Friday, 21 February 2014

The ecstatic truth

In scholarly criticism, it is vital to be accurate. When it comes to any kind of representational media, however, veracity is not compulsory. Often, you are not trying to be faithful to historical records, you want to be faithful to psychology. You want to know how the mind perceives events. The mind is fallible and can be discrepant with an historical narrative.

Of course, the notion that there is 'one' single historical narrative of a single event is absurd. There is no 'one' universal 'we' which can singularly expressed an event. Testimonial writing of the Holocaust, for instance, reveal discrepant accounts. A single historical narrative is the simplification of a multitude of minds which perceive the event differently. One person might have perceived the First World War in a state of shell shock, thereby warping his perception of the war. The Second World War might have been experienced by an unrepentant Nazi officer who vehemently denied that the Holocaust ever happened. In that case, he has an account of the Holocaust refracted through a Fascistic lens. And, of course, history is interpreted by a number of different critical perspectives. There is no consensus on historical narratives because there are disputes as to what happened and there are also various disputes as to the ethics of certain events. (For instance, Michael Gove's steadfast glorification of the First World War.)

The Romantics and the German Idealists were interested in consciousness and heightened perception. They were particularly interested in the ways in which the individual experienced exalted moments of transcendence. The German filmmaker Werner Herzog coined the term 'The Ecstatic Truth' for the individual who arrives at a truth which might contravene to historical facts. His documentaries are not always faithful to facts and he often includes fictive elements. There is a very silly idea that documentaries should be didactic and 'inform' the viewer. Herzog rightly thinks this is a load of nonsense and his documentaries raises questions as much as a narrative work of fiction might.

What makes Herzog special is that he takes this German Romantic sensibility and applies it to cultures the world over. Indeed, it is much in keeping with the aboriginal view of history as cyclical process. Many aboriginal tribes in their natural habitat are also in search of the exalted transcendent experiences. Anthropological studies often apply to them a whole methodology which is grounded in a different western approach. Many a tribesman must have arrived at these 'ecstatic' truths, just as the 19th century Romantics did. The Romantic imagination is actually the appropriation of a timeless, universal sentiment.

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