Lawrence Weschler explains it all at “What’s the New Line?” Photo by Amy Bowles.
On his recent visit to Toronto, the schizoid appeal of non-fiction writer Lawrence Weschler was on full display. Formerly a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker and, more recently, a familiar name to readers of McSweeney’s, Weschler’s draw is in equal parts institutional and marginal. Here was Lawrence Weschler the intellectual in a University of Toronto auditorium giving a talk of Al Gore–like proportions on the (possibly doomed) fate of the book. Here was Lawrence Weschler in a back-alley coachhouse-turned-bar playing arbiter to a zany court of artists as they hammered out a new line between fact and fiction. How does one man stay relevant in such different contexts?
The answer may lie in the fact that Weschler is as skilled at making distinctions between categories as he is at blowing them apart. The second of Weschler’s two Toronto engagements—an event hatched by Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson’s recent imprint, The Production Front, entitled “What’s the New Line?”—brought together a group of Toronto artists to renovate the division between fiction and non-fiction. Having authored “non-fiction novellas” and taught a course at NYU called “The Fiction of Nonfiction,” Weschler played the role of resident guru of genre blurring in the sometimes carnivalesque, always engaging event.
The night before at the University of Toronto, however, Weschler proved that he is just as much an expert at separating genres that have been misguidedly conflated. In his talk “All that is Solid,” Weschler argued that using the internet as a venue for publishing the same kinds of material that we find in books represents a “category confusion.” His talk worked at building the barrier between the two media back up, focusing on what the book can offer us that the web simply cannot. Though Weschler’s argument gave voice to those of us who find our preference for page-turning hard to express rationally, the endeavour may be futile. He twice described his own project as a “lost cause,” and by the end of the evening, with a reading of Frost’s “Nothing Gold can Stay,” the tone had turned positively elegiac. It seemed, suddenly, as though Weschler were not here to save the book but to sing its swansong.
Torontoist wanted to know more, and despite his qualms with the internet’s ontology, Weschler generously agreed to give an interview. This came with one stipulation: no direct quotations. “The things that we remember saying are more important than what it is we’ve actually said,” he explained. Or did he? In an ironic turn of events, Torontoist mistakenly lost all recorded evidence of the half-hour conversation. No matter! Haven’t we been taught that technology is limited? Haven’t we learned that the boundary between what happened and what was imagined is arbitrary and obsolete? In the spirit of Lawrence Weschler’s dogma, Torontoist both confirms the failure of technology and readily subscribes to the blurring of fact and fiction that comes in its wake. At the end of the interview, Weschler advised us to “just make it up” (at least we think he did). What follows is a reconstruction of a few choice memories from our conversation.
Torontoist: The end of your talk last night took an apocalyptic turn: all of a sudden it seemed as though you were giving an elegy. Is the book’s future hopeless?
Lawrence Weschler: You’ll remember that last night I referred to “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I really do believe in that; it’s been my mantra since I first discovered Gramsci when I was eighteen. Is the situation hopeless? Yes. Should we stop hoping? No. Fitzgerald says something similar. You’ve heard this before: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two different ideas in your mind at once.” But the second half of that thought, the part that rarely gets quoted is this: “One should be able to see that things are hopeless, yet be determined to make them otherwise.” That’s what I’m doing with this talk. I’m just trying to alert people to what’s being lost.
Your book Everything that Rises is about convergence, bringing together images of different things that unexpectedly resemble one another. How do you start seeing the world this way? Is it something that you have to work at?
After I graduated from college, a family friend who was a psychologist had me take a whole series of tests to help me decide what I was going to do with myself. You know, you fill in those little bubbles that ask “Would you rather be a fireman or a fire? Would you rather be a tree or a frog?” And so on and so forth. In the battery of tests, he also had me do a Rorschach test. He called me a few weeks later to talk about the results, and he said that my Rorschach was off the charts. Nobody could grade it.
What does that mean?
That my ability to form associations is unstoppable. When I see something, it always reminds me of something else, which leads to something else. It’s very hard for me to stay in the here and now. It’s like something that Bob Irwin says, and it’s where the title to the book of conversations I’ve had with him comes from: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. When you form associations all the time, your attention just ricochets.
That sounds a little bit like how you describe the internet, actually.
Yes, but the important thing isn’t just making the association. That’s just the fun part: pointing out that, say, Mick Jagger is a dead ringer for Don Knotts. But there isn’t very far that you can go with that in terms of discussing what that might mean. Now as for another pair of lookalikes—Newt Gingrich and Slobodan Milosevic—that has more resonance. The important thing is the essay that goes with juxtaposed images, looking at the similarity and thinking: what can we do with this? That’s what grounds the association.