Sunday, May 07, 2006

A question to the misrepresenters: justice for Handke

There's been a lot of discussion online about the Comédie-Française's pathetic decision to drop the plays of Peter Handke from its repertoire. It seems to be based on Chinese whispers - the kind Handke speaks of in his short book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia: those from "the long-distance dispatchers who confuse their profession as writers with that of a judge".

Handke's own refusal to be a judge in this book still hasn't prevented those who claim to have read it from judging him. For example, Alison Croggon of the blog Theatre Notes says in A Journey to the Rivers Handke argues "that the Srebrenica massacres never happened" and that it was instead "a hallucination generated by the mass media". To get clarification, I posted the following question to the site:

Can I ask where exactly in Handke's 'A Journey to the Rivers' does he argue "that the Srebrenica massacres never happened" and that it was "a hallucination generated by the mass media"?

Is it page 56 where he meets a woman whom he says is "convinced" that the massacre took place and with whom he doesn't argue?

Is it page 73 where Handke's companion asks "You aren't going to question the massacre ... too, are you" to which H. answers "No".

Or could it be page 81 where he refers to the "great suffering" prevailing at Srebrenica?


  1. It would be only fair to post my answers to your question. And to note that I am deeply against the Comedie-Francaise's banning of Handke's play.

    Below I post the conversation:

    Alison Croggon said...
    Hi Steve - being Handke, A Journey to the Rivers is anything but easy polemic, and one can't reduce any of his books to any simple thesis. But I feel what I've said is fair, given my caveats about its justness about western media coverage. See p 73, where under Handke's "no," he continues: "But I want to know how such a massacre is to be explained, carried out, it seems, under the eyes of the world, after more than three years of war during which, people say, even the dogs of war had become tired of killing, and further, it is supposed to have been an organised, systematic, long-planned execution. Why such a thousandfold slaughtering? What was the motivation? For what purpose?" This meditation is undertaken in an idyllic country scene a mere few miles from Srebrenica killings are supposed to have happened, where there is no trace of such an event, and afterwards there is a long critique of the false mass media chroniclers who demonise Serbia. There is an ambiguity here that begs some questions; it can certainly be read as questioning the provenance of the massacre.

    1:07 AM, May 08, 2006
    steve said...
    So what you'se saying is that he's implying the massacre didn't happen? That's quite different to arguing that it didn't happen or that it was a hallucination.

    But I don't think he's even implying that it didn't happen. I read the passage you quote as a plea for the massacre to be put in context of larger suffering.

    1:53 AM, May 08, 2006
    Alison Croggon said...
    I guess that question is the nub of the animus against the book (this was the one that caused riots). I'm not saying that Handke is in the same paddock as the revisionist historian David Irving, by any means: but in denying the Holocaust, Irving does not deny that there were camps to which Jews and others were sent, nor that a lot of people died in them (though he says fewer than claimed). But Irving claims that they died of disease and other attritional factors rather than a policy of deliberate genocide. There's enough similarity of argument here to make me profoundly uneasy with what Handke's saying in the book: and he's a good enough writer for it to be distubing, for the implication to become in itself a powerful emotional argument.

    I find it difficult too to reconcile Handke's nationalistic identity politics with the appeal beyond nationalism that he makes, that very Handke-ist appeal to the specific and material. He never really examines the contradiction within that, beyond the vague wish for a poetic sensibility which would permit the cycle of war to be broken. For me, there's a strange vacuum in the middle of the book that remains extremely problematic.

    9:05 AM, May 08, 2006

  2. Anonymous5:58 pm

    I'm afraid on this issue I'm going to disagree with you. I don't find Marcel Bozonnet's decision to withdraw Handke's play to be 'pathetic', I support it.
    I think it is important to recognize that it is not a matter of banning Handke's play, as some seem to think. This is not a decision of state. Indeed, the french culture minister has come out against Bozonnet. It is rather a matter of deciding not to work with Handke - a decision which Bozonnet made in his own name and that of C-F, after discussing it with other members of C-F. They did this after learning of Handke's speech at Milosevic's funeral, as well his comments during a recent interview with the German magazine Focus, where Handke clearly states his solidarity with Milosevic as well as saying he 'does not know' about any genocide!
    There is an article on this in today's Le Monde which is quite good. If you scroll to the bottom of the article you will find a list of over 150 people who have already signed a petition supporting Bozonnet and C-F. I dare say, you will agree after looking at the list, that these signatures do not belong to those accustomed to facile denunciations.

  3. Anonymous6:03 pm

    oops, sorry, forgot the link to the article:,1-0@2-3232,36-770090,0.html

  4. Amie, Handke is quite correct in not knowing about any genocide as there was no genocide.

    I gave the link in the comments at Theatre Notes:

    Sure, there were atrocities but many of them were committed by us (NATO), paid for by our taxes. Why aren't we banning plays by supporters of the bombing of Serbia?

    And further to that, one wonders why so many British and US writers, who openly or tacitly support or are oddly silent about the significant war criminals of our time - Bush and Blair - still receive the respect of those who effortlessly condemn Handke, a writer who happens to be a far greater artist than any current living US or British author. The whole thing smacks of a herd mentality.

    BTW, I don't have any French so I can't read that Le Monde article.

  5. Anonymous6:35 pm

    even if you cannot read the Le Monde article, scroll to the bottom and see the signatures supporting Bozonnet. not exactly people with a 'herd mentality'.
    For what it's worth, I like some of Handke's books a lot. But after reading his speech at Milosevic's funeral, his comments in the recent interview, I really wouldn't want to work with him on a play. which is why I agree with Bozonnet.

  6. If Handke's play/s were good enough to be included in the repertoire in the first place, then they're good enough to be performed now. The C-F should stick to nice people I suppose.

    Beckett drank a lot I hear. Who'd want to work with a drunk eh?

  7. I'm just staggered that even after the facts have been established - that Handke did not argue that the Srebrenica massacre did not happen and that there was no genocide to deny - that suddenly the goalposts shift and its about how distasteful Handke's position is, though that position is unclear as the only distasteful elements that have been put forward is his arguing that the massacre didn't occur and that he knows nothing of any genocide.

    I haven't been able to find a translation of his speech at Milosevic's funeral. It doesn't seem to matter much what he actually says though for most people to condemn him.

  8. Maybe Handke's nudging us in the direction of semantics; we can agree on the empirical facts, that people were killed in Srebrenica; but to classify it as "a massacre" or "a genocide", without considering the full historical and political context, is simply a piece of journalistic shorthand. (I'm not saying I agree with this - just musing on what PH might be doing.) Baudrillard, of course, made this point about the Gulf War (or "the Gulf War" as we'd better call it).

    As to whether the C-F should ostracise Handke, I've always been uneasy about bans on individuals who support or propagate unacceptable doctrines, rather than the doctrines themselves. When I was at college, there was a policy of "No Platform For Racists" which essentially meant that nobody who was deemed by the Union to be racist could speak at a Union event. There was an element of common sense here, if the ban was on speech likely to stoke racial unrest; but because it could be directed at individuals, it meant that someone identified as "a racist" couldn't talk about astrophysics or flower arranging either.

    By "deciding not to work with Handke" the C-F is making the individual the target of its opprobrium, rather than his ideas (his play). Which is rather like alternative comedians in the 1980s grumbling about "Fatcha" rather than taking on her policies. It's the easy way out.

  9. Tim, he was indeed criticising journalistic shorthand. It's people like the C-F who rely on and propagate it.

    Another useful article written in longhand has just appeared:



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