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"Death as Text"

: An Exploration of Maternal Suicide in the Fictive Narratology of the Mourning Son in Peter Handke’s “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams”


Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972) expostulates a Mother’s suicide in the eyes of the Son. Focussing on its non-metaphorical elements, he describes her as “the Mother” and

‘mourning’, here, is a replaced grief or a passive distance at caricaturing the art of documentation. The female suicide of the text is a juxtaposition of obstructive senses, one where the Freudian “Punctum” or Lacanian “Tuche” manifests its differential faculties of sight. The author devotes the self into a deconstructive milieu by focusing both on the identification of ''the Encounter, the Real'' (Barthes) and the experiential horror at the female death. The act of writing is to convert oneself into a psycho-somatic automaton. Death of the Mother is a revival of one’s own biography, that inevitably wants to “construct lives, rather than reflect on them” (Chloe Paver).


Literary connoisseurs have long been perturbed with the question of female suicides in the

literary world, whether it is in a vengeful reading of Ophelia’s counterintuitive fate or Madame Bovary’s circumstantial milieu. The paper aims to categorize the profound question by trying to demonstrate a displacement of vision, placing the ambivalence from the perspective of a male persona as well as that of a son’s, to explore the possible countenance of death and its subsequent address in literature by questioning the principles that denominate its literary framework and its reception as a narrative technique ‘beyond sorrow’. Trying to trace the trajectory of Handke’s modernist autobiographical novel, the paper tries to engage with the problem of transcending the “privacy of context” to enter the realms of literary suicides, reiterating the question of the female experience from an other-worldly gaze of depiction.


Julia Kristeva emphasizes in her work Desire in Language (1969), that the logic of

signification is inherently materialized in the female body and discharged in its semiotic

association with the ‘symbolic’. In other words, ‘the Mother’ posits herself as the sheet of the ‘first language’, an ‘in situ’ presentation of delirium. Since life as nature is itself a non-referential entity, the Mother's body is the only law of grammar that operates on the level of matter and prefigures the paternal function.


In Motherhood According to Bellini, Kristeva advances the encounters of Motherhood within

the Catholic discourse, where the Mother is sacred; and as a residue of Science, where Nature is with a womb”. Handke explores this ‘arbitrary replication’ of the maternal. His loss is so intense that he forgets to long for it. He says, “I better get to work before the need to write about her … dies away.”


This inculcation of Time comes with a limit, both deployed in the act of mourning as well as the act of writing. Since the event of the Suicide itself is astonishingly worldly, the performativity of the text tends to realign the female logic of language within the hyperbolic world. It is a vain attempt at the phallogocentric effort to recreate the Mother's existential structure.


Susan Sontag calls the authorial yearning for ‘content’, a “'hindrance or a subtle philistinism”. This is because, all manifest content is an outcome of the past and so, in the observable world, it is only by pushing aside the object of suicide, and the “terrible audacity” of the event itself, that we enter its ‘logos’ or meaning. Thus, textual interpretation is “the revenge of the intellect upon art”. Extracting the ‘untranslatable, sensuous immediacy’ into the energy of wholesome ‘meanings’, depletes the suicidal world into an image in retrospect.


Handke establishes that if we feel the need to “see the thing at all”, the advisable route would be to create an erotics of art. The Mother's suicide is ‘mechanical’ only in a spatio-temporal realm, quite apart from the living text. In the novel, Handke uses the Bakhtinian “unity of

answerability”. The author is responsible for guilt or blame and must ‘answer with his own life’ on what he has gathered from his art.


Pushkin writes in The Poet and The Crowd (1828):

“Not for the fretful cares of everyday life,

Not for the pursuit of profit, not for warfare

Are we born - but for inspiration”


Handke deliberately eradicates a ‘necessary principle’, or a Kantian code of morals that gives

shape to his emotional-volitional position on his Mother’s suicide. He can only pursue his

creation in the object that emerges as a text, but doesn’t “experience the process of his own

experiencing”. The authorial confession is not the ‘son’s account’ of maternal affection, rather, it is the characterization of the ‘subject’, who is completely independent of the author.


