Sunday, November 17, 2013

The physiognomy of nature

River Paraiba do Sul by Johann Moritz Rugendas, ca. 1820-25
I read contemporary fiction, at least a dozen novels a year. Some years ago, about the time I stopped teaching, I inherited a book group. It had begun meeting decades earlier, when several housewives-mothers formed the group in order to continue reading the novels they loved in their youth and college days. The group’s members are now grandmothers, and over the years several have died or moved on and others have joined, but there is a core that has been around the entire time. When the group arrived on my doorstep, it had gone through the major classics and was mostly reading contemporary fiction.

Alongside discussions of the literary qualities of a novel (or lack thereof) as well as ferreting out forgotten classics and the top of the "B" list (for instance, Somerset Maugham), I have several goals. First, to evaluate what reviewers and critics think important in literary fiction. Second, to be skeptical of said critics and reviewers. Like many New Yorkers, the women are inclined to follow the guidance of the The New York Times, but, after many disappointments, they have learned that few novels merit the effusive praise bestowed on them by reviewers. Likewise, the Booker Prize winners have turned out to be a mixed bag. Therefore, we discuss the judgments of reviewers and how those judgments are formed. We address the question of whether there is something called literary standards; or whether it is sufficient simply to "like" something. In this connection, I manage now and then to introduce a little of Kant's aesthetics.

I can't help noticing that non-American novelists have more of a philosophical mind set than do American writers. If one reads The New York Times Book Review, one gets a strange idea of the most important novelistic subjects. Here are a few pull quotes from that eminent publication:

"Only Bitterness Remains: In David Vann's first novel, isolation and an Alaskan winter take their toll on a marriage" 

"Growing up Fast: As this novel's 14-year-old narrator looks on, her affluent suburban family disintegrates"

"Power of Recall: A writer recollects her long-estranged mother, and her own long-estranged childhood"

Dysfunctional Family by Tim Slowinski
It can't be denied that such novels portray a fragmentation of the contemporary social fabric, which is certainly the case, but is life in America really so dysfunctional, or do these works merely confirm the vision of America as a bad place that acquisitions editors learned about in college?

How refreshing it is to read European or South American writers, whose writings leave such a deeper impression on the mind! In the spring we read Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory, Enrique Vila-Matas's Dublinesque, and Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox. This "season" we are reading Tom McCarthy's very weird The Remainder and Zola's Ladies Paradise.

We just finished the novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by the prolific Argentinian writer César Aira. The landscape painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), one of a number of German painters who traveled to the New World during the "century of peace" following the Napoleonic wars. Rugendas's travels took him to the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial territories. No sooner did Daniel Kehlmann feature Alexander von Humboldt as a novelistic subject in Measuring the World, here he appears again, though not in person.

The novella concerns Rugendas's attempt to portray the landscapes of the Caribbean and Central and South America according to the physiognomic theories of Humboldt. The term is suggestive of Lavater, of course, but though Airas does not mention Goethe it seems to have been through Humboldt's friendship with Goethe that he developed his theory of landscape portrayal. Goethe in turn was influenced by Philipp Hackert.

Landscape with a Calm by Poussin, 1650-51
(J. Paul Getty Museum)
This view of landscape was different from that of the "classical" views of, e.g., Poussin or Claude, who were not realists: their trees and vegetation, for instance, all look alike. Humboldt encouraged painters to attempt a fidelity to elements of the landscape, but at the same time to present a picture of nature that would also be an image of history and culture. Be faithful to nature, but not subservient to reality. This perhaps followed Goethe's morphology: the "law" behind the formation of natural forms was derived from the forms themselves, from their physiognomy.

So it was that Rugendas, as portrayed in the novella, is continually making sketches that will then be integrated into a meaningful "totality," a Naturgemälde. Besides the wonderful writing, what makes An Episode fun to read is that the narrator keeps dropping bits of seemingly profound observation about art, performance, optics, civilization, and history. The backdrop of course is the imposition of the European colonial vision on the non-European continent and people, which leads to the "episode" that changes the life of the painter Rugendas.

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