Pillows of Air: A Conversation with Lawrence Weschler
By Michelle ChiharaOctober 6, 2023
THE COVER OF Lawrence Weschler’s most recent book reproduces a sepia-toned old photograph of identical twins wearing vests and bowties. They are joined at the mustache. They’re sitting side-by-side and facing the camera, and from the left side of one man’s lips to the right side of the other’s, an unbroken handlebar of facial hair connects them. They’re staring intently at the camera, and the effect is both whimsical and uncanny.
This territory is well traveled in Weschler’s work, which spans more than 20 books, 20 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and time spent as a professor in the humanities. The breadth of his topics ranges from political coverage of Solidarity in Poland to profiles of artists of all types working in every medium, all presented through Weschler’s peculiar form of cultural criticism that traces correspondences across fields; in McSweeney’s, Rachel Cohen described him as “a proponent of conversation where others see cultural and political life breaking up into isolated fragments.” His most recent book, A Trove of Zohars, focuses on an iconoclastic man named Stephen Berkman, like many of his subjects a fellow traveler in curiosity and non-conformity. Berkman is fascinated with an archive of colloidal photographs from the 19th century that chronicled, it seems, the Jewish immigrant community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The twins appear in this archive—and in Weschler’s book—alongside a bearded lady, a merkin merchant, and a Prussian princess on a pony. Perhaps. A photograph of a knitted condom recurs throughout the book and, like the mustache connection, seems like it might be fake—has to be fake. But then, nothing has ever been as it seems in Weschler’s work.
Berkman is a longtime student of photography and its history, and Weschler quotes him saying he has a pattern “of uncovering things, trying to popularize them, and nobody really caring.” He sports the long muttonchops known as dundrearies, and lives in Pasadena in a cluttered studio. He won’t quite say that he discovered the Zohar archive; he thinks of himself as a “facilitator” for an elusive historic figure named Shimmel Zohar and his collection of wet colloidal images. These were made with a chemical process that renders glass plates sensitive to light before they’re inserted into a tripod camera. The long exposure times, with subjects often posed in a studio and immobilized for a few minutes, mean that they are carefully staged and can’t capture motion. The technique raises questions about how photographs relate to evidence—about how photographs do and don’t reliably preserve the past for perusal in the present. But these questions aren’t raised in the style of, say, Susan Sontag’s philosophical interrogation in On Photography. In Weschler’s hands, it’s more like what might happen if Eadweard Muybridge and Rebecca Solnit got together to play dice with a magician over absinthe and tea cakes. But I digress; I’m trying to describe Lawrence Weschler.
Weschler was, for a long time, The New Yorker’s Los Angeles writer. Unlike the droves of New Yorkers who move here and decide they have “discovered” L.A., Weschler is a native, a polymath who has spent most of his 70-odd years in New York but who never dropped a nostalgic passion for the art and light and space of home. From the time he was, in his own way, discovered by the legendary editor William Shawn, Weschler has never stopped writing the city of his birth into being.
I first encountered his work many years ago, when I read his seminal essay “L.A. Glows.” That piece opens with Weschler’s memory of watching the infamous 1994 Bronco chase on television in New York, and weeping. He was brought to tears not by O.J. Simpson but by the late afternoon light in Los Angeles, “golden pink off the bay through the smog and onto the palm fronds.” It was a masterful lens on an overexposed news event, using it as a trick to lure the reader into a deep dive on the science of L.A.’s visuals. Two decades after he had left for the East coast, Weschler still held Los Angeles at the center of his attention. He interviewed a CalTech scientist who has studied the area and describes the stillness behind the shadowless light and haze in the air. Particles floating in that stillness have about the same diameter as the wavelength of natural sunlight, which they refract and block. The scientist tells Weschler, “It can get to be like having a billion tiny suns between you and the thing you’re trying to see.” A poet friend later corrects him: “You mean a billion tiny moons.”
So much of the joy in Weschler’s writing comes from associative jumps like these. Familiar objects and concepts come to seem strange, granted a new sense of discovery and connection. Weschler finds lyricism in technical language, in electromagnetic radiation, and then finds the precision in poetry. Weschler has formed intellectual friendships with many of his subjects, including the painter David Hockney and the author and engineer Blaise Agüera y Arcas, in part because creative people enjoy the way his mind interacts with their work. It’s important, however, to distinguish between free association and Weschler’s method. He unfurls ideas in his own recursive, fractal, ecstatic way.
When I spoke with Weschler, I had only just finished reading the final pages of A Trove of Zohars, which he dedicates to his friend Ricky Jay, whom he called a “wonder rabbi.” I formulated a single question about this idea, which had barely left my lips when Weschler began to explain that “wonder rabbis are a thing,” or were, from the 17th to the 19th centuries. I didn’t even manage to turn on a recording device, so this is a reconstruction of a fluid and lively dialogue from my frantically typed notes—in other words, an artisanal interview. I have recreated the discursive path of a conversation with a master of the form, in an effort to show where Weschler interrupts himself and follows his own train of thought. As with all things Weschler, the pleasure is in the winding journey as much as the destination.
Long before the era of “fake news” and AI, Weschler was thinking about aesthetics and science, how representation alters our perception, and the blurred line between fact and fiction. The sentences between Weschler’s thoughts and ideas here are not the questions that I asked. In fact, I said very little when I spoke with him. Instead, I’ve added summaries and material here in an attempt to bring the reader along for the ride.
LAWRENCE WESCHLER: A few comments … When I became the head of humanities at NYU, I did so on condition that it would be understood that the division between the humanities and the sciences was artificial. The sciences are the crown jewel of the humanities. If you go back to the time before Descartes, there was no distinction, if you think of someone like Leonardo da Vinci … I’m a part of that, on my Jewish side, oh—but first, I have a funny story about Los Angeles.
I’m very digressive.
We’ll get there.
When I arrived in New York, I had this book about Robert Irwin. It was called Seeing is Forgetting. It was rejected by every New York publisher, with every one a rave rejection—it’s about an L.A. artist, it would never sell, no one would read such a thing. So, I sent it over the transom to The New Yorker. And they took it! When I arrived there, I went to the Algonquin with William Shawn. He had a regular table way in the corner. They called him the iron mouse, he was such a tiny man, his eyes barely came up over the edge of the table. So, he could hide out there, and just watch. I had this long, long menu in front of me, and the waiter came over to us. And Shawn said, “I’ll have the regular.” I was so flustered. I just said, “Oh, well, I’ll have the plat du jour.” Which was stuffed sole with lobster, that day. Eventually, these great silver tureens arrive. They lift the lid of mine, and a fragrant steam rises from this enormous lobster. And they lift the lid of his … and it’s cornflakes.
At the time, he said, “Mr. Weschler, we’re hiring, but I’m confused. You live in … Los Angeles? You live there? And where were you born?” Van Nuys!
Weschler’s book, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin, came out in 1982. Irwin was active in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and became famous for his work with site-specific and site-conditioned installations exploring structure, color, and perception. The book describes Irwin as a Los Angeles artist “who one day got hooked on his own curiosity and decided to live it.” Weschler moves from his birthplace, Van Nuys, to his ancestry:
All four of my grandparents were Viennese Jews, but I had no Jewish education at all. I lived a completely secular life, and came to my Jewishness in college by way of Freud. This is interesting, I’m still going to come back to your question—but it’s striking that in Kafka and in The Interpretation of Dreams, from Freud, there’s the same double metaphor. Freud talks about the way that language stands as the censor at the gate to consciousness. All these thoughts are petitioning to get in, and they can’t—except when you’re asleep, then they can get past the guard, when your guard is down. The language for dreams going back down, and early basic drives, these are the same words as Kafka. In The Trial, it’s all the same—agencies, guards … did Kafka get it from Freud? And if you go down this rabbit hole, it’s possible they both got it from Jewish mysticism: from Sholem.
There was a major trend in Jewish mysticism, formed around a dilemma. Once the temple is destroyed, you have two traditions that arise around how you keep the temple alive in exile. One is Talmudic—kosher, with rules about rules and about the people who keep the rules. And then there’s another tradition: a mystical one. The wonder rabbi is the devout person who through mystical exercise becomes the temple himself. Is this in keeping with the laws, or is this something other, and can you move back and forth?
This segues into a verbal footnote about Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and how his idea of bad faith begins with a critique of Freud.
Because, how can there be a guard or a censor to the unconscious? The guard has to know what he’s keeping in! Our drives aren’t unconscious. The things we deny are things we know to be the case. And it’s exhausting to continually deny what we know. Denial is just bad faith.
This is all very important in terms of Zohar, too, this situation.
From here, we go deep into the history of the mystical tradition, via the father of the Kabbalah, Isaac Luria, and through the pogroms in Europe, the Jewish messianic heretic Jacob Frank, and Olga Tokarczuk’s novel The Books of Jacob.
