The Artist As Provocateur: Handke And Knausgård

As literary spats go, it had auspicious beginnings. On September 21 this year, the Austrian-born playwright and essayist Peter Handke (1942 -) made his way through an irate crowd of protesters assembled outside the National Theatre in Central Oslo, Norway in order to receive the 2.6 million Ibsen Award for ‘extraordinary efforts in the spirit of Ibsen.’ The demonstrators, a significant number of whom were of Norwegian-Bosnian background and had first arrived in Norway as refugees from the civil war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, held up posters labelling Handke as ‘genocide denier’ and there were repeated chants of ‘fascist’ directed at Handke.

There were rhetorical excesses from Norway’s intellectual elite too: A professor of political science from the University of Oslo by the name of Bernt Hagtvet, who is not exactly unknown in Norway for his capacity for rhetorical overkill, likened Handke to Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels [sic] and declared that he was a “henchman for mass murderers.” Øystein Sørensen, a professor of history at the same university, who has long specialized in far-distance psychologizing with McCarthyesque undertones of modern political movements, and who was now in the process of launching yet another book he had edited on that rather unrelated topic, on the spot enrolled Handke in the ignoble traditions of intellectuals with ‘totalitarian inclinations’. Which rather misses the obvious point that Handke – if anything – stands in a classical libertarian-artistic tradition.

Television footage broadcast on the Norwegian state TV channel NRK later that evening showed a middle-aged woman accompanying Handke lashing out at demonstrators and shouting ‘No, no!’ as she and Handke made their way up the stairs to the National Theatre, since its establishment in 1899 the most prominent venue for the performance of dramatic arts in Norway and the venue for regular performances of the plays of Norway’s most internationally famous playwright ever, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). For readers familiar with Ibsen’s plays, it was not hard to imagine Peter Handke as a latter-day embodiment of the central character of Ibsen’s An Enemy of The People (1882), Dr Stockmann, the lone and heroic individual who stands alone against majority opinion. For a playwright who launched his career at the precocious age of twenty-three with the play Insulting The Audience in 1966 in which referred to his audience as inter alia ‘dirty Jews’, ‘Nazi pigs’ and so on, it was perhaps entirely predictable that he himself would end up being insulted by his audience.

The loathing between Handke and the demonstrators outside the National Theatre in Oslo on that rainy afternoon appeared to be mutual, however, demonstrators later reporting that Handke had uttered the abusive words ‘Jebo te miš’  or ‘may the mouse f..k you’ in Serbo-Croatian to the demonstrators as he made his way to the awards ceremony inside. That was a salvo he was to repeat during the awards ceremony itself, when he in his acceptance speech proclaimed from his rhetorical heights that “You, you cowardly men and cowardly women, know, pretend that you know, who the bad ones of this world are, and who the good ones are. And by so doing, you make the world even worse. You are enemies of peace between humans, you are enemies of humanity. You make an eternal contribution to murder. No discussion is possible with you. No dialogue. But it is not your fault. No words provides a remedy against hysteria, a common space is not possible. You are innocent, protected by your hysteria. But it is not your fault. There is no reason to say: Go to hell, for you are in hell, you are hell itself: you are the innocent devils of the postmodern era. All I can assert in your direction, which is not a direction, is: “Jebo te miš” which translated means something to the effect of ‘May the mouse f…k you’.

If these statements actually come across as somewhat Manichean, in spite of the speaker’s repeated assurances that he is actually arguing against the Manicheanism of ‘mainstream’ ‘popular’ opinion as refracted through the media and politics in our era, that is of course an entirely correct observation. It was therefore more than a bit paradoxical that one of Handke’s most passionate defenders among Norwegian literary critics, who perchance also happens to be the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s main and long-term courtiers among them, one Tom Egil Hverven of the leftist daily newspaper Klassekampen, in a patently absurd contribution to the literary spat (‘Handke’s perspective’, Klassekampen 11.10.14) argued that it was Handke’s detractors in the Norwegian literary field who acted on Manichean impulses and were trying to impose an ‘absolutism’ which Hverven considered ‘alien’ to the core task of literature.

