A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
Finding a New Order
"There is almost no language anymore...Most people have no language at all. I believe this language is only poetic language. That is what language means. All other languages are a set of rules, routines. At its best such a language is a routine for living. But normally it is something that kills, and closes in." ('An Interview with Peter Handke') Handke is here talking of languages not in any linguistic sense as one might if we were to say someone speaks three languages: French, German and English. He isn't even talking of dialects either: as someone might speak of regional usage differentiating from the standard language. Handke isn't speaking of poetic language as poetry: he is a prose writer. He won't even be using it to suggest the difference between fiction and non-fiction. The memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is an account of his mother's suicide. So where does this notion of language reside?
To answer such a question would be to falsify the nature of the asking; it would be reducing the poetic to the prosaic: to claim that we can objectively say what it happens to be. Perhaps, however, this notion of language is contingent and subjective: a product of its moment and the perceptions available to the person offering it. In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams it is as though Handke found in his mother's suicide the horrible reality that language in its prosaic sense is "something that kills, and closes in." In releasing language from the prosaic and towards the poetic, can the self be released from its own impending death? One of the two epigraphs opening the book is Bob Dylan's: "he not busy being born is busy dying." Handke's account of his mother's life is of course an account of her demise. It begins with a newspaper report announcing that a fifty one year old woman committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills." This is surely a terrible event that could lead to feelings of immense guilt on the son's part, yet at one moment near the end of the memoir Handke says, flying back to Austria for the funeral: "throughout the flight I was beside myself with pride that she had committed suicide."
Some might insist that such a remark is the height of insensitivity; Handke would be more likely to ask us to see it as radical empathy. Throughout the book he offers an account of a woman who has not been given, or never quite knew how to take, the opportunity to live. Life was always closing in, and language would appear to have a lot to do with it. "And so she was nothing and never could be anything; it was so obvious that there was no need of a forecast. She already said "in my day", though she was not yet thirty." It is statement as clich, but it nevertheless registers the fact of her existence. Most women from a limited, small town upbringing would be able to say the same. As Handke says: "no possibilities, it was all settled in advance: a bit of flirtation, a few giggles, brief bewilderment, then the alien, reined look of a woman starting to keep house again, the first children, a bit of togetherness after the kitchen work...trouble with her legs, varicose veins, mute except for mumbling in her sleep...The girls in our town used to play a game based on the stations in a woman's life." Instead of living. there appeared instead variations on dying. Boredom, illness, non-communication, lovelessness and worry were life's lot, and Handke is merciless in suggesting that suicide was probably the best of the available options.
Yet we shouldn't insist this is Handke's world view, it is the best of all possible worlds within the most limited of environments. Suicide becomes a choice. Handke says "my mother was the next to last of five children. She was a good pupil; her teachers gave her the best possible marks and especially praised her neat handwriting. And then her school years were over. Learning had been a mere child's game...after that a girl stayed at home, getting used to the staying at home that would be her future." He gives us a woman who feels she is without options. What is the choice that no one should be able to take from us, but the one of whether we wish to live or wish to die. When all other options seem closed off, then suicide becomes an act of freedom. In Al Alvarez's book on suicide, The Savage God, he talks of one woman who might have been able to share something of Handke's mother's particular type of despair. "Fanny, aged twenty nine, worked in the building trade and was very unpopular for accepting less than standard wages. In the course of a quarrel, one of the men punched her head. 'All of a sudden I was fed up with life.' She immediately took the rope which she daily used for carrying wood, in order to hang herself." There are no words that can easily describe or explain a suicide's mindset, but that isn't because words are never enough, that in the face of certain experiences language is inadequate. The point might be more that we have the language as an ontological possibility (as an aspect of our potential being), but that doesn't mean it is close to hand.
