Language and war ~ theatre notes

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Language and war

Worth reading, for those intrigued by the conundrum of Peter Handke's attitudes to Serbian nationalism and by the nexus between language and war, is a brief essay, written in 2000, by the English poet J.H. Prynne.

"Whatever the context may have been for the comment attributed to Peter Handke, who in a recent protest against the NATO air-raids over Bosnia is reported to have observed that the first victim of war is language," writes Prynne, "it is hard not to wince at what seems extreme naivety and self-righteousness."

The charitable explanation for Handke's public presence at Milosevic's funeral is, indeed, naivety, and his subsequent statements are hardly free of self-righteousness. But more significantly, A Quick Riposte to Handke’s Dictum about War and Language illuminates the hiatus in Handke's work that leads from a notion of a "pure" poetic language to a troubling nationalism. Prynne elegantly dismantles the notion of a language uncontaminated by complicity with the machinations of power, and also points out that writers have historically played a crucial role in constructing the nationalist identities that are so important in the rush to war:

It may be resisted that true poets are patriots only to an ideal kingdom, of pure language and equally pure humanity; but enquiry shews this contention to be mostly false, because such purity is itself chimerical, often substituted for less admissible alternatives. The bread and butter that a man or woman eats (or even a poet) does not materialise like manna out of thin air. The emergence of nineteenth-century European nationalism, in the period of state-formation that composed the map for the start of the twentieth, was propelled by the intense development of national schools of culture and literature, by the locking up of international possibilities into the closed citadels of a national language, and by the poets who endorsed its ultimate separateness from the other languages all around its frontiers. No other art will do this so well, because music and painting are able to be more transparent to trans-national modalities; but writers proclaim the essence of their patriotic kingdom, and their work is most frequently enrolled into ideas of national identity by which one kingdom rallies its purposes against another.... If writers and poets think that language can somehow resist this involvement with the worst, while claiming natural affinity with the best, then they are guilty of a naive idealism that ought least of all to attract those who know how language works and what it can do.

The whole essay is available in Keston Sutherland's excellent magazine Quid, Issue 6. Many thanks to Edmund Hardy of Intercapillary Space for the pointer in my comments.

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