Juggling Incongruities: Weschler’s Literate Talent

Vermeer

in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies , by Lawrence Weschler.

Pantheon Books, 432 pages, $25.95.

After a fair amount of discussion with folk on neighboring

treadmills, the word I’ve finally settled upon is “excellentric.” It adds a

dash of excellence to the high art of being eclectic, while connoting the

expertise that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with being eccentric. Yes, my fellow

treadmillers and I agree, the word for Lawrence Weschler’s new collection of

essays and profiles, Vermeer in Bosnia:

Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies , is “excellentric.”

Take, for example, the title piece. The subject matter may sound

like it comes out of right field-how a distinguished Italian judge presiding at

the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at the Hague, daily exposed to the most

stunning tales of man’s inhumanity, manages to keep his sanity by making

frequent forays to the Mauritshuis Museum “so as to spend a little time with

the Vermeers.”

The sensibility brought to bear on this subject is electrically

precise. Why Vermeer? Because, as Mr. Weschler reports, his paintings radiate

“a sufficiency, a perfectly equipoised grace.” As the essay ripples forth, it

turns out that Vermeer lived in an era aboil with religious persecution,

torture, mass rape-indeed, an era when ” all

Europe was Bosnia ” (the author’s italics); it was the painter’s genius to

invent within this chaos a space for himself so intimate and safe that it could

also serve as haven to a beleaguered modern jurist three centuries hence: “a

zone filled with peace.”

So it goes in this miraculous book: from seemingly off-target to

bull’s-eye in one breath. Mr. Weschler, author of the quirkily beguiling Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders (1995),

and director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York

University, is essentially a conductor of conversations with himself and

others-free-floating yet somehow focused conversations that give eclecticism a

good name, whether parsing the moral implications of Kosovo or discussing the

effects of Parkinson’s disease on furniture design, or minutely describing what

it’s like to be shaken out of bed by the Northridge earthquake. With his

densely textured consciousness, coupled with a curiosity that can only be

called protean, he may be the most civilized staff writer The New Yorker ever lost.

Sometimes his originality takes the form of left-footed leaps, as

when he describes the aura of mutual contempt around the “voluptuously

despised” Polish press spokesman, Jerzy Urban, as being of “an almost erotic

dimension.” Sometimes it’s in his healthy respect for the underappreciated (he

admires cynicism and mendacity, so long as they’re stylishly practiced) and his

disregard for the world’s stock put-downs (he approves of “the sort of ironical

woman who’d get a kick out of being referred to as a “wench”). Other times it’s

in his unexpected tact, as when referring to one character’s manifest ugliness

as a “lack of physical splendor.” He’s not being coy-just whatever’s the

opposite of cloddish.

Most consistently winning of all is that echt capacity of the literate soul: the ability to juggle

incongruities without twitching. Mr. Weschler succeeds in convincing us that a

character can be both “porcine” and “punctilious.” Smiles can be “clenched.” An

offhand remark can be simultaneously “concise, disgusting, sexist, and

sacrilegious … but not altogether off the mark.” (Perhaps the conjunction

should have been “and.”)

This sort of cultivation-essentially European, but with an

American jauntiness-isn’t something you can teach. But you can keep learning

it, if you’re as astute as Mr. Weschler is. In another conversation with Mr.

Urban, the despised Polish press spokesman, you can almost hear Mr. Weschler

soak it up at a master’s knee.

“But those are contradictory pleasures,” the author points out.

“You can’t very well take satisfaction in having once been in the opposition

and then take pleasure in having been part of a government that went and jailed

all your old allies from that opposition.”

“And why not?” Mr. Urban counters. “One wouldn’t want to

experience just one kind of pleasure in one’s life. One wants to sample all different kinds of pleasure’ ” (the author’s

italics).

With such an endlessly nuanced aesthetic in play, surface

inconsistencies give way to inner harmonies, which in turn give way to deeper

inconsistencies. If the author were a Democrat running for office, he would no

doubt be accused of “flip-flopping.” But in this arena, let’s call it what it

is: layered. Mischievous. Faceted. Fun.

It’s also apparently

inspiring to those who encounter it firsthand, to judge from the quotes Mr.

Weschler is able to draw forth from his fellow conversationalists. Here’s a

California architect struggling to pin down the famously veiled, luminous light

of L.A.: “Things in the light here have a kind of threeness instead of the

usual twoness. There’s the thing-the object-and its shadow, but then a sense of

reflection as well. You know how you can be walking along the beach, let’s say,

and you’ll see a seagull walking along ahead of you, and a wave comes in,

splashing its feet. At that moment, you’ll see the bird, its shadow, and its

reflection. Well, there’s something about the environment here-the air, the

atmosphere, the light-that makes everything

shimmer like that. There’s a kind of glowing thickness to the world.”

Similar eloquence is elicited

from David Hockney discussing the lifelessness of most photography. “I first

noticed this,” he says, “with erotic photographs, trying to find them lively:

You can’t. Life is precisely what they don’t have. Or, rather, time-lived time.

All you can do with most ordinary photographs is stare at them-they stare back,

blankly-and presently your concentration begins to fade. They stare you down ….

The reason you can’t look at a photograph for a long time is because there’s

virtually no time in it .”

Textured talk allows the reader a textured response. There’s a

score of pieces here, and we can admit that in a few of them, the heat is a

little slow in coming. Others are a bit self-cherishing. A couple-notably those

about Mr. Weschler’s grandfather, the Austrian-born composer Ernst Toch

(“pronounced Talk, with a husky breathy bit of Middle European business tucked

away at the very end”)-suffer from the lead sinker of reverence. We can even

admit to being put off by some of the name-dropping: “‘Ah, yes,’ [John] Cage

said, that marvelously sly twinkle in his eye”-an anonymous “a” would have been

more judicious than the overfamiliar “that.”

But this is carping. The only major drawback is that Mr. Weschler

inspires envy. With such excellentric chitchat taking place all over the world,

chatter whose sophisticated, razor-sharp dissonance civilizes everyone

involved, why weren’t we invited to the party? Isn’t there some interactive

gizmo that would allow those of us stuck on our treadmills to muscle in? Or is

that what books are for?

Daniel

Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer .