If Lawrence Weschler's book were a film, it might look like a chapter from Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. The same lushness. The same invitation to beauty and surprise. Greenaway's film makes books into images, and Weschler's book turns images into conversations. Both film and book are storehouses of wonder.
Weschler takes separate strands of the world's body, its history and common stock of images, and reconfigures them into beautiful web works. As a seer of synchronicities and resonances, he pays rapturous attention to the things of this world.
The former New Yorker staff writer reaches across time and space to construct fascinating chains of linkage. One smiles at the likeness of face and hands between Leonardo's Mona Lisa and the one whom Weschler nicknames Mona Lewinsky. One chuckles at the similarities in face and body size between Slobodan Milosevic and Newt Gingrich, Weschler's "Pillsbury Doughboy Messiahs." Who would imagine that a 9/11 ironworker pulling a cabled hook would share his posture with Rodin's Discus Thrower?
Likewise, how similar are the stances of Velázquez's Aesop and Jeffrey Barbee's Malawian AIDS widow. Both figures look grief-haunted and heavy-burdened, yet radiate nobility in their imposed circumstances. How very alike are the facial expressions of Velazquez's titanic Mars and the understated heroism of a 9/11 welder.
Sometimes, however, I chafe at forced likeness. I see little resemblance between Vermeer's View of Delft and the present-day New York City skyline, for instance. Nor do Gerhard Richter's images of women bear profitable comparison with Vermeer's girl with a pearl earring. Each woman is young and beguiling, but a few similarities seem insufficient grounds for complete identification.
Is the will to connect a sign of sanity or madness? Are things connected? Or does the mind make them so? One of the last images of the book -- Lawrence Weschler, like his friend David Hockney, enjoys photo-collages -- juxtaposes cerebellum neurons from Restak's The Brain and Tom Eisner's details of a leaf. In each, the vein patterns are remarkably similar. In Weschler's world, each is related to all.
Weschler dazzles the reader with his gift for linking disparate phenomena, of making the dissimilar similar. He reads a Wislawa Szymborska poem ( Maybe All This) and draws from it a study of concentrated attention reminiscent of a Vermeer painting ( The Lacemaker). He looks at a photograph of the galaxies and sees a Jackson Pollock, or looks at a moonscape and sees a Mark Rothko. He ruminates on a photograph of Che Guevara until it yields Andrea Mantegna's painting of the dead Christ. Then, with the help of John Berger's insight, Weschler connects the photograph to Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson. In both painting and photograph, there is the same cluster of onlookers, the same poking at flesh.
In the preface to his Vermeer in Bosnia, on why he can't write fiction, Weschler reveals his secret: "[T]e world is already filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences, and consequences of consequences." See and report, he seems to say; it isn't necessary to invent. In Everything That Rises, Weschler discloses his method: He takes a single knot, worries out the threads, traces the interconnections, follows the mesh and establishes the proper analogies. His world is strange, beautiful and connected.
Weschler, like the rest of us, lives simultaneously within Paul Auster's music of chance and Baudelaire's correspondences. He ferrets out underlying and unifying melodies beneath superficial randomness, finding himself "being visited by . . . uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections." He keeps a notebook of his "visitations," and openly acknowledges that some are "fanciful, others polemical; some merely silly, others almost transcendental."
For the most part, Weschler writes plainly in unassuming language. He lacks Berger's poetry and intensity, but he has his vision. He inhabits a comparable mindscape, where politics, art, science and literature intermingle in a single text, sometimes on a single page. He reveres the world and reverently honours how it can be rendered in image and word. He shares the faith of Carl Sagan: "A religion . . . that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly trapped by conventional faiths."
In Everything That Rises, Weschler gives primacy to image over word and to the book itself as a gorgeous aesthetic object. Unlike his Vermeer in Bosnia, where his emphasis is on the word moving unhurriedly through time, his new book moves rapidly through images. He doesn't linger long on a particular thought or image before he skips onto the next series of linked items. An exception to such brevity is his detailed reflection on political art posters of the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Both in his new book and its immediate predecessor, the still point in Weschler's turning world remains Vermeer. Weschler reminds the reader-viewer that Vermeer lived in a time of storms, natural and man-made, where "all Europe was Bosnia." Vermeer's serene works of art serve as a counterpoint to turbulence. To a smaller degree, Weschler makes his own contribution to calm. He writes serenely. In troubled times, he calls the reader to reflection and praise.
J. S. Porter is a lover of art and literature. He is also the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality.