My talk on Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the End of the World’

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I delivered this talk (lightly edited for publication here) at a screening of Werner Herzog’s documentary, ‘Encounters at the End of the World’, which was part of the Film Festival that we are staging in the Philosophy department at Essex in anticipation of our graduate conference, which this year is on the theme of ‘Nature’. Matt Bennett, who was at the talk, has written a nice blog post inspired by it here.

My haters, by which I mean David Batho, have questioned my choice of ‘Encounters At The End of the World’ as the Herzog movie we’re screening this festival. According to Batho, it is a “lesser Herzog documentary” in which (unlike, say, ‘Grizzly Man’) he “never really finds the story he’s looking for.” But my reply to this, beyond the fact that, unlike ‘Grizzly Man’, I own ‘Encounters…’ on DVD, is that this failure to find the story, is precisely the point of the film.

Herzog often uses his films to challenge conventional ideas about nature, in particular natural beauty. As Herzog makes clear at the start of ‘Encounters…’, he is certainly not interested in making films about fluffy penguins. He is interested in questions such as, why do human beings don masks and feathers and go chasing after the bad guy? Why is there a species of ant that keeps another species of insect enslaved, to milk them for sugar? Why doesn’t the chimp, a superior creature, not simply straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset? I think we might plausibly say, that Herzog’s films are marked by a sort of natural-historical speculation.

Herzog has this great speech in ‘Burden of Dreams’, the Les Blank documentary about the making of his Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon rainforest, where he describes the natural landscape of the jungle as “vile” and “obscene.” “The birds [here] are in misery,” he says. “I don’t think they sing they just screech in pain.” ‘Grizzly Man’ worked because it set the ideas of nature held by the central figure, Timothy Treadwell, against Herzog’s. For Treadwell, ‘wild nature’ was this thing that he could have this sort of perfect, primal experience of, could, away from the base, human world, exist with in harmony. For Herzog (and this is on the jungle again, but I think it applies equally well to all ‘wild nature’), “there is a sort of harmony” to nature, but it is “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” Of course, wild nature ends up engulfing Treadwell in the end…

Herzog does in a way admire Treadwell, but he is very much against the naïve idea that Treadwell, and I think most ‘common-sense’ ideology as it were assumes, that ‘wild nature’ is not only this beautiful, harmonious thing, but also that it can look back at us, that it can transmit this beauty it has intrinsically in itself to us in an unmediated way. The gaze of the grizzly bears that Treadwell finds so meaningful, finds friendly and pure (and this is what Treadwell thinks he is capturing on his camera), is one in which Herzog only sees a sort of boredom, or the desire for food. It is, at least, not something which has a gaze which meets us. If a bear could talk, Herzog suggests, we could not understand it (and it, conversely, could never understand us, either).

But nature is not, for Herzog (as it is for, say, Walter Benjamin in ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Man’), silent in its unfathomability. As again he states in ‘Burden of Dreams’, nature has an “articulate” vileness. We might not be able to communicate with it, but we can certainly experience it as hostile. In ‘Encounters…’ Herzog meets with a scientist who describes the horribly violent world that exists in the nature found underneath the Antarctic ice, these miniature creatures that kill their play in such obscene ways. And this is the world we evolved from, that we ultimately became human from in order to escape…

In fact by confronting nature, Herzog does I think want to say that we can have a real and very meaningful sort of experience… it is just that it is only significant as a human experience. This is the virtue that Herzog sees in Treadwell, especially in his films. He captures this amazing footage of grizzly bears that Herzog, as film-maker, cannot help but admire. He found a meaning for himself in ‘protecting’ the grizzly bears in the way that he did. He became himself in confrontation with a nature that can nevertheless never be quite understood in-itself.

This brings us to ‘Encounters…’. As Batho I think rightly points out, it is a film about a sort of failure. The way I want to understand the failure that Herzog meets with is thus: we think we are, with this documentary about Antarctica, going to see a film that is set at ‘the end of the world‘, the last unconquered place on the map, a land of infinite strangeness and beauty, and adventure. Instead, ‘Encounters…’ is a documentary about ‘the end of the world’, the dying of the world, the fading of the world, if not the Apocalypse exactly.

Antarctica, as Herzog points out in ‘Encounters…’, was of course the last unconquered corner of the globe. But no longer. Herzog is attracted by this stunning Henry Kaiser footage of the world underneath the Antarctic ice. But the land above it is all too touched by human hands, which have brought their idiocy to it. To travel to Antarctica you must (unless, I think, perhaps if you are a scientist doing very specialised work) go through McMurdo Station, a US base which resembles a mining town, full of the amenities of civilization such as ATMs, yoga classes, heated rooms, and an icecream substitute called ‘Frosty Boy’. The possibility of adventure is restricted if nothing else by the fact a) that you’re only really allowed to go to Antarctica to work (either as a scientist or a manual labourer) and b) that you have to take a health and safety training test to even be allowed out on the ice.

Yet McMurdo Station is a town of ‘professional dreamers’, as they are called by one of their number, united by their desire to “jump off the margins of the map.” These people who have travelled every other corner of the globe and want to keep going all end up here, the last remaining unconquered part of it. Yet Herzog finds them all in a strange limbo, trading off their past experiences, their tales of how they got here, in this land where there is not going to be another night-time for five months.

Once explorers had laid foot on the South Pole, Herzog states, the British Empire collapsed in on itself. With no more expansion possible, the Empire lost its sense of purpose, began to fade. Adventure itself, Herzog says, has become trivial(1). The only records left to break are an infinite array of stupid ones, hopping to the South Pole on a pogo stick for example. Experience is poorer for all of this; it cannot contain adventure in it in the same way anymore. To put it another way, in ‘Burden of Dreams’ Herzog talks about the way of life of the Indians he works with as, likewise, fading away, with the world more generally becoming increasingly the same, just full of cities with nondescript skyscrapers. “I don’t want to live in a world without lions anymore,” Herzog says in relation to this. “And they [the Indians] are lions.”

The first Antarctic explorers, too, perhaps, were lions in this sense. But if they were born now they would not be. Herzog speculates that a Shackleton born 100 years too late would have to construct his own Antarctica in a film studio, exploring papier mache icebergs.

I said experience was poorer for all this, well… there is a sort of experience that is becoming increasingly restricted, and ‘Encounters…’ is really about the loss (or perhaps better: fading) of this experience. I would like to characterise this as a sort of exploratory experience, that we can only have within a wild, unconquered nature… not of the nature itself, but of ourselves, within this nature. In a sense this was the sort of experience that Timothy Treadwell was able to have in Alaska with the bears, but with an important difference, which I will now try to explain.

So: perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is the one in which Herzog asks the penguin scientist (a man who has spent so much time amongst penguins he is barely still able to talk to human beings, and even when he does, he sounds kind of like a penguin), “Dr. Ainley, is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” and then manages to discover that, there is indeed such a thing as insanity among penguins. They do not, of course, start to think they are Lenin or Napoleon, or bash their heads against rocks, but some penguins will appear to become disoriented on their way between the feeding grounds and where they have their nests, and start wandering towards the centre of the continent. These ‘mad penguins’ can be restricted, or set aright, but they will always head back in the same way again.

These penguins want adventure, but it is a mad sort of adventure, not the purposive discovery of something (like Shackleton was able to attempt), but just a blind wanderlust, towards (what looks to everyone else like) certain death. And yet these are, in a way, the only penguins that are able to dream. In a sense the mad penguins are the only penguins who have anything more than a mere animal existence, characterised by mere response to stimulus, by the need to breed, build nests, and eat food (and of course for penguins, the society that has evolved to meet these needs for them, is also characterised by prostitution and the sexual abuse of chicks). We can also note that most of Herzog’s heroes are, in a way, mad penguins: Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Treadwell, etc. All madmen with mad dreams, going against what anyone might have thought wise for them to do in order to press forward with some impossible task (Herzog himself, incidentally, in ‘Burden of Dreams’ at least, is precisely such a Herzogian hero: he actually had to do all the things that Fitzcarraldo did, tugging a boat up a hill, only it was even more dangerous and expensive because he also had to film it… he even says at one point that he ought to be placed, afterwards, in a lunatic asylum, and that “this is not way for a man to live,” but he would keep doing it anyway because unless he could dream, he would be nobody).

So this is the difference between Treadwell and Shackleton, anyway: Shackleton was, as it were, as I’ve said a lion, whose achievements (if we are constructing something like a rough definition here) could be fully recognised by those around him (perhaps this is a sense in which Herzog too is a lion: he did, after all, manage to make a film), but Treadwell, born into a world where there are no lions anymore, was only ever able to be a mad penguin. Treadwell was essentially trying to do something impossible, his life had a sort of meaning but we can only understand this meaning if we also appreciate his failure. He was only able to become who he was by veering off from the community in which he was born and doing something that was, really, completely insane. McMurdo’s residents, too, are, like Treadwell, mad penguins. They fit in with no one, and their wanderings are never going to be celebrated anyway. But Treadwell was never turned back around. The McMurdo residents are trying to wander… wherever. But they have ended up somewhere (the end of the world) where they will always be prevented from indulging their madness, thus living. At the end of the world, we cannot be lions, only mad penguins, and, even less than that, always ones that get turned back around.

What are we to do in the face of this all? Do we just fade away, like the British Empire, collapse in on ourselves? This seems to be what many of the people featured in the film are preparing to do. All the scientists speculate on the possibilities that their research shows us, for learning how we will, as a species, be eliminated(2). Often while sitting around watching Apocalyptically-themed science fiction films. But it is only possible to embrace despair like this, I think, once one already subscribes to a scientistic mindset that can only have its nihilism masked by, basically, politeness. Any scientist who is not being a nice bourgeois husband and father is making predictions both grim and gleeful about how we are all infinitely small, how human life is imminently doomed, how there is nothing we can do to stop it, and how none of this anyway matters, now look at this picture of my kids.

One possibility is to respond aesthetically, or with a sort of intellectual practice, on which the loss of this sort of experience can be reflected. And this means capturing, I think, its fading possibility; possibly, of course, in the form of a film. And this is where ‘Encounters…’ is, contra Batho, although not a failure, precisely about failure. When it is at its most beautiful (and although this hasn’t been transmitted much here in this piece, there is often a stunning beauty to some of the shots of the landscape, and underneath the ice), there is always this sadness to it, that we are only able to see this beauty as we do, because the world is getting smaller.

Footnotes

1. For Karl Kraus, of course, the discovery of the North Pole meant that stupidity had come to the North Pole.

2. It was objected to me after I gave this talk that it looks like what the scientists are doing is, precisely, exploration. But even if so, it is a peculiarly withered sort of exploration, one which pulls the ladder up after it, discovering more things about the world simply so there is less to discover. The contrast between the marine biologists’ bored facial expressions and professions of excitement at having discovered three new species of the tiny creatures they were studying in one scene is, I think, very illustrative of the pathological nature of scientific discovery: you have increased the known diversity of the world, and this just makes it more boring, just means there are three new labels.

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One Response to My talk on Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the End of the World’

  1. Pingback: Preparing for the end of the world | Bad Conscience

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