Arts & Culture » Arts

Wonder Man

Writer Lawrence Weschler adds to the wonders of the world


Lawrence Weschler offers one on-the-record anecdote of Life with Tina. A staff writer for The New Yorker since the mid-'80s, Weschler came to the magazine when it was under the editorship of the legendary William Shawn, who had a bent for publishing extended multipart stories by the likes of John McPhee on topics devoid of topicality: rocks, for instance. Weschler's own first entry into the magazine came with his profile of the artist Robert Irwin, who at the time was best known -- if at all -- for projects planned but never completed. That piece eventually became Weschler's first book, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (the title taken from a poem by Valéry), which remains one of the best profiles of a contemporary artist written in the last quarter-century.

The pre-Tina Brown New Yorker, Weschler argues over a toasted bagel and coffee on a recent visit to St. Louis, was not caught up in "the crisis of duration we're in right now, which is one of the major crises in the culture: the attention-squeezing, peg-driven, niche-slotted -- which I refer to as the "frenzy.'"

We're in danger of losing our capacity for wonder, Weschler believes, and "wonder is the non-Pavlovian thing." Wonder demands "preparation for receptivity," Weschler says, which in the business of journalistic nonfiction means giving the reader time to enter into the subject; it means duration.

Yet, he laments, "McPhee's "Oranges' would be unpublishable today. You would get a snippet of it. But the notion that you might want to get lost, that incredible feeling -- "Tell me something I don't already know' -- but that you would get lost in material you had no idea you were going to get interested in. And I mean lost, two weeks' worth of lost. And Friday evening there'd be a dinner in which there would be other people who were equally lost."

But along came Brown to liven up the staid old New Yorker. Weschler's one on-the-record anecdote about Life with Tina he presents as an example of the "frenzy." The anecdote refers to Weschler's book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, which is what has brought the author to town to speak at the St. Louis Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition Wonderland.

Mr. Wilson is the elfin, accordion-wielding David Wilson, curator of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an unassuming former storefront on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, Calif. Wilson displays oddities of natural science: the horn of Mary Davis of Saughall; a centaur skeleton; mice on toast and mouse pie (a diorama depicting folk remedies for bedwetting and stammering, respectively); and the Cameroonian stink ant, which, according to a voice of authority speaking through a telephone next to the vitrine, inhales spores on the jungle floor that infect the ant's brain, causing it to climb trees and munch on leaves until a prong emerges from its forehead and it dies, falls and deposits new spores to the forest floor for other unsuspecting stink ants to inhale.

Implausible as these exhibits all seem, in the course of his investigations Weschler finds that everything at the MJT is legitimate, or at least mostly so. Not only that, but the displays at the MJT figure, in Weschler's estimation, are descendants of the wunderkammern, or wonder-cabinets of the 16th and 17th centuries. The wunderkammern contained the marvelous stuff European gentlemen collected -- animal (or human) horns, exotic beetles, brightly colored coral, shells from distant islands, the feathers of tropical birds, small objets d'art (for the division between artistic and scientific wonders had yet to be drawn). Through Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Weschler reveals the wonder that was in the world before Descartes took all the fun out of it.

But when the first half of what would become Weschler's book on Wilson and the MJT, some 12,000 words, was submitted to Brown, he says, "Without looking at it she thrusts it back at me and says, "Cut it to 5,000 words and I'll look at it.'" Weschler, assuming the voice of reason as he tells his tale, told her there was no 5,000-word piece to be found there, to which she responded: ""I couldn't publish 10,000 words on the Museum of Jurassic Technology if I wanted to, because it's not hot.'" Weschler glows with a certain mischief as he nears the point of the narrative: "I said, "Tina, first of all, it's not hot, it's cool. Secondly, if you publish it, it will be hot.' And she said, in a delirium of self-awareness, she said, "Ren, I don't publish 10,000 words about a place that will be hot when I publish it. I publish 10,000 words about a place that is hot when I publish it.'

"There you go: "I publish Pavlovian stuff.'"

For some 20 years, Weschler has been writing non-Pavlovian stuff. He's written about a variety of curious characters, such as artist David Hockney, cartoonist Ben Katchor and musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky. Weschler has also reported from regions of the world caught in political extremes. His book The Passion of Poland was one of the first to recognize the importance of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement. He's written on the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, and he's written on the search for justice when totalitarian regimes fall, as in his investigation of the steps and missteps taken toward social normality in Brazil and Uruguay in his book A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers.

Weschler's interests may seem disparate or eclectic, but they are all united by that element of wonder. Weschler -- tall, lean, a full beard softening the sharp features of his face -- exhibits his own degree of passion and wonder for what has become his subject matter:

"In the preface to A Wanderer in the Perfect City (a collection of profiles, or what Weschler refers to as "passion pieces'), I talk about the relationship between my political and (cultural) writing. They're both about passion and about catching fire -- ordinary people in the middle of the day who suddenly catch fire and end up somewhere they haven't thought of before. Another way of talking about catching fire is the light of reason; it's the light of consciousness." For Weschler, this is as apt a description of David Hockney's coming to believe that the realism of Caravaggio was aided by the use of a primitive camera obscura as it is of Lech Walesa's perceiving that the oppressive political system in which he had lived all his life could suddenly, unalterably be transformed. It is that moment when a wall suddenly provides a door and "it blazes to life for you," Weschler says.

"The way I think of it these days," he continues, "it's the combination of looking or seeing something, but it's also that pillow of air in your mouth when you suddenly ..." He takes in a breath of astonishment. "There's a Velazquez painting of the forge of Vulcan, and one of the gods has just shown up, and these common day laborers ..." Weschler again mimes an expression of open-mouthed awe, his eyes wide.

"I've often thought about starting a magazine called Pillow of Air," he says, "which would be about that moment, which is directly related to the eyes. It is the slack jaw when you are unaware of your mouth but you suddenly become aware of the stillness right inside your mouth. It in turn is related to what is inside the mouth that becomes speech."

The capacity for wonder, in Weschler's view, is what separates us from the beasts. "Salivating dogs don't get pillows of air, but human beings do.

"A pillow of air, by the way, you don't know where it goes after that. It is the very sensation of patterns of causation. What happens when Lech Walesa, at age 28 or whatever he was, suddenly says, "God, I could do ...' Who knows where that would go? Entire totalitarian regimes are built to suppress that thing from happening, but it happens, and it happens unaccountably -- these little bubbles that occur."

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