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  • Challenging the Arrogance of Power with the Arrogance of Impotence:Peter Handke's Somnambulistic Energy
  • Eva-Maria Metcalf (bio)


In 1967 Peter Handke built himself an ivory tower, and he has resided in it ever since. The theories about language and writing that he exposed in his essay "Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms" have continued to serve as his guiding principles throughout his more than twenty years of authorship. During the last decade, Handke has drifted further and further in the direction of mysticism, which has become the ultimate consequence of his rejection of current nonliterary discourse.

Based on Herbert Gamper's long interview with Handke, Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, and Handke's two most recent works, Das Spiel vom Fragen: oder die Reise zum sonoren Land and Versuch über die Müdigkeit, I will trace Handke's Nietzschean efforts to revalorize words and concepts and along with them the value scale of modern society. His attempts to reach out beyond the thoughtless superficiality of everyday language and the stale realism of the stories dominating modern fiction to a deeper or greater reality by means of a priestly, ecstatic, and often hermetic language have led to rather harsh criticism by those unwilling or unable to duplicate his efforts to rid himself of the shackles of rationalistic discourses. He has been reproached for conservatism and epigonism, and, indeed, the German literary tradition since classicism makes up much of the intertextuality in his works and guides his fundamental approach to writing. This orientation anchors him in modernism rather than in postmodernism. [End Page 369]

Nevertheless, Handke's relationship with tradition is anything but imitative. Rather, it consists of a critical and creative adaptation of this tradition that is not altogether unambiguous. As I will show, Handke's desired manner of writing is an "Erzählen im Erzählstrom, der stets offen und ohne geschichtliche Determiniertheit ist," for which he has created the imagery of somnambulism (Zwischenräumen 139). His aim is to approach writing in a postreflexive, spontaneous state of mind. Like the "Mauerschauer" in Das Spiel vom Fragen, Handke searches for the third path ("der dritte Weg") beyond the either-or confinement of logocentricity. It seems a hopeless, impossible task, but therein lies the challenge, and Handke meets it head on. This paper will investigate what is at stake in Handke's attempt to counteract the arrogance of power displayed in the pervasive and ever-growing dominance of instrumentalized reason and functionalized logic by means of a self-empowering discourse of the powerless.

Like much of modern fiction, Handke's writing centers on the epistemological and ethical question of how the speaking subject can and ought to confront the world. As he turns to his own lived experience for the illustration and inspiration of the philosophical and theoretical discussions of language, writing, and communication, his insights are at once profound and accessible, self-centered and freehanded. Handke's thematic focus mirrors the essential crisis of the modern writer whose role in society has become marginalized. The disappearance of a universally valid, prescriptive formative paradigm uniting society and cultures has pushed the modern writer into an offensively defensive position from which he explores the theme of the alienated and fragmented subject. In the essay "Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms," Handke states clearly:

Ich habe keine Themen über die ich schreiben möchte, ich habe nur ein Thema: über mich selbst klar, klarer zu werden, mich kennenzulernen oder nicht kennenzulernen, zu lernen, was ich falsch mache, was ich falsch denke, was ich unbedacht denke, was ich unbedacht spreche, was ich automatisch spreche, was auch andere unbedacht tun, denken sprechen: aufmerksam zu werden und aufmerksam zu machen: sensibler, empfindlicher, genauer zu machen und zu werden, damit ich und andere auch genauer und sensibler existieren können, damit ich mich mit anderen besser verständigen und mit ihnen besser umgehen kann.


In order to achieve greater sensitivity and self-knowledge, Handke suggests a self-vivisection with the help of language and its signs. With their slippage of meaning, their contingency, and their connotations, however, signs are not sufficiently clean tools for this purpose, and Handke starts the...


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pp. 369-379
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