Lawrence Weschler stood before the new non-fiction at St. Mark’s Bookshop, scanning the shelves. On an unseasonably warm December afternoon, the fifty-six-year-old writer wore a dark green trench coat over a charcoal suit and gray shirt, his hair receding above a large pair of glasses. He was looking for his two most recent books, released simultaneously by the University of California Press. Weschler’s career as a journalist has been notable for its variety, but these books revisit two of his earliest subjects. One is an expanded edition of his first book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. Originally published in 1982, Seeing is Forgetting launched Weschler’s career at the New Yorker. It also provoked the artist David Hockney to contact Weschler, starting a series of encounters collected in the other new book, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney.
A preliminary search of the new releases section turned up neither volume, so Weschler went to check the backlist aisles. This proved to be a more vexing task than one might imagine. Weschler has a longstanding beef with bookstores’ filing systems, partly due to the diversity of his subject matter: he doesn’t like to see, for example, his book about torture in South America ending up across the store from his book about Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. He is a writer who has a sense of his work as a corpus. Just as one looks under “Bach” to find cantatas as well as fugues, Weschler wishes bookstores would keep his titles together.
I mentioned to him that I had found one of his other books filed under his name in the “Literature” section in the same store a few weeks earlier. “You see, that’s where it belongs,” he said, heading off that way to look for the Irwin and Hockney books. No dice. Same in “Art,” under neither artists’ nor author’s name. But Weschler didn’t want to ask any of the staff for help. “It’s too embarrassing,” he said. He left the store unsatisfied.
“So you want to do a profile of Lawrence Weschler,” the poet Alastair Reid said. Reid and Weschler have been friends since their days on staff at the New Yorker. “That would be a difficult task, I should think.” The difficulty stems not from any blustery opacity or cultivated mystery about Weschler. But the writer, whom friends call Ren, can be difficult to pin down because of his deliberately variegated multiplicity: he contains multitudes. “It’s very difficult to get Ren to sit down and talk about a single subject because things keep reminding him of other things,” Reid said. “He has a boyish enthusiasm about everything. When you’re with him, occasionally he’ll grab your arm”—look at this!—“he catches fire from time to time.”
I met Weschler in his office on the fifth floor of a building on Cooper Square, the brightly lit home of the New York Institute of the Humanities. The walls of his office were plastered with posters covering art historical ground from seventeenth century Netherlands to late-twentieth century Los Angeles. When I dropped my coat unceremoniously on the floor, Weschler picked it up and deposited it on the rack by the door.
As he spoke, Weschler leaned the side of his face against one hand, propped on the arm of his desk chair. His freewheeling conversational style intensifies during what his daughter Sara calls his “loose-synapsed moments,” periods of dense free-association. By way of explaining this side of his character, Weschler told a story. “When I graduated college,” Weschler said, “a friend of the family offered to conduct a battery of tests—an 800-question inventory, a Rorschach ink-blot test and so on. He analyzed the results and said to me, ‘Your free-association score is off the charts. This does not bode well for you.’”
Despite this forecast, Weschler has turned his knack for finding connections into a phenomenally successful career as a public intellectual in an anti-intellectual age. His work history includes a twenty-year stint as a staff writer for the New Yorker, about a dozen books, and positions as director of the New York Institute for the Humanities and art director of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Weschler was chosen to lead the annual festival in 2006, and under his direction it has grown to include over one hundred presentations connected loosely to an organizing theme, attracting an audience in the tens of thousands to what is essentially a lecture series.
Weschler grew up in Van Nuys, Clalifornia, outside Los Angeles. He received a vigorously interdisciplinary liberal-arts education at UC Santa Cruz, studying, in his grandmother’s estimation, “nothing that will bring him any good.” But, he said, “it taught me how to ask questions. It was the perfect education to unequip you for any work in life.”
After graduation, Weschler worked for UCLA’s oral history program and wrote for LA Weekly and LA Reader. He wrote the book about Irwin in 1981 and sent the manuscript, unsolicited, to Calvin Tomkins at the New Yorker. The magazine’s editor, William Shawn, ran the story in two parts, and Weschler was invited to join the staff.
“The major value of writing for those papers in Los Angeles was that, at the point the New Yorker took the Irwin story, I had a portfolio I could show them,” Weshler told me. “If you were living in L.A. it was a huge pain to write for New York publications—this was before fax even. These people would never return your phone calls.”
Weschler brought to the magazine a perspective wider than New York City. “There was hardly anything about California in the New Yorker at the time,” Reid said, citing Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” a cover from 1976. “California was seen as woo-woo land.”
But Weschler did not confine himself to California. The list of his writing subjects reads like the contents of a puréed card catalogue. Brazilian torturers, Jan Vermeer, Bosnian war criminals, Breyten Breytenbach, the Polish Solidarity movement, Roman Polanski. His grandfather the composer Ernst Toch. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, near Copenhagen. The graphic novelists Ben Katchor and Art Spiegelman. The Berlin Holocaust memorial. Banknote artist J.S.G. Boggs. The quality of light in Los Angeles.
His subjects, though wildly varied, tend to reflect his own intense excitement and curiosity. “In all my writing, I guess, I have been concerned with people and places that were just moseying down the street one day, minding their own business, when suddenly and almost spontaneously they caught fire, they became obsessed, they became intensely focused and intensely alive—ending up, by day’s end, somewhere altogether different from where they’d imagined they were setting out that morning,” Weschler wrote in his preface to A Wanderer in the Perfect City. The shorthand term Weschler uses for his quality of being intensely alive is “passion.”
Weschler’s favorite animal-kingdom objective correlative for passion is the Cameroonian stink ant. The story comes out of one of his books, the Pulitzer prize finalist Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (1995), but he recast it as a parable about his writing in the preface to Boggs: A Comedy of Values (1999). Weschler encountered the Cameroonian stink ant in a diorama at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the performance art Wunderkammer run by David Wilson in Los Angeles. “According to the caption and the accompanying acoustiguide” Weschler wrote in the preface, the stink ants form an exceptionally industrious tribe of insects, methodically scavenging for food across the West African rain forest floor. But every once in a while, one of their number will accidentally inhale a microscopic fungal spore drifting down from somewhere in the canopy above. The spore quickly lodges in the poor mite’s brain, and, stupefied, the creature staggers off, confounded, bewildered, confused. Presently—and for the first time in its life—the ant leaves the rain forest floor, scaling the tendrils of nearby hanging vines, climbing unaccountably higher and higher until it reaches a certain prescribed height, at which point it impales its mandibles on the vine stalk and waits to die. Within days of that death, a spikelike prong suddenly erupts from out of what had once been the creature’s forehead, its orange tip heavy laden with microscopic fungal spores which now rain down upon the rain forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.
Weschler asks Wilson, the museum curator, what he found compelling about the ant. Wilson says “what had really floored him” when he had first heard about it was the way its story seemed to double, as it were, as a metaphor for his very own life. He could identify with that ant, he told me: he too felt like he’d inhaled a spore a long while back, staggering around for some time thereafter—‘impelled, as if possessed, to do things that defied all common sense’—before alighting on this, his current vocation[.]
Wilson’s telescoping out of the story in turn subjects Weschler to a kind of mirror-in-a-mirror regress of his own, reminding him of his past profile subjects in their passions. What Weschler leaves implicit here is his own role as “spore-inhaling spore-shedder,” filling his readers’ ears with the hallucinogenic poison.
Another name for this life-giving death philter is enthusiasm, and it’s a word that appears frequently in Weschler’s own work and others’ descriptions of him. Pico Iyer writes in his foreword to A Wanderer in the Perfect City:
The propulsive force [in Weschler’s writing] is enthusiasm, which means (or meant, in the original Greek) “possessed by the gods,” a term generous enough to take in gods that were as venal and fragile and mixed-up as ourselves.
