First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
Q&A Lawrence Weschler: Long Thoughts
Passersby, on occasion, would wander in. Many would wander right back out. But some would stay and linger. David tells the story of one fellow who spent a long time in the back amidst the exhibits and then, emerging, spent almost as long a time studying the pencil sharpener on his desk. “It was just a regular pencil sharpener,” David assured me, “it wasn’t meant to be an exhibit but he couldn’t get enough of it.”
Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders: A Natural History of Amazement
HB: What brings you to Cambridge?
LW: There’s a conference at Harvard Law School on the truth commissions that are set up after dictatorships.
HB: This is the kind of material you discuss in A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Account with Torturers.
LW: Yes. One of the way people proceed is through truth commissions, particularly in situations where for one reason or another they can’t prosecute — the military is still there, say, or all the whites will flee and the economy will be ruined. At that point some people argue you should at least get the truth out. And even that’s complicated. Sometimes even that isn’t allowed.
When I wrote A Miracle, A Universe there had hardly been any truth commissions. Now there are a number to look back upon. There were truth commissions in El Salvador. They are doing one in South Africa. Truly astonishing things are happening in South Korea and Argentina. And there is the major experience in Chile.
HB: Does truth-telling alone make a difference?
LW: In certain situations, it is everything. Having said that, it can be also problematic. One of the things you keep on realizing — you certainly realize this about Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe — is that the files kept were cesspools, filled with disinformation and information that hasn’t been contextualized. For example, somebody signed an agreement to inform for the secret service. But did they in fact inform? Did they agree to do it because their child needed medical attention? Just having a list of people who signed doesn’t mean anything.
HB: So the conference you are attending here is about evaluating truth commissions.
LW: And next Saturday I go to the Hague where I’m reporting on the War Crimes Tribunal.
HB: Which you discussed in the course of writing about Vermeer in The New Yorker.
LW: I teach a course on settling accounts with the prior regime. And whenever I teach the course, I go to the blackboard and write the motto — “Receive them ignorant, dispatch them confused.” With this sort of material you build up a passionate head of steam about the need for something to be done, the absolute need, the categorical need in Kantian terms. This has to be addressed; this cannot be allowed to stand. But then you hit the brick wall of the world. And it’s very confounding and confusing.
HB: If such commissions had some teeth, wouldn’t they take on a cautionary value for future regimes?
LW: They would. Humanitarian law is luminous. It’s one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. The body of conventions, the Hague agreements, and so on, have been incredible. The only thing lacking have been enforcement provisions.
You have Nuremberg and Tokyo, but there hasn’t been anything else like it, say like it, where individuals are held criminally responsible for violating international human rights standards. Countries as a whole have been held liable — as in Honduras or Turkey brought before the world court — but not individuals. So if the Hague Tribunal works, it’s a fantastic breakthrough. At the same time, it’s a fluke. No ruling elite anywhere wants it to happen, which is why it’s having such a hard time. America doesn’t want it to happen because it’s afraid of a situation in which, say, a Henry Kissinger could be held liable for war crimes. The French don’t want it because they might be held liable for what happened in Rwanda. But it was too embarrassing not to do anything about Yugoslavia as it was happening and in a spooky moment they reached for a fig leaf. And then put every obstacle in the way.
You now have the Tadic trial, in which, basically, the guy is small fry. Having said that, he’s alleged to have done things that would shame Charley Manson. In another world, This is the kind of guy, the two-bit criminal of some town, who probably would have gone through life with minor extortion scams, maybe a rape, maybe a murder. What happened is that in town after town, the Bosnian Serbs put the local petty criminals in charge of the police. Then the horrible things happened in the name of the law.
At what level do you assign responsibility? I think the Hague will start with a Tadic and work its way up. The problem is they don’t have all the police powers to do a coherent investigation. Tadic says, it’s a case of mistaken identity. It wasn’t me, and the people who can testify it wasn’t me are in Bosnian areas, and since NATO’s not going to protect them, I can’t present my defense.
HB: So it gets complicated.
LW: It would be resolved if NATO would do what it agreed to do in Dayton and be the enforcement arm for the War Crimes Tribunal. But NATO is ostentatiously refusing to do that. I am somebody who insists this has to happen, that it’s a major step forward. However, in the real world it’s happening in bollixed fashion.
