On Peter Handke and the Heinrich Heine Prize

The awarding of the Heinrich Heine prize to Peter Handke by the city of Düsseldorf provoked a predictable storm. The man did after all back the genocidal thug Slobodan Milosevic. Signandsight.com has some summaries of responses in the German press, including one from Günter Grass:

Talking with Christof Siemes, Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass points out that Peter Handke would not have been an unworthy laureate of the Heinrich Heine Prize (more here). “Heine – like Goethe too, by the way – remained a fan of Napoleon until his death. The horror and the terror that Napoleon spread, how he used up his armies on the way to Russia – all of that was of no consequence for his admirers. Heine runs equally afoul of today’s criteria whereby Handke is condemned for his absurd, one-sided support for Serbia… Handke has always tended to adopt the most nonsensical arguments and counter-positions. But what I dislike about the current discussion is the double standard, as if you could grant writers the right to err as a special kind of favour. The writer Botho Strauss said something along these lines (text in German here)… I have a hard time with granting writers a kind of bonus for geniuses which excuses their partisanship for the worst and most dangerous nonsense.”

K.A. Dilday on writing and politics, in openDemocracy:

In late May 2006, the Austrian novelist Peter Handke almost received the Heinrich Heine prize from the city of Düsseldorf. When the preliminary selection of Handke was announced all hell broke loose. Handke had earned himself the loathing of many for supporting the Serbian side in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, for writing a book that claimed the Serbs had been misrepresented by the media, and for speaking kind works at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral about his leadership.

Handke responded by publicly removing himself from consideration for the prize, yet the arguments raged on in German-language papers (and was reported in English-language websites like the excellent SignandSight). This was not the only public moral opposition to Handke’s work of late: his play Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking was removed from the 2007 schedule of France’s Comedie Francaise. Handke had received many literary accolades before his defence of the Serbs and is considered, even by those who condemn his political views, a talented writer and novelist. But no one is talking about his work now, only his public commitments.

The issue of whether novelists and poets, artists if you like, should be judged by their morals and political stances is itself rife with debate, but I’m interested in the step before that. What we think and what they think since they often do it, qualifies them to expound on weighty political topics in public forums.