Swans Commentary » swans.com June 5, 2006  



The Hanging Of Peter Handke From The Orthodox Gallows
The Krauts Match the Frogs in Universal Autism


by Gilles d'Aymery





Doomed be the fatherland, false name,
Where nothing thrives but disgrace and shame,
Where flowers are crushed before they unfold,
Where the worm is quickened by rot and mold - We weave, we weave.

—Heinrich Heine


(Swans - June 5, 2006)  It was not enough. The controversy surrounding the scrapping of Peter Handke's play from the roster of the Comédie Française in France had not yet receded that the German guard dogs of intellectual conformism did a tour de force, a little coup of their own, an auto-da-fé on Handke's character. These trite MacDonaldized Middle Minds managed to influence the body politic, cowards in gray suits, into reversing the decision by the jury of the Heinrich Heine Prize of the city of Düsseldorf, where Heine was born in 1797, to award the much coveted honor to Peter Handke in December 2006, on the 150th anniversary of Heine's death.

As the story goes, on May 20, 2006, the jury of the bi-yearly prize announced that Peter Handke had been selected to receive the award. As administrative customs dictate -- it is a city award -- the city council had to approve the decision, a pro-forma determination -- the council has never rescinded a previous choice by the jury. Writers such as Wolf Biermann and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Max Frisch and Elfriede Jelinek, and other personalities (Marion Dönhoff, Richard von Weizsäcker) have been awarded the prize. The city approval in all cases was a formality. Not with Peter Handke, though.

(Note: As I neither read nor speak the language of Goethe, I am relying almost exclusively on the translations made in the daily "feuilletons" published on signandsight.com, the excellent English-language service of the German online culture magazine Perlentaucher.)

The jury considered that Peter Handke's work, "within the spirit of fundamental human rights that Heine valued deeply, promote[d] social and political progress, and foster[ed] understanding and solidarity between peoples." The bien-pensants, this "class of people who foster and perpetuate conventional wisdom" in the words of James Traub, rushed to work hurling criticisms at the jury's selection in the pages of major papers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the (Munich) Süddeutsche Zeitung, the (Swiss) Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and Die Welt. One luminary, Hubert Spiegel, asked in FAZ: "Does the brazenness with which Handke glosses over Serbian crimes and denies ethnic cleansing foster solidarity between peoples?" Handke, "the holder of absurd political positions," assured Uwe Wittstock in Die Welt. Christoph Stölzl, one of the members of the jury, was quick to confess that he had not been in favor of the decision.

Exemplifying the hypocrisy, Matthias Kamann wrote in Die Welt:

While Handke continues to be accused for drawing parallels between Auschwitz and the bombardment of Serbia, Joschka Fischer has yet to feel any consequences for fantasizing with total disregard for reality about having to prevent another Auschwitz in Serbia. Thoughts like these, and the apocryphal 'Hufeisenplan' (Operation Horseshoe) which was cooked up by the then Minister of Defence Rudolf Scharping, fitted and still fit well with the feuilletonistic debate of consensus that "Germany finds new responsibilities through the Kosovo war." Peter Handke however was ostracised from public debate, which is determined not to see consensus destroyed and only accepts artistic obstinacy when this confirms the cartel.

But the damage was done. The Düsseldorf City Council announced 10 days later that it would revoke the prize. The sycophant Tilman Krause of Die Welt applauded the revocation: "What luck that at least the politicians in this country have some sense!" Krause would have been a joyous man in the years before German Ground Zero; and presumably, he would also have applauded the German authorities that banned Heine's work in 1835.

An outraged Thomas Steinfeld, however, had this to say in the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung:

That's not how things are done. The mayor of Düsseldorf can't ring up Peter Handke and say he'll get the Heinrich Heine Prize this year, if just a few days later the City Council says no, on second thoughts he won't win it after all. That's not how things are done. The former historian, museum director and now politician Christoph Stölzl can't be member of a literary jury and then -- as soon as a democratic decision meets with public criticism -- go around saying the person who won wasn't his man. That's not how things are done. And now all manner of politicians are piping up and calling the decision "a poor choice," "unthinkable," and "insensitive," while leaving no one in any doubt that they've never read anything Peter Handke has written on the subject. That's not how things are done.

In the same paper, two members of the jury, Sigrid Löffler and (French Germanophile) Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, "announce[d] in an open letter that they [were] resigning from the jury of the Heinrich Heine Prize." They added:

No one can comprehend, let alone want to approve of, Handke's bizarre acts regarding Milosevic," [but] one of the jury's reasons for giving Handke the prize in the first place was that he is undaunted in his poetic stance by public opinion and its rituals. The witch-hunt now raging against unwittingly demonstrates how clearly Handke really did deserve the Heine Prize.

Former Heinrich Heine Prize winner and 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Elfriede Jelinek, as she did with the Comédie Française censorship of Handke's play in Paris, objected strenuously. But it's in FAZ that Frank Schirrmacher outlined best the pallid situation:

Should Peter Handke be allowed to receive the prize? This is purely a question of power. If he doesn't receive it after the jury's decision has been made clear, then literary prizes in Germany will be exposed as the arbitrary character assassinations that they have always been, from the times of the "anonimo romano" until today. Honouring someone, regardless of how controversial he may be, and then openly declaring him unworthy of that honour, without anything else having happened, is the ultimate form of social backslide. It turns the literary critic into the henchman of the politician. With the politicians' interference, the critic's objections to Handke now sound like a denunciation to the police.

What next? Bonfires of Handke's books in the public squares of Düsseldorf?

Orthodoxy is a potent elixir. Deviate from it and see the watchdogs high up on the ramparts, shouting the accusation of délit d'opinion. Once upon a time, it might have entailed a lettre de cachet and a sojourn at the Bastille or worse, being burnt at the stake for heresy. Today, a play is censored, a literary prize denied. The revisionist label is stamped on the culprit's forehead even though the opinion has been expressed from the very time the events occurred. Possibly in the future, 20 or 30 years from now, a new law will be passed in parliament criminalizing nonconformist thoughts, a bit like an addition to the 1990 Anti-Revisionist Supplement to the Press Law in France (Fabius-Gayssot Law, July 14, 1990...no less)

Flawed logic, sloppiness, navel-gazing arrogance, careerism, character assassination know no limits in the age of Wal*Mart intellectualism. From Germany to France and the USA (see how Ward Churchill is being "lynched" in Colorado), the mob-like anthills -- the red sort -- of the black and white world where shades are an inconvenience to be smashed with grandiloquent statements, armies of pious mercenaries, and when necessary, boots and camps, carry on with the delight of darkness and the self-importance of their own obscurity, as, in that far-away land of the mind, a handful of people keep shining, over and against all odds.

"Structures are the progeny of established powers," once wrote Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle (Paris, 1967). Those systematized structures are "based on the explicit or implicit assumption that this brief freezing of historical time will last forever. . . . . [a belief] in the eternal presence of a system that was never created and that will never come to an end. . . . . This fallacious reasoning stems from the limited intellectual capacity of the academic functionaries hired to expound this thought, who are so thoroughly caught up in their awestruck celebration of the existing system that they can do nothing but reduce all reality to the existence of that system."

What sins has Peter Handke committed, according to contemporary academic functionaries?

He is a revisionist: How can he be? Peter Handke has consistently refused to demonize the Serbs from the very moment the tragic dismemberment of Yugoslavia began taking place. He has consistently questioned the genocidal label applied to the Serbs, with a prescient thought process that eventually will be acknowledged by history. He has consistently refused to tag Slobodan Milosevic a "Hitler-like dictator." People have yet to come forth to show that a "dictator" has ever been elected more than once in a multi-party political system with ample opposing parties and media (Milosevic was elected three times, and the fourth time was skewed through the efforts and money of his international foes). He has consistently denounced the ICTY for what it factually has been, a Kangaroo Court that has yet to prove anything.

He is a "negationist": The most slanderous accusation of all. Handke has never ignored the horrors that took place in that civil war. He simply has not accused any one side, and he has kept questioning the rationale and the respective responsibilities. Take Iraq today. There is a civil war going on among Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis. Who's the demon? Handke would say: "I do not know." He would then refuse to single out one party for the whole trauma. Finally, he would ponder the larger, outside responsibilities that created the quagmire. Should the USA, through its illegal invasion of Iraq, be considered responsible for the current mayhem? Igualmente, shouldn't one analyze the respective responsibility of Germany, the U.S., and France as a junior player, in the Yugoslav mayhem? If so, to what extent? Why, he would ask, do we always have to demonize the enemy du jour? Fair questions, no? And not much to do with "negationism"...

But in the feeble-minded universe in which our courtesans operate, the adamant refusal to demonize the Serbs becomes ipso facto an assault against the orthodoxy. To question or challenge the bien-pensants threatens the very conventions based on their twisted logic and is met with the repeated howling accusations of heresy. What's the meaning of freedom of speech, then, when every time one opens one's mouth in contradiction of conventional wisdom, one is pilloried, sees one's career threatened, and finds oneself ostracized to the point of becoming an outcast? What's the point really of freedom of speech, if nobody hears you, or hears you and tars and feathers you?

Society of the spectacle, indeed.

I asked a friend who has been the object of much hatred for the simple fact of being a "Serb" by birth: Why is it that they, the academic functionaries, can't face a Peter Handke rationally? The answer was blunt: They have too much to loose if they look in the mirror. They've made careers out of their positions. They have careers to keep, and many laurels to gain, or not loose, by avoiding disputing the powers that feed them.

Anything that can be done, I asked further? Remind them of Ruder & Finn, the PR firm that was so instrumental for the media-cleansing onslaught during that period. Try to have them read your February 2001 piece, "Kosovo - The 'Banality of Evil,'" my interlocutor suggested. It might make a tiny few reconsider the entire tragedy, but I would not bet the bank on it, if I were you. Egotism and petty bourgeois selfishness will perdure.

Heinrich Heine moved to Paris in 1831. He never went back to Düsseldorf....died in Paris in 1856, and is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre. In the Finnish literature Website, Pegasos, under the Heine entry, one can read that his "critical views annoyed the German censors, and he had no chance of becoming a prophet in his own country. At the end of 1835 the Federal German Diet tried to enforce a nationwide ban on all his works. Soon Heine found himself surrounded by police spies, and his voluntary exile became a forced one. The poet once stated: When the heroes go off the stage, the clowns come on."

Peter Handke is in good company. There are plenty of clowns in Germany still.

As Heine wrote:

I know the authors, I know the tune,
I know it line for line-
In public, water is all they preach;
While in secret they guzzle wine.
(Germany, A Winter's Tale - 1844)

Once again, Zivela Peter Handke!



External Resources


Heinrich Heine

Peter Handke on Wikipedia

Handke Scriptmania Portal, by Michael Roloff

Peter Handke on Google


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Internal Resources

The Peter Handke Controversy: From Pozarevac, Serbia, to the Comédie Française, by Gilles d'Aymery, March 22, 2006

Arts & Culture

The Balkans & Yugoslavia


About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 5, 2006