One reason Handke throughout the book uses stock phrases is to capture an element of his mother's mindset that would seem to be far away from the poetic language the writer insists upon: the language that can augment our being and not constantly dilute it. The casual remarks by the woman who went off to hang herself needn't indicate that we don't have the language to describe our feelings. It might just suggest that we aren't humanly trained in finding it. Handke's mother would seem to have been such a woman, though the attempt was increasingly present as she got older. It would seem the closer she got to suicide, the more she would try and articulate her state. Was this because she could write to her son, someone for whom words were so important? If we so often 'cannot find the words', this isn't always because we cannot find them, but just as much that we cannot find anyone who will receive them. Handke, living elsewhere and writing his own novel, would sometimes get letters from his mother. "Whenever a pleasant thought crops up, a door closes and I'm alone again with my nightmares. I'd be so glad to write something more cheerful, but there isn't anything." Writing of her husband, and Handke's step-father, she says, "when I start a conversation, he doesn't know what I'm talking about, so I prefer to say nothing. I know I ought to find some way of making my life bearable, I keep thinking about it, but nothing occurs to me."
In an essay on Handke's play Kaspar in Campo Santo, G. W. Sebald discusses the title character. Based on the actual case of a young man who had spent all his formative years alone in a cell, Sebald says of Handke's take on the character "what looks like progress is really nothing but the gradual humiliation of a trained creature who, in approaching the human average, begins to resemble an animal gone mad." Yet of course Handke's work cannot be against language; to be against it would be an ontological contradiction: he is working in literature where words are paramount. A painter could dismiss language, a sculptor and even a filmmaker too, and even if they were using words to do so we could see in the art they produced a refusal to acknowledge its existence. How to work against language without rejecting language; how to find in words a freedom from language within language? As his mother adjusted to being with a man she didn't love (Handke's step-father), so she acquired the language of resignation. "And so an emotional life that never had a chance of achieving bourgeois composure acquired a superficial stability by clumsily imitating the bourgeois system of emotional relations, prevalent especially among women, the system in which "So-and-so is not my type but I'm not his", or "I'm his but he's not mine", or in which "We're made for each other", or "can't stand the sight of each other." In such an approach to life and language; "cliches are taken as binding rules and any individual reaction, which takes some account of an actual person, becomes a deviation."
Handke's question in the book is to wonder what sort of language can be found that individualises, that allows someone to speak for themselves aware that the language cannot simply be made up, but that we fit into its structure: the structuralist claim that we don't speak language but that language speaks us. But there are degrees to which language "speaks us", with cliches often speaking for us almost in our absence. If we are to say that it never rains but it pours, after we have lost someone close, if we are to insist that money doesn't grow on trees when it comes to the public finances, or there will always be other fish in the sea after a break up, are we expressing ourselves or hiding from expression? Perhaps we want to be fashionably inexpressive, and use terms like the magic money tree or insist before talking about a film's plot that we have to offer a spoiler alert. The point remains the same: language is very much speaking us.
Handke can't help but accept his mother is not speaking; someone must speak for her in her absence. In the book Handke doesn't retreat from using cliches himself, at least in the English translation, translated by his usual translator, but they work a little like a version of free indirect discourse. Instead of putting his words into her mouth, he puts her words into his book. "At home, of course, she was alone with the FOUR WALLS." "In this life of misery." "Instead of losing herself in her work, she took it in her stride." These would have been phrases his mother would have used, but she probably wouldn't have been unaware of the tiredness of the language; and well aware of the tiredness within her. But his mother "had not been crushed for good. She began to assert herself." Books were making her young again, yet "books to her were only stories our of the past, never dreams of the future: in them she found everything she had missed and would never make good."
A third to half way through the book, Handke offers a series of comments in parenthesis. Here he frets over the twin dangers in writing the memoir. On the one hand, he must speak in generalizations because to talk specifically of his mother "as a possibly unique protagonist in a unique story, can [not] be of interest to anyone but myself." Yet he doesn't want these generalizations to lead to his mother disappearing altogether. "These two dangers - the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming submerged in poetic sentences - have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance." This is partly why we talk of Handke putting his mother's words on the page rather than his words into her mouth: he must find in the book the appropriate language that resurrects her.
