Peter Handke Handke, Peter (Vol. 8) - Essay

Handke, Peter (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Handke, Peter 1942–

Austrian-born novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Handke emerged in the sixties as the leading practitioner of the experimental novel in Germany. Then, with the translation of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Handke's literary reputation took hold in America. To date, he has had five plays published in this country. Handke's novels reveal the influence of the existentialists, particularly Sartre, while aspects of the French "new novel" are also discernible in some of his writings. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)

Human loneliness, human identity and personality, memory, feelings, indoctrination—all these emerge as leading themes in [Die Unvernunftigen Sterben aus], which is set in a modern business world totally stripped of every human and humanitarian element. In extremely fast-moving dialogues periodically interrupted by obscenities, economic practices designed to tighten control of the market and the consumer are discussed with a ring of reality and brutality by a group of businessmen…. The realistic details and factual discussions … take on a grotesque and phantasmagoric air, conveying through Handke's "assembled sentences" the breakdown of personality in characters that are motivated by the dictates of business and are only residues of what once were men.

[They] also discuss feelings, but these are material for dreams and leisure time and would ruin their financial world if not transformed into business methods. [Handke shows their] inner emptiness and inability to communicate on any human level other than that of business….

Handke apparently demonstrates this time that personality is in danger, if not obsolete or lost altogether, in a class that possesses power. (p. 315)

Maria Luise Caputo-Mayr, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1975.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is Peter Handke's precise, inspired tribute to his mother who killed herself at the age of fifty-one. Subtitled A Life Story, the book is spare, less than seventy pages, but as rich in its configurations as a Brancusi or Balanchine's Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Handke, who is always coolly brilliant, is here full of an emotional purpose: his sorrow. The arresting intellectual games of his plays and his two previous novels are beside the point…. Handke is so absorbed in the definition of his mother's life he is self-effacing, untroubled, in the writing of it. He argues nicely that his mother's unique story can only be of interest to him, and when he extends his theme the individual is forgotten—"like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext."

A good point, and one that he takes to heart. None of his theories in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams takes up much room. They never exist as the author's explorations by and about himself. They compose the mimetic line…. Handke's speechlessness in the face of [his mother's] sorrow and his, brings him to write this memoir. His feelings become so palpably close to hers that he tells us "I experience them as doubles and am identical with them…."

The only poetic lament that compares to Handke's is Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish. Peter Handke's tone is reserved, the cadence strict as tears held back, but the sense of bringing the dead mother to life through communion with the son's voice is as strong. If the religious wailing of Ginsberg has moved us, I believe we will be equally moved by Handke's sacred rationale. (pp. 409-11)

Maureen Howard, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1976.

Handke is generally unknown to American audiences and students of the drama; his plays have baffled and antagonized American critics who, for the most part, have grasped neither the radicalism of his theatre nor its contemporary significance. (p. 52)

Handke's creation of the Sprechstücke (translated into English as "speak-in") is his original contribution to dramatic form. The five speak-ins he has written (Offending the Audience, Self-Accusation, Prophecy, Calling for Help, and Quodlibet) are not plays as we are used to defining them but virtually public addresses to an audience. Non-representational in their approach, they are completely lacking in stage pictures but are instead composed of incantatory words. Frequently they are simply language games; dialogue is entirely absent. They are presented by performers who function as "speakers" rather than actors playing roles.

The creation of speakers is crucial to the conception of the Sprechstücke because it allows Handke to eliminate from the drama character which is necessarily limited by a linguistic structure (dialogue), and to give full play instead to the presentation of words-in-freedom. Thus, Sprechstücke lack setting, plot, dialogue, and character—all the elements of traditional drama.

A chief component of the speak-ins are "ready-mades" (like the "found" objects in painting and sculpture), material from the language of daily existence: maxims, honorifics, slogans, officialese, advertisements, greetings, etc. With these language materials Handke has constructed a kind of literary environmental art in which the dramatic structure demonstrates the regimentation of the individual by his language-conditioned perceptions. Like many twentieth century artists, Handke recycles "popular" forms to create a work of radical art. His is an art of radical juxtaposition—a collage of "found" words which carries on an inner dialogue with the newly created structure of words (speak-in). What Handke has done, in effect, is take the language of an ordered reality and turn it on itself to provide a critique of reality, with the speakers functioning as negative physiognomies on which Handke "writes" the contradictions of human behavior.

From the recognizable language of reality presented by the speakers the spectator can extract the proclamations that pertain to his existence. The link, therefore, is anthropological—all members of a given society are checked within its linguistic perimeters. The presence of the audience is the sine qua non of the Sprechstücke. "They need a vis-a-vis, at least one person who listens; otherwise they would not be natural but extorted by the author," Handke says. (pp. 52-3)

The audience is as important as the speakers in the Sprechstücke, particularly in the participatory language games that compromise Calling for Help and Quodlibet. In Calling for Help (1967) several speakers—and the audience—play at trying to guess the word "help" which is being sought. Built on the principle of collage it is a collection of sentences, phrases and words—a series of clues conveyed by the speakers (as in the game "Password")—clearly recognizable from ordinary social discourse.

In this brief linguistic construct speakers only play the need for help acoustically, that is, by varying the deliverance of the clues to the word. Though they need help in finding the word "help," once they have found it they no longer need "help"—the word has lost its meaning. Calling for Help is grounded in the neo-Positivism of Wittgenstein who viewed the use of language as the playing of language games in which meaning is contained in the use of the word…. Handke, like Wittgenstein, has turned language inside out and measured it against reality. In The Ride Across Lake Constance (1971) in which a part of the discussion centers on naming emotions that derive from familiar poses, he seems to be carrying on his own philosophical investigations—and in Wittgenstein's familiar question and answer format!

Quodlibet (1969), like Calling for Help, is a word game. Both pieces operate on the principle of association. They put forth word and sentence clues—codes—which trigger certain predictable (often automatic) responses in the audience. Both pieces have musical as well as game structures. Aural tableaux, crescendo and decrescendo patterns, fluctuations in pitch and tempo—in general, the orchestration of sound—define their presentation.

Quodlibet, more expansive than the essentially one joke Calling for Help, is a highly sophisticated "play on words" which offers those whom Handke calls "figures of world theatre" (general, bishop, politician, etc.) in random social intercourse. The audience (over) hears only bits and pieces of their conversations, enough to let the imagination run wild with associations. (pp. 53-4)

From the cliches and repeated expressions of political, sexual and social attitudes, the speakers' improvisational "assemblage" of personal stories and perceptions, and news from daily papers, a picture of (false) reality is created in the audience's imagination—by the audience. Of all the Sprechstücke Quodlibet is the one which most demands the audience's active participation; its open structure allows the audience to enter it and actually partake of its presentation. No two people will experience it in the same way. Hence, Handke's playful Latin title "Quodlibet" which, translated into English, means "as it pleases you."

Prophecy (1966) doesn't offer the multiplicity of experience that the more complicated Quodlibet does, but is instead a simplified example of Handke's characteristic serialism (the dominant style of his dramatic works and poetry). (pp. 54-5)

Self-Accusation (1966) extends beyond the limitations of a language game and the fundamentally simple proof that language is an inept tool of communication to demonstrate the socialization of the individual through his acquisition of language. In this speak-in the theme of domination-submission, the focus of full-length plays My Foot My Tutor (1968), Kaspar (1967) and The Ride Across Lake Constance (1971), is expressed in the structure itself. The message is the structure of the play, and it unfolds as it traces the movement of the individual from the beginning of consciousness to the loss of it through social regimentation….

