Posts Tagged ‘Werner Herzog’

“Those who read books own the world.” Lost languages, an Algonquin Bible, the Herzogs, and more

Friday, March 30th, 2018
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A stroll down the corridors of Cambridge’s treasure house.

I visited the Old Library at Jesus College, Cambridge, last week. Prof. Stephen Heath gave an enlightening show-and-tell of the library’s incunabula to me and my fellow pilgrims, John Dugdale Bradley and Michael Gioia (Stanford alums, both). He brought out  an astonishing succession of treasures, including Thomas Cranmer‘s Bible, with its triple columns for comparing the original language (Greek, on the pages I saw) to the Vulgate Latin and English.

“What would you like to see last?” he asked me. What could I say? I had no idea what wonders might be in the back rooms. “Surprise me,” I said.

Marvels tucked away in a corner of Cambridge

And so he did. He brought out another Bible, this one from America. It was a 1663 Bible translated phonetically by John Eliot. The Natick dialect of Algonquin had no written form until he gave it one. He inscribed the particular presentation copy under my fingers for his alma mater at Cambridge, Jesus College. Was the Eliot name a coincidence? I remember a prominent New England family that spawned another famous Eliot, also with one “l”. On the other hand, I also knew that spellings of surnames were very fluid even into the 19th century.

When I got back to California, I checked on John Eliot, the Puritan missionary. He is indeed distantly related to T.S. Eliot, from the same Brahmin family in Massachusetts. Both descended from Andrew Eliot, whose family came to America via Yeovil and East Coker, Somerset.

But the Algonquin Bible haunted me for another reason: I recently attended a private screening in San Francisco of photographer’s Lena Herzog‘s Last Whispers, about the mass extinction of languages. I meant to tell her about the Algonquin Bible on my return, but now this blogpost will have to do. Perhaps the Algonquin language, which still has more than three thousand speakers, owes something to Eliot’s efforts.

The coincidences continued: this week, a new friend, Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library, sent me the link for his interview several years ago with Lena’s husband, the unconventional filmmaker Werner Herzog. The Q&A, “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?”, touches on the same subject – lost languages. (His comments are unrelated to Lena’s project, although their interests on the matter converge.) So here’s a hefty and relevant excerpt from the conversation between the two men:

WH: But, Paul, before we go into other things, I would linger a little on the twentieth century. And one of the things that is quite evident and looks like a good thing in the twentieth century is the ecologists’ movement. It makes a lot of sense, the fundamental analysis is right. The fundamental attitude they have taken is also right, but we miss something completely out of the twentieth century, which is—

Lena Herzog: a lover of language

PH: Culture.

WH: What went wrong in the culture, yes. That is, we see embarrassments like whale huggers, I mean, you can’t get worse than that, or tree huggers, even, such bizarre behaviour. And people are concerned about the panda bear, and they are concerned about the well-being of salad leaves, but they have completely overlooked that while we are sitting here probably the last speaker of a language may die in these two hours. There are six thousand languages still left, but by 2050, only 15 percent of these languages will survive.

PH: So we are paying attention to the wrong things.

WH: No, to pay attention to ecological questions is not the wrong thing, but to overlook the immense value of human culture is. More than twenty years ago I met an Australian man in Port Augusta in an old-age home and he was named “the mute.” He was the very last speaker of his language, had nobody with whom he could speak and hence fell mute, fell silent. He had no one left, and of course he has died since then. And his language has disappeared, has not been recorded. It’s as if the last Spaniard had died and Spanish literature and culture, everything has vanished. And it vanishes very, very fast. It vanishes much faster than anything we are witnessing in terms of, let’s say, mammals dying out. Yes, we should be concerned about the snow leopard, and we should be concerned about whales, but why is it that nobody talks about cultures and languages and last speakers dying away? There’s a massive, colossal, and cataclysmic mistake that is happening right now and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it. So that’s why I find it enraging that people hug whales. Who hugs the last speaker of an Inuit language in Alaska? So it just makes me angry when I look back at the twentieth century, and I’m afraid it continues like that. And we have got into a meaningless consumer culture, we have lost dignity, we have lost all proportion.

“Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

PH: In terms of preserving culture, preserving language, we can think of this library, which has many millions of books underground, seven floors of books, and it goes under Bryant Park.

WH: Paradise.

PH: Paradise, as you called it, but when we were underground, you asked the librarian: “In the case of a holocaust, what would we do with the precious books?” And the librarian was rather anxious about that question. [laughter] No provisions had yet been made, and I don’t know if they’ve been made since your question. But I remember the librarian wondering how to answer it. And he said, “Well, in the case of a holocaust, maybe we will come here.” And you said, “Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” Do you remember that?

WH: Yes, it sounds misleading in the context of the previous, but please continue. [laughter]

PH: Well, the books are the repository of our memories and our culture. So that these languages that are disappearing as we are talking now have a place where they’re archived, where they’re kept, even if the culture itself has become mute, it still can be studied.

WH: But most of the six thousand still-spoken languages are not recorded in written form. So then they disappear without a trace. That’s evident. But, yes, books, sure, we must preserve them and we must somehow be cautious and careful with them, because they carry our culture—and, of course, those who read books own the world, those who watch television lose it. So be careful and be cautious with the books.

Tom Eliot has formidable forebears.

PH: And what you do with your time.

WH: Yes, but we do have disagreements of what are the most precious ones that we would keep. Of course, you would go for James Joyce immediately, and I have my objections, because I think he’s—

PH: Who would you go for?

WH: Hölderlin. No, I mean James Joyce isn’t really bad, but—

PH: James Joyce is on a trajectory for you—

WH: Which went somewhere wrong—

PH: Somewhere wrong, starting with Petrarch and then going to someone such as Laurence Sterne.

WH:. Yes, Laurence Sterne is somehow a beginning in modern literature, where literature really became modern but also went on a detour and the result—

PH: A detour from what?

Hardcore?

WH: Detour from what, yes—that’s not easy to say, a detour that leads let’s say to Finnegans Wake, where literature should not end up. It’s a cul de sac, in my opinion, and much of James Joyce is a cul de sac, per se. But at the same time that he was writing, there were also people like Kafka, for example, and Joseph Conrad. I have a feeling there is something hardcore, some essence of literature; and you have it in a long, long tradition and you find it in Joseph Conrad, you find it in Hemingway, the short stories, you find it in Bruce Chatwin, and you find it in Cormac McCarthy.

You can read the whole fascinating interview at the literary journal Brick here. But I can’t help but wonder about something else, related to hugging pandas and kissing whales. This may be the very first era in history where there has been so much sentimentality and affection for animals, and comparatively little for babies and children. (This vegetarian cat-lover pleads guilty, at least a bit.) Why is that? And what does that say for the future of the race?

Meanwhile, enjoy this Huron carol, in a language now extinct. Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary wrote this carol in Wendat (Wyandot) sometime before he was martyred in 1649 – fourteen years before Eliot’s Algonquin Bible.

A luftmensch in search of the perfect conversation: NYPL’s “curator of public curiosity”

Saturday, March 10th, 2018
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A fellow luftmensch: Paul Holdengräber at NYPL

I have met amazing people on Twitter, and one of my golden finds was Paul Holdengräber. We both love literature, but we have something more in common: we’re both luftmenschen.

At work. (Photo: Jori Klein/NYPL)

There’s a Yiddish word for someone who may not be terribly grounded,” he says. “It’s a beautiful word: luftmensch. It means someone who has his feet firmly planted—in midair. There’s something of an untethered balloon in me.” It beats Merriam-Webster’s definition: “an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income.” Not true. I have a definite “business” of sorts: I’m a writer, a journalist, a blogger, an author. And Paul? He’s the director of public programs for the New York Public Library. He founded LIVE from the NYPL, and organized its literary conversations. Since February 2012, he has hosted The Paul Holdengräber Show on the Intelligent Channel on YouTube.

“‘I’m the curator of public curiosity.’ I’m the midwife,” he told Will Corwin at Art Papers last year.  “When you are in the audience, you are hopefully an interested listener. In some ways, you want to be in my seat—or maybe you don’t want to be in my seat, but you imagine what you would have asked. But my goal—as I did with David Lynch, Ed Ruscha, JAY-Z, Zadie Smith, Patti Smith, or Philip Glass—is to represent the audience as best as I can, their interests and curiosities. The question that I’m trying to phrase is—I’m hoping—the question that the audience as a whole, and some people in particular, may have.”

Once-a-year sanity. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A regular guest of his conversations is Werner Herzog. “I speak to him at least once a year to remain sane,” he says.

He has a reason for being a luftmensch. He was born in Texas and has an American passport. His parents, however, were Austrian Jews fleeing Vienna and the Nazis. They did so via Haiti, which had no immigration quota for Jews, and then Mexico, where his sister was born. When his mother was having a problem pregnancy, his father, a former medical student who had become a farmer in the New World, whisked his wife to Houston, where the best hospitals were located. Voilà! Paul was born an American citizen. And then the family moved to Brussels.

Paul studied philosophy at the Université Catholique de Louvain and the Sorbonne. The connection of philosophy with his his current line-of-work is obvious:

Tzara in 1923

“Yes, I believe deeply that we come to thought through words—thought is made in the mouth, or some such sentence from Tristan Tzara. Philosophy, as we believe it to be, started with a conversation. I don’t particularly think about how it will play itself out when written down. I think there’s such a difference between the written word and the spoken word. Some people speak in paragraphs; I don’t know what I speak in— I suppose my claim to a profession is to make other people speak, to find a way of giving them words and to find a way of bringing about a thought. I feel that through speaking we can discover ourselves. Not dissimilar is the word autobiography: auto-bio-graphein. It literally means “the life coming-to-be through its writing”; so, the self coming to life through writing and discovering itself through writing. Some people discover themselves through writing, if we consider literary history, from Rousseau to other great people who wrote autobiographies.”

His mother was fourteen when she left Vienna, “so she had seen enough to know it was terrible and to never, ever talk about it. But she transmitted the trauma. When the Austrian government, through the Austrian president, awarded me with the Austrian Cross of Honor for Art and Science—a funny thing to give a cross to a Jewish boy—I said to my mother, ‘I don’t think I should accept.’ She said, very firmly, ‘Be gracious, don’t mention the unpleasantness, and my story is not yours.’ Which is quite something.”

“Memories I don’t have…”

“My trauma is a secondhand wound; it’s a transmission of trauma. The [words] transmission and tradition are the same in Hebrew: they [translate to] “what is passed on.” So I’m living with the memory of something I never experienced, the memory of something I don’t know. I was inspired by Nathalie Zadje, a psychoanalyst who studied transmission of trauma from the point of view of certain émigré cultures, particularly in North Africa, and how different that transmission is in different cultures. She studied how trauma passes from one generation to the next. But I grew up very obsessed with the Holocaust, very obsessed with my parents’ history, maybe in a way that was unhealthy. I do think that my interest in Edmund du Waal, Werner Herzog, Anselm Kiefer, and Claude Lanzman all comes from the way in which the world was transformed, changed, and to some extent destroyed. When Jonathan Demme invited me to speak to him about Fahrenheit 451, both the Truffaut movie and the Ray Bradbury story, the burning of the books brought back memories that I don’t have.

His goal in life? “As I think of it, I’m after the perfect conversation. I’m after the Platonic idea of what the best possible conversation could be, and therefore it eludes me like a collector who would hope in some way never to have the last piece in his collection. If he did, then it would be the death of the collector.”

Read the whole conversation here.

Werner Herzog @Stanford: The Movie!

Friday, February 19th, 2016
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Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog makes a point. (Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Those of you who follow the Book Haven know that we’ve been somewhat preoccupied with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, who visited Stanford on February 2 to discuss J.A. BakerThe PeregrineThe discussion ranged far beyond the book, to embrace Virgil’s Georgics, the 16th century Florentine Codex (originally in Nahuatl), the Edda, his films and his views on reading and filmmaking – well, he’s a force of nature. It’s all now available on youtube, in a full-length version (here) and a quick, two-minute highlights version (here). Or see below for both: short version on top, the full hour-and-a-half below (it’s worth the time, really).

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine with Robert Pogue Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature, at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

A sublime pairing. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The event was part of the ongoing Another Look book club series of events – Another Look’s director, Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the popular Entitled Opinions radio talk show, was the interlocutor for the discussion (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among many other places). In fact, the encounter was born in a friendship – but not with Werner, at least not initially. Robert met and interviewed Lena Herzog for the April 17, 2013 interview with Entitled Opinions about her photography (download Robert’s interviews, including that one, here).

The Another Look event was covered by columnist Caille Millner in “When Werner Herzog Came to Stanford” in the San Francisco Chronicle (here). An excerpt:

Herzog, 73, is legendary for many reasons: his passion, his punishing film sets, his contempt for personal comforts, his aversion to the contemporary gadgets that rule our lives (he grew up in a remote Bavarian village without running water or flush toilets) and, above all, for his absolute independence from Hollywood filmmaking

I was curious about how this remarkable man would fit into Silicon Valley for an evening. What’s an on-demand app to someone who didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17 years old?

It tells you something about Herzog that the reason he drove up to Stanford from Los Angeles was to talk about a little-known, long-out-of-print book about a man and a falcon: “The Peregrine,” by British author J.A. Baker (it’s been lovingly reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint).

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

A genial superstar. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

She writes with style and brio, but I don’t agree with her when she dismissed the textual difficulties behind The Peregrine (as did Herzog). The issues of accuracy aren’t occasional and trivial, but pervasive and woven into the book, whose author insists on its authority as a work of direct observation. A small team of us, including an expert falconer, spent a good deal of time chewing over the magnificent text and its discrepancies – some of the issues are summarized briefly here. I even retrieved some of the letters of renowned falconer Dick Treleaven to Baker, which are now at the University of Essex (covered here), as we attempted to square Baker’s observations with reality. Robert, who wrestled even more deeply with these issues than the rest of us, had some very insightful things to say on the subject, but the onstage conversation veered off in another direction. The Peregrine is undeniably a masterpiece, but it raises questions about artistic truth, “real” truth, and what, exactly, Baker was doing. Robert’s remarks about Jimi Hendrix in the full-length video gives a hint of where his thoughts were taking him as he pondered this mysterious book. I’m convinced that these issues make the book more, not less, interesting, and raise fascinating questions about the process of creation.

One of my strongest memories of the evening, however, occurred after the conversation was over. I was the assigned person to whisk the genial superstar away to the back door and the car that was waiting for him there. He would have none of it. He wanted to shake hands and greet everyone who had come to see him. He was smiling and laughing as the crowd swarmed him. Impossible to pull him away. Who would want to?

One of the best books of the 20th century? Werner Herzog is coming to Stanford to talk about J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine

Friday, January 15th, 2016
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J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.

The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.

youngbaker

The young J.A. Baker, author of “The Peregrine.” (Photo courtesy Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex)

The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. Free tickets have sold out; registration for the waiting list is offered through the Another Look book club’s website. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.

Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. 

‘One of the finest pieces of prose’

Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.” [Read more here about what he’s said about the book. – ED]

The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:

“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.

peregrine copyThe ecology movement has moved on to more global issues, but The Peregrine marks a point in history when the dangers were local and immediate. In that sense, it can be seen as a companion volume to Rachel Carson‘s book Silent Spring.

Some critics have attributed the elegiac tone to Baker’s own history. He had just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1969, when his second and last book was published, he was seriously incapacitated – just as Carson was mortally ill when she wrote Silent Spring.

Both Baker and his birds got a reprieve: The most lethal chemicals have been banned, and the peregrine population, once considered at risk of global extinction, has returned to levels not seen for centuries.

And Baker himself would live quietly until 1987, finally succumbing to the cancer that had resulted from the drugs prescribed for his condition.

‘Persist, endure, follow, watch’

In the days before Facebook, Twitter, selfies and Google searches, it was possible for a man to be little known outside his circle of friends. Privacy suited Baker, who was described as very reluctant to disclose anything about himself or his private views. In the years since his death, his trail has vaporized, leaving behind only his startling classic. A few details have become known in recent years.

Baker was born in Chelmsford in 1923, a son of the lower middle classes. His formal schooling ended at 16. He had no literary connections before the publication of his book. While initially said to be a librarian, he was in fact a manager of the local automobile association (though he couldn’t drive), and later a manager at a local depot of Britvic, a beverage company. He had a long and happy marriage.

Herzog

At the 2009 Venice Film Festival. (Photo: Nicolas Genin)

Sometime in his daily schedule, he found time to bike or hike to the Essex countryside, recording his observations in passages such as this one: “They had no song. Their calls were harsh and ugly. But their soaring was like an endless silent singing.” Baker became one of the most important nature writers of the last century.

“Baker’s legacy is real and lasting, evidenced in the fact that we’re still talking about it 50 years on, and cases like me are still trying to get inside his head,” wrote author and conservationist Conor Mark Jameson, who called the book “a love story of sorts.”

He noted that Baker “showed us how to relay feelings as well as bald records, how to write up notes, how to look, how to listen.

Experts then and now have challenged the accuracy of Baker’s observations, and a small controversy has erupted around the book – underscoring that this is an imaginative work as well as a personal record. But none challenge the mesmerizing beauty of his prose, which captures his despairing view of man and his own single-minded pursuit of the bird that obsessed him.

According to British naturalist and author Mark Cocker, “he drills down into the moment to haul back to the surface a prose that is astonishing for its inventiveness, yet also for its clarity and precision.”

Cocker added, “In fact if there is any criticism, it arises because there is so little down-time in the prose.”

Some have commented that The Peregrine is not so much about watching a bird, but is about becoming one: “Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms,” Baker wrote. “Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

***

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces that people may not have read before. Visit the anotherlook.stanford.edu website for more details.