Pages & Potables #1

aira episode

***NOTE: For Lent, I gave up the internet  beyond email and work-related research but I’ll periodically log on to post things, mostly items written prior to Ash Wednesday and post-dated. Don’t expect much from me till April.***

Last week’s potable: Coffee with chicory, straight from Cafe Du Monde
Last week’s book: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

Why have I read 6 César Aira novellas, if I’m not always sure I even like him? I mean, he’s always funny enough to carry me through his oddball detours—and there are many, and the detours have a habit of devouring the main narrative. But, then, there are his densities, his tendency to allow the literary scholar & cultural-studies wonk to overtake the prose. That density can be a tough slog to shovel though, even though and maybe especially because I’m never sure how seriously we’re supposed to take any of it. Some of the philosophical considerations are clearly batshit crazy but Aira’s prose is a little like the Onions satire—dry, even, and calm enough so that its reporting can be (and often is) easily mistaken for truth. Maybe that fluidity between truth and absurdity is what keeps coming back to Aira, even when he befuddles me. He blurs fact and fantasy and, in reading him, I’m forced to acknowledge the many ways that truth often looks absurd, and how the most patently ridiculous things can be dressed up to appear “normal” and “respectable.” Someone at once wrote that, even if you don’t care for a particular Georges Simenon novella, at least it’ll be over soon, and it’s rarely dull. I feel the same way about César Aira. (Lest you think I’m damning with faint praise, let me go on record as loving both Shantytown and Varamo, and thinking that Ghosts is this close to being a masterpiece.) Anyway, here comes An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. It ain’t Aira’s best—at least that I’ve read; he’s published over 80 novellas, only about a dozen of which have been translated into English—but it’s maybe the most quintessential of his fictions. The landscape painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas, an actual German painter of note—from a long line of painters—who captured South American cultures and terrains during the mid-1800s. His work’s in museums. His first (of two) voyages to the continent produced a groundbreaking and very lucrative book documenting the region for Europeans who would come to know South America only through paintings. So far, mostly true—or at least confirmed by Wikipedia, though it looks like he didn’t make that second voyage that Aira mentions in his novella. And that’s just the first weirdness. Rugendas supposedly believes that landscape painting can document the “physiognomic” nature of all existence, boiled down to 17 characteristics, so that painting is a kind of surgical inquiry into life’s origins. He sees himself as an almost literal doctor, taking the temperature of the world he documents through painting. At least, that’s what I could make of the philosophy. It sounds insane because it is. But Aira’s prose seems to take these theories seriously. In doing so, I’m reminded that we used to believe the world was flat, that the sun revolved around the Earth, that there were four humors, and that phrenology was viable science. I chuckled. Oh that Aira, having fun with our old pseudo-sciences! Then I remember that great swarms of people, right fucking now, believe in strict Creationism (whatever that is), that vaccination is the devil, that The Bell Curve isn’t racist junk but genuine insight based on physiognomy, and that homosexuals can be “cured.” The laughs caught in my throat. Aira’s good at doing that. But, as I said before, he’s good at confusing us, too. The novella is supposedly documenting a life-changing event in Rugendas’s life, which happened in Argentina during the artist’s first trip. But it’s not quite clear what the episode is—a night amid lightning in which Rugendas’s face gets disfigured (didn’t happen); a new way of seeing the world, through black lace, that redefines how he paints (probably didn’t happen); a witnessing of an Indian raid that he sketched frantically and the subsequent paintings of which that solidified his fame (maybe did happen); or just the voyage through the Argentinian desert itself (probably happened). It’s not completely clear why this episode was chosen/made up, what Rugendas learned ultimately from it, or what we as readers are supposed to make of it. (As far as I can tell, the real Rugendas either participated in or was accused of participating in a Mexican political revolution during his first voyage, and that’s why he was kicked out. That episode seems more, um, telling than this apolitical fable.) Aira, as usual, doesn’t do a snap-to-it ending here but more of a slow dissolve into… our imaginations, I guess. His prose dazzles, making us see Rugendas’s adventures with painterly detail, but I’m not sure all the brushstrokes add up to a painting. I liked looking, anyway.

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Thank you, comics, from Gilbert Hernandez to C. Tyler to Lewis Trondheim to Joann Sfar to Frank King to (oh fine) Marjane Satrapi, from Scott McCloud to Jack Kirby. Thank you, Robert Altman & Hayao Miyazaki & Spike Lee & Clare Peploe & Billy Wilder & Mira Nair & Wes Anderson & (oh what the hell) Paul Thomas Anderson, too & Armond White & Pauline Kael & Matt Zoller Seitz & Akira Kurosawa & Yasujiro Ozu. Thank you Phish & D’Angelo & R.E.M. & De La Soul & the Beatles & Parliament-Funkadelic (for getting me laid, among other things) & Bill Frisell & Miles Davis & Dave Holland & Duke Ellington & Bedhead (Jesus God Yes) & Bob Mould & Stevie Wonder & Prince & Michael Jackson & A Tribe Called Quest. Thank you Matisse & Pollock & Miro & Mary Cassatt. And, oh, there are too many writers to thank but let’s start with Andrea Lee & Paul Beatty & Ralph Ellison & Ta-Nehisi Coates & James Baldwin & Marilynne Robinson & Kelly Link & Wendell Berry & Studs Terkel. Thank you, all, and all that I’m missing here, and let’s keep it going, eh?, forever into the wilderness.

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Commonplace (Sunday sermon)

“I will keep the Bible, which remains the Word of God for me, but always the Word as heard by generations of human beings as flawed as I. As beautifully as these witnesses write, their divine inspiration can never be separated from their ardent desires; their genuine wish to serve God cannot be divorced from their self-interest. That God should use such blemished creatures to communicate God’s reality so well makes the Bible its own kind of miracle, but I hope never to put the book ahead of the people whom the book calls me to love and serve.

“I will keep the Bible as a field guide, which was never intended to be a substitute for the field. With the expert notes kept by those who have gone before, I will keep hunting the Divine Presence in the world, helped as much by the notes they wrote in the margins while they were waiting for God to appear as by their astonished descriptions of what they saw when God did. I know that nine times out of ten, the truth scripture tells is the truth about the human search for God. Still, with the help of the guide, there is always the hope of glimpsing the bright dove that splits the sky, fluttering in full view before turning with a whirr and a cry to make its clean getaway.”

—Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (2006)

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Movies I’ve Seen: It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)


Written, directed, animated, and narrated by Don Hertzfeldt.