This guy Frank, he was more outrageously atavistic, he was breaking all the rules. Many people who will become the French Revolution—they’re coming out of that. And the point of all this is that many of the people in Vienna, for example—the class of people who say, I’m Jewish, but I don’t keep kosher—they’re coming out of the mystical side rather than the Talmudic. Even Einstein, with his theories. In all of these theories, there’s a secular version of the tale of the fall and the redemption. In Freud, it’s the paradise of infancy, the fall into chaos of growing up, and a return to Eden. The same thing happens in all sorts of these discourses, interestingly. Shimmel Zohar comes from Isaac Luria, from that whole migration, even without knowing it particularly.
In terms of my own writing, Trove of Zohars is the fourth volume in the Chronicles of Slippage. The first book, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, was all about the wonders of nature and the wonders of human accomplishment. Some people call my work in this vein magic-realist nonfiction. And they wonder whether any of this was true. The slippage is in there. People thought I was making up the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I had just called them from the phone book! The actual phone book. The question was, how do you write a book about the place without demystifying it?
The second book, Boggs: A Comedy of Values, does for money what Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet did for the museum. In the 1980s, J. S. G. Boggs invited you out to dinner, and if it was fancy in those days, you might have built up a debt of $87, with tip. Boggs would take out his drawing of a $100 bill. He would say, “I’m glad you like it, I intend to use it to pay for this meal.” He would call over the maître d’ and say, “I spent 10 hours doing it …” And then he would ask for his $13 in change. The maître d’ would say, “I’m not going to give you $13 change …” But then you would wait 24 hours, and people who wanted to collect Boggs’s bills would pay $50,000 at auction for all of it together, the drawing, the bill, the $13, and the receipt. Boggs was constantly getting arrested and found not guilty. When he was put on trial in Old Bailey in London, he was accused of reproducing British currency, and he said, no, this is an original … So, it’s the same kind of slippage, and it gets really wild.
The third book is Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of the Astrophysicists. Murch is known as the greatest film and sound editor, he did The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient. He was an acoustician, the acoustician of Dolby 5.1, and in his spare time he was the smartest person in America. When I taught a class called the Fiction of Nonfiction, about all the fictive elements of nonfiction, on the test, the answer to the question—who was the smartest person in America? It was Walter Murch. There was never a test. He had all kinds of hobbies, though. He wanted to craft an astrophysical puzzle that no one had figured out before, he had looked at the numbers and was convinced that he was right, and part of the book is me finding an astrophysicist who will talk to him. They all said, no, go write a peer-reviewed paper! There are ways that PhDs learn how not to believe anything that isn’t a peer-reviewed paper. Darwin didn’t write a peer-reviewed paper! It became a kind of comedy of the sociology of science.
The fourth book is this book here, once again in the terrain of slippage. A Trove of Zohar’s is the one that’s closest to Mr. Wilson’s in a way. Knitting a condom, wait, what? The precision dueling team, what? After Mr. Wilson’s, people would come up to me and ask, are you David Wilson or Lawrence Weschler? They felt that one of them had to be made up. It’s that same sense of vertigo here. So if the first books explored journalism, and the museum, and value, this book explores photography and Judaism. And I would put the whole quartet in the context of that class I used to teach, The Fiction of Nonfiction.
As a writer, I’m very interested in narrative, in storytelling, and in the intoxication of getting lost in a story. In all of my work, I think a lot about fictional devices, which is to say tone, voice, form, irony, freedom, all those things that are part of novelistic concerns. You’re right that this was celebrated and cherished back in the day, not so much anymore. I’m trying to keep it alive in my Substack, Wondercabinet.
It’s not that I’ve been canceled, it’s that I’ve been superannuated. The kind of writing I used to do at The New Yorker, there’s no place for it anymore, for writing as if the reading mattered and reading as if the writing mattered. The great New Yorker writers, Joseph Mitchell under William Shawn, and the people who spawned us—at the time they didn’t put the writer’s name at the beginning, and no dek. They weren’t telling you what you were reading, you didn’t read initially because of clickbait, you had no idea who it was who had written this as you started. The narrative velocity kept you going. And about halfway through, you realize, it’s about the most important thing in the world … what it was really about was the passion of narrative, the long form.
At the heart of the whole AI conversation—there are three issues in the Substack on this topic, around my conversations with Blaise [Agüera y Arcas] and the mavens of AI at Google—I do think the Singularity is approaching, where AI and human nature collide. Because humans are becoming more robotic. We’re addressed as robots by editors, who say that people don’t have attention spans—but it’s not true, they do! They go to podcasts for it now. I used to do a whole class about voice. Shawn used to say, I can always teach a voice to report, I can’t teach a reporter to have a voice. In those days, what was cherished was voice, a distinctive voice.
From here we digress into Schoenberg, the German exile Thomas Mann in Los Angeles, and a joke about two dachshunds meeting on the Santa Monica palisade where one says, In the old country, I was a St. Bernard.
