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Moving Diagonally

I’m still thinking about Peter Handke’s novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which I wrote about recently. At one point, Bloch, the narrator, has become so estranged from language that he begins to think in pictures.


Handke’s critique of language seems so utterly final that I started wondering how he resolved this issue. Gabriel Josipovici suggests that “to destroy language is to give oneself up to silence, another form of death.” But clearly Bloch carries on for the rest of the novel and Handke writes more books. So I went to my bookshelf and scanned the titles of the dozen or so books by Handke and finally pulled down The Afternoon of a Writer (1989), a brief novel about a nameless writer who lives with a nameless cat in a nameless city, which opens like this:

Ever since the time when he lived for almost a year with the thought that he had lost contact with language, every sentence he managed to write, and which in addition left him feeling that it might be possible to go on, had been an event. Every word, not spoken but written, that led to others, filled his lungs with air and renewed his tie with the world.

Two points jumped out immediately. First, he has made his peace with language through writing, not speech. Speech was the downfall of Bloch in Goalie: “It seemed uncanny to him how someone could begin to speak and at the same time know how the sentence would end.” And everything that Bloch says seems to be misunderstood. In Afternoon, however, even though the writer encounters several people – including a drunk and one of his translators – he never utters a word.

Second, the value of language is in its ability to connect the writer with the world. The writer has found a kind of Zen-like peace that Bloch could only blindly sense in Goalie.

As [the writer] was crossing the open fields by his usual diagonal path, his just acquired namelessness, favored by the snowfall and his walking alone, took on substance. This experience of namelessness might at one time have been termed a liberation from limits or from the self. To be at last wholly outside, among things, was a kind of enthusiasm…

Instead of being viewed as liberating, the writer’s diagonal flow through the unnamed objects of the world instead unifies him with the world. The writer connects to things, but not to people. People create anxiety. I’m tempted to say that in Goalie that Bloch held language responsible for the anxiety which other people created in him, although language was just the messenger.

Josipovici ascribes the desire to destroy language to a Romantic impulse, a “form of revolt against the restrictions of language, which comes to be seen as a screen keeping reality at bay.” It seems to me that Handke (a Romantic if ever there was one) pierces this screen by taking control of language. Whereas all Bloch “can ever do is react,” the writer can transform his experience.

I started out as a storyteller. Carry on. Live and let live. Portray. Transmit. Continue to work the most ephemeral of materials, my breath; be its craftsman.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. You’ve got a fascinating take on Bloch and language. I’m wondering if his anxiety comes from the way language has come unhooked from things, from its arbitrariness. The thinking in pictures could be a way to relate more directly with things. But whenever I start thinking about any of Handke’s texts, there’s always the other side. For instance, when Bloch, who is being hunted by detectives who will find him if the signs they are reading correspond to his whereabouts, finds himself looking over a landscape with a map in his hands, he is relieved to find that the match is inexact. So he’s haunted and relieved by language in its correspondence and lack of correspondence.

    September 9, 2008

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