Grizzly Man, A Thought

Dear readers,

In response to your questions: My exams are scheduled for the end of May.


This is inspired by uncomplicatedly’s wonderful new post on Georges Bataille and Simone Weil, which ends with a consideration of the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man.

I have reservations about Grizzly Man that have everything to do with Herzog. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the film lies in its ability to wrestle with the apparent authority of the narrator. Certainly, Herzog indicts Treadwell with an unscrupulous and delusional appropriation of the bears; at the same time, Herzog appropriates Treadwell to be the latest (and real-est) in a series of Don Quixotes (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo). His own appropriation of Treadwell reaches the point where he describes the Alaskan tundra as a “jungle,” which is patently ridiculous unless you’re a film director who always sets his tales of quixotic desire in jungles.

Of course, the way that Herzog demonstrates that he is not exploiting Treadwell is that he never plays for us the audio tape of Treadwell’s death by bear attack. This is not restraint; it is paternal authority expressed via taboo, a fact that only becomes clearer when Herzog also forbids one of Treadwell’s closest friends to listen to the tape. Herzog’s absolute interdiction is concealed by an ironic gesture of concern.

Herzog says:

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.

It is hard to imagine a denser cluster of performative contradictions. Herzog clearly intends to sever us from the animal world, and to inspire a condescending pity for Treadwell’s delusions. But there is salvation in the ambiguity of his telling us what “haunts” him — it is not clear whether he is haunted by the spectre of madness, or by his own equally constructed absence of feeling. Note Herzog’s own subsequent romanticization of a complex mammal as something which not only is driven exclusively by hunger, but which also feels a certain Baudelairean ennui as it contemplates a long life of fresh salmon and cold snows: “a half-bored interest in food.”

Leaving aside, for a moment, people who own pets, any research biologist will tell you that highly evolved mammals have numerous behaviors and social affects that exceed the satisfaction of hunger. Herzog discovers a total absence of kinship because, for him, Treadwell must always already be tilting at windmills. I see Treadwell’s life’s work a little differently: I see it as a highly enthusiastic and often suspect relationship with bears that successfully disrupted our intertwined attitudes of indifference and greed.

I am disturbed by the faint implication of heterosexism in the distance between Herzog’s masculinist rhetoric of jungle predation, and Treadwell’s overtly feminine “love” for his “animal friends,” which Herzog regards with patronizing concern.

Lastly, I am annoyed by the way the film bows and scrapes before the indigenous speaker who speaks of respecting the bear’s Otherness as the spiritual complement of maintaining a safe distance. Once again, I have to question whether this is any less fanciful than what Treadwell is doing; furthermore, from a rhetorical standpoint, you have to put the bear’s supposed sovereignty in the context of the real world of guns, tranquilizers, developers, poachers, and democracies. One of the things about Treadwell was that his warm, empathetic relationship to bears made him very good at communicating about them with children who had never seen bears, and may not even have had much exposure to the “raw” wild. At this point, a respect for the bear’s Otherness is problematic on several levels: first of all, because it risks holding onto a metaphysics of danger that can now only be experienced voluntarily, and is therefore fatally corroded by irony unless it is risked in the service of a myth, as it is by Treadwell; and second, because it presents no challenge at all to the mode of thinking that finally, inevitably, wants to ask whether human beings or grizzlies are more important — given an unbridgeable difference in world — in the service of illegal poaching, or development projects, or oil.