Theater of Cruelty

The books are pilgrimages

PETER HANDKE / Does art possess an independent quality that cannot be overridden by a moral judge?


  • This year the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke (b. 1942). Handke is one of the greatest living prose writers in the world and has been for a long time. He could have been awarded the Nobel Prize for everything he has written before 1995. Between 1970, where he publishes Goalkeeper's fear of penalty, and 1994, where My year in the Bay of No Man published, he writes no less than ten excellent works. That had been enough. But with the war in the Balkans, Handke, through journeys, essays, talks, goes on to nuance what he himself has called an "unguided and unilateral debate" about the parties to the war. It does not succeed at all. Handke has compromised himself in a way that in turn forces us to nuance the relationship between art and politics. One wing holds that the art possesses an independent (here literary) quality that cannot be overridden by a moral judge. For the other wing, a deeply compromising political action must make it impossible to award the Nobel Prize. The interesting thing is that the latter argument can also claim that artistic quality possesses an intrinsic value. But what then is the argument? This is where it starts to get complicated. For it is obvious that the examples of writers' political compromise by themselves are many throughout history – be it Hamsun's relationship with the Nazis, Sartre's relationship with Mao, Céline's relationship with the Jews, Heidegger's relationship with Nazism or Handke's relationship with Serbia. It is only a matter of degrees. From a logical point of view, there is no argument for omitting one from a great price and not the other. Handke has with his writing cleared a new terrain for a way of thinking about the world, just like Heidegger, and you can read them both, actually against themselves, and gain new insights about the world.


So the problem is another. The problem consists in what level you want to set the border between art and politics. If we talk about real politics and legislation, there is a clear difference between politics and art. If we talk about politics at the idea level of human goodness and the good life, there is a significant overlap between art and politics. Plato, as you know, wanted to ban the artists from building the state, but also believed that beauty is too serious a subject to be left to the artists alone.

Iris Murdoch called his philosophy of poetry. And it is probably because there is a connection between goodness, beauty and the metaphysical that we find it difficult to find the right leg to stand on. From the experience that artistic practice is a devotion to the world and to things and people (to something other than themselves), Murdoch declared that art and ethics, with few exceptions, are one as they share the same essence: love. «Love is the sensory discovery that others exist, the incredibly difficult realization that something other than one self exists. Love, and therefore art and morality, is the discovery of reality. ”

The pilgrimage

Handke's unique voice is heard from the community and the periphery of history. From Slow return (1979) above The repetition (1988) My year in the Bay of No Man (1994) and until The Great Fall (2011), Handke has written large walking novels that take place on the periphery of society, outside the great stories, outside the communication and the media talk.

His microscopic focus on the concrete appearances of the world, without stepping into the single-track optics of utility thinking, brings him closer to a world in motion. It is the walk as scripture and scripture as the walk.

Hamsun's relationship with the Nazis, Sartre's relationship with Mao, Céline's relationship with the Jews, Heideggers
relationship with Nazism, or Handke's relationship with Serbia ...

Handke became famous at one point when, at a writer's meeting in 1966, he proclaimed the old generation "description impotent." Throughout the '70s he became best known as a playwright, including books such as The short letter and the long goodbye and manuscripts with great cinematic potential, not least The sky over Berlin (1988, filmed by Wim Wenders). With his writing he writes in line with writers of the 20th century such as Kafka, Beckett and Sebald, but also with a reinterpretation of the romance back to Goethe.

Handke's writing and literature is a deep devotion to things and the world, which from this view is both artistically unique and moral: The Great Fall (2011), for example, in its patient circle on an abyss, is a strong criticism of a time when the constant "pursuit" of a utility-controlled life becomes an "escape from" a more attentive life carried by wonder, discovery, and co-existence with things and the world. His books are pilgrimages in which the characters move from illusion to greater contact with reality. Therein lies a deep humanism, which he unfortunately cannot even live up to in other contexts.

also read interview with Handke: An adventurer in the inner world

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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