Wednesday, May 26, 2010



                                                           Recreating The Self:
Stations of the Cross in Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman

Griffen, Austria
Surrounded by a high, crumbling, brick-and-wood wall, the graveyard is on the west side of the former monastery. With little trouble we locate Maria Handke's well-tended grave, damp today from the rain.
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 worm-eaten door and enter a working church housed in a partial ruin. Oak pews shine darkly with woodwax and use. Altar rugs cover platforms of unpainted pine. The scent of mildew. Pyramidal piles of fine plaster dust gather at the base of disintegrating walls.
Inside the entrance, German and Slovenian signs give directions to the confessional. German-language pamphlets are stacked on a table to the left and a table to the right displays similar pamphlets in Slovenian. Naive paintings of the fourteen stations of the cross have Slovenian captions: "1. Statio Jesus je k'smerti obsojen."
Fat little red prayer books (Gotteslob). Red, gold, and purple bookmarks dangle from each volume. Leafing through one I find the stations of the cross. The book declares itself "Eigentum der Kirche" (Property of the Church). I decide that is a misnomer and slip the book into my pocket (actually, ðarko's pocket; he has loaned me a good wool jacket for the trip).
We leave the church and step out again into the dripping rain.
Abbott and Radakovic, Ponavljanje (Belgrade, 1994)

The mystical is the mind's beginning and at the same time hinders its further development.   
Peter Handke (Geschichte des Bleistifts)

Everyone experiences the biblical stories, but without the events; everyone travels at some time to Emmaus, but nothing approaches one except -- powerful emptiness
Peter Handke (Phantisien der Wiederholung)

I seek order in the right form. As opposed, perhaps, to a religious or faithful person I must find a new form in each of my works.
Peter Handke (Interview with Löffler)

While the protagonist of Peter Handke's The Left-Handed Woman rests with her son during a hike up a low mountain near their home, she tells him that years ago she saw some paintings by an American: "’There were fourteen of them. They were supposed to be the Stations of the Cross -- you know, Jesus sweating blood on the Mount of Olives, being scourged, and so on. But these paintings were only black-and-white shapes -- a white background and criss-crossing black stripes. The next-to-last station -- where Jesus is taken down from the cross -- was almost all black, and the last one, where Jesus is laid in the tomb, was all white. And now the strange part of it: I passed slowly in front of the pictures, and when I stopped to look at the last one, the one that was all white, I suddenly saw a wavering afterimage of the almost black one’" (138). Although the woman's description of the paintings is inexact in several respects (most notably in that all of the stripes or "zips" are vertical in the actual series), she clearly means Barnett Newman's "Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani," now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (In April of 1966, while Handke was in Princeton, New Jersey for the meeting of the Gruppe 47, Newman's series of fourteen paintings was being exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.) The afterimage the woman experiences while viewing the last two paintings in this series is given an immediate counterpart in Handke's story when, after having taken a photo of his mother on the mountain with treetops and the sky behind her, the boy sits in the bathtub with her and says: "'I still see the trees on the mountain'" (139).
These parallel, contiguous descriptions of image and afterimage link events of the story with the stations of the cross. In this context, the story of Marianne's decision to leave her husband Bruno and of her subsequent attempts to construct a new self takes on the shape and color of the Christian Via Dolorosa. Various narrative structures support this identification, as do several specific references linking Marianne and Jesus Christ.
Most strikingly, a fourteen-part structure underlies the entire story. Several years ago, a student of mine, Paul Savage, pointed out that references to day's end and beginning divide the narrative into fourteen distinct days (other, intermediate days pass with no mention).[1] Repeating this structure, the "translation" of "The Lefthanded Woman" (Durzak claims this is Jimmy Reed’s song but fails to note that Reed's song shares no lyrics with the supposed translation (145)) which appears in the narrative immediately preceding the hike up the mountain and which reads like an oblique description of Marianne's life, has fourteen clearly distinguishable parts, several of which correspond to events in the story.[2]

