The Weight of the World Critical Context - Essay

Peter Handke

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Handke’s intention in The Weight of the World is best understood in terms of his overall theories concerning language and the role of fiction. For Handke, language, especially concepts and abstraction of experience, can distort the perception of reality. Conceptual signs or forms as well as language that has become automatized can come to generate their own level of “reality” that is distinct from the world as it really is. It is then easy to confuse these semiological “fictions” with the empirical facts of existence. The individual who takes these signs for truth eventually becomes alienated from his experience and becomes, in existential terms, inauthentic.

Handke gives a good example of this idea in what is perhaps his best-known and most compelling work, Wunschloses Ungluck (1972; A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1974), a narrative text he wrote as a tribute to his mother, who committed suicide in late 1971. In it, he examines the forms of language that shaped and circumscribed his mother’s life and death. With this intention, he explores the larger theme that concerns much of his early writings, that is, the distortion of experience through language and sign. He looks, for example, at the word “woman,” a sign which has the denotative meaning of a human female. The connotations of this word, however, involve many levels of personal and societal meaning, implicit social-psychological roles and behavioral expectations...

(The entire section is 580 words.)