I have written before that the movie Grizzly Man did not disturb me too much – I felt that the death of Timothy Treadwell – who was eaten by a grizzly bear after spending more than ten summers living in close quarters with them – was appropriate: we all must die, and this was a better death for him than a stroke or cancer or automobile accident or any of the other deaths people think are responsible because they are normal.
Still, I woke up in the middle of the night a few days after watching the film thinking about a grizzly eating a human stomach. It was not a nightmare: I was not really disturbed by it, but I must have been dreaming about it, as it was the thought on my brain as I awoke: what it feels like to have the area below your rib cage ripped out by a bear. The movie had had some kind of effect on me.
I do have some further observations. First of all, the movie has a political dimension which intrigues me. Treadwell angered some people, right-wingers in particular: there is an onscreen interview with one who complained that Treadwell “wanted to bond with them [the bears] as ‘children of the universe’ or someodd.” He later says that the bears probably only refrained from eating him earlier because “they probably felt there was something wrong with him, like he was mentally retarded or something.” Someone else has said what I am about to say, but it bears repeating: had Treadwell been a hunting guide who had lived in close contact with grizzlies for a decade and eventually was eaten by one, he would have been celebrated by the very right-wingers who found his liberal stupidity insufferable. Stupidity is not the issue: everybody who spends enough time in the backcountry eventually does something dumb enough to get himself killed. Many backcountry heroes died doing dumb things that they had been told not to do. It’s the identity politics that matter when it comes time to call them heroes or idiots.
And this divide in American culture has persisted for a long, long time. Thoreau said, “If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!” One of the right-wingers in the film mentions the “resource of the bears” – they were to be seen from a human-utilitarian perspective as a portion of the economy. Treadwell himself was affected by this thinking: he was clearly in the bush merely because he loved it, but he claimed that he was “protecting” the bears, or doing scientific observations. This is mere rationalization. The presumption is that his experiences have no value if they cannot be socially justified.
The director of the film, Werner Herzog, had a few criticisms of Treadwell as well, from the other side of the political spectrum. He says in the film, “And what haunts me is that in all of the faces of all the bears that Treadwell filmed, I see none of the kinship Treadwell was searching for, nothing but a half-bored interest in food.” This half-bored interest in food is what a theist sees taking over Herzog’s continent – a summa of post-modern Europe (and America soon enough) – but that is no matter. This may hence be merely a matter of projection on Herzog’s part, nature being his mirror. But this alienation from, and felt superiority to, nature is such a distinct feature of modern atheism that it is worth a few more words. That the human being is more complicated emotionally and cognitively than all other living creatures I do not deny. But if anything science would seem to be confirming Treadwell’s position more than Herzog’s, namely that there is nothing in us which is absent elsewhere in nature (though it may be more developed in us). In other words, we are most assuredly kin with bears, whether or not Herzog (or the rightwingers) can see it. That he does not see it, or says that he does not see it, seems to be the work of ideology. In fact in the next sequence he shows some of Treadwell’s superb footage of bears playing and confesses that Treadwell was filming not only nature, but a part of ourselves.
But our alienation, as loving, conscious creatures in a universe of chaos and meaninglessness, is part of Herzog’s postmodern intellectual equipage, and he feels it necessary to assert it in the face of Treadwell’s passion for the danger of the wild. Europeanus sum, omne naturale a me alienum puto. As always, the opposites of the political spectrum here seem to be two manifestations of the same phenomenon. The Alaskan backwoodsmen find Treadwell did not treat nature as antagonist enough; the European intellectuals find that he treated it too much as a friend. Both are operating from the presumption of this alienation.
Herzog’s interpretation comes out in another place, where he claims that Treadwell’s story is “not without absurdity.” Apparently he had already packed up his camp and left to go back to his home in California when he had a dispute with a “fat ticket agent” about the validity of his ticket. Whether he was refused at the gate or simply stormed off in indignation I do not know, but he decided to return to the bush for another ten days. He was eaten on his last night there, just hours before he was going to get picked up. And he had his girlfriend there with him – she was eaten as well – and she had apparently been complaining vociferously about his death wish and saying she was never going on another expedition with him (we learn this from their journals). And his last few videos mention over and over again the danger he is in. Herzog calls all this “absurdity” – but it could just as easily be called destiny. When a stream runs at the edge of a cliff, all you need is a small break for the water to go straight down. And ominous signs in a tragedy are an indication that the play is coming to its appropriate end.
Presumably Herzog believes that death is the end, and a life shortened is therefore shortened to no purpose – and hence absurd. I cannot agree with this. We are all dead for an infinitely longer amount of time than we are alive, and in the face of eternity no life is long. What then should stop us from living as we want to live? Surely not the fear that by so living we will not live long – we will not live long under any circumstances. Nor the carpings of the timorous critics, who hate nothing so much as those lives lived boldly in the shadow of danger. There are rewards for so living. I have no doubt that those people are luckiest who feel true exultation walking along the beach instead of riding the storm. But not everyone can stand such tranquillity, and seeing images of Treadwell’s joy in nature convinces me that in his last decade he truly lived, and I imagine he felt death to the fullest as well. And in so doing he became the kind of person human beings make movies about.