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Birnbaum v.

Lawrence Weschler

Writer and off-the-charts associater Lawrence Weschler talks about his new book, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, plus publishing as an act of citizenship and the joy of sideways learning.

Staunch Angeleno Lawrence “Ren” Weschler, a New Yorker writer for the last two decades of the 20th century, is the author of a dozen books of so-called “creative nonfiction”: Solidarity; Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees; The Passion of Poland; A Miracle, a Universe; Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills, And Other True-Life Tales; Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder; A Wanderer in the Perfect City; Calamities of Exile; and three nonfiction novellas, Boggs, Vermeer in Bosnia, and now Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. To quickly peruse these titles should broadcast much about the scope and breadth of Weschler’s interests.

Since 2001, Weschler has been the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. He taught throughout the 1990s at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Recently, he accepted the position of artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award, and was also a recipient of Lannan Literary Award. Additionally, as he relates in the following conversation, he has affiliations with numerous small magazines, from the Virginia Quarterly Review to McSweeney’s.

His greatest ambition is to publish Omnivore magazine on a regular basis.

Everything That Rises—Ren Weschler’s latest tome, not the Flannery O’Connor story—is, as you will find in what follows, just the kind of collection or assemblage of images and symbols and stories you would expect emanating from his polymorphous, and occasionally perverse, consciousness. His daughter, who makes regular appearances in his work and in our talk, calls them “Daddy’s loose-synapse moments.” This conversation covers an oceanic waterfront that stretches from Thomas Hart Benton’s “Persephone,” the art historian John Berger, the ugliness of the Getty Museum, Chicago, magazines, Dave Eggers, global warming, and the uncanny valley, to the goat story and more.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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Robert Birnbaum: Is there a painting that you recall that was your first great artistic experience?

Ren Weschler: Yeah. No. I haven’t thought about that. [pause] Well, I grew up in Los Angeles and not in a particularly artistic family. Um, I imagine one of them, now that you mention it, one that was in a book, which is in the Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hart Benton’s Persephone.” Which was like the National Geographic [laughs] of the art world. Where you went to see a nude woman and it was to see her. Wow, that’s amazing.

RB: So you were young?

RW: You’re asking what was the first painting—I was maybe 10 or 11 or whatever, that kind of age, and I would return furtively to that book and look at that picture.

RB: What about the first one you saw live, in a museum?

RW: That’s important about Los Angeles. [both laugh] You didn’t see that many things live, in person—

RB: [laughs]

Weschler, by Birnbaum, copyright 2006RW: Ed Kienholz talks about this. That one of the effects, for him of growing up in Idaho and seeing similar sorts of books was, “Oh I can do that.” He could do Rembrandt, “That’s easy.” It was just a little square. And you could imagine doing that. And Robert Irwin talks about the value of growing up out there without all that hothouse stuff. It’s interesting in terms of the émigré scene; the émigré musicians and writers come to California. But the painters went to New York. And they have this huge effect coming through de Kooning and so forth, you get Abstract Expressionism, which is to say the painterly European tradition being refracted through America. But in California you got the architects.

RB: And the film-score composers.

RW: Absolutely. You had four or five of the greatest orchestras in the world running simultaneously there in the studios. My grandfather was part of that, the composer Ernst Toch. And then, of course, Thomas Mann and all those people. So you didn’t have that much of the painterly mix in L.A. Having said that, my family, when I was eight years old, went to Europe for the first time. My father was on sabbatical and so imagine I was dragged through some museums, but in terms of just—when you ask me point-blank like that—

RB: I was thinking of the images from the opening scene of Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat, which opens with a shot of [Picasso’s] “Guernica” filling the screen and it flips to the head of a young boy, who is the viewer—

RW: Who is amazed by it. But that’s what it was like to grow up in New York. [laughs]

RB: Are you a Californian?

RW: Absolutely. I have just had a very funny experience in that regard. Which is, as you may know, I have just taken on, as a part-time job, the artistic directorship of Chicago Humanities Festival.

RB: That’s a wonderful festival.

RB: I didn’t ask for it. I was minding my own business but they came to me. I am running the New York Institute for the Humanities and apparently some headhunter heard of me and then they asked me to be the director—actually, what happened was they invited me over and asked, “Why do you want this job?” I said, “I don’t want this job. [both laugh] But I am happy to talk with you.” Which made me irresistible. And then I made clear I had to stay in New York for various reasons. My wife has a very important job in New York and I am happy…in any case, they re-crafted the job and I am now the artistic director, kind of the dramaturge, and there are other people doing fundraising and so forth, and that’s fine. I am there physically about five days a month.

RB: Also a wonderful city.

There is a lot in me that is Angeleno, and I think, furthermore, that possibly the kind of looseness which makes a book like Everything That Rises possible is something you could do in California, certainly in Santa Cruz, but it would have been knocked out of you academically if you have been anywhere else.RW: It’s a fantastic city. I wouldn’t have gone to any other city. Chicago has such an incredible inferiority complex. It’s so crazy. So there is all this criticism—

RB: Do you wonder why?

RW: Well—

RB: On the East Coast who talks about the wonders of Chicago?

RW: At any rate, there was all this stuff about “What are we doing hiring this New Yorker to come and teach us about culture?” And I kept on saying, “But I am not a New Yorker, I am an Angeleno.” And I am really am not [a New Yorker]—I am deeply Californian. And also, for that matter, want to make a case that California is a much more intellectually alive place then it is given credit for being. Starting with the film writers—Faulkner and everybody was there at a certain point, in terms of the literary and in terms of architecture, it’s dazzling. And then, presently, painting and art is pretty astonishing there. And I had an education at Santa Cruz, where I don’t think that you could have gotten an equal education at that moment.

RB: Did the Getty change things in the art world in Southern California?

RW: Not so much. It could have. I think, architecturally, that it’s been pretty much a catastrophe.

RB: [laughs]

RW: And it’s weird because it was so predictable. The people who chose Richard Meier didn’t want what he had to offer. So why did they choose him? In fairness, Meier did what he does and he did it perfectly well. Though a funny thing about the Getty, is that if you look at the design book—the Getty was so rich that they could publish books on all these phases of the process. You get the design book, a book that’s 250 pages—[what’s funny about it is] the wooden models. They had models that were the size of the Getty in this warehouse. They had elevations and all these architectural and artistic renderings—they had all these studies of what it was going to look like from almost every conceivable angle provided by STET and if you look at that entire book, there is not a single image of what they thought it would look like from below. [The Getty Museum is situated on top of a hill overlooking the interstate in Los Angeles.—eds.] That didn’t concern Meier at all. It’s his fantasy. His conception is so mathematical—from above and from the sides. But from below it, as finally realized, looks like a Toltec Nordstrom’s. It’s just a disaster.

RB: You are surprisingly impassioned when I ask you where you are from.

RW: I am just being descriptive. There is a lot in me that is Angeleno, and I think, furthermore, that possibly the kind of looseness which makes a book like Everything That Rises possible is something you could do in California, certainly in Santa Cruz, but it would have been knocked out of you academically if you have been anywhere else. In other words, John Berger gets looked upon in slightly askance in art departments at legitimate institutions.

RB: Even at Yale?

RW: I don’t know. But without doubt at Santa Cruz in the days I was there, in the early ‘70s, I got an education that I don’t think I could have gotten the equal of anywhere else at that moment. I had Norman O. Brown as my Latin teacher in a class of three students.

RB: Wow!

RW: And we sacrificed a goat at the end of the class.

RB: [laughs] Seriously?

RW: I’m not making that up. I had Harry Berger as my freshman literature teacher, Sheldon Wolin for politics. I had great, great people. And what was great about them—it all goes back to Page Smith, the American historian—The People’s History of America, A People’s History of the American Revolution—sixteen volumes. He also wrote John Adams. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and he was the founding provost of Cowell College. This is the mid ‘60s, and he is a kind of Puritan Brahman from Boston. And his one criterion was that he was against Positivism in every form. So, unlike any other philosophy department in America, we were a phenomenology department. You could take logic if you really fought for it: You were allowed to take one class. But you took Husserl and Kant—European Continental. In psychology, it was a Freudian department. In politics, there were no classes in how a bill becomes a law—it was all political theory. It was that kind of—and as my grandmother used to say and she got asked, “What is he studying there?” “What is he studying there? Nothing that will bring him any good.”

RB: This suited and attracted you?

RW: It was a different major every semester. And that was encouraged. By the way, of the 200 students in my graduating class in Cowell College at Santa Cruz, three of them became New Yorker writers—William Finnegan, Noelle Oxenhandler, and I are all from that same class. And there is something about the interpenetration of these disciplines which was encouraged and celebrated as opposed to…when I give the example of John Berger, which I do at the very beginning of Everything that Rises, and come upon his looking at that picture of the dead Che [Guevara] spread out for display by generals and saying we all know what this picture is based on, it’s based on Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson”—I mean, God, what an incredible thing to say. But at some level a Rembrandt scholar says, “No, no, no, you cannot say that.” And a Che scholar says you can’t say that. But he is right. And that kind of insight which was also encouraged at Santa Cruz gives permission for all kinds of stuff.

RB: Speaking of convergences, perhaps this is a meta-convergence, but can you think of another book like yours? I started thinking of Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, [and] there’s Galeano’s Book of Embraces.

RW: I’ve written about Galeano. And Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, the one book of my books that has been translated everywhere—whoever publishes Borges and Calvino in their respective country, that publisher publishes Mr. Wilson. It’s been referred to as a book of magical-realist nonfiction. And there are people, and I start with John Berger being one of them, who are loose—well, as I say in the book, my daughter has this moment where she says “Oh-oh, Daddy is having another one of his loose-synapse moments.”

RB: She seems wonderfully precocious.

RW: Right now she is in Tanzania learning Swahili before she goes to college. She’s taking a year off in part to learn one non-European language.

RB: Where is she going?

RW: She is going to Brown. But anyway, I like “loose-synapse” writers.

RB: I find that view perfectly natural.

RW: Are you an academic?

RB: Well, obviously not.

RW: That’s why. You couldn’t do that and be an academic.

RB: But academia is a sliver of humanity.

RW: There are some good academics, but this kind of way of looking at things does tend to some extent—you choose your discipline and you’re supposed to stay in it.

RB: I had a really bad formal education so I wasn’t that influenced by any academic dogma.

RW: You and Errol Morris should compare notes.

RB: What’s central to me is the way stories are told—I don’t care what they are and in what form they are conveyed. Movies, songs, photos, paintings, fables, statues—so I found Everything That Rises very refreshing and fun. More to the point, I thought that there was no limit to how many volumes of these images and ideas you could assemble.

RW: The McSweeney’s website has a contest going right now where people are submitting these convergences and I get to be the judge. We’ve had some great ones, and I just submitted one for myself this week. Did you notice the cover last week of Time magazine and the New Yorker? They had the same covers—I was standing at the newsstand and Time had Cheney and Bush facing opposite directions and the New Yorker has the same but as [in] Brokeback Mountain.

RB: Who was the artist?

Don Knotts died the other day and it reminded me that without a doubt that Don Knotts and Mick Jagger are stand-ins for each other. They look exactly the same, go look at all those pictures—but I am not sure that you can go anywhere with that.RW: [pause] I can’t remember right now. The funny thing is I called a friend at Time and I said, “Did you see what just happened? That’s really funny.” And my friend said, “We had a big discussion in-house about where the cover was going to say, ‘Dick, Dick, why can’t I get over you?’” What was that line in Brokeback Mountain? There is some line like that. [“I wish I could quit you.”—eds.] But they didn’t have the nerve to do it, [laughs] but the New Yorker went ahead and did it—what was on everybody’s mind. Anyway, you see these things all the time and once you start, once you open yourself to these possibilities—and I agree with you, that everybody does it, but most people who are disciplined, hide-bound disciplined, channeled—

RB: Aren’t you struck by the idea that this is a very appropriate way of thinking for our time?

RW: The end of the book talks about hypertext, and in a way this is just being hypertextual. I realized I was doing this a long time ago. In that regard there are two interesting stories. After I graduated from college, from Santa Cruz, I had a family friend who was a psychiatrist. He wanted to do a battery of tests—he specialized in telling you what to do with your life—“I’ll give you a personality inventory and we’ll figure out what you should do.”

RB: This was vocational guidance or coaching before those were called such.

RW: Exactly. It was more a hobby for him, so one of the things he did was, “[Would I] rather be a street sweeper or a librarian? I would rather be this than that”—you know all those things? And that was going to tell him something. And then he did a Rorschach test. A classic Rorschach test. And afterwards I went to see him. And he said, “I have to tell you that on the Rorschach, one of the indices is associational tendencies and I have never seen anybody like you. You are completely off the charts. And I am not sure this is a good thing. [laughs] You have to figure out some way to channel all that.” It’s funny to realize that was going on back then. Having said that, if you think about my first book about Robert Irwin—in some sense it can be read as an attempt to pull back. The title was Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. This is about an artist who is trying desperately to get you to stop free associating. He wants you just to look at the thing it is as itself, and experience perceptual feeling. And stop intellectualizing, stop conceptualizing, and so forth. And so in many ways my first book was the extreme opposite of my sensibility, which makes that conversation between Irwin and me funny.

RB: In the current book you have pictures of Gingrich and Milosevic—that’s weirdly amusing—that does happen a lot, that kind of thing.

RW: It happens a lot and there used to be in Spy magazine [the column] “Separated at Birth?” but the difference between “Separated at Birth?” and these things is that although one sees rhymes a lot, but it only becomes convergence when you write a poem around the rhyme. In other words—Don Knotts died the other day and it reminded me that without a doubt that Don Knotts and Mick Jagger are stand-ins for each other. They look exactly the same, go look at all those pictures—but I am not sure that you can go anywhere with that. But the fact that Slobodan Milosevic and Gingrich looked alike spawned a reverie—By the way, the key to all these things is that you push them so far and then you let go. You don’t push them too far. I am not in any way saying that Newt Gingrich is a war criminal, but I do have things to say about their parallel careers. Their attitudes toward power and so forth, and then it ends up being about heresy. There are all kinds of things that become interesting in that comparison.

RB: I didn’t read or scan this book sequentially—

RW: You were dipping into it.

RB: In and out. I liked looking at the chapter headings, categories, and subdivisions. I read Andrew Delbanco’s book on Melville, and I became interested in something about whaling, and someone alerted me to a piece that Charles D’Ambrosio wrote about whaling published in a booklet of essays called Orphans. He had written the essay apparently in response to some kind of anti-Indian backlash caused by their resumption of whaling on the Oregon and Washington coasts. The point is that D’Ambrosio starts by going camping—the first 15 pages are this enthralling meditation on camping and outdoors—and eventually he connects to the subject of whaling and Indian customs, and I was struck that most writers aren’t given permission to make those kinds of leaps and connections in textual narratives. Magazines don’t seem to allow it or encourage it.

