In our Holiday Issue, Mark O’Connell reviews Werner Herzog’s autobiography, a deadpan self-portrait by a true eccentric who seems to wake up each morning “in determined pursuit of experience.” As O’Connell writes, there is something “resolute and methodical about the wildness of Herzog’s life,” in which the slapstick and the philosophical entwine in persistent bizarre coincidences. Herzog’s distaste for analyzing himself only leaves more room for O’Connell to give the reader a sense of the director as a person, and of his memoir as nothing more or less than “an argument for how an artist should conduct himself in the world.”
O’Connell is a regular contributor to the Review, where he writes on subjects ranging from the English post-punk musician Robert Lloyd to transhumanist literature and philosophy. (His own book about the latter, To Be a Machine, came out in 2017.) He has an eye for strange juxtapositions, for paradox, and for people who don’t quite know themselves: for his latest book, A Thread of Violence, he got to know “Malcolm Macarthur, a very eloquent and patrician Irishman, who murdered two strangers in a bizarre and brutal killing spree in 1982, and who nonetheless considers himself to be a very decent and moral person.” Over e-mail this week, O’Connell told me more about his career in the Irish literary scene, and who should play him in a Herzog adaptation of his book.
Nawal Arjini: You write that your own life has been un-Herzogian, but I get the sense you’re selling yourself short. What’s the closest you’ve come to digging up the corpse of a murderer’s mother or eating your shoe?
Mark O’Connell: I’ve been in a few strange situations over the years, but nearly always in service of some story I was writing. I visited a cryonics facility in Arizona, a place filled with canisters containing the decapitated heads of futurists who wish someday to be brought back to life by having their brains uploaded to computers. I spent a week driving across west Texas in a bus converted to look like a giant coffin with a guy who was running an independent presidential campaign and raising awareness about “the problem of death.” I visited the former sheep station in New Zealand where Peter Thiel planned to build a compound to weather the apocalypse. (This libertarian Xanadu of his never got off the ground, scuppered by local conservationists who argued that it would spoil the natural beauty of Lake Wānaka, where Thiel owns the land.)
Your book To Be a Machine is about transhumanists—people who through some combination of quasi-scientific experiments, wishful thinking, and venture capital hope to escape the human condition. How would you describe Herzog’s relationship to the human condition? And what’s yours?
I suppose part of my fascination with Herzog is a sense that he’s similarly interested in extreme and often absurd stories, and in what they can tell us about the human experience more generally. In a way, I’m surprised he hasn’t taken on transhumanism as a subject, as it speaks to his fascination with driven and eccentric people who struggle against overwhelming odds in service of some Promethean ideal. One quality that I love about Herzog’s work, and that I try to bring out in my own, is his total lack of cynicism. He is very open-minded and, as corny as it sounds, openhearted. He can see the nobility in people who might appear at first glance deluded or ridiculous, and the humanity in people who have done terrible things. Into the Abyss, his documentary about prisoners on death row, is an extraordinary example. He stares unblinkingly at the terrible crimes these people have committed, and yet never loses sight of their humanity.
Would you allow Herzog to adapt A Thread of Violence?
I’m of two minds: on the one hand, I would be extremely curious to know what Herzog would get out of Malcolm Macarthur, how he might depict his crimes and his current life. If Herzog were to make it as a documentary, it would necessarily be an entirely different story, because Herzog’s presence would bring an overwhelming pressure to bear on the film’s structure and tone, and so it would no longer be an adaptation of my book in the first place.
As a feature film, who knows? The more I think about it, the more Herzogian a figure Malcolm Macarthur comes to seem: a man who insists on being recognized more for his kindness and intellectual acuity than for the brutal double murder he committed forty years ago. I think Herzog would be able to reveal both the absurdity and the humanity of Macarthur, in such a way that each quality would deepen and enrich the other. (I hope, however, that this is something I myself have already managed to do.) I’d have to insist that he cast Michael Shannon as both me and Macarthur, though. In any case, if you happen to be reading this, Werner Herzog, let’s talk.
Some people attribute Ireland’s famously disproportionate population of writers to state funding for the arts. The novelist Rachel Connolly has argued that government support is just one facet of an essentially literary culture. What do you think?
I think it’s both: we have pretty good state funding for the arts because Ireland is quite a literary culture. It’s not just that Ireland values its writers, it’s that our national self-image is unusually bound up with our literary heritage. You can’t talk meaningfully about this country’s history and its fight for independence without talking about literature—about the way that poets and, in particular, playwrights worked out on the page what it meant to be Irish, against the backdrop of the struggle for national self-determination.
So I think Irish people are in some way predisposed to take literature seriously. But I also think this society is a literary one in a way that has nothing directly to do with theater or poetry or the novel. One of the things I love about Ireland is that the Irish, as a rule, tend to be aesthetes of chat. You hear idiosyncratic expressions and surprising turns of phrase here almost constantly. (I always remember an American friend of mine, the writer Sam Anderson, telling me about being greeted by an old man in the west of Ireland with the phrase “A powerful day to you, sir!”) So much of what is great about Ulysses, for instance, is just people in conversation coming out with really funny and creative locutions. Waiting for Godot is just two guys standing around talking to pass the time, unto death.
How did you come to be a writer yourself, if not by conscription into national service?
I’m the youngest son of my family. In Ireland, typically, the eldest son inherits the farm (or the pharmacy, in our case), and the youngest son is forced to make a living as a writer. In the past, I would have been packed off to a seminary to become a priest, but that’s a less and less viable career these days.
I’m joking around here because I don’t really know what the answer is. One way of framing it would be to say that I got a Ph.D. from Trinity College on the work of John Banville, but even in a country as supposedly literary as Ireland, the job market for experts in the fiction of John Banville was not what I had hoped it might be. After I graduated, I had a bit of postdoctoral funding to turn my thesis into a book, but the work required to do that was fairly minimal, so I just sort of pretended to be doing it while spending most of my time writing essays and criticism for various venues online, like The Millions and Slate. I had always been more invested in the writing side of academia than I was in research or teaching. These pieces drew on my scholarly training, but they were more personal and more formally free and ambiguous than the academic work I had been mostly writing before.
I’ve been trying to put material together for an essay collection, and I’ve realized that there’s a point in time before which my work feels like juvenilia. I can draw that line more or less at the moment I met Brendan Barrington, the editor of The Dublin Review. I wrote a handful of pieces for him early in my career—one on unboxing videos, one on living in a suburban apartment building, and one on fears and phobias—and looking back it seems quite clear that those were the essays in which my scattered intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations started to coalesce into a sort of identity or personal ethos. I suspect this is something that quite a few Irish writers of my generation, especially writers of nonfiction, might find themselves saying about The Dublin Review, and about Brendan. For all the strength of Ireland’s literary culture, there is nothing here like the tradition of literary nonfiction that exists in the US. To the extent that that is changing, I would give a lot of the credit to Brendan—who is, probably not coincidentally, American.
I’ve been incredibly lucky with editors in general, and I find it very hard to think about my development as a writer in an isolated, individualistic way. Yaniv Soha, the American editor of all three of my books, gave me license to pursue some of my wilder notions while gently curtailing wayward instincts. My career would look quite different, and probably less interesting, if I had not encountered him a decade or so back.
American literary culture seems forever in pursuit of, or in the shadow of, Irish literary culture. Is this true? If it is, is it annoying?
Is American literary culture in the shadow of Irish literary culture? Are young American writers trying to write a Ulysses? I don’t think so. I guess maybe some of them are trying to write a Normal People or a Beautiful World, Where Are You—and good luck to them, if they are. (Although one of the things I have found strange about the discourse around Sally Rooney’s books in the US is how many American critics seem to overlook their irreducible Irishness.)
But no, in general, I think American literary culture could stand to be a lot more in pursuit of Irish literary culture—if for no other reason than that I would personally sell more books in the US if it were. If anything, in the case of literary nonfiction like the kind that I write, the traffic is much more in the other direction. When Irish people think of literature, they think almost exclusively of fiction, poetry, and theater. There just isn’t the same culture of nonfiction writing here. I personally have tended to take my cues from American writers of nonfiction, and from the American literary scene in general. America, of course, has a very rich tradition of journalism as an explicitly literary form. This, I suppose, is not a claim that I need to substantiate in any serious way for subscribers to The New York Review of Books.