Swans Commentary » swans.com May 22, 2006  



The Peter Handke Controversy
From Pozarevac, Serbia, to the Comédie Française


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - May 22, 2006)  Peter Handke, perhaps the most preeminent and creative European playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist alive today, has recently been embroiled in a cultural scandal that involves character assassination (his) through ad hominem attacks and calumny, censorship by a faceless theatre bureaucrat, and the relentless abuse of the Parisian bien-pensants, those guard dogs of French palatial conformism. Like in America, getting out of the core political line in France leads to either being utterly ignored or, when famous, being dragged into the mud and punished for crime of lese-majesty. The confluence of intellectual cowardice, financial and strategic interests, and navel-gazing, backslapping inclinations of the salon bourgeoisie, serves the long-standing axiom that you better not challenge power. Do it at your own risk. You will pay the price. You will be ostracized.

One of Handke's greatest plays, The Art of Asking (written in German in 1989 as "Die Kunst des Fragens" and translated in French in 1993), was scheduled by the French public theatre company, the Comédie Française, to be presented under the direction of Bruno Bayen (all the actors had been selected) at the theatre of the Vieux-Colombier, from January 17 to February 24, 2007, in Paris. The Comédie Française, since its creation in 1680 through the merger of two famous theatre companies, the Theatre of Guénégaud, the inheritor of Molière's company, and that of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, has always been, with a very short interruption during the French Revolution, a public theatre company. It is run by a general administrator -- currently Marcel Bozonnet -- with the advice of an administrative committee.

On April 29, 2006, the left-of-center daily, Libération, reported that Marcel Bozonnet had decided to scrap the play after having read a snippet published on April 6, 2006 in the Nouvel Observateur, a weekly magazine published every Thursday -- another left-of-center publication. The snippet or blip -- called a sifflet (a "whistle") -- by the journalist Ruth Valentini read:

Peter Handke in Pozarevac

"I am happy to be close to Slobodan Milosevic, who has defended his people," said -- in Serb -- Peter Handke on March 18 on Liberation Square, in Pozarevac. The guest flaunted his grief along with 20,000 fanatics. Loyal to the "Butcher of the Balkans" and to his own revisionist position, the Austrian writer, author of Justice for Serbia, had come as a "truth seeker." Thus Handke, for whom "to be pro-Serb is an honorific title," persists in his defense of "Slobo," considers that the Serbs are "the real victims of the war," approves the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes done in the name of ethnic cleansing. Waving the Serbian flag, squeezing forward to touch the hearse and lay his red rose, Handke looks a sorry sight. With his tribute to the despot, the poet has definitively dug the grave of his lost honor.

Deeply disturbed by Valentini's report, the general administrator proceeded to exercise some soul searching and reached the conclusion that his personal conscience could not allow him to let Handke's play be shown at the Comédie Française. He scrapped the play. It was a "personal decision," said Bozonnet.

Within days, l'affaire Handke, as it is known in France, became a prairie fire within Parisian salons and editorial offices of the institutional punditry. Was Bozonnet censoring the playwright for his political opinions? Two camps emerged, one in defense of Bozonnet's decision, the other in opposition in the name of freedom of expression. However vile Handke's views were, posited the latter group, his oeuvre should not be subjected to censorship -- recall that the Comédie Française is a state entity. Oppositely, the defenders felt that in light of Handke's reprehensible and outrageous opinions, Bozonnet was duty-bound on moral grounds to scrap the play. In either case all agreed that Handke's behavior in Pozarevac, as reported by Ruth Valentini, was beyond decency and all condemned him.

Unfortunately for the bien-pensants, a tiny pebble of sand brought the engine of conformism to a screeching halt. Ms. Valentini's report was a nasty little ad hominem attack, entirely cut out of whole cloth. But as the French say, calumniez, calumniez, il en restera toujours quelque chose ("Calumny, calumny, the mud will stick..."). An embarrassed Jean Daniel, the co-founder of the Nouvel Obs, its Editorial Director, and the dean -- he is almost 86 years old -- of the wishy-washy French Left (what we would call here free-market Left, the Nation-like reformist and loyal opposition) promptly went into damage control. On May 4, 2006, he posted on his personal blog (yes, blogging is an international virus) and on the online edition of the magazine a Pontius Pilate, wash-his-hands, rhetorical yes-but-with-regrets-and-you-know-what piece of garbage that not even my septic tank could handle without choking.

He wrote that he contacted Bozonnet to express his distress to see the play scrapped because he thought that whatever Handke's intrinsic views were -- blameworthy -- his art should not suffer. In other words: "The man is an asshole but don't kick the organ too hard. It could excrete some smelly residuals that would spatter on my own petard." Jean Daniel was truly sorry and saddened by the development, especially, by the way, because Peter Handke had written to him to correct a few "regrettable factual errors" dispended by baby Ruth. Most unfortunately, however, the staff in charge of the Letters to the Editor was on vacation and the letter could only be made available now.

The Nouvel Obs was by then in full damage control. It issued the following statement:

Several very regrettable factual errors slipped in our text. Peter Handke underlines them in his right of response that we are publishing below and that will appear in the Nouvel Observateur next week [May 11, 2006] with a delay for which we beg him to excuse us. This does not take away anything from the substantive disagreement we have with him on the interpretation of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless we regret that this polemic may have motivated the deprogramming by the Comédie Française of the play by this writer of immense talent, "The Art of Asking," that was due in January 2007 at the Vieux-Colombier Theatre. -- N.O.

Sure. In other words: "We regret the error and please excuse us for the delay in publishing your response...that we had no intention to publish in the first place but for this rather embarrassing ruckus." That's known on both shores of the Atlantic as intellectual whoring with panache. How untruthful were Valentini's blips? Let Peter Handke respond:

I have not laid a red rose on the hearse of Slobodan Milosevic. I did not touch the hearse. I did not wave the Serbian flag. And I have never approved "the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes done in the name of ethnic cleansing." I've never considered the Serbs as "the real victims of the war." And in Pozarevac, I did not come as a "truth seeker." I am not the author of Justice for Serbia, but of Winter Journey to the rivers Danube, Sava, Morava and Drina (Gallimard). And nowhere in my little speech in Pozarevac have I said "I am happy to be close to Slobodan Milosevic, who has defended his people." What is true: I gave my speech in "Serb" (or serbo-croat)! And for all the readers, I am translating it here in French: "The world, the so-called world, knows everything on Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything on Slobodan Milosevic. The so-called world knows the truth. For that, the so-called world today is absent, and not only today, and not only here. I know that I do not know. I do not know the truth. But I look. I feel. I remember. For that, I am present today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic. -- P.H.

Actually, the last sentence should be translated as "[F]or that, I am present today, with Yugoslavia, with Serbia, with Slobodan Milosevic," which, although not literal, may better express Handke's sentiments. One ought to recall that the media buried the news of and the circumstances surrounding Milosevic's demise faster than the few days it took to bury his corpse, with an immense sense of relief that the comedy of ICTY was also being buried at long last -- a comedy, to stay within theatrics, that had become a political commedia Dell'arte played in the theatre of the absurd.

Signor Bozonnet made it quickly known that the justification for his decision -- his act of conscience -- was not based on the Nouvel Obs scribe only, which prompted a big sigh of relief from Jean Daniel who unctuously wrote on May 3, 2006 that, "I would be very saddened that [Bozonnet] might have found in the little article the reasons to withdraw . . . . the play from an author that I continue to admire, whatever his deplorable pro-Serbian drifts." He added in his honeyed prose that, "Mr. Marcel Bozonnet was kind enough to reassure me. He had not taken his decision before having had an investigation proceed, which had led him far beyond the information from the Nouvel Observateur. "Information" writes the moralizer in chief. Sleaze, slander, lies, calumny become "information" in the language of the editorial director. But for the excessive use of the conditional and the subjunctive that French "intellectuals" find irresistible, it's the type of tirade that one could find in the editorial pages of the New York Times in relation to Judith Miller's "information." Ending with "I have never believed that one could censor works of art according to the agreement we had or not with the behavior of their authors," the hypocrite pontificator washes his hands and moves on to write an elegiac epitaph for another fallen Mohican, Jean-François Revel, who died on April 30, 2006.

Bozonnet, meantime, gave a press conference on May 4, 2006 to expand on his decision. Yes, he was thanking Ruth Valentini for having drawn to his attention that Peter Handke had attended Milosevic's funeral. It made him think. He then read the translation (posted on the Website of the Comédie Française) of an article published on March 27, 2006 in a German weekly, focus, in which Peter Handke explained the motivations that led him to attend Milosevic's funeral: To be a witness. Confronted to the generalized wooden tongues and stereotypes of the French (and European) prêt-à-porter punditry he wanted to be a witness, not for the prosecution, not for the defense, just be there, "with Yugoslavia, with Serbia, with Slobodan Milosevic."

But that was too much for the ignorant bureaucrat.

For three weeks, I reviewed European history, from 1990 to date. I reviewed this terrible film! I reviewed it in my mind, ladies and gentlemen! I plunged back in this horror that ethnic cleansing was, the planning of these facts, of these crimes. I learned about all that Peter Handke had said, which I did not know . . . . I was scandalized by what Peter Handke said. In part I knew it but I did not know the extent: the work of historians systematically questioned, of war correspondents, of your papers, ladies and gentlemen, that have admirably informed us for years, that thanks to their work, their courage, pierced the wall of indifference. This is I found out what Peter Handke ridiculed.

Bozonnet even affirmed that all the facts, all the crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing committed by Milosevic had been established by the ICTY. "These are no longer suppositions, one cannot doubt Milosevic's actions," he adds. Of Handke he says that "it's unbelievable, he does not know where is the world, he does not know where is the truth, he does not know where is history, he does not believe in the accounts from witnesses: that's what he said on Milosevic's grave!"

Of course, there are a couple of tiny flaws in Bozonnet's litany and emotional outburst. First, that is decidedly not what Peter Handke said in his short speech, and, second, the ICTY has not proven anything Bozonnet claims it did. Milosevic was not proven guilty of starting four wars, of genocide, of ethic cleansing, of being a "dictator" (he who was elected three times, no less). He may assert those claims as long and as much as he wants. The entire world may too, and the so-called world, and god, and Jesus, and Beelzebub... the fact remains that Slobodan Milosevic has not been found guilty of anything at the ICTY -- read the darn transcripts! -- and that Peter Handke has been consistently correct over the years.

Marcel Bozonnet, being a man of the theatre, a jester unaccustomed to actualities, may even "believe" the texts written by political players (and not playwrights) and repeated ad infinitum in the corridors of power, the chancelleries, and their lapdog whores in the salons and the media. It's only too natural, too human that a dusty little bureaucratic buffoon would follow the politically correct crowd and want to punish the impudent playwright. After all, from Jean Daniel to the editors at Libération and Le Monde, artists, intellectuals, politicos -- all these miserable guard dogs who supported the cowardice of François Mitterrand and the opportunism of Jacques Chirac, all the while looking after their own careers and book contracts as Europe and America went on with the business of carving up Yugoslavia in order to fill the coffers of their bankers and industrialists -- they've all harassed Peter Handke for over a decade. He's been accused of being a traitor, a terrorist, a supporter of ethnic cleansing. His political engagement has been compared to the anti-Semitism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline or the Nazi sympathies of Martin Heidegger. The fatwa targeted novelist turned neocon, Salman Rushdie, called him the "international moron of the year," an "apologist", "complicit with evil on a grand scale," a "half-crazy, half-cynical fellow-travelling with the evil" ("For services rendered to the cause of folly," Canada Globe and Mail, May 7, 1999). He's been pilloried time and again by the Citadel. Even bookstores have refused to carry his work. And yet, alone, almost alone, he's kept his head straight and walked with dignity and decency.

Régis Debray, a minor philosopher though far more intellectually satisfying than Bernard-Henri Lévy or Alain Finkielkraut and a better writer than Louise L. Lambrichs, tried to enter the fray in 1999. He wrote "A Letter from a Traveler to the President of the Republic" that was published in Le Monde of May 13, 1999, an article worth reading again either in English or in French. With the perspective of time, one cannot but find Debray's words right on mark, almost prophetic. Keeping in mind that he was writing an open letter to Jacques Chirac, the president of France, his conclusion read:

You remember de Gaulle's definition of NATO: "An organization, imposed upon the Atlantic Alliance, which amounts to nothing else but the military and political subordination of Western Europe to the United States." Some day you will explain the reasons that led you to change this definition.

Meanwhile, I must confess with a little shame that when in Belgrade, asking a Serbian democrat from the opposition why his current president [Milosevic] was readily receiving any American personality and no French one, he answered: "At any rate, it's better to talk to the master than to his servants."

The general outcry of the bien-pensant crowd gagged him so forcefully that he beat a prudent retreat and let the issue fall into desuetude. But not Handke. Not Handke. So, the sharks keep circling around the prey, thirsty for his blood. They distort, they lie, they slander, they assassinate his character, and logically, they end up censoring his art. Regrets will be expressed from the high-up company, perhaps a few honest individuals will raise their voices courageously -- like the novelist Anne Weber who wrote a petition, "Do Not Censor the Work of Peter Handke" (Le Monde, May 3, 2006) that was signed by a handful of artists, or the 2004 Nobel prize novelist, Elfriede Jelinek -- but the guard dogs will relentlessly pursue their prey until they deliver the head on a silver platter to their masters. The citadel must prevail, whatever the failure of imagination and thought.

But it won't. It never has. One stone at a time, masons take the construction apart. Blood, lives, the Minotaur devours, but another monument is being built nonetheless. Poor Marcel Bozonnet, poor Ruth Valentini, and poor Jean Daniel, court jesters worthy of utter disdain. Like their alter egos in the U.S., they only navigate in the sewage of historical death. A century from now they won't appear in the encyclopedias, but Handke will.

For those who journey on this road less traveled, Peter Handke comforts us with his conviction that yes, there is another Europe, and indeed another world.

Full speed ahead.

Zivela Peter Handke!



External Resources

Peter Handke on Wikipedia

Handke Scriptmania Portal, by Michael Roloff

Peter Handke on Google


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Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 22, 2006