Peter Handke’s Nobel Win: The Banality of Hypocrisy

The controversy surrounding Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize win has once again raised the question of whether art can and should be disassociated from the artist.
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October 21, 2019 11:26 EDT

Nobel Prizes are not what they used to be. This is particularly true when it comes to literature. Who, for instance, still remembers that the late Dario Fo, characterized as the “acerbic, anarchic clown of a dramatist,” received the Nobel Prize in 1997? Or, going back into a distant past, who still remembers Pearl S. Buck, Nobel laureate in 1938, whose writings on the lives of ordinary Chinese at the time were dismissed by the literary establishment as “too popular and uncomplicated to be worthy of the Nobel Prize.”

This is certainly not the case with this year’s Nobel laureate, the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who is neither a clown nor shallow. On the contrary. One of Handke’s best-known books, the 1972 “Wunschloses Ungluck” (“Sorrow Beyond Dreams”), deals with the death of his mother who committed suicide in 1971. There is no doubt about Handke’s literary merits. If Handke’s award of the Nobel Prize has provoked strong objection, it is because of his political engagement in the past, namely his position on the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s — which primarily pitted Serbs against Croats, Bosnian Muslims and, finally, Kosovars — and his denial of the Srebrenica genocide in which more than 8,000 Muslim boys and men were massacred by the Bosnian Serb forces.

Handke’s most notorious expression of his pro-Serbian stance was the speech he gave at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader convicted of war crimes, in which he reiterated his conviction that Serbia was the true victim of the most recent Balkan conflict.

The Art and the Artist

The controversy surrounding Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize win has once again raised the question of whether art can and should be disassociated from the artist. The permanent secretary of the Nobel committee seems to say that it should. He noted that it was not “in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.” This is hardly a new question. The Norwegian Knut Hamsun, Nobel Prize laureate in 1920, became an ardent admirer of the Nazis and a supporter of the German invasion of the country, which landed him for a time in a psychiatric hospital after the war.

Ezra Pound, the influential American poet who, among other prominent artists, promoted James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence, was a great admirer of Mussolini’s fascism and vehemently attacked the Allied forces. Being an artistic genius, it appears, does not necessarily go well with reasoned political opinion. But then, why should we care what some bohemian literatis thinks?

In the past — and I speak here as a German — there seems to have been a sense that eminent writers like Heinrich Boll (Nobel Prize 1972) and Gunter Grass (1999) represented some kind of moral authority. With the very belated revelation that, in his younger years, Grass had been a member of Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS, this notion has been irreversibly shattered, giving way to the cynicism which informs much of today’s discourse of morals and ethics, largely seen as a thinly veiled hypocrisy.

To make things worse, hypocrisy seems to have become one more aspect of today’s culture wars. Take for instance, highly objectionable behavior on the part of prominent public figures. There is little to be said any longer about the great lengths President Donald Trump’s defenders have gone to excuse and downplay his crass words about women — and these defenders include evangelical Christians. At the same time, left-wing icons, such as Bill Maher, went out of their way to defend Al Franken, Democratic senator from Minnesota, accused of sexual harassment.  

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The most egregious example of this kind of hypocrisy was the response to Bill Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky. Gloria Steinem, the icon of American paleofeminism, set the tone when she proclaimed — in an op-ed piece in The New York Times which prominently featured the notion that “It’s not harassment and we’re not hypocrites” — that even if the allegations of sexual misconduct were true, “the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb, and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life.”

The allegations were true, and Gloria Steinem was wrong, which did not prevent her, a decade or so later, from suggesting that young women who in 2016 supported Bernie Sanders against Hilary Clinton did so because that’s where the “boys are with Bernie.” A couple of years later, with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s numerous acts of sexual harassment, the chickens came home to roost. It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that Weinstein was good friends with both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. In any event, as an article in The Atlantic has pithily put it, “Stay loudly and publicly and extravagantly on the side of signal leftist causes and you can do what you want in the privacy of your offices and hotel rooms.” Unfortunately, Weinstein misread the signs of the time and paid the ultimate price.

An Empty Lesson

There is a lesson here somewhere. It goes something like this: No matter what “our guy” does, as long as he does “our thing” — like, in the case of Trump, appoint somebody to the Supreme Court who might help overturn Roe v. Wade — it’s okay. Or, as the German saying goes, Wenn zwei das Gleiche tun ist es noch lange nicht dasselbe — when two people do the same thing, it is far from the same thing. Which gets us back to Peter Handke.

Today’s critics seem to have forgotten that in 2006 Handke was nominated to receive the prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize, sponsored by the city of Düsseldorf, because, or so the prize committee argued, Handke, as the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine before him, “obstinately pursues a path towards open truth.” What? Then as now, the award decision provoked a controversy. Among those defending Handke was Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s best known feminist who lauded his “courageous opposition to the political mainstream.”

At a time when Serbia was subject to “general demonization,” the author “risked positioning himself against the one-sided allocation of blame,” Schwarzer had said of Handke at the time. Two years ago, Deutsche Welle called Alice Schwarzer “Germany’s most famous women’s rights activist.” Two years before that, German public television had shown a documentary about the life of a young man, born to a Muslim Bosnian woman who had been one of the roughly 25,000 victims of systematic mass rapes committed by Serbs in various “rape camps” during the war.

At about the same time Handke was to receive the Heine Prize, the Comedie-Française decided to cancel its scheduled performance of one of Handke’s plays, citing the author’s presence at Milosevic’s funeral. The decision was met with criticism on the part of a number of well-known artists, among them Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature and outspoken feminist, who denounced the decision as an act of censorship. Not surprisingly, Jelinek expressed her elation when Handke was awarded this year’s Nobel, going so far as to say that he should have received it before her.

Handke, Schwarzer and Jelinek have at least one thing in common — their rebellious nature, their drive to break taboos, their inclination to swim against the mainstream and to shock, to stand up against political correctness and hypocrisy, to do what the French call épater la bourgeoisie. Elfriede Jelinek, for instance, was for many years the object of open hatred in her home country, provoked by her acerbic exposure of the hypocrisies informing Austria’s postwar society. The response to her receiving the Nobel Prize was largely met with irritation.

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The reaction was hardly unusual, by the way. Take, for instance, the case of Helmut Qualtinger. His satirical monologue, “Der Herr Karl” (“Mr. Karl”), a devastating critique of a certain mentality characteristic of the ordinary cowardly opportunist, who will lick anyone’s boots as long as there is something to be gained, was at one time Austria’s enemy number one. When Austria’s public television showed it in 1961, it provoked a scandal, with numerous viewers charging that “Der Herr Karl” was an insult to the population. Obviously, Qualtinger hit a nerve, and the people did not like it.

Interestingly enough, the reaction to Handke receiving the Nobel Prize were quite different. The Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, who hails from the Green Party — which, by the way, stands for human, and particularly women’s, rights, as well as for peace and multicultural diversity — welcomed the decision, declaring that this was a “happy day for Austrian literature, for literature in general.” The Austrian chancellor, Brigitte Bierlein, expressed her pleasure noting that the prize was “well earned.” And the Austrian-Jewish Russian-born writer and refugee advocate Julya Rabinowich tweeted that after hearing of Handke’s award, she had felt the same way football fans felt when their favorite team scored a goal.

No wonder this is the age of cynicism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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