The International Ibsen Awards, which was established by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture and Churches in 2007 is awarded by a committee of seven personalities with a background in Norwegian cultural life appointed by the Ministry on the basis of recommendations from the National Theatre in Oslo, The National Scene in Bergen, the University of Oslo and the municipalities of Skien and Grimstad, small Norwegian towns who figure prominently in Ibsen’s life and biography. The chairperson for the committee which awarded the prize to Peter Handke is one Per Boye Hansen (1957-), who since 2012 has been in charge at the National Opera House in Oslo. The first ever Ibsen Award in 2008 was awarded to Sir Peter Brooks, but the awards have in recent years mainly given to playwrights who write in German or have a prominent artistic profile in Germany: In 2010, the Norwegian playwright and Nobel Prize in Literature candidate Jon Fosse, in 2012 Heiner Goebbels and and now Peter Handke. It would therefore not be an entirely unreasonable assessment to point out that the Ibsen Award has so far been a remarkably Eurocentric, if not Germanocentric, affair. The reactions to the Ibsen Awards to Handke appears to have caught the Ibsen Award Committee quite off guard: Boye Hansen limited himself to pointing out in a short letter to the editor to a mainstream Norwegian newspaper and – in the face of much public criticism – that Handke was a “worthy award recipient” and that “Handke’s political opinions did not disqualify him from the award.”

When these public reactions should not have come as much of a surprise to anyone, and least of all the Ibsen Award Committee itself, it was of course due to the fact that even in Germany, where Handke has a much larger readership (he is published by Suhrkamp, one of the most prestigious German publishing houses; his works have hardly been translated into Norwegian), Handke’s long-standing public expressions of support for Serbian ultra-nationalists have been the subject of public controversy. In 2006, Peter Handke in a rather melo-dramatic public gesture refused the prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize after it became clear that the Düsseldorf City Council would refuse to ratify the prize committee’s decision to award the prize – given in honour of writers who have “furthered social and political progress” and “spread an appreciation for human solidarity” – to Handke.

And so it was left to Peter Handke’s Norwegian publisher, the perhaps most well-known and internationally celebrated Norwegian novelist of our age, Karl Ove Knausgård (1968 -) of My Struggle- fame, to spring to Handke’s defense. Knausgård has used some of the revenues he has earned from that series, which has won him critical acclaim in the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker to establish the small independent publisher Pelikanen. And Knausgård certainly took to the high-minded rhetorical heights in so doing. In a two-page interview with the Norwegian weekly newspaper Morgenbladet, which caters to a well- educated middle-class intellectual audience, published on September 19 2014 under the title ‘Knausgård’s defense of Handke’, Knausgård declared that he was “deeply ashamed over the reactions to Handke” in his native Norway, placed Handke in a tradition of some of the more famous contrarians of modern Austrian literature (Thomas Bernhard) and whilst en passage “reminding” Norwegians that Handke had personally “never killed anyone” (as if anyone of Handke’s Norwegian critics had ever claimed that he had done so!) and asserted that “Handke is not for sale. There are hardly any other authors I can say this about.” In his award speech to Handke, delivered at a ceremony in the town of Skien (Ibsen’s birthplace) on September 22, Knausgård by and large evaded the question of Handke’s long-standing record of statements and writings in support of Serbian ultra-nationalists by in act of poetic abstraction strangely similar to that of Handke’s own tactics on these issues skirts over fundamental questions relating to human culpability and responsibility for acts of warfare which led to the brutal death of 100 000 people and displacement of  2 million people from 1992 to 1995. According to Knausgård, Handke’s polemical pro-Serbian tract A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia from 1996, which Knausgård makes ever so brief reference to, “Handke also tries to fill ‘Serbia’ with something else which is as true and as important because it is human, belongs to reality just as the other facts do.”

