The Depths of the Curious
The foreword to A Wanderer in the Perfect City by Lawrence Weschler
Curiosity is the engine that drives a traveler out into the world, and the true traveler is the one who see that the world points in two directions. He is fired by his eagerness, his interest in the world, but what it gives back to him in turn is often a strangeness, a confoundingness that is the other half of what we mean by curiosity. The “wanderer in the perfect city,” as the book you’re holding in your hand commemorates, is a flaneur who finds perfection in the very act of roaming, or rummaging, browsing the streets as if they were dog-eared manuscripts in some eccentric’s library. Everyone, he knows, if opened up with patience, contains a fabulous story, as barely credible as truth.
The propulsive force, in other words, is enthusiasm, which means (or meant, in the original Greek) “possessed by the gods,” a term generous enough to take in gods that were as venal and fragile and mixed-up as ourselves. If the traveler is one who goes out in search of oddity, the things that remind him how much in the world exists beyond his understanding—“around the bend”—the writer, ideally, is one who passes that spirit of excited enquiry on to the reader with a gusto that becomes contagious. Curiosity + enthusiasm = wonder.
I thought these curious thoughts while reading, for the sixth or seventh time, Lawrence Weschler’s tales of rambles in the world. I’d grown up, in all senses, reading Weschler in The New Yorker, been moved by his constant, cheerful worrying at the places where dark realities meet a born-again American spirit of optimism (Kafka in the cartoon version, you could say), and then been swept up by the man himself, met for the first time in the amnesiac sunshine of Los Angeles, where he was eager to whisk me off to a Museum of Jurassic Technology consecrated to the uncanny (immortalized in his book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder). He was about to interview the magician-scholar-performer Ricky Jay onstage at the time, had just been writing about photographs—convergences—was talking about one of his regular radio broadcasts (shared on this occasion with his daughter) and had four books coming out imminently. Clearly the term “Renaissance man” needed an upgrade if it were to comprehend all of Mr. Weschler, who was also running an Institute for the Humanities, editing a magazine called The Omnivore, sponsoring a whole new school of writers and about to visit a museum in North Dakota that was mounting an exhibition about those who “disappeared” during the dirty war in Argentina. No other writer I know has managed to bridge the gap—as wide as the culture—between William Shawn’s New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s. Between the formalism of the historical and artistic, in short, and the heartfelt, ironic spirit of tomorrow.
But what I remembered more, reading this book again, was how Weschler had written of David Hockney, repeatedly over the decades, as a chronicler of light, able to find a brightness in an L.A. that many of us had given up on or never taken the trouble to look at closely in the first place. The most memorable piece I’d read in The New Yorker in recent years was Weschler’s own investigation into light in Los Angeles—the incongruous hope amidst the smog—in which, with characteristic unexpectedness, he had sought out the golden-voiced baseball announcer Vin Scully to hymn the raptures of the late-afternoon light above Dodger Stadium. And then I’d come upon another piece by him about driving with Hockney through the hills of L.A., the artist’s senses ever more alert as his ears began to fail him. It was as if the vagrant writer had found a kindred spirit in the one figure from the Old World who could see the real promise offered by California’s spacey vistas and sense of suspended time.
I carried this image of Weschler—a Hockney on the page at times, finding light in forgotten places—back into the book you’re reading now. And I saw how, from the very first sentence, he speaks for a spirit of possibility that too many of us have forgotten existed. A call comes from a stranger at 11:30 P.M. while our author is deep in an esoteric tome. Unlike anyone eager to hang onto his equilibrium, our author picks up the phone, schedules a meeting with the enthusiast and clearly is ready to follow him deep into the farthest reaches of human extravagance. Here is a character happy to be stood on his head and to get lost inside another’s obsession, wandering through the mazy, endlessly divergent passageways of the unconscious, collective and very much otherwise.
The adventure that follows is, in classical Weschler fashion, given life and weird electricity by a wildly exuberant, hopelessly polymathic, surreptitiously poignant Indian who (if truth be told) catches the spirit of my ancestral homeland, always at least as energizing and engaging as it is exhausting, as well as anything I’ve read. Weschler’s subject, you come to see, is art and ambition and failure and loneliness, but most of all the human condition, seen at an angle and inspected as closely as if a scientist’s face were pressed up against a test-tube. The distinguishing feature of homo Weschleris is that he is voluble, extreme, the very opposite of jaded. “Authentically dazzled by the particulate density” of fate.
The method (“particulate,” like the “metastable” he uses elsewhere, seems to go off in many directions at once) is unorthodox: Weschler holds you as the Ancient Mariner does the Wedding-Guest in Coleridge’s poem, to involve you in what comes to seem an investigation, really, into magic. He uses a highly measured, precisely detailed, information-rich style out of the old New Yorker, but in search of the new; underneath the pose of “benign befuddlement,” he is, like the Knud Jensen he evokes so vividly, a “masterly organizer.” The result is a trip, in both the old and the new sense, which reminds you that the traveler who really engages us is not one who just moves himself, but one who knows how to move his listeners. Down the spiral staircase of the imagination, past all the bric-a-brac collected over decades, into the basement of the soul.
And there, where we least expect it, we are brought back to something essential that reminds us that we’ve been carried back in an elegant circle to our original state, but transformed. People retreat into themselves, one sees, and come out with something universal. Weschler, meanwhile, seems so hungry for life that the rest of us become hungry for him. There’s little of himself in these pieces, except insofar as every portrait is a depiction of its maker. I first met him—I said this before, didn’t I ?—talking to a magician, a performer and a scholar. All in one.
Santa Barbara, May 2005