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THE WRITER'S LIFE

New Lawrence Weschler books about conversations with David Hockney and Robert Irwin

'Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees' and 'True to Life' are a pair of twinned inquiries into the creative process and the nature of art.

March 29, 2009|David L. Ulin

Here's how Lawrence Weschler sees it: "The world as it is," he writes in his 2004 collection of essays and reportage, "Vermeer in Bosnia," "is overdetermined: the web of all those interrelationships is dense to the point of saturation. . . . If I were somehow to be forced to write a fiction about, say, a make-believe Caribbean island, I wouldn't know where to put it, because the Caribbean as it is is already full -- there's no room in it for any fictional islands. Dropping one in there would provoke a tidal wave, and all other places would be swept away."

What Weschler's getting at is the density of everything, the way our lives, the Earth, the very universe are all matrices of overlapping influences, chaotic and predetermined at the same time. It's a double-edged sword for any writer but especially a writer of nonfiction: Once you accept this notion of saturation, how do you carve out a place for yourself, a place from which to engage your wonder, as it were?

And yet, on a recent Friday morning in Los Angeles, Weschler is all about wonder as he sits back in an office chair and talks in a low, fast voice about "Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations With Robert Irwin" (University of California Press: 310 pp., $24.95 paper) and "True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations With David Hockney" (University of California Press: 272 pp., $24.95 paper), twinned inquiries into the creative process and the nature of art.

At 57, his face still boyish behind a graying beard and glasses, he's excitable, voluble, riffing and digressing, framing these two books within the supersaturated context of his career. "One of the helixes running through my work," he explains, "was this 30-year project of talking to these two guys. And fairly early on it became clear to me that this was going to be a long thing."

This is classic Weschler: the project that feeds back on itself, that is never finished even after it's done. "Seeing Is Forgetting" is, after all, his first book, originally published in 1982; this edition has been updated with six new chapters and 24 pages of color plates. "True to Life," meanwhile, functions as a call-and-response, an alternate take, both distinct from and intimately connected to the other book. After the first edition of "Seeing Is Forgetting" appeared, Weschler got a phone call from Hockney, whom he recalls saying, "I've been reading this book of yours; I disagree with almost everything in it, but I can't stop thinking about it. Why don't you come up here and we'll talk about it?"

The piece Weschler wrote about their conversation, which opens "True to Life," was fashioned as a refutation, of sorts, of Irwin's thinking, which then led to another piece on Irwin refuting what Hockney had to say. This has been going on for 25 years. "It's not a personality conflict," Weschler says. "My experience is that these two very large, capacious, vital thinkers are basically having a fundamental argument about what both of them think of as the most important thing in the last 500 years, which is cubism -- an ongoing project. If you took it seriously, you would be doing what each of them is doing, and exactly not what the other one is doing. And yet, for all that, they are right on top of each other in terms of all sorts of issues." To make the point explicit, he closes the Irwin book with an afterword that leads directly into the preface of the Hockney book, as if he were building a bridge with words.

The notion of bridges, of connections -- of helixes, as he likes to put it -- is a key one, because Weschler is a writer with an idea. As with all enthusiasts, the idea is both simple and immensely complicated, having in his case to do with seeing, with "waking people, and myself, up to the possibilities. Slapping people. Notice. Take notice. This is amazing. This is so cool."

That's why, in addition to his writing, he is now director of the New York Institute for the Humanities and artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, setting up events such as last month's "Wonder Cabinet," a day-long symposium in New York that featured, among other things, Jonathan Lethem reading a new piece of fiction and a lecture on the history of kindergarten and its relationship to the modernism of Paul Klee and Frank Lloyd Wright. Weschler has focused on such flash points throughout his career, the moments when certainty blurs into indistinction and we must choose what to believe.

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