This beautiful essay on language and the work of Peter Handke was presented two days ago by Karl Ove Knausgaard at the Skien International Ibsen Conference. The Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke is the winner of the the 2014 International Ibsen Award, the world’s most prestigious theater prize.
Handke and Singularity
There are few places where the problem of representation is so acute as in Paul Celan’s poem The Straitening [Engführung]. Neither places nor people have names, there is no time other than that of the verbs, nor any narrative or overall structure to give the words a setting or a coherent context. The words lie on the page like stones on the ground, and at first glance the only thing which seems to link them together is the fact that they are all German. On a closer reading of the poem, the possibility emerges that it deals with – or attempts to deal with – the fundamental abyss of all literature: that between the world and language about the world, rendered visible through an understanding of nothing, which, in the very moment it is named, is no longer nothing, but something. What is named in the poem, for example ‘a name’ or ‘lay’, can at the next juncture be retracted; for example:
The place where they lay, has
a name – it has
none. They did not lie there […]
These people, who both lie and do not lie in a place which both has a name and does not have a name, did not ‘see’ but rather ‘spoke of words’. Then, it reads, they did not wake, and sleep came over them. This poem is so finely tuned and so immune to superficial reading that it would be a violation to say that speaking of words – which is likened to not seeing, which in turn is likened to sleeping – is a metaphor for inauthenticity, that the words we use not only to invoke the world but also to create it also prevent us from seeing and experiencing it as it really is. Words such as authentic and inauthentic, both of which are abstract and full of historical and philosophical connotations – and in this context, a poem by Celan, also controversial after Adorno’s conflict with Heidegger and his successors in Jargon of Authenticity – are far removed from this poem since they represent a form of conceptual thought which it evades at all costs. The poem comes between between the name of the world and the world, but not in search of pure being, understood as freedom from civilisation and culture, that is, the so-called authentic; for in the poem the absence of the name is a loss in the same way as the absence of the discriminating power of the name is a loss, something which is pleaded for but which is impossible. Therein lies the merit of the poem, the fact that it cannot be referred to other than by quoting it, cannot be retold, cannot be used for something secondary, and points to nothing other than to itself; in other words, it is singular, primary, the thing-in-itself, as a stone on the ground is singular, primary, the thing-in-itself. That is to say as close to the singular and the primary and the thing-in-itself as a language can come, because even in a language which persistently negates itself, representation is of course unavoidable. Where it reads ‘Grass, written asunder,’ I imagine, in all its simplicity, the grass that grows on the lawn in the dark outside the window by which I sit and write, and by ‘written asunder’ I understand a form of violence which perhaps – or perhaps not – has something to do with the way in which it is seen or represented.
We now know that Paul Celan was a Romanian Jew, and that he wrote this poem in the wake of the Second World War, in German; the language of the executioners who had destroyed it. Words such as ‘land’, ‘blood’, ‘family’, ‘labour’, and ‘fatherland’ were filled to the brim with Nazism, and their totalitarian pretensions and bureaucracy had seeped into every part of the language. It was in this language, where morals, ethics, and aesthetics were perverted, that Paul Celan said ‘I’. When he said ‘death’ in that language, he said something other than absence of life, he said something other than nothing – for Nazism was a death cult, so by saying ‘death’ he did not say nothing, but rather ‘victim’, ‘fatherland’, ‘greatness’, ‘sincerity’, ‘pride’, ‘courage’. When he said ‘land’, he said ‘race’, ‘purity’, ‘victim’, ‘death’. Death in the gas chambers was another death, its nothing was something else, named in the same way as one names insect or pest control, an elimination of something unwanted, non-human, and how does one name the death that had no identity without invoking the waving banners or the swarming rats that lay in the word ‘death‘?
The opposite of the totalitarian is the unique, the isolated, the singular. The Straitening can be read as a study of the nature of language itself and of its borders with the incommunicable reality, and as an attempt to find a way in the German language that had not been destroyed to in a way create a new German language in order to understand that which constantly casts shadows over the poem but which is never directly represented, namely the Holocaust, without betraying it. Like the names ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Treblinka’, ‘Holocaust’ is something we refer to, something in history, where each incident, each life, each moment is firmly attached to the emblem of the name. The act of naming is another form of disappearing. Consequently, the poem cannot mention Auschwitz; the diminution is too great, and it describes nothing of what took place there. Such a description of the type we associate with the word ‘Auschwitz’ – of prisoner transportations, gas chambers, incineration furnaces – would reify that which is nothing, would create ‘history’ from it and thereby incorporate the incommunicable into the discussion.
