Sunday, December 5, 2010


I've been thinking about biography lately, thoughts occasioned by Travis Low's and Torben Bernhard's film about the life and work of my friend Alex Caldiero and by a new biography of Austrian writer Peter Handke written by Malte Herwig. 

They're very different works, and not just because one is a film and one a book. Still, they both purport to present a life. I exchanged e-mails with Malte Herwig and, at his request, sent him a copy of my "A Reasonable Dictionary," the account of traveling up the Drina River with Handke and Zarko Radakovic between the wars in Yugoslavia. And for the DVD of the film, available through Ken Sanders Rare Books, Travis and Torben asked me to write an essay, which begins as follows:

Fixing the Sonosopher
by Scott Abbott

About three years ago I was bathing with a young man whose development at that time had a wonderful grace about it. . . . As it happened we had just seen, in Paris, the youth pulling a thorn out of his foot. . . . Resting his foot on a stool, to dry it, and glancing at himself as he did so in a large mirror, he was reminded of the statue; he smiled and told me what he had seen. . . . He raised his foot a second time, to show me; but the attempt, very predictably, failed. In confusion he raised his foot a third time, a fourth, again and again, a dozen times: in vain. He was incapable of reproducing the movement. . . . From that day, or from that very moment, forth the young man underwent an unbelievable transformation. He began spending days in front of the mirror; and one after the other all his charms deserted him. (From Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Puppet Theatre,” translation by David Constantine)

            About three weeks ago I had lunch with a man of my age whose performances as a “Sonosopher” have a wonderful, if sometimes terrible, grace about them. We spoke about a film he had recently collaborated on. After seeing himself through the camera’s eye, Alex said, he has been unable to reproduce the movements, the gestures, the sounds the camera recorded. At least he can no longer do so naturally. His charms, he fears, have deserted him.
            I mentioned the young man in Kleist’s essay.
            Exactly, he said. I’ve been robbed of the grace of un-self-conscious movement. I’ve been pinned to a specimen board for observation.
            You feel like you’ve been fixed? I asked.
Yes, he answered. The film has fixed me, neutered me. How do I continue? My work is process, my media are temporal, sonorous, fleeting.
To what extent is that true? I wondered later. Has this film, in fact, fixed the Sonosopher?
As with all works of art, from one version to the next there’s a sense of panic brought on by the knowledge that the composer or writer or painter or filmmaker will have to settle on the final, fixed version, knowing all the time that it is just one of an infinite number of versions. Documentary films of a certain kind work to make their audiences forget that fact, constructing a seamless and supposedly truthful narrative. This, I take it, is what Alex most feared.
Because theirs too is a documentary film, Travis Low and Torben Bernhard are generically bound to reach for a truthful or even Platonic portrayal of their subject. But because the person casting most of the shadows is Alex Caldiero, a self-described “recovering Platonist,” and because Low and Bernard have made their film after Nietzsche’s assertion that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” this film approaches fixed forms with trepidation. Like Caldiero’s lifework, the film longs for the transcendental signifier while anchoring itself in epistemological humility.
The film begins with a blurred image of a belltower seen from below; indistinct lights flicker to the wavering tone of a guitar; the sound of breathing precedes the poet’s voice: “I want to go where the sound goes after the bell stops ringing.” “I’ve always been blessed with visions,” Alex asserts later. And yet the most revealing statement of what the silent sound is or what the vision reveals is the performance for Park City television of “This is not it.” As long as the transcendent remains articulate, the words must insist that “this is not it.” And when the words break under the load of meaning, when they reach beyond themselves, they cannot articulately state what “it” is and must eventually return to “this is not it.”
The film performs this double dance as exquisitely as does Caldiero. . . .
The essay continues with examples of scenes that call themselves into question and thus reinforce their truthfulness; and it ends with these thoughts:
In the context of the entire documentary film, the set of black-and-white discussions Alex has with the camera, the last of which shows Alex shutting his eyes tight and then saying “I close my eyes. Please, now close yours,” introduces a self-consciousness about the whole idea of film that asserts and questions simultaneously. These brilliant scenes, shot by the filmmakers but constructed by the Sonosopher himself, make clear that this is not Low’s and Bernhard’s film about Caldiero. This is performance from beginning to end, joint performance, collaborative performance, the work of a trio of artists working in various media.

Finally, for this essay too must come to an inevitable end, I’ll end with the scene in which Alex stands in Salt Lake’s Gilgal Sculpture Garden and explains the “Joseph Smith Sphinx.” “Joseph Smith,” Alex, says “was a seer and a revelator. A prophet and a charlatan of God. He was a coyote figure, you know, the dark/light figure, that told the greatest truths in the greatest lies. . . . What a sweetheart.” A sweetheart, of course, just like Alex himself.
And, it turns out, just like the makers of this sonosphistic film. A fantastic marriage of filmart and sonosophy raises the film from documentary to performance, exhibiting charms that will desert neither the Sonosopher nor the filmmakers because they are temporal charms, fluid charms, seriously ironic charms.

In contrast, Malte Herwig's biography of Peter Handke, called "Master of Twilight," is a study in frustration. 
I should state here that although the book frustrates me, it also held my attention from beginning to end. After reading I have a fuller sense for parts of Handke's life I had seen only peripherally. At best the book lays out a basic chronological set of events, tying together events of Handke's life in an interesting account. It emphasizes throughout the almost autistic nature of Handke's response to the world (although this grows old quickly). I realize that no biography can bring the whole life, choices have to be made, and there are many possible biographies. Still, the book seems to have missed something critical for any life of Peter Handke.
 The tension begins already in the foreword: "Thus the biographer cannot be led by what might be pleasant, advantageous, or desirable for the story. Rather he must read and research without prejudice. As a result, what follows is nothing but the truth." 
How can a Harvard-trained Germanist let slip such a sentence? As Gadamer argued in his "Truth and Method," our only hope to understand difficult things begins with our pre-judgments. The Enlightenment's prejudice against prejudice was itself a prejudice. Prejudices must be used and lifted off simultaneously, Gadamer wrote. More importantly, Peter Handke's life work has undermined so-called truth in favor of story and myth and the poetic creation of "truth." How, then, can a reader of Handke's works claim that what follows is nothing but the truth? How can this biographer write his supposed truth while completely ignoring the supple dialectic Handke's sentences might have taught him?
For example, these sentences from Handke's "A Journey to the Rivers," his attempt to give admittedly personal words to the land of the Serbs in the face of almost unanimous media distortion (and this too is a kind of biography):
But I was also drawn simply to see the country that of all the countries of Yugoslavia was least known to me and that, perhaps because of the news reports and opinions about it, had come to attract me most strongly, the so-to-speak most interesting (along with the alienating rumors about it).  Nearly all the photographs and reports of the last four years . . . seemed to me, over time even more so, to be simple mirrorings of the usual coordinated perspectives. . . .  I felt the need to go behind the mirror; I felt the need to travel into the Serbia that became, with every article, every commentary, every analysis, less recognizable and more worthy of study, more worthy simply of being seen.
 Handke wants to see well, he wants to describe without ideological distortion, he wants "justice for Serbia" in the media; but he never claims truth outside the conflicts of dialectic. We make our truths, some better than others, and the better ones come, at least for my taste, when we're aware of their constructed nature.
Herwig finds his biographical truth in letters and notebooks and interviews, many of which haven't been available before. These are the highlights of the book. Michael Roloff, Handke's first American translator, wrote recently that a 1000-page biography of Handke consisting of nothing but such documents would be the best of all biographies (see his wonderfully wild and wooly take on Herwig's biography at his Handke-Discussion blog). There are pages in the biography that are themselves worth the entire price of the book. The end papers, for instance, reproduce two pages from one of Handke's notebooks, complete with the leaves he has tucked into the notebook. Reproductions from another notebook show three drawings Handke did of his friend Nicolas Born while Born was dying. They are agonizing approximations, three brutal because loving perspectives.
In addition to these archival gems, Herwig also gathers his "truth" from Handke's works of fiction, reading the novel Long Letter, Short Farewell, for example, as an accurate description of the trip Handke and Kolleritsch and Libgart Schwarz took in America. Handke's novels are rich with his own experiences; but surely a biographer must take into account the fact that those experiences are subsequently shaped by the contexts of the fiction. In a biography, bald-faced quotations from novels raise more questions than they answer. At least for this reader, they can't be trusted
Handke once claimed in an  interview with André Müller that “No one will find anything really personal about me, and what I have published is a total disguise.” Herwig ignores this, except when he is contradicting it. Describing an exchange of letters between Handke and his high-school German teacher Reinhard Musar, Herwig writes that Musar felt bad about a depiction of the main character's German teacher in the novel Repetition. Handke reassured his mentor, Herwig claims, "with the oldest excuse of literary history, with reference to poetic freedom: 'That is not your portrait in the book, the teacher from Villach has become independent and is a recurring friendly figure in the narrative frieze.'" Handke states the obvious. Herwig dismisses it as an excuse. And for me, there's no excuse for that.
I could say more about the book, about the unfortunate design that squeezes tiny photos into awkward inner margins, about awkward and even naive psychologizing; but it's really the idea of the possibility of biography that I'm interested in. 

