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The Afternoon of a Writer, by Peter Handke

A famous one-liner goes something like, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who dichotomize everything, and those who don't." I've long thought that a funnier version would be: "There is one kind of person in the world: someone who dichotomizes everything."

I find the term "experimental," when applied to art, frustratingly loose—a frustration which probably indicates a lack of appreciation for the free nature of experimentalism on my part. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be employed in one of two ways: either as an accolade with pretensions to objectivity (meaning something like "successfully weird and weirdly successful") or as a way to praise with faint damnation (meaning something like "intermittently successful but mostly full of fail"). Perhaps I have the wrong idea of what people generally mean when they use the term, but I do think that the notions of success and failure are central to the meaning of the term, as they are even in these dilettantic modes of praise and condemnation. Indeed, it seems that it is along the lines of these notions that experimental art makes good on the implied analogy to scientific experimentation. As with a scientific experiment, an aesthetic experiment fails if it does not generate useful and comprehensible results, and if it fails in this manner, it is most likely because the original hypothesis was never stated clearly or was never tested properly. Success, on the other hand, is not dependent in either case on the results being pleasing or even desired, merely that they are capable of being understood and used.

Of course, "useful" and "comprehensible" mean different things in art than they do in science, and so the criteria for evaluating the success or failure of an artistic experiment diverge tremendously from those used by scientists, and part of that divergence is that the criteria for artistic experiments are incapable of being standardized, and perhaps not even capable of being enumerated clearly in any single or general case. But I'd like to double down on my dichotomies and offer a distinction which is intended less to usher experimental art into one of two exclusive clubs but rather to open up a space in the middle of experimental art which allows us, depending on which way we turn, to have a grounded vantage point from which to see specific details the better.

Some experimental art, it seems to me, is meant primarily for an objective evaluation of its success or failure; the questions from which it forms its hypotheses are, for example: does the medium have a limit? where is it? can I produce something at that limit? Most generally, if I do this to my medium, what will happen? Gertrude Stein may be the most famous practitioner of this form of experimental art in literature, but I think an even better example might be Stan Brakhage with, for example, his "Mothlight."

The success of this experimental film is, most simply and most importantly, its existence: the fact that Brakhage was able to do it, that he was able to push up against the limits of his medium without actually destroying the medium. That the film is (at least to me) extremely beautiful and mesmerizing is secondary, and a distant second. The success of the experiment is not dependent on my reaction, and is (a fortiori) not dependent on my reaction being of a specific type.

I do think we can talk about an experimental art that is dependent for its success on the reactions it produces being of a specific type, and that is the second form of experimental art I would like to introduce. If the more objectively evaluated experimental art could be called "demonstrative experiments"—their purpose being to show basically that something exists—then these are "communicative experiments," to be evaluated intersubjectively. (Even if the creator is the only one whose reaction is necessary, this is still intersubjective—je est un autre, etc.)

But let me be more specific about what I mean by "communicative." I don't really enjoy citing Derrida (though I do like him), but at the beginning of "Signature Event Context," he has a brilliant and fun passage playing with the word "communication," and that takes us in the direction I am intending. Derrida plays with the "non-semiotic" meaning of "communicate," which we employ when we say something like "the building has numerous communicating passages" or "communicating a tremor" (The latter phrase doesn't work so well in English, but the idea is still fairly clear, I think. "Communicating Passages" would be a great name for a blog, wouldn't it?) Derrida toys with the possibility that this physical sense of adjoinment or the dispersal of a sensation through contact precedes the linguistic sense, that the linguistic notion is in fact a metaphor we get from the physical variety. Derrida turns this quickly into a way-too-fun rabbit-hole which I won't follow him down (although Michael Bérubé has a really excellent discussion of "Signature Event Context" from way back in 2004 which explains everything really well).

At any rate, it is the idea of transmission through contact or adjoinment that I wish to borrow; communicative experiments are evaluated primarily, I think, by the strength and clarity of the communication, although by that I mean less that the ideas, sensations, intuitions or emotions which are transmitted will be necessarily unambiguous, but in the sense that they will not be subject to unintended distortions due to poor execution. Ambiguity can be clearly communicated, if that makes sense, and to do so means the experiment is successful; what I find constitutes failure is a lack of communication of anything at all, or the communication of something that is so muddled that one doesn't really care that it has been communicated. It isn't important, in other words, that one knows what to think/feel/intuit, but that one does know whether one wants to think/feel/intuit or not. Whether there is contact or not is the question, and while it can only be evaluated subjectively (for instance, I find that while I never know precisely what to make of Beckett, I found I didn't really care about making anything of Clarice Lispector's Hour of the Star when I read it last year, although I acknowledge that someone could quite plausibly feel the opposite), I do think that this is the test for this type of experiment, and whether this contact is made—whether communication happens or not—is the criterion for judging whether the experiment succeeds or fails.

In writing about his third attempt at reading Handke's Repetition, Richard describes the experience of reading Handke:
I've written how, at times, I've been unable to read Handke well; something resisted my attempts, though the prose style itself isn't obviously difficult. I suspect it has something to do with the way the narrative shifts from moment to moment, scene to scene. It also has to be admitted that I've had the unfortunate tendency to begin reading a Handke book at the exact moment I'm about to go through a period of extreme sleeplessness. While any reading is affected by being overly tired, I think the deceptive simplicity of Handke's prose is especially hard to follow, at least for this reader, when in such a state.

There is often a distance in the writing. And I felt strongly while reading Slow Homecoming that I was experiencing thought, as it was happening, on the page. An admittedly vague way of putting it, but it's how the experience was for me.
Richard goes on to write about the "uneasy warmth" of Handke's writing, and I guess I'd like to posit that both that effect and the sleepwalking quality are products (if they are not in fact the same product) because he plays off these two kinds of experimentation off one another so dextrously, showing a strange kind of awareness of the reader that implies a desire to communicate, but there is a sheerness to the writing as well, an impermeability which is indifferent to the kinds of intersubjective evaluation on which communicative experimentation depends. A Handke sentence (and even more so a Handke book) seems to be much more like the demonstrative experiments of Stein, fulfilled in some way by the fact that they exist, and not by any reaction that they elicit. Yet this does not happen through a real stretching of the medium's limits—the prose is not only simple, but it is also not repetitive or disjunctive as Beckett's or Stein's is. (Of course it's important to remember that I'm talking about a translation here, but I get the sense that Manheim is being very intentional and very exact about the effects that he is creating with the language he uses.) It is as difficult as Richard says it is to describe the origins of the effects, the intuitions, the affects of Handke's writing.

Here is a passage from Afternoon which I find both describes and exemplifies this peculiar effect:
He thought of leaving but remained sitting, alone with a glass of wine, from which he took a sip at intervals. He didn't want to go out in that condition with dulled senses that made him incapable of perceiving or thinking about anything. More and more people came in, but he saw only legs and torsos, not a single face. Luckily he was unobserved. The waitress had probably known his name at one time, but had long since forgotten it. For a moment the river outside sparkled—no, the sparkling was only a little spot in the water; then a flock of sparrows flew into the sky. A moment later the tiny birds sat motionless in the branches; motionless, too, were the crows in the crown of the neighboring tree and even the normally restless gulls on the railing of the bridge. Though there was not a flake in sight, snow seemed to be falling on them. And through this living picture—the barely perceptible movement of wings, the barely open beaks, the twinkle of tiny eyes—the summer landscape in which he had set the story he was writing at the time opened up to him. White flowers no larger than shirt buttons rained down from the elder bushes, the fruit pods of the walnut trees were beginning to fill out. The jet of the fountain met the cumulus cloud overhead. In a wheat field near which sheep were grazing, the ears of grain crackled in the heat; the city streets were covered with poplar fluff so light and airy that one could see through to the asphalt; and over the grass in the park there passed a droning which became a humming when the bumblebee that went with it vanished into a flower. The swimmer in the river plunged his head into the water for the first time that year and once again the air and the sun and the feel of his nostrils gave the writer a sense of temporary reprieve. Once it had been the other way around: one summer, while daydreaming a winter story, he had reached into the tall grass for a snowball, wanting to throw it playfully at the cat. (35-6)
Handke dedicates the book to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and this passage seems to cinch for me a more specific allusion to Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams," although it's been awhile since I read it, and I may be mistaken.