Grizzly encounters

Two documentaries I watched this week – HyperNormalisation and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World – explore the immensity of the changes the world is going through and help put these changes into some sort of semi-coherent perspective. Lo and Behold is by the incomparable Werner Herzog, a man I regard as something as a hero for his documentaries. His distinctive voice is a joy to listen to, a desperately needed source of sanity in an age that is starting to feel like a race to the bottom.

Herzog’s documentaries are works of art. He contemptuously dismisses the objectivity that most documentary-makers aspire to because he knows there is no such thing as an objective account of anything. Instead, he gleefully narrates his stories with an intoxicating mix of intelligent observation, playful commentary and incisive question-asking. His questions and interjections are little works of art in themselves, such as when he asks several scientists: “Does the internet dream?” Part of the Herzogian experience is to study the bemused reaction of people as they process his unconventional but cleverly worded (and knowingly naïve) questions. Elon Musk, for instance, is clearly taken aback when Herzog enthusiastically volunteers to go to Mars on a one-way ticket.

Herzog is intrigued by the outsider, the exile, the obsessive. Whether it’s an infuriatingly naïve young American who goes off to live alongside grizzly bears in Alaska (the man called them his “friends” until one of them ate him and his girlfriend), a Death Row executioner or a legendary hacker, Herzog’s genius is in teasing the humanity out of people (yes, it frequently has to be teased out). They drop the act, they open up to him. Nothing and no one is too strange for our Werner: humanity is merely the riddle he is trying to crack.

His documentary Encounters at the End of the World features quite possibly the most heartbreaking scene I have ever seen. It shows, ahem, a suicidal penguin in Antarctica. Herzog is sitting and talking to a scientist about whether penguins can go insane. A group of penguins are heading to the sea when one of them stops, pauses, throws its flippers up in despair (so to speak) and then makes a mad, doomed dash for the interior. Now I am not given over to anthropomorphism but even the scientist was at a loss to explain it. I freely blubbered at the sight of such a sad and powerful spectacle: it was infinitely more touching than any of Disney’s emotional bludgeonings. Incidentally, by far the saddest cartoon I have ever seen also involved a penguin. J knew it from her childhood (it was made in Soviet times) and showed it to me one tipsy Saturday evening. After it was over (10 agonizing minutes) I remarked it was a wonder that more Soviet children didn’t hurl themselves off their balconies: it was utterly devastating (though beautiful nonetheless).

A childhood hero of mine, Carl Sagan (I was pleasantly astonished when G told me she knew him and loved his work), was part of the team behind the Voyager spacecraft program in the 1970s. A 12-inch gold-plated phonograph was attached to the craft that combined, within its painfully limited storage space, a selection of human music (Chuck Berry, Beethoven, Senegalese percussion, etc.), knowledge (scientific formulae and diagrams, how to say hello in 55 languages, where to find earth, etc.) and sounds (thunder, wind, frogs, trains, etc.). There was even a photo of a supermarket. The idea was almost unbearably lovely in its groovy naivety: the disc was a friendly greeting to any alien that might intercept it (and have the necessary appendages to put the needle to the groove).

Sagan taught me basic lessons that I still cherish to this day. But that is not what I want to say. Sorry but it’s 7:07am and I only slept for 5 hours. I had to drink what I euphemistically call a medicinal dose of vodka to ensure even that little sleep. It’s my hyper-consciousness, you see. But I’m getting away from the point, which went this way…

I mention the Voyager spacecraft because if the same project were to be repeated today I would volunteer Herzog’s documentaries as the standard for humanity, the fluttering flag to represent our miserable collective lot. Herzog’s body of work taps into the deranged best of us. In his singular vision of the world we are all Don Quixotes tilting at windmills and Captain Ahabs in obsessive pursuit of our Moby Dick. It is far from flattering but it is at least forgivable.  If I were an alien, and I spent a cosmic weekend binge-watching Herzog’s documentaries, I’d immediately head for earth with a white flag in my curiously hominoid hands.

(P.S. I strongly recommend that we include some telenovelas to hook any aggressive aliens à la One Thousand and One Nights. That way they could not exterminate us because they would be forever waiting for the ever-receding denouement. For this extremely important task, I recommend we send Jane the Virgin, Parks and Recreation, Baywatch and The Bold and the Beautiful.)

All the heroes are gone, alas. All the politicians and most of the artists around today are paltry specimens of p-p-p-people. Sorry I just got subliminally mugged by an advert from my youth which urged me to p-p-p-pick up a Penguin (a chocolate-covered biscuit). My mum used to include one together with the sandwich and apple that formed my packed lunch for school when I was a kid, a reasonably balanced diet it seems to me, considering that I am still here, in reasonable shape for my age.

I (electronically) asked G late last night if I am useful to her. She replied (in a reasonable passage of time) that she admired my “toughness”. I know that I am not at all tough but it was comforting to hear it. If I were tough, I would leave people behind. I would emigrate to an earthly Mars or notional Antarctica. Because people are an unbearable counterpoint to this: they are the joy I do not feel, the indifference I lack, the attractiveness that oozed away long ago. It is by the vast abstraction of people that we ceaselessly measure ourselves. This is why couples are ultimately doomed to infantile unhappiness: they become a reflexive, regressive form of self-negation.

I miss J. She is away on business, as they say. Our daily 8-kilometre walk feels lonely and treacherous without her. I leave home with a spring in my step only to return, 70 minutes later, squelching in sadness. Whereupon I see my lovely neighbour Gytas puffing away in his doorway. “Hello!” he says. “How’s it going?” I fumble for my keys, try my best to resemble a human. “Fine!” I say. And in that moment I think I even mean it.

One final, exhausted thought for the road. One day lots of children will be conceived in the (technically moving) backseat of a self-driving car in motion.

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