Yesterday the Nobel Prize Committee announced their award to Peter Handke. Peter’s German, French, and English responses over the day to gathered reporters included repeated statements that the award left him with a sense of freedom. He gratefully applauded the courage of the Committee. Why courage? Because of the responses that appeared quickly, like this one from PEN America’s President Jennifer Egan:
[We] are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. PEN America has been committed since the passage our 1948 PEN Charter to fighting against mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and distortion of facts. Our Charter further commits us to work to “dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality.” We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity.’
That statement, like others that appeared in the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and on and on, left me dumbfounded.
Where and when, I asked, did Peter ever undercut historical truth or offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide?
He spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, it is true, and he spoke in halting Serbo-Croatian. He said, he reported later to critics, that “I did not lay a red rose on the hearse of Slobodan Milosevic. I did not touch the hearse. I did not wave the Serbian flag. And I have never applauded “the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes done in the name of ethnic cleansing.” I’ve never considered the Serbs as “the real victims of the war.” . . . And nowhere in my little speech in Pozarevac did I say “I am happy to be close to Slobodan Milosevic, who has defended his people.” What I said was that “The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called world knows the truth. For that, the so-called world today is absent, and not only today, and not only here. I know that I do not know. I do not know the truth. But I look. I feel. I remember. For that, I am present today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.”
That that single event dominates the discussion of the Nobel award is proof of the very totalizing rush to clarity Peter has criticized in his work from the very beginning.
I translated Peter’s play Voyage by Dugout for the Journal of Performance and Art and prefaced the translation with the following essay about Peter Handke and the question of nationalism. It is my answer to the knee-jerk critics assembled yesterday to protest without a single reference to Peter’s actual work.
An Essay on the Play of the Film of the War
By Scott Abbott
The history of this war hasn’t been written yet. It is offensive to be labeled a revisionist because of this statement. With the exception of the Shoah, the writing of history is never final, especially in the Balkans.
Peter Handke, Interview with Antoine de Gaudemar, Liberation (France), 3/27/1997
Peter Handke’s Voyage by Dugout premiered in Vienna’s Burgtheater on June 9, 1999, the day NATO representatives announced that their seventy-eight-day bombing of Yugoslavia would cease. Claus Peymann directed the play, his last production at the Burgtheater after thirteen high-profile years. In early March, Handke had renounced his membership in the Catholic Church and had returned the ten thousand Marks awarded him in 1973 for Germany’s Buechner Prize in protest of ecclesiastical and government support for NATO intervention in the war. There had been rumors that Handke would withdraw his play in protest of the bombing and there were rumors that protestors would disturb the play. The play opened as scheduled, to a packed house, to a largely appreciative audience.
Most of Europe’s newspapers reviewed the play the next morning, including four in Berlin, three in Vienna, two each in Munich, Cologne, and Hamburg, and a front-page review in Le Monde. The reviews, like recent criticism of Handke’s novels, varied widely, but one German headline expressed a unanimous sentiment: “THERE WAS NO SCANDAL.”
Voyage by Dugout was the latest of Peter Handke’s works provoked by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a series that began in 1991 with Departure of the Dreamer from the Ninth Country, an essay lamenting Slovenia’s nationalist declaration of independence from the patchwork nation of the “southern Slavs.” In 1996, as secession led to civil war and public wrath was fixed on the Serbs, Handke traveled in what had become Serbia to write A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia and A Summer’s Addendum to a Wintry Journey. Handke’s play, Voyage by Dugout or The Play of the Film of the War, is set a fictional ten years after the war in Yugoslavia; and finally, after the war in Kosovo and NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, the travel essays that make up Questioning while Weeping: Notes after the fact on two trips through Yugoslavia during the war, March and April 1999 appeared. These Yugoslavia texts, for the most part first published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, have entered into European public consciousness to an unprecedented degree, even for this often public and sometimes controversial author.
