Peter Handke : The scandal is not where they say it is

Peter Handke

Bret Stephens entitles his article: « The scandal of a Nobel laureate » (NYT, Oct. 19-20, 2019). « Surely”, he says, “Handke is considered a fascist ». With high, low or, maybe honestly, no degree of certainty? Stephens relates an anonymous statement and immediately adds, « though his full political views are hardly clear ». A hardly clear but very severe judgement given by a hardly sure critic. Stephens neither seizes the « full political » content at stake nor the justifying certainty of the related judgement, nor does he use the correct word : “fascism” was Italian, neither German nor Austrian. Fascism does not equate with Auschwitz, Nazism does. Stephens does not call Handke « a Nazi », but the context, quite clearly, does: he calls to mind the anti-Semite Roald Dahl and names Hitler. He does not report what Handke really replied on March 18, 1996 in Vienna, during a public discussion, to the general « concerns” (Betroffenheit) of a journalist in an, indeed, quite rude manner: « You can stick your concerns up your ass ». What the Irish Times (April 3, 1999: EG) and recently Mr.Hemon falsely (and ignoring the date) reported in replacing « concerns » by « corpses » (!). This forgery has been attentively examined and qualified to be « scandalous » with « inhuman » effects by Der Spiegel (Oct. 19, 2019, p.116) which is certainly not a media favorable to Handke. Missing the certainty of words, contents and facts, means distorting the reasoning.

Might Stephens’ for the least thoughtless contradictions be qualified as a relative defamation? Where is the ethically justified emphasis: on relativity or defamation? When presumption of guilt exceeds presumption of innocence justice is clearly fading away. But Stephens reverses the order: to be « a fascist » (or Nazi?) is only one « part » of the problem, he says, the other part is, nowadays, the lost « capacity to distinguish art from ideology and artists from politics ».Thus « relativity » and « defamation » are relatively exonerated and Stephens may conclude that Handke’s « art deserves to be judged, or condemned, on its artistic merits alone ». The Nobel Prize in Literature surely is neither a humanitarian award nor an award in politics. But as long as the distinctive criterion is not yet established, we are in a no-man’s land of neither-nor. This is insufficient for a stringent reasoning.

Thus, Deborah E. Lipstadt is absolutely right in criticizing « art and politics » as « separate realms » (NYT, Oct. 23,2019). But she misses the point: Stephens’ argumentation is implicitly focused on the relation between law and its transgression. To transgress the law surely doesn’t say yet what the law is. While Stephens remains inside the two readings of « art and politics » and is finally paralyzed by the two opposite emphases , Lipstadt considers of key-importance that the Nobel committee has awarded an « immense platform or megaphone » to Handke’s « false claims » as if the writer were a military-style propagandist. Both miss the link between law and transgression in different ways: Stephens rhetorically hides persisting contradictions, while Lipstadt does not name the law which is not or does not need propaganda. The missing link in between is inside art, between « good » and « bad » reading and writing, between « truth » and « lie », law and transgression in language and, thus, in the world.

Is it coincidental that Stephens’ article is placed just beside Timothy Snyder’s article « How Hitler pioneered ‘fake news' »? The same theme, « propaganda », is approached in reverse order: Handke is suspected of abusing the Nobel platform, in order to favor « false claims » as if he could thus rearm or efface real aggressions; while the other “H” is « turned » by the Army, as summarized by the master biographer Ian Kershaw, « into a propagandist ». Snyder concludes, H., who made propaganda   “ his chief occupation for the rest of his life”, claimed himself , « The correct [!] use of propaganda is a true [!] art ».

This side by side is an alarming, because dangerous, analogy, suggesting a perverse and diabolic comparison: the poor writer, appalling criminal, and the Nobel laureate could have something in common? The juxtaposition might not be coincidental but scandalous? Handke’s large photo curiously focuses less on his face than on the disproportionally big military-like boots he is wearing. Is there a military or völkische affinity suggested between the nobelized writer (and passionate hiker) and the Nazi criminal? This I may call a subliminal defamation: you see a real criminal, with whom you are supposed to associate a writer (to be, thus, defamed). The critics attacking Handke proceed exactly in this way: rendering him guilty through analogy?

These kinds of defamatory connotations do not show you and name the law, they are derived by transgression. Deborah E. Lipstadt approaches the answer through the most powerful reference for reasoning nowadays, the Shoah, that has to be ethically considered as the result of a negative universal law: to be thought and to be ethically rejected. Thus, she feels authorized to bring up the name of Handke together with the racist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier David Irving (successfully fought by her in court as a « pro-Nazi polemicist »).