We can call Don Hertzfeldt’s masterpiece a work of animation, and that’s true as far as it goes. Certainly, there’s all kinds of animation in it; It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a kind of animation summit. Traditional hand-drawn material—mostly with white backgrounds, minimal environmental details, and stick figures—propels the movie. Sure. However, Hertzfeldt’s linework is often superimposed over stop-motion photography and still images. Abstract collage, lens flares, images that appear to be drawn directly onto film stock (as with Stan Brakhage, whose style Hertzfeldt is drawing from), motion paintings, stock footage that’s slowed down and sped up with time-lapse editing, and more is all here. It’s rapid-fire, sometimes with three or four panels of action going at once, sometimes with background animation behind the main action, sometimes with overlapped voices and conversations. Everything has a restless, herky-jerky quality, even the traditionally shot film footage (of waves, of trees, of post-apocalyptic landscapes). Everything quivers. Everything in It’s Such a Beautiful Day is about to become something. Even the ever-present voiceover animation is urgent, not quite breathless but just shy of unnerving. So, it’s better to say that It’s Such a Beautiful Day has an animating spirit. It carries the animus of its lead character, Bill. Bill is an everyman, a stick figure in a hat stumbling/freefalling/drifting through his life. Aren’t we all, in some way? Even in his smooth, dull glide, though, he’s restless, anxious, wanting to become something more and entirely unsure of what they might be. He feels like a rough draft of himself. Again, don’t we all? He’s going through the motions but beginning to wonder if all that movement is adding up to anything. Bill goes to the doctor. He talks to his ex-girlfriend. He runs into his neighbors. He spends a lot of time at the bus stop.  Suddenly, he falls ill. Hertzfeldt never explains exactly what’s wrong with Bill but the poor guy starts having difficulty communicating to others, and begins to have visions. The lines between reality, fantasy, nightmares, and memory get blurred. Indeed, near the end of the movie, it’s suggested that much of what we’ve seen are false memories. The jittery cartooning, which has had slightly absurd touches even at the beginning, then plunges headlong into absurdity. We’re witnessing Bill’s end times—a major illness, a muted recovery, a return to illness, possibly his death or maybe an incredible communion with Earth’s wholeness (Hertzfeldt leaves it tantalizingly unclear) in a way that reminds me of the end of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We’re seeing Bill come to terms with his life, even though he’s losing sight of it and understanding of it, as his life is closing. He didn’t get to be who he wanted to be, in part because Hertzfeldt seems to insist that our beings aren’t static in the first place. We don’t settle on to one identity, one stable vision of self. We’re always as quivering as Bill’s life and dreams. We’re always a little sad, grasping a little at something we don’t understand and can never clutch fully—at least, not for long. If this makes this 62-minute gem sound like a morbid slog, I apologize. It’s not that. It’s Such a Beautiful Day resonates with the rich minutiae of life, with the small interactions that build up to a life, with all of the tiny things that Bill doesn’t see as he’s sleepwalking toward death but which he finally starts to get when he falls ill. He’s the most expressive stick figure imaginable—heartbreaking, deadpan, exhausted. Hertzfeldt’s film is hilarious. Encountering death doesn’t stop him from being darkly funny. A bravura five-minute history of Bill’s ancestors features a lot of his relatives getting hit by trains. An exchange with a dude whose name he can’t remember—but who remembers Bill’s name—is priceless, as is a wordless passage between Bill and a leaf blower at the bus stop. Hertzfeldt’s sadness is usually tempered by comedy, and the movie is rarely bleak. Because it continues to be openhearted in the face of death, It’s Such a Beautiful Day earns its mythic overtures at the end, as well as its evolution from quiet character study to sweeping melodrama. It pulsates with life, while haunted by death.


It’s Such a Beautiful Day is streaming on Netflix, and can be bought/streamed at Vimeo.

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“Chicago Diary”

Photographed in Chicago, IL, January 2014. Edited and twiddled in Athens, GA, February 2015. All by Walter Biggins, except for the music, which is an outtake by Phish, and used for educational purposes only. Thanks, Big Shoulders.

(HD version is here.)

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Trey sings three

Submitted without further comment, except to say how touched I was by the performance of “Summer of ’89” (which is new to me) and the monologue preceding it. For all of Trey Anastasio’s electric pyrotechnics, I sometimes forget that he can be equally effective–in part of he’s more fragile and exposed–in acoustic mode. And I love his smile.

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“I learn a lot about how people conceive of reality by listening to the way they talk. I’ve talked Christian for a really long time, and I think Christians are so used to dividing reality into opposed pairs that a lot of us don’t even hear the opposition anymore. The divisions are there in our scripture, in our prayers, in our worship services, in our hymns.

“I don’t know that we’ve gotten it wrong exactly. These may be useful ways to focus on the virtues we want more of and the vices we want to avoid. But I’m struck by the ways in which this kind of language can lead to ‘enemy thinking.’ If you use it long enough without thinking about what you’re saying, you can regard the body, the world, the darkness as spiritual enemies. And I think that goes against some of the central affirmations of Christianity. That God made human beings in God’s own image. That God so loved the world. That God is the God of darkness and of light.”

—Barbara Brown Taylor, in interview

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