Once Again for Thucydides

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310

In ONCE AGAIN FOR THUCYDIDES Peter Handke, a major post-modern German-language writer, describes a series of ordinary events which he experiences on journeys through Switzerland, the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Japan between March, 1987, and January, 1990. In these essays Handke examines commonplace events in the natural world like melting snow in springtime, flocks of pigeons, a lightning storm, and the devastation resulting from a forest fire. He also observes everyday features of the human world, like a shoeshine man’s simple routine, the boarding of a ferry, and a religious procession.

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Under Handke’s careful examination ordinary events and people become the vehicle for literary and artistic tour de force and philosophical reflection. The descriptions are more than diary entries. They are epopees or little epics in which everyday events like the evening flight of swallows and bats and the variety of hats worn by an urban crowd take on cosmic proportions. At the same time, these realistic descriptions become works of art in which life and art are blended and the ordinary becomes extraordinary and timeless. Handke’s narrator then symbolizes the individual’s quest for personal meaning and connection with other people and the surrounding world.

An ash tree in a public park in Munich illustrates this interconnection. The tree which Handke sees before his eyes is his link with memories, with the past. It also links the narrator to living things like lichen and butterflies in the park and to the rest of humankind, including the dead. Handke’s description of the ash tree thus takes on epic and artistic characteristics which enable him to move beyond the description of specific events and places to a vision of a world of relationships which transcend time and space.

Sources for Further Study

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 22, 1998, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 3, 1998, p. 76.

Once Again for Thucydides

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1878

At first glance, the reference to the fifth century b.c.e. Athenian historian Thucydides in the title of Peter Handke’s book seems to be a red herring by a deconstructionist, postmodernist German-language author noted for his introspective language. Only two of the seventeen essays in this book even mention Thucydides, and then only in their titles. Neither deals directly with the historian. The first essay, “For Thucydides,” describes butterflies on a spring day in Felsenberg, Switzerland. In the third essay, “Sheet- Lightning Epopee or Once Again for Thucydides,” Handke recounts the details of a lightning storm over the Yugoslavian island of Krk. Yet, in these detailed examinations of everyday occurrences, Handke seems to emulate the great historian, who has long been admired for his close and impartial observation of events. Indeed, in the first book of his Histories, Thucydides warns his reader that his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta will be difficult to read because it lacks a romantic element. Thucydides, ever the careful observer, has as his goal not the satisfaction of passing literary fads but the creation of a work that will be useful to those who seek a clear understanding of past events as a guide to the future. Thucydides desires his work to be a ktema es aei, a possession forever.

The Austrian-born Handke, a prolific writer of avant-garde poetry, essays, dramas, fiction, and nonfiction, desires the same difficult reading and the same timelessness for his work. Ever since he entered the German literary world at a 1966 convention in Princeton, New Jersey, with a tumultuous diatribe against the realism and conventionalism of German postwar literature, Handke has attempted to take language beyond conventional form and to reconstruct it in its primordial, natural state, as careful, meticulous observation. In Once Again for Thucydides, Handke describes a rambling journey that begins on March 23, 1987, lasts until January, 1990, and takes the reader from Felsenberg (Switzerland), to Pazin, Krk, Split, Dubrovnik, and Skopje in the former Yugoslavia, to Patras (Greece), Aomori, (Japan), and Brazzano (Italy), to Galicia, Llivia, and Linares (Spain), to Salzburg (Austria) and Munich (Germany), and to Lyon and Aix-en- Provence (France). At each stop, he searches for profound and universal meaning in commonplace experiences. The first signs of spring in Felsenberg become a cosmic drama of melting snow and rustling shoots. Flocks of pigeons in Pazin are so fascinating that the author delays his scheduled train departure to savor the spectacle. On the island of Krk, Handke is drenched while watching a lightning storm. He is mesmerized by a shoeshine man in Split and by the sea of humanity boarding a ferry in Dubrovnik. His attention is drawn to the variety of hats worn by the residents of Skopje. In Patras, he watches a man’s futile efforts to capture an escaped parakeet. In Aomori, a snowfall emphasizes the beauty of the Japanese landscape. In Galicia, Handke juxtaposes the flow of seawater up a tidal river with the procession of priests to their home cathedral during Holy Week. In Brazzano, he celebrates a night lit by glowworms and the rumbling of a thunderstorm. Handke dips his bare feet in a stream fed by melting snow in Llivia and watches an evening contest between swallows and bats in Linares. Finally, he contemplates cloud-covered mountains near Salzburg, a hotel near the railroad terminal in Lyon, an ash tree in a public garden in Munich, and a path through the scarred remains of a forest fire on Mont Saint-Victoire. Nowhere among these diverse experiences does Handke directly encounter other human beings. Rather he watches them from a distance, from the outside.