Here’s a fantastic thing—there’s an issue of the Substack coming out tomorrow, and then in two weeks, a letter that my grandfather wrote to a composer, about organic form. Melody, harmony, counterpart, and form, voice is a musical aesthetic. I have no musical ability at all, I am catastrophically amusical. When I was speaking with Oliver Sacks [for his 2019 “biographical memoir,” And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?], he couldn’t get over that I, who had all this musical inheritance in the piano department, I can’t hear whether a note goes up or down. He was avisual—not just face blindness. But for me, whenever there was art involved, I was brought along. My grandfather’s chapter on form—I teach that in my class, I’m amusical, but I understand completely about joining the ending, about pacing, about voice. Changing register. And, by the way, when I teach writing, all of my metaphors are musical—I think you need a rest here, this is badly syncopated. Narrative is the musicality of experience in some way, you’re taking the chaos of experience and giving it a narrative form, the sequential exposition of material.
My grandfather used to talk about the architectonics revealed in music. In the same way that architecture is formfulness across space, music is formfulness across time; it’s constrictions across time, as in Gaston Bachelard’s poetics of space. Narrative is more like music than it is like painting. The experience of painting is like music, but coming upon a painting in a museum is not. Music takes the time it takes. Writing takes the time it takes. Editors now don’t have attention spans because they don’t have the time to have them. AI doesn’t have attention spans.
I have an argument with Blaise—we disagree about everything but we have wonderful arguments about it. My feeling is that a program, an algorithm, cannot experience the awe or perplexity or hankering that is at the heart of being human, or used to be. To experience awe or puzzlement or confoundment, you need to be able to experience yourself as contingent and puny and little. Those algorithms can’t do that.
If I look back on my political reporting, covering Solidarity in Poland, they used to have this wonderful phrase: Solidarity was an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation. It was the capacity for acting as the subject of its own history, as opposed to the object of other people’s history. And martial law was an attempt to turn subjects back into good little objects. That in turn led me to writing about torture, about people who have acted like subjects, and they are trying to turn them back into good little objects. That first book was the passion of Poland, and the fire of that, the ongoing battle after that. The profiles are also passion pieces—Steven Berkman, all my characters who are kind of moseying along in everydayness, when suddenly they caught fire. They end up somewhere completely different than they thought they were going to be. It’s a sprawling theme and a wonderfully comic theme. People just do wonderfully weird things. I do weird things.
Nobody wants it, necessarily, but I insist on doing it.
I don’t teach anymore. I had this wonderful gig at NYU for almost 15 years; I got fired in a wonderfully NYU way: they said, “your line has been eliminated.” I do have this community, artists I work with and write about (eight of the people I wrote about got MacArthurs the year after I wrote about them). What they all have in common is those “pillow of air” moments. It gets lodged in your mouth, and you realize you haven’t breathed for 10 seconds. The last footnote in the Zohars ends with saying—oh, look up willy warmer … hand-woven condoms is a real thing? Wait a moment, wait, if that’s real, what else is real?
ChatGPT cannot have a moment of amazement that willy warmers exist. You have to have a belly if you’re going to have a belly laugh. So, my community, writers and artists and friends, I’m writing for them. My Substack is an important initiative, people on the Substack are excited that I’m doing what no one else is doing, around the visual and the musical. People are increasingly specializing in one subject, but I’m very consciously holding all of this together.
Weschler has a number of projects in the works, including an article about Vermeer’s daughter and the art historian who believes that she may have painted some of the master’s works.
Ten years from now, [the fact that Vermeer’s daughter painted some of the famous paintings,] it’s going to be common knowledge. I interviewed the people putting together the show [in Amsterdam.] It’s a Thomas Kuhn kind of moment—the orthodoxy starts to have cracks, and then suddenly, it’s—how’d you go bankrupt? Gradually, and then all at once! Eventually, they’ll say they knew all along.
I love difficult, annoying characters. People who you have kind of had it with them, but you keep writing.
Printing a book is now like firing up a kiln and making earthenware pots, these days, it’s a hobby. The Substack is tactile, in a way. It’s very much prehensile. I’m taking things, and putting them side by side, to provoke pillows of air.
Lawrence Weschler, a graduate of Cowell College of the University of California at Santa Cruz (1974), was for over 20 years a staff writer at The New Yorker, where his work shuttled between political tragedies and cultural comedies.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, n+1, Trop Magazine, Green Mountains Review, the Santa Monica Review, Echoes, Mother Jones, and The Boston Phoenix, among others. Her research involves real estate, financial panics, and contemporary culture. You can find her online at michellechihara.com.
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