The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

by Peter Handke

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Themes and Meanings

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The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick deals with the themes of language and the nature of perception. Philosophers of the twentieth century have been very much concerned with the issue of language and the degree to which notions of “reality” or “truth” are shaped by the linguistic forms and signs of culture. Semiology, the study of signs, indicates that one’s environment is full of seemingly simple objects that represent meanings and convey messages: There is nothing that is merely what it appears to be. The clothes a person wears, for example, are not merely functional; they are signs that represent a certain economic class or social affiliation, an attitude toward life. The reality one perceives is the product of numerous subtle messages suggested by one’s environment. Joseph Bloch’s bizarre compulsion to transform random objects and details into metaphors, into signs, is merely an exaggeration of what occurs in normal perception of the world. Handke’s novel addresses a fundamental modern philosophical theme about the nature of reality.

Bloch’s tendency to perceive his surroundings as if they were metaphors or symbols also suggests the sensibility of a poet or writer who views the world as a source for the creation of fictions. In a novel or poem, an object is often not simply the thing itself but rather stands for something else, an idea or concept. A tree in a literary text, for example, is not merely a tree but a symbol or metaphor for life, nature, strength, rootedness, or some other quality. The goalie’s perceptions also resemble the kind of reality found in dreams, where objects assume symbolic values. Sigmund Freud explained in his theories, the mind’s activity in the dream state is very close to what occurs in the creative imagination and the daydream. Bloch serves, although in a distorted fashion, as a model of the poetic sensibility. In essence, he is the creator of his own symbolic world; the world becomes a “text” or a “dream” which he must interpret.

For Handke in particular and, one might surmise, for creative writers in general, art becomes a way of transcending the existential fact of fundamental human estrangement and isolation. Creativity and the imagination allow for a momentary escape from the sufferings that inevitably come with existence. Art is, in the best sense of the term, an escape from the pain of life. Fictions are a “flight” from reality, but they also allow one to envision other possibilities of living; therefore, they connect people in a more authentic manner to what is —or what can be. Art gives one the freedom, the vision, to change one’s life. Joseph Bloch is clearly an extremely alienated character, and his compulsion to ascribe symbolic meaning to objects represents his attempt to relate himself in some way to the world around him.

In one passage, for example, Bloch awakes from a deep sleep and is overcome by feelings of self-disgust and self-estrangement. He feels completely alienated from life. Suddenly, he hears the sound of a coin rolling under the bed and he tries to read that event as if it were a symbol or metaphor. In doing this, Bloch seeks to connect himself to the world, to generate a meaning that will relate him to existence. For that moment, he might transcend the pain of his isolation. On this existential level, Handke’s novel illustrates mankind as the one animal that tries to give meaning to suffering through the creation of art.

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