Zarko Radakovic and I once thought about a possible biography of Peter Handke, and wrote about our travels from southern Austria into what is now Slovenia in the footsteps of Repetition's main character. Ultimately, however, it came to seem a ridiculous undertaking. We weren't competent to write about the life of another person (is anyone?). Rather, we loved the work Peter Handke has produced; and we were fascinated by how that work might help us as we constructed our own lives.
Here a few lines from Zarko's and my book Repetitions: Travel into the Landscape of a Novel

In the opening scene of William Golding’s The Paper Men, an aging, alchoholic writer nearly shoots a young would-be biographer who is rooting through his rubbish.  The novel ends as the would-be biographer, repeatedly frustrated by the uncooperative novelist, shoots him. . . .

The Stift, a former monastery, is in disrepair.  Crumbling bricks disfigure what was once a smooth plaster coat.  Beer and sausage booths, part of Griffen’s pentacostal celebration, are being dismantled by workmen in the rain.  By some of the workmen.  The others lift glasses in the pub that now occupies the southeast corner of the huge building.
Surrounded by a high, crumbling, brick-and-wood wall, the graveyard lies on the west side of the building.  With little trouble we locate Maria Handke’s well-tended grave.  No longer an outsider.
“Maria Handke / 8.10.1920 - 20.11.1971” it says on the smooth front of the otherwise uncut stone.  A wooden cross fronts the stone: “Bruno Handke, died 21.3.88.”  I photograph Zarko as he stands in front of the grave, umbrella at a slant, his hands busy with pen and notebook.  He photographs me in a similar stance.  Assiduous scholars.  Pious pilgrims.
Over the church’s massive front door hangs a statue of Mary, her foot balanced delicately on the neck of a fine green dragon.  We swing open the heavy worm-eaten door and enter a working church housed in a partial ruin.  Rich altar rugs lie on platforms of unpainted pine.  Oak pews shine with woodwax and use.  The scent of mildew.  Pyramidal piles of drifted plaster gather at the base of disintegrating walls.
Inside the entrance, German and Slovenian signs give directions to the confessional.  German-language pamphlets are stacked in ragged piles on a table to the left and a table to the right displays similar pamphlets in Slovenian.  The naive paintings of fourteen naive stations of the cross circling the church have Slovenian captions: “1. Statio  Jesus je k’smerti obsojen.”
Fat little red prayer and song books (Gotteslob).  Woven from red, gold, and purple threads, three attached bookmarks dangle from each volume.  Leafing through one I find the stations of the cross.  The book’s subtitle is “Eigentum der Kirche” (Property of the Church).  I decide that is a misnomer and slip the book into my pocket (actually, Zarko’s pocket; he has loaned me a good wool jacket for the trip).
“Monastery Church Maria Ascension (Haslach): The church has its origins in the 13th century, but was much altered in the following centuries.  It received its west facade (Baroque) in the 18th century.  Inside romanesque style dominates.  The stone Madonna from 1520 is late gothic.  Left and right from her, next to the high altar from the eighteenth century, are Saint Augustinus and Saint Norbert.  In addition numerous gravestones and coats-of-arms from the 15th through the 18th century deserve attention. . . . notable stuccos . . . scholars, however, do not agree whether these stuccos can be attributed to the artist Kilian Pittner (1700).”
Is this the kind of thing I will be doing to Handke?  “Peter Handke has his origins in the decade of the Third Reich, was, however, much altered in the following decades. . . .  Within, postmodern style dominates.  The book published in 1986, however, is postpostmodern. . . .  Also deserving attention . . . scholars, however, do not agree, whether. . . .”
However, however, however.  It makes me want to throw up.
[A longer version of this part of Repetitions can be found HERE.]

In the end, it's not fair to judge Herwig's book against the experimental film and in light of the more personal work I did with Zarko. They are different forms; and Herwig has chosen the form that fits his own abilities and interests. It's a matter of taste. Even though Herwig has dished up a meal I would never have ordered, there are still plenty of tasty bits.



will read and i imagine comment, copied it onto my usb drive,but at 20Cents a minute i am going to get off this fedex kinko machine. xx michael r.

Aleksa said...

Peter Handke,
birthday 12.06.2010.


have read now and will dwell, especially the first part dealing with the film. i happened to be the editor of the Gadamer translation at Continuum books, one of them, and it was a event in my intellectual existence. handke is quite right in claiming that he is a disguiser, to some extent you can get a hang of that of course... xx michael r.


The "Sonophone" looks to be something I would comment on too
if I get to see it. Love the fact that you call your Mr. Smith
a coyote/ clown. Shall the two of us be as amusing as to found
a group called "the very last saints"???

As to your comment on Malte's book, which elicited a small
book of my own, an editorial response as to what a more
thorough bio of Handke might involve: I happened to be
one of the two editors at Continuum Books who dealt
with the translation of Gadamer's TRUTH AND METHOD.
That is actually a book about how to read texts, religious
texts, legal texts, the history of exegesis. Reading itself
began long before there were written texts. It helps
to have been a tracker as a child with some help from
Karl May to recall what is involved in the reading - te "auflesen/ lesen"
of, say, animal tracks in the wild - snow makes it much easier
to detect the snow-shoe hare! No wars are fought over
the interpretation of animal tracks, mistakes can of course
be fatal in other ways. It is a long way from the beginnings
of the enlightenment's disavowal of the dictatorship of
religious indoctrination to so-called scientific prejudice
of value free judgment which itself willy nilly contains'
that particular prejudice, and then on to the relativism
that Foucault bestows on us. The first fourth of Herwig's book
corroborates a lot of what I had gathered about Handke's
childhood from the available sources, and you can see what
a compleat monster he might have become - I have no insight
into the development of genius except that it, too, is helped
with the kind of devilish work that Handke did, starting
very young, and the fortunate schooling and support he had.
I know enough about neurology to have a hunch what
an extra-sensitive apparatus might look like, as, say, compared
to mine, which even when it works at its highest capacity
lags far behind Handke's. So in that first fourth I would say that
Herwig reaches some approximation of the truth - which is all we
can get anyhow under these conditions. However, let me take
a quote I much love, it is Yeats:
“We, who seven years ago / Talked of honour and of truth, /
Shriek with pleasure if we show / The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth” to indicate that poetry can avail greater truths at times than
the prosaic informational can, and there Handke is as it were
a "game changer" - udderwise neither you nor I would be feeding
off the Handke tit!

Scott Abbott said...

thanks Michael, for the thoughts on reading and truth. I'll send you a copy of the Sonosopher.

The reading of tracks (Spuren) is, it seems to me, best done by an expert with the humility to question her own assumptions. Foxes are supposed to be experts at confusing trackers, leading a tracker without questions up a hill when they should be going down.

I'm not talking about any absolute relativity, just about coming off the high horse of certainty, of leavening the critical loaf with a bit of irony, of playing the coyote (or goat, in your personal case) even while writing scientifically or religiously or biographically.

