An Episode in
The Life of a
(New Directions)Johan Moritz Rugendas traveled across the Andes in the summer of 1837 - 1838 with his friend and fellow artist Robert Krause. They were landscape or "genre" painters, under the tutelage of Alexander von Humboldt. As such, they were expected to represent the "physiognomy" of the landscape, where, as in holographic photography, each part of the whole represents the whole.
Just outside the town of San Luis, they were caught in a storm. A bolt of lightning passed overhead:
a zig-zag clear across the sky. It came so close that Rugenda's upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light. He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin and his pupils contracted to pin-points.
A second bolt of lightning strikes, one of such violence that Rugendas is thrown from his horse, but with a foot caught in a stirrup, he is dragged face-down across the plain.
He could feel himself being pulled, stretching (the electricity had made him elastic), almost levitating, like a satellite in thrall to a dangerous star.
His face is "seriously damaged." In addition, because of the destruction of nerves, after his accident, he is subject to convulsive fits, migraines, and periods of unstoppable pain.
§ § §
There. I've done it. I've given you the plot. Just like a good critic is supposed to do.
Now that I have done that, forget it. This man who paints studies of nature: forget him, too. This artist, one who suffers a violent accident that was to make it a torture for him to live, and to make it a torture for others to look at him: don't bother yourself.
For the plot of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter isn't the point. It's not the painter nor the scenery. Hell, maybe it's not even me. Nor you.
As I am read this supposed history of Rugendas, carefully taking notes on the inside back cover (as I am wont to do, so I can remember what has happened, very important for the many impuissant books that pass through my hands) I get to the point where I know there is something strange going on here, certainly something too much for me to be able to convey in words.
It may be the screwiness in the setting --- setting being a key element in the paintings and drawings that Rugendas and Krause are doing --- coupled with a pliancy of words that turns the reader (and the characters) upside-down (one even being dragged through the plains upside-down).
Is it the symbols? There are symbols, good ones too: "the enormous grilles shut behind them with a clang to which the birds replied;" salmon "as big as sheep;" gusts of wind rearranging the "stars and mountains."
Is it the rare flash of the comic? Rugendas, face hidden in a mantilla, (since he can't see his face he isn't worried about hiding it; but light, the bright light of the Argentine highlands, hurts his eyes). Thus half-blind, mounting his horse backwards,
when he came to look for the reins of course he could not find them. The horse was headless!
The faceless man on the headless horse, charging off (backwards) to find an Indian raid, so he can get it down on paper, always at the edge of the action, finally stumbling, late at night, into the encampment of the rebels, where Rugendas continues to draw faces as peculiar as his own,
big mouths with lips like squashed sausages, Chinese eyes, figure-eight noses, locks matted with grease, bull necks ... His face expressed things he did not mean to express, but no one realized, not even Rugendas, because he could not see himself. He could only see the faces of the Indians, which to him were horrible too, but all in the same way.
§ § §
Maybe I'll never figure out why this story of a faceless painter from a century-and-a-half ago told in a mere ninety pages has such power ... the power to turn the reader (one reader, at least) inside-out. Is it the expert interweaving of landscape and history and a skewed, painterly vision which robs one of the chance to see things straight? What kind of diabolical art is this? Where have we found such power before?
Gaétan Soucy in The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, could saddle us with a family so strange that its madness becomes our own. Jean Genet, with his inversions --- "thievery, treachery, sodomy" --- turned the world of the reader equally upside-down. Nabokov, in Ada, carries us into a mysterious parallel universe, running side-by-side with our own ... but so comically peaceful and logically illogical that even the cars ride past us on soundless tracks.
It's sheer word-power: It is the ability to take words and push us (sometimes ignorant; sometimes unwilling) into other worlds. 1838. The pampa. Argentina. Most of all, "the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons."
Don't tell me to finish these thoughts. I can't. Just know that something screwy has come about in this volume (and, before, perhaps long before, in the author's head). It is incomprehensible, inchoately wonderful, something you have every reason to want to experience ... and no reason at all to miss.--- Carlos Amantea