A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia
Translating Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia into English, I called Žarko to ask about the phrase: “Do we need a new Gavrilo Princip?” What kind of principle is this? I asked. Is it a term from business management? Gavrilo Princip, Žarko explained with a chuckle, was the young assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Later, with Žarko in his country, I struggled with a broader question: How to tell a new story about the old land of the southern Slavs (Yugo = south). After all, what do I know? A foreigner, in the country for a few days. A self-styled translator with no command of this language. I remember the translator in Ivo Andrić‘s The Bridge Over the Drina: “Then too there was that Shefko, who in his translation was obviously putting the worst possible construction on the old man’ s exalted phrases and who loved to stick his nose into everything and carry tales even when there was nothing in them, and was ever ready to give or to confirm an evil report.” (From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published in 2014 as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books])
The foreword to the American, Spanish, French, and Italian translations of Peter Handke’s Journey to the Rivers provides a glimpse into the colorful history of the essay’s reception:
“Dear foreign reader: this text, appearing on two weekends at the onset of 1996 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, caused some commotion in the European press. Immediately after publication of the first part, I was designated a terrorist in the Corriere della Sera, and Libération revealed that I was, first of all, amused that there were so few victims in the Slovenian war of 1991, and that I was exhibiting, second, “doubtful taste” in discussing the various ways of presenting this or that victim of the Yugoslavian wars in the western media. In Le Monde I was then called a “pro-Serbian advocate,” and in the Journal du Dimanche there was talk of “pro-Serbian agitation.” And so it continued until El País even read into my text a sanction of the Srebrenica massacre. – Dear French, Spanish, Italian, American reader: Now the text is translated, and I trust that you will read it as it is; I need not defend or take back a single word. I wrote about my 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. Dear reader: that, and that alone, I offer here for your perusal.
Peter Handke, April 1996″
At issue are the effects of rhetoric: Peter Handke’s own, that of the journalists he attacks, that of his critics. Handke claims his work is a self-reflexive, “slow, inquiring narration” in the service of peace and accuses specific journalists and newspapers of demagogy. His critics argue that his self-deluded inattention to the war promotes nationalism. In what follows I will trace a pattern in Handke’s Journey to the Rivers that makes it, on my reading, a model of dialectical rhetoric, of narrative, non-systematic philosophy, of “that beautiful And so on” in the service of peace.
The essay, whose double title – A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia (Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien) – indicates that this will be a travel narrative and a political essay, is divided into four parts with the simple titles: “Before the Trip,” “Part One of the Trip,” “Part Two of the Trip,” and “Epilogue.” “Before the Trip” and “Epilogue” contain most of the controversial accusations about the European press and its “coverage” of the wars in Yugoslavia, while the middle two sections contain most of the actual travel narrative.
In “Before the Trip,” written, like the rest of the essay, after the trip, Handke describes his preparations. He contacted the two Serbs who would accompany him. He saw, just before leaving, Emir Kusturica’s new film Underground, and found it an engaging combination of dreaming and actual history. He was surprised, then, to see the film reviewed by Alain Finkielkraut in Le Mond as pro-Serbian and terroristic. From what he sees as Finkielkraut’s misreading (which, by the way, foreshadows how Handke’s essay will be “read”), he turns to press reports of the wars in Yugoslavia. He cites European and especially German/Austrian complicity in the disintegration of Yugoslavia – a favoring of, acceptance of, and support of the breakaway republics of Slovenia and Croatia that, in his estimation, led to the war, or better said, made it likely. The political actions, Handke argues, have their basis in a bias against Serbia that European culture has promulgated for decades (he mentions, for example, the post-empire Austrian rhyme “Serbien muss sterbien” — Serbia must die) and that newspapers like Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have played up. After questioning the “facts” as reported, he ends the opening section by asking: “Who will someday write this history differently, and even if only the nuances — which could do much to liberate the peoples from their mutual inflexible images?”
The essay’s second section begins with the trip to Belgrade. Žarko Radaković and Zlatko Bocokić meet Handke there. They walk through the city, visit a market in Zemun, drive to see Bocokić’s parents, drive to a monastery with the writer Milorad Pavić and meet that night with the writer Dragan Velikić.
