Nonsense and Happiness
A Moment of True Feeling
Three by Peter Handke
We have heard a good deal, from Thomas Mann as well as from John Barth and Harold Bloom, about the lateness of the modern artist, and no doubt the sensible response to such a proposition is to ask who is holding the watch. Who sets the time for these feasts or lessons or performances which are always ending just when our representatives arrive? But there is a form of lateness which is familiar to us all. It is possible, for example, to fall in love and find the language you need already in use, shabby and dog-eared from misapplication, and there is a celebrated passage in Madame Bovary where Flaubert, irritated by a character who doesn’t understand that clichés may reflect the most passionate sincerity, allows himself the sort of complaint we normally see only in his letters:
He could not distinguish, this experienced man, the dissimilarity of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression…. As if the fullness of feelings did not sometimes spill out through the emptiest of metaphors, since no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, or ideas, or sorrows, and since human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to attract the sympathy of the stars.
Cliché has colonized quite a bit of new territory since Flaubert, and the most eloquent language will become tired if it is made to travel all over the place. A great part of the gift of Peter Handke, a much-acclaimed young Austrian novelist and playwright, lies in his sensitivity to this situation. Yesterday’s lyrics are today’s advertisements, and when the central character in Handke’s novel A Moment of True Feeling crosses the Pont Mirabeau in Paris, he recalls the obligatory line from Apollinaire: “Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine / Et nos amours / Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne….” But he is too late. A poster describing high-rise apartment buildings is there before him, saying: “Seen from the Pont Mirabeau, Paris is a poem.” Even the small, strange details of a surrounding scene, the working materials of an observant writer—a woman wearing odd shoes, another woman carrying a cocker spaniel and crying—evoke in this novel only a feeling of déjà vu—déjà vu in an old movie. “He felt,” Handke says of his character, “like the Prisoner of Disneyland.” When someone suggests that a writer might escape from this Disneyland by concentrating on the “inexhaustible riches of everyday life,” the suggestion itself can be made only in a cliché: the inexhaustible riches of everyday life.
“We behave as if being alone were a problem,” Handke says in Nonsense and Happiness, a book of rambling meditative poems. “Perhaps it’s an idée fixe.” Perhaps it is the idée fixe of a culture which has managed to package even alienation, to turn it into the necessary accouterment of any educated, self-respecting, disaffected middle-class life. “Hey,” Handke says in another poem in the …