Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Viewer

In re-reading Peter Handke's Across this week (see my review after my first reading and an excerpt), I took notice of one peculiar aspect of the narrative. It's a first-person narrative. The narrator's name is Andreas Loser, though at times, speaking to another character, he arbitrarily says his name is something else entirely. He uses "I" most of the time, but on occasion he refers to himself in the third person, not as "he", but as having taken on new roles at certain points in the narrative. He is, variously, "the adult" (in reference to his attitude about cards compared to when he was a child), "the teacher" (his profession), "the questioner" (having asked others for their thoughts on thresholds). After describing a dream, he becomes "the bundle on the bed" who "opened its eyes and sat up". After receiving a letter imploring him to come back to teaching, he becomes "the reader of the letter" who "sat down and wept". Earlier, he chases after a man and violence occurs: "The runner became a pursuer and pursuit meant 'action.'" And the book is divided into three sections, with the following titles: The Viewer Is Diverted, The Viewer Takes Action, and The Viewer Seeks a Witness.

It could be argued that these are merely intended to achieve some sort of ironic distance from the events of the narrative. But, in a sense, though we use "I" all the time--an I that is not without problems--do we not view ourselves in the third person? Do we not take on roles and assess our conduct in terms of those roles? (I am "the husband", "the parent", "the blogger", "the commuter", in this case "the reader".) Do we not see ourselves moving in the world as if in a narrative, at least part of the time? Perhaps this is in part to distance ourselves from the world to a necessary extent, to protect the I that projects itself onto the world. Andreas is, throughout, "the viewer"--the narrator, of course, and as such he who views the world around him, observing and describing nature, or people, or the city, or events (though he oddly seems able to view that which seems unviewable, his gaze seems to go where it logically, physically, could not), but also he who views himself in these other roles, he who views himself taking action, or not taking action, speaking, doing, being: he who views himself writing, and he who translates what the I experiences into writing.

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