The travel narrative continues in the third section with a description of gasoline vending as the three men leave Belgrade to drive to the town of Bajina Bašta on the Drina River to visit Radaković’s ex-partner and daughter. There they hear about the war, they are snowed in, they cross a bridge briefly to the other side, they listen to heroic tales sung by a guslar, and they finally leave Serbia by way of Novi Sad. Before the section ends, Handke remembers a trip to Slovenia just a month earlier which confirmed his fears that the new state had lost the multi- cultural openness it once had as part of Yugoslavia.
In the epilog, Handke recounts a morning in Bajina Bašta when he walked alone to the bus station and then to the Drina River. While standing on the shore he asked questions about what really happened at Srebrenica and returned to his attack on the media in general and on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung specifically. The epilog ends with a suicide note left by an ex- partisan who shot himself in despair as his country began its civil war.
Although this summary is generally accurate, it is simply inadequate. Like the readings by Handke’s critics, it leaves out the multiple and conflicting voices the essay manages to incorporate. For a more careful reader, Handke’s essay asserts in the context of self-doubt, recognizes its own contingency in the face of justice, finds justice in contingency and multiplicity, and models honesty in complexity of style while attacking the dishonesty of simplistic journalism.
Peter Handke has long been interested in the possibilities of dialectical thinking. In his interview with Herbert Gamper, for example, he returned several times to the subject of Nietzsche and the dialectic: “I see [Nietzsche] not as a negator, but as a dramatic custodian of something that was always there, and yet naturally also as a very fruitful destroyer of that which did not deserve to be conserved. This dialectical relationship, these two things, make Nietzsche who he is”; “One can see in [Nietzsche] a model human existence: one who does not in any sense want to establish systems, who does not want to interpret the world according to a system. The fragmentary, halting style of writing and the few wonderfully painful poems . . . allow the reading of his works to be a joyful slow studying.” These statements about the purposefully paradoxical philosopher who argued for contingency and a will-to-power make explicit Handke’s sense for dialectic as an interplay between despair and hope, conservation and destruction, and as furthered by an anti-systematic, fragmentary, positive creation of meaning through language: “The law of art: glorification, but dialectical glorification (it is not the Golden Age, but rather the Dialectical Age)”; “Didactic, argumentative philosophy will always be foreign to me, as opposed to narrative philosophy.”
A recent attempt by an American philosopher to read Nietzsche as thinking after, even if still in the language of metaphysics, provides a helpful context for reading Handke as dialectician in A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia. In The Question of Ethics: Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, Charles Scott looks at what he calls Nietzsche’s self- overcoming, an open process occasioned by questions about the values that structure his own discourse as well as the discourses of traditional morals: “In the discussion of the play of will to power and eternal return in Nietzsche’s writing — a play of metaphysical assertion, antimetaphysical assertion, and nonmetaphysical recoil in the process — we discern not only the conflictual directions that are methodically maintained, but also a middle-voiced recoiling function.” The middle voice, thinkable neither in the active nor the passive voices, is where, on Scott’s reading of Nietzsche, self-overcoming in metaphysics takes place: “It is the voice of differing, moving of itself, without the thought of transcendence.” Scott’s argument is complicated and fascinating and deserves further explication; but I sketch the gesture of his thought here as an example of what I think Handke means when he speaks of dialectical thinking. It is thought within polarities (like the metaphysical / antimetaphysical assertions Scott mentions) that nevertheless recoils at its own dualistic structure. It is a momentary break in the structure that allows difference and motion and play to reveal metaphysical thought’s repression of the always present play of conflictual forces. It is self-overcoming thought, as Scott writes, that calls into question the presumptive authority of its organizing ideas to make room not for its own truth but for other truths.
Handke’s essays on Yugoslavia are part of a series that includes the essays on tiredness, on the jukebox, and on the successful day. With these essays, Handke practices a literary form with a long history, a form whose peculiarities have been well described by Theodor Adorno in “The Essay as Form.” In the context of his ongoing attack on the dogmatic identity thinking of post-Enlightenment scientific thought, Adorno suggests the following ideas I see as pertinent to the form of Handke’s work: “[The essay, as a form] rebels against the doctrine, deeply rooted since Plato, that what is transient and ephemeral is unworthy of philosophy . . .”; “The customary objection that the essay is fragmentary and contingent itself postulates that totality is given, and with it the identity of subject and object, and acts as though one were in possession of the whole. . . . [The essay’s] weakness bears witness to the very nonidentity it had to express”; “This kind of learning remains vulnerable to error, as does the essay as form; it has to pay for its affinity with open intellectual experience with a lack of security that the norm of established thought fears like death”; “The daring, anticipatory, and not fully redeemed aspect of every essayistic detail attracts other such details as its negation; the untruth in which the essay knowingly entangles itself is the element in which its truth resides”.
These fragments of Adorno’s essay read like descriptions of the formal experiments of Handke’s essays. We don’t, however, have to rely exclusively on Adorno or Scott for theory, for Handke’s essays are themselves self-reflexive essays on the essay. In the “Essay on the Successful Day,” for example, the narrator’s confident but botched description of Van Morrison’s “Coney Island” immediately follows an impatient request by the narrator’s interlocutor for a direct, certain description of an achieved day (in contrast to the indirect and halting nature of the essay up to that point):
“But with all your digressions, complications, and tergiversations, your way of breaking off every time you gain a bit of momentum, what becomes of your Line of Beauty and Grace, which, as you’ve hinted, stands for a successful day and, as you went on to assure us, would introduce your essay on the subject. When will you abandon your irresolute peripheral zigzags, your timorous attempt to define a concept that seems to be growing emptier than ever, and at last, with the help of coherent sentences, make the light, sharp incision that will carry us through the present muddle in medias res, in the hope that this obscure ‘successful day’ of yours may take on clarity and universal form.”
In response, the narrator suggests a double form that includes the form the interlocutor has rejected: “Isn’t it typical of people like us that this sort of song keeps breaking off, lapsing into stuttering, babbling, and silence, starting up again, going off on a sidetrack – yet in the end, as throughout, aiming at unity and wholeness? It is exactly this double form, this ongoing dialectic that aims at wholeness through fragments, that Handke’s detractors, along with most of his defenders, have missed.
While A Journey to the Rivers ends with a suicide note, the first part of the final paragraph is crucial. During the trip through Serbia, Handke writes, he noted only two things in his notebook: “‘Jebi ga!’, Fuck it, common curse” – and the section of the suicide’s farewell letter. These are the poles between which the entire essay moves: obscene aggression and fatal resignation. There are moments of both along the way, especially in the first and last sections of the essay; but for the most part, especially in the travel narrative, Handke describes what he calls, citing Hermann Lenz and Edmund Husserl, “third things,” things colored by the bi-polar aggressions and despairs of war, but also somehow independent from them, third things not unrelated to the “middle-voiced recoiling functions” Scott sees in Nietzsche’s thought. Because he fears he will be misread, Handke raises red flags for readers used to undialectical dualisms, for readers with appetites for shocking images rather than for quiet and peripheral “third things”: “And whoever is now thinking: ‘Aha, pro-Serbian!’ or ‘Aha, Yugophile,’ . . . need read no further”; “And whoever understands that not as retching, but as indifference, likewise need read no further”. Handke requires similar discipline of himself in his writing. Early in the essay, for example, a critical voice breaks in to ask: “What, are you trying to help minimize the Serbian crimes in Bosnia, in the Krajina, in Slavonia, by means of a media-critique that sidesteps the basic facts?” Handke, the narrator Handke, answers: “Steady. Patience. Justice. The problem – only mine? – is more complicated, complicated by several levels or stages of reality: and I am aiming, in my desire to clarify it, at something thoroughly real through which something like a meaningful whole can be surmised in all the mixed-up kinds of reality.” Near the essay’s end, S., Handke’s wife asks: “‘You aren’t going to question the massacre at Srebrenica too, are you?’” to which he answers: “‘No . . . But I want to ask how such a massacre is to be explained, carried out, it seems, under the eyes of a world-wide public.’” “Note well:” he writes, “this is absolutely not a case of ‘I accuse.’ I feel compelled only to justice. Or perhaps even only to questioning, to raising doubts.”
