Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

Across is a representative example of Handke’s many novels. Loser is caught up in the midst of an existential crisis and must come to terms with the meaning of his life. He is a man on the “threshold” of a new existence. His quest is a search for authenticity. Like the crying infant he hears one night, he is in the process of being reborn to a new self. Nearly every Handke narrative begins on this existential note.

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Loser’s work with archaeology indicates his search for roots, his quest to return to an authentic beginning that will lend his life significance. That Loser teaches ancient languages (Greek and Latin) suggests his attempt to return to the foundations of Western culture, to the early myths through which man explained the events that shaped his life. In this sense, Loser is like Homer’s Odysseus, a wanderer on a quest homeward, or like Sophocles’ Orestes, an outcast from society, plagued with guilt and longing to be relieved of his curse. It is an archaeology of the psyche that Loser ultimately practices. He longs for new “myths” that will give his existence meaning.

The work of the Latin poet Vergil is mentioned in the text, particularly his bucolic landscape verse (the Georgics). The Handke narrative itself is devoted to simple descriptions of the natural and village landscapes. Clearly influenced by the writings of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Handke’s character seeks authentic perception of being as it manifests itself in the simple objects and forms of nature around him. Loser looks to nature for “eternal laws” that will give his life meaning. Handke suggests here that it is society and its neuroses which produce the self-estrangement that tortures individuals such as Loser. Society promotes an inauthentic mode of existence among its members. This culminates in profound alienation. The transformation of nature and its forms into the transcendent forms of art is, as in Vergil, the goal of the character’s quest.

The act of murder which Loser commits is disturbing. There is a sense that Loser’s alienation is so great that a release of such violent proportions is the only mode of authentic behavior open to him. As mentioned earlier, acts of violence occur in several Handke texts. The novel Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling, 1977), for example, opens with the main character having had a disturbing dream that he has murdered a woman. In interviews, Handke has suggested that he attempts to include his own dreams in his works. The murdered woman may represent Handke’s own mother, who committed suicide in 1971, and Handke may be addressing his own feelings of guilt over her act. The same is true of this text. Handke’s real father was a German soldier during World War II, and the author has spoken of his firm rejection of this horrible war. Thus, the old man whom Loser finds spray-painting swastikas on the mountainside—a defilement of the purity of natural forms with the sordid forms of political and racial hatred—represents both Handke’s father and the ideology of prejudice for which he fought. Loser’s act is one of purification, an act that seeks to nullify or rectify the mistakes of Austria’s past.

The figures at the card game that Loser attends represent various attitudes or perspectives on life. The priest suggests the traditional view of organized religion; the politician, the social and political world; the homeowner, the average bourgeois; and the artist, the aesthetic vision. For each, the definitions of life and the self are very different. Loser walks home with the artist, and it is to this perspective of art, and the transcendence it can bring, that he is ultimately committed.

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