HB: Your piece on Vermeer and the Hague Tribunal recounted the kind of atrocities the judge had to contemplate. If nothing else, the piece showed that the human imagination for evil is inexhaustible.
LW: I was talking to the philosopher Adrian Piper who was giving a presentation on the Kantian ground of xenophobia. At one point, she’s talking about what Kant is getting at when he’s talking about the categories, the groundwork before you can have any experience, because Kant believes that categories like time and causality are hot-wired into the mind, that we can’t even think unless they are already there. Her example was, when you go to a door and reach for the handle, you expect it will open the door, not turn into a partridge in your hand.
As she said this, I suddenly realized that half of human experience takes place in a world in which you reach for a door and it does turn into a partridge in your hand. That’s dream life. This is a roundabout way of saying that in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany, or, if you’re talking about torture, Argentina, when you try to shine the light of rational discourse on what happened, everyone says, you don’t get it, we were in a trance, it was like a nightmare. Or in Rwanda, we were neighbors for thirty years, then I took a machete to my neighbor's seventy-five years old mother. Nightmare.
HB: In dreams begin responsibilities. Or do they? It is clear that Hitler was consciously going about the business of hypnotizing the German people.
LW: There are people completely in the trance world and people inducing the trance for political ends. Milosovec quite consciously decided to turn Yugoslavia into a trance world in the interests of grabbing power. You go down from Milosovec to people who have one foot in and one foot out, and as you get lower and lower you get into incredible trance situations. Having said that, I don’t think of trance as an excuse. You need to be able to prosecute entranced people.
HB: Partridges and doorknobs. That helps link your two interests as a writer. At first it seemed mysterious that your two cardinal interests are, to put it bluntly, torture and contemporary art. Now the two seem related; they are both about altered states.
LW: I see my writing career as absolutely continuous. I tried to articulate that in the preface to Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales, where I write about people “moseying down the street one day, minding their own business, when suddenly and almost spontaneously they caught fire.”
When that happens to an individual, it can be pretty hilarious to watch. When that happens to a whole body politic, it is a majestic, an astonishing thing. As in Poland. In Poland, in 1980, they talked about Solidarity as the way the Polish nation redeemed its capacity to act as the subject rather than the object of history. That was a country catching fire.
In turn repression, martial law, torture, are about taking people who’ve been acting like subjects and turning them into objects. Resistance, in that context, is the attempt to keep the fire going. Torture is one of the methods of snuffing it out.
HB: At the end of A Miracle, A Universe you talk about speaking the truth as a way the tortured have of recovering subjectivity.
LW: What vivifies me as a writer is people or places that come alive in the dailiness of either political or perceptual life.
HB: In A Miracle, A Universe, you discuss one of the people held prisoner by the military regime in Uruguay:
I’d read a memoir he’d composed where he spoke about how he made a confidante out of a rooster that wandered into his cell one day. I asked if the rooster had been real.
“I don’t know,” he said.
And here, from Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, is the quote from Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler) with which you end the book:
To my astonishment, they take me home rather than to some secret hideaway and lock me in the catoptric room I had so carefully reconstructed . . . The mirrored walls return my image an infinite number of times. Had I been kidnapped by myself?
There’s a point where the two experiences converge. One of the amazing things in A Miracle, A Universe is the psychological torture you describe being used in Uruguay. The prisoners are shown films — comedies — but if they laugh they are punished. They get to be visited by their children but if there is so much as a gesture of affection, they are punished. It's perverse, bizarre, and at the same time very well thought out, very innovative.
LW: What is so terrible is fucking around with what is most wonderful in human potential. That is the worst, that what is most celebratory — our capacity for wonder, delight, for perceptual ecstasy — is fucked over and undermined.
HB: It’s as if the Mr. Wilson of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders became the head of the Gestapo, using everything he knew about perception for the purposes of disorientation and brainwashing.
LW: What is wonderful about Wilson is that he takes all this potentially quite dangerous stuff — lying, cheating — and is the closest thing I know to a saint, a perceptual saint. He commands that material with astonishing restraint.