Knausgård does not even bother to register that this is the very book in which Handke alleges that Bosnian Muslims had ‘staged’ their own massacres in Sarajevo and blamed it on the Serbs, and denied that the massacre of an estimated 8000 Bosnian civilians at the hands of Serbian paramilitary forces led by General Ratko Mladić at Srebrenica in 1995 had ever taken place. Fortunately, we do have authors who have written about the Srebrenica massacres in less poetic and evasive terms than Handke and his defender Knausgård. In Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, one of the standard works on these massacres, Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Booth writes that “the massacre that followed the Serb take-over of Srebrenica must count as the largest single war crime in Europe since the Second World War. Between 6 and 16 July 1995 the Serbs seized the Srebrenica safe area, expelled 23,000 Bosnian Muslim women and children and captured and executed thousands of Muslim men.”       

Post- war Bosnia is in the eyes of the Handke who writes in 1996 a ‘Muslim state’ – and how helpful for would-be peacemakers and reconciliators in the Balkans is not this characterization? In 1996, Handke travels to Srebrenica, to Višegrad and to Pale. In Pale, the Bosnian-Serb enclave which serves as the headquarters the president of the Republika Srpska, the poet-psychiatrist Radovan Karadžić (1945 -) who has since 2008 been at the International Criminal Tribunal For the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague in the Netherlands charged with genocide for the role he is alleged to have played in directing the Srebrenica massacre a little more than one year earlier, he meets Karadžić, and hands him a dedicated copy of his book A Journey to the Rivers. In an interview with Dagens Næringsliv published on September 20 2014, Handke asserts that he “wanted to listen to Karadžić.” But “listening” was of course not the only thing Handke did. Handke, “an apologist for Serbian aggression with a difference” in the words of Michael McDonald “went so far as to accept Milosevic’s overriding myth of Serb suffering”

He became a regular guest on Serbian state television, and asserted during the internationally-brokered peace negotiations at Rambouillet in France in 1998 that the suffering of the Serbian people in the course of the 1990s could be likened to that of the Jews in European history. He later retracted and apologized for this statement. But his basic conceptions of the Bosnian war remain quite unchanged. As the interview with Dagens Næringsliv made perfectly clear, Handke still believes in the historical revisionist view that the Srebrenica massacre was ‘caused’ by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries “avenging themselves” on Bosnian Muslim civilians as a result of  Bosnian Muslim military incursions in Bosnian Serb- controlled villages around Srebrenica. That version of events finds no support in any serious scholarly work on the Srebrenica massacre. In a long and poetic essay first published in German in 2005 and later published by Suhrkamp as Die Tablas von Daimiel, Peter Handke recounts a visit to Slobodan Milošević at the ICTY in The Hague in The Netherlands in 2004. Here, in a breathless passage, he renders the Balkan Wars of 1992-1995 as a “machine from hell which was unstoppable.”

Poetics here serves the useful function of obscuring basic understandings of who did what, when and for which purposesIt is estimated that 90 % of the war crimes in the period was in fact committed by Serbian forces, and the historical and scholarly record leaves no doubt about the involvement of Serbian and Bosnian Serb politicians in central roles. Outside the literary ivory towers, that is not a deus ex machina, and never was. The fact of the matter, as Handke amply reveals in other passages and statements, is that for Handke, who had inherited a passionate Yugo-nostalgia from his Slovene-born mother who committed suicide when he was still a teenager, the Balkan Wars ‘resulted’ from an alleged attempt by the great powers (EU, USA) to ‘carve up’ Yugoslavia after the fall of Communism. And so for Handke, Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006) and his cohort of post-Communist politicians who whipped up nationalist sentiment in order to preserve what remained of power, were cast in the role as the long-suffering ‘saviours’ of the very idea of Yugoslavia.