The Straitening is so clearly no linguistic exercise, so clearly no academic exercise in presence and absence; it is an elegy to and a requiem for those who died in the Holocaust and to what was lost through their death, namely ‘we’. It was in Celan’s own language, his native tongue, German, that the Jews were first separated from its ‘we’ to its ‘they’ and subsequently, in the extermination camps, to its ‘it’. The Jews were deprived of the name in which not only their identity lay, but also their humanity. They became ‘it’: bodies with limbs that could be counted but not named. They became nobody. Then they became nothing. That nothing is what Celan’s poem tries to represent by invoking and negating, ‘ash’, ‘night’, ‘light’, ‘sleep’, ‘sleeping’, letting that which always is also not be, in a language in which almost all meaning is lost, since meaning is a function of a ‘we’, which in this language had been destroyed, hence the singularity.
The Straitening is a lament for that which was lost forever, but it is also the opposite: a beginning, since it in itself was created, not destroyed. And since it in itself communicates, it establishes a new ‘we’ which every new reader redeems. And although our own time is radically different, the abyss between language and the world is the same and the duplicity of language just as treacherous. It is still through language that the world is created and we are connected to it, yet language is also what distances us from it. Language is still coercion, a mass system of conformity and socialisation that erases the individual, yet it is only through language that we can express individuality, the separate, the unique. One of the best and most important books written in German in our time is – to my mind – Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams [Wunschloses Unglück] from 1972. The problem of representation is also a key issue here, though it is presented in a very different way. The book is autobiographical in the sense that it is based on an actual event in Handke’s life: his mother’s suicide. The prose is sparse and subdued; in other words, not novelistic, which in turn means unbeautiful, perhaps because beauty instils hope, and this is a novel about despair. Beauty, that is, the literary filter through which the world is viewed, gives hope to despair, value to worthlessness, and sense to meaningless. It is inevitably so. Loneliness that is beautifully described lifts the soul to new heights, and then it is no longer true; for loneliness is not beautiful, despair is not beautiful, not even longing is beautiful. It is not true, but it is good. It is a comfort, it is a relief, and perhaps it is where some of literature’s justification lies? But in that case, it is literature as something else, as something special and autonomous, something valuable in itself – not as a representation of reality. That is something Peter Handke tries to evade in his novel. It was written a few weeks after the funeral, and in it Handke tries to see his mother and her life in as true a light as possible. Not true in the sense that it really happened – she was a real person in the world – but true in his insight and in the way he imparts this insight. He does not represent his mother in the text; that (I felt when reading it) would be a violation of her as a human being. She was her own person, lived her own life, and instead of depicting that life, Handke refers to it, like something that lies outside the text, never inside it. This means that he writes in general terms, about the contexts in which she figured, about the roles she assumed or did not assume, but these generalities can also present problems, he writes, because they can become independent of her and take on a life of their own in the text through his poetic formulations – which would also be a betrayal of her. He writes: “Consequently, I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience.” That is where he searches, as it were, for his mother’s life. He does this to protect her dignity and integrity, as far as I can understand, but then something else also happens in the text: when a person is portrayed through the eyes of her contemporary society, through its culture and self-understanding, through its roles and limits, her inner nature disappears, her individual and characteristic existence, what used to be referred to as the soul, and – I think – perhaps Handke’s book is also a story of precisely that: society’s oppression of the individual, the strangling of the soul.
Handke steers away from all types of affects, feelings, anything anecdotal, anything that might inject life into a text; he repeatedly insists that it is a text he is writing, that the life he is describing is elsewhere, or was elsewhere, and when after seventy-odd pages he reaches the moment of death and the funeral (which takes place by a forest), he writes: “The people left the grave quickly. I stood beside it and looked up at the motionless trees: for the first time it seems to me that nature was really merciless. So these were the facts! The forest spoke for itself. Apart from these countless trees, nothing counted; in the foreground an episodic jumble of shapes which gradually receded from the picture. I felt mocked and helpless. All at once, in my impotent rage, I felt the need of writing something about my mother.” In other words, it was this sudden insight into what death was that constituted the novel’s true starting point. This insight led Handke to write a book about his mother and his mother’s death in which she was not represented, only referred to, shaped by her time and its formulations and insights, seen as an individual who had a given number of types from which to choose, socially and historically determined, but of course not without her own personality, only that this was not shaped because then it would become ‘typical’ for her and – paradoxically – lie, since she always, all the time, was something else. In Handke’s universe, death is merciless, and the life he describes is also merciless, so obviously his book cannot deal with mercy. From a literary perspective, mercy lies in the beautiful; that is, in the beautiful sentence and in the invention, that is, the fictionalisation, the secret alliance of events that criss-cross any novel, because this criss-crossing in itself constitutes a confirmation of meaning and coherence.
“The people left the grave quickly. I stood beside it and looked up at the motionless trees: for the first time it seems to me that nature was really merciless. So these were the facts! The forest spoke for itself.”
When I see a tree, I see its blindness and randomness, something which has come into being and will die, and which in the intervening time will grow. When I see a fishing net full of glimmering fish, I see the same: something blind and random that comes into being, grows, and dies. When I see pictures from the Nazi extermination camps, I see human beings in the same way. Limbs, heads, stomachs, hair, genitals. It has nothing to do with my gaze; what I see is the way in which these people were viewed and represented at that time, and which made it possible for so many people to know about those atrocities and even to participate in them without lifting a finger. The idea that such a gaze is possible is frightening, but it doesn’t make what that gaze sees any less true. We could regard this as nothing, and all thoughts that seek meaning in the world must relate to this zero-point. I see a tree, and I see futility. But I also see life in its pure, blind form, that which grows and grows. Its energy and beauty. Yes, death is nothing, simply absence. But in the same way as the blind life can on the one hand be seen as a force, something sacred and – well, why not – divine and on the other hand be seen as something meaningless and empty, then death, too, can be seen in the same way; death’s song can also be sung: death, too, can be filled with meaning and beauty. This is what makes German national socialism so infinitely significant to us, because it’s only two generations since they held power, and under their reign of terror – which was modern in every aspect – all three of these perspectives prevailed alongside each other: life as a divine force, death as beautiful and meaningful, humans as something blind and random and worthless. This perspective, which prior to Nazism belonged to art and to the sublime, became part of the social order. Handke’s mother was a young women at the time, and after describing her childhood during the interwar period in Austria, in comparative poverty and ignorance, where her uncle’s wish to learn something – just about anything – was considered totally unrealistic and undesired, Handke outlines the new atmosphere that emerges in and around national socialism, with demonstrations, torchlight processions, buildings decorated with new national emblems, and writes: “The historic events were represented to the rural population as a drama of nature.” He writes that his mother still had no interest in politics, because “what was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics. Politics was something colourless and abstract, not a carnival, not a dance, not a band in local costume, in short, nothing VISIBLE.”
Nazism was the last major Utopian political movement to date, and the fact that it proved so destructive in almost every way has made all subsequent Utopian thinking so problematic – if not impossible – not only in politics but also in art, and since art is by its very nature Utopian, it has found itself in a state of crisis ever since, characterised by self-examination and suspicion, as expressed in Handke’s novel and in almost all novels written by his generation of writers.
How do you represent reality without adding something it doesn’t have? What does it ‘have’ and ‘not have’? What is authentic? What is inauthentic? Where do you draw the line between the staged and the unstaged? Does such a borderline even exist? Is the world something other than our notions of it?
Language has no life of its own, is not itself alive: it invokes life, and the very primal scene for that, the source of creative literature, is found in The Odyssey when Odysseus and his crew moor on the Oceanus River after visiting Circe, and Odysseus offers a sacrifice on the beach to the dead. Blood runs darkly down into the pit, and the dead souls begin to flock around it. He sees young girls dressed as brides, young warriors in blood-stained armour, and old men, their screams are ghastly, and he is filled with fear. The first he recognizes is Elpenor, who died during their stay with Circe and was never buried. He tells his story, of how he drank himself drunk and fell head first off a roof, broke his neck and died. The next one Odysseus speaks to is Tiresias, the soothsayer, who foretells the future, then appears Odysseus’ mother, who drinks of the blood. She recognizes him and tells him of how she died. Odysseus goes to embrace her, and approaches her three times, and three times she escapes him like a dream or a shadow. She tells him that her sinews no longer hold flesh and bone together, the funeral pyre has transformed her body to ash, and that all that is left is her soul, fluttering around.
Literature invokes the world as Odysseus invokes the dead, and no matter how it is done, the distance is always insurmountable and the stories always the same. One son loses his mother three thousand years ago, one son loses his mother forty years ago. The fact that the one story is a work of fiction and the other based on fact does not change their basic similarity: both manifest themselves in language, and from this perspective any attempt Handke makes to escape the literary proves futile, there is nothing in his description of reality that is more authentic than Homer’s. Nor is that what he seeks to do. Handke wants to write about someone – his mother – without invoking her, without giving her blood so that she can appear in something reminiscent of her former, living character; in other words, deny her a fictitious life that might create connections between the dead – her existence in the past, and the living – the reader’s consciousness. Instead, what language invokes is her environment, the shapes of her life, and although her identity – that which was peculiar to her – comes to view, it does not speak. Nor can what language invokes be found on the other side of an insurmountable abyss, for these shapes are themselves linguistic in a sense, though not in a truly literal sense. Thus, Handke succeeded in doing what he presumably set out to do, namely to represent reality in an authentic manner.
Another way in which to do the same thing could be to remove the narrator completely and just present those documents in which the mother was mentioned or which pertained to matters in which she had a part; the relationship between the reality and the description of reality would then be practically congruent. The as-if of art, that abyss which separates it from reality, would then be completely removed, or more correctly, could only be sensed as the will that tracked down the documents, collated them, and arranged them in a certain order. We could of course regard that order as manipulative; in reality, the documents were arranged horizontally, in different filing systems in different locations, and even a chronological principle of arranging them would represent a violation and create an effect: the final medical journal transcript is followed by the post-mortem report, the reader wipes away a tear.
The singular in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams lies not in the formation of an individual, in the account of that individual’s particular life and unique manner, since the form of the formation as we are used to seeing it in novels and films is neither particular nor unique, but makes what it creates a part of something else and, thus, betrays it. The singular lies in the form, which is unique to this particular book, which is not found anywhere else, and which cannot be transferred to another form without losing is essence. By not forming the mother, the writer keeps her outside the representation. The fact that something stands for something else and in that way, by virtue of the book being what it is and nothing more, the mother continues to be what she was in it: a separate and unique individual. I find that same will throughout Peter Handke’s oeuvre, and it is that which makes it so difficult to write about, because his books resist interpretation, since to interpret is nothing more than transferring the one to the other. Handke’s books are their own interpretations. At the very beginning of the play Kaspar from 1967, the stage direction reads that the stage represents a stage, not another room in another place, and that the furniture in the stage room should look like theatrical props by being placed differently than they normally are, and that they should have no history. It is theatre, and should not represent anything other than theatre. Kaspar stumbles onto this stage. He is wearing a lifelike mask with an expression of perpetual astonishment. His walk is mechanical and contrived, as if he has never learned to walk, and eventually he falls. Sitting on the stage, he repeatedly utters a sentence: “I want to be a person like somebody else was once.” This is a slightly modified version of what the real Kaspar Hauser apparently said when he turned up in Nuremberg in 1828, namely: “I want to be a cavalryman as my father was.” Kaspar’s character is further anonymised by removing the specifics, cavalryman and father, and only an unspecified future is mentioned in what he says: “I want to be”, and an equally unspecified past in: “like somebody else was once”, both associated with identity. The question the sentence thus also raises is: who is he now? He wants to be something, something which somebody else once was – but based on what? This is the only sentence he can say, and it is unclear whether he even understands what it means. Kaspar is without language or culture, the fixed facial expression displays astonishment at the presence of others. Is a person who has never seen others capable of seeing himself? And what does it mean to be without language? What affect does it have on thoughts, memories, the self? Does he have a self? Without language, he is like an animal, but we know nothing about animals’ thoughts, memories or self, since all these things are communicated through language, which they don’t have. All we can say about Kaspar as he comes stumbling onto the stage is that he is without language. But he is not nobody. He has a physical presence, he has a body, and he has a body language. We can read him, but he can’t read us.
After a while, someone begins to talk to him. There are three voices, and they are impersonal, hold no warmth, no irony, no humour or helpfulness, but nor are they the opposite; they are neutral. According to the stage directions, they are reading a text which is not theirs. In the same way as the furniture props were furniture props and should not represent a living room, these words should be delivered as words which should not represent the speaker, only what is spoken. This means that the voices are as anonymous and as bereft of history as Kaspar, but likewise from the other side: where Kaspar’s identity disappears into his body, where it is not articulated but where it nonetheless is, since he is, somehow erased in singularity’s utmost consequence, there where there are no others and therefore no language, the identities of these voices vanish in the bodiless, erased in generality’s utmost consequence, there where nothing separate is found, only language, which is universal.
What do the voices say?
One says: “Familiarise yourself with all objects. Make all objects into a sentence with the sentence. You can make all objects into your sentence. With this sentence, all objects belong to you. With this sentence, all objects are yours.”
One says: “You can no longer imagine anything without the sentence. You are unable to visualise an object without the sentence.
One says: “A sentence which requires a question is uncomfortable; you cannot feel at ease with such a sentence.” One says: “Everyone is born with a wealth of talents.”
One says: “Everyone is responsible for his own progress.”
One says: “Everyone puts himself at the service of the cause. Everyone says yes to himself.”
One says: “Work develops an awareness of duty in everyone.”
One says: “One of the most beautiful things in life is a well-set table.”
The voices socialise Kaspar; through them he learns to deal with the world, which is translated into language and acquires an identity, but the cost is high, for communicating with everyone wipes out everything peculiar to him, and the instrumental categorisation of the world distances him from it. Finally, he talks of words, to paraphrase Celan. The language in this play is therefore a kind of prison; it restricts and reduces and closes at the same time as organises, structures, and coordinates. Although the play was written in 1967 and is clearly rooted in the currents of its time, with its criticism of authority, its scepticism of conformity, and its anti-bourgeois sentiment, it is so brutal and uncompromising and essentially oriented that it transcends the spirit of the age and exposes something beyond validity, the conflict which has always existed between the independence of the individual and the community of everyone.
I was born in 1968, and have no experience of the society and culture of the sixties, only of its repercussions in the seventies, which already seems like a totally different world, with totally different values and practices, undergoing radical transformation since the mid eighties and at a steadily increasing rate, until we stand here now in 2014, in the centre of our horizontal, unlimited reality, steepeded in money and things, well-intentioned and more than adequately provided for, and – perhaps most importantly – free. Should language be a prison for us? Should we be oppressed? We, who are more individualistic than anyone one who has gone before us? The likely truth is that we are individualistic in the same way, and that this sameness is invisible to us because it is not forced upon us, entails no element of violence or oppression like Kaspar’s voices of authority, but is instead ingratiating, affirmative, alluring, comfortable. No matter where I turn, I see sameness. The newspaper reports, their language, are all the same, so that what they report on – regardless of how dissimilar it is – seem identical. The language of TV news stories is the same; the language of films is the same; the language of novels is the same. Even if what they are telling us is different, exceptional, it is conveyed not as such, but as the same. We live our lives increasingly through others, and establish distinctions and differences through consumption, which is delusive, because they are acquired through money – for what else is money than a vehicle for affording equal status to the most dissimilar of things so that they can be sold? Money converts everything into numbers; beauty as well as forests as well as art as well as bodies. We even sell our dreams. This current of sameness in which we all find ourselves is friction-free, it is image-oriented, and it increases the distance to our physical, material reality and to the moment in which we always find ourselves but which we don’t endure and from which we run away as often as we can. The singular in that reality is that which is not for sale; that is, that which cannot be transferred. It is, for example, the boring. It is the difficult. It is the idiosyncratic. It is the isolated.
This says nothing about the work of Peter Handke, whose books, it seems to me, evade precisely this type of general synthesis, refuse to subordinate themselves to general reasonings and instead stick to their own, rather like the narrator in My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay [Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht] who describes in detail the suburban landscape in which he lives, which holds everything we normally don’t see or value because it lies outside the beautiful and the meaningful, but without making a big deal of it, and who, right at the beginning of the book, writes:
“The earth has long since been discovered. But I still keep sensing what I call in my own mind the New World. It is the most splendid experience I can imagine. Usually it comes only for the flash of a second and perhaps continues to glow dimly for a while. I never see visions or phenomena with it. (Inside me is distrust toward all those vouchsafed illuminations with it being a necessity). What I see as the New World is everyday reality. It remains what it was, merely radiating calmness, a runway or launchpad from the old world, marking a fresh beginning.”
