Peter Handke World Literature Analysis
Because of their nontraditional form and style and often bizarre subject matter, Handke’s works may seem intimidating to readers approaching them for the first time. A play such as Prophecy, for example, which consists entirely of statements such as “The chickens will scurry like chickens” and “The weasel will be weasel-faced,” resists the kind of straightforward interpretation that more conventional literary works allow. A consideration of some recurring themes in Handke’s work, however, can help clarify his often obscure material. Among Handke’s most important themes are the uses and significance of language, the analysis of abnormal psychological states, and the nature of the writing process itself.
Handke’s writing is filled with strange, innovative, and often playful uses of language. Moreover, language itself is frequently the subject of his writing, as in Calling for Help, which consists of a series of sentences and phrases spoken by two or more people on stage, each relating in some way to a need for help: “someone has escaped from death row,” “workers at that time were living in inhuman conditions,” “in case of emergency.” Each sentence or phrase is followed by the response “no,” as in a children’s guessing game, until the required word, “help,” is tried, leading to a “yes!” Handke explains:the speakers’ objective is to show the way to the sought-after word HELP, a way that leads across many sentences and words. . . . while the speakers are seeking the word help they are in need of help; once having found the word help they no longer need any help. before they find the word they ask for help, whereas once they have found the word help they only speak help without needing to ask for help any longer. once able to shout help, they no longer need to shout for help; they are relieved that they can shout help. the word HELP has lost its meaning.
Calling for Help uses irony and wit to examine a fundamental paradox of human relationships: People often find it most difficult to communicate their most urgent needs to others. When communication is finally established, Handke suggests, it may lose its original purpose and value. (Note that Handke, like the poet E. E. Cummings, ignores traditional capitalization rules in this work—probably to emphasize its verbal, rather than written, nature.)
If Handke’s use of language is sometimes playful, his subject matter is often just the opposite, frequently centering on mental breakdowns or other psychological disturbances. The protagonists of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, A Moment of True Feeling, Kaspar, and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams all exhibit some kind of emotional problem: psychosis, neurosis, childhood trauma, or depression. This emphasis on mental illness might seem morbid at first. Handke is not, however, interested in depicting the sensational or the bizarre for its own sake; his treatment of these subjects is typically low-key and objective. Rather, Handke uses the concepts of mental health and mental illness to examine and comment on the nature of reality, perception, and the place of the individual in society. For example, Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick walks away from his job, assuming that he is fired because only one of his coworkers looks at him when he arrives at work one day. An obviously neurotic behavior, Bloch’s action demonstrates the frightening power of individual perception: His reality has, in a real sense, been altered solely because of the way he views that reality. A similar situation is found in Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972; Short Letter, Long Farewell, 1974). The narrator of this novel, an Austrian such as Handke himself, declares, “As far back as I can remember, I seem to have been born for horror and fear.” As he travels across America after receiving a letter from his estranged wife (“I am in New York. Please do not look for me, it would not be nice for you to find me”), his troubled perceptions of life are used to shed light on personal interactions, the relationship of Europe to America (the “old world” and the new), and the connections between personal experience and the “real world.”
A final element that defines Handke’s writing is his treatment of the writing process as a subject in itself, a characteristic of much contemporary, or postmodern, literature. While authors of more conventional literature tend to tell their stories without referring to themselves or to their audience, Handke often interjects into his plays and fiction explicit commentary about himself, his thoughts about what he is writing, and his audience. Obvious examples are seen in Offending the Audience, where the relationship of the audience to the presentation on stage is the central concern of the play, and in Calling for Help, where audience reaction is crucial to the meaning of the material. Awareness and acknowledgment of the writing process are also found in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, in which Handke repeatedly comments on his motivation for and approach to writing:My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.
Through his direct commentary on the creative process, Handke continually reminds his readers that literature is the end product of a conscious intellectual endeavor, and that writing does not exist in a vacuum but has full meaning only in the context of the relationship between the writer and his audience. While analyzing the psychology of his characters, Handke does not shy away from examining his own as well.
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
First published: Wunschloses Unglück, 1972 (English translation, 1975)
Type of work: Novella
Handke reacts to his mother’s suicide by telling her life story, examining the forces that shaped her life and that ultimately led to her death.
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is considered by critics to be one of Handke’s finest works. Like so much of his writing, it defies pigeonholing in a...
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