Weschler offers an alternative translation. “I insist upon enthusiasm,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Enthusiasm comes from entheos, meaning ‘the God introjected in you.’” In psychoanalytical argot, introjection refers to the formation of an internal image of an external object, which then becomes freighted with emotional meaning. “Introject” is roughly synonymous with “internalize” for everyday pop-psychological purposes, but the two words are etymologically distinct. Introject comes from the Latin for the verb “to throw”; just as a projector throws an image across a room, in Weschler’s definition enthusiasm throws divine passion into the individual. Iyer’s “possession,” with its connotation of demonic control, comes from the Latin for “ownership” or “domination.” Weschler’s variation harks back to his study of Freudian analysis at Santa Cruz, turning divine inspiration into an active psychological process.
Weschler’s own passion, if he can be said to have just one, seems to be the freely associative play of the mind that most of us experience only fleetingly, during particularly good conversation, uninhibited word games, and those lucid moments right before or after sleep. Weschler makes an art of (and makes art out of) extending those moments of surprising connections, when neuronal dendrites reach, tentacular, across regions of the mind previously unconnected.
Weschler identified the “Weschlerian” style of thought in a 2006 interview with the Washington Post as “serious in an unserious way, serious play. A kind of daydreaming.” But he takes this play quite seriously—for him it is not just a poetics but a kind of moral imperative. “It’s not so much cross-disciplinary as refusing to acknowledge the existence of disciplines,” he told me, describing both his writing and his dual roles as the director of the Institute and the Festival. “I’m celebrating porousness.”
Weschler went on to say that this kind of undifferentiated thinking is universal, at least among children. “This is how everybody thinks until they go to college, where it gets knocked out of them.”
Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences (2006) graphically illustrates Weschler’s associative cast of mind; its publisher, McSweeney’s, describes it as “without a doubt the most Weschlerian book of all time.” The book, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, consists of a series of essays—brief, exploratory, evocative—linking seemingly disconnected images or artworks through visual or conceptual rhymes. A cuneiform tablet is likened to a Chicago jail, by way of distant voices heard in the Iliad. A late Velázquez is linked to images of South American miners via class consciousness and Walter Benjamin. Trees and roots and rivers and neurons, in their profligate branching, share a common form.
A brief article about the book in the New York Times from 2006 quoted Weschler describing his inductive thinking process in poetic terms. “The convergence is like the rhyme. But then you’ve got to write the poem about it. The thing that makes it sing is the cascading of possible meanings.”
A.O. Scott, reviewing Everything That Rises in Print magazine, wrote: “it suggests a method for scrutinizing the world that combines skepticism with a buoyant generosity of spirit—an esthetic of telling details and an ethical refusal to ignore what’s right before your eyes.” Right before our eyes, perhaps, but viewed at a slant, as Emily Dickinson would have us do:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
In the book, as in person, Weschler burrows under time and geography and the artificial boundaries of genre or discipline to tie the world back up—the writer as obsessive collector, anti-entropic. It is a generous project, both in conception and execution, staking a claim for the primacy of amateurism over academic specialization. And like all of Weschler’s writing, for all its intellectual play, Everything That Rises remains accessible to the general reader. Robert Irwin told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that Weschler “is able to take truly complex ideas and make them transparent.”
In his office, Weschler took out a reproduction of a sixteenth century Flemish painting that he suspects is the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. It depicts a man sitting beside a table littered with what look like navigation instruments inside a hall on whose walls hang dozens of paintings. On the other side of the table a woman lies in a swoon. “I’m going to speak at a sort of informal round-table on this painting at the home of its owner tonight,” he said. Next to this picture he lay two others: the first was The Land of Cockaigne by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a fantasia of surfeit in which three rotund men sprawl beneath a tabletop caught in a tree. A pig with a knife strapped to its back strolls in the background, past a chicken laying itself on a plate. Weschler pointed back to the first painting. “Look at the arrangement of the figures, and the odd angle of the table. I think there’s a connection between this painting and the elder Brueghel’s Cockaigne,” he said. The final image, Cockaigne by the contemporary painter Vincent Desiderio, depicts a table spread with the leavings of a feast, standing in a sea of art books lying open. The superabundance in Desiderio’s painting seems to be an allegory on art-historical reference and influence—which is also, in Weschler’s interpretation, the subject of the painting he would discuss that night. The surfeit of history, the persistent influence of the past: these problems must have felt particularly acute for the son of Pieter Brueghel, four hundred years before Desiderio and his image of postmodern anxiety.
