The Controversy of Peter Handke

In the era of #MeToo and cancel culture, we are used to finding out that one of our favorite artists or creators has a problematic past or a despicable secret. It’s not an easy scenario to deal with; can I listen to “Thriller” anymore without thinking of thinking of Michael Jackson’s pedophilia? How about watching Johnny Depp’s movies, knowing that he abused his ex-wife? It’s complicated.

But what happens when we know of the artist’s problematic behavior before we applaud and honor him? Enter Peter Handke. This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he has been the center of a controversial debate since the award’s press release came out earlier this month. His work is, no doubt, brilliant – the Swedish Academy, who awards the Literature Prize, chose him for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

But, he is also one of the most vocal supporters of the 1990s Bosnian War – a conflict that has been widely condemned as a tragic genocide. Along with supporting Serbian dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, Handke has stated that the infamous massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica was staged by the victims themselves. This wildly controversial and wholly unfounded statement made headlines, and the Swedish author built his reputation off of his prickly politics.

So, when the Swedish Academy chose him as the recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, people were angry — and confused. After a sexual assault scandal plagued the organization in 2018, the Swedish Academy had publically announced its intentions to move away from the “male-orienteed” and “Euro-centric” biases that have swayed their judging in the past.

Considering this public stance, the choice of a controversial, European, and male laureate seemed to come out of nowhere. When disapproval was voiced, as they must have known it would be, the Swedish Academy responded by saying that the decision was literary, not political. Handke himself said this was a “brave choice” on the Academy’s part, but many others did not agree. Swedish Muslim writer Johannes Anyuru, for example, thinks that the Academy is hypocritical for telling its audience to separate art from artist: “Is there anyone, even a single person, who believes it is possible to be publicly critical of the members of the Academy and still receive prizes from them?” he says of the Academy’s alleged favoritism and blacklisting practices.

To add to the confusion, Peter Handke has been recorded criticizing not just one member of the Academy, but the entire Nobel Prize itself. In 2014, Handke called the Nobel a “false canonization of literature”, and called for it to be abolished. Yet, five years later, he’s won it. Is it Handke who’s changed, or the Academy — or, possibly the most daunting option, neither?

Although the situation is still unfolding, it seems clear that this decision was a misstep for an institution trying to recover its reputation. No matter how much “ingenuity” Handke’s work displays, there are many talented writers who could have used this platform for good. It is up to institutions like the Swedish Academy to consider these ramifications and make better informed choices. If they don’t, the credibility of the Academy – and the Nobel Prize – will only continue to deteriorate.

-Cari Hurley ’20

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