October 31, 2008

Shadow Writing

“The 22nd of March 1832 had come.  In his armchair, a coverlet upon his knees, the green shade over his eyes, Goethe died.  The dread and anxiety that often precede death by some time were over and done; he suffered no more, he had suffered himself out.  And when he asked what day of the month it was, and was told the 22nd, he replied that, now spring had come, it would be all the easier to get well.  After that he raised his arm and traced signs in the air.  His hand kept moving outward, then downward to the left; he was actually writing, line under line, and his arm sank lower not only because there would be no more room above for the shadow-writing, but also because he was weak.  At last the hand rested upon the coverlet, but still he continued writing.  The dying man seemed to be repeatedly setting down the same thing in these invisible lines.  He was seen to punctuate with care; here and there letters could be descried.  Then his fingers turned blue, they ceased to move, and when the green shade was lifted, his eyes were already sightless.”

—from “Goethe’s Career as a Man of Letters,” Thomas Mann’s address on the centenary of Goethe’s death.   

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.

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.