October 22, 2008

The Handke-Effekt II

The Handke-Effekt, as I wrote in the last post, is a type of alienation effect that defamiliarizes conventional novelistic focalization.  Here’s another example, this time from The Afternoon of a Writer.  After a day at his desk the writer leaves his house for a walk:

“Although his house was on the hilltop, with windows opening out in all directions, he hadn’t really looked into the distance that day.  A distant view came to him only as his descent brought him among people.  (At home he avoided the roof terrace for which visitors envied him, because the panorama made him feel too remote; he used it only to hang washing.)  Now, in the mountains out of which the river burst, he saw a glassy snow field; and on the other side, at the edge of the plain, where the outer suburbs of the city were situated, a curved moraine that might have been sketched in with charcoal.  It seemed to him that he might reach out and touch the moss and lichen under the snow, the brook cutting across the moraine, and on its banks outcroppings of ice, which made a clicking sound as the water rushed through.  Beyond the housing developments on the periphery, he could see a row of smaller buildings, which, as he continued to look at them, moved through the countryside.  He made out the Autobahn, with its inaudible trucks, and for a moment he felt a vibration in his arms, as if he were driving one of them.  Near the smokestacks of the industrial zone, in a strip of no-man’s-land overgrown with bushes, a red light flared, and the dark container behind it turned out to be a stopped train, which, when the signals changed, set itself, at first almost imperceptibly, in motion, and grew larger as it approached.  It would soon be pulling into the station, and most of the passengers had already put on their coats.  A child’s hand looked for a grown-up’s hand.  The travelers who were going farther stretched out their legs.  The waiter in the almost empty dining car, who had been on duty since early morning, stepped out into the corridor, cranked down the window, and cooled his face in the breeze, while the dishwasher, an elderly meridional, sat in his cubbyhole, smoking and staring impassively into space.  Along with these distant sights (“Distance, my thing”) the writer saw, above the roofs of the inner city, above the dome of a church, standing out against the sky, a stone statue holding an iron palm branch, surrounded by secondary figures as though executing a round dance.”

Unlike the crouching pharmacist in the passage from On A Dark Night, this protagonist is in motion, descending from his hilltop house into the valley below and enjoying the panorama along the way, and therefore the sheer variety of the sights he is able to take in does not strain ‘Newtonian’ credibility to the same extent.  Nonetheless there still seems to be a remarkable, distance-defying plasticity in the writer’s visual field, as if he had with him a telescope – or even a movie camera and crane – that Handke had somehow failed to mention.  The overall effect, however, is less like something seen through a lens than something painted on a large-scale canvas in a flattened style that eschews the foreshortenings and receding perspectives of traditional realist illusionism.  Instead, background, middle-ground, and foreground appear almost “stacked up,” one on top of the other.  The effect is heightened by the fact that Handke leaves out the narratorial stage directions that typically (and usually boringly) make the transitions from one sight to another legible in conventional Newtonian terms (i.e., “As the writer continued down the path,” or, “Turning to his left, he saw,” etc.).  And then we also have, as in the previous example, those details which are simply impossible for the ostensible focalizer to be able to see, in this case the figures aboard the train when it pulls into the station – the child and the other passengers, the waiter opening the window, the dishwasher smoking his cigarette.  Indeed, in a sudden refocusing, these are all relegated to the status of “distant sights,” along with the smokestacks and the brook in the moraine. 

At this point someone might object that this “Handke-Effekt” business needlessly complicates a more or less straightforward, and even conventional, narrative technique.  What do we have here but examples of free indirect discourse, shading, at most, into a kind of stream of consciousness?  Thus any details which it might be physically implausible or impossible for the protagonist to see in so-called “Newtonian” terms need nothing more than the “quantum” magic of imagination or association to account for them.  In the first passage when the crouching pharmacist “sees” the airplane passenger trying to wipe the mist off the window, he is merely imagining a plausible action that could be occurring aboard the distant plane lifting into the sky.  Likewise, the writer in the second passage simply imagines the passengers and employees in the train; the child and the dishwasher are not “really” in the train car but in his mind.  The absence of directive language and tags of attribution (“he thought,” “he remembered,” “he imagined”) is precisely what is “free” about free indirect discourse, and the purpose of this approach is to bring readers closer to the experience of unfettered and far-ranging consciousness itself.

