Tag Archive: dark vitalism


Volcanic eruption films aren’t plentiful enough to make their own genre. Most of them fall into the disaster genre or the straight documentary video. Werner Herzog’s 1977 film La Soufrière, about the anticipated eruption in 1976 of an active volcano on the island of Guadeloupe, is different. Like his quasi-science-fictional films — Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, Wild Blue Yonder — the film has a tone of tender and lyrical, apocalyptic beauty, a resignation in the face of what appears to be humanity’s passing. Like Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Grizzly Man, and several of his other films, it is also about the human encounter with an indifferent but powerful (capital-n) Nature.

The same elements that later appear in Lessons of Darkness (about the burning oil fields of Iraq), and in different permutations in several of his other films — moving vehicle and helicopter shots of a landscape emptied of humans, classical music including the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the feeling of a waiting, as if something momentous is about to occur, or has already occurred, or both — is already present here, though without the cinematographic intensity of Lessons of Darkness. At times the film is like an archaeological dig through an abandoned city, or a devastated one (the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique). At others it is about sheer contact — between the camera and the world — and about its embarrassed failure, the “inevitable catastrophe that did not take place.” This is the failure that, Herzog seems to be suggesting, haunts the cinema verité desire to be there when It, whatever It may be, happens.

Like most of Herzog’s films, La Soufrière blurs several sets of lines: between documentary and fiction (a line that Herzog prides himself on dissolving, though here he hews closer to the first pole than he usually does), between observation and performative enactment (meaning that his own persona is ever-present, which in this case includes taking his crew up to the caldera to poke their camera inside the steaming volcano, as if to dare nature to scald them with some smoke and ash), and between the hilarious and the deadly serious. The film highlights the barbed existential irony that when, in 1902, the inhabitants of neighboring Martinique were preparing to leave before an anticipated volcanic eruption, their governor persuaded them to stay; 30,000 died. Now, seventy-five years later, the inhabitants left (except for the few that Herzog’s crew finds and interviews, and of course, Herzog himself, attracted to the volcano like a moth to the flame). And the volcano… balked.

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The image of dark flow, described as 1400 galaxy clusters streaming toward the edge of the universe at blistering speed in the ongoing “afterglow” of the big bang (or something like that), has haunted me ever since I read about it several days ago. Caused “shortly after the big bang by something no longer in the observable universe,” and possibly by “a force exerted by other universes squeez[ing] ours” (umm, a force… doing what?… I can imagine Jon Stewart’s face squinting after hearing that), I can’t help thinking that astrophysicists are arriving at the point where the known universe is being bounded and taking its place amidst a more mysterious space of otherness, where we have no clue (and can’t possibly have a clue) what goes on. So it becomes the realm of poetry, of dreams and nightmares, of haunted imaginings, like the deep sea, beyond the reach of sunlight, that still fascinates us, but even more deep, dark, vital.

Einstein had famously said that “as our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it”; and perhaps the current constellation of events — the economic crisis with its Ponzi schemes, bank machinations, and the West’s growing indebtedness to po-faced and unreadable China, the gradually accumulating reports about climate change, and films about forthcoming apocalypses (2012), zombies and vampires (Zombieland, Twilight Saga: The New Moon), and zombieless apocalypses (The Road) — are conspiring to make us all a little curious, and spooked, about what’s out there in the growing darkness… What god will put the squeeze on us next, and what’s to guarantee he or she will be benevolent?

I’m also recalling a recent set of exchanges between Ben Woodard, kvond, and others on dark vitalism, a thought-stream brewing out of the nature-philosophical wing of speculative realism that Ian Hamilton Grant helped unleash with his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling… which perhaps is a Zeitgeist thing.

Zizek’s account of the Robert Heinlein novel “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” includes a lovely passage where he equates the Lacanian Real, the unassimilable kernel around which subjectivity is formed, with the “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life” that emerges at the boundary of the known world and the unknown, outside the traveling couple’s car window. The Lacanian spookiness is perhaps what’s missing from Buddhist accounts of emptiness (though it’s hardly foreign to the Tibetan tantrics, with their graveyard nightshift meditations), and, to the goth-loving nature hound, it’s a nice addition. The passage is worth reproducing in full:

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