When Werner Herzog Was My Dad: Of Post-Natal Visions and Other Wonders
Rachel Yoder Explores the Animal Divide From Either Side of Childbirth
A number of summers ago I taught a three-day workshop on the Ecstatic Essay. I’d planned this class in deep Iowan winter, when I had been pregnant with my first child. Let us explore the sublime, I thought within that hormonal whirlpool of third trimester. We shall speak of the mystical, the ecstatic. I was thoroughly in love with this idea and also thoroughly unsure of what exactly an ecstatic essay was. That was sort of the point though: “mystery,” “ineffable,” etcetera.
My obsession with the word ecstasy at that particular moment—before my son’s birth—had been inspired by filmmaker Werner Herzog and his aesthetic statement known as The Minnesota Declaration. In it, he invoked this notion of “ecstatic truth,“ an artistic, big-T Truth in documentary or nonfiction work that is “mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” This seemed to me the perfect frame to give my class for thinking about essays, so often discounted as mere not fiction with cemented facts and objective truths. “Ecstatic truth” created for me the image of a fountain of effervescent knowing that couldn’t help but loft from the page. It was an emergent property of the writing itself, something outside of and apart from the words. I imagined it to be a physical sensation created when the meaning of the words—as well as their irreducible mystery—interacted with human cells.
Yet when I was confronted with the actual teaching of this class in the high-heat humidity—infant now out of body and in arms, infant in arms and in lap and in baby carrier and in swing, infant in sleep and in waking, infant in dreams—the source of my preoccupation with ecstasy had nothing to do with Herzog and everything to do with my son ripping free of my body, an event I had experienced, mostly un-medicated, seven weeks earlier. When once the word “ecstasy” had conjured disembodiment, an ethereal truth, a pristine up-there-ness of aesthetic purity, now, after the baby, it meant something entirely different. Ecstasy was heavy and human, located in the body and the blood. It was equal parts bliss and suffering, these two experiences mingling in such a way as to create an entirely singular sensation that has yet to be named. It was complicated. Now, I invoked the word as the Greeks invoked it, existanai: to put out of place, to drive out of one’s mind.
And if driven from the mind, where might a person take refuge other than in the body, which is where I was, inextricably. I wore my deflated post-pregnancy skin like an old robe and stuffed cotton pads in my bra to keep milk from drenching my sundresses. I curled around the baby on a narrow dormitory bed in the college high-rise in which I was staying and only relinquished the warm, cooing armful of flesh when I had to teach, to my parents who were staying in a connecting dorm room on their own narrow beds.
To prepare for my bodily absence from the baby, I sat at the uncomfortable desk in my room, fit my breasts into a suction machine, and dispensed milk into small plastic bottles as the pump played its mechanical music of grind and ping. The baby, asleep, swayed in his swing that went shh and purr and shh. All the clicks and whirs and hums outside myself mimicked the clicks and whirs and hums inside myself: the making of the milk, the feeding, the holding, the rocking, the sleeping and rising, the changing, and again, and again, and again. In the next room, my mother sang a hymn.
And it was under such conditions that I left the child—so recently an organ inside myself—and walked across campus to a shady room to teach a class that was composed of high school students interning at the conference, smart college students studying creative writing, creative writing teachers, poets, and retirees of varying degrees of curmudgeonly-ness. We read excerpts from J.A. Baker’s dense and meditative bird-watching chronicle The Peregrine, the magical wunderwhat-are-theys from Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, the delightfully abrasive narration by Kerry Howley’s fictional narrator in her nonfictional book on MMA fighters called Thrown, and passages from Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s invoking the dirty luminescence of strip-mall fast food.
Why had I picked these readings? At the time, I might have said that I wanted to take these students somewhere they hadn’t before gone. I might have said I wanted them to read and write at the very edges of their abilities or that I wanted to be intense and real in the manner of feral mystics, of mothers just after they’ve given birth, of Bavarian filmmakers. The main unifying factor, though, was that each had something wonderfully and aggressively difficult about it: too slow or too weird or too abrasive or too perverted. They had to do with animals and philosophy and violence and poetry and fucking. Ecstasy, in other words.
“I am an animal. I am leaking milk from my teets. I should not be here. I have a small animal back in my room. You are an old, grumpy animal making horrible noises that I wish would stop.”
I had also devised a last-day exercise for my students based on Herzog’s film Heart of Glass. In this movie, all of the actors have been put under hypnosis by Herzog himself. He said he “wanted to provoke poetic language out of people who had never before been in touch with poetry.”
In the book Herzog on Herzog, he expounds on his process and relates the prompt he used on his actors, which I would wind up using on my students:
Normally I would tell them what to do and how to react after I had put them into trance, but I would give them a lot of space because so much of what happened was so unpredictable. Imagination functions very well under hypnosis. I would not just ask someone to write a poem. I told them: “You are the first one who has set foot on a foreign island for centuries. It is overgrown with jungle, full of strange birds. You come across a gigantic cliff, and on closer inspection this entire cliff is made of pure emerald where hundreds of years ago a Holy Monk had spent his entire life with a chisel and hammer engraving a poem into the wall. It took him his entire life to engrave only three lines of a poem. And you open your eyes and are the first one to see it. You read out what you see to me.” One actor in the film tended the stables of a Munich police station. He had no formal education and I asked him to open his eyes and read this inscription to me. He stood there and said he did not have his glasses, so I told him to move a little bit closer and everything would be in focus.