Before further examining this position, we have to refer to some important information quite unknown to the mass-media. Ms. Lipstadt didn’t mention the three important Jewish organizations (the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress) which were morally engaged (as she is) against the Serbs in the Yugoslavian civil war. Nor does she mention Jacques Merlino’s very instructive book The Yugoslavian Truths are not all good to be told (in French, 1993, p.125-132: not translated). This French public TV journalist interviewed the Director of the PR agency Ruder Finn Public Affairs, recruited (1991-1993) in order to promote (together with Saatchi & Saatchi) the secession of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (Albanian) from Yugoslavia. James Harff (Washington, April 24, 1993) asserted: « August 1992, New York Newsday came out with the affair of Serb concentration camps. We jumped at the opportunity immediately. » « Speed is vital, because items favorable to us must be settled by public opinion. The first statement counts. The retractions have no effect. » « We outwitted three big Jewish organizations. » « We could promptly equate the Serbs with the Nazis in the public mind. » « There was a clear change of language in the press, with the use of words with high emotional content, such as « ethnic cleansing », « concentration camps », etc., which evoked images of Nazi Germany and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The emotional charge was so powerful that nobody could go against it, otherwise you are accused of being revisionist. » … « Our work is not to verify information [but] to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us. » « We did not confirm the existence of death camps in Bosnia, we just made it known that Newsday affirmed it. » « We are not paid to be moral. » … « We intend to take advantage of this and develop commercial agreements with these countries. » Merlino considers « cynicism » to be the major driving force of this procedure and quotes at least five US, Canadian and British newspapers speaking about systematic « disinformation » in favor of Ruder Finn’s clients. Johanna Newman entitled an article: « Fax and dollars are the weapons of war the agencies of public relations are using » (USA Today, June 16, 1992).

Peter Handke

Is the work of PR agencies equal to « weapons of war »? This confirms the link between propaganda as a lobby of war and military aggression. (The PR firm Hill and Knowlton worked to the same effect by justifying the American intervention in the Kuwait-Iraq conflict.) But why do ordinarily well-informed critics like Stephens and Lipstadt or J. Egan and A. Hemon and others not mention the positions quoted above? Why do they not respect the legal imperative « to hear the other side too (audiatur et altera pars) “? They do not read or take account of what Handke says: « I didn’t go there to participate in hating. » « All Manicheism is good for is to go eternally on with war. » « Anger and fury is part of my writing, but not hate. » « Each description carries fright, sorrow and compassion. » « We have to show possibilities of reconciliation », « to find out what we have in common », « writings of peace (Friedenstexte) » (Die Zeit,February 2, 1996). Handke dreams « to reconcile for a second, for a common childhood » the countries of the former Yugoslavia (A Journey to the Rivers, 1997). « I feel a kind of fraternity in myself. » « A writer has to do something good. To do good is my ideal. » (Profil, September 1, 2007). That is why Handke may recently recapitulate: “There is not one word I have written about Yugoslavia that can be denounced, not one word.” “There are stories to be told, without revenge.” Is there an ethical message? Yes and no, because: “Everybody is his own teacher and disciple.” (Die Zeit, November 21, 2019).

What does Handke exactly say about violence and massacres in the countries of former Yugoslavia? « And I repeat, enraged, full of rage against the Serbian criminals, commanders, planners. I repeat: Srebrenica represents the worst crime against humanity that has been committed in Europe since the war » (SüddeutscheZeitung,June 1, 2006). What about Sarajevo? « Bombing the market of Sarajevo is absolutely awful » (Die Zeit, February 2, 1996). Merlino considers the PR manipulations of Ruder Finn to be of « incredible shamelessness, of unimaginable cynicism because playing with the memory of the Holocaust ». May war lobbying be more successful than its criticism? Handke declares: « The Genocide against the Jews is the fundamental shock of my entire life » (Profil, September 1, 2007). Has he ever been heard?

