Perspectives | Human Rights

A betrayal of literature

By - 16.10.2019

How and why the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded Peter Handke.

Honoring the Austrian writer Peter Handke with the Nobel Prize for Literature shook the entire world. Many are now talking about Handke and the Swedish Academy these days, including laymen and those knowledgeable in the field of literature.

The case is most definitely rather delicate, and the broad public reaction to this Nobel Prize Committee’s decision is therefore completely understandable.

In a certain way, the realm of literature was abandoned at the adoption of this decision. 

In more specific terms, issues relating to the Nobel Prize and its original purpose have been brought into question. This is in the context of the Swedish Academy rewarding a writer who sacrificed his talent in order to adhere to the murky ideology of Serbian nationalism in the 1990s and its leader, Slobodan Milošević — as well as the fact that Handke has openly denied the Srebrenica Genocide, the Siege of Sarajevo, and crimes committed by the Serbian forces during the wars.

The passing of time has ruled that Hamsun’s work is an unavoidable part of world literature history, and that with his novel “Hunger,” he revolutionized the modern novel.

There is a long history of controversial decisions in awarding this prize, but it seems that the decision to reward Handke with the most prestigious literary award in existence has completely decredibilized the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was also awarded to the controversial Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. However, Hamsun received this award before becoming a quisling and endorsing Hitler, and prior to handing his prize over to Goebbels himself in Berlin. After the end of World War II, readers in his homeland returned Hamsun’s books to his home address, demonstrating their protest against the writer’s Nazi sympathies. 

Later on, Hamsun sought to make amends through his later novel titled “On Overgrown Paths,” but he remained a stained writer for a long time. However, the passing of time has ruled that Hamsun’s work is an unavoidable part of world literature history, and that with his novel “Hunger,” he revolutionized the modern novel.

The difference between Hamsun and Handke is that the Nobel Prize Committee couldn’t have known in 1920 that Hamsun would fall for Hitler, but the Nobel Committee in 2019 was very well aware of the choice Handke made during the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s. This is the difference that must not be overseen when discussing this decision by the Swedish Academy.

It is an indubitable fact, which many esteemed literary theoreticians and critics have expressed in the past, that Peter Handke is a great writer who introduced many authentic elements into the European prose of the second half of the last century. It is also an indisputable fact that the Nobel Committee awarded Handke for a certain period of his literary work — the 60s, 70s and 80s.

However, in reaching this decision, if we consider the global impact of awarding a Nobel Prize, as well as the ethical background that a man who receives such a reward must possess, the Swedish Academy had to take into consideration the reputation of the person they are awarding — even if they have never done so in the past.

A writer as such isn’t predetermined by anything, no matter the status of his literary work, to be a good person. Nothing predetermines him to be morally and ethically superior, no matter what he writes about. A writer can be hateful, unpleasant, vindictive and aggressive, while many contradictions between the work and the author can be justified by art and extravagance.

However, despite this, if we know that the art of literature should direct the attention of the world toward all murderous ideologies, every kind of repression against the individual and groups of people stemming from murky ideologies that dehumanize the human being, then it becomes all too clear why it is problematic to award a Nobel Prize for Literature to a man such as Handke.

The writer needs to be on the side of the human, because otherwise his work becomes a cenotaph.

In this sense, many will justify Handke’s involvement in the defence of the crimes of Serbian nationalists by his “extravaganza,” his anti-globalist defiance against the West he sought to confront, choosing a position in defense of the outsider party. However, if we read through Handke’s books in which Serbia is the main character — while these did not factor into his award, they say a lot about the writer — we can easily see that ideology in this sense, as many times before, has devoured and banalized the talent.

This is why, in the case of the Austrian writer, we cannot ascribe the author’s legitimization of crimes to his “extravaganza.” 

Danilo Kiš, a giant of Yugoslav literature, spoke about po-ethics, about the frameworks within which a writer shouldn’t only be talented but also ethical, meaning that he must confront and speak against the evil that can be found in the world surrounding him.

However, there is no “extravaganza” in killing people. The writer needs to be on the side of the human, because otherwise his work becomes a cenotaph.

Or, as Mirnes Sokolović, a literary theoretician and critic from Bosnia and Herzegovina, explained in his article on Handke, “All these provocative sentences, standing on the crime side, have a completely different and a hundred times more devastating effect in public, when they refer to the particular event, a current war, in comparison to a mere neoavanguardia provocation, peaceful, non-binding, declamatory, as is the case with all other art works published until then.” 

Hence, Handke is a writer who betrayed art, by standing on the side of crimes and criminals, by legitimizing them. He made it clear that he isn’t interested in art that enriches the world, but in ideological murkiness destroying human lives.

How else can we interpret Handke’s character, if we bear in mind the fact that the writer Handke strolled through Srebrenica and used his travelogue to deny the “propaganda” of the killings, immediately after the Srebrenica genocide was committed, where Mladić’s forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniaks.

If he truly had good intentions toward the Serbian people and its culture, he would stand on the side of the writers who resisted evil.

