An Axiom of Feeling: Werner Herzog on the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth
By Maria Popova
In his arresting meditation on how we use language to reveal and conceal reality, Nietzsche defined truth as “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” Truth, of course, is not reality but a subset of reality, alongside the catalogue of fact and the question of meaning, inside which human consciousness dwells. “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”
How the creative impulse from which art arises unlatches that other reality is what cinematic philosopher Werner Herzog explores in an essay titled “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth.” Originally delivered as an extemporaneous speech following a Milan screening of Herzog’s film Lessons of Darkness and later translated by Moira Weigel, it touches on a number of questions that have occupied Herzog for as long as he has been making art — questions he explores from other angles throughout Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).
Herzog writes in the speech-turned-essay:
Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.
Such truth, Herzog suggests, coalesces out of moments so saturated with reality that they become surreal. Reflecting on the disorientation-spurred rancor with which his film was initially met, he writes:
After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media — and here I mean television in particular — was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled “science fiction,” as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.
Facing what he terms the “orgy of hate,” Herzog reminded audiences that he had done nothing different from Dante and Goya, those “guardian angels who familiarize us with the Absolute and the Sublime.” And yet our grasp of the Absolute is perennially slippery, our familiarity with it a seductive illusion — Carl Sagan knew this when he asserted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” With an eye to the greatest creative challenge in mathematics, Herzog writes:
The Absolute poses a never-ending quandary for philosophy, religion, and mathematics. Mathematics will probably come closest to getting it when someone finally proves Riemann’s hypothesis. That question concerns the distribution of prime numbers; unanswered since the nineteenth century, it reaches into the depths of mathematical thinking. A prize of a million dollars has been set aside for whoever solves it, and a mathematical institute in Boston has allotted a thousand years for someone to come up with a proof. The money is waiting for you, as is your immortality. For two and a half thousand years, ever since Euclid, this question has preoccupied mathematicians; if it turned out Riemann and his brilliant hypothesis were not right, it would send unimaginable shockwaves through the disciplines of mathematics and natural science. I can only very vaguely begin to fathom the Absolute; I am in no position to define the concept.
This ungraspable nature of the Absolute places it on the same plane as the Sublime — for the Sublime, as physicist Lisa Randall has written, also “proffers scales and poses questions that just might lie beyond our intellectual reach.” Occupying an entirely different stratum of reality is what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” — the kind of truth marine biologist Rachel Carson celebrated in her transcendent encounter with midsummer fireflies, which illuminated for her the type of truth haloed with “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Herzog writes:
We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And: how important, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.
No masterpiece of Herzog’s better sparks that ecstatic flash than his film Fitzcarraldo — the story of an elaborate endeavor to stage an opera in the rainforest. Reflecting on his creative vision for the film and its broader conceptual commentary on the nature of truth, Herzog echoes Whitman’s conviction that music is the deepest and most direct expression of nature’s reality, and writes:
One maxim was crucial for me: an entire world must undergo a transformation into music, must become music; only then would we have produced opera. What’s beautiful about opera is that reality doesn’t play any role in it at all; and that what takes place in opera is the overcoming of nature. When one looks at the libretti from operas (and here Verdi’s Force of Destiny is a good example), one sees very quickly that the story itself is so implausible, so removed from anything that we might actually experience that the mathematical laws of probability are suspended. What happens in the plot is impossible, but the power of music enables the spectator to experience it as true.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Margaret Fuller’s beautiful assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Herzog adds:
It’s the same thing with the emotional world [Gefühlswelt] of opera. The feelings are so abstracted; they cannot really be subordinated to everyday human nature any longer, because they have been concentrated and elevated to the most extreme degree and appear in their purest form; and despite all that we perceive them, in opera, as natural. Feelings in opera are, ultimately, like axioms in mathematics, which cannot be concentrated and cannot be explained any further. The axioms of feeling in the opera lead us, however, in the most secret ways, on a direct path to the sublime.
Through the gateway of opera, Herzog enters the larger world of the Sublime as both subset and superset of reality:
Our entire sense of reality has been called into question… Sometimes facts so exceed our expectations — have such an unusual, bizarre power — that they seem unbelievable.
But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth — a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft… However, we also gain our ability to have ecstatic experiences of truth through the Sublime, through which we are able to elevate ourselves over nature.
With an eye to the Ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists, who used language as a vessel of ecstatic truth, Herzog returns to the function of the creative act as communion with the Sublime. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s notion that the reader is the writer’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” he writes:
Thinking through language, the Greeks meant … to define truth as an act of disclosure — a gesture related to the cinema, where an object is set into the light and then a latent, not yet visible image is conjured onto celluloid, where it first must be developed, then disclosed.
The soul of the listener or the spectator completes this act itself; the soul actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.
Complement with the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, then revisit Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love.
Published April 9, 2018