Wild Being in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God

Dylan Trigg

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


  1. Lautréa­mont, Comte de. Mal­doror, New York: New Direc­tions Pub­lish­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, trans. Guy Wern­ham, 1965, p.72.
  2. Schopen­hauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, 1966 & 1969 (Vol­umes 1 & 2), trans. E.F.J. Payne, p.204.
  3. Schopen­hauer, p.202.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Schopen­hauer, p.206.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Schopen­hauer, p.207.
  9. Schopen­hauer, p.367.
  10. Schopen­hauer, p.404.
  11. Merleau-​Ponty, Mau­rice, ‘Eye and Mind’ in Aes­thet­ics: Oxford Read­ings in Phi­los­o­phy, ed. Harold Osborne, Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1979, p.59.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Merleau-​Ponty 1979, p.5859. My italics.
  14. Ibid. My italics.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Merleau-​Ponty, Mau­rice. The Vis­i­ble and the Invis­i­ble, Evanston: North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity Press, trans. Alphonso Lingis, 1968, p.146.
  17. Merleau-​Ponty 1968, p.63.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Merleau-​Ponty 1968, p.152.
  21. Casey, Edward. Get­ting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Under­stand­ing of the Place-​World, Indi­ana: Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity Press, 1993, p.188.
  22. Toad­vine, Ted. Merleau-Ponty’s Phi­los­o­phy of Nature, Evanston: North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009, p.132.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Merleau-​Ponty 1968, p.156.
  25. Merleau-​Ponty 1968, p.157.
  26. Merleau-​Ponty 1968, p.160.
  27. Bachelard, Gas­ton. The Poet­ics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, Boston: Bea­con Press, 1994, p.185.
  28. Bachelard 1994, p.188.
  29. Bachelard 1994, p.60.
  30. Bachelard 1994, p.62.
  31. Merleau-​Ponty 1968, p.155.


  • Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Her­zog, 1972)
  • Forêt pétri­fiée (Pet­ri­fied For­est, Max Ernst, 1927)


Dylan Trigg is a research fel­low at The Cen­tre de Recherche en Épisté­molo­gie Appliquée, Paris. He pre­vi­ously taught phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex, where he also earned his doc­tor­ate. He is the author of The Mem­ory of Place: a Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of the Uncanny (Athens: Ohio Uni­ver­sity Press, 2012) and The Aes­thet­ics of Decay: Noth­ing­ness, Nos­tal­gia and the Absence of Rea­son (New York: Peter Lang, 2006). In addi­tion, he blogs at side-​effects. Con­tact: dylan.​trigg@​poly.​polytechnique.​fr