We see the world and ourselves through categories and forms, and since these categories and forms are always already defined, the element of creation so easily escapes us, as does the element of the unique, which in reality belongs to every single second. Art and literature have always known this. That’s why it has been and is in a state of continual change; it seeks the eternal, the constant and unchangeable, which are our conditions for life, for no matter how modern we are, we are born and we die, the heart in our chest beats and water runs down our throat, apples hang on branches, and creeping plants creep up the stalks of other plants, the sun shines and the moon gleams through continually new forms to represent that which it also is, new to each generation, new to each human being. A good example could be Cezanne’s art. In the realistic, reality-representational art, the perspective is a form that already exists: the room is already there, and is then dressed with walls, a floor, a ceiling or with grassland, trees, skies. With Cezanne, it is as if the things come in being first, and that it is their interrelationships that create the room. The room comes into being, is created each time, is not a constant quantity, and we see it, suddenly. Nor is it so that Cezanne represents these things, tries to create an illusion of an apple on a table in a room. It is the painted that is the authentic, these colours and this pattern in themselves, and in a peculiar way it is as if this non-representation opens up the world while the representation closes it, as if non-representation intensifies intimacy while representation diminishes it. It is like this, of course, because to paint is to see, it’s about the way something is seen, and it is there the world appears, not as something in itself, but as something that is seen, or met. The meeting of the gaze and the thing was what Cezanne painted, not the thing, and it is the meeting that makes it unique. Cezannes’ paintings have a central place in one of Handke’s books, The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire [Die Lehre der Sainte-Viktoire] from 1980. Sainte-Victoire is a mountain which Cezanne painted over and over again throughout his life, and even though the mountain is the same, each and every one of his paintings is different, exceptional, because they represent the mountain from different angles and different times, based on different moods, objectives, and ideas, in all kinds of weather, in all seasons of the year. Another pre-defined category – perhaps even more difficult to acknowledge and see but decisive for how the world appears – is that of the values hierarchy, which elevates something and lets it represent the superior and devalues something else that represents the inferior. The opposite would be a gaze that saw everything openly, that assigned equal status to everything, whether it be blood, vomit, excrement, sunrises, lawns, lynx, maggots, fish spawn, owls, hearts, crowds, apes, chairs, tables. The unbiased gaze would be unable to see any connections between the different objects, creatures, and phenomena, since perhaps the most important bias we have has to do with what belongs together and what does not. This is how we organise the world, and it is that which enables us to live in it, but it is also that which charges it with values and morals, often without us realising it, since our pre-charged gaze implies self-evidence, that it goes without saying. But nothing goes without saying, and if there is one recurring insight in Peter Handke’s books, it is that. They seek out the gaps, the perimeters, there where something can be seen for the first time, and they insist on the details, on the small incidents, the seemingly insignificant, precisely because they change everything about that which is already seen, and reveal a world that is forever in the making. One example could be the in every way fantastic short journal Once Again for Thucydides [Noch einmal für Thukydides] from 1995, which intimately describes the most minor incidents outside a house. It deals with flowers and insects, shadows that fall, the sun that shines, the snow that melts. The journal opens with a dating, and ends as follows: “These were the events of the morning of March 23, 1987.” This in any other way insignificance and triviality is described as if it were a major battle, and turns the hierarchy on its head: this is also history-writing. The year after this book was released, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia [Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien] was published, and it is difficult not to read it in light of Once Again for Thucydides, as another form of history-writing, about what goes on outside of public attention, the entire political-historical and generalising system of concepts that has filled ‘Serbia’ with a whole bunch of fixed notions, unalterable and unshakable, as if Handke also tries to fill ‘Serbia’ with something else which is as true and as important because it is human, belongs to reality just as much as the other facts do. At the very end of the book, it reads:
“To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.”
Are you bringing up the poetic again? Yes, when this is understood as the opposite to the nebulous. Or, rather than ‘the poetic’, let me say the connecting, the far-reaching – that which gives rise to a collective memory, which is the only possibility for reconciliation for an other, collective childhood.
How is that? Besides different German readers, what I have written here was intended for different Slovenian, Croatian, and Serbian readers, based on my experience that it is precisely through the indirect way consisting of continually holding on to certain less important issues rather than hammering in the key facts that one can keep alive a collective self-remembrance, an other, collective childhood.”