Between the first and second parts there is a refrain of twenty-eight questions exposing possible violations against the state and social order. This refrain—a verbal aria in which all questions but one end with the word "violate"—bears the same relationship to the whole structure of the speak-in as the songs in a Brechtian Lehrstück do to its entire structure. As the dialectical frame of the piece it expands the themes and perspectives of the text, and breaks the flow of the piece by turning from the declarative sentence to the question form. By throwing the problems of the speak-in into relief, as it were, it also singles out the dominant issues of the structure. (p. 55)

In their focus on either the relationship of the audience to the theatre event, or the relationship of reality to the language an individual uses to describe it, Sprechstücke are essentially consciousness-raising pieces. They attempt not so much to revolutionize the audience, but to make the audience aware. They are concerned more with the thinking process than ideas.

Sprechstücke are didactic in the broad sense of the term but Handke, unlike Brecht, does not suggest solutions to social problems. He merely presents the problem. (p. 56)

Handke it seems has taken a more subtle, cerebral step forward from Brecht's Lehrstück, the dramatic antecedent of the Sprechstücke. Both forms of drama are "teaching plays," yet one important difference between Brecht and Handke is in each's use of the dialectic. In Brecht's work the dialectic operates within a montage of images; in Handke's it functions in a collage of words. In Brechtian dramaturgy the dialectic remains in the sphere of the stage and the characters on it whereas Handke has situated the dialectic in the relationship of the audience to the stage itself, further radicalizing the theatre event and consciously activating moment-to-moment audience response. Finally, if Brecht formalized situations drawn from reality, Handke merely formalizes the language of reality. (p. 57)

[Peter] Weiss is the link from Brecht to Handke; each has progressively taken character out of the drama and put history in its place, and in the process stripped away the dialogue. But, Brecht and Weiss never abandoned the illustration of a narrative on stage to point out social contradictions. They always use images to complement or contradict the language in their plays. The most radical of the three, Handke creates a "picture" of social contradictions entirely through words: his is not a theatre of images but a universe of words…. It is also interesting to note that in their attempt to devise a non-literary drama—and renovate the notion of dialogue—all three dramatists turned to musical structures, each to varying degrees.

Of the three Handke is the most concerned with man as an existential rather than political being. He enlists the aid of language to expose the existential situation of all individuals in society which reduces reality to words. More subtle in effect than the plays of Ionesco, Handke's plays, nevertheless, make one aware, through their evocation of the platitude, that language is incapable of serving as a sure mode of communication, that it, in fact, distorts reality.

Handke carries this line of thinking to its reductio ad absurdum conclusion in his full length play Kaspar by dramatizing the disintegration of its hero through his mastery of language. When one compares Kaspar to Self-Accusation the latter seems a more hopeful work simply because it dwells on an awareness of the situation rather than demonstrating its tragic end. Partly, however, Kaspar carries on the confessional mode of Self-Accusation. (pp. 58-9)

In the American theatre, the work of Richard Foreman (Ontological-Hysteric Theater) parallels Handke's in several ways. Both write dialogue-less (totally self-referring) consciousness-raising pieces which attempt to make the audience aware of the theatre event while experiencing it. Built into their pieces is an inner dialogue with the history of Western theatre. Both use characterless characters—actors as mouthpieces of the author—in a lecture-demonstration form: Handke is concerned with the acquisition of language, Foreman with the acquisition of knowledge. Both have situated the dialectic in the relationship of the audience to the theatre event. Where Handke and Foreman differ—and this point separates Handke from both his predecessors and contemporaries—is the latter's highly image-oriented theatre, and the former's refusal to create images in his Sprechstücke. (pp. 59-60)

Handke's work easily identifies him with the rebellious youth of the rock generation. His "Rules for the Actors" which precedes Offending the Audience mocks Brecht's stricter Rules. Instead of analyzing acting techniques, he suggests that before performing the speak-in actors should listen to certain Beatles' songs, to chanting at demonstrations, to street noises, etc. All of his "Rules" have to do with becoming aware of acoustical textures in social situations. From this vantage point Handke seems very close to the aesthetics of John Cage in suggesting that noise form the basis of the "music" of Offending the Audience.