The term resurrect is of course a strong word, but we feel that Handke wouldn't be against its use. In an interview with Die Zeit, he says "there is nothing as intimate as the religious prose of John Cheever in his diary." In the same interview, he believes "One of the most beautiful sentences I've read is by John Cheever: telling is not retelling. To tell a story is a revelation. In every story, even if it is very real (i.e. avoiding the word 'realistic'), there must be a revelation. You have to be able to see something other than the canonical. Revelation is telling, even for one who tells. He, too, must be surprised by what he says."
We frequently hear the phrase if someone didn't exist we'd have to invent him. Handke's paraphrase would be that his mother failed to exist and he must resurrect her. Novelists all the time create people who wouldn't exist if they hadn't invented them, yet of course in many instances these figures are in the real world, but not quite in the composite form where characterisation excels. Great literary creations like Miss Haversham, Miss Jean Brodie, Casaubon, Mrs Dalloway, Rastignac and Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom can be found frequently in real life. Astute writing often has the ability not to imagine a character out of thin air, but to accumulate disparate characteristics into a new literary figure. These figures manage simultaneously to remind us of people we know, suggest the period out of which they have come, and carry an element of archetype that indicates the writer has nailed a particular aspect of character. However, in each of the examples we have given, in Great Expectations, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Middlemarch, Mrs Dalloway. Le Pere Goriot and Updike's The Rabbit books, these are fictional characters. They are created not resurrected. Writing a memoir of one's mother's failed life may require skills at least as subtle as those of the novelist, where artistic license needn't be confronted by the limitations imposed by fact and by the ethical constraint of writing about people one knows.
If we use the term resurrection, we do so aware that Handke is bringing back the dead and bringing forth a revelation. Without the revelation there can be no resurrection. This is why the facts won't do, but that doesn't mean Handke must then create fiction; no he must instead generate a surprise in the very writing of the book. In an interview from 1979 with June Schlueter, Handke says: "I don't think I could do a grotesque fantasy or fresco-like representation of society..." "With my greatest effort I can expand myself. I can continue to expand myself. This is my only epic ability." (Studies in Twentieth Century Literature) Writing about his mother's death would be part of that epic ability, that need to find in the most immediate of experiences the most intensive of affects. When several pages before the end, Handke writes "(from this point on, I shall have to be careful to keep my story from telling itself)" there is the danger that the facts will get in the way of the revelation.
We might thus wonder whether Handke would agree or disagree with Carlos Fuentes' claim that "I don't think any good book is based on factual experience. Bad books are about things the writer already knew before he wrote them?" He would be more inclined to rephrase it: bad books are written when no revelation takes places within them. Perhaps the problem with creating great imaginative worlds today would be that the writer might not know where he is going, but that the imagination will take him there. But what if imagination isn't enough? What we take to be the world's greatest literature (of the past let alone the present) is rarely the most imaginative:; it is usually instead the most explorative. By writing a memoir about his mother, by often writing fiction that might seem very close to fact, Handke would appear to be surrendering the imagination to the exploration. He isn't creating a character but resurrecting a person. He isn't creating a vivid fictional world, but revealing specific aspects of this one. Is The Afternoon of the Writer, for example a work of fiction, or Short Letter, Long Farewell? The first concerns a writer who walks around town and the outskirts of an unnamed city. The latter is about an Austrian writer who goes in search of his wife in the US. These aren't autobiographical works, but they seem close to the subjunctive: a hop and a skip away from Handke's own existence.
One reason why a writer will wish to stay close to their own life resides in the worry that to speak for others is already what culture and language happens to be doing to us. The epic tapestry is often our interconnections with other people that can leave us trapped. When Handke speaks of people, and especially his mother at a certain point in her life, he talks of that attempt at clumsily immitating the bourgeois system we have quoted above. One becomes a type, and "being a type relieved the human molecule of his humiliating loneliness and isolation: he lost himself, yet now and then he was somebody, if only briefly." The consequence of becoming a type is that "you floated through the streets, buoyed up by all the things you could pass with indifference, repelled by everything which, in forcing you to stop, brought you back bothersomely to yourself."
The literature that interests Handke is this bothersome selfness: the rigour of individuality. If Fuentes believes that no good fiction can come out of what we already know, Handke would say this has nothing to do with whether or not the writing is based on an actual experience or not, but on the amount of self-revelation that can come out of the material. This has little to do with confession: confession in this sense would be the already known that one chooses to divulge publicly. The guilt someone might feel cheating on their wife, a child admitting to his parents that he stole; a friend admitting that they have lied. A revelation however contains within it the surprise of the telling, and finds, in the telling, individualities that might not be expressable any other way. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says "consciousness does not really belong to man's individual experience but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility." Nietzsche then adds: "consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, "to know ourselves", each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but average." How to escape from this herd mentality?
In a well known essay, Antonin Artaud believed Van Gogh didn't commit suicide; he was suicided by society. We don't take our own life; life is taken from us. The brilliance of Handke's book, and why it is so much more than a factual account, resides in its exploration of a suiciding: of a woman whose life was taken from her by society at an early age, and that she gave back to herself by paradoxically taking her own life. This is partly why we can see Handke's remark about being beside himself with pride as the height of sensitivity. The newspaper report at the beginning of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams will give no more than the facts: it announces a fifty one year old housewife committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills." Handke's purpose is to examine why this bald statement can pass for an objective remark, but contains within it a basic existential assumption Handke must resist. A newspaper report, to put it mildly, hasn't gone through what Handke would call the "verifying creative impulse." (Schueler interview). What can make a piece of writing pass through this process is not the imagination in itself. Many acts of the imagination would not be creative in Handke's sense of the term. Think of all those areas of imaginative literature that nevertheless often use the language of clich and situation: adopting old myths for an easy explanation of modern being. If at one end we have the factual newspaper report, and apparently at the other the 'imagination', where can we find the creative?
Creativity would perhaps exist chiefly with the language. This has little to do with endless rewriting to make one's sentences tighter and sharper, the metaphors more precise and the similes sing. We can come across plenty of journalistic criticism, for example, that is well-enough written: articles in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, London Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement have very fine prose, prose that will aspire to the quality of the fiction published in the same magazine. But it will also frequently possess a regard to thought that makes the language lazy. An example of this is Terry Eagleton saying that "Harold Bloom was once an interesting critic. In the 1970s he developed an extravagant theory of literary creation for which all authors were locked in Oedipal combat with some mighty predecessor": it had "only one drawback, namely that it wasn't true." "But it was, Eagleton insists, "original, audacious and exciting, and a spot of wild implausibility did it no harm at all." (Figures of Dissent) This is writing that knows exactly what it thinks without showing much evidence of thinking. This is writing that often eschews tired wording, but does nothing to counter tired thought. Sitting behind the springy prose is sluggish assumption. Using the language creatively, in Handke's sense, would be to make sure one's thought doesn't become tired; that each sentence isn't endlessly worked over to 'improve it', but looked at carefully to avoid the ready ideas sitting behind it. In another essay Eagleton says: "[Alain] Badiou shares the banal conviction of the post-structuralists he berates that all social consensus is inherently negative, along with the modernist platitude that truth consists in breaking with such tedious traditionalism." This is an Eagleton knows-best approach, with words like banal, tedious and platitude all carrying less the weight of analysis than of authority. Where does the authority of one's sentences reside Handke might ask. How do we justify the words we use as we are using them; how do we escape their authority over us even if we might feel (as no doubt Eagleton does) that he has authority over them?