This isn’t a writer who should, no matter the importance of his work, be an example for anything. We can separate Handke’s work from his shameful actions. But as for Handke as a writer, we cannot grant him amnesty for his choice to agree to use his position as an intellectual to justify genocide.

A particular betrayal of literature by Handke, and another reason for which the writer should not have been awarded this global literary award — since it would need to involve a minimum of ethics, regardless of the grandeur of the work itself — is that while Handke was supporting Milošević and his satrapic nationalist schizophrenia, he simultaneously supported the persecution of many of his fellow writers.

Siding with the nationalist literary unit gathered around the duo of pro-Milošević Serbian writers Dobrica Ćosić and Matija Bećković, which produced nationalist pamphlets calling for war and slaughter —  instead of standing side by side with Radomir Konstantinović, Bora Ćosić or Mirko Kovač who opposed the Serbian nationalist barbarism that satanized and attacked them Handke clearly showed that he was no longer interested in postmodernist phrases but in a bloody knife.

If he truly had good intentions toward the Serbian people and its culture, he wouldn’t have agreed to be the mascot of the Slobodan Milošević’s ideology of slaughter, but would stand on the side of the writers who resisted evil and defended the civilizational achievements of our world as unquestionable.

Author and anthropologist Svetlana Slapšak describes this relation between Handke and Serbs like this: “What remains important and certain, most objectively, is Handke’s statement about the happiness of Serbs when they heard the news about him receiving the reward,” she writes, adding that “grief arises which speaks ill of Handke’s understanding of things, and indirectly, about his literature.”

She argues that he is ultimately betraying Serbs too. “By performing one stupid move, Handke erases all Serbs who don’t correspond to his imagery of Milošević,” she writes. “Those others don’t exist for him. What I see in there is a flatulence of the colonizer, a self-proclaimed saint of a small nation that has somehow opposed the grand powers, and who defends the small criminal and his accomplices, having all the criminals under his wing,” she writes. “That this is clearly a serious lack of sane mind is evidenced in Handke’s praise of the ‘courage’ of the Swedish Academy that still chose him,” she concludes.

After all this, a dilemma remains: How could a writer who wrote the script for Wenders’ masterpiece of a film, “Wings of Desire,” become such a political villain and idiot? The answer isn’t very complicated.

Where the writer agrees to be governed by an ideology, whatever it may be, their talent is reduced a step at a time, ultimately evaporating. What remains is an undefined mash of a former mind.

In the area of former Yugoslavia, there is a whole range of similar writers and zombie-like intellectuals who have committed ritual suicide of their own art due to their conformism, thereby murdering their integrity. They sold out for a wretched carnivorous carnival of blood and crime, becoming accomplices.

The motivations behind the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision aren’t all that blurry. Last year’s sexual scandal had to be mitigated by some larger scandal.

“What did Peter Handke do to infuriate people to remember him badly even after they forgave everyone else?” writer Miljenko Jergović asked in an article. We can give him this response: He acted as a crouching clown, a reckless child in front of a rollercoaster, on the side of Slobodan Milošević, blowing into his extravagant anti-globalist balloon, while people killed were being buried in mass graves, in the course of the Srebrenica genocide, right behind his back.

Bora Ćosić’s words in an article about Handke in 2006 could serve as a response to Jergović: “It still remains unclear how a significant number of reputable, smart, and respectable persons see Handke as some kind of victim, a martyr, a Saint Sebastian of contemporary literature

This is how his defenders gather voluntary contributions in the form of condolences, their piggy bank for church charity is filled up by humanitarian trifles as if their protégé (who wishes to become a tutor) is suffering under the chains of some repressive regime, as if he is in custody of some totalitarian community, in some psychiatric asylum, although he is completely mentally sane. One could think that Peter Handke is an inhabitant of Brezhnev’s Russia, that he is struggling in a Cuban prison of Fidel Castro, that he is transporting rocks in a Stalinist concentration camp somewhere in Kolyma.”

After all, the motivations behind the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision aren’t all that blurry. Last year’s sexual scandal had to be mitigated by some larger scandal. This goal has been fully reached. Handke has achieved the intended effect.

Due to an outburst of reactions to the Austrian writer, no one will remember that in the year when the prize wasn’t awarded due to a sex scandal, the Nobel Prize for Literature was retroactively awarded to a woman, the author Olga Tokarczuk. We won’t be addressing the issue of the status of women in patriarchal European societies again. It seems that this is of little interest to anyone, especially to the Swedish Academy.

I will conclude this article with the words of Slavoj Žižek, who spoke to The Guardian on the occasion of Handke and the Nobel Prize, sharing an illustrative thought about the times we live in: “In the year 2014, Handke had called for an abolition of the Nobel Prize, stating that it is a ‘false canonization’ of literature

The fact is that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature proves that he was right. This is the Sweden of the present: a war crime apologist who receives a Nobel Prize, while this country was fully involved in the media slander against a hero of our time, Julian Assange. This is what our reaction should be: no Nobel Prize for Literature to be awarded to Handke but a Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to Assange.”

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0