Tuesday, 5 August 2008

notes from Peter Handke's "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams"

Peter Handke
"A Sorrow Beyond Dreams"

Written January - February 1972

"My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks: I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to her suicide."

Some of his words that have made a strong imprint on me:

The worst thing right now would be sympathy, expressed in a word or even a glance. I would turn away or cut the sympathiser short because I need the feeling that what I'm going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real. If anyone talks to me about it, the boredom comes back, and everything is unreal again.

P. 11
When I write, I necessarily write about the past, about something, which at least while I am writing, is behind me. As usual when engaged in literary work, I am alienated from myself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine.

P. 16
For a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly. But perhaps there was one comfort: no need to worry about the future. The fortune-tellers at our church fairs took a serious interest only in the palms of young men -a girl's future was a joke.
No possibilities. It was all settled in advance: a bit of flirtation, a few giggles, a brief bewilderment then the alien resigned look of a woman starting to keep house again, the first children, a bit of togetherness after the Kitchen-work, from the start not listened to, and in turn listening less and less. Inner monologues, trouble with her legs, varicose veins, mute except for mumbling in her sleep, cancer of the womb, and finally, with death, destiny fulfilled. The girls in our town used to play a game based on the stations in a woman's life: Tired / Exhausted / Sick / Dying / Dead.

p. 22
This period helped my mother to come out of her shell and become independent. She acquired a presence and lost her last fear of human contact: her hat awry because a young fellow was pressing his head against hers, while she merely laughed into the camera with an expression of self-satisfaction. (The fiction that photographs can “tell us” anything – but isn’t all formulation, even of things that have really happened, more or less a fiction? Less, if we content ourselves with a mere record of events; more, if we try to formulate in depth? And the more fiction we put into a narrative, the more likely it is to interest others, because people identify more readily with formulation than with recorded facts. Does this explain the need for poetry? “Breathless on the riverbank” is one of Thomas Bernhard’s formulations.)

p. 29
And so she was nothing and never would 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. Until then, she hadn’t resigned herself, but now life became so hard that for the first time she had to listen to reason. She listened to reason, but understood nothing.

p. 32
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, the system in which “So-and-so is 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” – in which clichés are taken as binding rules and any individual reaction, which takes some account of an actual person, becomes a deviation. For instance, my mother would say of my father: “Actually, he wasn’t my type.” And so this typology became a guide to life: it gave you a pleasantly objective feeling about yourself; you stopped worrying about your origins, your possibly dandruff-ridden, sweaty-footed individuality, or the daily renewed problem of how to go on living; 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.
Once you became a type, 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…

p. 35-38
(Of course what is written here about a particular person is rather general; but only such generalisations, in explicit disregard of my mother as a possibly unique protagonist in a possibly unique story, can be of interest to anyone but myself. Merely to relate the vicissitudes of a life that came to a sudden end would be pure presumption.
The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten – like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is literary ritual in which individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext.
These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming and there is hardly anything to think out.
Consequently I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience. From my mother’s life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public.
Accordingly, I compare, sentence by sentence, the stock of formulas applicable to the biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life; the actual work of writing follows from the agreements and contradictions between them. The essential is to avoid mere quotations; even when sentences look quoted, they must never allow one to forget that they deal with someone who to my mind at least is distinct. Only then, only if a sentence is firmly and circumspectly centred on my personal or, ir you will, private subject, do I feel that I can use it.
Another specific feature of this story is that I do not, as is usually the case, let every sentence carry me further away from the inner life of my characters, so as finally, in a liberated and serene holiday mood, to look at them from the outside as isolated insects. Rather, I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my character. And because I cannot fully capture her in any sentence, I keep having to start from scratch and never arrive at the usual sharp and clear bird’s-eye view.
Ordinarily, I start with myself and my own headaches; in the course of my writing, I detach myself from them more and more, and then in the end I ship myself and my headaches off to market as a commodity – but in this case, since I am only a writer and can’t take the role of the person written about, such detachment is impossible. I can only move myself into the distance; my mother can never become for me, as I can for myself, a winged art object flying serenely through the air. She refuses to be isolated and remains unfathomable; my sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper.
In stories we often read that something or other is “unnameable” or “indescribable”; ordinarily this strikes me as a cheap excuse. This story, however, is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror. It is about moments when the mind boggles with horror, states of fear so brief that speech always comes too late; about dream happenings so gruesome that the mind perceives them physically as worms. The blood curdles, the breath catches, “a cold chill crept up my back, my hair stood on end” – states experiences while listening to a ghost story, while turning on a water tap that you can quickly turn off again; on the street in the evening with a beer bottle in one hand; in short, it is a record of states, not a well-rounded story with an anticipated, hence, comforting, end.
At best I am able to capture my mother’s story for brief moments in dreams, because then her feelings become so palpable that I experience them as doubles and am identical with them; but these are precisely the moments I have already mentioned, in which extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness. That is why I affect the usual biographical pattern and write: “At that time… later”, “Because … although”, “was … became nothing”, hoping in this way to dominate the horror. That, perhaps, is the comical part of my story.)

p. 44
Christmas: necessities were packaged as presents. We surprised each other with such necessities as underwear, stockings, and handkerchiefs, and the beneficiary said he had WISHED for just that! We pretended that just about everything that was given to us, except food, was a present; I was sincerely grateful for the most indispensable school materials and spread them out beside my bed like presents.
(me: I remember this and wonder at just what moment presents crossed over into being things we wanted rather than needed?)

p. 47-48
From the first she was under pressure to keep up the forms: in country schools the subject most stressed for girls was called “the outward form and appearance of written work”; in later life this found its continuation in a woman’s obligation to put on a semblance of a united family; not cheerful poverty but formally perfect squalor; and gradually, in its daily effort to up appearances, her face lost its soul.

p. 49-50
No machines in the house; everything was still done by hand. Objects out of a past century, now generally transfigured with nostalgia: nit only the coffee mill, which you had actually come to love as a toy – also the GOOD OLD ironing-board, the COSY hearth, the often-mended cooking pots, the DANGEROUS poker, the STURDY wheelbarrow, the ENTERPRISING weed cutter, the SHINING BRIGHT knives, which over the years had been ground to a vanishing narrowness by BURLY scissor-grinders, the FIENDISH thimble, the STUPID darning edge, the CLUMSY OLD flat-iron, which provided variety by having to be put back on the stove every so often, and finally the PRIZE PIECE, the foot and hand-operated Singer sewing-machine. But the golden haze is all in the manner of listing.
Another way of listing would be equally idyllic: your aching back; your hands scalded in the wash boiler, then frozen red while hanging up the clothes (how the frozen washing crackled as you folded it up!); an occasional nosebleed when you straightened up after hours of bending over… the eternal moaning about little aches and pains, because after all you were only a woman. Women among themselves: not “How are you feeling?” but “Are you feeling better?”
All that is known. It proves nothing; its demonstrative value is destroyed by the habit of thinking in terms of advantages and disadvantages, the most evil of all ways of looking at life. “Everything has its advantages and disadvantages.” Once that is said, the unbearable becomes bearable – a mere disadvantage, and what after all is a disadvantage but a necessary adjunct of every advantage?
An advantage, as a rule, was merely the absence of a disadvantage: no noise, no responsibility, not working for strangers, not having to leave your house and children every ay. The disadvantages that were absent made up for those that were present. So it wasn’t really so bad; you could do it with one hand tied behind your back. Except that no end was in sight.
Today was yesterday, yesterday was always. Another day behind you, another week gone, and Happy New Year. What will we have to eat tomorrow? Has the post come? What have you been doing around the house all day?



nice selection from sorrow beyond dreams. handke would go on an "come back to it" ,as he states in the book's last sentence, in "The Repetion". here are some links to handke sites and blogs. michael roloff

SCRIPTMANIA PROJECT MAIN SITE: http://www.handke.scriptmania.com
and 12 sub-sites

http://www.handkelectures.freeservers.com [the drama lecture]

[pertaining to scriptmania matters]


[dem handke auf die schliche/ prosa, a book of mine about Handke]

http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/ [the current American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE]

http://www.artscritic.blogspot.com [some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]

mark trezona said...

michael - thanks for these