The emotional response that both the convergences and many of Weschler’s profiles seem to aim at is delight. But the reader feels delight in large part because she senses that Weschler does, too. Riva Lehrer, an artist who interviewed Weschler over a period of six months as research for a portrait of him, confirms this sense. “When he finds a new connection it’s like someone gave him a gift in his brain,” Lehrer says.
The feeling is catching, according to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family and fellow at the Institute for the Humanities. “He’s very lively—lively isn’t a strong enough word—vibrant. Even stronger than vibrant. Effusive makes it sound too lightweight.” She paused. “Infectious animated intellectual curiosity. He has that effect on a lot of people.”
Indeed, the infectiousness of his curiosity seems to be an important part of Weschler’s strength as a writer and organizer. In his foreword to A Wanderer in the Perfect City, Iyer wrote, “the writer, ideally, is one who passes that spirit of excited enquiry on to the reader with a gusto that becomes contagious.” This contagion, this spore, this fever that never subsides, is reflected in those around him. “When I go to talk to Ren, I come away feeling stacked with several assignments,” Leblanc said. “He’s a great organizer. He can enlist you.” Weschler puts his enlisting skills to use in his role as humanities impresario in New York and Chicago. At the Institute for the Humanities, Weschler sets the program for fellows’ luncheons and public presentations. “He’s very provocative,” LeBlanc says. “Ren gets big ideas on a daily basis, then he drums up people to actually do them.”
The Institute for the Humanities, based at New York University, was “pleasantly moribund” before Weschler’s appointment in 2001, according to Alastair Reid, a long-time fellow. (Weschler had been a fellow before becoming the Institute’s director.) “He changed the whole thing, reinvigorated it. Ren added genuine spark. He gets people on unlikely subjects, or he brings in people with well-known attitudes on a certain topic, then he brings in a counter-presenter with opposing attitudes. And that makes little gatherings that are bound to create something interesting.”
Likewise, the board of the Chicago Humanities Festival was looking for an artistic director with a broad range of interests and an omnivorous curiosity after its founding director left in 2005. Weschler took the position in early 2006, and has greatly expanded the program—this year’s festival, on the theme “Big Ideas,” involved 120 programs in 25 venues across the city, drawing over 41,000 people. As artistic director, Weschler brings in “conversations between people doing interesting work in really diverse fields, getting experts to spark and inspire other experts in different fields, in front of an audience,” said Amanda Burr, program manager for the festival. Ryan and Trevor Oakes, twin artists who spoke at this year’s festival and who are the subjects of a forthcoming profile by Weschler for Virginia Quarterly, said that Weschler’s panels privilege improvisation and serendipity over prepared lectures. “It’s so much more exciting to see some interaction, some spur of the moment thinking, to see someone’s mind working. You want to see someone being in the moment. That’s Ren’s approach,” Ryan said.
“He was standing around in the hallway before going on stage to interview David Hockney,” at this year’s festival, Ryan continued. “And I asked him, ‘Where are your notes? What are you going to talk about?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you know, David and I are going to go onstage and free-fall for about an hour, then I’ll pull the ripcord and we’ll land somewhere.’”
“But he’s been preparing for that conversation for twenty-five years,” Burr said when I asked her about this exchange. Weschler began writing about Hockney in the early eighties, leading to the publication this November of True to Life. Hockney first contacted the writer after reading Weschler’s book about Irwin, with whom Hockney maintains a sort of genteel feud.