The obvious thing to say here is that Hitler is a failed artist — and that’s extremely important about Hitler.
HB: Maybe the moral is artist’s should succeed — and don’t have to turn to politics. We wish artists the best of luck.
Your Vermeer piece [get New Yorker date] brought together both sides of your writing, art and politics, Vermeer and the Hague War Crimes Tribunal.
LW: I’m trying to do that more and more. The Vermeer piece, with its notion that an artist can in any significant sense invent peace and breath it out, is in some ways too optimistic — though I believe it completely. I also know that the Bosnian Serb Parliament is made up of academics, the President of the country is a psychiatrist, the vice-president a Shakespeare scholar. They’re all poets. It didn’t do them any good.
I have this naive belief — idiotic, foolish — that people who love the novel would be incapable of ethnic cleansing. The whole point of novels, or of Shakespeare, is the reality of the other, imagining yourself as somebody else, imagining their reasoning. How could anybody who loves Joyce be capable of ethnic cleansing? It turns out this is nonsense. Not only are artists and people who love art capable of doing it, but they are at the forefront. It’s the academics, the lexicographers, the humanists who invent these insane categories of Bosnian Serb nationalism. Milorad Pavic, who wrote Dictionary of the Khazars, has been a total mad dog Serbian nationalist during this period. Him! This guy with a wonderful ironic sensibility!
HB: In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders when you’re discussing the Wunderkammern, the wonder-cabinets of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, you write that it was precisely because Europe was so besotted with wonder about the Americas, so stoned on wonder, that it ignored the full-scale genocide of Native Americans going on in its name.
LW: This is the scab I keep picking. It goes back to my very first chapter in the first book I published, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin. I ask Robert Irwin about Hiroshima and he says, look, the sunset is beautiful. Hiroshima wasn’t real, sunlight is real.
I don’t want a world where one is endlessly focused on the grim and the hopeless. On the other hand, the other world where one ignores it is problematic as well. I’m trying in my own vocation to navigate between the two.
HB: In the profiles you do for The New Yorker you empty yourself out to let someone else’s vision in. Whether or not it’s your vision becomes irrelevant; during the interim it’s as if it is.
LW: That’s the old Kabbalistic notion. The question was, if God is everywhere, how is there any room for creation? And the answer is at the moment of creation, God withdrew.
HB: Lurianic Kabbalah.
LW: He breathed in. And something went wrong. There was a shattering of the vessels. That’s why God feels absent, why the world feels fallen. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, it’s man’s work to help heal God. The question isn’t, why isn’t God saving us? The question is, how do we save God?
The reporting I aspire to creates space for what’s going on, suspends preconceptions, tries to be open. Wherever you go, there you are, and there’s that chatter. It’s a challenge to pipe down.
HB: In many of your pieces you manage to sneak in at least one pointer to Jewish Mysticism.
LW: When I first showed up at The New Yorker, I had already sent the Irwin manuscript in and they had accepted it. I’d gone to Poland on my own. I sent that manuscript [Solidarity, Poland in the Season of its Passion] back. Shawn liked that too, and was about to offer me a job. He said, “Mr. Weschler, this all very good but it’s very confusing. It says on your résumé you are from California. Where were you born?”
I said, “Los Angeles, California.”
“Where did you go to school?”
“Well, where did you go to college?”
“Santa Cruz, California.”
He couldn’t figure it out but he’s a great reporter so he kept on boring until he was able to determine that all four of my grandparents were Viennese Jews, which was a category he could understand. So he said, “OK.”
The main thing about Viennese Jews is how anti-Semitic they were, and how assimilated. My grandfather, Toch, was a Viennese composer who came to America. My grandmother, his wife, spent WW II at UCLA writing a master’s thesis proving that Nietzsche was not responsible for Nazism. A classically Viennese Jewish thing to do. In the middle of the Holocaust, try and save German culture. Someone’s got to do it.
