The Outer Fringes of Our Language.

The estimable Los Angeles Review of Books presents Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Outer Fringes of Our Language: A Conversation with Werner Herzog; the conversation took place in February 2016, so I’m not sure why it’s just being published now, but never mind, it’s timeless, as is the maniacal Herzog. I’ll quote a few salient bits (Harrison’s questions in bold):

Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. […] And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films. […]

I’m curious about the books that have become a part of you and your psyche. You mentioned, in A Guide for the Perplexed, that whenever you go on a film set, you bring two books with you, in particular. One is Luther’s translation of the Bible. You have to read the Book of Job for consolation —

It’s a 1546 edition in the original Lutheran language, which was an enormous cultural event. The German language somehow started with Martin Luther — the common language, Hochdeutsch, high German. Before that, there were only dialects. But Luther, yes, the Book of Job for consolation. Or the Psalms sometimes. I have it with me. I love to read it. […]

There’s a long discussion of “a relatively unknown masterpiece published in 1967 called The Peregrine, by an obscure British writer named J. A. Baker,” which they both love and which is apparently factually challenged:

[…] Because today what you see — and what I hear constantly at any festival, with all colleagues — is they believe wrongfully that facts constitute truth. They do not. At best, facts create norms; they have that power. But only truth is something that illuminates us, that carries us into some sort of an ecstasy. And that is something which I find on every second page in The Peregrine. There is a religious quality of incantation, the invocation of a demon brother, which is a peregrine falcon. It’s like a ritual and the question, of course, is: How much is factual?

I have tried to defend Baker on factual grounds, but I don’t have the competence or authority to do that. The question is: If the book is full of factual inaccuracies …

There may be a few. That’s what I keep saying in moviemaking: “It’s the accountant’s truth you are after. You get a straight A, you idiot!” […]

Let me make a case for facts. A quote from Henry David Thoreau, in one passage from Walden where he says, “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

I crave many other things beyond reality. It’s a very impoverished life if we go only for that. Even a good steak is a form of ecstasy sometimes. You shouldn’t dismiss that the primitive things of real, everyday life can acquire different quality.

And facts and ecstasy go together.

No, they do not marry.

Herzog goes on to say that he started his film Lessons of Darkness with a caption, “a very beautiful two-liner”: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur — like creation — in grandiose splendor. Blaise Pascal.” And then says “Fact is, I invented it. And I put ‘Pascal’ under it. Pascal could not have written it better.” Needless to say, I am on the side of facts (see this recent post), but I’m always fascinated to see points of view alien to me presented so passionately and articulately. Then Harrison says:

May I ask about some of the other books that you ask your students at the Rogue Film School to read?

Yes. I brought with me the Poetic Edda, but I also, for example, have a very, very fine book by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain. He was a 19-year-old footman of the conquistador Cortés. Late in his life, he wrote a very, very, very detailed account — much better than any other source at that time. It is a phenomenal book. […]

Back to the Poetic Edda. I am somebody who has held the Codex Regius in my hands twice in my life already — a little crumpled parchment text which is a little like the Dead Sea Scrolls for Israel. This is a book for Iceland. It goes into the mythological life and description of the creation of the world. It’s very, very strong. I tell people who make documentaries: go read the Edda, read the depth of the myths that can suddenly come out of very simple things that you do not notice — unless you have a sensory organ for the mythological. Here’s Völuspá Edda, the creation of the world:

In earliest times did Ymir live:
was not sea, nor land nor salty waves,
neither Earth was there nor upper heaven,
but a gaping nothing, and in green things nowhere.

Was the land then lifted aloft by Bur’s sons
who made Mithgarth, the matchless earth;
shown from the south the sun on dry land,
on the ground then grew The greensward soft.

The “matchless earth” is just very, very beautiful. A few stanzas later in the text — the creation of dwarfs. And all of a sudden, the text about the creation of the world rattles down to 84 names of dwarfs. Idiot scholars believe that it is an interpolation of later times, which probably it was. It doesn’t matter. It is an integral part of the Codex Regius. It’s just really, really beautiful. I’ll read a little bit into it, if I don’t bore you with names of dwarfs […]

And he goes on to read a bunch of names of dwarfs. I wouldn’t want to be around Werner Herzog when he’s making movies (or probably at any other time), but I’m glad he makes them. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I tell people who make documentaries: go read the Edda
    I wonder if he said the same to Jon Favreau while they were working on “The Mandalorian”… It might explain the competence of said work as opposed to, um, other works in the same tradition.
    (throws grenade, runs to hide)

  2. (throws grenade, runs to hide)

    Herzog is filming you right now!

  3. From The Guardian (2017):

    He [composer Lawrence English] sent a copy of The Peregrine to the film director Werner Herzog; Herzog read it and was astonished. He has since spoken often of the book, and it is now one of only three required texts for his Rogue Film School – along with Virgil’s Georgics and Hemingway’s story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. Herzog describes The Peregrine as inducing “ecstasy” in the radical sense of the word: not just entranced or frenzied, but literally beside oneself. There are moments, he notes, “where you can tell that [Baker] has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film: I step outside of myself into an ekstasis; in Greek, to step outside of your own body.”

    The attraction of The Peregrine to a film-maker is obvious: the pristinated vision, the sudden rapid pull shots (a stooping lens), the immense field of vision, the swivelling eye. The attraction to Herzog is clear, too, compelled as he has been in so many films by obsession, extremity and wildness (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, The Ends of the Earth). The puzzle to me, for years, was why Herzog had not yet filmed The Peregrine. In 2015, I wrote to ask if he was planning to do so. “If anyone can, it should be you,” I said. I sent him a photograph of my local peregrine perched on a church spire, part-gargoyle. Herzog replied within a few hours, generous about my own writing on Baker, but adamant about the book’s adaptability: “A feature film would be very wrong. There are texts that should never be touched. Georg Büchner’s Lenz is one of these cases. In fact, whoever tries to make a feature film of The Peregrine should be shot without trial.”

  4. That’s my Werner!

  5. January First-of-May says

    I tell people who make documentaries: go read the Edda

    Perhaps, but if so they should stay away from the prologue of the Younger Edda – which is infamously a complete and utter mess that has little to do with the rest of the text, regularly contradicts it, and, IIRC, in some places contradicts itself.

  6. It’s the accountant’s truth you are after. It’s a very impoverished life if we go only for that!

  7. David Marjanović says

    The names of dwarfs can be quite interesting for historical linguistics.

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