Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Stillness of the Outhouse: Peter Handke's Versuch über den stillen Ort

Peter Handke's new book just arrived, his fourth in this series of essays (following the essays/Versuche on the jukebox, on tiredness, and on the successful day). I once pointed out to him that in that latter essay he writes about a Van Morrison song called "Coney Island," but misplaces the Irish island to New York. He smiled and didn't seem too concerned.

Like the other essays, this one comes handsomely wrapped in the first page of the manuscript, written in pencil, like all of his work, and exhibiting interesting deletions and additions.

The quiet place of the title is a succession of outhouses, public and private restrooms, and finally a quiet residence between fields north of Paris (Marquemont) where he writes the essay.

Why are the family's little room with a hole that empties directly into the manure pile of the barn below, the cold restrooms of the Tanzenberg seminary, the trainstation toilet where he spends the night after graduating from public school in Klagenfurt, the university restroom in Graz where he washes his hair, the temple outhouse in Japan, restrooms in French cafes, the public toilets on the Portugese coast -- why are these still rooms worthy of an essay? Because they are places where the young Peter Handke experiences versions of himself, where he has an identity separate from family, where there is an "I" different from the "I" determined by others and by their language.

The public places are wide and open as the word "Platz" indicates etymologically (wide, plateau). The places where one can pee and shit are narrow and enclosed, as the word "Ort" points out (pun intended -- the root means point or edge). In short, they are places apart, Ab-ort, away/apart/separate/out.

It's the dialectic between the two kinds of places that the text investigates. The still outhouse / Abort isn't a utopian place but rather a place that collects and stimulates and supports feelings and thoughts that then enable and even require a return to the group. 

There's a scene reminiscent of the short essay in "Once Again For Thucydides" about various head coverings in Skopje in which Handke watches people walking on a path in a park of Cascais, on the Portugese Atlantic, headed to and returning from the public toilets. The "I" that he is, or the other "I" that he is, or the others, he writes, needs such a coming and going. He compares the train of people with people in a church who are going to receive communion and finds communion with them even as or because the communion is enabled by the outhouse where they can be alone.

In the novel "The Great Fall," by the way, the narrator similarly juxtaposes communion in a church and a kind of communion in a pissoir.

There's a very interesting account of the young Peter Handke refusing invitations to travel with his classmates after graduation. Instead he travels by himself from village to town, finally spending a cold night curled around a toilet in the train station. He writes about how that became, in the novel "Repetition," the story of a similar young man traveling across the Yugoslav border to Jesenice and spending his first novel in a niche in the side of the train tunnel between Austria and Yugoslavia.

Zarko Radakovic and I followed that character, Filip Kobal, across the border for our book "Repetions." Zarko took a photo of the tunnel.

. . . we sloshed through grey and yellow, chemically fortified rain to the train station restaurant where Filip Kobal sat one whole night drinking sweet, flat, east-block Cola. A picture of Tito figures prominently in the story, but yesterday we couldn’t find it. Disappointment. And yet the thought of political change was bracing. Žarko checked the WC to see if Handke got it right. He did.

We looked for the mouth of the train tunnel where Filip Kobal spends his first night, unwilling to leave the border, the threshhold: “The tunnel did not strike me as an insane idea.  I would go in where my train had just carried me out.” We drove and walked up a dozen blind alleys before a wet garden path almost accidentally brought us face to face with the tunnel. Standing in the streaming rain Žarko photographed the heavy stone arch and the black half circle it creates.

Finally, Peter's essay awakened memories of my own, some of them related to still places where I was alone, others to actual restrooms.

There was the Thanksgiving in our house in Farmington, New Mexico, the single-storey, 3-bedroom house shared by nine of us. I think I was in high school, but it might have been a Thanksgiving trip back from the first year of college (Peter's essay is meticulous about revealing questions, doubts, ironies -- about undercutting itself in a attempt to be truthful). I left the bustle and noise and walked through the cold wind and spitting snow to drop off the edge of the plateau where the sub-division was built, into a little canyon where I curled up, out of the wind, in an indentation in the sandstone. The solitude overcame me, a splendid food to fit a hunger I had only subconsciously. I was apart, an "I" other than the "I" my family knew and shaped. When I returned to the house I was quieter, happier, more able to again be part of the crowd.

I remember working on a drilling rig outside of Farmington. The driller who had hired me was a quiet man, tough, slow moving, 45 or 50 years old. As we drilled through various geological formations there were times when decisions had to be made. If they were complicated decisions, the driller would shut down the rig, leave the floor, walk across the yard to the outhouse, lock himself inside there for however long it took him to think through the problem, and then return to tell us what to do.

There was an early morning in Farmington, about 5 a.m., when all I could think about was the hotel restroom that was waiting for me about halfway through my delivery route (bundles of the Albuquerque Journal meant for restaurants, paperboys, motels, and the town's one hotel -- what was the name?). I had a bad case of needing to shit, recognized only after having left home at 4 a.m. But the hotel was coming up and I calculated I could make it that far, that long. I drove up the hotel, left the car carrying a stack of papers, slapped them down on the empty front desk, swung open the restroom door just around the corner, and, starting to relax, found that the toilet stalls now had doors equipped with locks opened only with a quarter. I had no quarter with me and I had already begun to relax and so I turned to the urinals arrayed against the wall -- not the urinals that stretch up from the floor, but the kind that jut out from the wall. Because I was taller than 6 feet, and because the urinals were positioned for people shorter than that, I left the hotel unscathed (except psychologically, of course).

The most fragrent and even sensuous toilet I ever used was the one at the visitor's center of the Glen Canyon Dam. It was a composting toilet, a sign said, with some kind of fine-smelling wood chips below. Best of all was the gentle, warm breeze fingering my naked backside.

Finally, although these stories might proliferate endlessly, I remember the night Sam Rushforth and I drove up Daniels Canyon to ski under a full moon. Skiing rhythmically up the trail, moonshadows dark against the dazzling snow, I felt a familiar distress in my bowels. Off the trail, brushed by fragrent and soft Douglas fir branches, I dropped my pants, exposed my butt to the bitter cold, and shit between my skis. Three or four times I had to repeat the act. Unpleasant as it was, there was also a solitude and beauty to those moments apart, away.

And as I finish reading the Essay, an email from Zarko:

Unbelievable. Just today I bought Handke's book and began to read. Parallel to your reading. Amazing how familiar it all is to me. I know Peter, I love him.
Yesterday I read your text about Nina Pops, in the translation by Stefan Barmann, and I very much enjoyed your thoughts, and also your rhetoric. I know you, and I love you.

1 comment:


note the collection of german reviewws at