Monday, May 5, 2008

The Subversive Power of Realist Narrative: Peter Handke: On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House

I've been reading Peter Handke's On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House. I finished it this afternoon. As I read the last few pages I found myself surprisingly moved.

Why? Why was I surprised?

From the first page I could see that this would be an intellectually engaging read, aesthetically challenging--a book which, because it would not lend itself to easy classification, would resist easy judgement. I expected, that is to say, a mostly cerebral experience. It was certainly that, but that I found it deeply moving--like listening to music, was unexpected. I don't begin to understand the how and why of it. I'm not one to think of reason and emotion as contradictory. I have not idea how to go about writing a review, but a few things occurred to me on the walk home from the café where I'd been reading, thoughts I wanted to put into words.

I was going over those parts of the novel where the journey of the pharmacist of Taxham grows increasingly fantastical. Perhaps it's because the fantastical elements are so material, so concrete, nocturnal wind and dust, labor and sleep, bicyclists and the turning of the seasons--though space and time come a bit unhinged--or at least, uncertain, there is no release from heat and cold and gravity, so I found myself resisting a recurrent impulse to dispel in afterthought the fantastical... the perfect word.. dis-spell: to dispel the spell, to read those passages the way some scholars in the earlier generations of "scientific" biblical critical studies would reduce everything uncanny, otherworldly, miraculous--to something that better fit their notions of reality. Because they couldn't give up their idea that the Bible was in some form, true, revealed or otherwise, and they had accepted scientific methods and views--then the parting of the Red Sea... must have really been a low tide in the Sea of Reeds. It did not occur to them what an egregious misreading this was of the story as written. As though we were to posit, as serious criticism, some spurious but truthy sounding "scientific" explanation for Krook's spontaneous human combustion in Bleak House, or insist that we better understand Macbeth if we make the witches nothing more than projections of his pathological ambition. That they may be--but for the play to come alive, they are very much--really witches! No, the meaning of the crossing of the yom, of the flight from Egypt. is just what it is in the Passover Seder--a nes, a miracle. This is only a problem if you insist on confusing how a story "means," with how we understand the physical universe.

Nonetheless, I found myself at some point relating the fantastical journey to the blow on the head--as though he were telling this story to the narrator who is interviewing him... say, after recovering from surgery? Recounting a delusional episode? Those things hadn't really happened... such is the hold, the subversive hold of realist narrative, that--even knowing better--we do no easily let ourselves read a story on its own terms.


  1. you may think of the pharmacists journey as fantastical. let me give a few pointers: the book starts with the camera zooming in - and once he gets knocked over the head the passages are written in dream syntax imagery - handke had done this before, briefly, in a section of THE AFTERNOON OF A WRITER [the woman who is tossed into the bushes by a hit and run is the metaphor the writer's woundedness after having walked the viciously gossippy alleys of fat salzburg], the walking in spain is handke walking in spain, as is handke spending time with animals in those traffic islands where the dislocated last animals hide out... here are some handke links

    and 12 sub-sites [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 BLOGS:


    "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben]


  2. Thanks for the links.

    Who then is dreaming, the pharmacist or the narrator/interviewer?

  3. "Perhaps it was his dried mushrooms, of which he bit off some pieces, perhaps not: At any rate, that night he had two dreams that took place without him"

  4. I lost my connection before I could finished that last comment. I meant to say that there is more than one window opening to what you call the "dream syntax imagery:" There's the blow on the head, the growth that he had removed... and the mushrooms (Perhaps. Perhaps not). My sense in reading this was that it would be wrong to try to look for a single narrative line that one could construct as a sequence such that that might happen in the world outside the text. In fact, it seems possible to find several lines, none of them reaching unbroken from beginning to end, and no one is inclusive enough to assimilate the others.

    "Fantasy" is not the right word for the journey--not really what I had in mind. "Textual," I think would be more accurate. There are threads that resist projection or reinterpretation into "real-world" sequences--that remain primarily, irreducibly [textual.