What is the real force, though, of such an explanation?  Behind a paean to consciousness is the complete banalization of Handke’s prose.  If something strange and unsettling and defamiliarizing is indeed going on in these moments, then what this objection does is to refamiliarize them, to naturalize – and neutralize – their effects. 

The alternative is to take these moments the way they strike us the first time we encounter them, in all their strangeness – in other words to take them literally.  The pharmacist sees the airplane passenger trying to wipe the mist off his window, the writer sees the child and the waiter in the distant dining car – distance, after all, being “his thing.”  The old dispensation presents us with an either/or choice between what can “realistically” be seen and what must be explained as the product of imagination or madness – if it’s “out there,” then the character can’t “really” see it, and if the character sees it, then it must be “in here,” in his or her head.  In the new dispensation of Handke’s fiction, however, it’s the designations “inner” and “outer” that no longer signify, because consciousness and landscape now share the same terrain, as if they were all on one continuum, or moebius loop.  The protagonists "see" their impossible, Handkean landscapes, but it could with equal justice be said that the landscapes conjure their viewers into existence, they constitute their own focalization.  The process is less like “seeing” than like the experience of reading.        

In the last post I said that the Handke-Effekt applies to the intimate or “close” narrative focalizations – first person, second person, third person limited – while I set to one side the question of third-person omniscient.  It’s time, however, to notice the extent to which the Handke-Effekt’s estrangements of conventional novelistic focalization work by poaching on the territory of omniscience. Specifically, focalization operating under the sign of the Handke-Effekt shares with omniscience some of its mobility, the way it doesn’t have to be tethered exclusively to the Newtonian limits of the traditional character’s sensorium.  The all-seeing omniscient narrator would have no problem, obviously, seeing the passengers on the plane and in the dining-car of the train.  But that doesn’t mean that Handke goes to the other extreme; he selectively stretches the range of his characters’ focalizations but never opts for God-like omniscience, for narrating, say, in the manner of Balzac or Dickens.  He eschews both traditional third-person limited and third-person omniscient – but these turn out, I think, to be the two sides of a single refusal. 

Note the importance in both passages, whether it is the crouching of the pharmacist in the first passage or the writer’s walk down the hill in the second, of descent itself.  In each case the descent is undertaken in the service of a wider perception. “Crouching you were closest to yourself,” Handke writes of his pharmacist, and yet in this position “the field of vision remained as broad as possible”; while the writer-protagonist in the second example avoids his own envied roof-top prospect because the view from there “made him feel too remote.”  Instead, “a distant view came to him only as his descent brought him among people.”  The gift of a kind of broad or comprehensive sight is given only to the person who moves away from the heights and closer to the earth.  This counter-intuitive move challenges a trope deeply ingrained in Western culture in which the summit or peak, in one form or another, is the privileged locus not only of physical sight but of prophetic vision.  There are Hebraic versions (Pisgah and Sinai) and Hellenic versions (Olympus, Parnassus), while closer to our own time there is the tradition of the “prospect poem,” from the neoclassical (Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill”) to the Romantic (Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”).  For an instance from German Romanticism I imagine Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting, “The Wanderer Above the Mists.” 

The Handke-Effekt brings the wanderer back down below the mists.  It is an implicit repudiation (and in the second example, almost an explicit rebuke) of this entire tradition and the metaphysics that underwrites it.  In the case of the novel form, it might be easy to acknowledge that narratorial omniscience is informed by the metaphysics of God, but its corollary is no less true, that the conventions of third-person limited and free indirect discourse are informed by the metaphysics of the soul.  The great “secular” tradition of the realist novel is based on the ideology of humanism, which had always relied on a covertly resurrected divinity (see Marx’s critique of Feuerbach).  Fixed point of view, unitary consciousness, and “private” interiority are the fabulous attributes of spirits, two centuries of whose ideological-aesthetic dominance have reduced novels that rely on them to the equivalent of hand-held compact mirrors – the accessories of narcissism, on the one hand, and of cosmetics companies (also known as publishers), on the other. 

Handke has written himself free of this metaphysics.


LML said...

You anticipated the obvious objection (sounds like fairly ordinary limited-3rd with some subtle slippage), but rereading those passages, I don't know, I still feel that, absent more examples demonstrating the consistency of the slippage, the objection holds.

I do, however, find myself agreeing with your summation, and I'm wondering if Handke's relentless insistence on the visual might not be as germane a stylistic issue as the slippage of perspective you outline. (Michael Roloff hinted at something about film and Handke that would seem relevant.) We can truthfully recreate a real-time documentation of what the eye sees, the patterns the mind makes of the visible, but we cannot truthfully recreate the inner swirl, ever, and it's especially bogus to enact a one-to-one pairing of sensory input and emotion. It's a withholding of the usual emotional ticker tape without being some Hemingwayesque withholding that is only a ticker tape by other means. I see the same idea, maybe, behind Sebald's insistence on narrating strictly through observation and reported dialogue--never the ticker tape--and now it's ocurring to me that stylistically Sebald may represent a merging of Bernhard's monologues (the obvious influence) and Handke's visual rigor? Assuming the rigor is a constant in his work and not just something I'm overstating based on my memory of two books and what you've excerpted above? I seem to remember a Sebald essay that ridicules a garrulous close-third on political/historical grounds that remind me of yours and that may dovetail with my half-formed thoughts here...

Anyway, much to think about. You've succeeded in making me want to return to Handke sooner than I otherwise would have.

Edmond Caldwell said...

You write: "now it's ocurring to me that stylistically Sebald may represent a merging of Bernhard's monologues (the obvious influence) and Handke's visual rigor?"

That's a very provocative and interesting speculation. I agree that Sebald's work shows signs of the influence of Handke as well as Bernhard; like Handke he favors the peripatetic pedestrian protagonist and so gives himself the narrative opportunities for landscapes that are always more than mere dull 'description.' Although Sebald also has that archival turn that I don't see in Handke . . . I'd love to read that Sebald essay you mention, if you happen to remember where - is it one of the pieces in Campo Santo?

As far as your first point, Handke has a number of characteristic "effects" of which my "Handke-Effekt" is only one, but I do find it multiple times in Afternoon of a Writer, Across, On a Dark Night, and Absence. It's also there, but with a more muted presence, in Repetition, which is a splendid novel in its own right, and which actually contains the most prominent examples I can think of of Handke's disavowal of God-like "mastery" or omniscience. (In fact, he seems to pit his prose against ideological 'interpellation' per se; he doesn't want to be 'hailed' into existence as a subject by any Big Other whatsoever . . .). Anyway, I can vouch for there being a significant or 'critical mass' of examples of the H-E is these sort of 'middle period' Handke works. I don't recall seeing it however in earlier works like Goalie's Anxiety or even Left-Handed Woman, and I haven't read the later works like Sierra Del Gredos and No-Man's Bay.

But as far as whether or not the H-E is "really" just 'fairly ordinary limited-3rd', that's obviously not an empirical question in the sense that we can dip one of the passages into a solution and if it turns blue it's conventional free indirect discourse and if it turns red it's a radical defamiliarization of conventional focalization. But there's still a pretty good test nonetheless, which is to stick the passage into a Handke novel. In other words, which account of the effect (conventional or unconventional) jives best with the rest of what we find in Handke's works, the other effects and the overall tenor? Which way of reading opens up Handke's novels in more interesting and fruitful and, most of all, Handkean ways? Whenever anything strange or anti-realist happens in a Handke novel, are we going to opt for a recuperation of the conventional? How about the narrator's murder of the nazi in Across, after which he attends a card game? Of course it is physically possible (and even politically desirable) for someone to kill a nazi and then go to a card game, but there's nothing in the sequence that accords with any conventional measure of psychological verisimilitude whatsoever. So does the murder have to be "all in the narrator's head"? What about when the protagonist and his wife end up at cinema director John Ford's ranch at the end of Short Letter, Long Farewell? All in his head? What of the protagonist's strange walkabout in On a Dark Night? For me, at least, it's the choice between a banalizing reading and a reading that respects the strangeness and interest of what Handke might be up to. I'd rather read them as more Handkean than as more Ian McEwan.

LML said...

"Which way of reading opens up Handke's novels in more interesting and fruitful and, most of all, Handkean ways?"

I'm in complete agreement. My feeling was that I couldn't make the call about the consistent presence of the effect because I haven't read enough Handke, but I certainly feel that your description of the effect (and its effect) resonates with the overall tenor of H's work as I know it. In Goalie's Anxiety, at least as I remember it, we are with the central character moment to moment without ever being inside his head in any conventional way. There's no development of motive or past history that might explain why he kills a woman and then hangs out restlessly in a small town. We have only a vague idea that he is a washed-up aimless brute, but we are discouraged, I think, from applying these ideas too strictly to an evaluation of his actions. He acts, it seems, based on an incomprehensible stew of feelings the dissection of which is less interesting than the central truth that their dramatization (if you can even call it that) makes them no more knowable than they were when they were inside him. So yeah, it seems a refutation of consciousness-based drama, in which we get a ticker tape of "mind" along with a series of evocative actions, and then, presto, out pops "full knowledge of a nuanced character."

The Sebald essay was in (I checked on Amazon; I lost my books in a fire a few years ago) On the Natural History of Destruction. I don't remember which one of the four essays in the book I'm thinking of, but I believe it took a handful German WWII-era writers to task for irresponsibly generating sympathy for characters.

I think the archival impulse definitely sets Sebald apart from Handke and Bernhard, but it seems in line with what I'm now beginning to conclude is an effort, on the part of all three, to make narratives that honor a sense of skepticism about what can be known and represented in prose. One can cull and observe and ask people about their lives. One can walk and look around and note visual patterns and correspondences. One can sit in one place and rant discursively. These are responsible methods of narrating. But to assume yourself into the heads of characters in faux real-time is not only a violation in moral terms, maybe, it's an intellectual failing, because we all know that the mind is too fluid and vast and messy to squeeze into chronologically arranged sentences.

lloydmintern said...

This is very incisive description of Handke's prose, but you have no clue as to how he actually achieved these transitions. In this respect it really is no different than the other, admittedly dull and rationalized way of explaining his style. Yours is a more fetching thesis, but do you really propose that such an understanding can help a reader in any way? Maybe it cuts a reader off from precisely the thrill of that philosophical shortcut you point out. (The experience you have in reading Handke. There is the rub: are you transmitting your own experience, or inadvertently talking down to a reader who hasn't had it.)

But, your lucid and patient analysis becomes a respectable form in its own right: of the species "literary criticism". Fictional as its speculations are. Now I understand a little more why you can't tolerate James Woods; you are both chopping down trees in the same forest, though.

Edmond Caldwell said...


If the test of an image's effectiveness is its adhesiveness, I have to rate your image of the "ticker tape" very highly indeed. It's been stuck in my head for weeks now, ever since you wrote about it in your two comments above. It's had me looking over the fiction I've been writing, asking myself, "Is this just the ticker tape?"

In part it's because I think you convincingly (or at least suggestively, given the limits of a blog comment) contrast it with the procedure of Sebald, Bernhard, and Handke, which - as different from each other as they are - have in common the eschewing of the ticker tape in favor of procedures that "honor a sense of skepticism about what can be known and represented in prose."

The only thing I'd add to that - or rather offer as a speculation - is that they might also share a kind of implicit confidence in words and sentences themselves, as things of value or interest in their own right, above and beyond the tasks of "knowing" and "representing."

Anyway, thanks for those comments.