July 2013

Wendy Salinger


An Interview with Patricia Vigderman

Patricia Vigderman's essay collection Possibility: Essays Against Despair follows her engaging 2007 book The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a literary stroll through the Boston art museum Stewart founded that's at once skeptical and intimate. Her perambulations in both books are effortlessly literary. It's her great gift to find ways to view works of art that feel personal and also connect them to the life of the soul.

In Possibility she writes about Vermeer, Proust, Walter Benjamin, and Henry Adams, examining their artistic translations of experience and then the re-translations done by the viewer; herself reading W.G. Sebald in Starbucks, translating him into a realm of lattés and whipped cream; or the Russian woman whose railroad building husband took her to Marfa, Texas, bequeathing to the town its name from the Dostoevsky novel she'd brought with her. In all the essays so many layers and contexts intermingle. Yet Vigderman is able to parse them in ways that reveal how art endures and changes as it becomes part of daily life.

In the essay "Tapping Back," she beautifully describes how reader and writer signal to each other across time using an image from Proust: Marcel and his grandmother tapping early morning messages to one another on the shared wall between their bedrooms. She agreed to talk with me about the essays in Possibility and how she came to her own unique version of "only connect." 

In your introduction, called "Seeing Double," there's a great riff on rhymes for the word despair, but in the body of the book you don't ever use the word. Yet it has pride of place as the book's subtitle, so we know at least by implication that it's a presence in the worldview of the author. If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the relationship between despair and possibility that these essays articulate?

I put the book together in a moment of despair because I had broken my wrist and couldn't write. At the time I was engaged in a book-length project, which had already been driving me to a different kind of despair. I went to my own past work both as a way to remind myself of what I could do, and to learn something about how shape can emerge. I was thinking about Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, and thought I'd select twenty essays. Then I found all those funny rhymes for despair and began to cheer up. Maybe what I'm saying is that I think laughter is a good place to discover new possibility. My sister once said she thought fun was a kind of grace. I loved that.

That's interesting, because the two kinds of real grace that emerge in these essays come from laughter and digression. Laughter and forgetting. You quote Grace Paley saying of herself in the middle of a painful conversation, "I digressed and was free." The two sisters in "My Depressed Person" burst the bell jar of depression by disgressing: taking a walk, perambulating, rambling talk, laughter. And laughter requires a companion. Laughter stands for friendship -- that wonderful "friendliness" you describe in Grace Paley's stories. I love the fact that the depressed sister gives her diagnosis as "codependent maniac." Codependent! She's cut off from the world because she's suffering from wanting to be too connected! But of course she is connected. To her sister. Even in grief and despair we're not alone. The therapist who commits suicide in the David Foster Wallace story "The Depressed Person" shared his patient's despair. Did you write this essay to help yourself find your own way back from that time or as a way to help your Depressed Person? 

I wrote this because the experience of being with my sister through her terrible time was too intense simply to let drop away once it was over. So, maybe yes -- it was a way of finding my way back, or somehow containing what had happened not just to her life, but to mine as well. I surprised myself in both the living of the experience and the writing about it. In a way it was a gift -- not just of self-knowledge, but of coming to know her in a way I never had. We have been very close all our lives, and yet there was so much I didn't know. One thing I did know for absolute sure was that she would emerge from it. I was never afraid she wouldn't. So in a way I felt held in that faith, safe to be with her. And of course a big part of that was those moments of laughter. To share a joke is a kind of absolute freedom; and it's a version of love in that it takes you quite out of yourself as you're in that free space with someone else. I trusted that.

Laughter is also part of your sympathy when you describe Henry Adams's digestive miseries and the other bodily discomforts he suffers in a foreign land. You write that "to travel is to be at the mercy of one's body and one's prejudices, to live closely with the disgust of the unfamiliar. The beauties emerge in less profusion than the discomforts and absurdities, and all the world's a zoo." Do you think of yourself as a "good" traveler? What's the usual ratio of misery to joy in your own experience of life on the road? What makes you persist? 

I traveled a lot with my family as a child, and so going elsewhere and seeing unfamiliar places and ways of doing things, speaking other languages, has always seemed normal to me.  And yet, as an adult, I of course notice its difficulties and discomforts -- what a zoo it is, and I'm part of it! I think a lot of what makes travel fun is who you're with and who you meet -- I'm not someone who would ever go off by herself. The essay on Henry Adams came out of research from the previous book, in which I was surprised at the way wealthy nineteenth-century Bostonians got interested in Japanese art and culture and religion, and despite the distance went off to see the place. By train across country, then weeks of seasickness crossing the Pacific, and then the guidebook Adams took with him had a list of specific things to take along that's both funny and ominous, like Liebig's Extract of Beef, German pea-soup sausage, and especially plenty of Keating's Insect Powder.