Here is a passage from A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: "And so the have-nots obediently bought soap with the money provided for that purpose by the progressive authorities. As paupers, they had shocked the official mind with repulsive, but for that very reason palpable, images; now, as a reclaimed and cleansed "poorer class", their life became so unimaginably abstract that they could be forgotten. Squalid misery can be described in concrete terms: poverty can only be intimated in symbols." There is anger in these sentences, and even more in the next one: "moreover, the graphic accounts of squalor were concerned only with its physically disgusting aspect; they produced disgust by the relish they took in it, so that disgust, instead of being translated into action, merely became a reminder of the anal, shit-eating phase." It as if in trying to describe the poverty in which his mother lived, Handke would need to get away from the immediacy of her life towards an abstractness that could incorporate an idea behind it. This is not the clich - which is the generalised notion utilised to escape the singularity of experience. It is instead the first principle that tries to find a way of looking at a problem that doesn't reduce it to the anecdotal. When we noted Handke saying his mother's unique experience in a unique story was only of interest to him, it rests on escaping the anecdotal and finding a way into the first-principled. To try and find a method by which he can say by the end of the book that he took pride in his mother's suicide.
To talk in cliches is of course an approach many use to give their experiences a general character: it never rains but it pours and there are always other fish in the sea might be referring to terrible experiences (to enormous debt in the first instance, perhaps; to the loss of a great love in the second), but the general language of the clich can insulate the person from their own reality, while also giving others a sense of the pain without asking too much from the listener. If sticks and stones are supposed to break bones but names never hurt us, we might think that actually words can break one's spirit if we cannot find the means with which to express them or the interlocutors to receive them. At one stage Handke offers a remark his father made, an older man whom his mother loved but never married (he was married to someone else.) "'Now that I know people, I've come to appreciate animals' he said, not quite in earnest of course." Perhaps the appeal of animals when one is disillusioned with humans doesn't reside in our knowing people but in the very fact that so often we don't. Language becomes this abstract system that means we don't get to know ourselves and fail to understand others. The simplicity of an animal's mode of communication can seem refreshing not because the animal's more honest (what would that mean?), but less meaninglessly alienated from their condition. When near the end of her life Handke's mother would write to her son, there was an intense communicative attempt. "There's a terrible loneliness inside me, I don't feel like talking to anyone. I'd often like to drink a little something in the evening, but I mustn't, because if I did my medicine wouldn't take effect. Yesterday I went to Klagenfurt, I roamed around all day and caught the last local home."
If Handke feels pride at his mother's suicide, it would seem to rest on her attempt at being: that she tried very hard to exist, tried after years of hardship, of marrying a man she didn't love, of living in communities where she couldn't express herself, to be herself. This idea of being oneself might also sound like a clich, and also a begged question (what is oneself?). But if it is a hard question to answer, and a clich to formulate, that doesn't mean we cannot see its manifestation in some and its absence in others. Handke sees his mother trying to be herself; he explores through the book this attempt despite its frequent suppression.
Early on in this short novella Handke says: "And the more fiction we put into a narrative, the more likely it is to interest others, because people identify more readily with formulations than with recorded facts." It is as if he wanted to work from his 'pleasure' at his mother's suicide, the inanity of Fuentes's statement if taken too literally, and to work with the way in which language is always ready to suicide us if we are not careful, or simply unlucky. Handke's mother was unlucky; Handke must be careful. In the Schlueter interview, Schlueter talks of the writers who have changed Handke's consciousness on the world: Kafka, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Kleist, Flaubert, Robbe-Grillet. We might assume that this is for Handke's literature's highest purpose; with the best way of doing so not escaping into flights of vivid imagination, but finding reconfigurations of the everyday. As he says: these narratives and novels really have no story. They are only daily occurrences brought into a new order." In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams this is a new order, however, brought to bear on a mother whose mind could not easily find a narrative she could live with. So how can Handke find one that he can live with after her demise? There is a suggestion at the very end of the book that A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is only a partial answer. "Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail."
© Tony McKibbin