- Ding-Bild-Schrift:Peter Handke's Slow Homecoming to a "Chinese" Austria
"Niemand, Fast Niemand, Kann Oder Mag Handke noch weiter auf dem Wege folgen, den dieser nun schon seit mehreren Büchern eingeschlagen hat." This remark by Jürgen Manthey (383) reflects a general trend in the reception of Peter Handke's latest works. Starting with Langsame Heimkehr (1979), Handke's writing has acquired a new tone that, although adumbrated by his preceding works, either surprised or affronted many of his previous readers. Invariably, negative critical response has focused on the subjectivity and solemnity of Handke's new tone. Manfred Durzak, for example, accused Handke of narcissism, criticizing his seeming indifference to literature's social and political dimension. With Langsame Heimkehr, Durzak judges, Handke is "als Künstler abgestürzt" (159). Jörg Drews discovers an attitude of self-ordained priesthood in Handke's recent work and subsumes his writing under "Spielarten des Kulturkonservatismus, Einfaltsromantik und Intellektualromantik" (951, 954). Judgments of this kind are based on textual evidence. Handke's latest works contain archaic and sometimes solemn and absolutist vocabulary. Emphatic words like "Sehnsucht," "Bedürfnis nach Heil," "selbstlose Daseinslust," and "stille Harmonie" seem to celebrate existence rather [End Page 381] than to make it accessible to reason, to lay bare alienation, and to expose the deficiency and imperfection of the world. Instead, Handke seems to enact an absolution of the Word and through it an absolution of the world. This analysis, then, will attempt to elucidate how this absolution can be understood. My view is that Handke's solemn tone cannot be taken at face value but has to be perceived in the context of an aesthetic that is allegorically inscribed in the text. My argument begins not with Handke but with some remarks about criticism of contemporary literature.
Durzak's and Drew's charges against Handke betray a particular naïveté in that they avoid the hermeneutical questions they would be willing to ask when approaching classical or romantic texts, such as: what is a text's use of language, and what is its literary repertoire? What are, in other words, the aesthetic standards to be applied to the text? Only after defining the frame of reference employed by a contemporary text are we able to determine with some accuracy its historical locus and relate it to contemporary social and political realities. Only then are we able to gauge a text's potential simplicity, naïveté, or romanticism. Given the postmodern narratology within which Handke produces, we have to credit his literary work with the potential of being less accessible than it seems to be. This requires further explanation.
Peter Handke's early prose, including his Sprechstücke, are part of the experimental writing of the 1960s neo-avant-garde. Pop-Art, Concrete Poetry, the writing of the Vienna Group, Heissenbüttel's Textbooks, and Arno Schmidt's Zettel's Traum aimed to subvert received notions of literature. They tampered with the textual order of the page, refused to capitalize nouns, and treated linguistic themes in a storyless prose. Like their dadaist and surrealist predecessors, neo-avant-gardists employed formalist innovations in an attempt to blur the line between art and non-art. Thus they aimed to challenge the bourgeois domestication of art in an autonomous but politically irrelevant sphere. However, when all traditional definitions of art were eroded by the virus of avant-garde innovation, formalist innovation lost its function as a work's historical index. Artistic production had reached the point of "anything goes."1
This is the point when postmodernism sets in. In postmodernist literature, both experimental and traditional forms of writing are potentially "avant-garde." (Today experimental theater such as Publikumsbeschimpfung  is integrated into the repertoire and has lost its provocative bite.) The notion of experimental literature has become obsolete for a definition of a work's contemporaneity. The literary work aspiring to be [End Page 382] "avant-garde" is stricken with historical anonymity.2 Deprived of normative aesthetic standards, postmodern "avant-gardism" is doomed to operate in an aesthetic vacuum. If there is no more standard against which the literary work can set itself (and be gauged...