There is even a trace of Dadaist good humor in the piece…. Notwithstanding, it is only fair to state that Handke's philosophical temperament is far removed from that of the Dadaists, though his abuse or shock of the audience has aesthetic antecedents in Dadaist performance. But, Handke is much too serious, his pieces too schematic to be content with mere offense against the audience. He gives his audiences much more—a framework for philosophical thought.

Indeed Handke's rigorous intellect is among the best we have in contemporary theatre, his plays among the most important in post-Beckettian drama. In their uncompromising look at the function of theatre and the audience's problematical relationship to it, and their vigorous examination of language at its deepest and most subtle levels, Peter Handke has given us new dramatic form and a new mode of consciousness as well. (pp. 60-1)

Bonnie Marranca, "The 'Sprechstücke': Peter Handke's Universe of Words," in Performing Arts Journal (© copyright 1976 Performing Arts Journal), Fall, 1976, pp. 52-66.

Manheim has been a bit tender toward American readers' feelings in his translation of the title [A Sorrow beyond Dreams]: A Wunschloses Unglueck is not a sorrow worse than anything you ever dreamed of ("dreams," though not strictly inaccurate, is the misleading word), but the nicest sorrow you could possibly ask for. "A Satisfying Misfortune" would be another way of translating it—a rancorously ironic title, since the volume is Handke's description of the life and suicide of his mother, written in the deepest grief as a memorial tribute to her and, as a test of the whole art of writing, i.e., of his whole occupation in life. That is the sense in which the misfortune is satisfying: What writer could ask for a better opportunity? At the same time, how can a writer be truthful to that occasion, of all others?

Two struggles take place in the book, both ferocious: One is the struggle of Handke's mother to be a person, in the face of Austrian farm society, Western marital mores, the mass pressures of Nazism, and her own inner confusions. The second is her son's struggle to put her life on paper without in some way betraying it, without turning the facts into generalities, the real woman into an archetype "eternalized" in prose, like a bronzed baby shoe.

The mother … weakened by childbearing (and three abortions), by a lifetime of woman-slavery, and by a nerve disease that brings spells of temporary insanity, cuts her losses and opts out of the struggle. The son, alternately dazzled and horror stricken by her choice (at one point he actually says he feels proud of her for committing suicide), goes on fighting, winning at the end the most slender and unsatisfying of victories. (The last sentence is, "Someday I will write about all this in greater detail.") In their tenacity, the two figures keep reminding me of Jung's devastating description of James Joyce and his mad daughter (in whose schizophrenic ravings Joyce found similarities to his own writing): "two people going to the bottom of river, one drowning, the other diving."

Michael Feingold, "One Is Drowning, the Other Diving," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), January 24, 1977, p. 75.

The Austrian, Peter Handke, who writes poetry, novels, plays and memoirs, is concerned with a familiar subject—the loss of authenticity or innocence. For Handke, this loss characterizes modern life. He thinks we no longer experience things directly, no longer truly feel. All our experience is mediated by cultural formulae, established ideas, clichés of language and manners. Hence, we are alienated from others and ourselves and left only with the knowledge that everything valuable is gone.

This loss of authenticity remains Handke's subject in his new novel, "A Moment of True Feeling," which, as one critic has said, is too much like Sartre's "Nausea," in its ideas, moods and sentiments. Handke's novel literally contains much that is nauseating, even a moment of truly felt vomiting. I'm not making a joke. In an obvious way, "A Moment of True Feeling" is ridiculously reminiscent of Sartre's novel. But it probably intends to be. That is, Handke probably intends his novel to be consistent with our day, fundamentally inauthentic.

Even the name of his hero, Gregor Keuschnig, recalls another hero, Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find himself metamorphosed into a dung beetle. Handke also thinks of his contemporary Gregor the way Kafka thought of his own, as a kind of loathsome psychological bug. Because Gregor thinks of himself this way, too, it must seem that if he and Handke are not exactly the same person, they are also not very different. The hypothetical man and the real writer are both understood as creatures of fiction. One lives in the novel; the other merely writes it.