In this solipsistic perspective, Handke can be identified with those characters in his earlier works who live solitary lives and try to find connection with the world by means of a personal and philosophical journey, an intellectual quest for self and the other. In Once Again for Thucydides, Handke combines the travelogue of Short Letter, Long Farewell (1974) with the journalistic format of Weight of the World (1984) and the meticulous descriptive abilities of the narrator of Across (1986). The result is a diary that is less an example of intimate, personal reflection than of Thucydidean objectivity. The narrator only rarely uses the first-person singular. In one essay, he refers to himself as the “wet man” who enters his hotel after watching a lightning storm. Sometimes he describes himself as “the observer” and other times as “the traveler.” Indeed, Handke the author distances himself from Handke the narrator, who becomes, in a sense, a nameless wanderer in search for identity. Like the solitary, isolated characters in earlier works such as Afternoon of a Writer (1989) and My Year in the No-Man’s Bay (1998), the narrator of Once Again for Thucydides seeks personal connection with the world through observation, self-reflection, and introspection rather than conversation. In The Afternoon of a Writer (1989), Handke offers his reader the minute perceptions of a writer on an afternoon stroll. In Once Again for Thucydides, the everyday occurrences of the natural world, snowfalls, forest fires, and lightning storms, become the subject of the writer’s intense observation. So do common people such as the shoeshine man in Split or the frustrated birdcatcher in Patras. In Handke’s hands, however, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Handke’s word-pictures of ordinary events and people cross the boundary between life and art and reveal the aesthetic beauty of a sea of hats or a butterfly on a spring morning. Artwork blends with the natural world, just as Handke’s description of a Last Supper scene carved on a door of the cathedral in Split leads seamlessly to the story of the old shoeshine man. The juxtaposition of religious scene and everyday event is intentional. The shoeshine man becomes the saint of carefulness for Handke, for whom the commonplace becomes sacred throughout these essays.

Careful observation is the means to Handke’s appreciation of his surroundings. Only the narrator sees the passengers off on their journey to the island off the coast of Dalmatia. Such seeing is not merely a science; it is also an art. Behind Handke’s word-pictures of nature and of artwork lies the literary tradition of ecphrasis, or elaborate, contrived description, made popular by Hellenistic Greek poets and revitalized, among others, by nineteenth century symbolist poets.

Handke creates a wide literary backdrop for his descriptions. He mentions that he admired the pigeons in Pazin not far from the place where Dante Alighieri entered the underworld and that Émile Zola’s father built a dam that Handke sees near Mt. Saint-Victoire. Handke recollects the poetry of Paul Claudel as he looks at the ash tree in Munich and is revitalized by the the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini on his journey to Brazzano. These literary references, for the most part, are as oblique as Handke’s reference to Thucydides. Readers of Once Again for Thucydides are expected to make these connections on their own, just as Handke himself does.

Handke also uses the language and techniques of epic poetry to place his personal observations and thoughts in a broader, cosmic context. Thus he refers to several of his descriptions as “epopees,” or little epics, into which are woven the literary techniques of Greek epic poetry. The Homeric catalogue of ships becomes for Handke the catalogue of hats in Skopje. The contest between the Greeks and Trojans becomes a battle between bats and swallows. The display of glowworms near Brazzano is called “a little epic.” The ash tree in Munich is described with the same detail that Homer applies to Odysseus’s marriage bed carved out of a tree. In his world-ranging journey and his quest for self, in fact, Handke is a type of the wanderer Odysseus recounting his own odyssey.

The artificiality of these descriptive essays is disguised by the artistic skill of the describer, for whom these meticulous observations are an opportunity to understand his own frame of mind and psychological state. As in Slow Homecoming (1985), the narrator’s moments of personal epiphany and comprehension take place in the act of contemplating the art of nature. The railway hotel in Lyon turns out to have formerly been the torture chamber used by Klaus Barbie in World War II. So, too, the ash tree in Munich becomes more than the actual tree. It becomes a moment of discovery, an event, an experience out of time and into time, unified with humanity living and dead.

Handke’s narrator is conscious of the timelessness of this ash tree, which he describes in both the present and the past tenses. The tree both stands and stood. It has a present, a past, and a future simultaneously in the line of vision of the narrator. It is the tree where the author remembers having target practice a decade before. It is the tree where the author stands looking in the present at the rusting nail left from that target practice. The tree is also a monument to broader reaches of time back into the past and forward into the future and serves as the author’s link to the natural world and to the memory of the dead.

The chronological precision of the diary dates that Handke records for each section marks not only calendar dates and hours but also the larger cycles of the natural and the human world. The seasons change from spring in Felsenberg to summer in Pazin to a March snowfall in Aomori. The weather changes from the violence of thunder and lightning to the tranquility of clouds hovering over the Alps. The religious year moves from Holy Week to Good Friday in Spain to the Feast of All Souls in Munich. At the same time, Handke’s personal time merges with cosmic time as his travels become metaphors for the shared experiences of humankind. By the end of Once Again for Thucydides, Handke’s wanderings have become a pattern of the eternal, mythic return experienced by all humankind, a path that transforms Handke from an anonymous traveler into the universal human. In this way, Handke has interiorized Thucydides’ goal of careful observation that transcends time and records truth for all ages.

As one of the major writers in the postwar German-speaking world, Handke offers the readers of this collection of essays a literary challenge. On a surface level, Handke is describing simple, everyday events but below the surface, these descriptions are signposts toward philosophical and even theological reflections on the relationship between the writer and the world around him, between the individual and reality. With these travelogues, Handke confronts his readers with a transformation of accurate observation into an artistic reconstruction of literary realism. Handke’s language is a sophisticated blending of the natural and the refined. Handke’s solipsitic narrator searching for connection with the objects and people he describes is identifiable not only with Handke’s own personality but also with the persona of many of Handke’s contemporaries who struggle to find self-identity in an increasingly impersonal technological age. In Once Again for Thucydides, Handke offers the literary world an arduous but worthwhile path toward that eternal quest for personal meaning.

Sources for Further Study

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 22, 1998, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 3, 1998, p. 76.

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