October 11, 2008

“The Viewer is Diverted,” or, The Handke-Effekt

I’ve been spending some time trying to figure out what makes reading Peter Handke’s fiction such an unsettling literary experience, and I think I’ve isolated one of the formal techniques he uses to achieve his peculiar ambience.  I haven’t given the secondary literature on Handke more than a passing glance, so forgive me (and maybe even gently inform me) if I’m retailing what turn out to be critical commonplaces about his work.

First, an example, from Handke’s 1997 novel, On A Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  I’ve chosen this one because the effect is fairly obvious here.  The protagonist, a pharmacist from a Salzburg suburb whose wife has left him, has gone for an evening drive and now sits on a stump in a roadside clearing near his car.  The novel is narrated in the third person, and seemingly a very “close” third, sliding at times into second person, as here: 

“Crouching down to see what was happening from close up; and besides, crouching you were closest to yourself.  Yet the field of vision remained as broad as possible: the parked car, in which, with the increasing dusk all around, a curious brightness seemed to have been trapped, the seats very obviously empty, and as if there were more of them than usual, whole rows of them; beyond it the airfield with the last plane rising into the air, at one window that passenger who thought he could rub off the haze on the outside on the inside; to the right, on the highway, an almost endless convoy of trucks, white on white, United Nations troops deployed against a new war, or rather returning from there (a few trucks were also being towed, half burned out); to the left, the training place for police dogs, at the edge of the forest, where one of the dogs seemed to have just got caught in a culvert and was howling piteously, while another, growling almost as piercingly, kept leaping at a man hidden behind a wall, burying its teeth in the ball of cloth in which the ‘fleeing criminal’ had wrapped his lower arm, then refusing to let go and hanging on stubbornly as the man ran in a circle with him, swinging the animal through the air.”

Even though the passage seems to be focalized through the protagonist’s perspective, it defies basic physics for many or even most of the specific details to be available to his point of view.  Most obviously, of course, the pharmacist wouldn’t be able to see the airplane passenger futilely wiping his window (and still less would he see the haze), but there are other distortions as well.  The crouching position described in the first line (after which no change in posture is given to us) makes it highly problematic that the protagonist could take in the convoy of UN trucks on the one hand and the policeman training his dog on the other, especially considering that the convoy is described as “almost endless” (i.e., seen disappearing into the horizon) and the dog trainer is at first “hidden” behind a wall.  Such a vista might be available to the pharmacist were he crouched on top of a hill, but he’s not.

In the Newtonian physics of conventional realism, what you see from a crouch is your shoelaces, yet we are assured that “the field of vision remained as broad as possible” (but not “his field of vision” or “the field of his vision”).  Could it be that when the pharmacist crouches to draw “closest to himself,” some other physics takes over, a kind of Handkean quantum mechanics?  It’s a strange new self-communion that has the result of seeming to evaporate its subjectivity into the evening air.

Even the switch to second person contributes to this evaporation, paradoxically suggesting at once a greater intimacy than the third-person – as if the pharmacist were now recounting his own impressions to himself – and a greater distance, in that the invitation to the reader to closer identification with the protagonist simultaneously dissolves his specificity as a particular, situation-bound pharmacist from a Salzburg suburb.  This move ‘closer to oneself’ is therefore ambiguous, and could include a swerve away from oneself or the discovery – even the in-habitation, so to speak – of the realization that one might not be one at all.

There are other things of note in the passage – the suggestive locution “on the outside on the inside”; the “white on white” of the trucks; the lurking savagery in the possible faraway war (Serbia?) and the police dogs in the middle distance – but the main effect, and what I’m calling (just for fun) the Handke-Effekt, is this destabilizing of conventional novelistic focalization, at least in its “close” variants (third-person limited, first person, and second person, leaving out for the moment third-person omniscient). Like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt or ‘alienation effect’, it’s a species of defamiliarization, but what it defamiliarizes most of all is the depiction of consciousness in traditional realism.  Conventional focalization overlaps with the sensorium of the character, so that the reader sees what the character can plausibly see, hears what the character plausibly hears, etc.; Handke subtly violates this.  Think of a sort of bathyspheric bubble around the character’s head, start moving the bubble to the left or right, or up and down, outside the range of physical plausibility, and there’s your Handke-Effekt. 

Stay tuned for Part II.



I am exceedingly happy to come on this post. Handke-Effect is as good a name as any,
Let us go to the opening of the book, a camera zooms in, a very classical narrative, which then devolves to writing in dream
syntax, if we are looking for an explanation of the abandonment of the Newtownian laws of physics, the purpose is indeed somewhat multiply didactic. The business about the UN dragging one of its destroyed trucks westward is a bit of wish fulfillment joke if you know Handke's amour fou for Yugoslavia. In the subsequent huge novel, CROSSING THE SIERRA DEL GREDOS a camera is evident that is prose enhanced by film to the extent that it can be [see the novel ABSENCE whose reading is experienced as that of watching a film to see where this venture to bring prose into the contemporary world of possibilities enters Handke's repertoire.
I myself am just doing a very long resume of Handke's development as a prose artist, cum review and commentary on
Del Gredos, where at times the whole world trembles as though during a mild continuous earth quake! As a playwright, e.g. in THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER, THE ART OF ASKING + RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE Handke is indeed the completer of the Brechtian project of an-Antiaristotelean catharsis.

SCRIPTMANIA PROJECT MAIN SITE: http://www.handke.scriptmania.com
and 12 sub-sites

http://www.handkelectures.freeservers.com [the drama lecture]


[dem handke auf die schliche/ prosa, a book of mine about Handke]


[the American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE]

[some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]

Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society
this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOG



"Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvenslebe n]

LML said...

This is deft analysis, and maybe I should just wait for part II, but my immediate question is: what is the effekt of the effekt (assuming there is one beyond subtle defamiliarization)? Is this just a signature, or is it of ontological importance? I've only read "Goalie" and "Once Again for Thucydides," both of which I found first-rate but not particularly stunning on the technical front.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Sorry for taking so long to thank you both, Michael and LML, for your comments.

Michael: Your remarks intrigue me. I've been interested in thinking about Handke and cinema since I read Short Letter, Long Farewell, where the protagonist and his wife visit John Ford at his ranch at the conclusion. And I plan to think further about H. as "the completer of the Brechtian project of an anti-Aristotelean catharsis" -- but I'm afraid I haven't yet read any of his drama other than Insulting the Audience. I have valued your Handke websites for a while now and I look forward to reading your commentary on Del Gredos.

Hi LML: You're right, Part II of my Handke post will explicitly discuss what I see as "the effekt of the effekt"; Part I was intended to identify it. I certainly didn't find H's work "particularly stunning on the technical front" either when I first started in. I was stirred, troubled, unsettled, baffled, a little bored at times, again baffled, but always intrigued. He grew on me; stunning's not the word for what I think is technically brilliant (altho' brilliant's not the word either) about his work, because it's always so quiet. It moves at the pace of a walk, and each step is a kind of displacement of the whole idea of "going forward," if that makes any sense . . .

Richard said...

'each step is a kind of displacement of the whole idea of "going forward," '

I like this and think it applies quite well to Handke.


edmond, glad to intrigue you. i just visited your site, to quote your take in its entirety as part of matters i address in DEL GREDOS. As to technical matters: take another look at the first page of GOALIE... where does it transport you, and HOW is that achieved, and the purpose I would say is to get us closer to the INTERIORITY of the subject, you had it right there about INNER AND OUTER! And being an Adornoite progressive I would say Handke does this to enable prose to be more communicative... that there are personal urges for that is true too. From chapter 3 to near the end of Chapter 10 I would say Handke achieves that UNITY while his subject and narrator become ONE! Anchored in images, also somewhat defensively I would say. Specifically, what the opening of GOALIE puts you in is what Kleinian pschychoanlysts call the "paranoid schizophrenic" position a kind of fundamental stage we pass through, can regress to, but poor paranoi Bloch who makes all these misassumptions is stuck in with murderous consequences! He reappears in Walk About the Villages as a worker who has spent some time in jail, and still has a lot of sadistic jokes up his sleeves. otherwise GOALIE is not that innovative technically, except that once you as the reader are caught in that position... not until that ambiguous ending does the book really let go even though its other narrative means are phenomenology, Handke's greatest strength, and some expressionistic passages... will be done with the
Del Gredos in another week I pray.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Michael:

Thank you for writing; I’m pleased if you found anything in my Handke posts useful. Handke’s works are only beginning to show me all the different ways they can resist my reading them, at least in any way other than according to their own sui generis protocols. No matter how “deeply” I seem to get into them, I always end up back on the surface of the page, and I suppose I feel like he’s doing something similar with his depictions (displacements) of consciousness as well, where every depth turns out to be another surface (the innerworld of the outerworld of the innerworld -- world without end).

You would be the person to ask this: Have Handke's early nonfiction writings, specifically the essay “I am an Ivory Tower Dweller” and the text of his Gruppe 47 denunciation, ever been translated and published in English? I haven’t been able to find them anywhere so far…

Please drop us a line when you finish your work on Del Gredos and let us know where readers will be able to find it.

Best regards,