Wild Being in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God
The forest has become austere as a tomb 1
A Boundless Horizon
Discussing the idea of the sublime in The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer invites us to consider ‘nature in turbulent and tempestuous motion.’2 The following elements are said to appear: ‘semi-darkness through threatening black thunder-clouds … immense … overhanging cliffs … foaming masses of water … the wail of the wind sweeping through the ravines.’3 What happens in this turbulence can be mapped into three stages. First, the human, full of desire, stands before a landscape and feels its hostility rage through his or her body — the presence of hostility within this process is central. In comparison to the ‘beautiful,’ an aesthetic experience of the sublime involves a ‘violent tearing,’ one of assimilation rather than correspondence.4 Second, throughout this Sturm und Drang, humans experience this hostility self-consciously. Yet instead of buckling at the hostility that looms over the finite individual, the subject, thirdly, remains apparently ‘unshaken and unconcerned.’5
Schopenhauer’s account of the sublime insists that affirmation is to be understood not as an expression of human dignity but a mode of being reduced to ‘a vanishing nothingness.’6 Against the Kantian tendency to privilege reason over nature, Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory testifies to the power of being lost in nature. Losing ourselves in abandoned landscapes, parched deserts, dense forests, and stormy seas, we are redeemed in the union with a force greater than ourselves. That force is nothing less than the ‘ghost of our own nothingness,’ which surfaces in the encounter with the sublime landscape. In such a case, ‘we feel ourselves as individuals, as living bodies, as transient phenomena of will, like drops in the ocean, dwindling and dissolving into nothing.’7 Schopenhauer’s theory of the sublime presents a resolution to the problem of how pleasure is gained from terror: by submitting ourselves to metaphysical dissolution. The rarefied atmosphere of this theory is seductive. Not only does Schopenhauer provide ample ground for elevating the self, albeit in a logic of voids, but also attests to an experience of nature irreducible to vagaries of culture and society.
There are, however, three fundamental problems inscribed in Schopenhauer’s account. First, central to this classical account of the sublime is an asymmetrical relationship, in which the subject is “redeemed” from finitude in its colonisation by the natural world’s vastness. Second, for Schopenhauer, such redemption is only possible in being “lost” in aesthetic experience. Yet losing oneself entails a bifurcation in the subject, placing to oneself their embodied existence. Indeed, time again, Schopenhauer’s account of the ‘pure subject of knowing’ refers only to eyes that see a world with the remainder of the body seemingly suspended.8 Finally, considered together, these two problems indicate an anthropomorphising tendency in Schopenhauer’s thought, in which aesthetic pleasure is predicated on the idea of the subject encountering the natural world as though it was demarcated by the human being.
My proposal: to turn the tide on the relationship between sublimity anthropomorphising. Despite singling out Schopenhauer, the tendency to treat the sublime as an instant for the human to affirm his or her finitude is a pervasive gesture in aesthetics, more broadly. My plan for reconsidering this movement is to unite Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972) with the late thought of Merleau-Ponty, especially his enigmatic notion of “flesh.” In both Herzog and Merleau-Ponty, there exists a philosophy of nature that challenges the classical dichotomy between the domesticated self encountering the objective realm of wilderness. Rather, in each case, a deep and dynamic ambiguity undercuts the idea of wilderness existing “there” while human subjectivity remains placed “here.” In what follows, I will venture into this ambiguity, with the theme of the “forest” as my principle guide.
The Last Pass of the Andes
Aguirre, Wrath of God tells the story of Lope de Aguirre, soldier and explorer, as he descends into the Amazon in search of El Dorado, the city of gold. The descent, met with the myriad obstacles of the landscape, parallels Aguirre’s own maniacal descent, such that the landscape becomes an extension of Aguirre himself. This movement captures the dynamism of person and place alongside one another, with each aspect under the skin of the other.
