Saturday, September 17, 2011
Douglas Messerli | The Last Innocent Moment (on Kehlmann's Measuring the World and Aira's An Episode in the Live of a Landscape Painter)
THE LAST INNOCENT MOMENT
by Douglas Messerli
Aaron Sachs The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of
American Environmentalism (New York: Viking, 2006)
Daniel Kehlmann Measuring the World, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
(New York: Pantheon Books, 2006)
César Aira An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, translated from the Spanish by Chris
Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2006)
2006 saw what might almost be described as a mini-celebration of the great naturalist/explorer Alexander von Humboldt. A major new study of Humboldt, Aaron Sachs’ The Humboldt Current, focused on Humboldt’s achievements and his influence on environmentalism in America. Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World—a fictional recounting of the lives of both Humboldt and German mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss—was published in translation later in the year; it was joined by a translation of Argentine writer César Aira’s short fiction, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, centered on Humboldt’s friend and admirer, German artist Johann Mortiz Rugendas (1802-1858).
Today most Americans probably have not even heard of the name Humboldt or, for those of a certain generation, vaguely associate it only with the Humboldt current off of South America, now called the “Peru current.” In 19th century USA, however, Humboldt was known by every American student the way the name Einstein is recognized today. His influence on American literature (from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman) was central to the viewpoints of the literary American Renaissance and had an enormous impact on the shift from the high European Romantic concepts of Emerson and Poe to the more home-grown egalitarianism of Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman. American art would not have made the transformation from generic portraiture to the broader expressions of the Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and others had it not been for Humboldt’s influence. Sachs convincingly demonstrates that Humboldt’s ideas even more deeply permeated American scientific thinking—stretching from Thomas Jefferson, Antarctic explorer J. N. Reynolds, and the mountain-climber/first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Clarence King to the arctic explorer and chief engineer of the U.S. Navy, George Wallace Melville and the founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir—helping to develop shifts with regard to viewing nature that led ultimately to contemporary environmentalism.
Not only were the writings of his expeditions with botanist Aimé Bonpland to the Canary Islands, their travels from the Orinoco to the Amazon, climbs in the Peruvian Andes, and journeys to Mexico and the USA, described in popular publications with numerous prints and drawings, but Humboldt’s later writings of his tour through Russian and Siberia were eagerly read throughout the world with wonderment; his scientific theories, collected into the five volumes of Kosmos, revolutionized the very way scientific study was conceived.
At the heart of Humboldt’s theories was the idea of “unity in diversity,” his argument that “In considering the study of physical phenomena…, we find its noblest and most important result to be a knowledge of the chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent on each other.” For Humboldt, this concept covered not only the natural world, but all indigenous people within it. A determined advocate against slavery, Humboldt argued over and over for recognition that man and nature were inseparable in their interrelationships, that all things were inextricably interconnected.
Kehlmann’s enjoyable novel, focusing equally on Humboldt and Gauss, and culminating in their near-disastrous meeting in 1828 at the German Scientific Congress in Berlin, opposes the two geniuses, following Humboldt through various of his extraordinary and death-defying expeditions, while Gauss more comfortably, but perhaps less joyfully, sits at home conjuring up many of his great discoveries within the confines of his own head. While Humboldt is an adventurer, ill at ease with society and sexually dysfunctional—some of the most comic moments in the novel are devoted to Humboldt’s puritanical reactions to Bonpland’s sexual escapades and to his companions’ attempts to find a suitable sexual partner for him (when a native woman fails to arouse the scientist, Bonpland and/or the natives send him a young boy for the night)—Gauss, although completely dismissive of the intellectual abilities of those around him, marries twice and raises an extensive family. On the other hand, Gauss is so intolerant of his fellow man that he has few social graces, dooming even his own son to imprisonment through an outburst of righteous outrage in response to an attempted bribe by a local authority to release Eugen. While Humboldt, contrarily, is an almost naïve patsy to Napoleon III, he was in his later life celebrated and highly in demand by most of European society. If only because of gregariousness, Humboldt is the more engaging of Kehlmann’s two heroes.
Measuring the World, however, ultimately fails to capture the intellectual excitement of Humboldt’s life, in part because of the very metaphor it has chosen to describe the scientific activities of its heroes: vermessung (the surveying or measuring of the world). Humboldt certainly did travel the world with compass and sextant in hand; even as he climbs Mount Chimborazo, suffering from “constant vertigo,” asthenia, and terror of falling, with hair, beard, and eyebrows covered with ice, the adventurer continues to note the air temperature and altitude. But for Humboldt the experience was still immeasurable; in his understanding of the relation of any one thing to everything else, nature and man were ultimately unknowable. As he wrote in Cosmos:
In the midst of the universal fluctuation of phenomena and vital forces—
in the inextricable net-work of organisms by turns developed and destroyed—
each step that we make in the more intimate knowledge of nature leads us to
the entrance of new labyrinths…. As men contemplate the riches of nature,
and see the mass of observations incessantly increasing before them, they
become impressed with the intimate conviction that the surface and the
interior of the earth, the depths of the ocean, and the regions of the air will
still, when thousands and thousands of years have passed away, open to the
scientific observer untrodden paths of discovery.
Kehlmann’s novel, however, often reads like an historical summary of events rather than a true imaginative creation of his heroes’ lives and events. The humor of the book—much touted in the German press—relies more on his superheroes’ obstinate hostility and ignorance of the mere humans around them than it does on the Humboldtian amazement of nature and man.
The Humboldt-like hero of Aira’s novel, on the other hand, more thoroughly captures the spirit of the scientist’s presence. Like Humboldt and Bonpland, Rugendas and fellow-painter Krause travel throughout Central and South America in an attempt to “capture” the physiognomic types of humans they encounter and the landscapes into which they enter; and like the explorer-scientists in whose steps they follow, they encounter fantastic adventures:
Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the
dangers and difficulties of a route that was tortuous and terrifying at the
best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying:
it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the
year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind
would have regarded it as a means of suicide.
Despite the difficulties—and, occasionally, absurdities—of their journey, however, Rugendas is ever ready to move forward, and particularly anxious to encounter an attack of native Indians on the white settlements so that he might draw their faces. No such opportunity immediately arises, but the artists do encounter a series of adventures, coming upon a vast landscape of a “terrifying void,” a world that has been destroyed by locusts. The horses having reached the end of their endurance, the artists and their guides are forced to stop. Rugendas is determined, however, to check out a route of escape from this “lunar ocean, rimmed around with hills” by riding south to the hills while Krause rides north. Krause rejects the suggestion, and Rugendas rides off without him.
Why, he wonders as he moves forward into the hills, is the formation called “El Monigote,” “the Puppet?” Suddenly he is struck by lightning once and again a second time; picked up, pulled forward, and dropped by each of the bolts of lightning, he and his horse miraculously survive, but the animal takes off with its rider dragging after. They are found a day later, Rugendas’s face “exposed and strips of skin [hanging] over his eyes.” He gradually heals, but the immense pain he experiences requires him to take morphine.
As he further recuperates at a settlement, an Indian attack is announced. Despite his half-drugged condition, which leaves his retina painfully exposed to light, Rugendas borrows a lace scarf (a sort of mantilla) from the settler’s wife, and goes charging off. He and Krause follow the attacking and retreating bands of Indians throughout the day, sketching on the run; but by night he is still dissatisfied, determined to enter the jungle to see if he might witness the natives one last time. As the Germans come quickly upon the Indians joyfully barbecuing some of the stolen cattle and drinking liquor they have plundered, the figures from the two worlds come, so to speak, face to face—but with the mantilla still hiding the details of Rugendas’s head.
Drunkenness and guilt fused into terror when they saw that moonlit face.
They did not even notice what he was doing: all they could see was him.
They would never have been able to guess why he was there. How could
they know that there was such a thing as a procedure for the physiognomic
representation of nature, a market hungry for exotic engravings, and so on?
…So Rugendas was able to enter the circle of firelight undisturbed, open
his pad of good canson paper and go to work with charcoal and red chalk.
Aira, it seems to me, has better captured the spirit of the surveying scholar, a spirit of wonderment and awe in the brave new world. In some sense, Humboldt and his ideas represent the last innocent moment in the encounter between man and nature, perhaps even between man and man. For in the very act of charting and recounting these marvelous adventures, both Humboldt and Rugendas had begun the destruction of the world and peoples they witnessed. As all the others—caring scientists, conquerors, developers, settlers, soldiers, tourists—followed, the world of which Humboldt was in awe—that grand chain of connection—slowly eroded. While Sachs argues that his heroes were not men out to conquer nature but to embrace it, we know that others in their trials would have no qualms with plundering and destroying that same natural world. As Sachs himself sadly admits, while Muir may have begun life as a Humboldt-like environmentalist, he had no choice but to end it as a preservationist.
Los Angeles, March 4, 2007
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XII, no. 2 (Summer 2007).