The City of Duesseldorf put together an independent jury of politicians and professors to decide whom should receive the Heinrich-Heine Prize, awarded since 1972 to commemorate one of the city’s most famous sons. The jury picked Peter Handke, an Austrian writer, praising his ability to confound public expectations in search of an "open truth." After a weeks-long dispute, Handke yesterday announced (G) that he would turn down the prize, probably ending a literary dispute that’s been filling Germany’s culture pages for weeks.
Like every Austrian writer, Handke hates Austria, but that’s not what made him controversial. His first major work, "Insulting the Audience," was a 1966 "play" in which four nameless characters insult the public for a couple of hours ("You subhumans! You war criminals!") before wishing the audience good night and leaving. But even that didn’t make Handke controversial.
What made him controversial is his stance toward Slobodan Milosevic. Handke, whose mother is Slovenian, visited that delightful country in the early 1990s. He continued through other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and developed a fondness for the people who lived there, especially ordinary Serbs. Throughout the 1990s, he wrote essays and commentaries that were seen as pro-Serbian. When Milosevic was put on trial for war crimes, Handke visited him in the Hague, confessed feeling a certain "closeness" to him, and attacked the war crimes tribunal as an instance of "illegitimate," victor’s justice. He attended Milosevic’s funeral early this year.
I have read several of Handke’s works, including the eerie "Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" and some of his poems, but I’ve never read anything he’s written about Serbia. Handke claims he never downplayed Serbian atrocities, but only wanted to present a counterweight to the self-righteous demonization of Serbia in the European press. He also pointed out that Serbians in various parts of the former Yugoslavia had suffered atrocities at the hands of Bosnian Muslim and Kosovar Albanian groups, a fact which he claims was grossly under-reported. His critics accuse him of presenting a grossly misleading portrait of the situation by avoiding atrocities and relying on a sentimentalized portrait of Serbians as a nation of anarchic, peace-loving misfits.
Germany’s literary intelligentsia knew a fabulous scandal when they saw it. The independent jury nominated Handke in mid-May, while the prize itself could only be finally awarded after approval by the city council on June 22nd. This left a month for all of Germany’s intelligentsia to moisten the pencil-tip and get to work. Journalist Caroline Emcke here (G) says here that Handke’s simpering denials of evil political intent can’t conceal the fact that his writing is pro-Serbian propaganda; Writer Botho Strauss puffs up his cheeks and intones (G) "Whoever cannot recognize guilt and error as the stigmata of greatness (and in extreme cases even its stimulant) shouldn’t have anything to do with real poets and thinkers, only with the ‘correct’ ones." Ulrich Greiner says (G) Handke’s position was wrong, but then, as Heidegger (who should know) said, "He who thinks great things must make great mistakes."
But Handke’s put a stop to all that by withdrawing his name from consideration. No more will he expose himself to the "mobbing of party politicians." It’s really kind of a shame. Round 2 of the European Intellectual Controversy — in which another group of intellectuals comment upon what the first round of intellectuals said — was just about to begin.