Grieving for Fascists
Peter Handke and Richard Wagner helped me mourn my father's death. Now I have to figure out how to mourn their lives.
My father had been dead for almost seven years by the time I learned about his suicide, the amount of time it takes to have someone declared dead in absentia in the state of Massachusetts. I’m still not sure why his mother—and my mother, for that matter—kept me in the dark during that time. Before he left a note and walked into the ocean, he told me he was moving to Atlanta for a job. I suppose I had simply assumed that he wasn’t interested in keeping up a long distance relationship with me, his only child.
I also don’t know why my mother and my father’s mother chose to tell me in the way that they did: His mother mailed me a manila envelope shortly before my 14th birthday. It contained a copy of his will, his suicide note, and his baby ring. My mother feigned ignorance when I read through the documents on our front lawn, just next to the mailbox.
“Well,” she said, “at least we know where he’s been all these years.”
It wouldn’t be until I was getting ready for college, going through my mother’s safe for some financial aid documents, that I saw her file on my dad. She’d started it in the days after his note was found. Even though they had divorced five years before he decided to end his life, she was the lead in having his estate settled. But we never discussed it, not after that first conversation over the manila envelope. Around the topic, we lapsed into a dull and speechless state.
“Dull speechlessness” is also the state Peter Handke describes falling into when he learned of his own mother’s suicide in November, 1971. Several weeks later, he began to write the taut, at times clinical work of autofiction A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (titled in the original German Wunschloses Unglück).
From the outset, Sorrow resonated with me. I first read it when I was 25, about to get married, and just beginning therapy—the first time in my life I would begin to unravel the emotional tangle of my father’s death that I’d previously kept shelved. Prior to that, however, I’d plumbed the canon of suicide memoirs in high school and college. I didn’t have any emotional reactions to them, but I nevertheless devoured them the way other people scarf up every available celebrity gossip rag—compulsively and clandestinely, often with the same empty-calorie value.
This sense of compulsiveness isn’t uncommon for children who lose their parents in this way. American psychologist Albert Cain, who has studied the topic extensively, places tremendous importance on the act of telling a child about their parent’s suicide. In keeping with the pace at which a child’s mind develops, it’s not simply one act of telling, but rather an act of telling and retelling over time. If the telling amounts to “a few brief, charged exchanges” that “put an end to overt questions,” the child is likely to be left “to his or her own constructions, patching together fragments of information and fantasy or joining an alliance of suppression.” In the absence of the internet, family communication, or any other real facts, I was using the grief of others to patch together my own information.
With suicide memoirs, the results were mostly a disappointment for me, the tone consistently overly-emotional. After spending so many years divorced from grief, trying to process someone else’s was like trying to eat beef bourguignon after a weeklong fast. Perhaps that’s why Sorrow had such an impact on me: It was a work that, in under 100 pages, told and retold the story of a mother’s suicide without letting emotion take the wheel. As he pieces together information about his mother’s childhood in Nazi Austria, her unhappy marriage to an alcoholic, and the nervous breakdown that would be an omen of her eventual fatal overdose, Handke notes:
The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten — like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext.
This gave me a sense of comfort in the emotional bardo. It also allowed me to see my father’s death not from my own perspective, but from his. Just as Emile Durkheim examined suicide as a problem of society, Handke examined his mother through the world and culture that shaped her. More accurately, he looked at the role she was expected to fill in this world, and the increasing chasm between that role and her inner life. Through this, I was able to see my father and the role he was slated for as the first (and only) son born into a military family as part of the post-War baby boom. With what little I knew of him (aided by files and reports), I could see how he’d tried to cross the gap between his own sensitivities, his failed marriages, his depression, and his checkered career, and the role he was born to fill. I also came to see how easily that bridge can crumble. I felt I had Handke to thank for that.
And then I fucking Googled him.
Even before last week’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement, Handke’s reputation as a genocide apologist couldn’t outrun search engine algorithms. The front page of Google included documentation of his denial of the Srebrenica genocide and his false claim that Bosnian Muslims staged their own massacres. What’s more, he didn’t seem inclined to bury these viewpoints, having spoken at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević (who died in prison, shortly before the conclusion of his trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide). Handke published an entire book on the country and the “purity” he found in the Serbs. It’s currently available used on Amazon for a minimum of $999.
But in the last week, the spotlight pointed onto Handke by the Nobel Committee has only heightened the critical response — and rightly so. Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon dubbed Handke “the Bob Dylan of genocide apologists.” The press has been quick to reprint Jonathan Littell’s more succinct assessment from 2008: “He’s an asshole.”