According to Burr, the improvisatory feel of the Festival actually requires quite a bit of preparation in the months before the presentations begin. Weschler chooses the theme for each year’s festival, then “riffs on program ideas, people, and interview ideas that could become events. It lets his free-associative mind work broadly.” Soon after the previous festival ends, “it always astonishes me the number of things Ren can come up with on a topic so different from last year’s,” Burr said. “He tends to work a lot on the really big picture—shaping the whole thing and getting people excited. And then he also does a lot of work on the close end, shaping panels and giving the moderators questions to direct the conversation.”
This meticulous orchestration of his festival programming mirrors the compositional method of Weschler’s writing. In an interview in Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism (2005), Weschler said, “my thinking about narrative is essentially musical.” This sentiment echoes a passage in a moving essay about his grandfather, the Viennese-composer-in-American-exile Ernst Toch, “My Grandfather’s Last Tale” (collected in Vermeer in Bosnia ):
Although I have no musical aptitude per se, whenever I write, or review my own or other people’s writing, almost all my judgments about the process tend to get framed in musical metaphors: questions of pacing, modulation, tone, harmonics, counterpoint. […] I have a profound sense that I am engaged in a compositional enterprise involving the sequential deployment of material across time in a “formful” manner.
The tonic note sounded in much of Weschler’s work is the sense of wonder. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder is his most explicit exploration of the theme, tracing the history of wonder in scientific inquiry through the Renaissance tradition of Wunderkammer, and making a case for the value of the “wondering stance.” The visitor to David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology finds herself in a characteristically Weschlerian uncertainty: “shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature) and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true),” he writes. Likewise, in his afterword to A Wanderer in the Perfect City, Weschler writes that “this book’s title might easily have been A Wonderer in the Perfect City,” referring to himself, transfixed by the marvels of his subjects’ nature.
Much of Weschler’s overtly political writing concerns exile and repression, often as political responses to popular passions. In particular, Weschler returned again and again to the Solidarity movement in Poland during his years at the New Yorker. Weschler decided to visit Poland after writing about the Louisiana Museum in Denmark on his first foreign assignment for the magazine. “I went to Poland just to see what was going on. I had no intention of writing about it,” Weschler said. “No one thought there was anything worth paying attention to in Poland. But when I saw the democratic foment there, it was clear that they were far beyond anything that was going on in the U.S.” Weschler would return to Poland to write over a dozen stories for the magazine, leading to the publication in 1984 of The Passion of Poland: From Solidarity through the State of War.
“He has an impossibly restless mind and a way to let you into it” through his writing, Reid says. “Ren is motivated more than anything else by a thirsty curiosity. Some writers are not often hit by those winds of curiosity, which is tough because they often end up writing the same piece over and over. There are writers who get slotted away doing a certain kind of story.”
“Ren!” Ryan Oakes called out as the writer passed through Cooper Square.
“Hello boys,” Weschler said, walking over to where Ryan and Trevor stood, beneath Peter Cooper’s throne.
Ryan handed Weschler a heavy stainless-steel plate engraved with a detail from one of the twins’ drawings, a tiny fraction of a giant reproduction that would sit outdoors in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Weschler hefted the plate while the artists described the process by which they would fill the engraved image with black ink for better visibility. Weschler interrupted their explanation to return the plate. “This is hurting my back. My daughter says, ‘Dad, you spend all your time with 25-year-olds, but you’re not 25.’”
They then discussed possible venues for a New York show of the twins’ work. Trevor suggested a space for young artists at the Metropolitan Museum, which happens to be where Weschler first met the twins. “That’s not out of the question,” Weschler said. “First, let me get my life in order—.” He broke off and leaned his forehead against Trevor’s shoulder in mock despondency.
“Ren will never be exhausted,” Alastair Reid told me a few days later. “His questioning mind will never be satisfied.” Young artists like the Oakes twins should share this hope—seven of Weschler’s subjects have gone on to win MacArthur “genius” grants. “I do like writing about unknown people,” Weschler said. “I like writing about subjects who can bear the weight of future attention.”