Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352
Handke is the type of writer who uses his personal, subjective perceptions as a major source for his fiction, and many of the entries in The Weight of the World give indications of the kinds of experiences and themes that structure his other fictional texts. Notes concerning states of anxiety and intense visual images dominate the diary and are central to the majority of his writings. He often notes his dream events and reverie images, such as in one of the early notes for November, 1975 (“Dream sounds . . .”), and the initial entry for March 16, 1976 (“In my half-sleep . . .”). These visions, or images, form the basis of much of Handke’s writing. To formulate these often-ineffable experiences in language without distorting their essential meaning is the task of his fiction, as he explains in one of the entries for March 6, 1976, which includes another statement of the goal which informs the writing of The Weight of the World itself. His ideal of composition would be one in which these feelings and experiences would be transformed—he uses the image of the caterpillar and butterfly—into new poetic images which would also reflect in some way their origins. They would be aesthetic transformations of the “mythic” images of his own consciousness. This artistic point of view suggests that Handke is very much a post-Romantic writer.
The concept of metaphor is central to Handke’s notion of fiction, and many of the entries in The Weight of the World suggest its importance. Writing serves as an existential act of orientation because it establishes a sense of connection between consciousness (self) and the world (others) and allows the individual to overcome the extreme states of estrangement that inevitably must plague him. For Handke, metaphor—the comparison of two unlike phenomena—creates a relationship between an inner experience or idea and an external event or object, a momentary unity between self and others. He perceives himself thus to be connected through aesthetic language to the world around him. Metaphor clearly performs for him an important existential function. As Handke suggests in the entry for March 31, 1976 (“Never look for metaphors!”), such figurative language must be experienced existentially rather than merely conceived or created intellectually.
The condition of half-sleep or semiconscious reverie (Halbschlafzustand) is an important poetic state for Handke; it is a time when the division between consciousness and reality is blurred. This reverie state is a major source of Handke’s poetic sensibility, and references to it are frequent in The Weight of the World. In this condition he is consumed with images and visions that seem to fill his mind. The fundamental existential fact of the inevitable otherness—the alienation—of the self from the world that is felt so intensely during the fully wakened state is not experienced here because consciousness is enveloped in a totality of dreamlike feeling. The initial entry for March 16, 1976 (“In my half-sleep . . .”), and that for March 18, 1976 (“Images in half-sleep . . .”), are typical. Examples of this particular state of consciousness abound in his fiction, especially in earlier texts such as Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1970; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1972) and Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied (1972; Short Letter, Long Farewell, 1974).
Related to this poetic reverie state of half-sleep are the moments of confusions or misperceptions that characterize Handke’s waking process. The Weight of the World contains numerous entries noting this occurrence. The one described in the March 19, 1976, entry is a good example. The entry for March 7, 1976, is also representative of this phenomenon. Handke awakens, and in this state of half-sleep he interprets the sound of birds flying past his window as that of falling autumn leaves. This misperception signals the division between, to use the author’s terms, the inner world (of consciousness) and the outer world (of reality). This rift is, however, not necessarily one that produces a sense of estrangement, because here the difference is bridged in terms of a metaphor (“like falling autumn leaves”). This poetic image used to interpret an actual event points to a central aspect of Handke’s vision of the existential role of aesthetic language and fiction. Poetic language—metaphor in the broadest sense—creates a relationship between consciousness and reality that orients, even if only for a moment, the self in the world.
Throughout his diary, Handke notes many examples of his anxiety and fear of death. These are important because they constitute in many respects the existential motivation for his writing. During March, 1976, Handke became ill and was hospitalized for a period. The entries for March 28 suggest his state of mind as he lay in the hospital bed. (“I shut my eyes, but fear opens them.”) Other entries for this day indicate his response to such feelings and again reveal the inner world of imagination and aesthetic form as his mode of transcending the experience of alienation. He notes, for example, his need to read literature (“I need something I can read word for word . . .”), in this case one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novels. The imaginative act of reading a literary text (as opposed to reading a newspaper) serves as a means of stabilizing and orienting himself; it transports him to an inner world of images. Reading and writing produce in Handke an almost mystical state of harmony within the self. He is an avid reader, and references to other authors (Goethe, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, for example) abound in The Weight of the World.
Another entry for March 28 (“Closing my eyes brings sudden relief . . .”) indicates a meditative, mystical state of consciousness that recalls both Handke’s moments of poetic reverie and his experiences of art and literature. The Greek root of the word “mystical” means to close the eyes and turn inward. He writes that in closing his eyes he has that feeling that there is a connection between his thoughts and feelings that is not there when his eyes are open. In this meditative state, a dreamlike, visionary unity is achieved within the self. This meditation is again clearly similar to the states of calmness gained through reading and writing and suggests that for Handke the domain of authenticity, of “existential truth,” is to be found within the self and the imagination and not in the events of the external world.
Handke makes this notion clear in two of the entries for April 22, 1976. The one note (“Memory and yearning . . .”) reiterates the theme of the imaginative experience of art. It produces, he writes, a subjective sense of harmony—a revitalized feeling of connection to life—that is lacking in everyday existence. Thought and feeling, body and soul, self and others are fused in the intensity of imagination and emotion. The other entry (“Split personality as a solution . . .”) hints at the states of anxiety and fear he experiences which give rise to the need for art as a healing of the split within the self. The drudgery and tedium of everyday housework, he comments, give rise to a fantasy of being someone else so that some relief might be gained from the boredom of routine. The infinite freedom of the imagination again provides escape from the “weight” of finite existence. This thought again indicates the existential origins of Handke’s post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. It also suggests, as is well-known, that there is often a fine line between the condition of schizophrenia and the creative states of the artist.
Another prominent aspect of the journal is Handke’s noting of his own and others’ movements and gestures. The entry for June 19, 1976 (“For the last few hours . . .”), illustrates what he seeks to capture. He watches two teenagers hugging and kissing and comments on the “ritual” aspects of their behavior: That is, they are imitating unconsciously what they have seen in films, television, and magazines about love. They are thus alienated to a degree from the authentic experience of their own feelings; their emotions are mediated through the social forms established by their environment. The mediation of experience is a major theme in Handke and is, as discussed, a central aspect of the style of The Weight of the World itself.