Peter Handke’s Nobel win is the latest in a series of unfortunate incidents surrounding the Nobel prize in literature, from the weird decision to give it to Bob Dylan in 2016 to last year’s sexual assault scandal. When Handke called for the prize to be abolished in 2014 he said it was a ‘false canonization’ of literature. The fact that he has now won it proves he was right.
This is what Sweden is today – if the Nobel committee had any courage they would give the peace prize to Julian Assange (one of the true heroes of our time), yet instead they would rather honor an apologist for genocide.
This is the most recent sign of what Robert Pfaller called the ‘interpassivity’ of Western leftists: they like to be authentic through an Other who lives authentically on their behalf. For years Handke interpassively lived his authentic life, freed from the corruption of Western consumerist capitalism through Slovenes (his mother was Slovene): for him, Slovenia was a country in which words related directly to objects (in stores, milk was called ‘milk’, avoiding the pitfall of commercialized brand-names, etc.). Slovenia’s independence and willingness to join the European Union have unleashed in him a violent aggressiveness: he dismissed Slovenes as slaves of Austrian and German capital, saying they sold their legacy to the West. All this because his interpassive game was disturbed, i.e. because Slovenes no longer behaved in the way which would enable him to be authentic through them. No wonder, then, that he has turned to Serbia as the last vestige of authenticity in Europe, comparing Bosnian Serbs laying the siege on Sarajevo with Native Americans laying siege on a camp of white colonizers.
In short, as Gilles Deleuze put it, ‘si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutu!‘ (‘If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked!’): we Slovenes were trapped in Handke’s dream, expected to live according to it. The supreme irony of all this is that he has chosen as his authentic Other which enables him to cling to his Yugoslav nostalgia Milošević, the very politician most responsible for the death of Yugoslavia.
In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the ‘silent weaving of the spirit’: the underground work of changing the ideological coordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then suddenly explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in ex-Yugoslavia in the 70s and 80s, so that when things exploded in the late 80s, it was already too late, the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and collapsed in on itself. Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon who continues to walk above the precipice – he only falls down when, finally, he becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his legs. Milošević was the first to force us all to really look down into the precipice. The main agents of this secret corruption were nationalist poets, and to avoid the illusion that the poetic-military complex is a Balkan specialty, one should mention at least Hassan Ngeze, the Karadžić of Rwanda who, in his journal Kangura, was systematically spreading anti Tutsi-hatred and calling for their genocide.
This is why I don’t think one can distinguish political and ethical considerations from literature. Almost a century ago, referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), has become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners) – today, in our era of ethnic cleansing, the same reversal is going on. Even in his most apolitical texts (just recall the puffy poetry of Himmel über Berlin), Handke acted as the first term in the couple of Dichter und Henker. Apolitical ruminations on the complex nature of soul and language are the stuff ethnic cleansing is made of.