Jacob Brogan

The world is always ending

Lonely: III. On Ice

            In late 1974, a young Werner Herzog learned that the filmmaker and critic Lotte Eisner had fallen critically ill. Fearing that German cinema could not do without her, Herzog vowed to cross the five hundred miles between Munich and Paris on foot. This solitary trip took him twenty-two days, days of freezing weather on unforgiving roads. Why set out at all? In his diary of the journey, published in English as Of Walking in Ice, Herzog claims he believed his labors would somehow save Eisner’s life. Perhaps he also made his way through the wilderness alone to make her sickness tangible.

            Much has been made of Herzog’s conviction that nature is brutal and unforgiving. In an elegant essay on Of Walking, the cinematographer John Bailey proposes that the book offers just such an interpretative guide to Herzog’s work. “To be as reductive as possible,” Bailey writes, the book shows, “Nature is not our friend.” No, nature is not our friend, but its unamiability is not always immediately evident. If it were, would Herzog have spent so much of his career insisting on it? Far from merely depicting the violence of the inhuman world, Herzog’s work aggressively calls attention to it. His career might be understood as a lengthy exegesis of nature’s crimes, an attempt to unveil a truth that would otherwise go hidden.

            Almost without exception, Herzog’s works can be read as turf wars with the unreal. In his documentaries, his own presence sometimes seems to falsify the stories he tells. Instead of demonstrating the inaccessibility of truth, Herzog’s subjective brinkmanship demands a more coherent reality principle. His fictionalizing grand gestures highlight the way reality slips away from us every day.  As he performs them, he calls on his viewers to halt its flight.

            Consider the material counterpoint to Herzog’s narrative games, his equally profound interest in substantiality. Five years after the events of Walking, Herzog would haul a steamboat over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo. More than mock-heroic stunts, such feats dramatize a longing for material stability. On the one hand, Herzog reminds us that certainty always escapes us, just as Fitzcarraldo’s boat repeatedly slides down the slope. On the other, he constantly seeks to reassert the mere possibility of definite knowledge through acts of corporeal legerdemain.

            Herzog’s vaunted discomfort with the natural should be understood, then, as an attempt to make nature more real. No mere myths of original violence, his works struggle to brush away the shimmering skein of myth itself, to pull back the veil separating us from the fact of the world. The journey he describes in Walking does much more than depict the hostility of the wilds through which its narrator passes. Here it is his destination and the ailing friend who waits there that matter most. Herzog sets out into an unforgiving elsewhere in an attempt to substantiate that which is almost always terrifyingly illusory: Illness itself.

            I have suggested that cancer makes us lonely because it is so wholly our own. Perhaps it is also because sickness never quite feels real. Even as my disease returns my body to me, I find it hard to believe that I am unwell. Cancer is incredible – incredible in the strictest possible sense! – because it fills my whole horizon when I think of it, occludes the world. With cancer, I am estranged not from myself, but from everything else that falls under the rubric of the real. My own life becomes a fabrication, a work of fiction, while those around me live documentarily.

            In a letter to another recently diagnosed friend, I find myself writing about Wittgenstein again. He posits in his Investigations that philosophy too often finds its problems in language rather than the world. Pursuing invented linguistic concerns, we lose our points of reference, our everyday anchors: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction… we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” Like the language of philosophy, illness blots out the sun. A freezing rain falls and the ground grows slick. Soon, we are skating alone, skating without pleasure. We can only proceed if we acknowledge the difficulty of our situation, thereby making things more difficult still.

            I write to my friend: Maybe it is the ways in which the world is difficult, really difficult, that make it real for us. Cancer is difficult, so we work on it. We work on it in order to make the walls stand, the chair firm, the floor hard. Cancer makes the world unreal, so we work on cancer to make things real again. Making things real means making a world which means making them together. My friend writes to me and I write back. Our cancers are still our own, but maybe they are a little more substantial. Maybe we are a little less alone.

            From Munich to Paris, Herzog walked on ice until he walked in it. See it crumbling beneath his feet from the very difficulty of the task. Step on ice hard enough and sometimes the ground reveals itself. Eisner was still alive when he arrived at her side in mid-December. She would live almost a decade longer.