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Visionary Landscapes

May 29, 2016

Today I read The Plains, a short novel from 1982 by Gerald Murnane, of Australia. That I am writing this is a sign, not that I have anything to say about, but that I might wish to have something to say about it, or, in keeping with some of the ideas expressed in the book, that I might find meaning in the fact that I have nothing to say about it. I started reading a couple years ago but put it down, not feeling up to its imaginative demands at the time but certain to return.Today I had much the same experience, but I made it to the end.

An aspiring filmmaker journeys deep into the interior of an imagined Australia, to the plains, hoping to make his masterpiece there. He gets the patronage of one of the great landowners who preside over the society of the plainsmen. There is not much in the way of plot. The lives of the plainsmen, and the narrator, seem devoted to a rich culture of art, literature, and philosophy focused on the plains themselves, endless expanses of flat grasslands, not to be confused with the actual Outback. It is a philosophical novel of place, a meditative fable, a parody, an exercise in the scholarship of the unreal. At times it brought me almost to the point where I could see my own life in a whole new light, on the cusp of a transformative realization, a distant horizon beckoning. I cannot say that I understand it too well, or if I would like to. It’s a great book.

I re-watched Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness the other night. I hadn’t seen it for many years, and was stunned by how beautiful it is. The old tube TV I had seen it on before could not have done it justice. It is made up of footage he shot in Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, presented under a slight conceit of visiting an alien world. He gives us great sweeping helicopter shots and tracking shots of seemingly endless devastation, scored to classical music. There is a slow scan of the tools of a torture chamber. Some victims of the occupation appear, filmed in the familiar Herzog style: straight-on prolonged takes that emphasize less what people have to communicate than the sheer fact of their being, the testimony of their presence. It ends with a long sequence showing crews from the American company Boots & Coots extinguishing and capping burning oil wells, which gives us the dual satisfactions of both seeing difficult work skillfully done by brave men and enjoying the thrill of a raging inferno.

The streaming service I watched Lessons of Darkness on blurbed it as an anti-war film. Others would no doubt condemn it as disaster porn. But Herzog defies such moralism. I think he is as humane a filmmaker as we have, but for him our humanity is found in our encounter with the existential wilderness that is the world. What matters is that we meet it with courage, curiosity, skill, imagination, and an unsentimental compassion. I started by calling this movie beautiful, but if you recognize the old distinction between The Beautiful and The Sublime, then it definitely falls into the latter category. All of Herzog’s work is devoted to the pursuit of the sublime. This is as much of an ethic as an aesthetic. A respect for the sublimity of the human condition is what we owe to ourselves and each other. An awe at horrors — and the thrill of that awe — can be an expression of that respect.


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