Supporting the thematic context created by the descriptions of "Stations of the Cross" and the related fourteen-part structures of the story and song, several details further emphasize Marianne as a kind of Jesus figure. The first words of the story, for instance, announce that "She was thirty years old" (97).[3] Soon thereafter, after telling Bruno to move out, "She went to the hall mirror and said, 'Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus'" (104). And when the actor tries to take up with her near the end of the story he tells her that he read a message at a streetcar stop that claimed: "'HE loves you. HE will save you.' Instantly I thought of you" (141).
But there must be some mistake. This isn't Thomas Mann's Jesus/Dionysos Mynherr Peeperkorn, nor is it Steinbeck's socialist Jesus Jim Casey. The year is 1976, the author is Peter Handke, and the book is, or could be expected to be, the latest work in Handke's decade-old war on symbols and systems. In Phantasien der Wiederholung, seven years after publication of The Left-Handed Woman, Handke himself addressed this very question: "There should be no further appearance of Jesus, but again and again a Homer . . ." (7). So why, we are left to ask, is Handke using the generic form Theodore Ziolkowski has called a "fictional transformation of Jesus."[4]
Manfred Mixner sees the story as explicitly denying the sort of identification I am making here: "For this story there is no interpretation in the sense of a dissolving of the formal plot into conceptually establishable units; every attempt fails in the face of the poetic hermetics of this text . . ." (233). Handke himself, speaking of the film he made of The Left-Handed Woman (the published story was written as a kind of screenplay), suggests that the film (and, I assume, the book as well) will resist interpretation: "I consider the spiritual energy of this film, the energetic rejection of all simplistic hints which one might have inserted into a story like The Left-Handed Woman, as a gift” (“Durch eine mythische Tür eintreten,” Fellinger 239). And finally, compare the following statement from The Weight of the World that seems to contradict what I am asserting here:Time and again the need, as a writer, to devise, to invent myths unrelated to the old Western myths; I seem to need new, innocent myths culled from everyday life; myths that will help me to begin myself all over again” (135).
Still, despite my (and Handke's) uneasiness with the general idea, the story's structure and the thematic context of that structure force us to consider the stations of the cross as a metaphor for the woman's ongoing attempt to make a life for herself after rejecting the roles that have hitherto determined her. In Handke’s own words, the story is about a return to a kind of childlike autonomy, Aan autonomy that allows her to escape from her role as housewife, as wife, as mother, as a thirty-year-old woman, sometimes even as a matron and to remain holy-mythical, ridiculous and enigmatic” (“Durch eine mythische Tür eintreten,” Fellinger 240).

In this context, the tradition represented by the stations of the cross is related to the entire set of norms working on Marianne, of which Bruno's patriarchal dominance (evident most clearly in the scene in which he jams Marianne into a phone booth, suggests she needs electroshock treatment, and then burns a photograph of her, 108-109) is just one. Early in the story Marianne is not described in terms of herself, but as the wife of a porcelain salesmen. When Bruno returns from his business trip he treats her as if she were nothing outside her role as his wife. Her decision to separate from Bruno changes that. On her own, released from Bruno's definitions of her, she must create a new self. As I will show in what follows, the recreation doesn't take place in a vacuum, but through new experiences with Stefan, the publisher, Franziska, Bruno, her father, the actor, the saleswoman, the driver, other more minor characters, and with the texts she translates. Thus the break with the oppression Bruno represents is not an utter repudiation of the ruling social tradition, no absolute revolution with a utopia in mind, but rather a rupture that allows Marianne to reorder the influences on her.

The thrown-away Christmas tree the children later chop up to make a fire is a sign that Christmas has recently past. The tree (the Christianity whose rituals Handke learned most intensively as a student in the Catholic boarding school in Tanzenberg,[5]) is now detritus, meaningful in its original sense only as a reminder; but, as the boys prove with their fire, the old tree can be used for something new. Similarly, the abstractions of the Barnett Newman’s paintings reproduce the stations of the cross as largely empty forms in which the tradition is present and yet absent. Newman's Jewish background makes the Christian ritual structure an unusual thematic choice; but in his other work he similarly draws on outside cultures for the subjects of his abstract paintings ("Chartres," "Prometheus Bound," "The Slaying of Osiris"). In descriptions of his work Newman emphasized his own distance from the actual religious institutions that generally propagate the Christian story: "No one asked me to do these Stations of the Cross. They were not commissioned by any church. They are not in the conventional sense 'church' art. But they do concern themselves with the Passion as I feel and understand it; and what is even more significant for me, they can exist without a church" (Barnett Newman 187-189). Even more distant from the traditional stations of the cross is the fourteen-part song. Absolutely secular and even trivial in its details (and thus empty of the content of Christian myth), the song nonetheless repeats the fourteen-part form of the stations of the cross and in so doing lends (an almost arbitrary but still discernable) structure to what otherwise might be chaos.
According to this model the stations of the cross become an early example of the empty forms ( Leerformen) so important for Handke's later work. In Repetition, for example, blind windows are empty formal reminders of the lost Kaiserreich: "The vagueness was underlined by a blind window, to which my gaze was now drawn as to the center of the world. . . . It owed its effect to the absence of something ordinarily present: to its opacity" (98-99). The window repeats traditions of the Habsburg kingdom and thus passes on some of its meaning. But in its blindness or its abstraction the window also escapes the absolute meanings that tended to oppression and violence in the monarchy. It is important for Handke that the forms are inherited and thus have the weight of history (as are the Greek dramatic forms he repeats in The Long Way Around: a dramatic poem) and that they are empty. The empty forms drawn from the stations of the cross are like the forms of the biblical stories referred to in the second epigraph to this chapter. Everyone travels to Emmaus, thus following a traditional desire for revelation. Waiting for discovery there, however, is not the resurrected Jesus, but a powerful emptiness. In the dialectic established between the mystical and the mundane, between tradition and the new, between the metaphysical and the postmetaphysical, between the traditional Christian meaning of the stations of the cross and the religiously empty form of the fourteen-part song, Handke creates "meaning."

Handke’s postmetaphysical use of traditional forms reminds me of Derrida’s concept of the trace, of writing under erasure. In Of Grammatology, he suggests that Athe value of the transcendental arche [archie] must make its necessity felt before letting itself be erased. The concept of arche-trace must comply with both that necessity and that erasure. It is in fact contradictory and not acceptable within the logic of identity” (61). The problem is that the language in which we speak belongs inescapably to the history of metaphysics; and the best we can do as we attempt to move beyond metaphysics is to speak that language while placing it under erasure, a strategy already attempted by Heidegger for slightly different purposes.[6] Describing structuralist anthropology in words close to Handke’s project, Derrida writes that ALévi-Strauss will always remain faithful to this double intention: to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he criticizes. . . . If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur” (“Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Writing and Difference 284-285). With these examples I don’t mean to suggest that Handke’s text is an exercise in Derridian or structuralist or Heideggerian philosophy, but rather want to place my reading of Christian structures in The Left-Handed Woman within the context of language being used by contemporary thinkers. I am not reading in a vacuum, nor, finally, is Handke writing within one.
After seeing the left-handed woman both among others and alone, the singer of the song about her says that she has been in his house and has betrayed herself, or perhaps she wanted to give him a sign. In the first case she would have been trying to remain alone, an individual apart from the constrictions of society, and thus the inadvertent signs she left would have betrayed her to the person reading them. Or, seen from the other perspective, she may have been reaching out for contact with someone who could read the signs she left. Finally, the singer says he wants to see her "Alone among others." This paradoxical condition is central to the story. Marianne's life with Bruno lacks solitude and her first attempts to live without Bruno lack a sense of community. Near the end of the story, however, she has learned at least the rudiments of remaining alone among others, for, looking into a mirror, she says to herself: "You haven't given yourself away" (148).

Bruno's gaze has been debilitating and as she sees her image in the mirror she surely sees after-images of the self he and others have helped constitute. As described by Sartre in Being and Nothingness, the gaze of the other alienates me from myself and the world: "I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other"; "My original fall is the existence of the Other"; "I am a slave to the degree that my being is dependent at the center of a freedom which is not mine and which is the very condition of my being. In so far as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved" (228-278). If Marianne is to change, that dependence must be altered. Altered, but not eradicated. To destroy all outside influence would mean a total loss of self. She needs the other's gaze as much as she needs to be free from it. So at least four times in the story she stands before a mirror and evaluates the images others and the mirror impose on her. Those self-conscious observations allow her, in each case, to proceed with her work. After the first session before the mirror she decides to translate, after the second she rearranges the house, the third gives her strength to type a translation, and after the final one she draws.
In that final scene, after her last, triumphant session before the mirror, Marianne shakes a dice cup which her father brought her along with a compass. I interpret the compass as a tool that helps her set a course in accordance with societal norms, leading to an ability to be "among others." She and her child use the compass as they climb the mountain together, and while there she remembers the paintings of the stations of the cross, another compass of sorts. The dice, on my reading, represent contingency or chance, the risk of striking out on one's own, self-definition in the face of community values. Here, as she shakes the dice cup, Marianne risks an individual vision without which the experience of community with the other is slavery. In a crucial related move, she looks at the drawing the driver has left behind, leans back, and begins to draw: "first her feet on the chair, then the room behind them, the window, the starry sky, changing as the night wore on -- each object in every detail. Her strokes were awkward and uncertain, lacking in vigor, but occasionally she managed to draw a line with a single, almost sweeping movement. Hours passed before she laid the paper down. She looked at it for some time, then went on sketching" (148).