In 1938, with the publication of Three Guineas and the fascist insurrection in Spain, Virginia

Woolf was asked, “How are we to prevent war?” She reiterates in compelling hysterics:


“You, Sir, call them horror and disgust. We also call them horror and disgust. War, you say, is an abomination. And we echo your words. War is an abomination, a barbarity”.


This is the epitome of female mock-rhetoric, an agitated overuse of endless revulsion. Handke, in the novel, creates a parody of typology for the suppressed woman, where “even in joy” a woman blushes “because joy was something to be ashamed of”. She forgets her husband, “squeezes her child so hard that it cries” and arrests herself in “the home” after the death of her brothers in war. Her identity is an intersection of all her male associations.


He creates an illusion of suicidal agitation, as if violence is embedded in its photographic eloquence. The account of female suicide in the novella only confirms the absence of identity in the politics of the feminine, especially for the Mother. This is because the text is a vision or an autobiographical muse which can never perish, unlike her body, which acts as a political statement outside the text. To use Simone Weil’s affirmation, the violent moment turns “anybody into a thing”. The female becomes a space of horror, a spillage of total destruction. But within the text, it tends to lose its ‘shock therapy’ (Ernst Friedrich) with the thematic authority of the writer.


Handke extricates the female truth within the context of the Second World War, ironically using the “argument of facts”. Although war, like a suicide, “uses up words” (Henry James), yet the author transcribes the battle-cry of the female void into a testimony of the maternal persona. Handke’s ‘Mother’ plays out her rural fright with a ‘short, unhappy laugh’; her “copied posture” is “free from her own history”; her “mask-like mobility”, though not rigid, is dependent on the erotic appraisal of the stranger. In other words, the disposition of the female navigates around a gaze of masculine condescension.


In both cases, in the real-world evaluation of her conduct and the authorial performance of a suicidal body, we see a display of structural violence, the female as a life and as a prop, respectively. The maternal suicide reacts to the manipulative memory. It breaks the fourth wall in direct address to the reader. The voyeuristic glance at the Mother’s abjectness can be read as a pretext to enter the dark abyss of her womb. The opening of the novel thus reflects Camus' The Outsider:


“The worst thing right now would be sympathy...because I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable”.


We notice the paradox of the author dutifully trying to textualize the non-word, as well as the fury of the son “if they dare to mention” the Mother’s suicide. He acts in a double bind of fictive propagation and horrid morbidity. The text emerges of its own accord, as if to obliterate what the author calls his “boredom with remembrance”. The reader notices a need to push away contingency and to bring forth the author’s own insecurities through the medium of maternal instincts.


The intention of the suicide as a phenomenological perverse of reality, tramples the female into a text of dichotomy. Handke uses the memoirs of the female body as the context of “othering”. The Mother’s constant force of resistance and resilience against her replacement, both in and out of the text, binds her ‘exemplary case’ into a ‘literary ritual’. The author is gradually “alienated from himself and transformed into a ... remembering and formulating machine”. The text works as an ironic curse, a Lacanian “missed encounter”, where “reality can no longer produce itself except by” a traumatic ceaseless repetition of prolonged suffering.


In Kafka's words, suicide is “self-forgetting”. Does it indicate a crack in the writerly text? Is the son, as a writer, admonishing his curiosity in his Mother's life because he wants to banish his own thoughts? Are not his thoughts an extension of the Mother's suicide? We can hint at this culpability in the author when he says:

“... these are precisely the moments I have already mentioned, in which extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness ... ‘was...became nothing’ hoping in this way to dominate the terror.”


Handke's “female” is different from the ‘epic project’ (Maria Louisa Roli) of the bourgeois novel of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Here, the Mother’s aspiration to ‘become somebody’ is possible only within the milieu of euphemisms. “Tired”, “sick”, “dying” or “dead” are “the basic stations of women in the town”.


Even as a body, the Mother typically exemplifies the author’s own critique of “representational thought” (Scott Abbott). The dialectics of nationalist ideologemes and his Mother’s agreeableness to this tyranny is displayed as a ‘festival mood’. The Mother is not an identified persona who conducts life on her own. Rather, the attempt is to show that the only decisive action in her life is her death. Just as the loved one is expected to be destroyed in a garrulous war, the dead Mother as the ‘aesthetic subject’ demands an ‘ethical questioning’ in the narratorial schema. Hasall rightly observes that the author is not denying history, but in a post-structuralist manner, keeping open a possibility of “individual autonomy despite overwhelming historical circumstances”. Death itself becomes a narrative of female eccentricity rather than a repetition of the Mother's history while she was still alive.


The female contradistinction in the novella happens in a two-fold manner. Firstly, it lends the Dead Mother a voice beyond the obsolete by highlighting its vulnerability within the paterfamilia. Secondly, it tries to display a decapitated body within the eternity of thought and writing itself.


Kundera suggests that tenderness creates “a tiny artificial space where each will treat the other like a child”. Hence, it is solely the lack of tenderness that creates the death of the feminine in the novel. The Mother’s act of living was a perpetual symbol of ‘forgetting’. The sorrow of her life generated a powerful and liminal statement of constant submission to oblivion. And ironically, the suicide is oblivion in its most obvious form.


Conclusively, we can say that ‘the implied reader’ here is the author himself, ravaging through the passage of time towards a sort of recollection, which is typically rendered a feminine faculty. The death of the Mother is disguised as a polemic towards life itself. The author plays with his sensitivity to reach a quietude, a disregard, a solitary battle in irritation, but not in denial. The maternal aspect blooms in the text as the ‘literature of memory’ and transposes its fictive morbidity into a reaction by the author, who acts as the protagonist. Thus, the displacement of narratorial roles assures that the Mother's 'dead voice' is impressed in the longing of the Son and its belonging to the text.


Pritha Banerjee

MA English, PG-I

University of Delhi

Pritha Banerjee is currently pursuing her Masters in English Language and Literature from University of Delhi (affiliated to Ramjas College). She has actively headed the Department of Bibliography at India Lost and Found and has been the recipient of the highest prize in the All-India Essay Writing Competition by SREI Foundation (Kolkata) in 2014. Presently working as a writer and translator for the Sankritayan-Kosambi Study Circle, she aims to begin her research on Modern Essay and Discourse, Psychoanalysis, Posthumanism and Children’s Literature.


Works cited


Handke, Peter, and Ralph Manheim. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Pushkin Press, 2019.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Penguin, 2009.

Atay, Hivren Demir. “The Punctum in History: Representing the m(Other)'s Death in Peter Handke's a Sorrow beyond Dreams.” Purdue e-Pubs, https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol21/iss5/10/

Bakhtin, Mikhail M., et al. Art and Answerability Early Philosophical Essays. University of Texas Press, 2014.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Vintage, 1993.

Lacan, Jacques, and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Hogarth, 1977.

“Plato's Pharmacy  .” Plato's Pharmacy - The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Plato%27s_Pharmacy

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin Books, 2019.

Kristeva, Julia, and Leon Samuel Roudiez. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Oxford, 2006.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Blackwell, 1980.

Kundera, Milan, and Aaron Asher. Life Is Elsewhere. Faber & Faber, 2020.

Camus, Albert, and Stuart Gilbert. The Outsider. Penguin Books, 1962.

Friedrich, Ernst. War against War! Spokesman, 2014.

Kafka, Franz, et al. The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913. Stearns Press, 2015.

Handke, Peter. To Duration. The Last Books, 2014.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Abbott, Scott. Peter Handke's Theatrical Works. Selected Works, 1992.


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