Saturday, 29 August 2009

conquest of the useless [herzog]

There are books that you read and there are books that you miss. By which I mean that, when the relationship between yourself and the book comes to an end, because you have finished the reading of it, there's a sense of loss. Between the insomnia of last night and the late start of this morning, I devoured the final hundred or so pages of Herzog's account of the making of Fitzcarraldo, and this evening on coming to bed, I am saddened that there's no more pages to be read, no more of the adventure to be shared.

Conquest of the Useless is far from an orthodox account of the two year filming process. At times it consists of musings on the nature of the jungle the author finds himself immersed within; at others it's a dream diary; at others it details his adventures with Kinski, Jagger, and the rest of the team. The fact that the journal lasts over two years already offers some idea of the difficulties Herzog faced in the realisation of his movie. As such it is also a detailed account of a creative process, including all the madness, exhilaration, boredom and perspiration the creative process can entail. Towards the very end of the process, Herzog writes: 'It is only through writing that I become myself.' Thus offering another clue to the book, which has its existentialist dimension. Through the insanity of the project, the writing of the journal allows the author to maintain his sense of self, when the forces of nature, art and an enclosed society, not to mention his megalomanic leading man, conspire to destroy him. At the very end of the book there is a note describing how one of his team really did lose his senses, or go mad, and it seems as though this madness was always closing in on Herzog, and everyone else who embarked on the kind of cinematic project that only a lunatic could contemplate.

There's something about the book which is reminiscent of works such as Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laureds Brigge or even Lautreamont's Maldoror. The project and the book detail the travails of someone navigating the rivers of their mind. Herzog's commentaries on nature and the jungle, by now reasonably well known, come from the coal face. He reads the runes of a termite's nest and seeks out the sense to be found in a caged anaconda's eyes. The connection between nature and humanity, so cauterised by a modern urban society, is alive and kicking. His fate depends on the rainfall, as an animal's might; when he surfs the rapids, he's as vulnerable as any creature would be. Death is everpresent. Some of the indians working on his project are shot with arrows and barely survive; a plane some of his team are on crashes; he himself chronicles several close calls; and throughout it all his mother appears to be dying, back in Germany. The safe world is left behind, and filters back through snippets of news, such as an assassination attempt on the Pope, or Reagan.

The only thing which throws our reading of the book is the knowledge, which he did not possess as he wrote, that in the end he prevailed, and the film was completed. This key piece of information perhaps warps our ability to connect with the journey the writer is going on; a journey which at the time of writing often seems more likely to end in failure than success. However, in a way, there's a sense that if he can just keep writing, if he can just keep on being Herzog, all will be alright in the end. Even in its most pessimistic vision of the world he has chosen to inhabit, there's an energy to the writing, and the man; the ceaseless workings of his imagination offer a kind of hope, both to himself, and to the reader. So long as the writer's mind can convey itself, and connect with the reader's, the journey continuing, hope (whatever that word means) remains. The Conquest of the Useless possesses a morose, humanistic beauty. Every day there are things to observe, and choices to make. Even if everything is underpinned by some kind of nihilistic pointlessness, to be human means to continue to observe, and to continue to make choices, no matter how pointless (or useless) these actions might appear in the present moment. Over the course of its two year span, three hundred pages, and one extraordinary film, Herzog's text reaffirms the value of those things which make us both animal and human.

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