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  • On The Bull’s Horn with Peter Handke: Debates, Failures, Essays, and a Postmodern Livre de Moi
  • Stephanie Barbe Hammer

The time is past when we can plant ourselves in front of a Vernet and sigh along with Diderot, “How beautiful, grand, varied, noble, wise, harmonious, rigorously colored this is!”

(Lyotard, “Contribution to an Idea of Postmodernity”)

What a wise and beautiful book . . . .

(Erich Skwara’s review of the Essay on Fatigue)

Today what subject would the great metaphysical narrative tell about? Would it be the odyssey and for what narratee?

(Lyotard, “Contribution to an Idea of Postmodernity”)

We are dealing with another one of those postmodern texts in which a funky object de pop-art serves as the pretext for self-reflexive excursions through the time and space of memory . . . .

(Theodore Ziolkowski’s review of the Essay on the Jukebox)

Autobiography is abject unless, in the words of Michel Leiris, it exposes itself to the “bull’s horn.”

(Ihab Hassan, “Parabiography”)

This essay obeys two imperatives;1 it is being torn in two directions: a critique of Handke’s critical reception as it pertains to the postmodern and a close read- ing of Handke’s recent Essay Versuch) series. I will allow my text to tear, and rather than suturing it together, I display, in advance, the wound that cannot—at least in this space—be closed. As a tribute to and as a critical apparatus for Handke, I will allow it to split, to be uncertain, to be ambivalent. This move will court failure and ensure insufficiency, but it might “correct” the flatness of most Handke criticism: the thematic studies, the stylistic studies, the countless influence studies on him, and more insidiously, the frequent, incestuous comparisons of him with himself. I will try to show that, for the most part, the articles and books on him cannot understand his work because they would master it (with all that such a term implies), and as Handke’s texts resist such hermeneutic sub- jugation, his critics have often descended either to righteous indignation or into summary and description2 —colorless repetitions of the objects which they want to comprehend but cannot fasten upon. Can one surrender without submitting to the writing of Peter Handke? Can one’s own writing on him allow itself to be gored by his textual challenges to authority and reconstitute itself through that (fatal? pleasurable?) blow to its own integrity? Perhaps.

In his turning-point exercise of the mid 70’s, The Weight of the World Das Gewicht der Welt), Peter Handke exerted a renewed resistance to the narrative tyrannies of form, which he at once invoked and subverted in such novels as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and Short Letter, Long Farewell. In Weight he rehearsed the Russian Formalist view of contemporary society gone numb, but rather than just making language “strange”, he exploded the diaristic form (that humble, non-literary history of the every day that anyone can produce) into an elusive encyclopedia of linguistic snippets—autobiographical sound bytes which might contain information, citation, observation, opinion, dream, or memory. Indeed, as several critics have noted (among them Axel Gellhaus and Peter Putz) most of Handke’s output during that decade consisted of narrative forms made difficult by a perceptual loss of one kind or another which they simultaneously narrated and enacted. But The Weight of the World radicalized the problem of narrative; it documented the author’s hardening refusal to tell, and harnessed that refusal to both a utopian dream of a new mythology and an ironic critique of language practices, including and especially his own.

Much critical energy has already been expended on Handke’s evolution during the 60’s and 70’s, so I will not retread that familiar territory here, although I will, inevitably, refer to it. Instead I would examine an apparent problem—namely the fact that, as difficult as Handke’s narrative forms have always been for even the most agile of critical readers, his prose works of the past decade seem, unbelievably enough, to pose even more daunting challenges. As examples of this new difficulty I will read the trilogy (at the time of writing...

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