünglichkeit and the concomitant essentializing of national stereotypes – which he allegedly tries to undermine15 – combined with a naïve anti-capitalist attitude; moreover, he rarely talks to people, but rather peeps and observes:
Was […] von solchem Marktleben, dabei spürbar bestimmt von einer Mangelzeit, am eindrücklichsten haften blieb, das war […] eine Lebendigkeit, etwas Heiteres, leichtes, wie Beschwingtes […], ein Tanz des Handumdrehens. Von dem Wust, Muff und der Zwangshaftigkeit der bloßen Geschäftemachereien hob sich da klein-klein […] etwas wie eine ursprüngliche und, ja, volkstümliche Handelslust ab, an welcher wir Mittäter [!] dann auch unseren Spaß hatten. (YU 87–88)
Generally, Handke represents Serbia as a “vast, rather bucolic village”.16 His following apotheosis of the Serbian peasant in particular has led to fierce accusations, for instance by the Slovene Aleš Debeljak, who writes: “Die Suche nach einer reinen, unverdorbenen und echten Identität ist zugleich die Brutstätte einer kryptofaschistischen Blut-und-Boden-Ideologie.”17 This might be slightly overstated, but in any case, Handke focuses in Serbia on nature and identity rather than on the just ended armed conflict that he mentions only occasionally – a narrative technique that Daniela Finzi calls “sekundäre Fokussierung“18. This relegation of the numerous crimes committed against humanity immediately met with extensive criticism. Two quotations should suffice to illustrate the problematic nature of Handke’s narrative; in his summery travelogue, he writes:
Das Grünwasser des Flusses zwischen den [Drina-]Ufersträuchern; und wieder das schon wochenlange Pappel- und Weidenflaumtreiben, und die allmählich ergrauenden Akazienblütenbüschel, immer noch helle Fährten bergauf bis zu den Nadelbaumsäumen, der zugehörige Nektargeruch schubweise zu den ganz offenen Autofenstern herein: innerstes Serbien. (YU 221)
That passage bears comparison for instance to the following:
Im Hardtgrund, in dem sich noch ein Hauch uralter Wäldereinsamkeit erhalten hat. Gewitter, mit Blitz und Sonnenschein, dazu der Wirbel der Spechte nah und fern. Ein Schwarzspecht strich über mich hin, als ich in einem Eichschlag auf dem Moos lag, und glitt dann spiralig einen alten Baum hinauf.19
The fact that the second passage stems not from Handke’s Abschied but from Ernst Jünger’s similarly problematic World War II diaries (Gärten und Straßen: Aus den Tagebüchern 1939 und 1940), is highly revealing. It suggests that Handke, with his Serbian and Bosnian travelogues, has come to resemble, with his “poeticizing” shift in focus away from the realities of war, an earlier wartime writer to whom, in the 1990s, he had adopted a more critical stance;20 however, the latter is even more lucid when it comes to the consideration of war in general.
In addition to such hidden literary genealogies and ideologies of “blindfolding” the narrating voice, two other factors impede the allegedly new way of seeing that Handke developed as an alternative to the mass-produced, simplified, and partisan mass media images he found so disgusting. Firstly, a principally laudable critique of the press and TV coverage of the armed conflict in Yugoslavia,21 which is in its basis not so far off Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and simulacrum, ultimately, in its one-sided aggravation and polemicity, places the Austrian author rather in the proximity of far-right slogans such as Lügenpresse. Secondly, there is the fact that Handke’s texts are pervaded by facile stereotypes that likewise stem from a cultural simulation; his “jargon of authenticity” is interwoven with what Maria Todorova has termed “Balkanism”.22 This creates a counter-propaganda of sorts to the false consciousness allegedly fostered by the mass media: “Die mediale Stereotypisierung wird in ihrer Verneinung reproduziert”.23
In his poeticizing and dehistoricizing, Handke also employs problematic intertextualities, involving, in addition to the wild-west films of John Ford,24 for instance the adventure novels of Karl May – whose Winnetou novels and their film adaptations, filmed in the coastal hinterlands of Croatia and involving locals as extras (see Weber), have an influence on Handke meriting further study. The Austrian author namely seems to find those pre-texts more truthful than the Wirklichkeit he observes. This happens, for instance, when he turns the Bosnian Serbs, the ethnic group most involved in war crimes in the 1990s, into an “Indian” tribe of noble savages, asking: “kämpfen die Indianer nicht doch um ihre Freiheit? Und ‘allerletzte Frage’: Wird man einmal, bald, wer?, die Serben von Bosnien auch als solche Indianer entdecken?” (YU 250).25
Thus, the “Beschreibungsimpotenz” of which Handke, posing as an angry young man in 1966, accused the Gruppe 47 obviously applies to him as well. To compensate for this, the squeamish poet has always been a loudmouth who loves to offend potential critics of his literary practice, as he did in Stockholm in 2019 with Peter Maass, to whom he said: “I prefer […] an anonymous letter with toilet paper inside, to your empty and ignorant questions”.26
The second line of critical analysis proposed here follows from the “wild-west logic” of Handke’s texts – an approach inspired by Klaus Theweleit’s Männerphantasien and later works such as his Pocahontas tetralogy. This makes it possible to show how Handke – who, as the son of a Carinthian Slovene mother and a German Wehrmacht soldier, would be, in Karl May’s terms, a “Halbblut” – is looking for an ethnicized belonging.27 Throughout his earlier works, he revealed himself plagued by self-hatred for being partly German and partly Austrian28 – and not actually half-Slovene, since his command of the language is very limited. Yet he started his new identity project by seeking emotional inclusion in Slovenia – commenting in Der Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land that Slovenia was “Sache nicht meines Besitzes, sondern meines Lebens” (YU 7), but then going on: “ein ‘Slowene’ jedoch wurde ich nie” (YU 9). With that small country’s independence in 1991, however, he found it too banal and “central European” (YU 14ff.) and thus had to resort to a stronger imagological drug – especially after his true object of desire, Yugoslavia, had ceased to exist. So he longed for what he saw as virtually the most authentic “Indian tribe” in the western Balkans, namely the Serbs – and here one is again reminded of the uncritical and ahistorical constructs of naïve “nativeness” that pervade Handke’s works, outrageous not only to many Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, and Kosovars, but probably to indigenous North Americans as well.
On this point, the usual reservations about wrongly equating the author of a work with its narrator seem untenable in Handke’s case. After all, he is one of the founders of the so-called New Subjectivity in German-language literature, and his Yugoslavia texts clearly rank among the autobiographical genres.29 Moreover, Handke, in a variety of newspaper articles and interviews, has reacted to questions and criticism by taking them as directed not at a literary figure but at himself, as a real person.
Particularly revealing, however, are what Raewyn Connell was the first to term “constructs of masculinity”30 as they recur in Handke’s late works, in which, with the exception of Der Bildverlust, women do not play a prominent role.31 The Austrian author’s admiration for Balkan males, however, is revealingly evident not only in his own 1990s photographs showing the writer with friends,32 but also in several text passages. Considered along with those holiday photos, his later works invite speculation that someone who sees his own “western” masculinity to be deficient and who, as in his 1975 short novel, Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung, has repeatedly described this as self-alienation, is restyling himself on the model of the supposedly unspoiled, primitive “indigenousness” (Ursprünglichkeit) of his Serbian friends. Apart from this problematic “Maskulinismus”33, the issue here is that many of these friends are part of a Serbian nationalistic milieu (see Preljević 2019a) that has been, at least intellectually, in proximity to the committed war crimes – or even involved in them, as was Novislav Djajić, who was sentenced to prison by a German court.34 To pose a daring comparison: it looks as if an author – say: one from some small German-speaking minority in Europe and nagged by self-doubt – were to predicate his ego on the Ursprünglichkeit of a Heinz-Christian Strache and his drinking pals, as we know them from the notorious Austrian “Ibiza video” of 2019.35 Although farfetched, this brief analogy nevertheless draws attention to a possible deep structure of gendering, especially since it leads the discussion from Serbia as Handke’s “Gegenland”36 and “Projektionsraum”37 back to Austria.
In order not to engage in our own simplistic Balkanism, it should not be ignored either that those constructions of masculinity were also – and often sharply – criticized by numerous post-Yugoslav authors after the murderous escalation of these imageries during the Yugoslav wars from 1991 to 1999. This is evident in works by Slavenka Drakulić, Sandra Gugić, Aleksandar Hemon, Dževad Karahasan, Ismet Prcić, Saša Stanišić, Dubravka Ugrešić, and others. So, at least meanwhile, on the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony, Handke could have read works such as the short novel by the young Austro-Serbian writer Marko Dinić, Die guten Tage (2019), which articulates the rage of a diasporic generation at the crimes committed by their fathers. It contains the following passage:
Die totale Entmündigung meiner Generation war nur ein kleiner Teil der großen moralischen Niederlage nach den Kriegen der neunziger Jahre gewesen. Und die einstigen Schlächter weilten immer noch unter uns wie ein schlechter Witz, wie das Monster unterm Bett, das ums Verrecken seine Macht über unsere Ängste nicht verlieren will.38
Persistent in the Nobel Prize debate were claims that Handke is a “genocide denier”.39 While this accusation might at first seem overstated, it cannot be denied that the author’s writings about Serbia and Bosnia use modes of argumentation that resemble revisionist thinking – for example in the way they relativize the facticity of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. Here the following narrative and argumentative strategies in Handke’s travelogues and their paratexts are illuminating; they reveal what Boris Previšić calls Handke’s private “jugoslawische Poetologie” (244):
Intentionally monocular vision. In essence, the author’s sanitizing strategy just follows the Serbian river banks of the Drina. Doran Rabinovici, one of the most prominent Jewish Austrian authors who signed the declaration of support for Handke in 2019 commented: “Against the one-sidedness of the German-Austrian perspectives he ended up in his own willful one-sidedness, which I personally cannot share” (in a Facebook message to the author).
Tendencies either to “Dezentrierung”40 or to “Nostalgisierung und Digression”41 – that is, “Entwirklichung”,42 refocalization, and even reframing. With these techniques, Handke depoliticizes history and replaces it with nature (as revealed in the comparison of his texts with those by Jünger). This Poetisierung creates a dubious myth that veils and obscures phenomena – for example, in its portrayal of Balkan men as stereotypically “natural”. If we follow the ideas of Roland Barthes in his Mythologies (1957), then we can see this narrative device as one of the most common strategies of ideology.
A pervasive aposiopesis that reduces certain perspectives to conspicuous absences. The victims are accorded no voice; relevant components of the narrative are missing. Handke later admitted, for instance, that he had been in Srebrenica about six times but had spoken very little with the locals there.
At the same time, Handke’s travelogues direct a narrative skepticism at victim narratives and reports of Serbian self-critique.43 This is the case with the passages about Olga (YU 121–22, 178) or about the man who “didn’t want to be a Serb anymore” (YU 234). On the micro-level of verbalization, this leads to a frequent and prominent use of quotation marks, the modal verb “sollen” (meaning “supposedly”), and the subjunctive forms of indirect speech to implicitly subvert – as mere hearsay or allegation – the validity of reports of criminal activity.44 For example:
Immer wieder sollen scharenweise Kadaver die Drina abwärts getrieben haben. (YU 120; emphasis added; the word used for the dead bodies of genocide victims is also derogatory in this context).
Und sie war überzeugt, es sei wahr, daß dort bei Srebrenica im Sommer des Jahres 1995 die Tausende[n] umgebracht worden seien. (YU 121; emphasis added)
Another strategy is counter-charge. In his Sommerlicher Nachtrag, for instance, Handke claims that the Srebrenica genocide was a “revenge massacre” (YU 240) by the Serbs in response to alleged attacks on Serbian villages undertaken by Muslim forces from the enclave. This relativizing or even excusing of genocide also prevails in later paratexts – most notably interviews he gave in 2006 and 2011, which were recalled and criticized when the 2019 debates began.45 While tending to relativize or excuse suffering, Handke has never come out with a clear condemnation of the genocide itself without some qualifying “if” or “but”.
With these features, Handke’s “game of questions” (to use the title of his 1989 play Das Spiel vom Fragen) often reveals itself to be purely rhetorical.46 Also, in response to odd and even despicable formulations regarding the Bosnian Muslims – to whom he refers at one point by the archaic and potentially derogatory term “Muselman,” a term also used in concentration camp jargon to connote fatally exhausted inmates47 – one is left to ask to what degree his Yugoslav texts spring from a subliminal, small-minded Islamophobia. It also seems as if Handke has naively reproduced the formulations and structures of thought that some of his radical Serbian “informants” conveyed to him.48
Likewise illuminating in this context is what Handke wrote about one of the major political players in Austrian politics in 1986:
Auf den Einwand, ob nicht gerade das gegen ihn in solch einem Amt sprechen könne, und eine Aufzählung einiger der Händel, in die der Bewerber verwickelt gewesen war, antwortete dieser, wie er es gewohnt war, mit den Formeln und Floskeln, die bei ihm, seit wann schon?, das Fleisch und das Blut ersetzten und sich zu einer menschenwürdigen Antwort verhielten wie das Knarren eines dürren Astes zu einem Schmerzens- oder Freudenlaut. (VW 1)
Handke is referring here to Kurt Waldheim (1918–2007), the notorious candidate for Austrian Bundespräsident who did not want to recall his bygone WWII years as a Wehrmacht officer in the Balkans, let alone express any form of regret. Hindsight reveals this situation to have been doubly bizarre: on the one hand, Waldheim was later exonerated from any juridical guilt in German war crimes by an international committee of historians.49 On the other hand, despite massive doubts about his personality and behavior, he was elected to the presidency after his party, by formulating the infamous slogan “Jetzt erst recht”, had set the tone for an aggressively reactionary and nationalistic election campaign.50 This made Waldheim the epitome of the Austrian “inability to mourn” – a psychoanalytic formulation that Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich originally coined for postwar Germany, referring to how the lack of empathy for the victims was based upon a “derealization” (Entwirklichung – a term also used in Handke scholarship) of what had happened:
[dem] Versuch, sich der Nazivergangenheit durch Derealisierung, durch Rückzug der Objektlibido zu entledigen, und [den] Folgeerscheinungen dieser Gewaltmaßnahme: Ich-Entleerung sowie sozialer und politischer Immobilismus.51
The way Handke repeatedly refers to Waldheim in his later works is uncannily revealing. In 1986, he described him in a Profil interview as a “lemur, a revenant from Transylvania”, and expands on that view in the preface he wrote for a critical book on the candidate:
Wo war denn jene “Paranoia“, der häufigste aller Vorbehalte gegen das Serbenvolk? Und wie stand es […] mit dem Bewußtsein des deutschen (und österreichischen) Volkes von dem, was es im Zweiten Weltkrieg auf dem Balkan noch und noch angerichtet hat […]? War es bloß ‘bekannt‘, oder auch wirklich gegenwärtig im allgemeinen Gedächtnis, ähnlich wie das, was mit den Juden geschah [!], oder auch bloß halb-so-gegenwärtig, wie es heute noch, quer durch die Generationen, den betroffenen Jugoslawen ist, die sich dafür von den Weltmedienverbänden einen Verfolgungswahn angedreht sehen müssen […] es sei denn, es ginge zwischendurch um die auf einmal brandaktuellen, nachrichtendienstlichen Balkanverwicklungen des österreichischen Präsidentschaftskandidaten? War solch ein deutsch-österreichisches bloßes Bescheidwissen, aber Nicht-und-aber-nichts-gegenwärtig-haben denn nicht eine noch ganz andere Geistes- und Seelenkrankheit als die sogenannte Paranoia? Ein sehr eigener Wahn?52
Regarding the arc that is drawn to the Serbs here, one might in good deconstructive fashion apply the author’s words about Waldheim to Handke himself, adopting terms from the Mitscherlichs. This would invite the question: are the derealization and political paralysis that Handke once criticized in Waldheim not characteristic of his own late writings? Accordingly, it would arguably appear that Handke himself, since the 1990s, has come to embody, in essence, Waldheim’s inability to find the “right words”, however “anti-Großdeutsch”53 his Gesinnung otherwise might be.
It might also be assumed that, for Handke, Serbia has become something of a Übertragungsneurose. In that sense, the strange and defiant meanderings of his “Yugoslav” texts would implicitly be more about the Austrian past than about Serbia. The incriminating travelogues thus become a kind of proxy war with respect to the repression and lies of his Austrian homeland after 1945, which the early Handke had criticized, whereas in his advanced years he is averse to take anything other than a latently revisionist stance regarding genocide. His refusal to think beyond the Drina river is disturbing and an insult to the victims on all sides of the Yugoslav front lines. With this frontal attack on history and politics wearing a literary veil, the reconciliation with the world Handke’s poetics once promised cannot be achieved; instead, they become another expression of the oblivious conditio Austriaca.
Accordingly, Handke’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was an affront to all those who expected a clarification along the lines of the biblical phrase “O lord speak but a word and my servant shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Instead, he fobbed them off with vain self-quotations and once again fired up his literary smoke machine. He might better have quoted what in 1986 he once dreamed Waldheim (whom he also invokes in his Yugoslav travelogues, see YU 155) should do, namely: find his way to the truth publicly and bring Austria to a national catharsis:
Aus der Verstockten dort, den Ausredemeistern gleich ihm, den Verkehrern der Tatsachen, wurden Mitweinende, und diese erst, o Neuigkeit in dem seit mehr als einem halben Jahrhundert verdammten Staatsgebiet, durften “Volk” heißen. Solche Reinigung aber konnte, und das war die Erkenntnis des Träumers, kein Opfer bewirken, einzig ein trauernder Täter oder Zeuge.54
We shall likely seek in vain such a public gesture of mourning, remorse, and reflection by Handke regarding Bosnia. And it is revealing that the goal of his catharsis is the “Volk”, a problematic term that recurs with noticeable and increasing frequency in his later works. Has Handke become a national, a völkisch author? With this our own Spiel vom Fragen comes to a provisional end, but it will continue.55
The Handke case is in many respects unique among the great controversies of post-1945 German literature.1 Striking, for one thing, is the longevity – that is to say, the serial nature – of the controversy about this “enfant terrible” of the world-literature scene. It has repeatedly flared up over the last twenty-five years, occasioned, in turn, by Handke’s first Serbian essays (1996), by his response to the 1999 NATO intervention, by his stance regarding Slobodan Milošević’s 2002–2005 trial at the Yugoslav Tribunal (ITCY) in The Hague, by his 2006 eulogy at Milošević’s funeral and the resulting reactions of the Comédie Française and the jury deciding the 2006 Heine Prize, and, finally, with the awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize for literature as the highest international honor accorded to his literary oeuvre. Striking, too, are the intensity and broad impact of the debates. They have brought about a polarization in the international media,2 as well as an unprecedented political instrumentalization of the author, which has given rise to a schism regarding his reception in the formerly Yugoslav states;3 in addition, they have caused an exceptional degree of polarization in the way literary experts view individual texts by Handke or aspects of his works.4
The longevity, intensity, and broad impact of these debates can be explained by a further special aspect, namely: the scope of the accusations arising from the controversy, whereby ‘scope’ applies, first, to the juridical dimension of the accusations, second, to the geographical dispersion of its targets, and third, to the consequences of the accusations for the (dis)qualification of a writer and his oeuvre.
To be sure, none of the controversies in German literature that have extended into the political arena is without broad socio-political impact; as a rule, they all center on past or current rogue regimes and violent crimes occurring in the country in question (the National Socialist era, the German Democratic Republic, the Rote Armee Fraktion). Yet in contrast to the accusations against Thomas Mann (regarding the polemics about “inner emigration”), Theodor Adorno (in his statements on the possibilities of “poetry after Auschwitz”), Heinrich Böll (concerning his “defense” of the Baader-Meinhof group), Thomas Bernhard (in his confrontation with the Nazi past of Austria), Christa Wolf (in the “German-German” polemics regarding the position of intellectuals in and towards the GDR), Martin Walser (in the debate regarding the German culture of remembrance), or Günter Grass (regarding his late admission of his early membership in the Waffen-SS), the accusations in the Handke debate concern the disputed facts of acts of war undertaken against a foreign country and the context of violence on a global scale.
“Kein ernstzunehmender Mensch leugnet Auschwitz; kein noch zurechnungsfähiger Mensch deutelt an der Grauenhaftigkeit von Auschwitz herum […]”. These words, from Walser’s controversial speech at the St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt in October 1998, precede his qualifying comments on the “Dauerpräsentation unserer Schande”.5 Yet this is just what the author Handke is accused of doing: revisionism – to the extent of downplaying or even denying the genocide(s) in the Yugoslav war/s –, while he himself, polarizing the global public, lodges accusations against the way the manipulations by the “western” media extensively compromise the understanding of the war, against NATO’s illegitimate conduct during the war, and against the jurisdiction of the Yugoslav Tribunal at The Hague.
The above-cited examples involving literary authorities would suggest that the constitutive feature of these controversies is the complexity and the resulting essential open-endedness, even the ultimate undecidability, that gives rise to their widespread social relevance. They concern the negotiation of questions that, with their involvement of various perspectives, must be considered from a multiplicity of positions. Not so the Handke controversies: The accusations cited above concern mainly facts and connections that – at least in the dimensions they take on in Handke’s case – are easily subject to critical verification, which would undermine the argumentative stance of the author or, conversely, that of his polemical opponents.
In fact, there is no lack of expertise for doing this. Aside from specific, detailed aspects that are debated or given varying emphasis, there prevails, among serious news reports, the comprehensive juridical appraisals, and historical scholarship, widespread consensus about the essentials of the events, developments, and connections of the Yugoslav complex – and these form sufficient grounds for rejecting Handke’s accusation of revisionism. Compared to Handke’s challenging of the consensual certainties, Ignaz Bubi’s accusation of “intellectual arson” against Walser’s questioning of the German culture of remembrance was wildly excessive.
Likewise, there can be no doubt about the explicit and implicit messages of Handke’s public acts and statements. These have occurred in his media interviews, in his eulogies, and, not least of all, in his acceptance of numerous honors.6 Some of the latter have, as Vahidin Preljević has pointed out, a precarious background and context. They have been awarded, for example, for the way he “devotedly defended the Serbian truth, despite all the inconveniences and hostilities, which did not cease even after he was awarded the Nobel Prize [...]”,7 to quote the rationale for his receiving the Republic of Serbia‘s 2020 Order of the Karađorđe Star, First Class. All of these constitute sufficient evidence that Handke – with specific motives, though nevertheless uncritically – has ascribed to the nationalist historical narrative of “Serbian truth” and accepted his own instrumentalization by the advocates of that narrative. What at first had to look like a horrendous misunderstanding – namely, the interpretation of his literary and media-critical concerns as confirmation of an ultra-nationalist program – Handke himself, as the instigator of such misunderstandings, has turned into a tacit understanding. Compared with his expressions of sympathy for notorious warmongers or even convicted war criminals (e.g. Milošević, Nikolić or Đajić) – based as they are on irrational assumptions of innocence –, the transgressions of Heinrich Böll (in the cause of Ulrike Meinhof), Rainer Maria Fassbinder (with his play with anti-Semitic cliches in his 1976 Frankfurter Stück), Botho Strauß (with the implications of his culture-critical plea on behalf of “the right”), or Günter Grass (with the long silence about his SS past) must be viewed as ambivalent incidents of intellectual carelessness requiring subtle consideration.
And, finally, for the Handke-critical faction of literary experts there is no doubt about analytic evidence that renders a purely poetic-aesthetic interpretation at least of Handke’s literary interventions (and thus adherence to the “misunderstanding” theory) to be neither sensible nor possible. Handke may well be undermining generic and discursive divisions in the name of what Stefan Breuer might call his own kind of “aesthetic fundamentalism”.8 Yet it is clearly evident that differences between genres and their effect on the reception may be modulated, but not essentially suspended. It is unambiguously clear from the perspective of discourse analysis that the Yugoslav texts between Die winterliche Reise (1996) and Die Geschichte des Dragoljub Milanović (2011) intend substantive political statements – a fact not essentially altered by the relativization of the position of the narrator by claims of self-doubt and interpretational openness, which are often, but erroneously, cited as signs of an undecidable statement structure.9 And, finally, analyses of the works and their context have revealed a network of intertextual and interdiscursive connections that – in fictional texts such as Die Fahrt im Einbaum (1999), Der Bildverlust (2002), Die morawische Nacht (2008), or Immer noch Sturm (2010) – indicate the connection of poetics, imagological clichés, and political implications.10 In a multiplicity of twists and turns, the paradigm of modernity criticism in Handke’s Yugoslav narrative approaches the anti-modernity aspects of the ethno-nationalist narrative – a relationship that likewise seems to motivate Handke’s various fictional, semi-fictional, and factual expressions of sympathy. In short: the political brisance of Handke’s “Zorngesänge”11 is no less inherent in his texts than the “Übertreibungskunst” in those of Thomas Bernhard. On the contrary: the aggressive attacks of Handke’s essayistic narrative voices are, without a doubt, to be taken more literally than the “sweeping condemnations” (“pauschalierende Verdammungsurteile”12) and “absolute assertions” (“absolute Behauptungssätze”13) of Bernhard’s “intellectuals”.
So what is disturbing about the Handke controversy are less its various causes, which are to be attributed to a dazzling personality and its unique idiosyncrasies. What is actually disturbing is the persistent polarization centering around a highly personal way of seeing things that first came on the public scene to take a critical stance against the media but then addressed long-past military conflicts and thoroughly documented crimes of the 1990s. How can we explain the varying thresholds of tolerance for these truly drastic tabu violations in the public sphere, as well as the – now as ever – varying assessments of these violations? And what motivates well-meaning interpreters to hedge and even idealize in their assessment of the Yugoslav texts? Only a discussion at the meta-level – thus a second-order observation – can raise relevant questions in this case that earn it the status of a meaningful controversy.
A text-based approach to explaining the unusual dimensions of the debate must consider the persuasive power of Handke’s poetological program. Here lies the deepest stratum, so to speak, of an attempt to make Handke’s way of seeing things not only aesthetically but also morally plausible. The persuasive power of his poetological program is evidenced not only by an enthusiastic readership that, since the poetological “turn” of the late 1970s, could be said to constitute a loyal following, but also by a growing and diverse research interest – as well as by a long-enduring process of canonization that makes the awarding of the Nobel Prize appear to be an event that was long overdue but postponed for political reasons. Yet in addition to the literary power, it is above all the unique profile of the program that provides an explanation for the sympathetic and conciliatory voices in the dissonant chorus of readers of the Yugoslav texts. Measured by their poetological concern in the context of Handke’s oeuvre – a concern that gave rise to the problematical polarization, though it need not have done so14 –, they are in fact “peace-building texts” by a “peace-building narrator”.15 As such, that concern goes far beyond the dimension of a pacifistic appeal.
To be sure, the task of proving that an ethical intent pervades Peter Handke’s oeuvre is rendered impossible in view of the debate about the immorality of his Yugoslav texts – as Tanja Angela Kunz points out in her monograph on the relationship between literature and ethics in Handke’s epic works.16 Kunz offers a convincing interpretation of the “ethisches Schreibprojekt”17 that, by bringing in philosophical perspectives, goes beyond previous Handke criticism on this theme. She discusses four problem areas of ethical reflection, namely the “ethics of aesthetics”, the “ethics of narration”, the “ethics of the self”, and the “ethics of the other”. Yet what does her investigation show regarding the “debate about the immorality of the Yugoslav texts”? Kunz does offer convincing proof of the ethical integrity of these works as well as of the “Konstanzen zu den übrigen Werken”.18 Yet in fact her study confines itself more to the literary dimension of Handke’s Yugoslav engagement and thus fails to broach the general question about the “ethical relevance” that an artistic work may, should or can raise19 regarding those aspects that, in Handke’s case, arise from the strikingly grotesque discrepancy between the “ethical integrity” of the poetological program and the effect of its “immorality” on the reception.
Kunz claims that her study was not concerned, “wie häufig von der Literaturkritik gefordert, die Literatur ‘in die Pflicht’ zu nehmen oder zur Moralanstalt zurückzuführen”.20 And indeed, that is not the task of literary studies. Yet one of its desiderata is surely to offer a comprehensive explanation for how it could come about that for nearly twenty-five years now the creations of an author, as the result of one abrupt shift in their aesthetic effect, had consistently, in a twisting of the words of Goethe’s Mephisto, been intending “das Gute”, yet always producing “das Böse”.21 Such an explanation cannot stop short at the boundary between literary and non-literary communication, although – or perhaps because? – the contradiction between the “ethisches Prinzip der intellektuellen Redlichkeit”, which Kunz sees as a defining feature of Handke’s oeuvre,22 and the irrational dimension of Handke’s search for the truth is clearly an inherent part of what for him is literary – and thus not located at the borderline between literature and politics, for example in the discrepancy between his literary perspicacity and his political naivete.
Questions about the relationship of aesthetic autonomy and social responsibility are always raised by “ethische Schreibprojekte” – and especially by those accorded the highest international honors. Under what circumstances is a literary method, a text, an author, or his public behavior accorded artistic autonomy – and what other circumstances demand moral quality or public responsibility? Under what conditions is an author responsible for the effect of his texts, his statements, and his actions – yet under others not? And what expectations do we impose in these matters regarding the awarding of public honors? Does the Nobel Prize impart legitimacy to the sum total of a person, his/her works, and their impact – as is concluded by many besides Saša Stanišić, the laureate’s adversary who was expelled from his hometown - and Handke´s adopted homeland – as a teenager?23 The Handke case shows us how far-reaching – and thus also “werktranszendent” – the answers to these questions must turn out to be.
In his 2000 study on the influence of the two world wars on social consciousness, the historian Reinhart Koselleck arrays the manifold factors that, as “sluices of memory” and “sediments of experience”, shape our consciousness – and in so doing leave their mark on our notions of the past and our attitudes in the present. As that happens, “synchronic factors” (including, in addition to war experiences and functions in the war, the simultaneously effective predispositions by language community, ideology, political organization, generation, gender, family, and membership in class and stratum) and the “diachronic effects” of the various processes in the pre-war, war, and post-war era, intersect with the decisive – although not unambiguous – difference between victory and defeat.
The comparative exemplary case to which Kosselleck applies his system is the political death cult in France and Germany after the First and the Second World War: “das organisierte Massentöten führt zu Gemeinsamkeiten und zu Unterschieden in der Erfahrungsverarbeitung und in der Erinnerungsleistung der Weiterlebenden”.24 If we search for an individual case that expresses the above-named factors in exemplarily special concentration and reveals their lasting effect even on the reception structures, then hardly any are better suited than that of Peter Handke. The biographical background of his connection to Yugoslavia is well known:25 it is characterized in general by the peripheral position of a rural subclass in South Carinthia, and in particular by a constellation of ancestry and family that centers, on the maternal side, on a history of suffering from marginalization, Nazi terror, and death on the battlefield and, on the other side, on the shame-ridden images of the biological father and foster-father as German men stationed in Carinthia as Wehrmacht soldiers.
Sediments of experience and sluices of memory are also at work on the personal level, generating the most diverse narratives of the past and, in the most interesting case, shifting and condensing them to a literary family myth.26 Central to Handke’s fictional genealogy is a cult of ancestors centered on the Slovenian progenitors and their unequivocally South Slavic characteristics and identifications, while the “imposed ancestors”, the “Völkermörder seines Jahrhunderts als Ahnherrn” are erased from the picture. As it is called in a homologous fictional constellation: “Ich habe keinen Vater mehr” (LH 81). In his conception of a counter-history, i.e. of a heritage transcending the history of civilization and violence, of an “Überlieferung des Friedens” (WH 215), that great land, born of the anti-fascist guerilla and, with its non-aligned “third way”, expressing its widescale resistance (and so too its so-called “enclaves”, which have shifted from Slovenia to Serbia, to Kosovo), becomes a user surface on which to project a veritable Yugoslav myth.
In its political implications, which Handke’s pertinent texts make thematic and explicit, his Yugoslav myth corresponds to the collective conception of the history of the left-liberal intellectual milieu in Austria27 – as well as in Germany28. Yugoslavia, as “das wirklichste Land in Europa” (YU 27), is firmly and permanently anchored in widespread ideals and clichés. The way in which this myth found its way into the maelstrom of domestic-political and intellectual confrontations about the ‘Yugoslav question’ in different countries and memory milieus in West and East is not only to be considered in the “Kontext einer Öffentlichkeitsgeschichte nach 1989”29; it also gives proof of the lasting impact of the factors of the post-1945 awareness building that Kosselleck has studied. The concepts of history and figures of thought in the spheres of shared attitudes, with their “antifascist”, “anti-totalitarian”, and “anti-communist” perspectives, clearly shape the answers to ethical or aesthetic questions, activating or blocking emotional resonances, raising or lowering levels of perception and thresholds of tolerance even with regard to the crudest forms of faulty reasoning and violations of tabus.
Yet the “Yugoslav question”, treated in this manner, becomes a sorry farce when local memory cultures are involved or interfere. In the successor states, the post-socialist memory break involved in the repeal of the official Yugoslav historical narrative is known to have opened the deepest graves.30 The encounter between an anti-fascist narrative originating in southern Carinthia and nurtured in Germany and western Europe, and the semi-fascist, post-Yugoslav, ethno-nationalist narratives that take up the badly conveyed legacies of World War II gives rise to intellectual alliances that transcend historical experience – and whose labyrinthine paths and surprising implications would still have to be researched in detail.
On 18 March 2006, at the burial of Slobodan Milošević in his birthplace Požarevac, Handke, in the Serbian-Croatian-Slovene (and thus literally ‘Yugoslav’) passage of his brief bilingual speech, used unusual words that the attending mourners cannot but have taken as a linguistic error. A literal German translation from the written version of Handke’s speech (in all-caps) runs as follows: “Die Welt, die so genannte Welt, weiß alles oberhalb von Jugoslawien [,] Serbien. Die Welt, die so genannte Welt, weiß alles oberhalb von Slobodan Milošević”.31 The recurring “oberhalb” (“up above”) is a literal translation of the original’s “iznad”, highlighted here to indicate how Handke‘s speech deviates from the contextually expected, correct preposition “o”, which for native speakers would have been the equivalent of the German “über”, literally “over”, but idiomatically used in contexts of reading, speaking or knowing “about” a country or a person.32 A subsequent sentence translates literally into German as follows: “Ich weiß, daß ich nicht weiß. Ich kenne die Wahrheit nicht. Aber ich schaue. Ich höre. Ich fühle. Ich erinnere mich”. The (unintentional?) emphasis that Handke’s unusual word choices place on a spatial-hierarchical relationship coincides with the second sentence’s epistemological skepticism that is concerned not with enlightenment in the usual sense, but rather with discourse power. The “weak” literary voice33 forces its media adversaries out of their presumptuous position of a bird’s-eye perspective legitimized by political mandate, observation assignments, or media licenses, and offers quasi experience-based, quasi poetically legitimatized statements “from down below”. Yet these statements are just as much “from above”; in their own way, they position themselves in an airspace that is far from reality, “up above” Yugoslavia, seated upon poetic justice’s lonely throne of judgment – and in this way, not least of all with their rejection of obvious facts (“Ich kenne die Wahrheit nicht”), they open the door to “alternative facts”.
It is always a disgrace when the linguistic errors and faulty reasoning involved in such developments are not called what they are but instead, by retranslation to suit one or another public or to coincide with one or another sphere of shared attitudes, are channeled back into line with rational discourse. This has not been a seldom occurrence in recent decades – not only in the arts sections of newspapers and not only with unseemly lapses at the graveside of a nationalistic demagogue.
[...] Ich bin ein Orts-Schriftsteller, bin das auch immer gewesen. Für mich sind die Orte die Räume, die Begrenzungen, die erst die Erlebnisse hervorbringen. Mein Ausgangspunkt ist ja nie eine Geschichte oder ein Ereignis, ein Vorfall, sondern immer ein Ort. Ich möchte den Ort nicht beschreiben, sondern erzählen [...] Es kann auch nur ein Fluss sein, oder der Schnee, wie er fällt in einem bestimmten Garten oder an einem bestimmten Baum vorbei, an einer bestimmten Art von Rinde vorbei, und das gibt mir halt die Lust, da anzufangen. Ich sag jetzt “anzufangen” statt schreiben.1
In 1987 Peter Handke called himself a “place-writer” (Orts-Schriftsteller). One might have expected him to explain what he meant by place-writing with reference to some of the countries or topographies that he had been describing in his literature since the start of his career in the mid-1960s. After all, parts of southern Austria and Yugoslavia had been prominent settings of Handke’s work from the beginning, and as biographer Georg Pichler notes, his first story came about when he discovered a “place” (Ort) just south of Graz in May 1963.2 But instead of a list of countries and landscapes, Handke provides a quasi-metaphysical definition of place as “die Räume, die Begrenzungen, die erst die Erlebnisse hervorbringen”: rivers, trees, and falling snow. If these are the things that constitute places for Handke, aren’t they everywhere, and consequently nowhere in particular?
In hindsight, the then forty-five year old Handke was, in 1987, soon to embark on what would be a formative three-year itinerant solo journey mostly around Europe (but beginning with a trip to Japan), before settling on the outskirts of Paris. More relevantly for our purposes here is that Handke’s self-definition as a “place-writer” can be examined as foregrounding his subsequent writings related to the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Asked in 2006 why he attended and spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević, Handke responded: “I’m a lover of Yugoslavia – not so much Serbia, but Yugoslavia – and I wanted to accompany the fall of my favorite country in Europe, and this is one of the reasons to be at the funeral.”3 But which Yugoslavia was Handke talking about then and in his polemic writings: the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-92), or the even shorter-lived Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-41)? Or, was he, perhaps, talking about something else, an “idea” of Yugoslavia, for instance?4
For critics and apologists alike, the “place” in question has been implicitly approached with a dualistic structure of thinking: either Yugoslavia in Handke’s writings refers to a concrete geopolitical entity, or it is a metaphor for the abstract space of a writer’s subjective experience. Critics interpreting Handke’s call for “justice” for Serbia against media demonization as constituting support for a xenophobic nationalist ideology and genocide denial would be assuming that the “Yugoslavia” in question was a concrete place for Handke.5 Apologists, on the other hand, would claim that Handke’s aesthetic treatment of Yugoslavia as an abstract space is the work of an autonomous artist, whom literal-minded critics had failed to understand.6 Neither concrete place nor abstract space, however, single-handedly accounts for what Handke has actually written about Yugoslavia in particular and other places more generally.
In this essay I examine some of Handke’s work from before the 1990s and try to assess place-writing as a necessary preface for the Yugoslavia polemics. In his pre-1990s work, the concept of “place” refers ambiguously to both concrete and abstract space, denoted by a lexicon of variations of “place” (i.e. Platz, Stelle, Ort) as well as space/place-related vocabulary (edges, borders, thresholds, and interstices).7 In an analogous way, the writing component of place-writing is treated to spatial thinking and manifest, particularly during the 1980s, in experimental modes of interstitial composition, including sketching, translating, and cinematic adaptation. Understanding Handke’s self-definition as a “place-writer” in this ambiguous and intersensorial sense sheds light on an otherwise potentially overlooked political and, paradoxically, apolitical element of his work, namely the refusal to comply with the coercive and often sanctimonious cultural standards for social and political ‘engagement’ and ‘relevance’, which demand that when one writes about Yugoslavia, it should be in a way that maintains, among other things, the axiomatic principle of non-contradiction. Place-writing, however, works against the grain; it carves out a space for literary freedom and ultimately allows the writer to take distance from and critique this reductively dualistic structure of thought that underpins the predominant discursive and cultural system.
The short film Drei Amerikanische LPs (1969) is an early example of Handke’s tendency to contentiously conflate aesthetic and geopolitical space. Made in collaboration with Wim Wenders, Drei Amerikanische LPs was essentially a low-budget music video for three then popular songs in the United States. Between the long landscape shots, the footage taken from inside a car driving along an empty highway, and the sparse commentary between the “American” songs, the viewer is led to believe that they are somewhere in the American West: an illusion maintained until halfway through the film when the car passes a billboard for an Auto-Kino. Wenders and Handke would each go on to make other works confronting their images of “America”, an interest which Gerd Gemünden and Lothar Struck see as in direct contrast to the sentiment of anti-Americanism on the political Left in West Germany at the end of the 1960s.8 The “America” of the short film, in other words, was not just a place of counterculture elsewhere, but a space of counter-counterculture closer to home.
While the medium of film – to which we will later return – readily invites spectators to reconsider notions of space and place, an analogous but more subtle and unconventional sensibility to place is evident throughout Handke’s literary work. Written nearly in parallel with Drei Amerikanische LPs, the poem “Der Rand der Wörter 2” (1968) concludes with a reconfiguration of literary language in its visual concreteness:
Wo der Rand der Wörter sein sollte, fängt trockenes Laub an den Rändern zu brennen an, und die Wörter krümmen sich unendlich langsam in sich selber: „Diese Trauerränder!“ Dieser Rand der Trauer (DIDADI 104)
As a work of “concrete” poetry, “Der Rand der Wörter 2” uses its semantic content about “edges/margins/hems” (Ränder) to draw attention to its visual form. Where we should see the edges of words phenomenologically, we imagine instead the edges of other things, of burning leaves; the words on the page flicker and disappear, as if being burnt before our eyes, and the potential for defamiliarization, always already latent in language, is lost. And this is the cause for the poem’s thematic lamentation: “‘This mourning-edge!’ This edge of mourning.”
In addition, the title words, “Der Rand der Wörter”, stand in implicit opposition to the well-worn philosophical notion of “the limits/borders of language” (die Grenzen der Sprache). That is, instead of dealing with language in the abstract sense (Worte as a synonym for Sprache), Handke’s poem attends to the “edges” in words in their concrete and countable sense (Wörter). This distinction, moreover, would have geopolitical consequences if one acknowledges that abstract words (Worte) are subject to geopolitical borders (Grenzen), i.e. when a particular variety of a language is standardized in a given territory, whereas concrete words (Wörter) might instead be said to have more universally accessible visible and acoustic “edges” and “margins” (Ränder) that belong to no particular geopolitical jurisdiction. But despite this edge of resistance, the formalism of Handke’s poem would have stood, in the late 1960s, in opposition to the prevailing tendency of politically engaged artists in the postwar era to use art as a vehicle for social activism.9
During the 1970s and 1980s, Handke’s works started to show a consolidation of vocabulary more specifically around the concept of “place”. In early works of these decades, the word Platz was often used to signify a static location.10 The immobility of Platz (i.e. a public “plaza” as well as a private “seat” or “spot” where one remains sitting) is recalled, for instance, in Die Wiederholung (1986) when the narrator says of his childhood in southern Austria: “Da ist nicht mein Platz.” (WH 22) An alternative word for “place” with more semantic openness, Ort, appears alongside Platz already in Wunschloses Unglück (1972) when Handke’s mother is said to have been born in same “place” (Ort) – in the sense of “region” (Gegend) – where she died, and later “sie wusste inzwischen, wo ihr Platz war” (WU 12, 55). Tightly circumscribed by the geographic and social conditions of rural Catholic Carinthia, the mother’s sense of individuality and her “Zeit- und Ortsgefühl” is lost and only restored when she spends the summer at the sea in Yugoslavia (WU 75). Carefully these conceptual distinctions are emphasized in Amalija Maček’s recent Slovene re-translation of Wunschloses Unglück: kraj or okolica (surrounding geographic region), mesto (domestic place/space), and prostor (existential sense of place).11
As Handke considered himself a “place-writer” in the sense of semantic openness, his diction was accompanied by other place-related structural terms, i.e. not only margins (Ränder) but also borders (Grenzen), thresholds (Schwellen), interstices (Zwischenräume), and variations on “no man’s land” (Niemandsland). These words, it should be emphasized, are not necessarily to be pinned down and defined, but rather taken holistically as evidence of a word-level attentiveness to space and place. And why should a writer such as Handke care so much about “place” to begin with? A clue can be found in Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970), when the anxiety of the mechanic and former goalkeeper, Josef Bloch, who strangles a woman to death for no reason, is mirrored in that of a borderguard on the Austrian-Hungarian Burgenland frontier: “Sogar ein Gegenstand, der sich am äußersten Rand der Netzhaut bewegt, muss erkannt werden”, the borderguard tells Bloch about transgressors (ATBE 101). Here the nameless guard and Bloch both share a visual hyper-senstitivity which is born from the need to read the signals of others, and is manifest in their respective border/goal-lines (see ATBE 102, 112).12
In the same interview from the mid-1980s in which he calls himself a place writer, Handke also differentiates himself as “border figure” (Grenzfigur) as opposed to a “margin/marginal figure” (Randfigur), evidently making reference to Die Wiederholung.13 In the novel, the autobiographical half-Austrian, half-Slovene protagonist, Filip Kobal, is told by his father that while they are Grenznaturen (“of a border nature”, in reference to the border zone between Austria and Yugoslavia), they are not Breitbeinige (i.e. “straddlers”), and that “eine Grenznatur, das ist eine Randexistenz, doch keine Randfigur!” (WH 235) The repetition of the word Rand in this line ambiguously connects and contrasts the image of someone who lives on the fringes of society or a given geocultural entity (Randexistenz) and someone who is a marginal or other insignificant character, as in a story (Randfigur). The Kobals, whose family name means the “space” (Raum) between parted legs (i.e. Schritt), are not only marginal; they also inhabit an interstice. And Filip, who begins his journey by crossing the border from Austria into Slovenia, embodies a persona of Handke himself: the transgressor of geopolitical and linguistic boundaries in search of identity, cultural heritage, and perhaps unconventional ways of perceiving and narrating the world (see WH 9f).
If borders in Die Wiederholung are ambiguous structures that are meant to be transgressed, then thresholds (Schwellen) in Der Chinese des Schmerzes (1983) may be approached as interstitial spaces of subjective experience. In the novel, the protagonist Andreas Loser kills a stranger, and in a somewhat theatrical and parable-like scene later the same day, a card game involving the priest, the politician, the painter, the master of the house, and the protagonist (a teacher) turns into a discussion of thresholds. Each has a different opinion on the matter: for the master of the house, the threshold marks the stepping-out of the safety of the home; for the politician, it is associated with slipperiness and ambiguity; for the painter, it is a line he is willing to cross; for the priest, finally, thresholds are not boundaries at all but rather “zones” (Zonen) of spiritual transformation (Wandel), and sources of power (Kraftorte). “Die Schwelle ist die Quelle”, the priest recites with a rhyme (CS 127). Such an inconclusive ontological status of the threshold is, perhaps, one of its defining features.
Loser, moreover, is an amateur and self-proclaimed “Schwellenkundler” and “Schwellensucher” whose search for thresholds begins with the sketching of floor plans (CS 24). His name, Loser, linguistically manifests the idea of thresholds understood in terms of multiple “possible” meanings which simultaneously cross into distinct epistemologies. In its primary sense, “Loser” is a marker of belonging to either a geopolitical border zone (Austria, Slovenia, Italy) or a realm defined by its dialect or a local topography, as well as a signifier of emptiness, as the etymologically-related German word los and the English word lose both refer somewhat ambiguously to something being loose/empty or lost (CS 32). In addition, Loser’s name recalls a local mountain whose patches of snow resemble “false windows’’ (a solid wall framed as a window), a paradoxically plain-sight symbol of obscurity which recurs in Handke’s prose throughout the 1980s.
Just as Loser’s name signifies obscurity, so too are thresholds characterized by intransparency. In Transparenzgesellschaft (2012), Byung-Chul Han suggests that individuals in contemporary society have been lured into freedom-constricting cultural conformity by the false promises of the norm of “transparency”; and under such conditions, thresholds are valuable markers of opacity.14 And for Han, whose epigraph comes from Am Felsfenster morgens ( “Von dem, was die anderen nicht von mir wissen, lebe ich”, AFM 336), Handke’s work is implicitly an inspiration for such cultural resistance.15 Drawing further upon the work of Martin Heidegger, one might understand thresholds for Handke as marking a painful space of subjective experience which is at odds with normative cultural expectations.16 In this sense, the title of Der Chinese des Schmerzes offers a sobriquet for Loser given his status in society as an outsider, emotionally and spiritually separated from others (CS 217).
Whatever they may be ontologically, both borders and thresholds exist to be crossed. According to Handke biographer Malte Herwig, Loser’s dramatized crossing of the threshold back into life in Der Chinese des Schmerzes was emblematic of Handke’s own recovery from panic attacks, after being hospitalized for several days in 1976. “Da ist mir zum ersten Mal aufgegangen, dass die Schwelle ein Ort ist. Das ist ein wirkender, bezeichnender, ein fruchtbarer Ort”, Handke recalls of an epiphanic experience in 1979 in the house of his friends Hermann and Hanne Lenz.17 For Handke, this place would ultimately mark a writer’s space of experience. And so concludes Der Chinese des Schmerzes: “Der Erzähler ist die Schwelle. Dazu muss er einhalten und sich fassen. Was ist der Reim auf Schwelle?” (CS 242)
Approaching places using the language of borders and thresholds, one discovers the spaces in between. In Handke’s works, these in-between places go by different names, sometimes Zwischenraum (“interstice” or literally “between-space”) and other times Niemandsland (“No Man’s Land”) or Niemandsbucht (“No Man’s Bay”, more specifically in reference to his home on the outskirts of Paris). If Loser in Der Chinese des Schmerzes is an aficionado of thresholds, then his analogue in Langsame Heimkehr (1979) would be Valentin Sorger, a geologist who, well-acquainted with no man’s lands, is making his way back to Austria from Alaska (LH 37f). As a composite of place-writer and border-figure, Handke explains in the same interview from 1987:
Ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, wo die Geschichte immer mehr, so wie zwei [...] Flugzeugträger, die sich nähern und kaum noch einen Spalt zwischen einander übrig lassen... aber von diesen Spalten, von diesen Durchblicken, von denen lebe ich und davon schreibe ich; all das, was ich gemacht hab, lebt von den sich verengenden Zwischenräumen, und ist auch bestimmt von der Geschichte...18
The concept of Zwischenraum refers less to a fixed or stable space between entities such as a city and its surrounding nature, and more to a conceptual sliver of experience that narrows into disappearance over time. Despite their potential for semantic overlap, the difference between an interstice and a threshold for Handke seems to be structural: an interstice (Zwischenraum) is a particular middle-space of experience bound by thresholds. The interstice, then, is perhaps also the space of experience of a slow “homecoming” (i.e. nostos/νόστος), understood in terms of both an actual journey between distant places as well as a metaphorical process of realizing one’s nostalgia. As such, the concrete geopolitical interstice that was Yugoslavia can be refactored as an abstract space between languages and cultures, where, for instance, the writer operates.
But how exactly can an attention to place in literary language be retooled to describe abstract, artistic interstices? Asked about adapting films from literature, Handke warned in 1979 against “any arbitrary crossing of borders, because one loses one’s identity very easily.”19 And yet, alongside the development of an ambiguous sense of place, Handke was beginning to experiment with interstitial modes of place-writing. Generally speaking, Handke’s ‘turn’ (Wende) in the late 1970s has been studied as a mollification of his approach to language, inspired by the work of the French painter Paul Cézanne and under the influence of the ‘classics’, i.e. Goethe and Romanesque architecture.20 But in the context of an additional and more semantically open understanding of his homeward re-turn to Austria after living in Germany and France (i.e. Heimkehr), we might see Handke’s experiments with sketching, translation, and film adaptation in the 1980s – each of which involve intermedial ‘turns’ – as a product of the place-oriented thinking that undergirds his later writings about Yugoslavia.
Sketching for Handke seems to play a fundamental double-role in place-writing, first by attuning the eyes to a particular layout or landscape, and second, by metaphorically capturing the writer’s task of converting images into words. Already in the first part of Langsame Heimkehr, Sorger sees sketching – “Linie für Linie” – as a way to grasp the essence of the space that surrounds him (LH 46). The “lesson” of Cézanne in Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (1980), then, is réalisation (Verwirklichung, realisieren), which might be thought of as synonymous with the creative process, i.e., of making the abstract concrete (LSV 21, 102). More precisely, Christoph Parry suggests that Handke, with the help of Cézanne’s way of seeing, began to understand landscape as not naturally given but rather as the result of a particular way of observing and, therefore, of narrating the world around him.21
Like sketching, translating for Handke in the 1980s becomes nearly synonymous with writing in the sense of productively switching between perceptual modes.22 Translation and sketching are brought together in different ways in Die linkshändige Frau (1976) and Die Wiederholung (see also NS 79f). In one of the concluding passages of the former, Marianne, having returned to her work as translator from French literature into German, sketches the scenery around her as if it were a continuation, and perhaps adaptation, of her translation work; if under stress her eyes open to visual detail, then the act of sketching becomes a way of transporting and emplacing her body and its sensory apparatus back into the world of concrete things (LF 130f). In Die Wiederholung, analogously, Kobal reads aloud from his missing brother’s German-Slovene dictionary, the columnar layout of which offers a model of mediation between Austrian and Slovene culture (WH 207). More importantly, this bi-lingual visualization is explicitly a factor of sketching and translating in Die Wiederholung:
Trug zu solcher Kraft der Wörter nicht auch bei, dass ich sie, anders als die deutschen, nicht sofort verstand und in der Regel erst übersetzte, und zwar nicht aus der fremden Sprache in meine eigene, sondern aus einer Ahnung – so unverständlich mir vieles Slowenische war, so vertraut erschien es mir ja – ohne Umweg ins Bild: in den Obstgarten, eine Aststütze, ein Stück Draht? [...] Wurde durch ein derartiges Übersetzen aus einem blinden Lesen nicht ein sehendes, aus einem blicklosen Tun nicht ein Wirken? (WH 164-65)
Kobal’s experience with language recalls Handke’s own attempts to learn Slovene by translating Florjan Lipuš’ novel Errors of Young Tjaz (Zmote dijaka Tjaža, 1972) in tandem with Helga Mračinkar in 1981.23 For Handke, translating Slovene reconfigured his way of thinking about the German language, while also placing him in an interlingual space where languages “drift” in and out of one another.24 This spatial understanding of translation, whereby languages then move beyond the page and into the landscapes of other onto-epistemological territories, is perhaps literary place-writing par excellence.
Finally, Handke’s 1985 television movie Das Mal des Todes exemplifies the intertwining of sketching and translating within a film adaptation. Adapted from Marguerite Duras’ novella The Malady of Death (La Maladie de la mort, 1982), in which a woman is paid by a loveless man to spend a period of time with him in his house by the sea, the film opens on a hand writing out alternatives for the title of the film, immediately drawing attention to the fact that the film was also Handke’s work of literary translation. The selected title (Das Mal des Todes), then, linguistically negotiates between German and French, as the German word Mal (here meaning “wound”) sounds like the word for “sickness” in the original French title (maladie).
More importantly, Das Mal des Todes is a work of place-writing in its aesthetic attunement to ambiguous spaces. That is, despite the fact that it was not received well by critics, the film’s low-budget, unadorned look mirrors Duras’ own suggestions for adapting the poetically bare novella into a minimalist stage performance.25 But much more than as is described in the original novella, the camera in Handke’s film lingers on the winter landscape outside of the house and on the interior of the house itself (the frescoes on the walls, the hardwood floor), tracing its layout, as it were. After the nameless woman in the story has left the house, Handke himself appears in the film’s final scene standing on the rocky shore speaking directly into the camera:
Alles was dir von der ganzen Begebenheit bleibt, das sind dieser paar Wörter, von ihr gesprochen, geflüstert wie im Halbschlaf, jene Worte, Wörter, die benennen jene Krankheit, von der du gezeichnet bist, die Krankheit Tod [...]26
Handke’s monologue is a fairly direct translation of the original French.27 That is, with the notable exception of his self-correction with the word for “words”: jene Worte, jene Wörter. (“That abstract language, those concrete words,” we might say). Moreover, in the original novella, the narrator then explains that the man does not go out looking for the woman but accepts that he has felt love to the extent that he has felt loss.28 But here, of all places, Handke revises the monologue:
[...] das Mal des Todes, das Wundmal des Todes. γνωστός θάνατος [gnostos thanatos, “known death”]. Jene Krankheit ausgebrochen durch ihr Erscheinen. Erkenntnis geworden durch ihre Anwesenheit. Erzählung geworden durch ihre Abwesenheit. Aber vielleicht ist doch in den Steinen hier, im Rauschen des Meeres, im Klatschen des Wassers zwischen den Steinen, im Wind, in den Wolken, ein Bezug zu spüren zu jene Frau, jene anwesenden Abwesenden.29
Handke’s adaptation radically alters the conclusion of Duras’ novella by suggesting that an attentiveness to place offers a way to recover that which has been lost. And thus the place-writer leaves his thumbprint in the setting of the film’s closing scene, shot in Piran on the Adriatic coast of Slovenia, then still Yugoslavia.30 For Fabjan Hafner, the desert-like Karst plateau above Trieste, with its vast network of underground rivers and caves, symbolized the all-too-often unrecognized role that Slovenia has played in Handke’s work.31 But the Adriatic coast of the former Yugoslavia is itself a place in Handke’s work if there ever was one: an actual geographic location where the young man, a stranger in a foreign land, wrote his first novel, Die Hornissen (1966), epigraphed by the syntactically ambiguous line “Du wirst gehen zurückkehren nicht sterben im Krieg.”32 And so it is fitting that, nearly a quarter of a century later, Handke concludes the film by reciting a line of poetry written by someone who would have been just as much of an outsider in that place, the 16th-century Spanish priest Juan de la Cruz: “O Wort, mein Bräutigam, zeig mir den Ort, wo du verborgen bist.”33
Does reckoning with Handke’s self-definition as a place-writer, for whom ‘place’ is ambiguous and ‘writing’ intersensorial, get the writer off the hook for his later Yugoslav polemics? Or does it simply slow us down a hair, halting an otherwise hasty and facile superimposition of aesthetic and ethical standards – for writing about sensitive geo-political and -cultural territories – onto the particular case of a writer who may be as idiosyncratic as he is iconoclastic?
Perhaps we should pause to reconsider, above all, Die Wiederholung, with an eye and ear to its anticipatory nostalgia for that which has not yet been completely lost. For doesn’t it remain ambiguous whether the title word Wiederholung ought to be read aloud with stress on the second syllable or the first – as either ‘repetition’ or ‘recovery’?34 “Hier mein anderes Wort für die Wiederholung”, Handke writes in Der Chinese des Schmerzes, “‘Wiederfindung’!” (CS 70). Repetition qua re(dis)covery here rejects the Wiederholungszwang of Freud; it does without talk of lykke and the future-past distinctions of Kierkegaard. Nor is repetition here the work of involuntary memory à la Proust (if even of Combray!); rather, its tireless treading against the existential and cultural tide puts Handke’s conception of Wiederholung closest, perhaps, to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby gazing out across a bay with a strange mix of hope and sentinel perceptiveness, quiet on the cusp of a crash. Then repetition here also means slowly re-examining something fragile we thought we had in check but which has slipped, in the meantime unnoticed, into new clothes: an old-fashioned orthodoxy filling a cultural hollow. And so in the name of mater studiorum, let us go back and reread, not perish in battle.
“My image of Yugoslavia was never an ideological one. I simply loved the land”, Peter Handke stated in an interview he gave for Mladina – a progressive Slovene weekly – in 1991, a year after Slovenia declared its independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia.1 The reason for this love, he argued, was that in his eyes, Yugoslavia represented an almost ontological opposition to Austria and everything he hated about it.
Built around this dialectical relationship between the narrative constructions of a dystopian “Austria” and a utopian “Yugoslavia”, my paper explores the convoluted function of love as a vantage point of Handke’s literary geography. Collated readings of Wunschloses Unglück (1972), Die Wiederholung (1986), Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land (1991), and Winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (1996) are aimed at investigating how Handke’s understanding of love as literary credo shifts from postcolonial care towards an Orientalist projection. Focusing on the narrative construction of Handke’s Yugoslavia-as-anti-imperialist-utopia tracks its development from an imagined antidote for the maladies of post-war Austria to a nostalgic myth, imposed upon historical developments in order to relativize the crimes against humanity in the Yugoslav Succession Wars. Thus, my paper engages in a critical dialogue with claims that Handke has to be understood as a post-ideological writer. Instead, it emphasizes the continuity of ideological anti-capitalist claims throughout Handke’s work, showing how his post-colonial critique of Carinthian society, focused on the affective toll of the subaltern status of the Slovenian minority, in turn produces the phantasmatic creation of the idealized space across the border, in the realm of real, uncommodified things. Handke’s narrative insistence on the existence of this space forms the core paradox of his work, making an oeuvre that set out with an attempt to give voice to an oppressed minority a literature suppressing those same voices.
Echoing Handke’s self-determination, Matthias Konzett’s Cultural Amnesia and the Narration of the Everyday claims that Handke’s work should be understood as “post-ideological” due to its interest in “new subjectivity”, its refusal to “reflect upon the objective conditions that allow literature to fulfill its function in society”, and its dedication to the critical exploration of the “conditions of language and communication systems that in their capacity to stifle different ways of thinking allow for ideologies such as fascism”.2 Konzett’s framing of Handke’s work before 1991 seeks to save it from an Austrian (post)modern literature that contemporary German literary criticism often declared to be “antirealistisch und apolitisch.”3 Handke might be an anti-realist, language-doubting postmodernist, Konzett seems to argue, but his anti-realism and mistrust in quotidian linguistic practices serve a political purpose: in Konzett’s view, it is the creation of a post-, or even anti-ideological literary space that offers an opportunity of deconstructing ideological practices that uphold linguistic, affective, and political realities outside of literature. This conviction, shared across the spectrum of literary criticism engaged with Handke’s work, creates a gap in understanding Handke’s hyper-politization after 1991 and his relentless discursive engagement with the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
In order to close this gap, I argue that Handke’s work pre- and post-1991 should be read in continuity. The speculation of Handke’s partial political engagement through anti-ideological writing should be replaced with the assumption that his work has been in fact entirely politicized all along, echoing Louis Althusser’s claim that a linguistic existence outside of ideology is impossible. I further propose that the ideology binding together both phases of Handke’s writing – namely his narrative construction of the binary opposition between a dystopian Austria and a utopian Yugoslavia, his progressive and oppressive statements – is an anti-capitalism that has its root in his criticism of post-1945 Austria and envisions Yugoslavia as an anti-capitalist utopia.
In Place, Autonomy and the Individual, Robert Hallsal argues that Handke’s narratives construct “Austria” chronotopically through a flat, immovable time that suspends the landscape and transposes it into a purgatorial, static eternity; this is designed as a dystopia where no “possibilities of individuality or freedom exist, where the environment determines the life chances of the individual to such an extent that there is seemingly no possibility of escape”.4 In his introduction to Ralph Manheim’s English translation of Wunschloses Unglück, Jeffrey Eugenides wonders if Handke’s attempts to theorize the plot of the novella – the story of his mother’s suicide in a remote Carinthian village – are to be taken at face value as postmodern experiment.5 One might argue that Handke’s postcolonial investment in the analysis of the joined oppressive forces of patriarchy, capitalism, and ethnic segregation – which make the dystopian stasis a dominant condition of the Slovenian minority in the Austrian Carinthia of his mother –remains invisible to Eugenides because he mistakenly reads Handke as a German author, more akin to Goethe than to Prežihov Voranc.6 This investment becomes visible only when one reads Handke as a Carinthian author, marked by the positionality of the region as borderland.7
In his introduction, Eugenides calls the reader’s attention to the original title of the text: unlike the English sorrow, the German Unglück (bad luck) defines a state of affairs rather than a state of mind. In Eugenides’ interpretation, Handke’s original title (literally translated as “more misfortune than you could wish for”) announces a text that bears witness to “the wretchedness of his mother’s life” and “the period she lived through”.8 Early in the text, the narrator also defines this hardship in historical and geographical terms:
Es begann also damit, daß meine Mutter vor über fünfzig Jahren im gleichen Ort geboren wurde, in dem sie dann auch gestorben ist. Was von der Gegend nutzbar war, gehörte damals der Kirche oder adeligen Grundbesitzern; ein Teil davon war an die Bevölkerung verpachtet, die vor allem aus Handwerkern und kleinen Bauern bestand. Die allgemeine Mittellosigkeit war so groß, daß Kleinbesitz an Grundstücken noch ganz selten war. Praktisch herrschten noch die Zustände von vor 1848, gerade, daß die formelle Leibeigenschaft aufgehoben war. Mein Großvater – er lebt noch und ist heute sechsundachtzig Jahre alt – war Zimmermann und bearbeitete daneben mit Hilfe seiner Frau ein paar Äcker und Wiesen, für die er einen jährlichen Pachtzins ablieferte. Er ist slowenischer Abstammung und unehelich geboren, wie damals die meisten Kinder der kleinbäuerlichen Bewohner, die, längst geschlechtsreif, zum Heiraten keine Mittel und zur Eheführung keine Räumlichkeiten hatten. Seine Mutter wenigstens war die Tochter eines recht wohlhabenden Bauern, bei dem sein Vater, für ihn nicht mehr als “der Erzeuger”, als Knecht hauste. Immerhin bekam seine Mutter auf diese Weise die Mittel zum Kauf eines kleinen Anwesens. (WU 12f.)
Not only his mother’s life, but also her misfortune begins by being born in a certain village. The place is defined by the inequalities that run along the lines of class and ethnicity: even after the abolition of serfdom and the supposed decline of feudalism, most of the land in the village is owned by the German-speaking nobility and clergy, while the Slovene-speaking peasantry struggles to survive. The narrator uses this condensed description of his grandfather’s destiny to metonymize the effects of material conditions (such as poverty and segregation) on subject building. The grandfather is characterized particularly by his identification of personal dignity with the ability to own property. Following a long line of villagers living under serfdom and then serf-like conditions, he subjugates his entire existence to the ability to own and becomes obsessed with saving.9
In the narrator’s view, his mother’s life, her misfortune, and her suicide spring from this inheritance. Like her father, she too falls prey to the conviction that the liberation from the subaltern conditions that frame her life is possible only through another form of enslavement that consists of alienated wage and domestic labor, and – saving. In their attempts to escape poverty, the narrator argues, both his grandfather and his mother become victims of capitalism. They succeed in their struggle to survive, but at the cost of a life worth living. Instead of developing a strategy for a genuine liberation from inequality, they engage with the mimicry of bourgeois values, while simultaneously sacrificing all their time to labor that never rewards them with wealth.10 They remain poor, while simultaneously losing the opportunity to become genuine subjects. Instead of a person, the narrator argues, his mother becomes a “TYP” (WU 40). Like several other terms throughout the text, this word first appears as capitalized. These mimic “giant billboards” (David H. Miles), or “enormous advertisements for things”, and point at the impossibility of a genuine life under the conditions of alienated capitalist labor, which makes Seelenleben impossible through the commodification of feelings.11
Halsall claims Handke’s rural Austria is a representation of “the environment [that] forces the individual to suppress [her] desires and wishes in order to fit it.”12 But one might argue that its real dystopic quality consists of the conditions that make the emergence of an individual at all possible – particularly for the unprivileged groups such as ethnic minorities, women, and landless peasants. In Handke’s view, what is most prominent among these conditions is the lack of a historical narrative of liberation that would enable the oppressed to imagine a survival strategy outside of capitalism. With its canonization of the partisan struggle against both fascism and imperialist interests of the larger powers in regional politics (such as Germany, Italy, and Russia), the Yugoslavian mode of imagining themselves as a community became a platform for Handke’s utopian aspirations.
Constructing and Defending Anti-Capitalist Utopia – no matter the cost In spite of his own claim that his love for Yugoslavia was an “emotional rather than an ideological fact”, Handke declared himself envious of its post-colonial and anti-imperialist history.13 In his view, the self-fashioning and self-historization of Yugoslavia offered the only regional history of the post-Habsburg spaces that drew from ideals of equity and solidarity, which made a utopian future of a society outside of capitalism seem possible. If Handke’s Austria is primarily characterized through the linguistic and descriptive practices representing the relationship between commodification, alienation, and the heritage of fascism, Yugoslavia – its negative – is constructed through a series of a descriptions of objects serving to prove that this a space where things are real.
In the following paragraph from Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land, Handke seeks to explain why crossing the border between Austria and Slovenia felt like a homecoming while Slovenia was still a part of the Yugoslav federation:
Zu Hause in Slowenien, Jugoslawien? In der Wirklichkeit. Es war das genaue Gegenteil zu jener Unwirklichkeit, wie sie in Grausen versetzt den Schreiber der “Briefe eines Zurückgekehrten” (Hofmannsthal), welcher nach langer Abwesenheit von seinen deutschen Landen vor keinem einzigen Gegenstand da mehr dessen Existenz fühlt: Kein Krug wirkt mehr als Ding Krug, kein Tisch steht mehr da als Tisch; sämtliche Dinge in dem Gebiet Deutschland erscheinen dem Zurückgekehrten als “gegenstandslos”. Wie gegenständlich aber wurden dafür mir durch die Jahre, jedesmal, gleich beim wiederholten Überschreiten der Grenze, die Dinge in Slowenien: Sie entzogen sich nicht – wie das meiste inzwischen nicht bloß in Deutschland, sondern überall in der Westwelt –, sie gingen einem zur Hand. Ein Flußübergang ließ sich spüren als Brücke; eine Wasserfläche wurde zum See; der Gehende fühlte sich immer wieder von einem Hügelzug, einer Häuserreihe, einem Obstgarten begleitet, der Innehaltende dann von etwas ebenso Leibhaftigem umgeben, wobei das Gemeinsame all dieser Dinge die gewisse herzhafte Unscheinbarkeit gewesen ist, eine Allerwelthaftigkeit: eben das Wirkliche, welches wie wohl nicht sonst jenes Zuhause-Gefühl des “Das ist es, jetzt bin ich endlich hier!” ermöglicht. (YU 9f.)
Evoking Hofmannsthal’s Briefe eines Zurückgekehrten, Handke claims that the famous Kantian inaccessibility of the Ding an sich might actually not be a shared epistemological fact, but a cultural specificity of “the West”. Like linguistic practices that commodify the experience of individuality mobilized in Wunschloses Unglück, everyday objects in “The West” exist under the conditions that make them appear as lacking in reality. In the opening scene of Die Wiederholung, the narrator – having just crossed the border between Austria and Yugoslavia, disembarking the train in Jesenice – offers a comparative perspective of Austrian and Yugoslav objects:
Der österreichische Kurzzug, mit dem ich angekommen war und der gleich zurück durch den Tunnel fahren würde, wirkte, hinten auf den Gleisen, zwischen den massigen, verstaubten jugoslawischen Zügen, sauber und bunt wie eine Spielzeugeisenbahn, und die blauen Uniformen der zugehörigen Mannschaft, die sich auf dem Bahnsteig laut unterhielt, bildeten in dem Graukreis einen fremdländischen Farbeinschluß. Auffällig auch, daß die Scharen der Leute, die in dieser eher kleinen Stadt unterwegs waren, mich, ganz anders als in den Kleinstädten meiner Heimat, zwar hin und wieder wahrnahmen, aber keinmal anstarrten, und je länger ich da stand, umso gewisser wurde ich, in einem großen Land zu sein. (WH 4f.)
Compared to the massive, dusty Yugoslavian trains the short, clean, and bright Austrian train appears like a toy. The magnitude and the dustiness of Yugoslavian trains speak to their incorporation in the landscape: they are firmly grounded in reality and show signs of use. The grayness, used as if metonymizing the heritage of brutalism, attaches them to a strain of modernity estheticized as both utilitarian and slightly intimidating. The Austrian train, on the other hand, is presented as an exhibit in a commercial advertising reality. In the same vein, the people he encounters in Yugoslavia appear as genuinely engaged with his presence, whereas the Austrians are evoked as either disinterested or voyeuristic. Handke echoes several of these observations in his interview for Mladina in 1991, in which he declares his love for Yugoslavia, repeating in particular the thought that what was attractive about the federation was its greatness:
My image of Yugoslavia was never an ideological one. I simply loved the land. I loved its greatness – it was so different from the meagre, mean, narrow Austria where the souls of people stench of depravity. The crassness and roughness of those who lived in Slovenia and Yugoslavia were much closer to me, they felt much more real. It had nothing of the rigid politeness and the washed-out colors that changed Austria into a film set, it was not two-dimensional. Slovenia and Yugoslavia were genuinely three-dimensional precisely because there was nothing polished, nothing Western about them.14
In both passages, the idea of greatness that elevates Yugoslavia above Austria is used to solidify Yugoslavia as an anti-capitalist utopia stylized in a manner of socialist-realist murals that portray the strength and solidarity of the working classes, reiterating a trope of noble savagery. In Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land, Handke argues that the condition of realism that for him produces reality as an affect, is “Die Geschichtslosigkeit” – an absence (or even negation) of history that takes pride not in imperial heritage (which is always a heritage of exploitation), but in its ability to face the challenges of modernity (such as fascism and capitalism) and victoriously overcome them.
In spite of the fact that these statements – particularly in their comparative nature – carry strong ideological overtones, Handke himself denies them, claiming that his work is interested in phenomenologies of language and emotion rather than ideology. I argue they should also be taken at face value – as declarations of love. The opening of Die Wiederholung sheds some light not only on the narrator’s love for Yugoslavia but also on his interpretation of what love as an affect stands for:
Den Gedanken an eine Frau kannte ich nämlich nicht als Begehren oder Verlangen, sondern allein als das Wunschbild von dem schönen Gegenüber – ja, das Gegenüber sollte schön sein! –, dem ich, endlich, erzählen könnte. Was erzählen? Einfach nur erzählen. (WH 7f.)
For the narrator, love serves the subject that feels it and does not implicate either a response or the wellbeing of the object that is being loved. In Handke’s Slovenia and Šalamun’s America: Literary Uses of Utopia, Michael Biggins argues that Handke’s construction of Yugoslavia should not be understood as a “portrayal of a real place” but rather as “a romantic landscape that compensates for shortcomings in the subject’s own surroundings.”15 It is an affective construct that serves the fulfilment of emotional needs. Framing the utopian image of Yugoslavia as an object of love, Handke’s writing moves from postcolonial effort to give voice to the voiceless towards an Orientalist desire to dub – and thus distort – these same voices with his own in order to sustain the desired idealized image. As the cohesive anti-imperialist narrative that framed the body of Yugoslavia as an imagined community began to disintegrate and was gradually replaced by competing nationalisms, Handke refused to acknowledge its failure, projecting instead his desire for an embodied utopia on the successor state that declared itself the “protector” of its heritage – Serbia.
Winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien, Handke’s notorious travelogue of his voyage to the Serbian lands, is the first among his published texts in which certain cultural observations are omitted in order to sustain the desired utopian nature of a place. Seeking “justice for Serbia”, internationally acknowledged as the central aggressor in the war following the dissolution of Yugoslavia (see YU 60f.), Handke argues that the West – and particularly Austria, which was responsible for the atrocities committed in the Balkans during both World Wars without ever claiming responsibility for it – has no right to demonize a nation for doing what most Western nations do without ever being penalized (see YU 154ff.). While this observation sheds some necessary light on the hypocrisy of world politics, in which war crimes committed in the name of imperial expansion are selectively penalized or excused depending on the standing of the power committing them, it also disregards Serbian imperial tendencies as such. This omission becomes even more obvious when Handke declares those political and military goals to be a figment of Western imagination.16
In spite of his avid criticism of Austrian imperial and colonial interests in Habsburg Central Europe and the consecutive mistreatment of non-German speaking ethnic minorities inhabiting Austrian territories after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire (see e.g. YU 13f. and 20f.), Handke turns a blind eye to the Serbian imperial project, thus overlooking the similarities between the two in regard to the processes of othering and dehumanizing along ethnic lines. While insistently challenging Austria’s right to claim its presumed neutrality – on the grounds that it denies full citizenship rights to its minorities for not being “Western” enough because of their language –, Handke is not willing to make the same case for Serbia, leaving its Islamophobic practices unquestioned and underarticulated. This is in part due to Handke’s desire to address the “injustice” of the international community’s declaring Serbia culpable for the bloodshed in the Balkan wars, while letting several other countries, most notably Austria, but also Italy or Croatia, pass unpenalized for the atrocities committed in the Second World War. But this allusion to the asymmetry of the narratives that frame world history is perhaps not the strongest motivation for Handke’s transposition of his utopian fantasy from Yugoslavia to Serbia. If one were to judge based on the spatial descriptions in Winterliche Reise, Handke is particularly invested in Serbia because the international isolation and its economic consequences had shaped it into a space outside of capitalism that remains at the center of his utopist desires.
Handke metonymizes his disillusionment with Slovenia – his former gateway to the land of unmodified objects an sich – with a description of his stay at the Hotel Zlatorog (YU 135ff.).17 Visiting the hotel for the first time after the Slovenian secession from Yugoslavia in 1991, he is irked by the early signs of touristification, a phenomenon closely tied to the commodification of everyday life he had criticized in Austria. The building and its interior design are organized to cater to the German-speaking tourist, a fact crowned by the framed picture of Willy Brandt hanging on the wall. In Handke’s view, Slovenian post-secession desire to cater to the Western consumer echoes the mimicry of bourgeois tastes that had brought his mother to suicide – in short, it represents the surrender to the capitalist determinism that by definition annihilates the possibility of an alternative and its utopian potential.
In turn, he finds himself transposing the space of utopian anti-capitalist potentiality onto Serbia – the one successor state of Yugoslavia entirely rejected by the West that cannot (even if it wanted to) effectively aspire to reproduce the Western model of commodification due to the economic sanctions imposed on it by the international community. Handke metonymizes his enchantment with Serbian modes of non-capitalist commerce through the descriptions of Serbian marketplaces in an Orientalist key. Concluding his impressions, he finds himself declaring his desire for Serbia’s economic isolation to last indefinitely so as to secure its status outside of capitalism and thus its purity:
Und ich erwischte mich dann sogar bei dem Wunsch, die Abgeschnittenheit des Landes – nein, nicht der Krieg – möge andauern; möge andauern die Unzugänglichkeit der westlichen oder sonstwelchen Waren – und Monopolwelt. (YU 98)
The majority of criticism concerning Handke’s post-1991 work revolves around his unwillingness to address with due gravity the questions of Serbian imperial interests in the Balkans and acknowledge the fact of the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim populations in the region. This has, even among his supporters, resulted in claims Handke should be read – and in some cases rejected – as a right-wing author.18 I argue nevertheless that Handke’s commitment to anti-capitalism as an intimate and societal value grounds his work firmly on the political left. In many ways, the entanglement of postcolonial ambitions and Orientalist tendencies that shape his writing and its relationship to (and with) the subaltern populations inhabiting the spaces between Carinthia and Kosovo is a paradigmatic example of the left-wing intellectual’s involvement with the unintellectual classes Gayatri Spivak refers to as the “ventriloquism of the speaking subaltern”.19
This again brings to mind the subject of love as a mode of attachment not only to other individuals, but also to spaces and communal ideas. Handke, like the leftist intellectual Spivak invokes, claims his investment in Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslav spaces is to be one of love, often veiling the difference between love’s two conflicting meanings – caring for another and expecting the other to fulfill the subject’s own needs. In this sense, the aforementioned “ventriloquism” – a writing that produces a presumed subaltern speech that is nonetheless coming from an intellectual whose conditions do not overlap with the conditions of the group s/he claims to represent – creates a subaltern subject, designed to fulfill the needs and expectations of that intellectual. In Handke’s case, his love for Yugoslavia emerged from the desire to articulate a postcolonial criticism of the consequences of segregation in rural Carinthia and created an image of an anti-capitalist utopia in the process; he shifts from the desire to give voice to an oppressed minority to falsifying those same voices.
In lieu of a conclusion: Handke in a Central European Context As a result of Handke’s own insistence on a presumably anti-ideological, strictly affective position and the institutional habit of approaching Austrian writing as a sub-genre of German literature, the public debate concerning the legitimacy of Handke’s Nobel Prize approached his position regarding Yugoslavia, its disintegration and the subsequent disaster, as a subjective flaw, thus failing to recognize it as part of a larger debate concerning the cultural identity of Central European spaces in the 1980s and 90s.20 In contrast, I would like to conclude this paper on Handke’s narrative construction of Yugoslavia as anti-capitalist utopia by reconstructing the context that shaped it.
In Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land, Handke argues “that the Geschichtslosigkeit”, the a-historicity that he understands as the conditio sine qua non of why reality feels more available in Yugoslavia than in Austria, is threatened with extinction (see e.g. YU 27). Again engaging in the ventriloquism of the speaking subaltern, he sees that a-historicity being replaced by modes of historization, which he identifies as harmful to the very subjects producing them. The modes in question refer to the rehabilitation of the myth of a Central Europe, bound to a shared Habsburg past arising in the dissident communities all across the Soviet satellite states, particularly Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Serving the purposes of the cultural Cold War, the debate on Central Europe established the region as the “kidnapped West”, forced into communism by the military power of the Soviet Union. This myth was extremely well publicized in the United States and Western Europe, gaining an image of universality and establishing its proponents such as Milan Kundera or Czesław Miłosz as the native informants of regional desires.21
Meanwhile several contemporary Austrian authors of the 1980s – most famously Handke and Elfriede Jelinek – were engaged in some form of postcolonial critique of Austrian society and its unwillingness to address its oppressive policies and ideologies concerning ethnic minorities whose existence in Austrian territories is inherently intertwined with the legacy of the Habsburg empire and its history of segregation. The utopian image of a post-Habsburg Central Europe, however, did not travel to Austria. In Handke’s case, it was met with severe resistance.
Establishing Vilenica in 1986, a literary festival dedicated to the promotion of a Central European literature, Slovenia became one of the countries involved in the cultural production of platforms contributing to that vision, which meant wishing against one’s own interest, abandoning a liberatory anti-imperialist narrative and handing oneself over to capitalism and western imperialism for exploitation.22 Thus, the appetites of Slovenian intellectuals to become part of this refurbished discourse on Central Europe threatened Handke’s utopian vision of Yugoslavia as the only space behind the Iron Curtain that does not secretly aspire to be westernized. This might also help to explain Handke’s decision to transpose his utopian desires onto Serbia – the only remaining successor state whose public intellectuals (some re-invented as war criminals) explicitly denounced an aspirational relationship with the West and the myth of post-Habsburg Central Europe.23
In Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, Alexei Yurchak claims Soviet authors referring to the spaces on the other side of the Iron Curtain developed an image he refers to as the imaginary West, complementing Benedict Anderson’s idea that communities are imagined from within with an understanding that they are also imagined form the outside.24 While Kundera’s or Miłosz’s Central Europe serve as examples of such an imaginary West, Handke’s narrative production of a Yugoslavia as an anti-capitalist utopia shows that the Cold War division of Central Europe also produced an image of an imaginary East. If the imaginary West is, at least in part, designed to contrast the oppressive Soviet reality with a utopian image of Western market liberalism, the imaginary East is designed to harbor a vision of the world not submitted to the alienation of capitalist modes of production. In Central European Attitudes, Miłosz argues that a Western and an Eastern intellectual, although they share certain “leftist” ideals, can never find common ground because one is forced to witness the failures of capitalism, and the other those of Marxism.25 What Miłosz fails to account for, however, is that these two intellectuals also share something: a desire to depose their utopian visions, based on the negation of the world they inhabit, onto some other world, thus suspending the potential for a critical recognition of that world as a world an sich, not just as a platform for a projection of one’s utopian fantasies.
Awarded or not, Handke’s work was subjected to continuous criticism concerning his unwillingness to sacrifice his desire to imagine his anti-capitalist utopia as a truly existing space at the cost of relativizing Serbian imperial interests in the post-Yugoslav spaces, endorsing war criminals, and misappropriating the voices of their victims. This criticism was largely made possible by extra-literary memory-producing institutions such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, which created platforms for a historization of the war following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the resulting models of historical accountability. But while several voices argue Handke’s work should not be read because of their dubious politics, I argue that his writing – particularly its dystopian facets and his criticism of the Austrian role in the regional history – offers important insights on how communal violence is historicized. If his utopian visions of Yugoslavia, Slovenia, or Serbia range from convoluted to Orientalist and even unethical, his criticism of the Cold War West, beginning with Austria, remains in place – how do we historicize, write, or even talk about violence in cases where the perpetrators have been absolved from historical accountability and there are no international institutions to enforce it?
“Should I read Handke, then?” A student of German at Leeds asked me that the day after Peter Handke was awarded the Nobel prize on 11 October 2019. I stuttered, stopped, hedged. Normally, I am thrilled when students show an interest in reading German literature in their free time, and even more so when they are interested in reading literature that I know reasonably well and can discuss with them afterwards. And I am often touched when a student shows an interest in an author who has accompanied me throughout my Germanist career, as Peter Handke has, from teenaged undergraduate to researcher and teacher. But could I recommend that my eager student read Handke? Given Handke’s catastrophic public trajectory towards apologising for ethnonationalism, I was not sure I could. In what follows, I outline a possible critical pedagogy of Handke, going beyond the polemical question of whether we should be advising or requiring that students read Handke.
Drawing particularly on his 1984 novel Die Wiederholung, I seek to reflect on how, and why, there might be value in including Handke’s work within a critical university-level German curriculum. Such a curriculum would respond to the challenge of Maureen Gallagher and Christin Zenker, that it would aspire to “a radical break from foundational concepts of race and nation”2. It would aim to critically reflect on its own implication in national and transnational institutions, including but not limited to, institutions such as the university itself, the Nobel Prize committee and the German Literaturbetrieb in which Handke has played a central role for over fifty years. Perhaps most importantly, this critical pedagogy would not assume either a deficit model of teaching, in which students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge from authoritative lecturers, nor a hidden curriculum that is implicitly designed for students who have a privileged, protected background and can imagine themselves at a distance from the violence of history. A critical curriculum should also be a curriculum of care, where the life experience and full range of knowledges that teachers and students choose to bring to the classroom are welcomed and integrated into the pedagogical process in a respectful fashion.
In practical terms, this would mean that a critical curriculum must in some way take into consideration the life experiences and knowledges of students who are affected by the political and emotional violences that Handke’s work and public posturing touch upon: war, displacement, genocide, ethnonationalism, domestic violence. At the same time, it would make visible the complicity of German Studies in these violences. As Ervin Malakaj has written, the controversy opens up wider questions about the relationship between literature and society: “The controversy has spurred long-standing debates about where stories come from, who is responsible for them and what it means as a writer to bear witness to truth — and also, which persons or institutions have the authority to do so.”3 These questions are inherent to the teaching and practice of German studies.
This call for a critical curriculum may seem self-righteous; it may also seem uncomfortable. In years when the Nobel Prize is awarded to a German-language writer, it is tempting for a German studies community to capitalise on this moment in our marketing to potential students and to colleagues in cognate disciplines. However, wir sind Nobelpreisträger is a phrase that we Germanists have learned to be wary of, especially since Günter Grass’s 1999 prize, which was followed by revelations of his time in the Waffen-SS in his Beim Häuten der Zwiebel.4 Hence, German-language Nobel prize nationalism cannot be uncritically adopted into the German studies curriculum. As Ashwin Mathripragada and Emina Musanovic write, Auslandsgermanistik needs to avoid being “reduced to an educational cheerleader for German-speaking Europe, who is to nostalgically reproduce an ‘ideologically innocent enough’ vision of German culture – whether that vision be one of an innocent classicism” or of a transnational literary ‘greatness’ conferred by the Nobel prize committee.5 But as Brexit destroys the U.K.’s thirty years of easy ERASMUS cooperation with Germany and Austria, and the year-on-year rollcall of UK German programme closures trundles on, a Nobel prize win for a German-language author can feel like a boost of sorts for a discipline that feels beleaguered. Look, the world’s most important prize jury thinks that Austrian literature matters! What we can teach incoming students is of independently verified value! There is something unique and beautiful about this Austrian aesthetic, which might form an important and as yet underappreciated role in wider discussions about the climate crisis or about transnational empathy! Such comfort is seductive in these cold times for Germanists.
