Criticism & Features


Interview with NBCC Winner Lawrence Weschler

By Jane Ciabattari

In presenting the NBCC award in criticism to Lawrence Weschler for “Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences” last month, NBCC president John Freeman called the book “a contagious, profoundly playful work of cultural criticism.” But when we meet on a recent Friday, Weschler says he does not think of himself as a critic.

What then? “Oh, I don't know: a human being. An observer and a responder and a reporter in that sense. Someone who notices and notes: a noticer and noter. An amateur and an enthusiast. I don't like the terms 'creative nonfiction' (I don't know what that means), or 'literary nonfiction.'I prefer to say that I try to practice writerly nonfiction, which is to say nonfiction writing where the reading matters, and reading where the writing matters.”

Ren Weschler's office at New York University, where he heads the New York Institute for the Humanities, is chockablock with images, books and periodicals, all of fairly recent vintage for an academic office, perhaps because he's only been here six years, after twenty years as a staff writer at The New Yorker. On one wall is a set of what he calls “four images of blimpy things.” In descending order: a New West magazine poster of the “great dreamy somnabulant blimp of a cloud” that appeared in the Los Angeles skies in November 1976, as described in “Everything That Rises;” a grainy blowup of a photo of starlings pulled from the web; an image of well-rounded women at a Turkish bath in Paris, and, at the base, integrating the others in the mysterious manner of other Weschler convergences, a poster for a recent exhibit based on medieval illuminated Qur'an manuscripts from Cairo's Dar al-Kutub (National Library).

What is he working on now? Weschler ticks off a few on the list of projects he spins off, it seems, with alarming ease: He has a number of books in the works, including an update of his book on Robert Irwin first published 25 years ago (Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin ) and a companion book on David Hockney. He says he visualizes these as in conversation, even contradiction with each other. (See his essay on Hockney and Hockney's 1988 portrait of Weschler here.)

Most of Weschler's “convergences” essays first appeared in McSweeney's, where he is a contributing editor. He has the same role at The Threepenny Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review. In fact, he says he has taken ideas from Omnivore, the magazine he hoped to launch at NYU, but which halted after the handsome prototype issue, to the VQR. In addition to his NYU post and teaching at Sarah Lawrence, he is artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Weschler writes in the introduction to “Everything That Rises” that he got started doing “convergences” upon reading the John Berger essay on Che Guevara, in which Berger talks about the resemblance between the photo of Che's corpse and Rembrandt's “The Anatomy Lesson.” Was this in fact the beginning?

“I've done it my whole life,” Weschler says. “I've always had this playful side. At UC Santa Cruz, where I was in the philosophy department, we had a softball team we called the Olympians. Chaos was the pitcher, the catcher was Apollo, I was the right fielder. Pan, the Dionysian one. One of my first papers was on Freud, Kafka and Jewish mysticism. I read the John Berger piece in the early 1970s. It gave me permission to do a lot of these things. But always with a light touch.”

He adds, “You could make a case that I've also gone radically in the other direction. My first book, about Robert Irwin, was about, How do you stop free associating? How do you get the chatter in your mind to stop? A body of my work is all about trying to make distinctions as well as convergences. “

I ask about the “convergences” contest on the McSweeneys website, which started after the book came out. The website pitch: “For those of you who still aren't quite clear on this 'convergence' concept, it's kind of like Celebrity Look-Alikes, except instead of Nick Nolte and Gary Busey, it's a cuneiform tablet and the Chicago city jail, followed by a series of brilliant, spiraling ruminations.”

Weschler turns to the computer on his desk and checks to see if there is a new “convergence” posted. No. “It's sporadic,” he says. “McSweeney's is a shoestring operation. People send in convergences, I judge. It can't just be two things that are alike. There has to be an essay. I respond. It's like batting practice. Sometimes we post a batch, a carnival of convergences. We'll keep it going as long as it's interesting, then do another book.”

We talk about book culture and book criticism today, the shrinking number of pages devoted to reviews, the elimination of book editors at some publications. He points out that the New York Times Book Review did not review “Everything That Rises.”He says he called to ask why and was told, “It's a judgment call.” So he asked, “Do you think this book will be around in ten years?” The answer: “Stop being facetious.”

“The best book review of the recent past was Steve Wasserman's Los Angeles Times Book Review,” he says. “He had 2,000 people getting it. He published reviews of substance, he looked for the right person to review. It was not just being done by rote.” He mentions that he writes for The Believer. “I don't review that many books. But it is my intention in all my projects, that when you finish reading, you'll want to go read a book.”

His grandfather is the Weimar-era modernist composer Ernst Toch, who emigrated to Los Angeles and whose “Third Symphony” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Weschler seems drawn to visual arts and the written word. Does he have any musical talent?

“I am completely unmusical,” he says. “I'm unable to distinguish notes going up and down, which has something to do with my brain. I will be in Oliver Sacks's next book, about neurology and music. Yet when I think about writing and comment on my student's work, I always use musical terms. I'd like to write a book about writing similar to my grandfather's book, 'The Shaping Force of Music.'”

Later that afternoon, in his NYU “fiction of nonfiction” class, Weschler talks about “rhapsodic nonfiction,” comparing the work of Oliver Sacks and Ryszard Kapuscinkski, a doctor and a journalist who, respectively, in addition to daily notes on patients and reports from abroad, wrote books that told a different kind of truth. (In his chapter on Kapuscinski and Sacks in “Everything That Rises,” Weschler notes that by far the best diagnosis of the situation in Poland in 1978 was Kapuscinski's “The Emperor,” which is one of the class readings for the day.)

Weschler shows a few minutes of a documentary about Kapuscinski, who was born dirt-poor in Pinsk, once part of Poland, now part of Belarus. Weschler's is the narrative voiceover. After going through the layers of Polish history and describing various threads of the Kabbalistic tradition woven through the work of Freud, Kafka,and other Eastern European intellectuals, Weschler gets personal about Kapuscinski, who was once a fellow at the Humanities Institute. He says the legendary foreign correspondent was a meek man, a wallflower who faded into the background. Not a bad attribute for a reporter on the scene during revolutions and coups d'etat. He was in the U.S. during the 9/11 attacks. “Now there will be war,” he told Weschler at the time. Why? “Because states need to fight states. Cheney and Bush can't stand to fight something amorphous.”

Weschler describes Kapuscinski returning, pale and shaken, from lunch with Susan Sontag. She was on the Atkins diet. She had served a thick rare steak, bleeding, on a white platter with sharp knives. “What do you think it meant?” Kapuscinski asked.

“And now they're both dead,” Weschler says softly. He calls for the class break.

I head back to the Upper West Side. It's the time of day when the taxis streaming down Mercer Street all signal “off duty.” An occasional snowflake hangs in the air. I stand for a long time in the bitter wind on Houston Street, mind buzzing, eager to get back to reading, rapidly adding books to my list.