Peter Handke Nobel Prize controversy: Literature can’t be judged on esthetics alone



Demonstrators protest the awarding of the 2019 Nobel literature prize to Peter Handke in Stockholm, in December 2019.
Stina Stjernkvist/TT News Agency via AP

Ervin Malakaj, University of British Columbia

Austrian writer Peter Handke received the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. The award is for “a writer’s life work,” and Handke has written novels, travelogues, theatre plays, screenplays and poetry.

Hundreds protested the award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall. This was not an isolated protest.

Literature laureate 2019 Peter Handke gives his speech during the Nobel banquet at Stockholm City Hall, on Dec. 10, 2019.
Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency via AP

The announcement of the award generated public uproar.

Handke’s critics say some of his published work has advanced and fuelled genocide apologetics and they point to his choice to speak at the 2006 funeral of Serbian ethno-nationalist politician Slobodan Milošević. When Milošević died, he was on trial facing 66 charges including for crimes against humanity and genocide.

The controversy has spurred long-standing debates about where stories come from, who is responsible for them and what it means as a writer to bear witness to truth — and also, which persons or institutions have the authority to do so.

These events unfolded at a time of rising ethnonationalism across Europe.

Sustained dissent

Handke’s controversial book, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (translated from German), attracted particular criticism.

The publisher of the English-language 1997 translation describes the book on its jacket as both a “sensitive and nuanced meditative travelogue through Serbia,” and a “scathing criticism of western war reporting.”

In the book, Handke writes: “all too many of the reporters on Bosnia and on the war there … are not only proud chroniclers, but false ones.” In his search for a “common remembering” he writes: “To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.”

Handke’s Nobel nomination particularly inflamed journalists and survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in July 1995, during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Various intellectuals, as well as the broader public voiced their dissent about Handke receiving the award on Twitter following the award announcement.

The bigger context is that some perpetrators denied findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (sometimes referred to as the Hague Tribunal, based in The Hague, Netherlands) — and the tribunal documented atrocious strategies to conceal crimes, such as moving mass graves. Denials of the Srebrenica genocide continue today.

Media reported that Emir Suljagić, a survivor of the Srebrenica genocide who wrote Postcards from the Grave, said after the announcement of Handke’s award: “I am in Stockholm to protest the award being given to a man who negates my suffering and the suffering of so many others.”

During a press conference in December, Handke did not provide direct answers to questions about the controversy.

Committee and academy defend decision

In an Oct. 10, 2019, press release, the Swedish Academy announced it had awarded Handke the Nobel for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Following the protests and uproar, both Swedish Academy and Nobel Committee for Literature members defended the decision.

Two academy members wrote in a Swedish newspaper that Handke had “definitely made provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues,” but added: “The Swedish Academy has obviously not intended to reward a war criminal and denier of war crimes or genocide.”

In an op-ed, writing as an individual, one of the members of the committee said Handke in his writing was “radically unpolitical,” according to a story from Agence France-Presse. British Broadcasting Corp. reported that another member said: “When we give the award to Handke, we argue that the task of literature is other than to confirm and reproduce what society’s central view believes is morally right.”

Suhrkamp Verlag, Handke’s publisher, circulated a defence of his work following the controversy, but did not release it publicly, journalist Peter Maass wrote in The Intercept.

Many statements in defence of the award echo earlier French and British 20th century literary criticism.

Evaluating the text’s language alone?

The French philosopher Roland Barthes’s influential 1967 essayThe Death of the Author” served to elevate literary work and its language. Barthes wrote: “It is language which speaks, not the author.”

For French philosopher Michel Foucault, the author is a kind of scribe who commits language to paper. The implication is that the author is writing down the realities of the world outside. In his view, “the function of the author is to characterize the existence, circulation and operation of certain discourses within a society” — meaning, ideas and messaging, as he elaborated in his 1969 essay “What is an Author?

Before them, T.S. Eliot proclaimed in 1919 that writing “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

As feminist literary scholar Cheryl Walker has noted, independence-of-the-text critiques have to a certain extent helped “liberate the text for multiple uses,” like re-reading canonical texts from critical feminist perspectives.

But such critiques have also been at odds with literary traditions on the margins.

Historically, the significance of lived personal and collective experiences have been central features of texts by women, Black, Indigenous and people of colour, queer or transgender writers.

These literatures, their readers and their institutions of criticism have long resisted calls to separate author, text and political or social impact.
They have have asserted either that the personal is political or that perspective is situational — and rejected the notion that literary work can considered unpolitical.

Award fuelled ethnonationalist politics

Critics of Handke’s receipt of the Nobel award challenge the notion that Handke’s literary work can be evaluated apart from its political implications.

Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon has questioned what he calls the academy’s belief in a “literature safe from the infelicities of history and actualities of human life and death.”

PEN America issued a statement decrying the academy’s support for Handke, saying the body is “dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide.”

Among the alarming developments in the Handke affair has been the news that the award fuelled far-right ethnonationalist sympathies.

How or if the Swedish Academy will respond to these developments as the public demands it approach the award more cautiously remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that it will rescind Handke’s award.

But the academy is implicated in this affair no matter what.The Conversation

Ervin Malakaj, Assistant Professor of German Studies, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three things historical literature can teach us about the climate crisis



Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870.

David Higgins, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, University of Leeds

New novels about climate change – climate fiction, or cli-fi – are being published all the time. The nature of the climate crisis is a difficult thing to get across, and so imagining the future – a drowned New York City, say; or a world in which water is a precious commodity – can help us understand what’s at stake.

This is unsurprising in these times of crisis: fiction allows us to imagine possible futures, good and bad. When faced with such an urgent problem, it might seem like a waste of time to read earlier texts. But don’t be so sure. The climate emergency may be unprecedented, but there are a few key ways in which past literature offers a valuable perspective on the present crisis.

1. Climate histories

Historical texts reflect the changing climatic conditions that produced them. When Byron and the Shelleys stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, the literature that they wrote responded to the wild weather of the “year without a summer”.

This was caused largely by the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora the previous year, which lowered global temperatures and led to harvest failures and famine. Literary works such as as Byron’s “Darkness”, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal anxieties about human vulnerability to environmental change even as they address our power to manipulate our environments.

Many older texts also bear indirect traces of historical climate change. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton complains that a “cold climate” may “damp my intended wing” and prevent him from completing his masterpiece. This may well reflect the fact that he lived through the coldest period of the “Little Ice Age”.

Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Skaters, c. 1608.
Rijks Museum

Even literature’s oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC), contains traces of climate change. It tells of a huge flood which, like the later story of Noah in the Old Testament, is probably a cultural memory of sea level rise following the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

These historical climatic shifts were not man made, but they still provide important analogues for our own age. Indeed, many cultures have seen human activity and climate as intertwined, often through a religious framework. One of the ironies of modernity is that the development of the global climate as an object of study, apparently separate from human life, coincides with the development of the carbon capitalism that has linked them more closely than ever.

2. How we view nature

Reading historical literature also allows us to trace the development of modern constructions of the natural world. For example, the Romantic ideal of “sublime” nature, which celebrated vast, dramatic landscapes like mountains and chasms, has influenced the kinds of places that we value and protect today in the form of national parks.

When we understand that such landscapes are not purely natural, but are produced by cultural discourses and practices over time – we protect these landscapes above others for a reason – we can start to debate whether they can be better managed for the benefit of humans and non-humans alike.

Past ideas of ‘sublime’ nature have bled into the landscapes we protect today.
Hendrik Cornelissen/Unsplash, FAL

Or consider how in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the work of nature writers such as Thomas Bewick, Charlotte Smith and Gilbert White played a powerful role in promoting natural theology: the theory that evidence for God’s existence can be found in the complex structures of the natural world. Past literature has also been crucial in disseminating new scientific ideas such as evolutionary theory, which understood natural phenomena as entirely secular. Literature does not just reflect changing views of the natural world; it shapes them.

Studying historical texts helps us to understand how modern cultural attitudes towards the environment developed, which in turn allows us to perceive that these attitudes are not as “natural” or inevitable as they may seem. This insight allows for the possibility that today, in a time in which our attitude towards the environment could certainly improve, they can change for the better.

3. Ways of thinking

Some of the attitudes towards the natural world that we discover in historical literature are contentious, even horrifying: for example, the normalisation of animal cruelty portrayed in books such as Black Beauty.

But we can find more promising models too. Voltaire’s poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, for example, has been used to think about the ethics of blame and optimism in responses to modern disasters, like the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

Reading past literature can also help us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. Samuel Johnson commented of the natural descriptions in James Thomson’s poems The Seasons (1730) that the reader “wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses”. Amid the frenzied distractions of modern life, the work of authors like Thomson, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare can help us to slow down, notice and love nature.

Historical literature can remind us of our own vulnerability to elemental forces. The famous depiction of a storm in King Lear, for example, mocks Lear’s attempt:

In his little world of man to out-scorn
The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.

Shakespeare might appear to aestheticise dangerous weather, but the play reminds us that the storm is far bigger and messier than any human attempt to represent and interpret it.