Another common, enduring feature of Handke’s books is precisely the journeys, the wanderings, the constant hikes through different landscapes – as in his most recent novel, The Great Fall [Der Große Fall], which begins with an actor waking up in a strange house and wandering around the undefined no-man’s landscape outside a large city, and which ends when he reaches the city centre in the evening – and this feature of always being in motion, always on the way to another place, belongs to the fundamental structure of the Western epic tradition. I’m thinking, of course, of The Odyssey and of Odysseus’ long journey from Troy to Ithaca, nostos, home. That book resonates in Handke’s most recent drama, Still Storm from 2010, both because in that book he returns home to the area of his childhood, in the Austrian province of Kärnten, and because it deals to a large extent on what a home is and what it means, but also because the narrator, who is sitting on a grassland in an undefined time, which is time in literature, sees his dead mother appear before him, and talks to her, precisely as Odysseus did with his mother in The Odyssey. Since the I-narrator shares many of Handke’s own traits and the mother’s character many of those of the mother described in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, I don’t find it unreasonable to read this as another picture of the same woman, written by the same writer almost forty years later. She is not represented as the person she was here, either, nor are we allowed to share in her live as it once played out in so-called real reality. The character we meet in this piece is the mother as she appears to the narrator here and now – she is dead ‘in reality’, and also in the book, and is portrayed as in a dream, in a vision, in a memory, in a text. Yes, Handke depicts this mother as a character in a play or a novel, nothing else, nothing more, nothing less. She is surrounded by her parents, her brothers, and the narrator himself, as an infant. Time has been suspended, as has the place: we are in the book, we are in the theatre, we read or see an elderly man’s portrayal of his family and his home town as it was before and during the war more than seventy years ago. It is an elegy, for everything that is described is now lost, is now gone. But, unlike the narrator in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, this narrator is reconciled with the loss, does not turn away from it in disgust, but instead regards it with warmth and openness, perhaps because the place that opens up not only contains what has been lost; it is also the place where he came into being, for in Still Storm it is as if death and birth are circled in as the same, in some magical way. When I read it, I thought: this, exactly this, is something I’ve not seen exactly like this before. In this work, the language, which in Handke’s writing is incorporated with so much ambivalence, is both that which oppresses and liberates, is associated with the local, with the minority Slovenian language of Handke’s maternal family. The mother recognizes the narrator, now older than she was when she died, by the language. She says: “Unfamiliar figure, familiar language. I recognize you by your language, Ape-Son. All of us gathered here can be recognized by our language, at the very least we know recognize each other, each and every one of us can recognize each other as one of us. While the linguistic ‘we’ in Kaspar was oppressive and a threat to identity, the ‘we’ here is identity-forming, a home – but not without ambivalence, the work contains many voices, many perspectives. The grandfather says that those who lose their language lose their homeland. “What I am, what we are, begins with a home, a house, with our house, and without a house we are nothing.” A few pages later, the uncle, or the grandfather’s son, says: “My name, my prison.” The mother says: “I have a need to reinstate our way of speaking – whether it is out of love for our family or for our language – I don’t know.” Again the uncle, in answer to the question of whether he no longer understands his own language: “Oh yes. But only when it expresses what I can see, hear, and smell. When it gets more general, I no longer understand.” The abstract, which the sister wants him to learn, that is the language of communism, of doctrine, of ideology. And the language that threatens the local is German, in which the writer himself writes. The uncle again:
“Our language, our power. Beyond language, violence and power break out. The chief physician kills the language and, thereby, the individual – you and me. To remain in the language. To insist on it! Language, mine, ours – hen-coop ladder becomes Jacob’s ladder. Air – morning air – Easter air – Jaunfeld air! That’s progress.”
Perhaps it is the case that all writers write in a minority language, that that is what writing is, making the language your own, because it is only there, in the own language, that the own world can emerge, and the own life – which is the only life – be articulated. But it would be a misunderstanding to think that that is what ‘home’ is, at least if what you mean by ‘home’ is a permanent place – if Odysseus reached Ithaca and returned home, it didn’t last for long – if we are to believe Dante – before he headed out again, driving by his uncontrollably restless curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
By Karl Ove Knausgaard