“It was principally because of the war,” Handke writes in Justice for Serbia, “that I wanted to go to Serbia, into the country of the so-called aggressors. . . . I felt the need to travel into the Serbia that became, with every article, every commentary, every analysis, less recognizable and more worthy of study, more worthy, simply, of being seen.” Readings from Justice for Serbia to packed houses throughout Europe kept Peter Handke, if not the substance of his sentences and paragraphs, at the center of a political storm. Audience members repeatedly accused him of denying massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere, and of traveling to a bucolic Serbia while war raged in Bosnia, questions raised in the text itself:
Yes, with each sentence I too have asked myself whether such a writing isn’t obscene, ought even to be tabooed, forbidden – which made the writing journey adventurous in a different way, dangerous, often very depressing (believe me), and I learned what “between Scylla and Charybdis” means. Didn’t the one who described the small deprivations (gaps between teeth) help to water down, to suppress, to conceal the great ones?
Finally, to be sure, I thought each time: but that’s not the point. My work is of a different sort. To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.
In response to polemical attacks in many major European and American newspapers and magazines, Handke reminded readers in the introduction to the American, Spanish, French, and Italian translations of his essay that he had written about his “journey through the country of Serbia exactly as I have always written my books, my literature: a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar – of aesthetic veracity; that has always been the case in what I have written, from the beginning to the final period.”
In a political struggle about the rhetoric of war and peace, form and an inquiring narration are easily ignored. That is unfortunate, because narration is the major question of each of these texts. Why can’t journalists covering the wars in Yugoslavia, Handke asks, tell a more complicated story? Why are their narratives so black-and-white, so certain, so absolute, so bellicose? Near the end of Justice for Serbia, the narrator admonishes himself, “the son of German,” to “pull out of this history that repeats every century, out of this disastrous chain, pull out into another story.”
Although Peter Handke can be blunt, as he was when he called an obtuse critic an asshole in a nationally televised discussion after one of his readings of A Journey to the Rivers, the virulence of the attacks on him for his most recent writing about Yugoslavia is puzzling.
Handke’s mother was half Slovenian. He wrote his first novel, The Hornets, on the Yugoslav island of Krk. His well-received novel Repetition features a character who leaves Austria to search for his long-lost brother in Slovenia. Several of the short travel pieces that make up Once again for Thucydides are set in Yugoslavia. But not until the war in Yugoslavia and Handke’s written pleas for a more complex, more self-ironic, more peaceful rhetoric did he become, in the European press, a “Serbenfreund,” a Serb lover, a pariah like the pariah people.
If one were to ask Handke if he is indeed a lover of Serbs, he would likely point out that the question is racist and then answer yes. The anti-racist question that ought to be raised is whether Peter Handke is a nationalist – is he the kind of nationalist who would vilify Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, or Kosovars, who would stir up hatred, welcome war, and condone genocide? Here, the record is clear. Peter Handke has spent a lifetime attacking the kinds of ideological absolutisms that produce nationalism, hate, and war.
Handke’s early work can be read as an attempt to strip language of its metaphysical, totalizing, terrorizing aspects. Kaspar, for example, in Handke’s early drama of that name, finds that while language is a useful way of ordering the world, it is also intimately connected with the violence used to force others into that same order. It is a relief, Handke writes in Phantasien der Wiederholung, to be released from such domination: “We, after the world wars: the wonderful knowledge that we are not masters (‘You are the caretaker of a meager garden,’ Vergil)” (26). Handke finds it morally liberating to be rid of words like “masters”; but beyond that he wants to construct new metaphors, fruitful ways of thinking – and thus, I suppose, the Vergil quotation that defines us as humble gardeners.
The narrator of Handke’s Child Story (1981) emphasizes a general distrust of nationalist traditions as he says that “no tradition, however longed for, could ever be meaningful to someone like him, and he could certainly transmit no trace of any tradition to his child . . . as the scion of an unpeople, an unworthy man-of-no-people.” Because Nazis had made their “Volk” an “UnVolk,” the narrator is “without-Volk” and thus, in his mind, able powerfully to negate metaphysical claims. As a consequence, however, he is unable to give positive direction to his child. Traditions can oppress, but living without tradition is oppressive as well, and so Handke writes wistfully that “One would like, once again, to hear of a noble Volk” (Phantasien der Wiederholung). It is the task of the Slow Homecoming tetralogy of which Child Story is a part (and much of the work that follows) slowly, carefully, hesitantly, self-critically to reclaim words like “Volk.”