If Knausgård had in fact limited himself to defending the Ibsen Award to Handke on purely artistic grounds, there would be little grounds to criticize him for it. But that was in fact not what Knausgård did. For it appears that Knausgård wanted much more than this, and was willing to use his stature as a bestselling and internationally acclaimed Norwegian novelist to cleanse Handke of any moral charges relating to the latter’s long-standing record of support for Serbian ultra-nationalists. It is clear that Knausgård regards Handke as the proverbial ‘seer’, the artist and writer who dares express ‘truths’ that no one else dare express, a contrarian who is unflinching in the face of both power and public opprobrium. What this rather misses is that in the context of Serbia in the 1990s, Serbian nationalist intellectuals were very much on the side of power – the Slovene-born Slavoj Žižek having once memorably described them as forming part of a ‘military-poetic complex’ –

In this context writers of everything from children’s to adult fiction to philosophical work  voluntarily enrolled themselves in the production of systematic and state-supported hate speech directed at Muslims, as distinguished scholars who unlike Knausgård actually knows something about the political and historical context and the Serbo-Croatian language, such as Michael Sells and Norman Cigar among others have amply documented. Knausgård went on a rhetorical rampage in a series of no less than four op-ed articles in the liberal tabloid newspaper VG, in which he characterized the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s pointing out that Handke’s statements on the Bosnian civil war amounted to historical revisionism as “serious and insinuating claims”, and for good measure added a patronizing comment to the effect that those who had read the op-ed to which he responded, which had been penned by the Helsinki Committee’s Aage Borchgrevink, also known as an author and literary critic with long experience from the Balkans “would surely understand why Peter Handke is a Nobel Prize candidate, and why the author Aage Borchrgrevink isn’t, and never will be.”

As for Peter Handke delivering a eulogy at Slobodan Milošević’s funeral in the latter’s hometown of Požarevac in 2006 in front of an audience of 20,000 Serbian nationalists, this was according to Knausgård “doing what an author ought to do, [namely] to ask questions.” According to Handke’s own rendering of that speech, he asserted with usual poetic flourish to the crowd that “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.” It does of course take a world-acclaimed author to understand that Handke here engaged in the critical task of asking ‘critical questions’; it remains unlikely that we will ever know whether any of the 20,000 Serbian nationalists attending Milošević’s funeral ever heard and understood the immense critical depths of Handke’s ‘question.’ Knausgård ratcheted the temperature up even further, but ‘demanding’ that the Helsinki Committee and the Norwegian PEN Association initiate proceedings against Handke in some European court if they were serious about their allegations.  By now, declared Knausgård, “their attack on the writings of Peter Handke has already become a free speech scandal.”

Knausgård then went on to insinuate that there might after not have been all that much in the charges the ICTY brought against Milošević, since we will not know what would have become of the trial, given Milošević’ death before the trial could be completed in 2006. And so, then, we ended up once more with the trump card that the doxa of free speech accords any libertarian artist-provocateur in the current Norwegian social and political context, and with Knausgård rounding off by declaring to all and sundry in a newspaper interview with Dagsavisen that an author ought to have the right to say “what the f…k he wants about any f…ing matter.”

That tremendous literary eloquence, of course, will be of precious little comfort to anyone who knows anything about the Balkan Wars and the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, and who thinks that a healing of wounds and peace in that region in our time cannot be grounded on acclaimed Austrian and Norwegian authors’ denial of and relativization of historical facts and truths by shrouding these in Heideggerean postmodernist aesthetics. It is perfectly understandable that to the bereaved and the survivors after the Balkan and the Bosnian War, who still face the contempt that Handke and his Serbian ultra-nationalist friends hardly miss any opportunity to express, this comes across as both grotesque and offensive. The figure that Knausgård invokes here is of course the well-known figure of the artist as an individual endowed with an extraordinary and supernatural right to show his finger at anyone, anytime, and regardless of all consequences. In the context of the Heine Prize controversy over Handke in 2006, Günter Grass said pretty much all that was ever needed to say about this particular rhetorical posture: “What I dislike about the current discussion is the double standard, as if you could grant writers the right to err as a special kind of favour. I have a hard time with granting writers a kind of bonus for genius which excuses their partisanship for the worst and most dangerous nonsense.”

As for Norwegians, we know perfectly well by now that our acclaimed poetocrats – whether their names be Knut Hamsun, Dag Solstad or Karl Ove Knausgård – have been and remain pitiful guides to history and politics, moral and ethics. To “look, listen, feel and remember” in the manner suggested by Handke may be appealing to Knausgård and his literary courtiers – but the rest of us should frankly opt out.


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