In the face of this self-critique, what does it mean when critics claim that Handke is denying the massacre at Srebrenica? It means, I think, that they are reading unfairly, taking statements out of their dialectic context. Alternately, perhaps, they mistrust his complicated sense for justice, they suppose his questions and denials are simply camouflage for an unbridled polemic, they feel that while claiming the opposite, Handke’s images are as inflexible as their own, that his history is as rigid as theirs.
It is possible, of course, that they are right. But when compared with the one-sided rhetoric of his critics, Handke’s text feels to me like a model of dialectic reasoning. Of the many examples I could give, one will have to suffice. Note the almost excruciating care Handke takes here to demonstrate his command of multiple sides of the issue, as well as his moral commitment to a justice that embraces both:
“Later, from the spring of 1992 on, when the first photographs, soon photo sequences or serial photos, were shown from the Bosnian war, there was a part of myself (repeatedly standing for “my whole”), which felt that the armed Bosnian Serbs, whether the army or individual killers, especially those on the hills and mountains around Sarajevo, were “enemies of humanity,” to slightly vary Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s phrase in reference to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. . . .
And in spite of that, almost coincidentally with the impotent impulses to violence of someone visually involved from afar, another part of me (that in fact never stood for my whole), did not want to trust this war and this war reporting. Didn’t want to? No, couldn’t. Because, namely, the roles of attacker and attacked, of the pure victims and the naked scoundrels, were all-too-rapidly determined and set down for the so-called world public.”
Of the two parts of himself, only the one shocked at Serb aggressions stands for all of him. There is no question, then, of absolving the Serbs of responsibility for their violence. And still, justice, in this situation, is broader than that initial and final response. It requires that other questions be asked as well.
What could be more reasonable? And what could be more conducive to peace? Why can’t journalists covering the wars in Yugoslavia, Handke asks, read and tell a more complicated story? “And with this kind of maturity, I thought, the son of a German, pull out of this history that repeats every century, out of this disastrous chain, pull out into another story.” Let others write the factual story of these wars, Handke writes: “Nothing against those – more than uncovering – discovering reporters on the scene (or better yet: involved in the scene and with the people there), praise for these other researchers in the field!”; “To record the evil facts, that’s good.” He, however, the son of a German and thus heir to a propensity for Wagnerian
totality, wants to write another story, an additional story.
The “and” that connects the paragraphs on the two parts of himself cited above and the proliferation of initial “ands” in sentences and paragraphs as the essay comes to a close, work formally to create the continuing motion of a dialectic. While this is not a new device for Handke (he employs it with similar intent in Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, and Repetition ends with the admonition to the storyteller: “. . . take a deep breath, and start all over again with your all- appeasing ‘And then . . .’”), it is a crucial move in this essay that risks the untruths of obscene defiance and suicidal despair, that asserts that the “transient and ephemeral” are worthy of description during a war, that relies on density of texture in place of infallible argument for its truths. “The untruth[s] in which the essay knowingly entangles itself,” turning on the axis of the coordinating conjunction, are more truthful finally than the non-dialectical assertions with which politicians and journalists and pundits assail Serbs and the writer who asks the questions justice requires.
I’ll end my account of A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia with the essay’s final questions and assertions. Is this the writing of a benighted advocate of Blut und Boden, or of an essayist whose courageous play of ideas lays him open to error and to truth as well?
“But isn’t it, finally, irresponsible, I thought there at the Drina and continue to think it here, to offer the small sufferings in Serbia, the bit of freezing there, the bit of loneliness, the trivialities like snow flakes, caps, cream cheese, while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihać, compared to which the Serbian boo-boos are nothing? 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.
So, now it’s time for the poetic? Yes, if it is understood as exactly the opposite of the nebulous. Or say, rather than “the poetic”: that which binds, that encompasses — the impulse to a common remembering, as the possibility for reconciliation of individuals, for the second, the common childhood.”
The common in the context of the uncommon. The binding, encompassing dialectical poetic in the context of undermining nationalisms and war. “That beautiful And so on.”
[See the rest of the essay, complete with references, HERE, or watch for part III in the next post. The essay was originally published in The Works of Peter Handke, ed. David Coury (2007)]
you just hit the ball out of the park—bam–damn—yesss!
Thanks, my friend