Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Slow Homecoming series is an ambitious and bold project that is unlike any other work in contemporary German literature. The works do, however, continue the main themes established in earlier Handke texts. The alienation of the individual’s consciousness and the subsequent longing for some kind of connection to existence have been major issues in the author’s writings since the beginning of his career. Earlier expressions of the longing for a mystical moment of harmony can be found in texts such as Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972; Short Letter, Long Farewell, 1974) and even in Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972). In his works of the 1980’s, this desire to establish a relationship to the world has attained an almost religious intensity. Handke develops a kind of aesthetic mysticism which sees art as mankind’s salvation, as that which preserves and gives meaning to the otherwise random events of life. This is a romantic notion the roots of which go back to the late eighteenth century, in works by writers such as Friedrich Holderlin, and which has been carried on in the early twentieth century by such German poets as Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke.

A number of critics have termed Handke a representative postmodernist author, and the Slow Homecoming series serves as a good example of this type of literature. Usually, one associates postmodernism with a deconstruction of cultural myths or signs, an uncovering of the hidden origins of cultural and literary institutions. This is indeed true, but there is also a “constructionist” dimension to the movement, a celebration of the human capacity to generate symbols and signs. If all one’s systems of truth or values are arbitrary constructs of language, then one does exist as an aesthetic being who fashions a reality out of the significations that he creates. Man is the only creature who defines himself out of “fictions,” who generates his possibilities out of the capacity to imagine other “realities.” Handke’s works address this theme directly. He writes about the human need to generate myths, because such stories link mankind together. Humanity is defined by its myths.