Nowhere is this unfolding clearer than in the striking first scene of the film, where we see a band of soldiers proceed down the incline of a mountain. A camera hovers over the massive mountain face, marked by dense layers of green and grey, recording a line of microcosmic figures identifiable as white dots as they ascend through Amazonian fog. Moving along a pathway, each line of dots overlaps another whilst the camera slowly tracks in, the figures gradually lose their anonymity. With the soldiers’ heads still bowed, faces unseen, two large groups are revealed: those of captive natives chained to one another and those of the armed guards. At first impression, this scene is a classical representation of the Schopenhauerean sublime; that is, the impression of humans — finite and egotistical — being swallowed by the infinite and boundless grip of the surrounding world, instigating an aesthetic of the sublime in the viewer who bears witness to this movement. The very scale of this scene demands that we put aside the personal self and experience the environment as a thing transcending individuation. From this perspective, humans are dwarfed by the mountains; all that is peculiar to human life — the face in particular — is smouldered by the foggy mountainous presence. Reinforcing this alignment with Schopenhauer’s sublime is a passage from the second volume of The World as Will and Representation. Discussing the aesthetic merits of a mountain, he writes
That the sight of a mountain range suddenly appearing before us so easily puts us into a serious, and even sublime, mood, may be due partly to the fact that the form of the mountains, and the outline of the range that results therefrom, are the only permanent line of the landscape; for the mountains alone defy the deterioration and dissolution that rapidly sweep away everything else, especially our own ephemeral person.9
A Schopenhauerean perspective renders this dialectical tension visible, as exemplified by the opening of Aguirre. The dwarfing of the represented humans doubles as the viewer’s own assimilated metaphysical collapse. Were we to speak of pleasure in this respect, it would be in terms of becoming something other than human. And this other-than-human entity would be a more enduring substance, less reliant on phenomenal content and wholly interwoven with the very form of the mountain. But I don’t think we should rest at this interpretation. After all, we have clearly retreated into an anthropomorphic zone, which represents the brute facticity of nature as something privileged by dint of human involvement.
At this asymmetrical juncture, then, let me turn to Merleau-Ponty, before returning to the opening of Aguirre with Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics.
The Flesh of the World
Drawing Merleau-Ponty into Herzog’s landscape confronts the classical Schopenhaurean heritage with an entirely different aesthetic climate. Above all, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature demands a total renewal of relations between human and natural worlds with a result that undercuts any such division by what he terms “the flesh of the world.” To understand this important phrase, let me chart the salient points of Merleau-Ponty’s latter thought before applying it directly to Herzog.
One tacit assumption that has so far haunted our dealings with Herzog’s jungle landscape is that the soldiers and the mountain are ontologically different in being. Such a difference has mostly been implied in terms of spatiality, temporality, and density. The mountains and trees in which the soldiers roam are seen as standing over the men, literally reinforcing their finitude by dint of their age and size. Alongside this presumption, Schopenhauer’s account also makes it clear that the human experience of the sublime landscape is one of difference and otherness. Indeed, in classical readings, the sublime loses its affective power without this measure of polarity. The point of departure for Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of nature is to undermine the claim that things in the world are made from different “stuff.” He does this by inventing a series of novel concepts, including “chiasm,” “wild being,” and above all, the “flesh.” The idea of the flesh surfaces in Merleau-Ponty’s last, posthumously-published, and incomplete work, The Visible and the Invisible. Merleau-Ponty suggests we take for granted that ‘the visible about us seems to rest in itself’– that is, we treat the world as an autonomous thing, freed of the subject that encounters it.10 For Merleau-Ponty, this is a fallacy, which treats the natural world as a thing to be “discovered” by human beings. Not only this, but the conceptual tools used to frame and phrase these concepts are simultaneously overlooked as objects of phenomenological analysis – ‘Seeing, speaking, even thinking…are experiences of this kind, both irrecusable and enigmatic.’11
True to his phenomenological roots, by returning to the origin of what it is to experience a thing, Merleau-Ponty radicalises not simply our corporeal intentionality toward the world but the very nature of that intentional relationship in the first place. What this means is that the tools of thought and experience must be subject to a meta-analysis, in which their influence upon the world are brought to the foreground. Thinking, after all, is not left unscathed by its own thought. Rather, some–thing, hitherto obscure, renders the relation between human and world possible.
Already, then, the realm of the between can be seen as privileged in Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. Without even venturing back to the scene from Herzog’s film, we can detect an incipient shift in what Merleau-Ponty asks of us; namely, to consider neither world or the human in isolation from one another, but to occupy the “element” allowing these aspects to communicate with one another. For Merleau-Ponty, this element is the flesh. And by flesh Merleau-Ponty is not referring exclusively to the materiality of the body (though in many ways the human body is emblematic of the flesh), but to the ontological fabric of the world. Thus, assigning the status of an element to the flesh, the term has the sense of ‘a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being.’12 The flesh binds, at once constitutively and constituently of the world; things of the world are of the same flesh, and this “thickness of the flesh” means that all things are caught up within its dynamism.
Seen in this way, then, the idea of the sublime as an instant of an asymmetrical relationship, in which one aspect of the phenomenal world overpowers another aspect, needs revision. We would need to consider, instead, humans, mountains, and forests as made of the same stuff, each a different aspect of the same fabric: the flesh.13 Yet this does not mean that forests and humans are homogenous or coincidental with one another. The flesh is not a layer applied to all things in order to retain a unity within the world, but confirmation that the world is in me as I am in the world. This reversibility has a significant implication for the philosophy of nature: no longer is the world an inert bulk of materiality for me to experience passively. Instead, the flesh of the world is to be understood as folding into me, in the process discerning itself as the medium by which all possible relations are possible.
Again, this entails neither harmony nor disharmony. Too often, Merleau-Ponty is appropriated as the spokesperson for a supposedly harmonious account of the human body and the natural world. This is unfortunate, as it simplifies the richness of Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy into an excuse to venerate nature and precludes the anonymity at the heart of his philosophy. This amounts to more than a preferential way to read Merleau-Ponty. Instead, it fundamentally alters the structure of the element common to body and world: the flesh.
The Forest Speaks to Me
This gesture of turning, folding, and enveloping marks a new direction in our approach to Herzog. Having previously dealt with the opening scene in terms of the human being coming into touch with a foreign world, we must now phrase this encounter less as an opposition and more as a movement of reversibility between landscape and human, where both are seized in the grip of the flesh. There is, then, circularity in the descent into the forest depicted by Herzog. This circularity can be enigmatically formulated, in terms of their respective being, as an interdependence of world and subject. Is the mountain simply a backdrop to the opening of the forest? Far from it: the grooves of the mountain are shaped by the presence of soldiers moving within them; the body of man and mountain forming a continuous surface comprised of the flesh, the elemental stuff of the world – the mountain is given form through the human body just as the human body, through being touched by the mountain, is given its own form. In a literal way, the counters of both the body and the mountain are mirrored in one another.
Concerning the body’s relation to the world, Merleau-Ponty writes in Eye and Mind:
Visible and mobile, my body in a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body.14
Encrusted into its flesh. With this, Merleau-Ponty commits himself to a radical ontology, imbued with a deep sense of phenomenal ambiguity if not outright strangeness. Aguirre represents this ambiguity by forming a hybrid of microcosmic human animation and the colossal, mountainous stillness. The mountain moves. Who is doing the moving, who commands the mountain: human life or the materiality of the mountain itself? The answer is both. But this is not a harmonious fusion, in which human being is “lost” or even redeemed in the landscape. Rather, what we witness is a chiasm, a literal intersection of two pathways, in which a ‘spark is lit between sensing and sensible, lighting the fire that will not stop burning until some accident of the body will undo what no accident would have sufficed to do.’15 The spark that lights the fire of being is the flesh of the world. And no contingency of the body — even the body’s extinction — can outdo this flesh. There is no longer one transcendental consciousness rendering all understanding and experience possible. Instead, movement in the world makes it clear that there is a ‘colliding over of the visible upon the seeing body.’16
The flesh, thus, has an interiority to it that disputes all accounts of ontological asymmetry. The mountain, the trees, the soldiers all move together in their phenomenal appearance. They form a whole, uniting subject and object into the comprehension of the flesh. In the grip of the flesh, the question becomes, therefore, not how do we experience nature, but how does nature experience us? This reversal is a question taken up directly in Merleau-Ponty’s essay and concerns the phenomenology of forests. Citing Klee, we read:
In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me…I was there, listening.17
Faced with this question, we move from the mountains to the forest floor. The forest speaks to me, and it does so because through me, I am recognised as being constitutive of the very appearance of the forest. This does not mean that the forest depends upon my existence, as though we had reverted to a form of transcendental idealism. Rather, the forest becomes animated. Animated not only through the fact that wind freely moves through the brambles, roots, and branches, but because the forest’s being articulates itself through the human who is receptive to that genesis.
Receptive to the being of the forest can also mean standing in the chiasm between nature and human being. Throughout Aguirre we see the forest respond to the figure of Aguirre in manifold ways, each constituting a different dialectical manoeuvring of the flesh — the materiality of the forest, for instance, becomes the means by which the soldiers can equip themselves; we see the soldier build rafts from the trees before those same rafts are negated by the force of the river. In one scene, Aguirre sits on fragmented raft remains, its base dipping into the river; in another, we see a wide view of the rainforest, with a raft floating in its midst. Without assuming any particular direction, the raft no longer appears to be isolated from the “backdrop” of the forest, but instead takes on the form of branches and trees ascending from the ground, gently swaying alongside the dense woodland.
In yet another scene, the soldiers are aboard the raft peering into the forest, their eyes scanning the limited horizon, where all transparency is blocked. ‘Very strange,’ notes Herzog with this scene in mind ‘how the jungle reacts’ — strange, because the jungle gains a sentient quality despite the absence of life. The camera oscillates between the faces of the men and the anonymous face of the forest. Their reaction is one of apprehension, reflecting Klee’s sense of being ‘inwardly submerged, buried’ by the forest.18
Later still, the strangeness of the forest is amplified as the same slow tracking shot catches sight of a stranded horse, clothed in a black hood, frozen in an opening along the river. As though the river uses the eyes of the horse to return the gaze of the men, the scene is charged with an abiding sense of the uncanny.
All of these scenes witness a gradual envelopment of the figures and forms of the film. From the broken raft to the silent forest, an ambiguous, near amorphous, intertwining of matter occurs. In one of the final scenes from Aguirre, this chiasm between human and nature literally opens up, pulling both the forest and soldiers into the crevice of the flesh of the world. Ridden with fever and suffering from hallucinations, a slave spots an unnerving sight: ‘I see a ship with sails in a tall tree, and from the stern hangs a canoe.’ The camera pans out, cutting to an open landscape, in which the frame of a boat is caught within the grasp of a tree, like a mutated offspring of a Max Ernst landscape.
The slave remarks: “That is no ship. That is no forest.” As he says this, an arrow is shot at his thigh, and without reacting the man simply observes how “That is no arrow.” This oceanic collision of simultaneously illusory and non-illusory phenomena stylises the reversibility between nature and human life. Now, any such division between these two realms, where “human” and “nature” are depicted as being “made from the same stuff,” is subject to a radical ambiguity. Indeed, the pathos of Aguirre the man is not so much a failure to colonise the wilderness of the jungle in his search for a mythical land. Rather, the failure is due to his refusal to prise apart his personal self from what Merleau-Ponty describes as the ‘prehuman way of seeing things.’19 Aguirre’s tenacity and absolute derision toward giving up in his quest attests to the insistence on viewing nature within a Schopenhauer perspective as a thing to overcome.
Despite this, the tension visible in the film’s climax, with Aguirre depicted as a tragic anti-hero encircling the raft amid an army of monkeys, is stipulated on the fact that Aguirre, the embodied subject, has been touched by a way of being-in-the-world that forever undermines the certainty of the visible world. Indeed, above all else, the figure surviving the journey down the Amazon—the Wrath of God—is more a ghost of his previous self than a unified human being, more a spectre than a mass of living tissue. In correspondence, Merleau-Ponty writes: ‘But once we have entered into this strange domain, one does not see how there could be any question of leaving it.’20 There, Aguirre discovers his fate at the end of the river — no less than traumatised by an exposure to that which is both alien and homely to himself: the flesh of the world.
Throughout the film, it is as though Herzog is peeling back what Merleau-Ponty terms the “narcissism of vision”, showing us the wild being that savages the perceptibility of the human body. This relationship between the forest and savage being is not coincidental, as Edward Casey notes: ‘Savage derives from silva, woods, forest.’21 In Herzog’s vision, nature is savage in another dimension: apathetic to the demands of human desire, hostile in its own nature, and thus chaotic from the human perspective. Implicit in the majority of his films, this blackened philosophy of nature is rendered explicit in an extract from the documentary detailing the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982), Burden of Dreams (1982):
Of course there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain …. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of a harmony. There is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder …. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it.22
Herzog’s visceral philosophy of nature is laudable for its resistance against human desire, but also emblematic of the human desire for a romanticised apocalyptic vision. In truth, the “indifference” in Herzog’s vision is full of a teleological violence at odds with the idea of nature as discordantly in pain. Nevertheless, what Herzog’s statement makes clear is that any such experience of nature as pure “otherness” or “alienation” does not undermine our relationship toward it, but rather establishes the very ground for our “savage” being to respond to it. As Ted Toadvine puts it in his recent book on Merleau-Ponty, ’”alienation” does not cut us off from nature or from ourselves, precisely because it is in the condition for the expression of nature, for its articulation in perception, language, or thought.’23
The Savage and the Sublime
The savage and the forest, the wilderness and the flesh: with these terms we reach an ontology prior to the split between subject and object, evident in classical metaphysics and aesthetics. A savage, or wild being, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, yields to a part of the body that is ontologically prior to the personal self — but how is this articulated? We have to work in reverse in order to get a sense of what Merleau-Ponty means by this allusive term. For instance, he tells us that the “brute world” is that which is left intact “by science and by reflection.24 The brute world’s description, moreover, must refuse all known established modes of “truth.” Thus Merleau-Ponty is prepared to state that:
We will not admit a preconstituted world, a logic, except for having seen them arise from our experience of brute being, which is as it were the umbilical cord of our knowledge and the source of meaning for us.25
As the umbilical cord of our knowledge, the brute world stands prior to perception, operating on a different “layer,” in which “interrogation itself and our method” are unknown in advance. In fact, Merleau-Ponty presents the wild being as a world without discernable, singular identity. Overlapping, the flesh of the world installs itself in all things that have yet to surface to the realm of subject and object:
Like the natural man, we situate ourselves in ourselves and in the things, in ourselves and in the other, and at the point where, by a sort of chiasm, we become the others and we become the world.26
Nothing is admitted in this wild being, except that there is a “thing” which has yet to attain the status of being an object.
The thing that has yet to become an object. But we can also reverse this formula by returning “objects” to the status of things, thus rendering the otherness of nature as the very centre upon which human life embarks on its quest for perception and vision. Now, it is not a question of us encountering the natural world, but of the natural world admitting us into the light of vision and sensibility. Having literally come alive before our eyes, nature assumes an undecipherable voice, felt only through the sense of the uncanny. In a strictly experiential context, therefore, there is a clear sense of the forest as being a privileged space, sensitive to a silent, anonymous realm antecedent to the world clinging to the certainty of the visible. Far from emitting a halo of certainty, the forest’s spatio-temporality is profoundly archaic in its genesis, disturbing the distance and difference between “us” and “it.”
Thus, Bachelard is surely right to argue that ‘We do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of “going deeper and deeper” into a limitless world.’27 But this limitless world is not only a void in space, but also an abyss in time. When the forest speaks to us, as it does in Herzog’s film but also in the concrete world, then we (re)turn to a mode of being that is already in us. Neither native nor naïve, such being in the forest lacks any such realist terms, and thus fulfils the elemental role assigned to Merleau-Ponty’s flesh of the world. Fusing Bachelard with Merleau-Ponty, we can say that the forest amplifies the flesh. In his genius, Bachelard is also right to assign an ‘ancestral’ quality to the forest, precluding the very possibility of a ‘young forest.’28 Far from pointing to a nostalgic elevation of the forest as a site of refugee, however, Bachelard’s claim is ontological in scope: the forest is where being comes into existence, and so the forest adopts the language of a being that is prior to the split between “human” and “nature.”
Were we to gesture toward a revised account of the sublime in light of the savage being Merleau-Ponty exposes us to, then we would frame “nature” as that which gives form to the wild being that is there all along. Only now, nature is not the reserve of an untouched region held apart from the built environment. Rather, the forest, the mountain, and the broken rafts that are carried down the river are to be seen as exemplifying an indirect language. Yet despite this indirection, as embodied subjects, a correspondence with the world is possible thanks to the flesh binding us. This is not a movement of transcendence, however, but a deepening of the flesh, into which an amorphous collision of disparate objects symbiotically live side-by-side.
Conclusion: Cinema as Flesh
What, finally, of us the viewers to Herzog’s film? Are we simply passive bystanders witnessing the unfolding of brute being take place on the stage of the cinema? How do we stand before this film in its appearance? If we follow Merleau-Ponty in elevating all materiality to the flesh of the world, then removing ourselves from this vision would be to construct an artifice in experience. Isn’t it rather that we re-enact the motion of the actors in their descent into the forest through our own bodies, allowing the flesh of the cinema to interbreed with our own? The surface of the film is not a detached screen upon which an impenetrable threshold has been erected. Rather, as a viewer, the landscape touches a part of our embodied being that was already constitutive of our experience. For Merleau-Ponty, such a correspondence is possible ‘because [quality, light, colour, depth] awaken an echo in our body and because the body welcomes them.’29 Seen in this way, Herzog’s genius is to direct the awakening of the body’s flesh in its intercorporeal relationship to other things in the world.
When asked what a painter does when faced with a mountain, Merleau-Ponty says the following: ‘To unveil the means, visible and not otherwise, by which it makes itself a mountain before our eyes.’30 If we take Herzog as the painter, then it becomes clear that the director directs us to this strange act of things becoming things. In its peculiarity and sublimity, Aguirre dislocates the distance between human and natural life, drawing us — the viewer — into the scene, until finally we are affected by wild being, as clear as it is on the screen of the cinema as it is in the flesh of our bodies. For Merleau-Ponty, ‘it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests.’31