I wanted us all to be as the German stableman, edging closer to the ancient script in the emerald mountain. But I had not one stableperson in my class. I had a former judge. I had a coltish high school boy. I had a very grumpy septuagenarian who was finally undone by the Wenderoth passages—“I’d like to spank Wendy’s white ass and fuck her hard” and so forth. He had been expecting, I believe, beatific religious texts to be the focus of the class.
Used to the drowsy affability of undergrads, I was caught off-guard by this man’s bitter, entitled anger. He ranted about pornography, how Wenderoth was a pervert, that this was nothing more than common smut. A brilliant young woman defended the text while I watched, smiling. The thick lard of my post-natal brain burped and oozed. I yearned only toward the baby, the heft of him, like a hearty loaf of warm bread. The old man talked and talked.
I wanted to say something like, “I am an animal. I am leaking milk from my teets. I should not be here. I have a small animal back in my room. You are an old, grumpy animal making horrible noises that I wish would stop.”
Instead, I said nothing.
It seemed the circuitry in my mind had been shorted with milk, milk that filled me up to the very brim of my skull and overflowed onto the bathroom tiles when I stepped from the shower. My old, book-smarts intelligence had drained away entirely and been replaced with a new transcendent knowing that made conversations about literature seem trifling.
Rather than talk about texts, I would have liked to spend an entire class period telling them about how, during labor, I had touched the face of suffering and communed with those long ago medieval souls who had been tortured to death. There was a moment, as I laid on my side, my right leg up in the air, waiting for the baby to turn, waiting for my cervix to open one more excruciating centimeter, waves and waves and waves of contractions beating against the shore of myself without reprieve, when I had so clearly understood: people die in agony, horrible devices snaking through their bodies, soft tissues torn, organs rearranged. I could only think my god, those poor people and also I am dying, I am dying at this very moment. I pushed for an hour against an un-open cervix. The doctor stuck her hand inside me to try and turn the baby and I sat up and pulled her hand out and screamed Do NOT do that and then lay back down and kept dying. I whispered to my doula, “Please. Help me.” She brushed my hair back from my forehead. I got an epidural. I slept.
That we are inexorably altered when we are thrust into the world of the real, that poetry is an animal’s gesture toward creation—this was on my mind that afternoon, after Wenderoth’s perversions and the old man’s tirade, as I walked back to the dormitory. Somewhere inside myself, milk was being made. The humidity pressed down on me like a warm, damp blanket.
In the dormitory I was confused to find my parents, because they didn’t belong there, none of us did. Stranger still, a sense that my father—an Old World German with a furrowed brow and devotion to obscure philosophies—did not just remind me of Herzog but had, in fact, become Herzog himself.
Perhaps this was just a wishful fantasy or trick of sleep deprivation. Maybe it was all some sort of hypnagogic trance exacerbated by baby pheromones and the subsequent deluge of shimmering oxytocin—but Herzog handed me my child and then quoted Wenderoth in that plodding Bavarian accent of his, saying, “Only in porn does a face acquire the peculiar glow of its ownmost rhythmic ambiguity.” We talked about how a face in its “full porn depth” was not dissimilar to the face of the Virgin as portrayed in classic works of art.
We discussed his love of The Peregrine, which my students found boring. He said that Baker transubstantiates into a falcon as the book nears its end, that this is a religious experience, and I reminded Herzog of the hours Baker spent in the weeds and wetness, the wind and sun, tracking these birds, of the way in which his body must have ached from crouching and running. And isn’t this actually also part of the ekstasis, the life of the author spent in a very physical body, the body that is then exited in order to make art? Herzog could see what I mean. I kissed my mother. I wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes and we fell into sleep. At some point I drove to a bar, drank one beer very quickly, got very drunk from it, and gave a reading.
It was only after all this that The Hypnotist arrived for class on our final day. She handed out business cards. The septuagenarian scowled at me and left the room. I dimmed the lights. We all closed our eyes. We breathed deeply. She suggested, as a kindergarten teacher might suggest, simply, calmly. There was no magic. And yet. We picked up pens and in some altered state, be it doped with milk or dumb with motherhood, be it overripe, leaking, pained, hormonal, sleep-deprived, searching, stripped, emptied and agape and at the feet of an invisible, unnamable force that is as big as the universe and then bigger still, there in this vastness I wrote and I was not myself but, then again, I had not been myself for at least seven whole weeks and would not be myself ever again and maybe I was actually the German stableman who found there, on the emerald mountain, this engraving: Why can we not drink the moon? Why is there no vessel to hold it?
I was locked deep down inside my cells. I was hovering somewhere far overhead. This is what I wrote:
Twelve parts of mango, the color orange never grew so rich, so health. Crystals fell and rolled, charged with rabbits! With llamas! Beasts! Behold.
But the blooding & the blooding. It colored. It was known as the woman knew snakes.
Who told you this?
Who worked it?
Who died over land?
To own was never the point.
The second book from dirt. Or numbers. Dirt & numbers overlaid with raspberry brambles, marbles, jacks, jumbles, the road, and haven. In the spirit of Babble & towers. And what. Hoarfrost? And nothing.
No sense making in the second book, age of dinosaurs, of lichen & coal & rocks.
What is alive?
How do you know?
Dirt is in the numbers. There is no why.