In general, I’ve always preferred to keep emotion at arm’s length, in favor of intellectual thought. I struggled with this instinct most acutely in my first few years of therapy, around most topics of discussion. My therapist would say she understood what I was saying, but not what I was feeling. Such prompts to get me out of my own head and into something more elemental or gut-felt were the first tentative bites of emotional nutrition. It was a kind, but rigorous, effort to break the fast. I would push back and shut down, she would refuse to honor the alliance of suppression. I imagine that, for her, working with me early on must have been like running into a brick wall over and over and expecting the result to eventually change.
It was around this time that I also began to develop a taste for Wagner, thanks in part to reviewing the full Ring Cycle when a new, multi-year production premiered in 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera. Where Handke eschews beauty in his depiction of death, Wagner overdoses on it, creating what he called the Gesamtkunstwerk (literally, a “total-art-work”). I’d flirted with the composer’s works in the past, but always found them a bit too long, a bit too overblown. In Die Walküre, the second installment of the Ring Cycle, however, something shifted. From somewhere, an emotion was sparked.
“Endless rage! Eternal grief! I am the saddest of all men,” Wotan moans to his daughter Brünnhilde in Act II of the opera. Even for the gods, the only truth in life is chaos. Ever specific with his stage directions, Wagner instructs Brünnhilde to lay her head on Wotan’s knee as she begs him to unburden his sorrows onto her. Wotan, in turn, gazes into her eyes “for a long while” while stroking her hair “with unconscious tenderness.” In a low, faraway voice, he wonders if his will would be broken if he were to do so. “Who am I if not your will?” Brünnhilde responds. It’s the scene of a daughter recognizing her father’s suffering, begging to take it from him, to inherit his burden as her own responsibility. (Wagner, too, struggled with depression and suicidal ideation.)
Such a response is uncomfortably familiar to children of suicide, who are likely to hold themselves responsible for their parents either in the face of a depressive episode or, after the fact, insist (in Albert Cain’s words) “in the face of therapists’ interpretations and reality confrontations, that it was their fault.” Seeing that moment play out on stage, I didn’t know if I was thinking about anything. But I was certainly feeling the desperate need to lay my own head on my father’s knee and beg him to give me his endless rage and eternal grief. To tap into these ideas through his art was to tap into my own grief.
I didn’t need to Google Wagner. As both a Jew and a classical music critic, I knew about the composer’s well-documented and unabashed antisemitism. His essay “Jewishness in Music” is an unapologetic diatribe on “the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognise as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.” It’s available on Amazon Prime for a sum that’s about one-one-hundredth the asking price of Handke’s book on Serbia. In an echo of Littell, Auden described Wagner as “an absolute shit.”
This was a common reaction in the 20th Century as the trend of casual antisemitism wore off and the specter of World War II rose. Wagner’s legacy is rendered all the more discomfiting when you take into account that he was idolized by Hitler. “Out of [Wagner’s] Parsifal I am building my religion—the solemnity of the Mass without theological party-bickering,” Hitler once told Nazi Party lawyer Hans Frank. Fellow classical critic and author of the forthcoming Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music Alex Ross has spent years unpacking the Wagner complex. He referenced the Parsifal conversation in an August 1998 article for the magazine, “The Unforgiven,” wherein he also drew parallels between the opera’s text and three speeches delivered by Hitler between 1939 and 1942. Handke’s own mother lived through this era, and what came after it.
While Wagner could never have predicted the rise of Hitler and a genocide that defies all adjectives (as all genocides should), scholars and fans alike have spent the better part of the last century debating what to do with his music. It’s not simply that he inspired Hitler, but that the philosophy that Hitler shaped in Wagner’s image was made (in Ross’s words) “not by distorting Wagner but by taking his words literally… the manipulation of reality in the service of one idea, the blend of mysticism and hate.”
Would Wagner have denied the Holocaust? Such questions and parallels seem even more pressing over the last week, not because of the Nobel Prize, but because of Turkey’s attacks against Syrian Kurds. I think about what Handke would say to this development. In the next breath, I think about my grandmother, a Syrian minority who was named for her slaughtered sister. I think and I struggle to feel. Other times, I feel and try not to think.
