Altered States: A Reading of Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter


 Mubashir Karim

Dr  Mubashir Karim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English  in the Higher Education Department, Jammu & Kashmir. His work has been published in the Transnational Literature Journal, Café Dissensus, Muse India, The Bombay Literary Magazine, among many others. 


Travelling, in one form or the other, has always been associated with self-discovery. Travel writings from the ancient times to the present have mostly been written in order to make the readers aware about the customs, history and peculiar intrinsic notions of a particular culture. From a sociological point of view, a travel memoir, then, becomes a valuable combination, a hodgepodge whereby the reader could discern either his/her conservative or progressive views. The element of self-discovery often associated with travel writings then also comes into question as we, the readers, try to locate the elements and locales that change the attitude of our travel writer. In his novella, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Cesar Aira, while bringing in a real historical personality of a German painter and his adventures in search of a “physiognomic totality” places the real travelling experience against a fictional one. As Aira describes his protagonist’s travels through the ‘strange’ landscape of Latin America, he not only makes a point about the painter’s reflections of the land but also comments on the notion of the new land as a new-discovery for the painter. Throughout the novella, Latin America’s landscape becomes a metaphor for altering states of the painter (both artistically and bodily), rather than his protagonist’s clichéd notion of self-discovery and notions of art. This paper attempts to read Aira’s novella in the light of this hackneyed notion of self-discovery and a painter’s incessant efforts to attain the same. It also tries to analyse how the novella problematizes the notion of representation through Aira’s usage of language that seems at times laced with humour, history and ambiguity.      

Keywords: Cesar Aira, travel, representation, history, alexander von Humboldt, colonialism.


 “We travel, initially,” writes Pico Iyer, “to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves” (“Why we Travel”). For it is in the act of losing that a search for oneself commences. He further writes: We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity — and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Travelling usually, in one form or the other, has always been associated with self-discovery. Cesar Aira’s novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter picks up the notion of travelling, in connection with a real life painter from Germany to South America, and pits him against his own idiosyncrasies about the land and the nature of art. The accident or the episode of the title that happens not only bodily disfigures him but alters his representational impression of the whole land. As the novella ostensibly refers to the physiognomic theory of Alexander Von Humbold, it thereby, also brings in the imperialistic agenda of the ‘civilized’ people trying to comprehend the New Land. The paper tries to read the novella not only as a travelogue of the outside world but of the inside as well. The representation, thus, takes place not only of the alteration of the bodily shape, in relation to the protagonist only, but spills over to the very act of altering the internal mechanism of the people represented thereof.        

Travel writings, from the ancient times to the present, have mostly been written in order to make the readers aware about the myriad customs, culture, history and peculiar intrinsic notions of a land travelled to. The act on the part of the writer to look for moments which for him become reference points for the place he/she is visiting, inform us not only as readers about the place but also about the writer’s peculiar insight. From a sociological point of view, a travel memoir, then, becomes a valuable combination, a hodgepodge of conservative or progressive views. These views could sometimes even take on the “religious theme of soul’s journey” (Gould 14) where the mystical other and the personal converge. The element of self-discovery, often associated with travel writings, then also, comes into question, as we, the readers, try to locate the elements and locales that change the attitude of the traveller.

With the onset of post-colonial studies on the literary scene, it has come into perspective that travel narratives with their emphasis on locating the newer lands on the global map, directly or indirectly, helped colonial powers in their greed for newer markets and raw material. What becomes pertinent here is to understand that these travel narratives came with their own modes of representation. Whether it is Christopher Columbus’ description of the Caribbean in the past or the various government funded news channels or newspapers’ coverage of ‘unravelling’ certain tourist destinations at present, it is not hard to discern the propaganda inherent. The representation of Latin America as a new land has made theorists and critics to comment that “[t]ravel and the construction of American identity are intimately linked” (Hamera and Bendixen 1) and thereby posit fundamental points whereby the idea of representation can be located. Most of the travel narratives represent their ‘Other’ with inclinations that tend to be “steeped in imperialist attitudes and imagery” (Thompson 137).

At the very beginning of the novel we are made aware about the physiognomic theories of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a reference to a real explorer and geographer, whom our protagonist Johann Moritz Rugendas holds in high regard in relation to his craft. What is important to note is the fact that the real Humboldt still remains “most influential interlocutor in the process of reimagining and redefinition that coincided with Spanish America’s independence from Spain” and the one who was originally responsible for the “ideological reinvention of South America” (Pratt 111). Humboldt’s physiognomic theory holds that nature works in certain ways that are beyond the knowledge of science and can only be captured and understood through art. For him, writes a critic, “Archaeological research must take into account climate and soil, the presence or absence of animals, the physiognomy of plants and of landforms, for they all influence the progress and style of human arts.” (Walls 7). It was through the composing of this type of physiognomy, the ‘face of the earth’ that, for Humboldt, would make a difference between the conception of the old world and the new one. As such, it encompasses, “the peculiar physiognomy and conformation of the land, the features of the landscape, the ever-varying outline of the clouds” where the “nature interpenetrates mind.” It is only through the medium of art, held Humboldt that can “make present to the senses and the imagination the fundamental experience of contemplating nature in its wholeness” (Walls 225-226). Cesar Aira, in his novel, uses this particular idea of the representation of the New World as the total impression of the land, people, vegetation, seasons, customs, and manners an essential part of his narration. This ". . . new graphic form of representation . . . ” is portrayed in the novel as the means to not only to depict the totality of this new exotic land outside but inwards as well through the effect of this land on the personality of a character like Rugendas. It is therefore not difficult, for us as readers, to link the representations of the German painter’s obsession with the idea of representing the natives while keeping intact their personal prejudices. However, Aira goes further than this redundant binary of the enlightened traveller describing the native by carefully choosing this representative to be an artist, a painter. An artist who at various points in the novel comes out as genuine and sincere and is obsessed at discovering “the other side of his art.” (Episode 147)

In the novella, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, César Aira, while bringing real historical personalities of Johann Moritz Rugendas, or Alexander von Homboldt among others, and his adventures in search of a “physiognomic totality” juxtaposes the real travelling experience with the fictional. As Aira describes his protagonist’s travels through the strange landscape of Latin America, he not only is making a point about the painter’s reflections of the land but also commenting on the notion of the ‘new-land’ as a ‘new-discovery’ for the painter. Throughout the novella, Latin America’s landscape becomes a metaphor for the inexplicable, strange environment and poses questions for the clichéd notion of self-discovery.

The complexity of the narrative becomes evident when in middle of the novella, Cesar Aira, inserts a little apparently out of place anecdote to the story he is narrating. Aira writes:

Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to "reconstruct" how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of the murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife. (Episode 216)

The anecdote can easily be labelled a distraction from the main course of event but effortlessly sneaks in the idea of representation, that is, the idea of how precarious the acts of narration or representation can become. Reading the anecdote in relation to the main story of our novella, we are being asked to question the representations of the foreign land of Americas by the German Painter. Aira’s narrative about these painters may want us to exonerate them of the sins of representation as they are striving for nothing but a proper, scientific art but it is simultaneously the very narrative that makes us aware about it. Just as the killer in the anecdote after hearing the meticulous narration of the crime concludes that he is innocent, in almost the same manner, the painters’ act of representing with scientific precision the ‘strange’ land of Latin America turns out to be a crime that they cannot commit. Perhaps, it is this convergence between ‘a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction’, that Aira’s narrative focuses upon. In other words, the story that Aira narrates and the one that remains unsaid as the novella ends, or what the painter fails to represent, is basically the story of the novel. Representation here, in the novella, is to be taken, in what a critic writes as an exploration “of a world at the boundaries of ‘civilization,’” something “that has not (yet) been domesticated by European signification or codified in detail by its ideology”, and is therefore, “perceived as uncontrollable, chaotic, unattainable and ultimately evil . . .” (Jan Mohamed 18). Rugendas and his aide, as characters and as real figures, trudging the New World, in search of a heightened sense of art are actually trying to represent through their art a world where the people and the land are in sync with one another; if the one is unattainable so would the other be. It is with this idea in mind that the painter sets out to capture the new land in its totality and later comes to question whether anything of that sort could ever be represented.

