Beyond Humanism: Herzog and the Sublime

by on Jul.17, 2011

I recently had the pleasure of watching two ‘documentary’ films by Werner Herzog—The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner, a short minute film about 70’s Swiss ‘skiflying’ champion Walter Steiner—and the recent 3-D extravaganza Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the earliest examples of cave painting in Europe. What’s interesting about both these films is that, at their outset, both appear to embody a kind of  ‘extreme humanism’. Each celebrates an extreme accomplishment by a specific human or group of humans—the earliest example of painting (sic), the longest flight on skies off the Planica skiflyingramp in Yugoslavia (sic)—and holds this accomplishment up as a kind of metric for humanity itself, an outline or a measuring mark for its essential phenotype of ambition, failure, correction, and relaunch. In this extreme humanism, man is the measure of all things—most especially, of himself.

But this solipsistic notion—that man is the measure of man- is itself a loop, a folding, a self-saturation that begins to gesture at the hyperbolic over-saturation and collapse of humanist project or portrait in Herzog’s films, yeilding something so irrational, beautiful, terrible, and certainly out of control that it is less like a portait of a man and more like an innundation with the Sublime.

The hyperbolic title of the Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner tells us that we are getting something much in excess of a documentary portrait. In this gorgeous film, footage of flight and crashes reel and unreel in and out of time, taken with highspeed cameras and played back in slow motion, repeated, played out of order or without preface,  given a new voiceover soundtrack, which, Herzog-the-narrator informs us, was recorded in a hut just minutes from the track, in a room too dark to film in—a kind of grave-cave producing out-of-synch sound. But lest we feel that these are the mere (!) vicissitudes of an avantgarde editing process, the skier himself repeats and revises his jumps, moving his departure point up and down the ramp, overshooting the measuring mark, crashing on purpose so as to amplify his words of warning about dangerous skiing conditions. So it’s not just the film but the ‘content’ itself that has a jerky,odd, autistic, beautiful, highflying and spine-crushing non-rhythm. Steiner himself is erratic and out of synch with himself. The content itself anachronistically exhibits the characteristics of film editing technology. Life is always already a fim, a film blown out to its limits. The inexpressiveness of Steiner is similarly involuted then abruptly extroverted as he flies through the air over a crowd of admiring Yugoslavs. The entire spasming spectacle ceases to feel narrative, linear or portrait-like, and beings to feel like a spasming of the Sublime through the media of human bodies, 70’s parkas, ski ramps, Soviets, snow, cameras. Life is just a soundset for the Sublime; for the Sublime making and editing its own spasmatic films.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes a more conventionally humanist gesture, as Herzog-the-narrator bangs on about the human soul and its invention through cave painting below France some 6,000 30,000  (!)years ago. This statement has the typical  paradoxical doubling of myopia and grandeur which defines supposedly-rational humanism, but, again, the film itself uses this paradox as a kind of difference engine to explode its own construct.  Crunched into the drastically foreshortened vistas of the cramped caves and then blow open in somewhat laughable 3-D, the film manages to be both claustrophobic and wobblingly projectile, and ends up feeling hypothetical and conjectural despite its supposed documentary status. The constantly hyperbolic nature of Herzog’s rhetoric is the embodiment of this technological doubleness, this oscillation and paradox. It is so beyond the mark that it seems to happen in a non-site of surreal collapse and expansion—in other words, the Sublime. As Herzog remarks in the Steiner film, “this is where skiflying begins to be inhuman.” This inhumanity, or non-humanism, is driven home by the excellent coda to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the most brilliant 8 minutes of cinema I’ve seen in some time, in which Herzog appears to propose that reality is the fever dream of a mutant albino crocodile addled by swimming in nuclear runoff, an albino crocodile dreaming of his own twin. The effect of this coda is to introduce something into the film so extreme that it overshoots even the hyperbolicaly extreme rhetoric with which Herzog has ladled the film all along; as in all of Herzog’s films, this one is so overnarrated that it ends up gesturing towards something that can’t be narrated at all.  In the crocodile-coda, the would-be humanist project of the film inverts, ruptures itself, spills out through the opaque and brimming eye of a mutant albino crocodile, a mutagenic, inhuman Sublime, a nextness which can only be gestured at, beyond the grasp even of Herzog’s extreme but still human language.