In some ways, it’s easier to condemn the dead while still embracing their work. The buffer of history (“it was a different time”) acts as both a cushion and a dodge. Hundreds of books have been written about Wagner’s art and politics, with titles like The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art and The Trouble with Wagner. Some scholars have taken apart his works, brick by brick, to find musical representations of antisemitism, or read key characters from his operas as stand-ins for Jewish stereotypes. But we still perform his music. According to the website Operabase, over 150 productions of Wagner’s operas are scheduled around the world throughout the next year. Even today, Jewish musicians have made his canon central to their repertoire. Conductor Daniel Barenboim, in contextualizing Wagner’s world, writes: “It was nothing extraordinary to blame the Jews for all current problems, whether political, economical, or cultural.”
We look to history as an explanation, at times even as an excuse for the behavior of the past that contradicts the values of the present. But currently, we’re also reckoning—on a public scale and in real time—with the abhorrent behavior of living artists, like Handke, who ought to know better. Caught in history as it’s unfolding, we’re not 100% sure what to do with each case. One group denounces Handke; another group (which recently struggled with its own allegations of misconduct) gives him one of the most prestigious awards a writer can get.
For me, the art of others has always been a means of catharsis, an outward manifestation of my internal life. I can point to Wotan’s heartbreaking farewell to his favorite child at the end of Die Walküre as though I was pointing to my own reflection in a mirror. It’s beyond a reflection, in fact, as I myself never got a farewell from my own father. In this sense, art became a means for me to achieve. And yet, just when I think I have some sense of closure around the legacy of my father through a work like Sorrow (not a total, complete closure — I’m not sure any one work of art could do that — but at least some sliver of resolution), the legacies of those artists then leave me with more discomfort and uncertainty.
I can’t defend Handke. I can’t even, in good conscience, defend his art at the expense of the man. But I also can’t immediately give up his works. I can’t ride into them as a hired assassin (as Patricia Lockwood recently did for the canon of John Updike), leaving blood on the ceiling in my wake. I don’t have the energy for the (justifiable) rage that others have over the Nobel Committee honoring a man who, when told that there were corpses to prove the Srebrenica Genocide, responded “You can stick your corpses up your ass!” I’m too exhausted from reliving the sadness that comes with being let down by yet another man who is old enough to be my father.
My first instinct, as a result, is to bury my head; to wipe my memory clean of the headlines and essays on Serbian purity. In the absence of that, I can, at the very least, say nothing. I can stash my copy of Sorrow (which also houses a small envelope containing the only photos I have of my father) deep in the back of my bookshelf. But all of this feels like yet another alliance of suppression. As blissful as ignorance might be, I know from experience that the truth will eventually arrive, often in an unannounced manila envelope.
Many recent pieces questioning what we should do with the great art of monstrous people invariably include the same Walter Benjamin quote: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” I keep reading these articles, because it’s easier to think about this question rather than deal with the sense of loss that comes from works that once meant something to me, without any asterisk or caveat. This is its own form of complicated grief.
Benjamin’s quote is an explanation, but not an excuse. It’s a holding container for more thought and emotional contemplation, sitting with one of the most pernicious and uncomfortable emotions, uncertainty. Not only uncertainty about an asshole author or an absolute shit of a composer. It’s uncertainty about all of the artists I admire who haven’t been exposed as reproachable—but all of whom might be.
It’s uncertainty about my father. For all I know, the image I have of him, a man I last saw nearly 30 years ago, is a false one. My conscious experiences with him constitute a handful of days in contrast to the 41 years he was alive. As far as I remember, he was loving and kind. But there’s a prisoner’s dilemma of synching this memory with the stories I’ve heard about him from others—that he was a deadbeat who couldn’t hold down a job, that he’s likely still alive since he would never have killed himself, that he was a shyster from a long line of Italian shysters. Perhaps, in the alternative universe where he is alive, I would hate him today.
And here’s what really terrifies me: It’s uncertainty about myself. Realizing that this essay may be read, either in the future or right now, as morally reprehensible paralyzes me. My hands hover above the keys, afraid of triggering a landmine. I’m aware that the work I’ve done to process my father’s death was predicated in part on the work of terrible men, which may or may not render it invalid. I’m also even more acutely aware that I, too, will one day die and not be able to defend whatever remains of me to those who would call me terrible.
We can’t outrun uncertainty any more than we can outrun our own mortality. Perhaps this is, in fact, the real takeaway of the good art/bad artist dilemma: that there is no answer, that seeking certainty and clarity only makes you more vulnerable. Finding closure to one grief opens you up to another grief.
Throughout all of this, I keep going back to a line from a poem by Sylvia Plath: “Every woman adores a fascist.” It’s both a comfort and a curse to know that I’m not alone in falling for someone on the wrong side of history. That person for Plath? Her father.