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.