RW: Less and less.

RB: The Stranger first published the essay. So what was my point? I guess I just wanted to talk about Charles D’Ambrosio, and how much I like that piece and his writing.

RW: In turn it reminds me of a moment—and you see it more in films to some extent, in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Godard’s film—there’s that wonderful moment where she is sitting there at a café and she is having a kind of melancholy moment. I forget what the reason is, and she looks into her coffee cup and suddenly the entire screen is rich brown with these galaxies of sediment swirling, and the camera just sticks on this for about 30 seconds. And it’s the whole cosmos—and the movie continues. So I would make an argument, in fact when I teach—I have a class called “The Fiction of Nonfiction”—I always begin the class by saying, “You know, nothing in this class is going to be of the slightest practical value to you. And it’s worse than that, because by the time I am finished with you, this is all you are going to want to do.”

RB: [laughs]

RW: But it’s over.

RB: Are you equal parts writer, creator, and teacher?

My model for a New Yorker piece, in the old days, was a piece that seemed to be about nothing you were interested in, and as you were reading it, and about halfway through it you began to get very interested, and about two-thirds of the way through you realized that it was the most important thing on earth.RW: What’s funny is I feel like these are all parts of different emanations of the same thing. And running the Chicago festival is similar, it’s all just incarnational convergences: What will I be able to do? Who will I be able to bring together? Boy, it would be interesting if that person were talking to this person. And in terms of the New York Institute for the Humanities, we are continually doing wacky—

RB: Is it affiliated with the university?

RW: Yeah, it’s at NYU. We are a carbuncle on the side of NYU, and it’s a fellowship organization—there are two hundred fellows who are primarily non-academics. People like Oliver Sacks and Susan Sontag and Tony Kushner and David Byrne, and all kinds of odd combinations. But part of our thing is a public program, so we had one called “Splendors of Decaying Celluloid,” which was with Ricky Jay and Bill Morrison, who did Decasia, and Errol Morris. We just did a big thing about imitation with Jonathan Miller in which we had the top parrot person, the top octopus person—

RB: Parrot person?

RW: A woman named Irene Pepperberg—and the top infant person and the top monkey person and really interesting people. And, another thing we did—my favorite single academic event I have ever done—a talk about convergences, with people from Stanford and Princeton and all these heavyweights coming in to discuss, [which] was entitled, “Was Athanasius Kircher Just About the Coolest Guy who Ever Lived, or What?” Talking about a Jesuit from 15th century—so we had intellectuals pondering what it would be to be the coolest guy. How would you know? And then the answer of course was yes, he was the coolest guy. He was the last guy who knew everything. He was wrong about three-quarters of it, but that was the last time it was possible to know everything. He was seminal in acoustics and optics, in Egyptology, in volcanology. He just knew everything.

RB: The Institute was the launching pad for your attempt at a magazine, Omnivore.

RW: What happened was that I—

RB: You didn’t take William Shawn’s advice that writers don’t start magazines, only millionaires do.

RW: Exactly. What happened was that I was doing less and less stuff at the New Yorker. What happens at the New Yorker is that I never had a salary there, but I would go off—under Shawn I would go off and work for six months on a piece and I turn in 30,000 [words], they’d run 25,000 and you’d get paid by the word and you could make a living doing that. Under [Robert] Gottlieb, I was still pretty much able to do that. Under Tina [Brown], less and less so. By the end of Tina, I’d do 30,000 words and she’d run 5,000 words—if that. So by the end of Tina it was that 30 percent of my salary was coming from the New Yorker. And books and lectures and teaching and so forth, and it was just getting more and more the case that they were not publishing the kind of thing that I did. At a certain point we’d had a conversation—“Why do you keep giving us all this stuff you know we can’t use?” And I was doing the same thing I had always done, but the magazine had changed.

RB: You could have reversed the question.

RW: It was implicit. But I think Remnick is doing a perfectly good job and is doing exactly the magazine he wants to do. It’s a perfectly legitimate magazine to be doing. It just no longer kind of thing I do a lot of.

RB: There seem to frequently be these virulent, rabid critiques of magazine like the New Yorker and sometimes Harper’s, when really they are not bad magazines. Are they doing bad things?

RW: Well, Omnivore, coming back to that, is my positive way of answering that. I felt that I had been criticizing the tendency at the New Yorker of what was happening and criticizing it both as a reader and a citizen—that it mattered to have stuff that wasn’t attention-squeezed, niche-slotted. That it mattered to have stuff at length and obliquely presented. My model for a New Yorker piece, in the old days, was a piece that seemed to be about nothing you were interested in, and as you were reading it, and about halfway through it you began to get very interested, and about two-thirds of the way through you realized that it was the most important thing on earth.