I am not proposing, however, that we take comfort in Handke by instating him as a ‘set’ author whom students ‘must’ cover in order to graduate in German Studies, or that we use his image as part of our marketing material. There can be no intellectual or financial comfort taken from a writer who allied himself, however indirectly, with Slobodan Milosevic. Instead, thinking about the place of Handke in our curricula might open up a space of, potentially, useful pedagogical discomfort. Sitting with discomfort, rather than welcoming comfort, is a necessary task for a critical German Studies pedagogy. It is necessary for our scholarly integrity, and it is also a practice that we share with our students. Whether it is the discomfort of speaking German incorrectly in public, the discomfort of tracing the nationalist and often antisemitic roots of German studies as a discipline, or the discomfort of reading a tricksy or dense novel, learning to engage with intellectual and cultural discomfort can foster the growth that we hope to foster in our students as well as in ourselves.
One uncomfortable question to be posed might be: are we Germanists complicit in the celebration or even in the creation of a Nobel prize win for a genocide denier? Has the stream of mostly affirmative academic publications on Handke, the digitisation of his work, the conferences – all of which have continued at a steady flow throughout the period of Handke’s problematic engagement with the Balkan wars – lent institutional legitimacy to his writing? It is notable, in contrast to the overwhelmingly hostile media commentary on Handke’s Nobel Prize win, how many of the Germanist academic publications, even now, engage solely and respectfully with Handke’s aesthetics, how few with his comments on Milosevic. A consistent theme in the media commentary on Handke’s win was precisely this elitist aesthetics, which was seen to fulfil ‘traditional’ Nobel Prize criteria. These ‘traditional’ Nobel Prize criteria – literary aesthetics that pay homage to a particular patriarchal tradition of Goethe and even Kafka, self-conscious analysis of European male subjectivity, echoes of Romanticism and high modernism, a concern with European history and memory, nomination for previous literary prizes, and race-blind or racist Eurocentrism – are also traditionally constitutive elements of the German Studies curriculum.
Discussing how and why this curriculum has been constituted might form an important part of a critical pedagogy that engages with the work and persona of Peter Handke. The criteria that won Handke the Nobel Prize are the criteria that made sure that he was on my undergraduate curriculum at Trinity College Dublin in 1993, his be-sunglassed face glaring intimidatingly at me from my green Suhrkamp paperback of Die Stunde der wahren Empfinding. In a sense, Handke’s writing career is the canonical post-war German literature curriculum: the attack on the Gruppe 47, the Sprachskepsis, collaboration with the New German Cinema, a turn to neo-Romanticism and ‘new subjectivity’, a concern with the legacy of the Nazi past and flirtations with left- and then right-wing political positioning, followed by a blossoming eco-poetics that develops out of Die Lehre der Saint-Victoire. This representative quality is part of the reason I wrote a chapter of my PhD on Handke. And more: I and other feminist colleagues have taught Handke as part of gender studies, too. I’ve successfully brought Wunschloses Unglück to students as a sensitive, devastating exploration of the psychological pressures that patriarchy imposes on women in rural Austria, a man’s counterpart to Elfriede Jelinek’s lifelong feminist critique of Austria from the left.
But my paragraph above sketches out exactly the whitewashed career trajectory that the Nobel prize committee posted on their website for Handke.6 It leaves out the later 1990s and the 2000s, the whining apologism for Serb war crimes, the whatabouttery, the equivocation about genocide, the speech at Milosevic’s funeral. Handke’s work and biography cannot ethically be taught in this sanitised form: a pedagogy of Handke must take his deep complicity in the rhetoric of violence into account. To teach Handke must also mean to support shared reflection with students, not only on the overarching theoretical question of the relationship between an artist and their art, but also on the relationship between the aesthetics informing that art and the politics revealed by that aesthetics. A critical pedagogy of Handke might move away from the tired debate that pits l’art pour l’art against an evaluation of the artist’s work based on their personal politics or actions. Instead, it might train students in a skill of close reading that is simultaneously critical reading. This analysis could both recognise the formal operations in language that Handke creates in order to evoke a redemptive poetics, while at the same time setting that poetic mission in a context of violent historical power relations. Such a pedagogy would not pre-empt students’ own questions and responses to Handke’s texts, poetics and biography, but neither would it de facto exclude material political critique, particularly if that critique is grounded in a student’s own experiences.
This pedagogy would draw attention to the way that Handke’s supposed ‘empathetic enfolding’ of the other tends to too easy reconciliation and knowledge, of nature, of women’s experience, of Nazism, of Slovenia, a reconciliation that takes place in the all-encompassing subjectivity of the master artist. It would ask such questions as: if Handke’s project of ‘narrative empathy’, particularly in Die Wiederholung, is “less founded on the retrieval of historically verifiable facts but rather on the ability to imagine oneself within the broader contexts of natural and cultural history”,7 what aspects of natural and cultural history are thereby erased and excluded from this empathy? When Handke claims transcendent qualities for the Slovenian language, such that a Slovenian newspaper seems to contain “keine Schlagzeile, wie in meinem Deutschen, sondern […] reine Nachricht” (WH 132), what violent or historical aspects of language politics are elided by this mythopoetic claim for the superiority of the Slovenian language over the German one? When Handke gives a Nobel Prize speech repeating the story of his uncle’s last visit home in the war, what role does this luminous poetic tribute to an SS member who died on the Eastern Front have in Handke’s project of “secular redemption”8? How does Handke’s intensely subjective Wunschloses Unglück, empathetically imagining his mother’s brutal somatic reality in mid-century rural Austria, sit with and overshadow more radically feminist aesthetics that emphasised the authentic testimony of the self in the 1970s, such as Verena Stefan’s 1972 Häutungen,9 and more collective projects since, such as Farbe bekennen10 in 1992? How does his intensely visionary, subjective poetics, which Handke insists is apolitical, sit alongside what Malakaj terms “literary traditions on the margins” that “have long resisted calls to separate author, text and political or social impact”11?
In order to teach Handke as part of a critically engaged, rhizomatic pedagogy, we must contextualise him within the full horrific events of the Bosnian genocide and the long history of German and Austrian engagement in the Balkans, and open up the discomfort of multilingual perspectives in our German curriculum. For instance, we could teach him as part of a non-hierarchical constellation alongside politically engaged Bosnian authors such as Saša Stanišić and Aleksandr Hemon, who make the traces of displacement, war and injustice in the wake of the Balkan wars plain, and plainly political, in their works. We can approach him as a sociological case study of Austrian literary celebrity, of the power of literary prize culture and of the problematic nature of the German-language canon that we Germanists have inherited and co-created. We can use pedagogical questions that remain close to Handke’s work to open up the paradox at the heart of his supposedly timeless poetics: how his writing claims to transcend the historical, the temporal, while at the same time Handke has mobilised its mission of narrative and natural empathy to “undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide”12. A critical pedagogy can seek to explore Handke’s sleight of hand that claims transcendence while arranging a falsely redemptive narrative of history. It would aim to critique and historically situate the fallacy of an aesthetics of transcendence, which believes that art can be innocent of history and power. This could form part of the collective German Studies project to decolonise our curriculum not just of an idealised image of Handke, but of the inheritance of a right-wing literary canon that masquerades as idealist Romanticism or avant-garde art. In doing so, we could be attentive to the pleasure that we – as readers, teachers and students – take in Handke’s poetic suspension of time, the window he appears to open onto a redeemed nature. Handke’s work would allow teachers and students to explore the possible value in teaching an ethical aesthetic analysis, which neither flattens out cultural productions into a series of equivalent ‘teachable moments’, nor bows to the ideology of the aesthetic and the monovision of the aesthete-poet.
At the same time, we would bear in mind Eric Gordy’s trenchant critique of this utopian poetics, which aims at such lofty goals as “allowing humans to ‘come into their own’ by immersing themselves into the duality of alienation and recognition in the landscape as a unique Stimmungsraum”13. After rehearsing Handke’s many dispiriting attempts to distance himself from violent ideologies, as well as from accusations of domestic violence, Gordy responds: “Trivialising domestic violence by wordplay is kitsch. Anti-Islamic racism disguised as philosophical doubt is kitsch. Falsifying history is kitsch. Degrading victims is kitsch. Elevating ‘literature’ above its content is kitsch. Handke is kitsch.”14 This aesthetic category of kitsch is one that teaching Handke can open up in many unexpected directions.
Here we should also be mindful of the words of Sara Ahmed in What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, serendipitously published the same day as Handke’s Nobel award:
To be trained within a discipline is to learn to follow a citational path: certain work does not have to be regarded because it does not come into view if you follow a path, which means work can be discarded without deliberation. Good habits in citation are about extending a line: you have to show how much you know of a field by citing those deemed to have shaped that field. To extend a line is to reproduce an inheritance.15
Handke’s work is not only a problematic inheritance for us as Germanists; it is also in itself obsessed with inheritance. After all, a criticism that Handke has always sought to evade at the same time as his work invites it is that his work repeatedly returns to the question of patrimony, whether literary, national or familial. This inheritance becomes, at times, a way for Handke not to be an apolitical author, but instead to create an oddly mythologised politics by identifying himself with an imagined, redemptive Yugoslavia and Slovenia. As Peter Lendvai summarises,
Handke war in das titoistisch-sozialistische Jugoslawien verliebt und fühlte sich durch die slowenische Mutterlinie mit dem antifaschistischen Kampf der jugoslawischen Partisanen verbunden. ‘Ich bin Jugoslawe von meiner Mutter her und vom Bruder meiner Mutter, der in Maribor studiert hatte.’16
Die Wiederholung exemplifies how Handke transforms Slovenia from a historical into a redemptive space, with biblical overtones. When a crowd of boys from the neighbouring village turns on the child Filip, for example, he lifts up his eyes to the hills of Slovenia for protection:
Ich streckte die Beine in meinem Dreieck aus, schaute südwärts auf das Petzenmassiv, auf dessen Gipfelplateau die jugoslawische Grenze verläuft, und wusste mich in Sicherheit. Daß ich zugleich dachte, was ich sah, empfand ich gleichsam als Brustschild. (WH 25)
Elsewhere, Slovenian meals appear as a eucharist, the Christian meal of redemption, in contrast to Austrian food, whose contrived nature is a sign of guilt:
Auf den Tischen, statt der Körbe vollgesteckt mit den vielfältigen Formen des österreichischen Gebäcks, was zuzeiten an die kopfüber gepurzelten Leichen in einem Massengrab erinnern konnte, wieder die einfachen Stapel der Weißbrotscheiben... (WH 227)
Handke repeatedly deploys a Catholic signifying system in order to construct and legitimate a poetic, personal system of meaning around Slovenia.17 In doing so, Handke’s novel negotiates his personal inner tension between Slovenian father and Austrian mother, Slovenian utopia and Austrian guilt. In Handke’s poetics, the redemptive act of repetition turns a complex history of ongoing colonization and violence in Austria and the Balkans into a subjective reconciliation with a personal family drama. Handke’s ongoing concern with a subjectively redemptive lineage and patrimony was echoed in his infamous retort to reporters pressing him for answers about his closeness to Serbian warmongers in the wake of the Nobel prize award: “Lasst mich in Frieden. Ich komme von Tolstoi, ich komme von Homer, ich komme von Cervantes.”18 A patriarchal lineage of canonical writers on war, in Handke’s defensive retort, absolves him of the need for a serious reckoning with the impact of his personal posturing and poetics. Handke legitimates his poetics by situating them within a wilfully subjective heritage, both familial and literary. A heritage that is outside his chosen genealogy – for instance, a wider community of victims of violence, of collectives that demand justice – has no place in his poetics.
So, just as Handke’s work so often returns to an exclusive imagined lineage, which consecrates some heritage (Slovenian, Homerian, familial) at the expense of other forms of affiliation, to teach Handke is also to reproduce a problematic inheritance of German studies. Hence the need for a critical pedagogy that refuses this imaginary linear inheritance. We must find ways in which students can approach Handke’s texts as part of a rhizomatic, non-hierarchical curriculum, co-created by themselves, and shaped by their own intellectual curiosity and life experiences. Handke is a teachable moment for all of us who teach German studies. Should students read Handke? Absolutely, if they decide they want to. Should we teach Handke? is probably a facile question. But how, why, when and for how long we should talk about Handke is very much a question that German Studies can learn from.