Specifically, Gregor Keuschnig (notice Kafka's K) lives in Paris with his wife and child. He works as press attaché to the Austrian Embassy. One night he dreams that he has become a murderer. His whole life changes thereafter, but the plot of the novel does not in itself become more exciting. It couldn't, because it concentrates on Gregor's spiritual condition, his ennui; it is not too concerned with what wonderful things happen next. As any reader soon guesses, Gregor's dream means that he no longer loves his wife. Thereafter, he thinks, because he doesn't love her he wants her dead. Some might call this a sort of infantile omnipotence, but Handke makes his hero less a victim of unconscious logic than one who exploits such logic.

Late in the novel, when the marriage breaks up, Gregor actually says to his wife: "I want you to die." We knew that all the time. Furthermore, we suspect that Gregor's marital situation—the opposite of unusual—is a pretext, not really a plot, and it is there only to help the novel engage its proper subject, Gregor's loss of authenticity and fall into the literary condition of ennui.

Between his dream and the breakup of his marriage, Gregor ennuis around Paris and thinks about what he sees and feels in different quarters, rooms, cafés and playgrounds. His impressions and thoughts are indeed often interesting. These are the novel's chief virtues….

The real order [of life] is isolation and meaningless persistence through quotidian rituals: shopping, eating, working, making nice conversation, taking care of children, etc. Marriage and everything else that speaks for human solidarity merely represents authenticity, but, according to Gregor's view, all of it is a morbid delusion, a mystification, a concession we make to death, a polite commitment to organized, expedient, lethal inauthenticity every day, every minute.

Gregor blames himself for thinking this way. He yearns for a normal life that he could authentically live. Unfortunately, he has ennui. He cannot help but gaze into the abyss with Sartre, Nietzsche, Kafka and others who presently stand at the brink, as if at some literary cocktail party, where, between groans they chat about their royalties…. The world is a crazy soup in which all things swim, dreaming of meaning and forever, inevitably drowning…. Handke hates clichés, but they are as much the object of his hatred as they are his medium. He makes them the very substance of his imagination. (p. 7)

Handke, who thinks authenticity is gone, not only feels free to imitate anyone he chooses, he might even argue that one has no choice but to imitate even when the thing said is strictly personal. In any event, he lacks Kafka's sense of humor and moral weight, and, sometimes merely flaunts a kind of adolescent petulance. Kafka manages to say terrific things terrifically. Handke at times seems to say things intended as terrific, but, unlike Kafka, he requires us to participate in the experience of his intention, not the amazing convergence of language and sense. In brief, Kafka manifests, Handke exhibits. Like a little Kafka. Also, to repeat, some Sartre, Bertolucci, et al.

Where then is the man called Handke? In the library and movies, I suppose, with all the rest of us, collecting postures, attitudes, clichés and matching them more or less well with personal realities. When Handke's match is good it is very good. This is particularly true when his subject is pure pain. The lie Handke discovers in all meanings and every aspect of human solidarity tortures him into extreme gestures. For example, notice how Handke abruptly separates himself from his hero in the last paragraph of "A Moment of True Feeling": "On a balmy summer evening a man crossed the Place de l'Opéra in Paris. Both hands deep in the trouser pockets of his visibly new suit, he strode resolutely toward the Café de la Paix. Apart from the suit, which was light blue, the man was wearing white socks and yellow shoes; he was walking fast, and his loosely knotted necktie swung to and fro…."

For an instant you wonder who is this fellow? Then one realizes that is Gregor. After 131 pages of relentless intimacy, Handke releases him as if he were indeed some gaudy bug. The effect is sad and a little frightening. It is also severely moral. Handke's power as a writer comes from this, his courage and honesty, which makes him reject and despise his modern hero who is, at least in part, himself. (p. 29)

Leonard Michaels, "Intendedly Inauthentic," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 31, 1977, pp. 7, 29.