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Monday, August 6, 2012

Irrationality and the Artist: What we can learn from Werner Herzog

© Shamoni Sarkar
This year, I saw and heard Werner Herzog live, twice in two months. Anyone that knows his work would say at this point: “Isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t writing about a madman kill his madness, and then what’s the point?” But there is a point. If there weren’t, Herzog himself would not have agreed to talk about his madness to enthralled audiences in formal settings. If there weren’t a point, he probably wouldn’t be making films. In director Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, his closing words are “We have to articulate ourselves, otherwise we would be like cows in a field.”

How does artistic genius or productivity relate to irrationality, and how exactly can irrationality be articulated? Is articulation of irrationality not counter-productive? The first time I saw Herzog was at Amherst College in New England, on March 24th, 2012. He screened excerpts from Into the Abyss, his newest documentary on death-row inmates in Texas. While his conversations with the inmate Hank Skinner were sad and illuminating, I felt that Herzog was trying to get too much out of Skinner; his questions were too well framed. For example, he asked Skinner to talk about time and how he related to the whole idea of the movement of time while sitting in death row. But as soon as he transitioned to scenes in which he is driving through the Texan countryside, he did not speak but instead let his camera do the work. But as viewers we could still sense his presence in the scene, and we knew he was still controlling it. Even back inside the prison, when he allowed Skinner to do the talking, the scene was more effective. In a way, when he stepped back, Herzog allowed the cruel irrationality of his subject blossom. But when he tried to attach too many words to it, the real feeling went away. In this case, too much articulation harmed the mysteriously powerful effect Skinner and his setting already had.  

Perhaps because we were a room full of students at Amherst College, Herzog seemed much more ‘normal’ than what I had expected him to be. Maybe because I was another immature fan, I expected to see the kind of manic director that made Aguirre: the Wrath of God. In that film, Herzog sticks with his lead character Don Lope de Aguirre as he leads his men into the deadly interiors of the Amazon in search of El Dorado (a search that is ultimately futile). One by one, his men are struck by arrows shot by Indian tribes from ashore. The last to be struck is Aguirre’s own daughter, and she falls limply into his arms and dies. He is the last one standing, and as he surveys the scene of death around him, an army of monkeys climbs onto the raft, claiming it for their own. Aguirre is deluded by now, but not enough to let go of his savage ambition. “I am the wrath of God,” he declares to no one, staring into the distance with mad eyes. He vows to find gold in El Dorado, and recapture most of the lands of New Spain for himself, to rule like a king. “Who else is with me?” he asks the dead and the monkeys. As the camera pans around the ruins on the raft, we hear the music of Aguirre by the band Popol Vuh, the same music that opens the film as the seekers of El Dorado climb down a dangerous mountain. The music is hauntingly epic and lamenting— it laments fallen heroes and the impending death of a dream. In Aguirre, there are many fallen heroes, and Lope de Aguirre is one of them. In the first scene, the music eulogizes every one of them. But in the last, it is played for Aguirre only— for what he is and for what has become of him. It does not pity him, but rather it understands him and feels sad. Again, Herzog speaks for Aguirre through music, landscape and images of madness. It is very likely that he sees something of himself in Aguirre’s irrational but dedicated drive, and so the film is as much an introspective project as a work of fiction.  

So why did I not see Herzog the crazed director that evening at Amherst College? It was not just because of the over-articulation in Into the Abyss, but something about the lecture itself. It seemed that Herzog had come here to give advice and not to converse. Instead of letting himself unfold, he again articulated too much. It seemed like he was moderating his own personality because someone had told him to be safe. However, the advice was often beautiful, and there were three sentences that I will always remember:

1. Psychoanalysis was the mistake of the 20th century
2. It is a mistake to scrutinize the self
3. If your soul is dark, let it be dark

Although these three statements befit Herzog, it was difficult for me not to question them. Is not what Herzog was doing in this lecture, and through the characters in his films, a form of self-scrutiny? And does not this prove that it is an unavoidable process for any artist, and perhaps not even a process they have control over? What exactly did he mean when he said to allow the soul to “be dark”? Incomprehensible darkness may make up most of the soul, and allowing it to flourish produces many great things. But is not the basic function of psychoanalysis to make us aware of the dark parts of our soul, and not, as Herzog seemed to imply, to get rid of them? And only once an artist becomes aware of or acknowledges the darker part of his soul can he begin to articulate himself.

Everyone must have darker shades in themselves that they cannot or choose not to explain, and these are the parts we would call irrational. What makes artists act on their irrationality? Herzog is also known to have eaten his own shoe, and plotted to kill his lead actor Klaus Kinski, who plays the role of Aguirre (incidentally Kinski too hatched his own plot to kill Herzog). Do even these irrational tendencies somehow make his artistic personality more whole, or are they just the childish, self-indulgent behavior of a man that believes he is entitled to it? It is too much to say that as an artist, his irrational self is more powerful or extreme than a regular person’s, or that it is in any way special. But perhaps his self-awareness, or his compulsion to act and to make is stronger.  

Burden of Dreams is about the making of Fitzcarraldo, another Herzog film about a man driven by unreasonable desire. Fitzcarraldo wants to pull a boat overland from one river of the Amazon to another, so that he can construct an opera house on the other side. The project is threatened from the beginning. For the shooting of the film, Herzog actually wants to perform this action of pulling a boat overland— a stunt that apparently carries a 70% risk of causing casualties. “I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions or no people like lions,” he says at one point.

Herzog knowingly risks not only his own safety but also that of his crew, and he cannot quite explain why. In apophthegm 154 in Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, “everything absolute belongs to pathology”. Nietzsche’s absolutes are “evasion” and “joyous distrust”— tendencies that make a person go against norms. To embrace these tendencies is a sign of health— bodily as much as mental health. A strong, powerful person will find that his body and mind are in tune with a common urge— the urge to make, destroy and digress. By becoming Fitzcarraldo and filming against the wishes of nature, Herzog is putting himself to the test physically as well as mentally, and he is willing to take himself to the extreme. Irrationality is as much a bodily experience as an intellectual one.   

There are irrational compulsions, inspiration, self-knowledge, and risk-taking, but to produce a complete body of work, something has to bring these together, or it would be too simple. For Nietzsche, sensuous experience could blossom into intellectual activity, provided the person maintains a “cruelty of the intellectual conscience and taste”. Then artistic conscience too must be relentless and cruel so that it can acknowledge lack of knowledge, darkness and risk, to show what can be learnt from these things, and ask even more questions. So the artistic conscience is what stretches uncertainty to its limits to show what is beyond.

The second time I heard Werner Herzog was at the Whitney museum in New York, where he spoke more substantively about his own artistic process. He talked about the importance of craftsmanship in every kind of creative activity, and the value of study and technique. “I have always tried to decipher signs”, he told us. He reads “signs” in music and painting and learns from them. Making movies allowed him to learn from the world, putting together images, sounds and words. He may not know why he chooses the stories that he does, and he cannot quite explain much of his behavior as a director, but he knows for sure that his work is not fruitless. He does not work to come to some sort of conclusion or find answers, but to learn more and more about the possibilities of his craft— a process of learning that is most probably infinite. For Nietzsche, a real artist must be rigorously inquisitive, have complete faith to form, and pursue the unintelligible without guilt.

However, like the intellectual conscience, guilt too brings discipline to the spirit. Aguirre and Fitcarraldo do not feel guilt and drive themselves to ruin, but Herzog their creator does feel guilt. Maybe he even feels guilty on their behalf. He eventually completes Fitzcarraldo, but his later words betray something resembling guilt. Talking to Les Blank about the extent to which he had taken himself and his crew, he says, “No one can convince me to be happy about it when I am finished.” At most public appearances, he is a sort of role model or example to emulate, and so he is probably required to present a nice, easy version of himself.  He must not seem too crazed among impressionable young people or interviewees who help keep him in the public eye. But more importantly, he talks to students, museum visitors and documentary filmmakers because it forces him to keep evaluating his work so that he knows where to take it next. It helps him to stay productive.   

So why did it bother me that Herzog articulated too much in Into the Abyss, or advised too much at Amherst College? Possibly because I didn’t want him to censor himself; I wanted to see a mad artist in the flesh. But then I realized how childish this was. It is more likely that his innate irrationality is deeper and more complicated— to the extent that it affects the way he looks at life and his relationships with people. So I would never see an artist’s madness so easily in the space of two hours. To see Herzog ‘in the flesh’, I would have to go back to his films, and I would find the irrationality in the faces, in the landscapes and in the music. I would see the cruelty of his intellectual conscience. But I will still never be able to separate the real man from the ‘nicer’ man, because maybe they need each other and so will co-exist, separately and together.        

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