RB: I agree—I had this epiphany—I was reading the magazine in the early ‘80s and I found myself reading a long piece on tomatoes. And I realized that I didn’t really care about tomatoes before.

RW: And those were the pieces that people made fun of—“Oh, God, not a long piece on tomatoes.” No, it really mattered. And I think that’s how you get at stories. You don’t—if it was a profile, it was not a celebrity, or if it was, it wasn’t at the moment of their celebrity. Any profile of celebrity at the moment of their celebrity is a profile on the condition of celebrity. So that thing of obliqueness, of languorousness, of slowing you down and preparing you for epiphany, that is less and less possible. And so anyway, I had been a fellow at the Institute—this is back around 2001—I had been a fellow at that point for about 10 or 15 years already. And they were going to hire a new director and so they asked if I would take it over. And I said, “I will do it if you let me start my own magazine.” And they said, “If you can raise the money, you can start your own magazine.”

RB: You need them to tell you to raise the money? Big deal! [laughs]

RW: I said OK. But that, in fact, gave me a non-profit status and I raised $50,000 for this prototype issue. And it is my hopelessly Utopian, desperately-needed crack at what a magazine should be like. At the moment it’s not stillborn, exactly, it’s on hiatus. It’s only for sale in one place in the world. You can buy it only at one place: The bookstore at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, also available online there at

RB: Publishing it would require a special kind of convergence, but you know there are enough people out there with so-called “fuck-you” money, who have odd tastes and—

RW: I’m hoping something will happen. I don’t think it’s impossible.

RB: How often would you like to publish it?

RW: Twice a year. And the thing about it is that there is a tradition in this country of support for ballet companies and operas, there is support for Opera News but the notion of a general-interest magazine—all general-interest magazines run at a loss or are either funded by foundation or else are part of a conglomerate. The New Yorker didn’t—all through Shawn it never ran at a loss. But that was a fluke, and so anyway, I am eager to find that person or that group of millionaires who just say, “Yeah, this is cool. This is something that is needed by the culture.” As you know, you’ve seen it, it’s a very beautiful object. And my feeling is that it has to be able to be sold for $15 or $20 at a newsstand or bookstore. If I had to sell it for what it cost to make, it would cost $40. I got very close. The Getty almost took it on, interestingly. You’d think they’d be perfect for it. And then at the last minute they said, “God, no, if we did this, it would be setting a precedent.”

RB: [laughs]

RW: I said, “What, a precedent of supporting excellence?” And they said, “No, you know what we mean.” And what they meant was they couldn’t be seen supporting a magazine because then other magazines would—why that’s the case, I don’t know.

RB: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a wave of innovation in magazines—I’m thinking of Visionaire, which was brilliantly marketed: special limited, numbered editions. And inviting those odd people to design and participate. And creating $150 editions and $400 editions.

RW: And McSweeney’s is a bit of that. By the way, currently I get my rocks off editorially by being a contributing editor at four or five places, and so I place these things—I am the art wrangler for Virginia Quarterly Review. I do The Threepenny Review. I am contributing editor at Wolfen, which is the new DVD quarterly out of McSweeney’s, and Brick in Canada.

RB: Canada is like another planet. I just saw a new novel a Canadian writer has published, and he has had nothing else published in the country until this, his fourth, and I am wondering why that is.

RW: It’s weird, isn’t it? Oddly enough, by the way, Vermeer in Bosnia, my last book, was a bestseller in Canada but sank like a rock here. And that’s because it was reviewed there. Vermeer in Bosnia was not reviewed in the New York Times. Or the New York Review of Books.

RB: That’s just terrible.

RW: There was a great moment when I called a friend at the New York Times Book Review

RB: You have a friend there?

RW: A former New Yorker person. I said, “So why aren’t you reviewing this?” She said, “Ren, it’s really tough, we have to make judgment calls.”

RB: Yeah, bad ones. [laughs]

RW: This was at the time—remember the book by the woman who liked being whipped? There was a whole series of articles they did about this woman—

RB: The woman who liked anal sex?

RW: Yeah, that one. Whatever that was. And they had just published that. And I said, “It is tough, you have to make judgments. But how’s this for a judgment: Will that book still be around in 20 years? Will people wonder what we said about it”

RB: Normally I ignore the [New York] Times Book Review. It’s irrelevant to my needs.

RW: Except that it kills books. By not reviewing them.

RB: OK. I saw the Garrison Keillor savaging of—

RW: Bernard-Henri Levy.

RB: I am not a fan of American Vertigo but I thought Marianne Wiggins did a smart job of assessment, whereas Keillor showed all the signs of the unimaginative crank and xenophobic bozo he is.

RW: [laughs]

RB: I don’t get why he has any cultural credibility. There was also the review of Nicholson Baker’s book by that guy, Leon Wieseltier, which started off, “This scummy little book.” That’s a judicious use of editorial oversight?

RW: That’s part of the reason the Believer was started. They were very consciously irked off by that review and a few others—those kind of snide reviews.

