My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This short but grand 2000 novella, seemingly regarded as its prolific author’s masterpiece, is the story of the titular painter, the real-life German landscape artist, Johan Moritz Rugendas, as he suffers a life-altering accident on the Argentine pampas while on an expedition through South America.
Aira’s narrator’s academic tone—we might be reading a biography written by an art historian—almost explicitly invites us to read the story as an allegory, an allegory for the process described by Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods: the becoming-autonomous of art in modernity, when artists turn from a mission to represent the world objectively to a new mission to create works that function as separate worlds, which cannot be anything other than subjective projections.
In Aira’s novella, Rugendas comes from a long line of genre painters. His genre is the landscape—but he paints less for the purpose of aesthetic ornamentation than for scientific enlightenment. In the era before photography and other recording devices, a painter brought information about nature to the metropolis. You might think, then, that Rugendas would be a pure empiricist, painting just what he sees as he sees it, a kind of human recording device. But instead, Rugendas follows a method devised by the polymath Humboldt, which he calls throughout the book “the procedure,” otherwise known as the “physiognomy” of landscape. This is a version of Romantic holism that understands all of nature as an integrated and self-generating organism, which the work of art should represent as such.
However, in the novel’s set-piece and centerpiece, Rugendas is struck several times by lightning while riding through the pampas. (Though Humboldt had advised him that the tropics, in their abundance, furnished the best subject matter for physiognomic painting, Rugendas sought the comparative emptiness of the Argentine interior; this represents, we might allegorize, a turn from Romantic lushness to modernist spareness or nothingness.) Rugendas is further injured when his horse drags him a long distance, which leaves most of his body intact but his face disfigured, its nerves exposed and then poorly healed and indeed misaligned. From then on, he experiences agonizing pain and constant muscle twitches and spasms, for the relief of which he takes massive quantities of opiates. In short, Rugendas’s own physiognomy is shown to be chaotic and distorted, prey to chance and pain; nature, on which the artist sought to model his forms, is less a seamless organic unity than a fragmentary ruin: “for Rugendas, the ‘calm of the studio’ was a thing of the past; now there was only torment, drugs and hallucinations.”
Rugendas continues to work obsessively after his accident, recklessly following a battle between Indians and settlers, a subject he had long wanted to draw, and then following the Indians themselves into the jungle, all the while accompanied by another German painter, the loyal, dandyish, and less talented Krause. Throughout the novella’s second half, Rugendas is compared to the very forces that seem to threaten him, those he wished to treat as objects for his subjective act of representation: lightning, animals, Indians. What has happened, Rugendas comes to understand, is that the Romantic concept of the artwork as reproduced organic world leads rather logically to a modernist concept of the artwork as autonomous world of its own, one no less contingent than the nature that revealed itself to Rugendas on the pampas:
And yet, at some point, the mediation had to give way, not so much by breaking down as by building up to the point where it became a world of its own, in whose signs it was possible to apprehend the world itself in its primal nakedness. […] What the world was saying was the world.
And in the naked fact of detail in the artwork as heterocosm, the strangeness of the world reveals itself: the narrator compares the detail in a realistic painting, when examined close up, to Surrealism. (Unlike other avant-gardists, then, Aira refreshingly seems to see all procedures, including those of mimesis, as legitimate, because each in its own way speaks the world.)
Rugendas, we read, has become “all face”—but this is not the face considered as a coherent image of identity; it is the face as pure meaningless affective experience, it is the sheer surface of reality. Having lost both the ability and the desire to make the distinctions (subject/object, whole/part, art/life) that would allow him to recreate nature, he and his art become more nature, hence the narrative’s comparisons of the artist to nature itself, and to the non-European, considered in Enlightenment ideology as a part of the landscape.
But this story is not just an allegory of what happened to art, it is an allegory of Aira’s own “procedure” (the idea that an artist needs a “procedure” itself derives from the assumption that the relations between subject/object and art/nature have become problematic). Here is how Aira writes, according to Wikipedia:
Aira has often spoken in interviews of elaborating an avant-garde aesthetic in which, rather than editing what he has written, he engages in a “flight forward” (fuga hacia adelante) to improvise a way out of the corners he writes himself into. Aira also seeks in his own work, and praises in the work of others (such as the Argentine-Parisian cartoonist and comic novelist Copi), the “continuum” (el continuo) of a constant momentum in the fictional narrative. As a result his fictions can jump radically from one genre to another, and often deploy narrative strategies from popular culture and “subliterary” genres like pulp science fiction and television soap operas. He frequently refuses to conform to generic expectations for how a novel ought to end, leaving many of his fictions quite open-ended.
Like Rugendas after his fall, Aira makes himself into the lightning, into part of the world’s endless production of itself, rather than trying to stand above this process or to master it. This approach is justified in the novella when we are told of the superiority of art over discourse as a way of carrying forward humanity’s knowledge; in other words, real knowledge is lived and embodied, not an abstraction:
Were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Art was more useful than discourse.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a consummate allegory of modern art from Romanticism (art represents natural unity) to modernism (art should seek the limit of natural unity) to postmodernism (neither art nor nature have unity). It should be on every syllabus!
Or should it? Even under the reign of postmodernism, art should should instruct and delight, and all the foregoing instruction wouldn’t be worth a thing if Aira couldn’t delight. He can. There is the perfect mock-historian/biographer’s tone, the wry and touching relationship between Krause and Rugendas, the precise and inventive description of landscapes and scenes and tools, the expansive sense of time passing on a journey that makes the novella feel—in a good way—much longer (something like Heart of Darkness). And there are, in Chris Andrews’s eloquent translation, some beautifully weird sentences, which justify the whole cult of the sentence in contemporary literature:
They saw gaudy flowers open, large and small, some with paws, others with rounded kidneys of apple flesh.
There at El Tampo, they were happening, and yet it was as if they were inventing themselves, as if they were flowing from the udders of the black cows.
His face occupied the compartments of the night. Was the moon illuminating his face or was it the other way around?
Besides, there was no time to talk, since they were already riding, just the two of them, not towards the ranch but into the forest, drawn into the twisting funnels and bottlenecks, the horses clattering like bronze octopuses, southwards, towards the unknown, guided by the painter’s facial compass.
Aira’s writing is like Rugendas’s life as the narrator describes it: “without secrets and yet somehow still mysterious.”
In conclusion, I respect Aira’s attitude. He’s avant-garde without being a bore or an ideologue. In this interview, he explains how he simply invented this novella’s medical details, without bothering to look anything up:
They once published the papers from a small interdisciplinary conference about that novel: there was a historian, an art critic, and a doctor who pointed out to me the errors in my description of that nerve that had become encapsulated after the accident but that, after worsening, had gotten entangled in some center of the frontal lobe, causing the painter to suffer terrible migraines. I didn’t read the whole book but I did read that chapter because I wanted to see to what extent my ideas about human physiology were based on fantasy.
It reminds me of Wilde warning against “careless habits of accuracy in writing.” Fiction should be full of people, places, things, and ideas, transmitted energetically. Fiction, being a fact in itself, has no need of facts. “Since art is eternal, nothing is lost.”