Minor languages


Karl Ove Knausgård’s lecture on Peter Handke, ‘Handke and Singularity.’

Language has no life of its own, is not itself alive: it invokes life, and the very primal scene for that, the source of creative literature, is found in The Odyssey when Odysseus and his crew moor on the Oceanus River after visiting Circe, and Odysseus offers a sacrifice on the beach to the dead. Blood runs darkly down into the pit, and the dead souls begin to flock around it. He sees young girls dressed as brides, young warriors in blood-stained armour, and old men, their screams are ghastly, and he is filled with fear. The first he recognizes is Elpenor, who died during their stay with Circe and was never buried. He tells his story, of how he drank himself drunk and fell head first off a roof, broke his neck and died. The next one Odysseus speaks to is Tiresias, the soothsayer, who foretells the future, then appears Odysseus’ mother, who drinks of the blood. She recognizes him and tells him of how she died. Odysseus goes to embrace her, and approaches her three times, and three times she escapes him like a dream or a shadow. She tells him that her sinews no longer hold flesh and bone together, the funeral pyre has transformed her body to ash, and that all that is left is her soul, fluttering around.

Literature invokes the world as Odysseus invokes the dead, and no matter how it is done, the distance is always insurmountable and the stories always the same. One son loses his mother three thousand years ago, one son loses his mother forty years ago. The fact that the one story is a work of fiction and the other based on fact does not change their basic similarity: both manifest themselves in language, and from this perspective any attempt Handke makes to escape the literary proves futile, there is nothing in his description of reality that is more authentic than Homer’s. Nor is that what he seeks to do. Handke wants to write about someone – his mother – without invoking her, without giving her blood so that she can appear in something reminiscent of her former, living character; in other words, deny her a fictitious life that might create connections between the dead – her existence in the past, and the living – the reader’s consciousness. Instead, what language invokes is her environment, the shapes of her life, and although her identity – that which was peculiar to her – comes to view, it does not speak. Nor can what language invokes be found on the other side of an insurmountable abyss, for these shapes are themselves linguistic in a sense, though not in a truly literal sense. Thus, Handke succeeded in doing what he presumably set out to do, namely to represent reality in an authentic manner.