Read the opening of "The Journey to the Rivers" I include in the post. Note the "it seems to me," "I feel," and so on. The whole book is a heart-felt polemic leavened, to use that metaphor again, by self-questioning and constant dialectic.

summa said...

[1 of at least 2]
there is what freud calls the "certainty of conviction", which the analyst reaches after the analysand has reacted
to a particular suggestion... the "high horse" of course not, i can't say that malte is actually guilty of that, except
that he sets out that way... and if he'd gotten there he might have proclaimed his kind of "Eureka"...
I have had lots of little Eureka's during my 25 year focus on Handke and his work... but no ultimate one...
however, certain PATTERNS have become evident... That Handke was so recognized as special by
everyone and was so indulged came as a surprise.... But the other patterns is what the fox follows as the snow shoe
hare makes his cuts! in that respect Malte's work mainly during the first fourth of his book has
proved very useful. handke was physically violent from early on, as an example he had his stepfather, there is a little pasha in the making who fortunately becomes just a pasha of syntax except
for those closest to him.... the half sister marries a gauner, handke to malte belittles his
half brother's criminality... features of such a disturbed family... who is this robert handke
who was born in 1957??? no further mention of him.why he needs to hurt those closest to him.... or at least used to multifariously... excess of sadism lack of the inhibiting factors, lack of empathy would be characteristic of autistic features, perhaps to make contact even... testing as in the instance of daughter amina aged 3 or 4... what will happen!
it is certainly destructive as hell! and it is gratuitous... self-indulgent ... as he said often, when i am not working on something "lungere ich nur herum"...
vengeance makes the world go round and love tries to glue it back together... so vengefulness
for whatever slight... This very high self-image he has of himself...
one never knows ... perhaps it derives from his sense of superiority with his sense of being abject too..
other patterns ... as he behaves toward women... or used to, since it appears we
really are back together with ms. Semin[ole]... so what does she have? in what sense is she
ebenbuertig? a truly indefinable quality between a man and a woman... did malte
meet and talk to her, i guess he did, does he know about women, in my casethe only one i ever had that feeling with was rebecca horn.... but i had to stick around ny and clean up the urizen mess before i could "cut out west"...
rebecca was the one who gave me the low down on handke's extra curricular affairs in berlin, and he couldn't handle the fact that she had one other lover....
she picked me up at "le zinc" a brasserie on reade street when the uptown restaurants were moving into Tribeca in the early 80s...
run by the same parisian guys, what a fine wild bunch they were, who had "un deux trois" in midtown, scene of a famous and rare act of enragement of mine which earned the firm 20 k..
life - how wild it was in ny then how much wilder it would get...

summa said...

2 of 2?
"will i believe what I say tomorrow"... something
like that goes a line in VILLAGES... evidently Handke has changed his mind a lot....
he appears to have made a certain kind of peace unless i am very much mistaken...
in the last few years... yet self-satisfied he is seems fortunately not....

of course one needs to question and requestion one's assumptions every step
of the way, but once questioned and found to be sound... if you see what I mean...

The Reaction to "Journey to the Rivers" only manifested that everyone, nearly,
wanted Handke to hit the same groove, which obviates all questioning.
The Sherberts, Milosevic did it! I saw it on TV, Susan Sontag had to hide
from sniper bullets in Sarajevo! and the replayed it to her friends back in the u.s.s.r.

for SHORT LETTER Malte quotes one section and feels that that represents Handke's state
of mind, perhaps so, but that state of mind did not produce the book, that
is an act of imagination and making, professionalism. no doubt libgart's seeking
him played into it, and was translated into a threat - but "all it take to make a movie
is a pretty girl and a gun" I think Godard said, t he nouveau roman and film'
after all is unthinkable without the other structure and knowledge being there
to such a degree that it can be taken for granted? no??
or a pair of buddies like
Handke/Kolleritsch! where the woman is the "third wheel". . alas....
you both might look at greil marcus intro the nyrb book re-issue of SHOT LETTER
condidering that i saw handke for one of those four weeks in the u,s.a
ny does not enter it.... so i would say what got him hot was the concept the idea
the form and wife and buddydom were some useful ribs...xx m.r