Coming out of all that, I had absolutely no Jewish upbringing. In college, I basically came to Judaism through Freud and Kafka and Marx. It is a kind of crazy intellectual way to get to it but everybody goes how they go. I was fascinated by the way both Kafka and Freud at the key moment of their creative life, and it seems to me separately, arrive at an identical metaphorical formulation, which is the notion of the gatekeeper, the censor at the gate. There’s all this language In the Interpretation of Dreams about the censor who stands at the gate allowing or not allowing passage. It’s the same as the gate at the end of The Trial. All this legal language, a censor, an attempt to get around the censor, higher courts.
I was asking how did this happen? Kafka didn’t get it from Freud. Of course, they both got it from Jewish mysticism! And what becomes extremely interesting and exciting is the way that Jewish rationalism of the nineteenth century does not come out of a Talmudic strain but out of a Kabbalistic strain.
HB: Gershom Scholem was important for you?
LW: Extremely. I came to Jewishness through this kind of crazy route, burrowing back to what was important to me, and discovering strange links. I’m by no means particularly well informed about mysticism but there are images that hold.
HB: I read The New Yorker for years before zeroing in on you as a particular voice. Is that an issue for you, being Lawrence Weschler, New Yorker staff writer rather than Lawrence Weschler, writer?
LW: I get in trouble whenever I say anything about the new New Yorker. I will happily talk about William Shawn’s New Yorker. Shawn, who I see as having created a truly astonishing magazine, a sensorium, was the most phobic man I have ever known, scared of bridges, tunnels, airplanes, trains, cars. He was unable to leave the island of Manhattan. Once a year he would gird his loins and make it out to Westchester until he could come back and relax again. He was constitutionally incapable of being out in the world. Having said that, he was the most curious man in the world; he was The New Yorker. And through a fluke of history, The New Yorker had become a status symbol for the evolving upper class of the 1940s and 50s, which gave it an advertising base that allowed the editor to do anything he wanted. Shawn said, look, I am fascinated by Poland, fascinated by Swaziland, fascinated by limits of biotechnology. I can’t go there myself. I want you to go. Write back as vividly and as thoroughly as you can. Make it as if I was there.
He then edited a magazine for one person, himself. He didn’t mind if lots of other people looked over his shoulder but the only reader he cared about was himself. People that got called New Yorker writers had the kind of sensibilities that tickled his fancy.
HB: This is not our normal notion of journalism, exactly. There was something collegial about it.
LW: Shawn had faith in sensibilities, and the sensibilities he was attracted to were themselves curious. He also understood you had to give space for writers to fail. You couldn’t only publish their best stuff. You had to publish stuff that wasn’t quite as successful. Otherwise you create a reign of terror and don’t get the best stuff. So you might end up publishing some tired pieces, because 2 weeks later you’d get spectacular work.
HB: Exeunt the fifties. Bring on the late eighties and the nineties.
LW: When I first arrived in 1980 or 81, Shawn said the thing that was going to destroy The New Yorker was not some other magazine but television — and not because people were going to watch TV instead of reading but because television would destroy people’s attention spans. They would lose the ability to think long thoughts, at the very moment, he said, when things were getting more, not less complicated.
HB: Wouldn’t you say, too, the emphasis has shifted from fiction to nonfiction in The New Yorker?
LW: Shawn’s creation, and Ross’s before him, was literary nonfiction. If you ask what I write, I write nonfiction novellas. And what I will say, and not much more, is that it’s over.
LW: The ability to write as if structure, architectonic, pacing mattered. Let me get at it by way of film composing. Oscar Levant wrote about how, to his horror, they would just knock out whole staves of his compositions to save money. A whole cello part gone. Why? To save money. Or they would edit the film behind the music without telling him, and just crunch him all together.
Every metaphor I use when I work on a piece or when I’m teaching writing are musical. Certainly, I don’t write authoritatively about music, but I write music, in the sense that these are musical solutions to reportorial problems. I very much have a sense of architectonics, which is form across time. Toward the end of my writing any piece, I start hearing music in my head, and I am actually writing paragraphs to the music, invariably my grandfather’s music.
When I write, I spend most of my time procrastinating. Then, I write very fast. But it turns out what the procrastination was about was trying to figure out the tonal proportions. It’s considered; there’s a reason why the text speeds up and slows down and changes key. It takes however long it takes. Or did. That’s the world that is disappearing.