RB: I remember Dave Eggers when he started to publish Might.

RW: That was amazing.

RB: I am amazed at the animus or antagonism he provokes. I do sometimes think there is a party line that is being toed—

RW: I suspect that’s true of most magazines. That’s what happens. Especially—they are so fervent. [laughs]

RB: I have to say, whatever the ideological or aesthetic squabbles are, I feel like saying to Eggers’s beraters, “What have you done? Have you done anything?” I mean, look what this guy has done. Anyway—

RW: By the way, one thing McSweeney’s has done is this book Everything That Rises, which nobody else would publish.

RB: Who publishes your work these days? When you have an idea, which publisher do you think will take it seriously?

RW: I had this strange history with my book-publishing side. And I want to say first of all that my true love is general magazines. I mean, I publish—I think I have twelve books or something, but they were never the real love. The love is finding people sideways. That great poem of Heaney’s, “Postscript.” Oh, God, it’s a wonderful poem. The last poem in the book and he says,

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
…With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
…You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

And to my mind, that can be the great thing about general-interest magazines, you get caught off-guard and blown open. So there’s that. In terms of my book-publishing history, which are often things that started out as magazine pieces, Seeing is Forgetting, the Irwin book, was rejected by 12 New York publishers—

RB: [laughs]

RW: All of them rave rejections.

RB: [laughingly] Rave rejections!

Essentially she said human beings are here to wonder at the universe—it needs to be wondered at, and as far as we know, we are the only species doing that. Now to take that seriously as a thought, that in the infinity of infinities this little embolism erupts of consciousness, of marvel, of wonder, and that in our lifetime we may extinguish it—that is kind of a mind-blowing thought.RW: All of them saying, “If only this had been a New York artist—but he is a California artist, we don’t know what to do.” So that was that. Eventually, I found my way to Pantheon and that was a great home, and in fact—

RB: Andre Schiffrin—

RW: And Tom Engelhardt was my editor—who now does “Tom’s Dispatch.” And I did my Poland book for them, and I did A Miracle, A Universe, my book about torture in Latin America, and that book’s pub date was the day of the big massacre. That book came out on exactly the date that Robert Bernstein was fired, Schiffrin quit, all of them quit. There was literally no one there. So that book came out and basically sank. And then I went over to North Point. And I was there for a couple of books and then they went bankrupt. All my horses were being shot out from under me. A lot of the books have been rescued by the University of Chicago Press. In fact, even A Wanderer in The Perfect City, which is now out of print, is being reissued right now by them. And then I have come back to Pantheon with some. But this particular book, everybody liked it, but nobody could figure out how to do it, how to clear permissions. And McSweeney’s said they would do it. Hats off to them.

RB: Right. And for publishing <a data-cke-saved-href="<a href=" href="<a href=" http:="""" interviews="" birnbaum164.php"="">Paul Collins, who is fascinated by the whole breadth of published works, and Tom Bissell—is he part of the DVD review?

RW: He’s part of it. The thing about McSweeney’s that was so exciting for me, and Might was the same way—two things. Dave and that whole group of people around Dave, much like the Museum of Jurassic Technology is David Wilson, but there are a lot of people around him working together and he finds kindred spirits—but the thing that was so exciting was, first of all, this is the generation that supposedly doesn’t read? And these were long weird loopy things aimed at those 20- and 30-year-olds. And they love reading that. And secondly and most importantly with Dave, this was the generation with the irony crisis, everything was ironical. And there seemed to be two ways out of that. One of them was the Jedediah Purdy-Bill McKibben stop-it-get-that-smirk-off-your-face kind of writing. And the other was Dave. And Dave, he ironized and self-ironized and ironized all the way to something clean… Such that at the far side of all that ironizing you get to the wonder. And [it] is a knowing wonder, but it’s a wonder nonetheless. That’s terrifically exciting about that place.

RB: There has been a proliferation of small presses—

RW: Yeah, yeah—

RB: Which is a hopeful sign, though McSweeney’s seems to be the most concerned about design. The big houses, other than acid-free paper—

RW: Maybe they’ll do a nice job in the cover, Chip Kidd or someone. I agree, they do beautiful things.

RB: So you are not a declinist, you don’t think civilization is on its last legs?

RW: I wouldn’t say that. What I am concerned about—

RB: [laughs]

RW: And in fact one reason I took on this job in Chicago is—each year they have a different theme—this year the theme is going to be “Peace and War.” It wasn’t my choice but I can easily live with that. I get to choose next year, and what I want to do is call it “Climate of Concern.” And I want to talk about global warming, but not the science of it and not the politics of it. I want the top people in the country. I want the Philip Roths and the E.L. Doctorows. I want Anne Hamilton. I want people to come and talk about, “Is this happening? Is this for real?” I am convinced that global warming is the thing at the forefront of all of our thinking, constantly. In the mode of, “Don’t think about that.” In the mode of, “Take two steps and then pull away.” Any thought you have about it goes two or three steps and then it stops.