On the surface level, the novella narrates the story of one real painter Rugendas, who along with his friend and companion Robert Krause, visits Latin America in order to capture the “physiognomic totality” of the land. While capturing the seeming harmony of the nature, Rugendas suffers an accident when he is struck twice by lightning in the pampas and is dragged by the horse which leaves the distinct features of his face utterly disfigured. Aira titles the novella on the same episode and tends to draw the various subsequent actions of Rugendas’ which imply how the episode changes his perception of art and the act of representation. The thing to be noted here is the fact that Aira bases the story of his novella on the letters which Rugendas wrote to his various friends and family members. The whole narration of the novel can best be described as a fictional documentation of the various real life correspondences that actually happened in Rugendas’ lifetime. Aira leaves no stone unturned to convince the reader that the story he is presenting is what actually occurred.

Furthermore, Aira infuses the story with his subtle nuances of humour and timely allusions, at regular intervals, presenting the painters in their own light, that is, the prejudices and cultural baggage that people carry with them while travelling. Quite humorously, Aira infuses the story with the German painter’s prejudice regarding the Indian culture as a focal point where the intelligence and the stupidity of these foreign people in a strange land is commented upon. The German painter has this strange obsession for the depiction of two things in particular, one, he wants to capture the moment of the earthquake and second the Indian raids that occur. Aira skilfully recounts the painter’s obsession with these things in a distanced manner typically bordering on sarcasm. Throughout his travels, our painter keeps “secretly hoping” (Episode 162) for the earthquake to shake up the strange land, irrespective of the fact that it can put, particularly locals, in danger, so that he can depict the strangeness of the moment as accurately as possible. In this connection, Rugendas even inquires the people from a distinctive professional outlook about the “premonitory signs of seismic activity” to which “dogs spat, chickens pecked at their own eggs, ants swarmed, plants flowered” one hour before the quake seems quite an apt response. Furthermore, the protagonist concludes that an “equally abrupt and gratuitous changes” (Episode 162) could easily be anticipated for an Indian Raid - something which he secretly yearns to happen. The anticipation of the protagonist for these equally violent episodes to materialize so that his visit to this far away mysterious land doesn’t fall short of his “personal myth of Argentina” (163) he has constructed, is presented as marking points where the age old knowledge/power nexus is put in action.  

There is no doubt that the relationship between art and life, of people travelling to newer lands, the act of being an artist in times of crisis form some important themes on which the novel rests its idea. Representation however takes a centre stage in connection with the novella. Throughout the novel, Aira plays with the notion of representation from the perspective of the painters who are bent upon using a scientific approach of physiognomy to capture the Indians that populate the land. The depiction of the Indian Uprising that the painter gets the chance to paint, after the accident, is depicted in a manner which combines the sincere with the ridiculous. Both the painters follow the raid of the Indians so as to depict the various stages of the uprising. To the Germans, the Indians seem to defy any depiction as they seem not to “care about the laws of gravity” and possessed a “circus-like” quality in their “performance” (Episode  212). This kind of depiction would, for the painter be impossible to depict in a static composition and hence the painters would need to put, to ‘re-present’ the so called performance in the rightful manner or as Aira puts it:

Rugendas would have to rectify them on paper, to make them plausible in the context of a static composition. But in his sketches the rectification was incomplete, so traces of their real strangeness remained, archaeological traces in a sense, because they were overlaid and obscured by speed. (Episode 212)

The arrival of the Indian Uprising on the planes, something which our painter was secretly hoping for, is depicted as a form of compensation by the nature towards the painter who had sacrificed his own physiognomy to depict these strange lands. The life of Rugendas prior to the accident is narrated as something quite opposite to the one he then leads – a world where even the tiny things are not irrelevant to the whole cosmos, a world where the “afternoon was not a repetition of the morning, not even in reverse” but a place where “[t]hings simply happened, and the afternoon turned out to be different from the morning, with its own adventures, discoveries and creations” (Episode 220-221). By these narratives, what comes to the forefront is Rugendas’ altered state of mind about art and life in the face of his altered physicality. He is depicted as a person who is ready to give it all despite his poor physical and mental health. He is depicted as someone who after facing near-death experience is ready to take all chances to make this rebirth a success.

The notion of the body in relation to his travel becomes the primary focus of the novella then. Aira incorporates the element of mind, sense and aesthetic in the title of the book by invoking Rugendas as a painter but, as the novella progresses, it is the body of the painter that becomes the site of landscaping, his face – a canvas of representation. What is pertinent to put here is the fact that body has always been instrumental in travels and travelogues. The fact that body, in all its vulnerability, becomes the primary vehicle put out there to confront the unknown is to be taken note of. It is the corporeality of the body, as against the mind, that determines and differentiates the success and the failure of travelling in the first place. As a critic puts it:

To differing degrees, by foregrounding the role of corporeality in the journey, accounts of both disability and illness highlight and challenge the diverse and often unpredictable forms that travel may continue to adopt in an age of mechanization and apparently ever-increasing acceleration. They disrupt perceptions of the standardization and sanitization of the travel experience, reveal the ways in which the body in motion may engage in very different ways with its surroundings, and invite reflection on the borderline between mobility and immobility. Perhaps most significantly, cases in which the body fails to operate according the ways in which society or the individual expects permit the reintegration of contingency into the journey and its textualization. (Forsdick 75)

As such, it is the body that turns out to be a prime medium through which an understanding, composition, and the overall perception of the place is prepared. In other words, it is the altering phases of the environment and the altered state of the protagonist, as the accident takes place that body is made central to the narrative. It is his altering/disfigurement of the body that Rugendas becomes aware of the varying degrees of power of nature over man and subtly questions the validity of theories like those of Humboldt. Perhaps that is why Aira writes that “[i]n the beginning was Repetition” (Aira 225), a notion which the physionomically driven Rugendas was never able to appreciate. This is a repetition of a different order – a repetition of an altered state. Through his near death experience Rugendas is able to appreciate the vast incomprehensibility of nature and proceeds to embraces it gradually. When the altered Rugendas takes upon himself the task of depicting the Indian uprising at the cost of his health, perhaps the one thing which gives him the courage to go further is the face of death he has seen. In his altered state, he ruminates on his artistic death, the fact that his travel to this far away land won’t come to fruition if he doesn’t paint anything of value. Aira writes:

The artist, as artist, could always be already dead. There was something absurd about trying to preserve his life. An accident, big or small, could kill a man, or a thousand, or a thousand million men at once. If night were lethal, we would all die shortly after sunset. Rugendas might have thought, as people often do: "I have lived long enough," especially after what had happened to him. Since art is eternal, nothing is lost. (Episode 226-27)

The question of representation returns to the narrative as the Indian Uprising actually takes place. As Rugendas, with his mantilla on, enters the big feast of the Indians and starts to draw Aira inserts the passage with the following lines:

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? They did not even know that there was an art of painting, and although they possessed that art in some different, equivalent form, they could not establish the equivalence. (Episode 228)

This deliberate contrast of the local people with this ‘monster’, who, under the effect of opium, is attempting untiringly to depict the people as they actually are, problematizes the narrative. Along with this, Aira emphasises on the ignorance of the local people about the great art of painting and “a market hungry for exotic engravings” (Episode 228) which again puts the whole question of representation on its head. The Indians here, quite unconsciously, act as models for the European monster to depict them in all their bawdy aura.  

Throughout the novella, Argentina is presented as a land of opportunities for the painters – a land which is “mysterious” for the painters, something which can help Rugendas “discover the other side of . . . art” (Episode 147). Aira also makes use of certain cultural distinctions of the German Painters and that of Indians living in Latin America. It seems Aira’s effort to write, re-write the story of painters seems two fold. On the one hand, while taking a historical person into account, he wants to present the actual story as it happened devoid of any subjective opinions, on the other by doing so he accurately comments, perhaps criticizes, the German painter’s notion of Latin America as an exotic land populated by devils. While as Aira regularly emphasizes Rugendas scientific influences from Humboldt, and his idea of representing the land as accurately as possible, he simultaneously takes into account the various cultural attitudes this so called scientific mind cannot bare itself of. The act of travelling by the painters to this exotic land is taken as an important means to redefine the various nuances of the strange land the travel to which falls nothing short of regarding it as a “suicide” (Episode 155). Here, to reiterate, the figure of a painter/artist problematizes this seemingly clichéd binaries, thereby throwing light not only on what art is but also on the notion of who an artist could be.   

In his though-provoking essay on the same novel, Bett Levison also points out to the myriad political nuances that come up with the idea of representing the other where he writes:

Latin American postcolonial studies, like postcolonial studies in general, concentrates on four matters, though a given analysis, obviously, does not necessarily examine all four at once: how the West objectifies in representing the indigenous; how this objectification yields to the actual disasters of colonialism (for, if the indigenous are indeed objects, they can be destroyed rightfully and guiltlessly); the ways in which the indigenous represent themselves as political subjects; and the manners in which the latter representations are prevented from entering the scene of knowledge, because the forms of indigenous expression and reason have been wiped out by colonialism, capitalism, or both. (66)

Aira begins the tale in an ordinary Dickensian fashion when he at length talks about the heritage and the parentage of his protagonist. From the clock making trade of his great grandfathers to the act of painting, Rugendas’ life is being traced as ordinarily as possible. Aira presents Rugendas’ great-grandfather Georg Philip Rugendas becoming the founder of the dynasty of painters by a mere accident. While losing his right hand as a young man Philip makes himself learn the art of painting. The incorporation of the act of turning to painting by an accident can easily be related to the act of our protagonist’s deep reflections on the totality of nature after being hit by lightning. Aira quite humorously could be pointing to the fact of a dynasty of painters as accidental painters. In other words, does an artist become an actual artist only when the cycle of nature mutilates them physically? Is it necessary for an artist to throw away the materiality of his body away so as to arrive at an enlightened/spiritual oneness of his being? Questions like these form an essential part of Aira’s narrative. The fact that the novella does not have a proper/moral/final ending then comes as no surprise.  

At one point in the novel, Rugendas introspects the general notion of a travelling painter to strange lands and the almost possible failure it can bring:

All the people he came across, in cities or villages, in the jungle or the mountains, had indeed managed to keep going one way or another, but they were in their own environments; they knew what to expect, while he was at the mercy of fickle chance. How could he be sure that the physiognomic representation of nature would not go out of fashion, leaving him helpless and stranded in the midst of a useless, hostile beauty? . . . Poverty and destitution would simply be another episode. He might end up begging for alms at the door of a South American church. (Episode 159-60)

This depiction of the contrast between the world-of-art pursuits against the vast real world of nature is presented as ‘possible failure’ for the artist. Aira expertly conjures up the image of the honest painter’s obsession of depicting the nature of the unknown territory he treads upon, only to find later in that he himself is nothing but part of it, subject to its erratic intricacies.

After the titular episode that our protagonist goes through, he is able to convince himself that the notion of art that he held so dearly may be subject to change and that now that his personal physiognomic appearance has changed drastically he could see the world in a different light. In other words the philosophy of nature where all the facets of the land including climate, vegetation, and people live in harmony as heterocosm may not be that accurate a theory. The events that materialize after the lightening episode change the ideas of the protagonist to a different motive where he is simultaneously portrayed as a victim but also as a survivor. After the event, Rugendas looks at life and art from a different perspective where the element of repetition takes a prime importance. Aira writes:

An artist always learns something from the practice of his art, even in the most constraining circumstances, and in this case Rugendas discovered an aspect of the physiognomic procedure that had so far escaped his notice. Namely that it was based on repetition: fragments were reproduced identically, barely changing their location in the picture. If this was not immediately obvious, not even to the artist, it was because the size of the fragments varied enormously, from a single point to a panoramic view . . . In addition, the fragment's outline could be affected by perspective. (Episode 184-85)

It is because of these very artistic themes, along with the considerable subtle references to Colonial representations that the novel becomes a “drama of perception, of man's endless struggle for order, whether search for an underlying system to the universe or in the attempt to force order upon it, not through science, but art” (Lewis 136). Rugendas’ self-discovery comes at the cost of mutilation in a strange land – where he understands a “fragment’s relationship to totality” (Fonseca 51) as our protagonist remains “absorbed in his work” (Episode 229) and “oblivious to the rest” (Episode 230) at the end as he goes on drawing the intricacies of the raid while Krause keeps gazing at him. In other words, the totality of the land couldn’t be appreciated unless and until the singularity of the one, of the part is sacrificed, given over, lost to the seemingly intelligible world out there.    

Works Cited

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Fonseca, Carlos. The Literature of Catastrophe: Nature, Disaster and revolution in Latin America. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020

Forsdick, Charles. “Travel and the Body: Corporeality, Speed and Technology.” The Routledge Companion to Travel Writing. Ed. Carl Thompson. Routledge, 2016. pp 68-77

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Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 1992

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Walls, Laura Dassow. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander Von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. The University of Chicago Press, 2009