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Corey Wakeling

    I’ve been waiting for someone to write on the avowed transcendental humanism of Herzog, and I think the sublime is a superb way of speaking about it. May you extend it to, say, a close reading of Fitzcarraldo! Or maybe I’ll beat you to it, but then that would be like Aguirre on the raft, about to topple.

  2. Johannes Göransson

    The movie with its obsessive reiteration of crashes reminds me of all those homemade skater movies in the 90s, where skaters would film themselves crash and crash (and often you can hear the others laughing). This of course also led to the Jack Ass enterprise.

    One can also see how this kind of abstracting of the skiers could become a not-as-interesting formalist avant-garde film… But Werner makes the movie with – as you say – his hyperbolic voice-over… Conventionally we’d see the voice-over as tempering the avant-garde formalism but here it makes the movie so much stranger in its impurity.

    Also: I think it’s actually the sublime American Poets worry about when they go about policing the grotesque, the visceral, the violent and the movie-like in poems. Fear of going “too far,” of ending up in the Sublime.

    I’m translating Aase Berg’s Dark Matter right now which of course goes all the way to a sublime of the grotesque, declivity. Impossible to imagine a Big Press publishing a book like this in the US (it was published by Bonnier, the biggest Swedish press, in Sweden).

    OK, enough pointless rambling from me.


  3. Lucas de Lima

    Of course I loved the crocodilian coda (and this post). Maybe because it’s a closing scene, or because the relentless depictions of animality in the cave seemed to force into being a breathing nonhuman body in the end, the coda feels like a corrective of sorts to Herzog’s reductive commentary on animals in other films… for example, how he feels a need to diagnose the “deranged” penguin in Encounters at the End of the World and label grizzly bears as mere living automata in Grizzly Man. The truth-seeker in him doesn’t leave much room for an unnarrated feral sublime to erupt in those films, except for maybe when we watch him listen to the recording of Tim Treadwell dying without hearing the gruesome audio ourselves.

    I wonder what Herzog would think of Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse (or what Eshleman thought of this film).

    Would also be interesting to compare the albino gator and the flying contraption featured in Herzog’s the White Diamond… it’s another awe-inspiring white image that exceeds its own artificiality.

  4. adam strauss

    Also: I think it’s actually the sublime American Poets worry about when they go about policing the grotesque, the visceral, the violent and the movie-like in poems. Fear of going “too far,” of ending up in the Sublime.

    The above makes me want to ask several questions:
    What are the limits within which the extreme degree can be and still be good? Crime is a form of going too far, as is sexual harrasement, and these can take textual form; the silver-lining of course is that these are embodied, person-based actions/actions of person-based millieus–ok millieu is a wonky word here as what millieu isnt person based but I like the word–and not sublime; is the sublime contingent on impersonalization/nonhumanness? Or is crime sublime? Or is crime only sublime when it is entirely fictive and with very minimal correspondence to biographic realities? What, for you (all) would be writing that goes too far? In other words, I’m interested in limits/limits as unspoken scaffolding. In some ways writing the sublime strikes me as counterintuitvely tame/more than less a negation than a subject-position messy saturation. As of now unspoken bias: I’m fascinated by the notion–if not the reality–of writing which really works through personal mess and does not seek distance via metaphor (which I am not against; hello yummy conceits!) or depersonalizing devices…and what exactly impersonal is is unstable I agree: I mean some likely fictive generic notion: seventh grade angst etc, as opposed to utterly personal–yet unobviously–sensibility a la Marianne Moore.

    This example might help: I find little risk–but why am I equating risk to sublimity?–in critiques where the critiquer assumes they are not the essence of the problem; for me working within the assumption that one is the problem is major more interesting/intense/going far.

    Shelley’s The Triumph Of Life I love and it–tho likely not at-all impersonal–is not at-all the voice of an intestinal tract, but rather more like a lightbeam–and am I making this up or is there a ton of sky and light etc in that poem?

    One last question: why isn’t crime sublime? Or is it? What does a criminal poem look like–can it be written and the writer is praised; or must one always be sure to be going too far in the right ways?

    I imagine much criminal writing isn’t all that exciting–especially when it is debatable in the global sense that there’s a crime at-all–to make this already totally tangled inquiry even more so; but I think it could be: surely one cld write a sublime poem which murders someone in “the real world”–no name masking and with very recognizable details, no distancing devices; but it is very hard to imagine any positive critical reception of this no matter how sublime the work is.

    Sublime, for me, equals distance/unpersonal; oh which perhaps explains why 9/11 (this metonymy, in which that event stands for that day as if nothing else happened, irritates me) is not sublime but rather criminal, as unlike a volcano there was human motivation.

    Is it the case that the sublime is nature poetry, and that the human mess is its antonym? I hope not.

    Apologies for long convulsive convolusion it’s just that this point is a core question/fascination/concern of mine.

    I hope all’s well for all.

  5. Johannes

    Good comments, Adam. I think I agree with a lot of what you say. If the sublime is “dehumanized” in an “avant-garde” sense of a formalist exercise showing only abstracted versions of ski jumps (I’m sure we’ve all seen films like this) then we’re back to the world of the auteur, which implicitly reinforces the “genius” of the humanist tradition and is not at all “dehumanized”… But here is where Herzog himself with his voice over doesn’t make the film more “human” in Joyelle’s post, but a different kind of “spasmatic sublime”… It doesn’t temper the purity of the sublime, but makes it more radical (and possibly criminal at times – Herzog does seem to break laws in his documentaries). SOmething as you say “messier.”

    What I mean when I talk about what has to be policed is something resembling the sublime, I don’t use that category as a stable definite kind of art. Rather as a kind of strawman – the fear of this kind of art that totally saturates its spectators, overwhelms. As I’ve frequently noted on this blog, contemporary poetry discussions are full of policing acts, where the people/texts being policed are not mentioned (It is as if we can’t even mention them because to do so would be to call attention to them, to possibly start a contagion or at the very least a discussion where one’s judgment could be proved to not be objective or even authoritative). It is interesting that these policings (as that word suggests) often take the form of anti-criminal rhetoric – it’s violent or counterfeit etc. And part of the problem with a Herzog is perhaps that it can’t be turned into an easy “critique”/”subversion” or formal purity – it’s not academic like that, but again, messier.

    Another thing about contemporary poetry discussions: The “quietists” (or whatever) seem very much at ease criticizing – but at the same time admitting – an idea of experimentalism as “pure” (usually pure nonsense). They can attack it but they love to have it around because by comparison they can appear “human.” Likewise someone like Silliman or Goldsmith loves to have the quietists around so they can be the pure experimentalists opposed to corny “expressions”. These kinds of discussions are seldom interesting to me.


  6. Clayton Eshleman

    I have not seen the Herzog Chauvet film. One reason being that I was given permission to visit the cave in January 2004 and spend several hours in it, accompanied by Jean Marie Chauvet himself. The most complex panels in Chauvet have a strong sketch-book sense, sketchers doing a lion head, redoing it, then redoing it again (unlike Lascaux). I suppose I will see the Herzog film one day when my wife Caryl, still recovering from some vertebral fractures in 2010, will be able to sit for an hour in a movie theater.
    The paintings in Chauvet have been radio-carbon dated from 32,400 to 20,790 B.P. (= before the present, the present being 1950 when radio-carbon dating was perfected). So Joyelle is wrong about her “6000 years ago” date. However, since only one lab has fixed these very early dates (the earliest being nearly twice as old as Lascaux dates), there is a chance that some of the material dated was contaminated and that the true dates are more recent.
    Joyelle also mentions “cramped caves” I believe in reference to Chauvet. Chauvet is not cramped at all–it is huge, with wide corridors and high ceilings. One visits the cave by walking on an aluminum ramp, and no one is allowed to depart from the ramp to look at a painting up close. The cave floor is thus kept pure (as most Ice Age painted caves floors are not).
    For poets and writers interested in visiting Ice Age painted caves: there are over a dozen in France that are open to the public. Most of these caves, such as Combarelles, Font-de-Gaume, Cougnac, Pech Merle, Gargas, and Niaux, are in the Dordogne, Lot, and Ariege regions. My lectures on all of these caves (written for the groups Caryl and I took to the caves over the past two decades) will be published in The Price of Experience, Black Widow Press, early 2012.
    For those people wanting to study the Chauvet paintings, there is an excellent book on the cave called Chauvet Cave / The Art of Earliest Times, published by U of Utah Press, in 2003. I am told the book is o.p. and extremely expensive on line–so get it through library loan.

  7. Joyelle McSweeney

    Clayton, thank you for this information. By ‘cramped caves’, I was speaking hastily– I really meant the cramped sightlines of the film, produced by the conditions you describe. But thanks so much for filling in the bigger picture (literally) here.

    Johannes, I was thinking– if the film were made up just of the shots of the skier in flight, then we would have a humanist document– a piece of experimental filmmaking that would implicitly refer back to Herzog’s genius– a humanist concept and frame. Man would again be the measure of all things. But I think the hyperbolism of Herzog’s films mess up this would be cleanliness, this frame, so that many levels of reference and gesture all collapse into each other, producing unpredictable flights of energy.

    Adam, I have a lot of thoughts about your comment so I’ll post a separate post! Thank you!

  8. The Sublime: Art & Crime - Montevidayo

    […] response to my post about Herzog and the Sublime, Adam Strauss raised a lot of provocative questions about the Sublime, about Art & Crime.  […]

  9. handfuls of postcards and sublime slivers of glass FOG | Sean Blog: Nachos Miles Hack Disc Clank

    […] Joyelle McSweeney on Herzog and the Sublime. Wow. I think McSweeney is one of our most perceptive, intelligent writers. I pretty much will read anything she writes, as should you. I’d also like to add that Montevidayo is one ugly-ass blog site. I mean the design is clunky as hell. They might also want to hire a copy-editor. I’ve never seen such consistent misspelling errors. But I like the site. Trying to be constructive. Anyway, all that is their own business. But this solipsistic notion—that man is the measure of man- is itself a loop, a folding, a self-saturation that begins to gesture at the hyperbolic over-saturation and collapse of humanist project or portrait in Herzog’s films, yielding something so irrational, beautiful, terrible, and certainly out of control that it is less like a portrait of a man and more like an inundation with the Sublime. […]

  10. Brandon

    Herzog claims a fairly direct link to the sublime, calling it instead the ecstatic — or, ecstatic truth. There was a great New Yorker profile on him in 2006 that goes into this:

    The ecstatic element has, to me, a liturgical dimension — Sculptor Steiner could be a conflation of Bernini and his masterpiece the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. It’s an amalgam of nearly heretical insinuations, perhaps falsely narrated truths, sculptural materials and styles that result in an earthly communion with God.

    More than breaking from avant-garde formalism, I think Herzog is a classic unreliable narrator, in the Underground Man/Immoralist/Humbert Humbert tradition — where he assumes the narratological tropes of truth-telling (first-person narration) as a way of heightening truth.

    The first-person narrator in film also has a historic relationship to classic hard-boiled noirs, which were always narrated, even if from the grave or as a defense — i.e. not always truthfully. So, in Herzog, there’s this conflation of traditional documentary expectations of narrative realism/reliability combined with the film noir trope of first-person narration that make something truly unique. Herzog is really a Classicist in many ways, rather than an experimentalist; he’s interested in challenging the Platonic. By mentioning that he was in a hut before recording his track for ‘Steiner’, Herzog evokes impossible intimacy — he most likely made that story up in order to to make his narration of the Steiner footage feel all the more immediate, rugged, and candid — i.e. the use of proof to validate the untrue.

    A great one of his truthful fictions — almost of the W.G. Sebald variety — is “Lessons of Darkness”, where he takes footage of the burning Kuwait oil fields and narrates the imagery in such a way that transforms it into a stage of a dystopic sci-fi. It’s not mere allegory, here, but something else entirely — it’s a beautiful film.

    Alternately, his “fictional” films often involve genuinely extenuating circumstances (Aguirre) or actors so close to the mental collapses that their characters are prone to (Klaus Kinski, Bruno S.) that they become true, in a way. This then results in the capturing on film of many true, unscripted incidences. One of my favorites of these “real” scenes is the closing sequence of Stroszek.