RB: You don’t think people are more concerned about oil depletion and alternative energy sources?

RW: The point being, the whole thing about terrorism is so obviously a screen and literally a screen—we are terrified and so we make these little bogeymen. Let’s just say it’s pretty good evidence that they may well be going, let’s say it’s just a 50-50 chance, “THERE’S A 50-50 CHANCE THIS IS HAPPENING!” and if this is happening, if I told you there is a 50-50 chance you are going to go outside and you are going to get run over by a bus—it might capture your attention. But if this is happening 75 years from now, if there are people still around, they are going to look back at this and say, “What the hell were they thinking about in those years?” And what they will read is 8,000 articles on terrorism and virtually nothing talking about this [global warming], seriously. Granted when we do this at the Festival, I want to have things on millennial thought. This was not the first time we have thought we were living at of the end of the world. But having said that, something is going on.

RB: Well, there seem to be a handful of issues that are not attended to because they are so frightening. One of which is energy sources. When we run out of carbon fuels, what then? It will cause a large discontinuity and it’s coming sooner than we think, if we think about it all.

RW: There is that great thing in Vermeer in Bosnia by my daughter: “Why is the human on Earth?” When she was in seventh grade, 12 years old or whatever she was. And she was assigned this thing, “Why is the human on Earth?” And I got a call from her teacher: “You better come down here and look at this.”

RB: [laughs]

RW: Her answer was kind of amazing. And you can find it in the book and quote it, but essentially she said human beings are here to wonder at the universe—it needs to be wondered at, and as far as we know, we are the only species doing that. Now to take that seriously as a thought, that in the infinity of infinities this little embolism erupts of consciousness, of marvel, of wonder, and that in our lifetime we may extinguish it—that is kind of a mind-blowing thought.

RB: In a way we are extinguishing it already—

RW: Well it’s the thoughtlessness, and it’s worth going back and looking at Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth in this context. And bracketing the nuclear component of it and reading it as a thing about global warming, too. His whole argument about that is that there is either a culture of life or there is a culture of death. And I think the abortion thing is in some ways a screen about this, too. That either a language that is kind of grasping and trying to figure it out: Either you choose life for life or you are choosing for death, and if you choose for death, which is to say, by not thinking about this stuff and giving up and so forth, all your connections begin to wither.

RB: When you had Norman Brown, did you understand him?

RW: Actually, he was quite understandable. It may have been there was a kind of bong culture there. [both laugh] Somebody called the Everything book “bong literature of the highest order.” But also even more than that, what was really amazing, was that Brown would talk to us in the big lecture classes, which sat about 100 people, he would talk for 45 minutes about an Ezra Pound poem that he was going to read. And then when he read it, it was the most clear thing in the world. There was something about the way he read it. Because when you went back to your room and you read it, it didn’t make any sense at all. While you were there it made sense. He was a very strange character. It was so strange that this vision has been visited upon this particular guy. He was the most straight-laced, puritanical academic. But he had had this vision that was preposterous at some level. He never got stoned at all, I’m sure. He was an academic in-fighter. He loved tenure battles. It was completely bizarre, he was the least polymorphous person in the world. He died recently. He had Alzheimer’s the last seven or eight years—it’s incredible to imagine what that Alzheimer’s must have been like. Those circuits firing must have been astonishing. But just before he really began to go down, I took a walk with him—this must have been 10 or 15 years ago—in the forest outside Santa Cruz. And he was saying, “It’s all been a huge mistake.” I said, “What’s been a mistake?” He said “Freud, Marx, wrong, wrong, wrong.” I said, “What are you talking about.” “Chance,” he said. “I never took chance seriously enough. [John] Cage should have been my master.” [laughs]

RB: That’s wonderful. You must be having fun these days.

RW: Right now, this period, right this minute where I took on this other job, is too much. I’m teaching at NYU and Sarah Lawrence. I’m on a book tour for this book, I am running the Institute, and having this big conference in April on fair use, the comedy of fair use—that will be a riot—and the Chicago thing. Do you know the story about the rabbi and the goat story? The guy goes to the rabbi and says, “You gotta help me. You know my house. I am a poor man, I live in a hovel, two rooms. I have the wife and the four kids. Her mother, her brother, his four kids, and now her sister has arrived, and she has eight kids and the mother-in-law from that side, and they are all in this house. It’s driving me crazy. What should I do?” And the rabbi says, “Get a goat.” The guy says, “What?” “Get a goat.” So he does. And he comes back two weeks later and he says, “Rabbi, I got the goat. The goat’s even more insane; he is eating everything.” The rabbi says, “Get rid of the goat.” These are my goat months right now. If I can survive the next four or five months I am going to feel weightless after this.

RB: And are you thinking of your next book?

RW: Oh, yeah. When I took on the job at the Institute, it was partly because I had five books ready to go. It’s like they are like they are stacked up over LaGuardia—I brought in Vermeer and now this book. And I have—actually I have four more books, three of them are finished and one I’m going to do. The next two are—I am going to take 25 years of writing about Robert Irwin and 25 years of writing about David Hockney, and the two of them have been having this argument with each other, through me, with each other—they don’t talk to each other but they are always arguing about the true significance about being a modernist. And every time I write about one the other says, “Bullshit! Nonsense!” So I am going to take 25 years in each case, put in them in two volumes in a matched set, and put them in a box and let them fight that out. That’ll be one thing, and then I have a collection that’s finished in the mode of Vermeer in Bosnia called Uncanny Valley.

RB: Uncanny Valley?

RW: I did this piece in Wired about why it’s impossible to do animation of the [human] face. They can make perfect animations of hands and crowds and so forth, of people walking, but they keep on bumping against the wall with the face, and they can’t do it. And one of the theories is that it is possible that it is theoretically impossible to do. And the great guy in this field is a Japanese Buddhist roboticist named Masahiro Mori. He has the notion of the “uncanny valley.” Which is basically that you can take a—if you make a robot that’s 70 percent lifelike, that’s fantastic. 80 percent, incredible. 90 percent unbelievable. 95 percent, people are going crazy how great this robot is. 96 percent, it’s a disaster. Because it’s entered the uncanny valley. Which is to say that a 95-percent lifelike robot is an incredibly lifelike robot. And a 96-percent lifelike robot is a human being with something wrong.

RB: Super-real?

RW: It’s something creepy. And it stays in the uncanny valley until [it reaches] 100 percent. So if you make a 99.9-percent [lifelike] robot, it’s just creepy, and incidentally, they entered the valley in Shrek 2. The princess character, they got her to the point where she was freaking [people] out. She was so good, she was freaking kids out and they had to pull back. They had to rotate back and do less-advanced stuff then they could—so I have a whole book of pieces that radiate from that. And then other books I won’t talk about—that’s it for now. [chuckles]

RB: Do you do photography or draw?

RW: I doodle all the time, but I keep these files.

RB: Have you any great ambition that you are burning to fulfill?

RW: The magazine—I’d like to do Omnivore. I’d really be happy. As I say, short of that, I’d do it in different forms.

RB: When you look at what’s available, what would be the size of the audience, the projected circulation?

RW: I see it as at 75,000-100,000. Harper’s, New Republic, that general area. I am not interested in doing a magazine of 5,000 copies. I write for those magazines.

RB: [laughs] Right.

RW: I would see it as an act of citizenship, of political hygiene.

RB: There was a point at which publishing was an act of citizenship and then it wasn’t—it became marketing and consumption.

RW: Yeah, niche—

RB: No more visionary efforts. Even Luce was a visionary.

RW: Yeah, absolutely.

RB: It doesn’t seem that anyone starts magazines anymore [that are] trying to say anything. Do they?

RW: I think people do. That n+1 group is doing some interesting stuff.

RB: Sure and Swink and Land-Grant [College] Review and Steve Erickson’s [Tours of the] Black Clock.

RW: It’s not hopeless, but [whispers] there are problems. [laughs]

RB: When I see claims that the world of literature and fiction is marginal, I opine, “Well it is large and rich enough for me. Who’s measuring the terrain and mapping the topography?” I find this world to be quite satisfying and wonder about those that don’t.

RW: As I say, it is, unless it’s disappearing. By the way, at the Chicago Humanities Festival, my third year we are going to do “Laughter.” We have to clear the palate after all that grim fare. [laughs]

RB: Do you know Chicago?

RW: I just loved Chicago. Whenever I would go through I would get a huge kick out of it. I had a lot of friends there. Ira Glass, Chris Ware is amazing, and I have friends at the University of Chicago. I wouldn’t have taken this job at any other place. I wouldn’t even have taken it in L.A. There is something about getting to know a new place. I am looking forward to it.

RB: Other than Eugene Izzi, who died under mysterious circumstances, I can’t understand why Chicago doesn’t have a crime-story writer identified with it. Boston has Robert Parker, George Higgins, and Chuck Hogan; L.A. has [Raymond] Chandler and Michael Connelly; New York has Ed McBain and Lawrence Block; Miami has [Carl] Hiaasen; New Orleans has James Lee Burke, etc., but who is attached to Chicago?

RW: There’s Sara Paretsky and that whole thing.

RB: I don’t think so. And it also doesn’t have a magazine that is identified with it.

RW: Yeah, that’s some of my thoughts, by the way. I might do Omnivore there.

RB: It’s a really rich place.

RW: There is so much going in there. It’s just amazing. The theater scene is much richer than it is in New York, for example. In the sense that it’s what people go to. The New York theater scene is largely for tourists. And Chicago is just not that way at all—it’s a vibrant part of the city. Architecture is just thrilling.

RB: Chicagoans are so enthusiastic. I found it incredible that Richard Daley [Jr.] was building new libraries in the city.

RW: Yeah, yeah, it’s a great city. And Millennium Park is terrific.

RB: Well, good. I hope we talk again.

RW: I’ll look forward to it. Thank you.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum