Stormy Weather: Peter Handke’s IMMER NOCH STURM

For a volume in honor of my late colleague at Vanderbilt, Hans Schulz, I have just finished an essay on “Language as the First Casualty of War.” A few excerpts here:

. . . Like all plays, this one is made up of words and sentences and syntax and grammar. Immer noch Sturm is also about language. Repeatedly, as in the oddities of the first sentence, the play asks a reader to consider the play on two levels: to follow the characters and their interactions while thinking simultaneously about the language that is their substance. References to language like Gregor’s “Unsere Sprache, unsere Macht. Jenseits der Sprache bricht die Gewalt los,” and there are many of them, heighten this awareness. They also require interpretation. What, then, does this play say about language?

The Slovenian language spoken by a Slovenian minority in southern Austria is threatened by the occupying Germans (as previously by German-speaking Austrians) and Gregor, about to join the Slovenian partisans, tells the narrator that after the war they will be “Frei vor allem, unsere Sprache zu sprechen” (125). This hope, voiced throughout the play, is hope for a language, for the local language, for the Slovenian language. Although the play takes this specific instance as a catalyst, the Slovenian language is not the ultimate focus. Rather, as the speakers of a minority language discuss their threatened linguistic situation, each from a distinct viewpoint, the eight interlocutors play out a dialectical investigation into the possibilities of language in the contexts of war and peace.

There are several layers of discussion. The grandfather and the narrator’s mother prefer a simple, direct language that grounds them in their landscape and in their rural customs. Gregor joins them in this preference at times. Valentine argues for a cosmopolitan existence opened up by multiple languages. As partisans, Ursula and Gregor take up a politicized discourse in support of their aims. And the narrator, the teller of this tale about language, tries to be an historian but prefers the language of the stage.

. . .

All the various and sometimes competing threads of thought about language are reprised in the play’s fifth act. Gregor speaks passionately about the language and society he envisions after the war, about a utopia in which the names of the Jaunfeld are simple, in which the landscape is free and without threat, in which things are just things: “Und die Heuharfen hier werden nichts als Heuharfen sein. Und der Dachboden der Dachboden” (138-139). . . . Empty assertions of meaning, redundancies raised to prophecy, metaphors whose character as metaphors has been forgotten—this is where insistence on “Natur-Sprache” (88) leads when unchallenged by other forms of language. The metaphor-free state Gregor hopes for is impossible to uphold, and soon Gregor is speaking again about power: “Unsere Sprache, unsere Macht” (140).

The narrator follows Gregor’s hopeful, if conflicted speech with snippets of postwar history delivered in a voice meant to be that of a radio host—another attempt at speaking Klartext. Gregor comments cynically on the stuttered account of reestablished oppression: “Wehe dem Volk, nicht wahr, welches Geschichtsvolk wird. . . . Ach, Geschichte. Ah, Leben. Aus der Geschichte lernen? Ja, die Hoffnungslosigkeit” (152). The narrator is not satisfied with this historical cynicism, however, and asks a key question: “Aber kann die Geschichte nicht auch eine Form sein, und Form heißt Frieden?” Gregor finds that ridiculous: “Fehlt nur, daß du mit der Weltseele kommst.” The narrator posits another possible time and another possible place (as he did to begin the play). Gregor finds that silly: “Du und deine andere Zeit. Es ist aus mit der” (153).

The narrator of Handke’s Eine Winterliche Reise faces a similar disdainful response after arguing that for peace there is something not less important than the facts of the war: “Kommst du jetzt mit dem Poetischen?” Yes, he answers, “wenn dieses als das gerade Gegenteil verstanden wird vom Nebulösen. Oder sag statt ‘das Poetische’ besser das Verbindende, das Umfassende” (133). Immer noch Sturm is itself an example of a poetic form that connects, that includes. The play works to undermine the either/or exclusivities of the “Natur-Sprache” and of the Klartext while including them both in a dialectical multilingual conversation connected by the conjunction “und.”

During his utopian musings, Gregor begins a litany of things common to the Jaunfeld: “Motten und Blutegel. Blei und Glimmer. Wasserläufer und Kuhmist. Meßkelch und Hühnerleiter. . . .” The narrator joins in with additions of his own: “Maiandachten und Totenglocken. Waldbunker und Fliegenpilze. Blaue Arbeitshosen und rote Auferstehungsmäntel. Fastentücher und Hakenkreuze. Holzschuhe und Mausefallen. . . .” (161). Hakenkreuze? The Nazi symbol disrupts the idyllic list, but in a way it is little different from the Meßkelch or the Auferstehungsmäntel. The untroubled and sustaining things of rural life—mushrooms and work clothing—exist alongside symbols and ritual objects that structure rural life. When those symbols promise power, however, someone needs to say Hakenkreuz!. Heimat has a history and it has not always been pretty.