As a professor of Holocaust history, Ms Lipstadt evidently knows the Greek sense of « holocaust », « entirely burnt », which refers to the covenant between God and Abram: the sacrificed animals, each cut in two parts confronting each other, delimit (before being burnt) a passage where two (dreamt) signs pass, a smoking oven and a flaming torch, and symbolize the conclusion of the divine covenant in favor of the beneficiary « Abram ». Why « covenant »? Because nothing is entire, all is intimately coupled: the animals are cut into halves, there are two signs, God and « Abram » are allies. Why « divine »? Because the covenant is to be thought as a unilateral donation, the result of which is a coupled genealogy.All that is entire is outside of the covenant, even « God »: being an ally, he is not (or « no more ») an exclusive power, a synonym of domination, but an inclusive force. Truly, an ally. A non-dominating God is somehow « crucified » and does not impose himself. What is entirely burnt? Domination and submission. That is why there is a kind of free universal equivalence at work. Why “free”? Because you can disobey, at your own risk. If you do not presume that « equivalence » includes your own justified existence, you are already on the wrong road. The « divine equivalence » is not vertical or hierarchical. The figures of an entire God (dominator) or an entire man (sovereign mankind or dictator) are overcome: divine is neither God (alone) nor man (alone). Divine is the original equivalence like that between woman and man, or between the two supports of a “relation” and a “difference” – without domination or submission. Except in the already mentioned case of the violation of the law: violation is to be thought of as a sign of scandal to avoid its becoming reality (Matthew 18:7). Otherwise, a dominating power is returning to its worst form: Auschwitz is the oblivion of the divine holocaust, it is the name of negative theocracy and metaphysics. Auschwitz is only linked to logic and ethics by rejection, showing what has to be thought, but never to be done nor repeated.

Peter Handke

How to overcome this defamation of origin, the replacement of original donation by absolute exclusion, by arrogant theocracy and unbearable submission? Let’s return to Handke who is target of relative, of subliminal and finally also of existential defamation as a so-called « Genocide » and « Holocaust denier ». What imbecile can accuse him in this way, when Handke calls Genocide and Holocaust « the fundamental shock of my entire life » and furthermore qualifies the « monstrous image (Unbild) swastika to be the cause of all my melancholy »? (Profil, September 1, 2007 and The Chinese of Pain,1983: not translated). The scandal is not where they say it is.

How to escape from the vicious circle of blindness, misunderstanding and hate erected by Handke’s critics? Handke is believed to write and reason « against a dominating writing » (M. Wurmitzer, Der Standard, October 11, 2019), which implies also a writing and reasoning against all kinds of submission. His texts interrogate, question, hesitate, doubt. « I feel accountable only to justice », he says, « Or maybe even only to questioning, to report doubts » (A Journey to the Rivers, 1997). He calls himself an « idiot », in the Greek sense of « the one who doesn’t belong to ». And portrays himself as « clumsy », « awkward » (Profil, September 1, 2007), even seeing himself in something like the people of nobodies” (Goodbye to my dreams, 1991: not translated). A proletarian anarchist, a travelling « no one »-Ulysses as a poet? Guided in his thought and behavior by the imperative neither to dominate (others) nor to submit (oneself)? Those who have criticized Handke or still do so may consider all they are objecting to simply as a kind of self-portrait. Could casting doubt on Handke’s personal reputation and personal honor be an attempt to relocate the scandalous ignorance from them to him? Anyway, the scandal is not where they say it is, because everybody is implied, nobody is alone, all are responsible. May we shall one day see another Journey, this time to the countries he spoke about less or not enough; if Handke still wants to fight against a « war which is eternally going on ». Indeed Handke surely deserves his Nobel Prize: He is an extraordinary writer and magician of language and, moreover, one of those sensitive, receptive, conscious and resisting, but also irritable and sometimes impulsive and provoking citizens who indicate like a thermometer the fever of the injustices we experience.

Peter Handke, who prefers writing to theory, may not know that he is, implicitly on the trace of Jewish thought, practicing a logic of equivalence of language, of words and signs that is the literary form of the covenant. (The necessary sign or “propaganda” of the covenant [b’rith in Hebrew] is, said in passing, the “circumcision” of seeing, hearing, speaking, loving … as The Old Testament and the Torah say.) However, Handke is certainly even more profoundly impregnated by his readings and translations of the texts of the Greek Antiquity. Why shouldn’t we therefore open our eyes to Handke’s vision beyond domination and submission, to the realm of the inalienable, unwritten but always to be written anew divine rights (of equivalence) and laws (of given liberties) and finally ask the only pertinent question: Does not Handke’s relocating of the focus of the scandal to ethics make him a kind of contemporary Antigone?

Eberhard Gruber is the co-author with Jean-François Lyotard: The Hyphen. Between Judaism and Christianity (translated by Pascal-Anne Brault and Michael Naas), New York, Humanity Books, 1999