Marianne recreates here a drawing Ernst Bloch discusses in an essay that reads like an exposition of the final images in Handke's story:

It is even more surprising when the body now sees itself. Observes itself as it really sees itself, namely without wishes, even without a mirror. Ernst Mach once completely distanced himself from the secondary effect of this device in order to preserve the original sensuous impression of his person . . . [producing] a self-portrait -- how he appeared to himself lying on a couch. Mach calls the peculiar drawing: "Self Observation Ego"; and in fact no drawing can be freer of mirroring supplements, more immediately in sensuous reality. . . . A foreshortening from above, like that created by Tiepolo from below for the perspectival Baroque gaze; with the difference that here exact reality of experience is artlessly captured, as opposed to the play of a great, arranged, decorative, cultural facility. . . . [The mirror] shows our figure as others see it; this common view becomes one's own observation. But Mach's drawing makes a hole in this vanity. A hole too in determinations from outside. . . . No human is what she has and imagines; she is not even the self of an idealistic supplement as far as these ideals are drawn from the hitherto existing social exterior, from the luster of her class. The real person still lies outside these mirror images. . . . This true subject of human existence is not what it is seen to be, but almost as it sees itself ("Selbstporträt ohne Spiegel," Verfremdungen I 13 ff.).[7]

Marianne draws her feet, the surrounding room, and the sky as an act of self-definition. This view of herself differs strikingly from what she saw in the mirror and, in Bloch’s words, thus approaches the “true subject of human existence.” The similarity to the Mach drawing, however, Handke’s quotation of the drawing or of Bloch’s description of it, reinscribes Marianne in another tradition, this one literary/philosophical. So while she creates herself, she does so always in terms of something else.
Bloch mentions Tiepolo's religious paintings of figures seen from below as they ascend into heaven; and Handke repeats or quotes this in the photo the child takes of his mother on the mountain: "The picture showed her very much from below, looking down; behind her there was only sky and the barest suggestion of the treetops" (138). She has just told of seeing the stations of the cross, and here, for the child, Marianne is seen against the sky as Christ on the cross. Where Bruno's gaze was destructive (symbolized by his burning her photograph), the child's gaze so transfigures her on the mountain that the afterimage of this scene remains with him in the bath. Still, however benevolent, the child's gaze, like Bruno's, is the gaze of an other. Stefan's adoration is comparable to the constituting and yet potentially enslaving Baroque perspective that produces an "arranged, decorative, cultural facility."
The mirrors, along with Bruno's oppressive gaze and the child's deifying gaze, remain in play, but they are finally joined in the story by the self-constituting drawing. The changing stars of the night sky that make the self-portrait an ongoing process are thus contrasted with the static sky the child's photo captures. Handke's story exploits the Christian stations of the cross not out of a sense for Christ's divinity, but because that form is part of our cultural vocabulary, because those words exist ("This word [God] exists, and it is replaceable by no other. It is true, nonetheless, that there is not a single lasting comfort in your history/story" (LWADP 109-110)), because that is the language game (and that is exactly what this is, a Wittgensteinian language game) we are playing. As Handke himself put it: “Over the years I, a religiously debilitated seminary student, have returned to [beauty and religion] -- I will always hate state religion and will always be the enemy of those who diminish people in the name of religion. I will, however, always defend the forms that, in whichever religion, have developed -- the classical forms, incredibly gripping, the most gripping forms, exactly those that express the deepest contents that humans have ever achieved” (Radakovic interview, 27 in original manuscript). These are the religious forms of The Left-Handed Woman, the Christian structures that, emptied of metaphysical content, can suggest dialectical possibilities as Marianne reconstitutes her life.

Jewish religion allows no word that would alleviate the despair of all that is mortal. It associates hope only with the prohibition against calling on what is false as God, against invoking the finite as the infinite, lies as truth. The guarantee of salvation lies in the rejection of any belief that would replace it: it is knowledge obtained in the denunciation of illusion. . . . The justness of the image is preserved in the faithful pursuit of its prohibition. This pursuit, Adeterminate negativity,” does not receive from the sovereignty of the abstract concept any immunity against corrupting intuition, as does skepticism, to which both true and false are equally vain. Determinate negation rejects the defective ideas of the absolute, the idols, differently than does rigorism, which confronts them with the Idea that they cannot match up to. Dialectic, on the contrary, interprets every image as writing. It shows how the admission of its falsity is to be read in the lines of its features -- a confession that deprives it of its power and appropriates it for truth. (Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 23-24)

     [1]See, in the Suhrkamp Taschenbuch edition, 1981, pages 21, 34, 41, 56, 60, 61, 69, 72, 78, 80, 93, 102, 108, and 131. For the English, see pages 103, 108, 111, 116, 117, 118, 119, 121-122, 123, 126, 127, 132, 135, 136, 139, and 148 in the Collier edition, 1989.
     [2](In brackets the parallel events from the novel)
1) She came with others out of a Subway exit
2) She ate with others in a snack bar
3) She sat with others in a Laundromat
4) But once I saw her alone, reading the papers posted on the wall of a newsstand

5) She came with others out of an office building [cf. "The woman and the child left the office building" (120)]
6) With others she shoved her way up to a market counter [cf. "At a nearby shopping mart . . . she stood in a long line at the checkout counter (118)]
7) She sat with others on the edge of a sandy playground [cf. "the evening when you lay motionless on your back in the sandbox outside the house" (138)]
8) But once I saw her through a window playing chess all alone

9) She lay with others on a grass plot
10) She laughed with others in a hall of mirrors [cf. "A few were standing still and laughing in a hall of mirrors" (134)]
11) She screamed with others on a roller coaster
12) And after that the only time I saw her alone was walking through my wishful dreams

13) But today in my open house:
The telephone receiver is facing the wrong way
The pencil lies to the left of the writing pad
The teacup next to it has its handle on the left
The apple beside it has been peeled the wrong way (but not completely)
The curtains have been thrown open from the left
And the key to the street door is in the left coat pocket
Left-handed woman, you've given yourself away!
Or did you mean to give me a sign?
[Cf. the thirteenth day on which Marianne opens her house to all the people she knows: that evening she talks on the telephone (142), stimulated by the driver who has a notebook in which he draws, she too picks up a pencil and draws (144), she locks the door after the guests leave (148), she stands before a mirror and says "You haven't given yourself away" (148), and she gives a kind of sign as she draws herself (148).]

14) I want to see you IN A FOREIGN CONTINENT
For there at last I shall see you alone among others
And among a thousand others you will see ME
And at last we shall go to meet each other
     [3]See Theodore Ziolkowski's chapter on the thirty-year-old hero in Dimensions of the Modern Novel.
     [4]Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus. This is, as surprised as I was to find it in Handke's work, not an isolated incident. Loser's renewal at Easter in Across, and Parzival's three drops of blood, the crucified Christ, and the pilgrimage to Emmaus in Das Spiel vom Fragen are related Christian/mystical images. Like the forms in The Left-Handed Woman, Handke consistently empties them of metaphysical content.
     [5]Handke wrote a dialectical autobiographical essay about one of the years (1957) he spent at the gymnasium at Tanzenberg. The essay is divided into sections whose titles reflect the school's regimen, meant to produce a certain kind of Catholic priest: "Conduct," "Religion" "Geography," "History," "Languages," "Essays," "The State," "Playing," "The Seriousness of Life." The reader learns that Handke tried hard to behave as expected, that he sometimes believed in God, that he once swore to become a priest, and that his skill in Latin and Greek made him feel more powerful than the other students. He loved his hometown, his state, and his country. He describes himself as an oversensitive, introverted, insecure boy. The essay reveals other things as well. During the classes in which he tried to appear an exemplary pupil he secretly read other books. The boy who swore to be a priest feared the Saturday afternoons when he had to say his Rosary in the dark church. The young master of Greek and Latin found that his knowledge of Slovenian made him part of a despised minority. The young citizen who sang all stanzas of the national anthem found that the word "free" is only part of a language game (“Ein autobiographischer Essay,” Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms 9-16).
     [6]See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s preface to Of Grammatology, xv-xviii.
[7]. Mach's book, Die Analyse der Empfindungen, the first chapter of which, “Antimetaphysical Preliminary Observations,” argues that there is no substantial, irreducible, primary self, is also very interesting in the context of Handke's book. Cf., for example, the following passage that discusses the both the practical value and the harm in supposing the existence of an independent self (reminiscent of the more carefully stated pragmatic position I discuss in the chapter on “The Material Idea of a Volk”): AThrough their high practical worth not only for the individual but for the entire species the summaries "self" and "body" make themselves instinctively efficacious and appear with elemental power. In special cases however, in which practical purposes are less important and knowledge becomes its own goal, this delineation can prove to be insufficient, harmful, and unsupportable. (note: Similarly class consciousness and class prejudice, the sense for nationality, the most narrow-minded local patriotism can be very important for certain purposes” (15).
See Christiaan Hart Nibbrig’s interesting discussion of Bloch’s essay (Spiegelschrift 37-39). 

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