I did this translation at the request of an archivist at Vienna’s Burgtheater for an upcoming performance. It is a provocative little speech, available for listening at the web site of the Princeton University German Department.
From Text + Kritik: Zeitschrift für Literatur, 24, Peter Handke, fünfte Auflage: Neufassung, 1989, 17-19.
I see a kind of descriptive impotence in contemporary German prose. Unembellished description has become the answer. That is, of course, the cheapest thing literature can be made of. At wit’s end, one can always still describe details. It is the beginning of an extremely uncreative period in German literature, and this strange catchphrase “New Realism” is being used by all kinds of people who want to be part of the discussion although they have absolutely no abilities and absolutely no creative potency in regards to literature. (Murmuring) Completely absent is any kind of contemplation. The pretense that there is nothing but the description of details and processes masquerades as a philosophy, as a worldview. And that is a kind of literary cinéma verité, as I see it. It is evident that certain mistakes of the old literature are no longer perpetrated. For example, metaphors are used only with great care. It is obvious, however, that the achievements of this new literature are nothing but negation. The mistakes or the clichés of the old literature have been banished, but rather than a new outlook there is only the completely primitive and desolate restriction of this so-called “New Objectivity.” And in the form of this prose . . . the form of this new German prose is in no way . . . is horribly conventional, above all in sentence structure, in the gestures of language generally. Even if the individual words, as was said, are empty of metaphor, the forms of this language are completely barren and terribly similar to the stories of former times. That is my claim. (Agitation, murmuring) This prose can be seen . . . What makes this prose bad is that it could just as well be copied from an encyclopedia. One could take the dictionary, a picture dictionary, and look up the pictures and refer to the separate parts. That is the system being used here. And the claim is that literature is being made. It is a completely inane and idiotic literature. (General laughter, isolated applause) And literary critics . . . and literary critics . . . and literary critics are in agreement because their inherited apparatus can deal with this kind of literature, just barely. (Laughter again) Because criticism is exactly as inane as this inane literature. (Some laughter, agitation) If a new form of language were to appear now, (Interruption: Psst!) critics could only say . . . either say that is boring, or revert to invective, or point to certain linguistic mistakes that are bound to occur. That is the only methodology because criticism . . . the apparatus, the one handed down, is useless in this case, although it is just good enough for the inane literature of description, it is adequate there. The apparatus of criticism is perfectly adequate for the literature being presented right here. Interruption (probably Hans Werner Richter): Herr Handke, it is not our practice to give lectures on literature . . . Handke: Yes, yes. May I say something? Richter: You must speak about the text. Handke: Yes, yes . . . I . . . Richter: Please. Handke: It is exactly this kind of literature . . . that so-called contemporary Germany appears. Somewhere . . . somewhere Auschwitz has to show up sub rosa, even if only in a so-called subordinate clause or on the periphery. But it must be there in any case, whether in passing or offhandedly. (Murmuring) And there is no thought of . . . (breaks off). (Laughter) Richter: Well, I don’t have much time, Herr Handke, at this point we know exactly what you mean. (murmuring) Shout: Let him finish! Richter: All right, good, go on. Interjection: But not an exposition! Handke: So, I just want to say . . . Richter: Keep it short, please. Please, Herr Handke, you may speak. Handke: I will keep it as short as possible. But that is, I believe, necessary. Richter: But no lecture. No lecture. Handke: One claims to know, to be sure, what one can no longer write, isn’t that true, and one limits oneself to this objective prose. And so one writes things that just describe objects. One knows exactly what one may reiterate, but not what ought to be written, isn’t that the case? That is, I believe, the basic problem of this . . . of this absolutely stupid and inane prose.
[translated by Scott Abbott, 9 June 2013, for the play
Regie: Katie Mitchell
Kasino Theater des Burgtheaters, Wien]