Excerpt of “An Episode…”

Argentine_soldiers_under_Indian_attack_by_Rugendas

The German landscape painter Rugendas and his companion colleague Krause sit on the banks of the river near El Tambo in Argentina after a morning spent sketching scenes of melees from an Indian raid. They are considering these sketches, their value, their part to play in “a very minor episode in the ongoing clash of civilizations”.

“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 widowers, 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 that 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.”

-Cesar Aira, “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” p74

 

Autorretratorugendas

 

Notes from “The Humboldt Current” by Aaron Sachs

review44

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable…We need to witness our own limits transgressed.”  – Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

***

As Paul Zweig noted in a study of adventure myths, stories ‘beckon us out of the visible, providing alternative lives, modes of possibility. Merely listening to a story — ‘losing oneself’ in it — creates a vision of other spaces and times.’ And stories can be binding forces. Because the explorer comes back to tell his tale, ‘his escape from society is a profoundly socializing act.’

***

‘How intensely,’ John Muir wrote in an 1865 letter, ‘I desire to be a Humboldt!’

***

Humboldt seems to have been living up to the twelfth century ideal of Hugh of St. Victor: ‘The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect.’

***

Radical romanticism

***

“whole-souled exercise” -attr. John Muir

***

“TO ALL THE WORLD!…the earth is hollow, and habitable within;…and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees…I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking…I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.” – from a handbill by John Cleves Symmes Jr. of Ohio, retired captain of infantry in the War of 1812

***

The richness of your life, Humboldt asserts, depends on what you’re able to see. (ref. Personal Narrative)

***

the torrid zone

***

“If…nature (understanding by the term all natural objects and phenomena) be illimitable in extent and contents, it likewise presents itself to the human intellect as a problem which cannot be grasped, and whose solution is impossible.” -AVH

***

“a horizon that endlessly retreats” -AVH

***

travelers who embraced disorientation

***

Edgar Allen Poe on the cosmological argument of his prose poem, Eureka: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.”

***

Humboldt’s attitude toward science [as illimitable]…matched Poe’s attitude toward art, which he described, in “The Poetic Principle,” as “the desire of the moth for the star”.

***

“If one loves to gather the material for traveler’s stories, he may find here and there a hollow fallen trunk through whose heart he may ride for many feet without bowing the head. But if he love the tree for its grand own nature, he may lie in silence upon the soft forest floor, in shadow or sunny warmth, if he please, and spend many days in wonder.” – Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872)

***

The great question…: would the frontier be free?

***

The American West was “one prodigious graveyard.” -attr. Mark Twain

***

[Of geologist Clarence King’s antislavery stance:] From early childhood, he had been deeply influenced by his grandmother, Sophia Little, who, he later explained, “ate no sugar but free-soil maple and refused Southern oranges, as they were to her mind ‘full of the blood of slaves’.”

***

[Clarence King, in a letter re: his pacifism:]

“God knows that for my country I would ‘push a bayonet’ and that I would not quail before death for my land, but the act would crucify in me many of my noblest impulses. It is like tearing my soul in sunder.”

[ed. side note: Clarence King was a seriously interesting man. Besides ending up in Manhattan’s Bloomingdale Asylum in 1983, here is a bit about his marriage:

From his Wikipedia bio: King spent his last thirteen years leading a double life. In 1887 or 1888, he met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American nursemaid (and former slave) from Georgia, who had moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. As miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. The two fell in love and entered into a common law marriage in 1888. Throughout the marriage, King never revealed his true identity to Ada, pretending to be Todd, a black railroad worker, when at home, and continuing to work as King, a white geologist, when in the field. Their union produced five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Their two daughters married white men; their two sons served classified as blacks during World War I.[8] King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona.[9]

Whaaaat?]

***

[Of Clarence King meeting John Ruskin, professional art critic and author of the five-volume work, Modern Painters:]

At times, Ruskin seemed to King too obsessed with the anthropocentric view, too scornful of plain, wild American scenery, which, the Englishman [Ruskin] once commented “cannot acquire picturesque significance, or rightfully claim to excite human sympathies, till man has consecrated it.”

‘The varying hues which mood and emotion forever pass before his own mental vision mask with their illusive mystery the simple realities of nature, until mountains and their bold, natural facts are lost behind the cloudy poetry of the writer. Ruskin helps us to know himself, not the Alps.’ – C. King

***

“Cold calculating gainers form a large part of my acquaintances” – C. King, in a letter to Jim Gardiner, 1860

***

“Shut in by great monotonous slopes and innumerable spurs, each the exact fac-similie of the other; with no distance, no faintest suggestion of a snow-peak, only a lofty chaparral ridge sweeping around, cutting off all eastern lookout; with a few disordered boulders tumbled pell-mell in the bed of a feeble brooklet of bitter water, –it seemed to me the place of places for a fossil…” -C. King, on finding an elusive fossil which would provide information on the geologic history of the Gold Rush lodes

***

“The scientific conscience is an abyss.” -Nietzsche

***

“The purely scientific brain is miserably mechanical; it seems to have become a splendid sort of self-directed machine, an incredible automaton, grinding on with its analyses and constructions.” -C. King

***

“The earliest geological induction of primeval man is the doctrine of terrestrial catastrophe. This ancient belief has its roots in the actual experience of man, who himself has been witness of certain terrible and destructive exhibitions of sudden, unusual, telluric energy…Catastrophism is therefore the survival of a terrible impression burned in upon the very substance of human memory.” -C. King, “Catastrophism and the Evolution of Environment” (1877)

***

Mountain of the Holy Cross, CO. Photographer Wm. Henry Jackson altered the right stem of the cross in the film negative so that it would look more like a proper cross.