November 01, 2009

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser deals with a true story. In 1828 in Nuremberg a seventeen year old boy was found in the middle of the town carrying a letter addressed to the local cavalry captain, who did not seem to have either a history or the rudiments of social knowledge. Werner Herzog's film presents the story as the boy later told it- he was kept in a dungeon and a mysterious benefactor came to feed and clothe him. This benefactor then for his own purposes escorted him through the streets of Nuremberg to where he stood when he was found. He became a ward of the city, staying first within a tower and later, as Herzog simplifying events tells us, with an educational Professor Daumer. Daumer taught Hauser how to read and write. Whilst at Daumer's Hauser was attacked mysteriously by an assailant he believed was the man who had tended him in his youth. Later on, Hauser was patronised by a British nobleman- the Earl of Stanhope- and then he was attacked again, this time fatally and died at the age of 21. The story has provoked many people for years to speculate who Hauser was: some including Stanhope believed that he was an imposter, others conceived that he was the inheritor to a European throne- normally that of Baden- and a wild child.

Herzog does not take a position on these wider debates. The film deals with what we know about Hauser- his period in the light of society so to speak. Herzog's interest is in the process of socialisation- the way that Hauser is introduced to religion, philosophy, science and logic and to other human beings. What Herzog tries to show is through the eyeview of a 'natural' human being how artificial several of our conceptions are. For example when Daumer tells Hauser that apples do not want to lie in the grass and have no agency, Hauser disagrees. In order to prove that he is wrong, Daumer suggests to the boy that apples cannot act and to demonstrate it picks one up and throws it at his friend's foot. The apple though bounces on the stone path and runs over the foot and Hauser tells Daumer that he is wrong because the apple jumped, the apple was wiser than Daumer. Obviously Hauser's interpretation is wrong but it is a natural alternative to our normal interpretation: the apple might be jumping and it might not be, we believe that it is not because we attribute its action to external agency, bouncing on the stones.

The example of the apple is important because Herzog shows this process of 'natural' versus conventional knowledge in other settings. So Hauser sits down with a logician and cuts the gordian knot of a logical paradox in a way that does not obey philosophical rules. In a similar way he cannot understand the concepts that the religious men of the town try and explain to him: that three Gods are somehow one God, that life exists after death etc. Hauser's naivity demonstrates that these things are not natural to us- they do not arise by light of nature but by convention and are created explanations for the world around us. What Herzog is showing us is that knowledge is a social convention: that does not mean that it is illegitimate- the apple is not jumping- but it does show us that it does not arise from our first anticipation of the world. We gather data and interpret it according to rules: Kaspar does not which is why his explanations do not fit into ours.

The response of the community to Kaspar's inability to know is the core of the film. The community responds in four distinct ways. Daumer attempts to educate Kaspar and laughs off the boy's conventional confusion. The philosopher reacts with fury to the boy. The priests attempt to persuade as though it is his moral duty to understand and at the end of the film, they assume for his own good that he is wrong and perform a funeral service over him. Lord Stanhope condescends, presenting Kaspar as a witty joke. We have here three distinct bad reactions (Daumer is presented sympathetically) and to some extent I think Herzog is making a sociological comment. The intellectuals are arrogant- hence the philosopher's fury. The religious tend to presume that they know other people's goods and think that their knowledge is appropriate for those who do not share their views. The inhabitants of society are only interested in laughing not in listening. I also think that the purpose of the film is didactic- these are not for Herzog productive ways of responding to people: and so he critiques them.

Kaspar Hauser becomes an analogy for Herzog of knowledge within society and the mystery within life. The last point is that none of these men- philosophers, Christians, wits or scientists- can provide Hauser with a working explanation for where he has come from or where he is going. Hauser's problem is though only our own writ mysteriously: for we do not know where consciousness comes from or is going to. All they seem to do in this film is tell Kaspar how to think, not listen to his story and try and understand it. In that sense- Herzog's last point seems to be- that we risk forcing our natures, our mysteries (including that of who we are and what consciousness is) into artificial patterns.


James Higham said...

Ah, now you're right in my territory. This was one of the units I offered in Russia for my 4th Years.

How do you see Kaspar's reaching for the book, clutching at the gun on the wall and the gun discharging ... or the lack of footprints in the snow in the park, apart from Kaspar's own?

How do you see Stanhope in the matter?

By the way.

Gracchi said...

James to be honest I don't know. I was really writing about the film- as far as Kaspar himself goes, I'm unwilling to go farther than my knowledge.

James Higham said...

It's a very intriguing story, very. My own thoughts as to whether he was making it up, was hallucinating or whether Stanhope really was representing Kaspar's enemies crystallized when I read more widely of the things which happened later to those who'd suggested the royal connection.

Even if one accepts this, it still doesn't explain some things Kaspar did and why he'd be protecting this person[s]. Perhaps it was always on the promise to see his mother and if so, that's very cruel.