Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Pan Pipes

A pen, a trough, a cow, a double fence and some thorn bushes at the bottom of the east side of St. Catherine's Hill.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet there often seems to be a disquieting mystery at the heart of such quiet harmony, one which puts me in mind of those hysterical but memorable words, quoted from Büchner's Woyzek, displayed on screen at the start of Werner Herzog's film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Over a shot of a wheat field writhing in a blustery wind, accompanied by Pachelbel's Canon, we see a text: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?"*

Well, I did say they were hysterical words (as in "excessively emotional or agitated", rather than "wildly funny") but I'm sure you understand what he means.  We're not talking about tinnitus here.  Longer-term readers may recall my own experience with El Tiburón, and you may have had similar experiences of your own.

Büchner's words are an example of what I like to call "heavy breathing", a tendency both Romantics and Modernists have in common.  That is, a tendency to talk up the hidden horrors of the world, and their attendant alienation, in such a way as to draw an audience into unwilling complicity.  "Hmm, yes, I think you like this too, really, don't you, my dear?"  It's the seamy side of the Sublime.

A more venerable account of the experience is embodied in the etymology of "panic", originally an inexplicable surge of fear experienced in a wild place, said to be the mischievous god Pan making himself known.  Perhaps that terrible screaming is simply the sound of the piper at the Gates of Dawn, playing in a key and register normally beyond the range of human ears.

Sheep on Brown Clee hill

* Actually, to be accurate, the text we see is "Hören Sie denn nicht das entsetzliche Schreien ringsum, das man gewöhnlich die Stille heißt?" with English subtitles, delivered in two bites.  The German might more accurately be translated as "Don’t you hear that terrible screaming all around, which is customarily called silence?".  To be even more accurate, Herzog's film is actually called "Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle" i.e. "Every man for himself and God against everyone" which pretty much lays Werner's cards on the table.


Struan said...

One of the reasons I part company with the Romantics is their habit of clutching their brows and swooning at the sight of what appears to me to be a simple little rock scramble.

It's not just macho can-do. I get irritated by those who see landscape as something to look at, rather than something to walk through, immerse yourself in, and otherwise actively engage with. Oddly I find myself aligned with those Marxist theorists who see landscape appreciation as an imperialist activity engaged in by vacationing urbanites.

I am fascinated by myth, symbolism and landscape as historical and archeological palimpsest. I just don't do the awestruck terror bit. The mainline railway station of any big city is far more scary.

Mike C. said...


True, things like maps, gore-tex, decent footwear and thermos flasks have enabled us to demystify places that were once (or were perceived to be) life- and soul-threatening. As you suggest, there may be more actual danger trying to cross the Euston Road than venturing into "wild" places, though no-one's ever going to get a book out of that.

However, personally, I am susceptible to the subliminal free jazz playing out there (too many chemicals as a youth, perhaps) and "the awestruck terror bit" is not something you choose -- it just happens. I think it's all the more real for not being a rational response to a real threat.

Romantic/Modernist "heavy breathing" is different, I think, primarily because it's (a) posturing and (b) manipulative.


Struan said...

I have been with people when they discover they suffer from vertigo. Not fun. And very real. They get my empathy, and help getting out of there.

It's the posturing I find tiresome. So much intense insincerity. And wilful self-delusion.

Guess which of these I prefer:

Mike C. said...

Ha! Why, McGonagall, of course -- his authenticity shines through, and "Oh! How nice!" is a rhyme of genius for "ice".

Not come across that MacCaig poem before -- superb, muscular stuff. Heavy breathing of the approved sort.


Unknown said...

Over a shot of a wheat field writhing in a blustery wind, accompanied by Pachelbel's Canon, we see a text: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?"
Hysterical it may very well be, but somehow this sequence (and/or the music!) by Herzog never seizes to move me deeply. Herzog's pathos can indeed reach levels of a serious health risk, but I still feel what I felt the very first time I saw this film - a desperate loneliness, an intens vacuum, a total lack of feeling, before the mindmachine kicks in. The bold nouveauté to just use this imagery by way of opening a tale, that to me is visual art of the highest order.

Mike C. said...


Good to know people are still coming across my older posts! Yes, Herzog -- especially in his work of that era -- always seemed to bring something of the "silent era" of film-making into his work, most obviously in "Nosferatu". He's one of my artistic heroes, and I'm currently embarking on Paul Cronin's "Werner Herzog: a guide for the perplexed".