I know these twenty-one essays were written at different times, but the book is so shapely. There's almost a kind of foreshadowing; each piece presages, in a way, the one that follows it. Adams's skewed view of Japanese culture is seen through the lens of his Western conditioning but also through the devastating effect his wife's recent death had had on him, his travels being in your words, a detour around helplessness and grief. That essay ends Section I, "Internal Conversations," about how we look at things, how we "translate the world." Then in Section II you focus directly on personal grief -- both your own and that of your friends and loved ones. How art and travel and looking at the world rescue and do not rescue us. In Section III, the book seems to relax, as you let the world speak. Nature and the animals come forward, humans recede. We sort of frolic with you in your travels to Florida and Ohio and the mountains of Texas, the last piece ending with the blissful words "I'm free in geological time." Forgetting time by letting yourself be in time. Finally, Section IV, "Particular Artifice," examines the eye and the I in relation to art and time through the history of the cinema and the art installations in Marfa, Texas. The title essay, "Possibility," ends the book with you at your window, the world before you. The whole book seems to trace a journey -- from world into self and then back out into the world. Were you conscious of any such progression in crafting the collection? How did you approach putting it together? 

That's a very nice description of the shape. As for my consciousness of what I was doing -- writing is so much finding the place where conscious and unconscious are kind of suspended. You start with something that pleases you, and then the further pleasure of making it into language comes in, and then ordinary life somehow gets transformed into something else. So, I start with different ways of turning over the ground of language, and the first essays are also little conversations with other writers -- David Foster Wallace, W. G. Sebald, James Joyce, George Eliot -- whose language and faith has been important to me. But "Henry Adams in Japan" is partly about the limits of language in fending off sorrow -- laughing under fire. The essays in the second section, on grief, are indeed based on my personal experience, but the one on Grace Paley that ends it is again an homage, to the writer whose language first made me think I could write. If ever there was a writer against despair, it was Grace Paley. And so, yes, remembering her would lead to the third section's delight in the world -- to the companionship of children and animals, the happiness of the natural world, its freedom and variety and emptiness. I think that's what finally lets me bring to the art in the last section a similar freedom. To see art as not so distinct from nature. Both the art at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa and the art of cinema demand that we take them into our lives. In the last essay I am reserving for myself the power to do so, as it pleases me, as art comes to enlarge my life and offer its grace, its fun. 

Many of the pieces in Possibility seem also to suggest that art enlarges and even rescues us from the prison of self. Despair is a very personal word, art perhaps less so. But I see no great chasm between the two; nor, it seems to me, does your book. I remember Shirley Hazzard saying when she was interviewed a few years ago that poetry, a poem, can save one's life. I know she's always had a vast store of great poetry in her memory to call on, for that or any other purpose. For myself, when I was young enough to think about last things, I wanted my epitaph to read: "Art Saves." I'm no longer twenty-two, but in my work with "at-risk" teenagers, I still believe that. Do you think of art as something that rescues, or are these essays saying something more complicated about its role in our lives? 

I don't actually think of myself as someone who turns to art in moments of despair, although that may simply be lack of self-knowledge. Maybe there is something to be said for art as a kind of grace: it's such a gift to be able to order the mess of experience. But I think art does something more than order our lives and the world. Greek temples were built partly as a way of ordering the landscape, a way of shaping or framing the material world around them. The mountains you can see from the Parthenon, for example, are both fixed in place by its architecture and free of it. The art doesn't change nature, but works with it, drawing toward itself larger forces. The temple offers the human city's shelter to Athena, but it's not a place of shelter for humans -- not a place to be saved, like a church. Instead it's simultaneously an expression of homage to greater forces and a statement of local relationship to a god. I think being with art may be something more like that. 

What about being with nature itself, then? Early in these essays you describe the landscape of the Southwest as one that "unhinges ordinary response." A lot of the travels you trace in these essays take you to that territory, and you say you're on a continuing quest to find a way to relate to it. Can you say more about what it "unhinges" in you?

I am quite vulnerable to the sublime. A big landscape kind of does it to me every time. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon I wept. The landscape of the American Southwest was just unexpected in its beauty and immensity -- it called for some realignment of my place on the planet, for the ways we make ourselves at home here. The desert sand, the cliff-faces, the relationship to the sky, the colors and the temperatures, the openness... none of it fit any categories I had. A scale of things beyond human understanding, or my understanding, anyway. Or the manatees in Florida, which seem so much closer to us, but in fact are deeply mysterious, as are the warm springs where they spend the winter. These things ask us to awaken our faith that there's some point to our being here at all, with our emotions and our wrapped sandwiches and our pathetic oohs and aahs. I suppose writing about it is the way I try to be with the ways sublimity appears -- either suddenly sweeping into view, or sneaking up from behind with a lead pipe.

The essays describe a kind of Zen-like relationship of mind to world -- finding freedom from self through both engagement and dispassion. What philosophies and religions have you been drawn to over the years? 

We study the self to forget the self. I guess I believe the parts of religious practice that are based on the idea that suffering comes from self-centeredness. This comes back to your question about whether art saves, because I think art is a way of both studying and forgetting the self. You're right that there's a kind of zen strain in the book, but it's not strict. 

Even if despair played an incidental role in your selection of these essays and your shaping of the collection, for me the Grief section stands as the still center of the book -- things move toward and then open out from it. And it seems to me that because the essays in it are more personal, less literary, they really showcase your talents as a storyteller, your instinct for comic timing. They're free to dance. I know that "The Other Side" came from only a tangential brush with someone else's experience with his score-keeping wife (who presented him with a catalogue of his missteps at every social occasion in the car on the way home), but it still has the personal touch -- you speak of marriage, that "great respite from one's own shortcomings," with the voice of experience. Whom do you see as your stylistic mentors -- comic or otherwise, distant or contemporary?

Gosh, a long strange trail of mentors. When I was a kid my mother gave me Saki; my father used to come into our rooms to read us passages from S. J. Perelman or E.B. White. The great nineteenth-century British writers: Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray -- ironists and observers of human behavior. Evelyn Waugh. The idea that style can say so much, and that comedy can hold in balance some of the intolerable contradictions of the world. That direct observation itself can counter some of our helplessness in the face of things. Most recently the writers who have changed me, as is clear in the book, are W.G. Sebald and Grace Paley and David Foster Wallace and Lydia Davis. For their wonderful syntax, for their deep seriousness expressed with so much generosity, so much wit, so much care to engage the reader. 

I hope you don't mind my giving away the book's ending, but...the last words of the last sentence (in the title essay, "Possibility") are: "life and art can't be seen at the same time and also can't be seen except as they give shape to each other." It's a wonderful way -- for me -- to think about the book's worldview. It's the Heisenberg principle applied to art. Or maybe it's the observer effect. From the very first essay you're talking about looking at art as "a seemingly infinite tangential exploration" of self and world. I think you're talking about experiencing art the very way the artist himself or herself does. Do you think the personal essay turns art and literary criticism into something new? Something distinct from traditional scholarship? What draws you -- here and in The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner -- to this approach? 

I certainly think the personal essay can do that, can do something quite different with literature and art from what traditional scholarship does. Sharing your love of any kind of art openly, as yourself, in your own voice, keeps the art alive and can lead to insights that feel both authentic and delightful. In the earlier book I began with the difficulties I had with both the museum and its high-handed founder. I was working with my own seriously mixed feelings, exploring a distant and very privileged world and a museum that seemed frustratingly eclectic and self-centered. So that book is an account of what it was to keep coming back until I was able to make the museum and Isabella herself part of my own life. It offers a different way of understanding and a different way of being in the museum, because the narrative is really about having a relationship with the art and with the past. What I'm offering is not expertise, but a way of getting close, within the limits of my own mind and language. 

What next, Patricia Vigderman? What are you working on? Where are your interests and talents leading you? 

The next book is called The Real Life of the Parthenon. It starts with the question of whether the Parthenon marbles belong in London or in Athens, but that's rather like the McGuffin in a Hitchcock film: the device starts the plot going, but in fact it's just the excuse for what Hitchcock is more deeply interested in. As in Vertigo the murder plot that is the ostensible issue is barely solved; instead the film examines how desire to know the truth struggles with desire simply to recreate the love object. What I'm writing is partly a travel book -- about Greece and Sicily and southern Italy (and also various museums) -- but what I'm really interested in is how the art and places of the past get under your skin. The issue of how one lives with time's losses is an underlying theme of the book, so of course it's not unrelated to my concerns in the essays. 

You've told me that as a writer, you kind of "backed into" your material. I know you were first a journalist and only later turned to the personal essay and to art criticism. Looking back, can you see some logic in why you followed this path? 

I've always loved to get lost in fictional worlds. And of course I liked language play. But I never thought of myself as a Writer. In college I learned to read both carefully and selectively, but the books just seemed part of who the writers were; I didn't imagine myself as one of them. What I've always liked was finding how what I read and learned could actually resonate in me. The wonderful critic and teacher Robert Scholes wrote that he never feels he's read something until he's written about it, until he's brought his reaction and understanding of it into his own conscious language. For me that meant finding a way to take on both reading and experience in what was honestly my own voice, with my own layered feelings of frustration and discovery. All experience is so layered and so fleeting; writing is a way of saying "not so fast -- stay with me a while."