. . .This essay began with Thomas Assheuer’s claim that Immer noch Sturmis a work of “Sprachnationalismus.” That would be true if the play were about a pure and good Slovenian language as opposed to the evil German/Austrian language, if it were about small-town farmers who say the words “Huhn” and “Ziegenmilch” and “Lederhosen” and thus prove that they are authentic human beings.  If the play is about a minority Slovene population that fights bravely in the Resistance against German-speaking Nazis, then it’s a play by someone other than Peter Handke. But if the play is about a complex and conflicted family of Slovenian speakers on the periphery of German-speaking society and thus in a position to raise some interesting questions about language, then Mr. Assheuer has proven that he cannot read.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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5 Responses to Stormy Weather: Peter Handke’s IMMER NOCH STURM

  1. Scott Abbott says:

    A comment posted for Michael Roloff:

    As I mentioned during our correspondence: your first-rate focused elaboration of the language aspect of the play, which however is a typical example of GERMANISTIK (not a single reference to its discussions and reception as a play or to Handke’s dramaturgy!), forgets that a playwright like Handke does not write ABOUT anything, but creates artistic MACHINES: “A play set during the time of an uprising against a domineering culture is conducted not solely by means of the actions of, and what happens to, its characters but chiefly in terms of the language in which they themselves attempt to come to terms with the situation, Doing so – in concert with the other estrangements – ultimately, may have the same liberating effect on the audience as a number of Handke’s other plays have of dissolving petrifying categories of experiencing.” To appreciate the play qua play would mean to perahps analyze one slice of the sausage and see the variety of things that drive it forward at any given moment, A playwright like Brecht, working at the Berliner Ensemble, with the time to do his kind of VERSUCHE with his ensemble, might have TRIED OUT a variety of other personal constellations, which are problematic here because Handke takes recourse to his own family history, yet distorts it in the sense that its Slovenian component was in no way involved in partisan activity. Two uncles, his mother’s brothers, died as German soldiers, the third surviving brother turned into an Austrian ultra-nationalist, which is not at all atypical of certain minority members who very much want to be accepted by the majority. and Handke does not appear to have gotten along with him at all. “Snowflake” or whatever the SCHNEEIGE is called in Chalmer’s translation as a sister is an invention, and a fine poetic one. How conflicted the mother is by having a German soldier as a lover yet with part of the family in the partisan uprising, I don’t recall if she is at all. Handke has her going off to seek out the child’s father, as his real mother did. That adhesion creates problems, dramatically. Perhaps these were some of the issues that made for such disagreements with Peymann, that he withdrew as the planned director, if you will recall. Here the host of links to material that we put up when the play premiered in Krautland.

    http://handke-drama.blogspot.com/2011/08/directors-view-of-forever-storm.html
    http://handke-drama.blogspot.com/2011/08/still-storm-introductory-thoughts-on.html
    http://handke-drama.blogspot.com/2012/06/forever-storm-and-handke-win-2012.html
    http://handke-drama.blogspot.com/2011/08/handke-immmer-noch-sturm-still-storm.html
    https://picasaweb.google.com/106505819654688893791/IMMERNOCHSTURMPHOTOSFOREVERSTORM

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    • Scott Abbott says:

      Michael, you’ve left me wondering if a bias against Germanistik and your own preferred approaches to a play have gotten in the way of your paying close attention to the details of my article.

      How can you write
      “(not a single reference to its discussions and reception as a play or to Handke’s dramaturgy!), forgets that a playwright like Handke does not write ABOUT anything, but creates artistic MACHINES”
      after having read it?

      The article begins and ends with reference to the reception of the play.

      The article is about dramaturgy, about the creation of a play as a form of language different from the form of a Klartext “. . . das Verbindende, das Umfassende” (133). Immer noch Sturm is itself an example of a poetic form that connects, that includes.”

      The family story is addressed as a skewed Klartext, as is the conflicting description of who died in the war.

      And so on.

      If I am right in my assessment of what I’ve done, I have laid out the central theme of the play in some of its complexity in ways no one who has reviewed the play has even mentioned. Because they don’t read closely, they’re left to write about the Slovenian partisans and the Handke family, neither of which is of much interest to Handke except as structures within which his play about language can unfold.

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  2. Scott Abbott says:

    these comments from Michael Roloff:
    Even prior to the promised re-read let me say that if the family story and Slovenian/ German matters were of secondary importance, and he had wanted to FOREGOUND the varieties of ideological positions as they are exemplified by language that the characters speak he would have picked a different way of going about it, unless he wanted that aspect or theme to be an incidental and inevitable aspect of such a situation. In that respect, STORM is like one of the stage directions to WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES, another disputatious play: EVERYBODY IS IN THE RIGHT , which of course means that everybody is also wrong! I would say that domination-subjugation/ irredentism maintenance of cultural identity via language is the bedrock of the play. Then you have a particular historical situation and a particular family within that situation, and an author who after all retrieved Slovenian and his Slovenian identity for himself, and thus is intimately familiar with what all of that is about, and knows about the history going back to Roman interacvtion with the Germanic tribess, those SUEBI!
    Starting at the back, with the bibliography, there is nothing on Handke’s dramaturgy, it’s all about language.
    http://handke-drama.blogspot.com/2010/05/index-page-for-this-and-all-other.html
    leads you to my pieces on the subject a few points of which I will try to summarize below.
    On language of course KASPAR is the play that uses language as active demonstration of indoctrination, and surrogate for all other measures that are taken to “break in” in a human being. You cite WEISSAGUNG but probably have not been subjected to its performance, it acts like Borax or a Rotorooter to the linguistic part of the mind! and is an antecedent of KASPAR. It actively does what Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor does in essayistic form.

    The chief thing that differentiates Handke’s non-naturalistic dramas – even the later ones, past HOUR (which is a belated summa of ALL the plays from Prephecy to LAKE CONSTANCE – is their being happenings – in that sense, too, he was very much of the time, but as a musician formalist created scores, whereas happenings were once and never again occurrences. These pieces had real inescaple effects on the audience! Most delightfully and cathartically for me LAKE CONSTANCE.

    Handke has been extraordinarily fecund in finding new ways for new ever greater happenings, which as you look at their summa, gradually reveal on what ground they play – and language must be understood in the widest sense oF semiotic signals in his instance, since it can be soundless body language as in MY FOOT MY TUTOR or a revolving set of images as in THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER, or combination thereof starting with VILLAGES at which point more overt social and political themes are entertained in a revolving manner in the LEHR ANSTALT that theater continues to be for Handke, especially so in VOYAGE BY DUGOUT and here in FOREVER STORM and language is indeed a theme AND actor in both these plays together with the other machinery of the dramaturgy, the characters, their actions, etc. All you really need to do with your wonderful delineation is set it within the machinery! VILLAGES, too, plays on forever at the end as do many of his plays that are written I think on a revolving disk.

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    • Scott Abbott says:

      Michael, a couple of comments in response:

      You wrote that “domination-subjugation/ irredentism maintenance of cultural identity via language is the bedrock of the play.” So what do you think the play says about cultural identity via language? Don’t you think my analysis of the theme of language in the play gets precisely at that?

      You repeat your claim that “there is nothing on Handke’s dramaturgy, it’s all about language.” If you mean by dramaturgy the way a play is composed (which is one common meaning of the word)—and this is all a reader of the text can deal with—then that is what my essay is about: how is the play composed? what form might a play take? what is the difference between the form of klartext and the form of drama? the form of this play is determined by a constellation of characters, each with a different view of language, whose ideas compete and finally, in the narrator’s telling, are conjoined by a series of “ands” and by shifting forms (like waltz to polka, for instance). If you mean how any of the directors of the play have chosen to represent the play on stage, that is obviously a separate question and must be left to those who have seen the play.

      I’m not quite sure what your point about the plays being happenings and/or machines has to do with my reading of the theme of language of the play, but I appreciate your note that it is a “wonderful delineation.”

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      • Scott Abbott says:

        LET ME REPLY TO YOUR LAST COMMENTS

        “1) “Jeder Satz ist fuer die Katz” but is a shotgun too! – Well, domination, integration has always required a combination of conversion, first of all to language i.e. KASPAR. I just read that Charlemagne launched an edict in the 800s that you had to convert to Christianity and stop worshipping Odin/Wotan in a region I spent the better part of the first twelve years of my life at, nearest railway stop ST. MAGNUS (!) ” on the pain of death!” . Evidently this process required Priests and a Bible and Churches and executioners! As chance would have it, the place i lived in as a child was on KIRKWAY, though I never saw a church on Kirkway which is about a mile and a half long from St, Magnus to the entrance to Vegesack, of couse i am sure there must have been a church in St. Magnus, which is part of suburb Lesum, where I was baptised! From what I learned from Handke about Slovenian I regret I did not learn what seems to be a Slavic tongue that merged with Latin/Italian and who knows what else!

        2} Dramaturgy entirely of linguistic changes would be KASPAR, or PROPHECY. Even LAKE CONSTANCE’s dramaturgy, (the play consists entirely of word play between characters who make believe they are famous actors), must be described with reference to what these pure verbal beings do and say. Thus what i mean by machinery/ dramaturgy includes the actions of the characters, the war, history, that is what drives the play no matter that during that unfolding a lot of commentary about language is made, and the language that is enunciated characterizes the characters and their ideology.But the play would work even without the reflectiveness about language – not that that is unimportant either to the play or to Handke. But it is not an essential part of the dramaturgy I don’t think.

        3) By “happenings”, and the later plays retaining that character of the early ones, I mean that they are artificial creations, non-naturalistic, yet very much in the great “realistic” tradition, and thus create unique events for the audience – but obviously with far more breathing room for reflection than the early ones do.

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