The Illogic of the Landscape: On the Space of César Aira

September 30th, 2017
“The collapse of the atom was equated, in my soul, with the collapse of the whole world. Suddenly, the stoutest walls crumbled. Everything became uncertain, precarious, and insubstantial.”
“It was a morning of high childishness. Everything belonged to the children. The expansion produced by the measurements and the feeling of contraction that goes with fear were overlaid by the world of childhood. The real universe is measured in millimeters, and it is gigantic.”

The direction of modern art has been entangled (if you’ll pardon) with developments in advanced small-scale physics. (Astronomy, great capturer of the human imagination though it is, works at too large a scale to play with form; cosmology, paradoxically, does not.) The uncovering of the atom, its implication, meant something about the world and about logic, about how things fall apart and what they fall apart into. The atom’s subsequent dissolution into stranger constituents was positively post-modern. In his book, The First Moderns,William R. Everdell includes Boltzmann and Planck alongside Rimbaud and Picasso. He quotes André Salmon describing Picasso’s early cubism, “a geometry at the same time infinitesimal and cinematic.” Malevich’s Black Square is a colorless atom. Artists of the 20th century painted according to theories (or else devised them post-hoc). Schrödinger described a paradox that was, nonetheless, a picture of the world. We tend to think of the break between art and science coming with the atom bomb. There was nowhere to go in the face of an absolute but relativism. But the postmodern retreated inside of its head about the same time as physics turned primarily theoretical, building frameworks empty of matter, giving properties to particles it was unable to produce under even ideal conditions. Gass, elsewhere, says mathematicians and poets are both uninterested in truth, only in formal coherency.

“But maybe, just maybe, there are additional dimensions so small that we haven’t noticed them yet. And despite their modest size, they could be crucial in ways we could not have possibly appreciated from our entrenched, three-dimensional perspective.”
“The garden had the air of a miniature, which made it unique and much admired. Anyone walking in it felt like a giant: flowers the size of pinheads, tiny trees, paths too narrow to set a foot on. Close observation revealed that the garden was in fact made up of two slopes, one above the other. The miniaturization was an effect of the distance between them.”

The plain swallows itself. The shape of the universe is likely either a flat disc or a hypertoroid, something akin to a donut. Quite possibly, if you were to go far enough, you would return, a theater in the round. Among string theorists, these “modestly” sized dimensions, rolled up into themselves and impossible to detect from outside, are a common feature of the universe, necessary if their equations are to balance. Are these where César Aira’s stories live? Streets and plains, stretching to the horizon but always self-contained. Aira is doing physics. He is aware of relativity, at least in his use of it. He has played a mad scientist more than once. The six extra dimensions proposed by certain taxa of string theory are bound up in what is called a Calabi-Yau space. As Yau and Nadis further explain, “This invisible space exists at every point in ‘real space’…even though we can’t see it.” Aira: “On the plains, space became small and intimate, almost mental.” Space retracts into inner space. Aira, again, “There were too many sides; the cube had extra faces.” Aira is writing from a topology of space at all times. If there are three well-described dimensions in which a story may unfold, he chooses none of them.

Extra-dimensional physics is an example of what Freud calls the uncanny.

“Science’s job is to go beyond what thought can intuit. To do this one has calculations, formulae, etc, to extend one’s thinking when intuition ceases to provoke thought.”
“[T]here are always plenty of formulae to account for an extraordinary phenomenon.”

But where science has the rigor of equations and models to bolster its intuition, literature, Aira reminds us, “follows the path of intuition at the risk of becoming overly abstract.” His characters, though, are frequently of a scientific stripe. Rugendas studies a breed of cutting-edge physiognomical naturalism. Ema becomes an expert at the breeding of exotic pheasants through modern technology. Clarke, of The Hare: another naturalist. Dr. Aira’s methods, somewhere between voodoo and membranal physics. Varamo’s incisive taxidermy. The mad scientist of The Literary Conference. Aira has nested his science within literature; that is, he has created a sort of recursion of intuition. The assumptions he asks us to allow him are self-subsuming; so are most answers to the existential question. Where these characters are most interesting is where they come closest to pushing their sciences into the abstract.

“How could these panoramas be rendered credible?”
“If things are extensions, there is no difference between the unimpeachably full and the irreproachably empty. All are zeros enclosed by lines. And words, too—as notions and noises—words, too, are only signs.”

The artist Rugendas searches for his author’s methods. He finds a synthesis. Formulas and intuition, instants and eons, tiny stages on curved plains. Contradictions abound. That contradiction is the root of all art is a truism, precisely because it intrinsically satisfies the symmetry required of the form. The writer relies on subtle forms of the truism; writers must issue statements that account, rather than explain. Wittgenstein says, after all, that the individual case is seldom important; the extremes often say more about the essence of the world than the mean. “A picture presents a situation in logical space, the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.” Most fiction is a very elaborate form of truism. In fact, they may be analogs to particle and cosmology, truism and fiction. The larger the structure, the greater the buttressing. Coherence is what is important, the ring of truth, symmetry. All things accounted for.

“The shapes looked far too big, but as the boats approached, the vast dimensions settled down, and in the end the boats cast up on a beach of fine sand where everything seemed microscopic.”
“[E]verything, the small and the large, had been bathed in the same impartial light of repetition.”

When considered carefully, all opposites appear more alike. There is only so much room for depictions of the immense until one naturally comes to the minuscule. Opposites can be a last, descriptive resort, but also the most apt; the dichotomy proves a relation. This is a cynicism of sorts. Aira’s slim books already seem compressed. He is not a playwright, but there is something of the theater; he builds impossible stages. His work is held together on contradiction, but not the contradiction of wrought irony. His work does not fall apart into greater truth; if the contradictions fall apart, so does the story; it does not fall apart into the absurd, but to naked actors on an unconvincing set. Quantum mechanics is full of strange particles that, however unlikely, make the equations balance. Aira’s layers of contradiction add up to credible theory, producing something like the “hyperharmonic” quality of Cecil Taylor’s piano playing, a grand resonance of major and minor. The dimensions that Aira plays with, the “infinitesimal and the cinematic”, are keys that can be changed to meet an unexpected chord. Anything for the song. Discord is necessarily a kind of harmony, as well as its opposite.

“I think I’ve always preferred space to time. Whereas space is a liberator, time is depressing, because at the end of the day it kills us.”
“The mad winds seemed bold enough to turn the seconds into minutes, and even hours, and if they felt like it, it would not be out of place to say days. But even so they would be seconds, because anguish compresses time, whatever interval of time, to the painful dimensions of seconds.”

Time slows down the faster you travel. Aira is slow but prolific. His books are brief but contain volumes. He watches cartoons. He writes often of and in the perspective of children, how this might make small things seem enormous, and vice versa. It is possible that this is the root of it. Pulling ideas from Ren & Stimpy as well as Proust. Don’t dawdle. His novels feel like they take place in a day, regardless of time markers, perhaps less: 10am to 6am, ending at sunrise. I do not believe the time has passed. Even God in his timeless realm has tea at precisely 5 o’clock. Aira uses the unremarkable like a stage. This is the locus of theater, in the broadest sense; we must suspend our disbelief to at all exist in the universe, and make small dimensions for our stories to unfold.

“Pictorial space is neither the three-dimensional space of traditional western painting nor the modernist flat surface, but an ambiguous space combining the optical qualities of a purely pictorial space and the tactility of illusionistic depth, while destabilizing both.”
“On the plains, space became small and intimate, almost mental.”

The playing with traditional flat surfaces, with evenly notched time is where Aira embraces Surrealism most fully, not in what he has referred to as “the mere accumulation of incongruous things”. He resists randomness, collects disparate and often incongruous ideas together into what could be called methods. Sometime the methods belong to the character, sometimes to the author. They leave all things accounted for. “The logic of the argument can’t be objected to,” Aira says of the fantastical ending to The Literary Conference. The worms, their color, their size, are all accounted for. Doctors, painters, and historians dispute aspects of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but there is, again, nothing left unaccounted for. Aira’s subtle surrealism makes him, in fact, more credible. He paints, as Dalí implored, “not the thing, but the effect it produces.” When distance is either very large or very small, we’re told, the strangest physics occur. Aira produces these effects in mental states, evokes them in the reader; his descriptions are then precise, or at least suggest great depth.

“I do not start with the idea that I will paint a certain thing. I start to paint and while I am painting the picture begins to take effect, it reveals itself. In the act of painting, a shape will begin to mean woman, or bird. . . the first stage is free, unconscious.”
“Sometimes it does, as do the random things that happen that day. If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing—it did happen once—it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.”

The image is ultimately what matters, the “pictorial space”, the central image. (Aira paints backgrounds like Magritte.) He is, as he says, “always on the verge of abstraction”. This may, in the end, be due to the over-inclusion of forms, rather than their shadowy dissolve. Aira’s ontology is object-centric. His epistemology is elastic. Dr. Aira’s screens approach abstract philosophy, and might succeed, if for our image of him flailing about the room, ultimately falling out onto the balcony. Miró’s comments seem to mirror well Aira’s fuga hacia adelante, the flight forward. A careful accumulation. Contradictions are gradually subsumed as the text marches onward. The greater the deviation, the greater the explanation. “The logic of the argument can’t be objected to.” Aira’s space contracts and expands as needed, itself a kind of flexible logic, both “infinitesimal and cinematic”. The transposition of dimensions results in holograms, the projection of opposites within one another, superimposed and fit to scale.


  1. Wassily Kandinsky, quoted in: William R. Everdell. The First Moderns. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  2. César Aira, Ghosts
  3. Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis. The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. Basic Books, 2010.
  4. Aira, Ema the Captive
  5. Aira, interview in The Latin American Mixtape
  6. Aira, “Cecil Taylor”
  7. Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
  8. William S. Gass. “The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make a World of Words”. In  The World Within the Word. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1979.
  9. Aira, Ema the Captive
  10. Aira, The Conversations
  11. Aira, interview in The Latin American Mixtape
  12. Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind
  13. Elza Adamowicz. Surrealist Collage in Text and Image: Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse. Cambridge Univserity Press, 1998.
  14. Aira, The Hare
  15. Joan Miró
  16. Aira, interview with Bomb Magazine by Maria Moreno: