March 2012

Leah Triplett


Too Much Truth: Lawrence Weschler at Work

Lawrence Weschler is a writer of many themes for many people. A staff writer at the New Yorker throughout the last two decades of the twentieth-century, Weschler is known for his plain yet poeticized rhapsodies on politics, culture, and their nexus. His essays respire the exponential ties between literature, art, film, and sociology, and are narrative meanders exploring the details that culminate into reality as we each individually know it.

I discovered Weschler at the 2006 Virginia Book Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. My then-boyfriend and I, along with a small crowd, gathered in a dark, cool auditorium to hear Weschler talk about his latest book, Everything That Rises. We had really come to hear Art Spiegelman, author of our beloved Maus, speak but he was there to simply introduce Weschler. Weschler didn't disappoint, however. As soon as his talk was finished, we quickly made our way to a bookstore, where I found a used copy of Vermeer in Bosnia, his collection of "cultural comedies and political tragedies," most of which were first published in the New Yorker. Grouped into sections by theme, the collection doesn't need to be read sequentially. That spring day my eyes sprinted through "The Son's Tale: Art Spiegelman," an essay in the segment "Three Polish Survivor Stories," following his exhaustive takes on Roman Polanski and Polish businessman, writer, and politician Jerzy Urban. Conversational, familiar, and empathetic to his subjects, Weschler's stories of Polish life and culture during and after World War II and through the close of Soviet Communism, are universal narratives that engrossed and incorporated me into these personal accounts of individuals and cultures born of specific places and times.

The essays included in Vermeer in Bosnia are so evocative of those places and times, as well as the people that those factors determine, that they can seem fictionalized. But theses stories are insistently real, as Weschler continuously reminds us of their truth through his persistent emphasis on the unrelenting parameters of our lives: place and time and the occasionally tragic relationship between the two. As Weschler explains, there are too many true stories, too many epic rhymes of experience between us as individuals for him to invent any more to talk about. "I wouldn't be able to invent a fictional New York housewife, because the city as it is is already overcrowded -- there are no apartments available, there is no more room in the phone book," writes Weschler in "In Lieu of a Preface: Why I Can't Write Fiction," at the start of Vermeer in Bosnia. "(If, by contrast, I were reporting on the life of an actual housewife, all the threads that make up her place in the city would become my subject, and I'd have no end of inspiration, no lack of room. Indeed, room -- her specific space, the way the world makes room for her -- would be my theme.)"

Time and place are inescapable, yet somehow increasingly irrelevant ten years into the twenty-first century. Perhaps this is why Weschler's insights into real life by way of literary or art criticism are so refreshing to read now. One of Weschler's principle subjects of the last thirty years, the artist Robert Irwin, trades within the essences of time and place his conceptual installations and paintings playing with light and visual perception. Included in Vermeer in Bosnia is "An L.A. High School Youth: Robert Irwin," the first chapter of Weschler's first book, his 1982 biography of Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. In this narrative, dialogue-driven vignette, Irwin eulogizes his thoroughly golden American childhood. Absorbed into car culture, the Irwin of this essay is a Coke-swigging, drive-in loving All-American boy whose appreciation for a car engine enthuses his idea of art and aesthetics. Somewhat indulgent in his reminisces of high school escapades, replete of sexual exploits, drag races, and football glory, Irwin figures as a confident, albeit nostalgic, individual, poised to capitalize on the successes of his past in his future, rogue in the face of ascetic trends. Recalling an episode with a curt New York critic disdainful of car culture, Irwin says that "We got going and ended up arguing about folk art. He was one of those Marxist critics who like to think they're real involved with the people, making great gestures and so forth, but they're hardly in the world at all. Anyway, he was talking about pot-making and weaving and everything, and my feeling was that that was all historical art but not folk art. As far as I'm concerned, a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use every day, and give it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life."

Enhancing criticism with the life and personality of the people its written for and about is precisely the core of Weschler's writing. Weschler's ability to conjure character and what it can create is potent, marked by his incisive inclusions of anecdotes and conversational asides that figure into a person instead of a mirage of an artist-genius. Weschler first met Irwin in the late 1970s, when he was working at the UCLA Oral History Program, an experience that likely fuels the casual, chatty turns of his writing. Weschler recalls their first encounters in "Embeddedness: Robert Irwin in His Seventies," a wistfully tender essay as much about Irwin as about his own life and work first published in the spring 2008 Virginia Quarterly Review. If "An L.A. High School Youth" is a sketch of the artist and person Irwin would become, "Embeddedness" is an autumnal testament to the person his youth cultivated. A steadfast creator of experiences -- not concepts -- that tease tangible, ecstatic connections between the individual and the universe, Irwin in his seventies is not so different than the assured man of middle aged memorializing his heyday. Still gallant, but less flamboyantly so, Irwin is thoughtful in his descriptions of his monumental work on Dia:Beacon, emphatic of his own mortality via his excitement in his current work and projects. Throughout this essay, as in "An L.A. High School Youth," Irwin is active, driving a car, drinking a Coke, cutting and placing primary-colored squares for an artwork. Weschler is a patient interrogator all the while, permeating his written words with his subject's idiosyncrasies so we might transcend our place, looking at the written page, to know ourselves in someone else.

We recognize ourselves, and thus our world, in Weschler's commentary on politics by way of art criticism. Most poignant of the essays in Vermeer in Bosnia is its title piece, which touches on Weschler's themes of connection between people, time, and place through visual representation. With straightforward clarity in style and language, Weschler conjures the Bosnian War heard second-hand at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. In a brief, resonant essay, Weschler writes that Vermeer effectively lived through a Bosnia, as the painter was born in the middle of Europe's Thirty-Years' War and endured the devastation of pervasive political and religious turmoil before he died of a stroke at forty-two years old. Positing Vermeer's work as paintings created so that people across time and place -- cultures -- might identify with each other, Weschler writes that Vermeer created icons of tranquility in the face of overwhelming violence and loss. Discussing Vermeer's idealized portraits of Dutch maidens in such works as The Head of a Young Woman or Lacemaker, Weschler suggests that these women represent not domestic harmony, but individuals, special in their perspective as humans, significant just because of their existence. "Vermeer was not a painter in the epic tradition: on the contrary, his life's work can be seen, within its historical moment, as a heroic, extended attempt to steer his (and his viewers') way clear of such a depersonalizing approach to experiencing one's fellow human beings," writes Weschler. "It was a project, I now realized, as I took my seat in the visitors' gallery facing the Tribunal's glassed-in hearing room, not all that dissimilar from that of the Tribunal itself."

Our reactions and experience of art, and writing, differentiate us from each other. And if visual art is essentially egalitarian across societies, shouldn't it strive to represent hope for empathy, or at least to provide a space to identify with each other within our experiences? Certainly that sounds idealistic, but why create if not to connect our stories, fiction or not, visual or verbal, to others, no matter their space in history?