Lear and the Fool in the storm, Ary Scheffer, 1834.
Folger Shakespeare Library, CC BY-SA

At the same time, literature can remind us of the need to take responsibility for our own impacts upon the environment. We may not want to follow pre-modern and early modern literature in viewing climate change as divine punishment for bad behaviour. But when Milton suggests that it was the fall of man that brought in “pinching cold and scorching heat” to replace the eternal spring of Eden, his narrative has clear figurative resonance with our present crisis.

Historical literature can show us how writers responded to climate change, trace how they influenced modern ideas about nature, and reveal valuable ways of relating to and thinking about nature. The climate crisis cannot be addressed only through technological solutions. It also requires profound cultural shifts. To make those shifts requires an understanding of past ideas and representations: both those that led to our current predicament and those that might help us address it.The Conversation

David Higgins, Associate Professor in English Literature, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’m a novelist – and this is why I choose middle-aged women as the heroes of my crime thrillers



Motortion Films via Shutterstock

Emily Bernhard Jackson, University of Exeter

Mystery is the bestselling genre in literature. Crime/mystery fiction, to give the genre its full title, beats inspirational, science fiction, horror and apparently even romance to take the top spot.

And why not? There’s someone for everyone in crime/mystery – elderly lady sleuths, amateur Palestinian sleuths, professional Belgian sleuths, thoughtful Scottish police officers, embittered Scottish police officers, damaged Irish police officers, weary Scandinavian police officers, former army officer detectives, amateur girl detectives, sad drunk amateur girl detectives. There’s even a detective who partners up with a skeleton.

What there doesn’t seem to be much of in mystery fiction, however, is female detectives who begin detecting in middle age (two cases in point: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski was 32 when we began to follow her adventures, while Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta was 36). Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.

But it’s a surprise if you’re a woman in your 40s who is beginning to write mystery novels – which not so long ago I was. And while it’s a cliche that people write what they know, when I decided to write a mystery I entered into that cliche wholeheartedly. I started writing mysteries in my 40s – and I made my detectives two women in their 40s.

Two middle-aged American women and a dead man in a bowl of Vichyssoise.
Amazon

But while I designed my detectives in part to mirror myself, I also chose their age for entirely different reasons. For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.

This decision is a small one, but for me it engaged with a question I’ve long struggled with, the question of what, intellectually, literature is supposed to do. Should it report on the world as it is, or should it model the world as it might – could, should, would – be?

Angry women

Recent fiction may not have been filled with middle-aged women, but it has been filled with angry ones. It’s jam packed with dystopian models of female repression and with women and men implacably set against one other: look at Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. As I began to create my fictional world, I was troubled by the question of whether these outpourings of rage, all justified, all earned, are enough.




Read more:
Review: The Testaments – Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale


In one way this literature is unquestionably good: female rage is something else culture has assiduously avoided considering for centuries, and during those centuries women have been subjugated, silenced, used and abused in ways that deserve outpourings of anger.

The sleuths return.
Amazon

Nor is this landscape of female repression changing quickly, and there is value in forcing it before readers’ eyes. In a recent article for The Guardian about the Staunch Prize, the new award for the best crime/mystery novel that does not feature violence against women, the novelist Kaite Welsh wrote that she wouldn’t “sanitise my writing in service of some fictional, feminist utopia … my work lies in marrying my imagination with the ugly truth”. This is an important argument.

Modeling the future

But while I don’t care about the absence of feminist utopias, I do care about the absence of writing that models the future we want. What will it be like, the world we’re striving for where the playing field is level and men and women are just people being people together? I believe that we can only imagine based on what we’ve seen, and that it’s part of literature’s job to help us see what doesn’t yet exist but could.

For this reason, although I grounded my novels firmly in the present (well, Death in Paris is set in 2014 and The Books of the Dead in 2016), I made some specific choices about that present. In my books, every person in a powerful position is a woman. Department heads and doctors, sources of knowledge and implacable foes: all are female.

More importantly, as far as I was concerned, no one draws attention to that. It’s so normal as to be unworthy of note. Nor does anyone comment on the fact that both my detectives are childless, and one remains happily unmarried in her mid-40s. Both of these detectives are heterosexual, but I made that decision so I could give each a husband or boyfriend who sees them as an intellectual and emotional equal, and for whom that equality is also the norm. The women in my books have and enjoy good sex, and they have and enjoy good conversations – almost none of them about men.

My books are full of oversights and omissions, and I’m far from satisfied with them. But what I aimed to do, and am still trying to do, is to augment the justifiable depictions of anger, the honest depictions of ongoing brutality and violence against women, with a small model that allows for a morsel of hope.The Conversation

Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English, University of Exeter

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.