Handke, Peter (Vol. 10)
Handke, Peter 1942–
Handke is an Austrian-born novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist writing in German. He is considered a major innovator in contemporary theater for his experiments with language. One of Handke's major themes is the inadequacy of language as a means of communication. This is perhaps best illustrated in his "Sprechstücke," or "speak-ins," Handke's own theatrical creation. Lacking the structure of traditional drama, these plays are basically language exercises in which the actors are speakers rather than characters. Instead of dialogue the speakers engage in cliché-ridden, fragmented monologues, thus conveying to the audience the way language impedes true expression. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Handke presents us with a clown [in Kaspar]—the visual impact of Kaspar, with his unco-ordinated gestures and bizarre costume, is clown-like, his name suggests that he is a puppet, and he is, of course, manipulated by language, just as a marionette is manipulated by strings; but he is also Kaspar—a person—and his mask is so like a face that the audience only gradually becomes aware that it is, in fact, a mask; the set represents nothing but itself—a stage, and there is no dialogue, let alone conversation, merely the voices that condition and torment Kaspar and his responses to them. (p. 51)
In Handke's play we see Kaspar, the non-person, undergoing his "Sprechfolterung" (speech torture), and being transformed by language into a model citizen who will accept the system, keep the rules and play the part demanded of him. Handke demonstrates a diabolical process whereby everything "useful" that Kaspar is taught is paralleled by some propaganda for the system the voices belong to, the system that invented the language, no doubt…. Violence is as natural a part of life as grammar and syntax….
You beat the dust off your pants; you beat the thought out of your head …
The table is standing. The table is not standing, it was placed there. The corpse is lying. The corpse is not lying, it was placed there….
This clearly gives the...
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Gregor Keuschnig, the protagonist of [A Moment of True Feeling], awakens one morning from uneasy dreams to discover that he has not been transformed into a gigantic insect. His "large and intricate" Paris apartment shows no signs of convulsion, the leaves of the trees outside his window flutter tranquilly, his wife and daughter are peacefully asleep; still, the dream—in which he murdered an old woman—has cataclysmically cracked open his life. "[He] felt as though he were bursting out of his skin and a lump of flesh lay wet and heavy on the carpet." As Keuschnig goes through the day—drudging away at his Austrian Embassy job, coupling with his mistress, feverishly wandering the streets—he lives on the edge of transformation and then, at a small dinner party, the molecules begin to dance. "[Keuschnig] felt himself to be something BLOODCURDLINGLY strange … a monstrous, unfinished bag of skin, a freak of nature. a MONSTROSITY…."
Kafka, of course. However, Keuschnig's metamorphosis never really takes place: those molecules were only jitterbugging in his imagination. Early in the novel it becomes apparent that the existential mandarins hover near, and that A Moment of True Feeling is yet another ramble down Nothingness Boulevard…. With all its Pop-violent effects … A Moment is comic-strip Sartre, with the ooze of Nausea blurring the edge of every panel.
As always, Peter Handke is...
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Handke's body of work is chiefly concerned with language and behavior, a major interest with central European writers. (p. 272)
Kaspar, perhaps Handke's most praised play, is a major dramatic work of the contemporary theatre. Drawing on the absurdist influences of Beckett and Ionesco it is, nevertheless, Handke's personal critique of society which regulates reality by means of its language structure. In it Handke attempts to show his audience the difference between a world shaped by consciousness and one burdened by platitudes.
Any serious playwright writing in the German language is forced necessarily to undergo a comparison between himself and Bertolt Brecht, if not technically, at the very least in terms of engagement. Handke's plays resemble Brecht's dramaturgically in their "estrangement" of the audience, their use of a nonliterary language, popular forms of entertainment, and social [gestures]. Significantly, however, the dramaturgy of Handke and Brecht is comparable more in its means than its ends.
Handke has consistently refused to use the drama for his own political statements, or to demonstrate solutions to political problems. (pp. 272-73)
[My Foot My Tutor] has … to do with what Handke refers to as "pre-political sensations"—those feelings which eventually lead to political acts. My Foot My Tutor is concerned with behavior and attitude; it focuses...
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[Handke] uses all the old-modern tricks. In one of his plays not a single word is spoken. In another, the characters are to be given the names of the actors who play them. These devices are intended to disorient the spectators, to deny them the familiar naturalistic illusions, the comforts of character and narrative. By now these distancing effects are as stale as any of the conventions of the well-made play and have built up their own expectations in the audience. The confections of their originators—Jarry, Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett—seem … stagey … and enjoyable…. [You] soon pick up the resonances of Ubu or Godot in They Are Dying Out or The Ride Across Lake Constance. But just because Handke derives his techniques from so many of the standard modern sources, it may be easier to isolate the individuality and consistency of his themes.
Handke is preoccupied with domination, with the systematic ways in which one human being acquires and wields power over another and the ways that this shapes the behaviour, aspirations and prejudices of both owner and owned. In My Foot, My Tutor, the two characters are actually called Ward and Warden and they carry out an elaborate silent pantomime of copying and modifying one another's gestures and actions. (p. 33)
Everything we say and do, however apparently noble, touching, loving or courageous, is in reality the end-product...
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Taking the strained relationship between philosophy and fiction seriously, [Handke] has with single-minded stubbornness developed his own artistic form at the core of which lies the effort to reconstruct the truth of fiction. Description of reality becomes the creation of meaning. For Handke, the truth of fiction does not lie in a realm of imagination where symbols and metaphors are artistically combined to achieve the reality of literature. He does not intend to reveal the previously unknown. Instead, Handke is preoccupied with the world of conventionalized knowledge. His critical intention is to expose everyday reality as one that is known by heart, so to speak, a lost reality that has become a predictable succession of petrified experiences. Meaningful experiences are not to be found beyond the surface of common life but have to be wrested from it: Handke, therefore, is obsessed with realistic details of stale knowledge. Writing for him is the act of opening the forgotten scars of original recognitions, which have become encrusted by layers of stereotyped experiences. The restoration of truth as an act of destruction makes A Moment of True Feeling a philosophical novel sui generis, to be distinguished from the novel of ideas….
When novels and poems became sociological case studies presenting the individual as a victim of his social environment, Handke tried to rescue for his heroes a realm of contemplation....
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In A Moment of True Feeling, Peter Handke deals with [the Kantian] problem of the perception of the world, crystallized in the problem of identity of Gregor Keuschnig…. In his private life, Keuschnig identifies himself on the basis of his perception of his image in public life. Others know him from their perception of that image. But one morning Keuschnig awakes to discover that that image by which he identifies himself and by which the world identifies him is out of sync with his own true existence. The world has collapsed on him and he can no longer know without doubt who he is. He has dreamed he is a murderer. But is he? So begins an odyssey into everyday occurrences, into the realms of perception and existence, treated with wit, humor, and irony…. [The reflex actions of the day's work] remain as background and reference to the true action of the novel which goes on in the isolation of Keuschnig's own being. These reflex actions and the struggle in Keuschnig's being become punctuated by moments of insight into the essence of true being—the tension within a branch, the sign in the Metro, the dripping of wax from a candle. The only person who realizes that there has been a change in Keuschnig is the writer invited to dinner at Keuschnig's apartment, who by chance has been stalking him all day. With such a structure, let the reader beware. The author (Handke) utilizes a writer (Handke?) who perceives a change in Keuschnig (Handke?—by way...
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