This reclaiming, although it may seem archeological, etymological, aimed at a metaphysically grounded beginning, always takes place in the context of Handke’s extraordinary sense for the arbitrariness of language and for the constant threat posed by metaphysical certainty. For example, the reclaiming will take place in stories and not in religious or political tracts: “Odd, that the word “God” does not disturb me (in fact, it moves me) in, for example, Parzival, the epic; with Meister Eckhart, in a treatise, however, it does: it even inhibits me” (Phantasien der Wiederholung). The word to be rehabilitated will be contested even in the assertion: “How can the word ‘angel’ still be used? – Together with ‘battle’ (in every written text there ought to be felt the ‘battle with the angel’)” (Phantasien der Wiederholung). It will have paradox as constant companion: “Once again I succeeded in denying myself: and the rooster inside me crowed happily. When I am especially strongly he who I am, I succeed in saying that I am not he who I am” (Geschichte des Bleistifts). And success will always find failure close behind: “After my quiet, long, nighttime lecture to the Volk, I will wake up tomorrow in emptiness – and why not?” (Geschichte des Bleistifts).
Repeatedly Handke has attempted to unmask truth as what Nietzsche called a “mobile army of metaphors,” for awareness of truth as arbitrary construction undermines the rulers whose truth claims are enforced by violence: “The night of this century, during which I searched my face obsessively for the features of a despot or a conqueror, has ended for me” (The Long Way Around). When a Volk is established with reference to “Blut und Boden,” the Nazis’ blood and soil, one must leave Volk and homeland and become homeless. But with the writing of The Long Way Around Handke tentatively feels his way beyond that alienation and necessary destruction.
Voyage by Dugout works on the same two levels as the previous work, attacking “truth” as assumed by various accounts (including film, newspapers, histories, and the play itself) and creating the kinds of self-conscious myths or Maerchen Handke feels we need to order our productively multivalent societies. The planned film will draw on John (Ford) O’Hara’s penchant for legends and stories and little historical lies and on Luis (Buñuel) Machado’s “bull-tickling craziness.”
At the end of the play, after the appearance of the dugout (“The Balkans! Other countries have a castle or a temple as a holy site. Our sacred site here is the dugout.”), a mobile, dialectical site for a multifarious Volk, O’Hara and Machado decide not to make their film. O’Hara refuses on the grounds that a tragic film makes no sense. Machado says he won’t make the film because his films have always been about society, and “society no longer exists . . . it’s a single commercial and moral horde . . . people have forgotten what it means to stand up for oneself while allowing the other his place to stand.”
Not allowing the other a place to stand is the mark of a violent nationalism. In Peter Handke’s play, however, even the most despicable characters, the aggressive mountain-bike riding Internationals, the shrill and certain European-Americans who have come to judge and punish Yugoslavia, are given succor by the Greek they have attacked so viciously – “To the Second International: Are you cold? You’re shivering! (He puts his coat around her shoulders.) Who is the child there in your locket?” As he has since his earliest texts, Handke here stands up for the Serbs while allowing Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovar Albanians, and even the obnoxious Internationals a place to stand.
A final incident, extraneous to the play, will further illustrate Peter Handke’s unrelentingly dialectical thinking, a two-edged gesture none of his critics to date have been able or willing to reproduce. When Guenter Grass, with whom Handke has repeatedly crossed swords, spoke out publicly in favor of NATO intervention in Yugoslavia (the same intervention that led to Handke’s leaving the Catholic Church and returning his literary prize), Serbs in Belgrade announced that that they would collect Grass’s books and send them back to the German Nobel-Prize winner. Handke urged them to forego this action, to keep reading Grass’s self-critical, dialectical literary works while opposing his political statement. The action of a nationalist? Obviously not.