Lawrence Weschler

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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Oliver Sacks on a motorcycle in NYC, 1961. (Photo by Douglas White.)

I’ve read most of Lawrence Weschler’s books and gotten so much from them, particularly Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and Vermeer in Bosnia. In a new Vanity Fair article, he uses passages from a long-shelved biography of his friend Oliver Sacks, the terminally ill neurologist, to profile the doctor in a way only a confidante and great writer can, revealing the many lives Sacks has lived, in addition to the public-intellectual one we’re all familiar with. Weschler is convinced that Sacks’ period of excessive experimentation with drugs when young led to his later scientific breakthroughs. An excerpt:

I had originally written him a letter, sometime in the late 70s, from my California home. Somehow back in college I had come upon Awakenings, published in 1973, an account of his work with a group of patients who had been warehoused for decades in a home for the incurable—they were “human statues,” locked in trance-like states of near-infinite remove following bouts of a now rare form of encephalitis. Some had been in this condition since the mid-1920s. These people were suddenly brought back to life by Sacks, in 1969, following his administration of the then new “wonder drug” L-dopa, and Sacks described their spring-like awakenings and the harrowing siege of tribulations that followed. In the book, Sacks gave the facility where all this happened the pseudonym “Mount Carmel,” an apparent reference to Saint John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul. But, as I wrote to Sacks in that first letter, his book seemed to me much more Jewish and Kabbalistic than Christian mystical. Was I wrong?

He responded with a hand-pecked typed letter of a good dozen pages, to the effect that, indeed, the old people’s home in question, in the Bronx, was actually named Beth Abraham; that he himself came from a large and teeming London-based Jewish family; that one of his cousins was in fact the eminent Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban (another, as I would later learn, was Al Capp, of Li’l Abner fame); and that his principal intellectual hero and mentor-at-a-distance, whose influence could be sensed on every page of Awakenings, had been the great Soviet neuropsychologist A.R. Luria, who was likely descended from Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic.

Our correspondence proceeded from there, and when, a few years later, I moved from Los Angeles to New York, I began venturing out to Oliver’s haunts on City Island. Or he would join me for far-flung walkabouts in Manhattan. The successive revelations about his life that made up the better part of our conversations grew ever more intriguing: how both his parents had been doctors and his mother one of the first female surgeons in England; how, during the Second World War, with both his parents consumed by medical duties that began with the Battle of Britain, he, at age eight, had been sent with an older brother, Michael, to a hellhole of a boarding school in the countryside, run by “a headmaster who was an obsessive flagellist, with an unholy bitch for a wife and a 16-year-old daughter who was a pathological snitch”; and how—though his brother emerged shattered by the experience, and to that day lived with his father—he, Oliver, had managed to put himself back together through an ardent love of the periodic table, a version of which he had come upon at the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, and by way of marine-biology classes at St. Paul’s School, which he attended alongside such close lifetime friends as the neurologist and director Jonathan Miller and the exuberant polymath Eric Korn. Oliver described how he gradually became aware of his homosexuality, a fact that, to put it mildly, he did not accept with ease; and how, following college and medical school, he had fled censorious England, first to Canada and then to residencies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where in his spare hours he made a series of sexual breakthroughs, indulged in staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation, underwent a fierce regimen of bodybuilding at Muscle Beach (for a time he held a California record, after he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders), and racked up more than 100,000 leather-clad miles on his motorcycle. And then one day he gave it all up—the drugs, the sex, the motorcycles, the bodybuilding. By the time we started talking, he had been pretty much celibate for almost two decades.•

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All the Lawrence Weschler books I’ve readVermeer in Bosnia, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and A Wanderer in the Perfect Cityare wonderful, difficult, surprising and unique. The same can be said of his new Smithsonian article about artist David Hockney’s relationship with technology and optical techniques. An excerpt:

“As I say, despite his critique of the optical look created by early technologies, a striking openness to new technologies has long been a feature of Hockney’s career. There was a time when the people at Canon photocopiers used to ply him with experimental cartridges, long before they went to market, just to see what he’d come up with. (He came up with a suite of ‘handmade prints.’) Likewise fax machines in the time of their impending ubiquity, and the long-distance, widely broadcast collages he managed to wrest out of those. For that matter, he was one of the first people I knew who had tape and then CD players installed in his cars—the better to choreograph elaborately pre-scored drives through the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains, soaring and swooping hours-long affairs, alternating between composers, that almost invariably culminated as one came hurtling over the last pass heading back toward the coast, Wagner at full throttle, with a transcendent vantage of the setting sun just as it went slipping into the sea.

Now it was the turn of the iPhone, whose dazzling potential as a color drawing device, by way of its Brushes application, Hockney was one of the first artists fully to exploit. He’d spend hours noodling around on its touchscreen, and further hours away from the phone itself, just thinking about how he might achieve certain effects: the effect of white porcelain, for example, or cut glass or polished brass; the effect of cut flowers or bonsai or cacti; the effect of the morning sun rising slowly over the sea. This last challenge proved especially engrossing for Hockney. An inveterate chronicler of California sunsets, he’d long wanted to introduce sunrises into his repertory, but had never been able to do so, since it was always too dark to make out the paints and colored pencils, and when he turned on an indoor light to see them, he’d drown out the dawn. But since with the iPhone light itself was the very medium, this was no longer a problem; he could chronicle the most subtle transitions starting out from the pitchest dark. Suddenly his friends all around the world began receiving two, three, or four such drawings a day on their iPhones—each of the incoming dispatches, incidentally, “originals,” since there were no other versions that were digitally more complete. ‘People from the village,’ he told me one day, ‘come up and tease me, ‘We hear you’ve started drawing on your telephone.’ And I tell them, ‘Well, no, actually, it’s just that occasionally I speak on my sketch pad.’ And indeed, the iPhone was proving a much more compact and convenient version of the sorts of sketchbooks he always used to carry around in his jacket pockets, and a less messy one at that (notwithstanding which, each time he slid the phone back into his pocket, he’d rub his thumb and forefinger up against his trousers, by force of habit, wiping off all that digital smudge).

From the iPhone he graduated to the iPad; and from interiors of cut-flower bouquets or the morning view out his window over the dawn-spreading sea, he moved on to more elaborate plein-air studies of the Bridlington environs of the kind he’d already been painting on canvas. In particular, there was an extended suite, comprising 51 separate digital drawings titled The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven). Later that fall, back in California for a visit, he launched a perhaps even more evocative iPad investigation of Yosemite Valley—wider vistas in a narrower frame.

At the same time he and his team began exploring the limits of technological capability when it came to transferring digital drawings onto paper—the crisper the image and greater the surface, the better. The resulting wall-size prints held up exceptionally well and soon became an integral feature of the exhibitions surveying this Yorkshire period of Hockney’s lifework.”

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At Public Books, Lawrence Weschler and Errol Morris discuss the latter’s obsession with the meaning of photographs, most recently 1855 pictures of the Crimean War taken by Roger Fenton. An excerpt:

Errol Morris: 

It seems to me that we’ve forgotten a very important fact about photography. That photographs are physically connected to the world. And part of the study of photography has to be recapturing, recovering, that physical connection with the world in which they were taken. Something which has rarely been part of the enterprise of studying photographs. Take a photograph of Einstein, for instance. The point is, it doesn’t matter who I think it’s a photograph of. What matters is, was Einstein in front of the lens of the camera? That man. Was that man in front of the lens of the camera? Is there a physical connection between the image on that photographic plate or the digital device, whatever, and the man standing there? It doesn’t matter what’s in my head. It matters what that physical connection is.

Lawrence Weschler: 

What actually happened. But the question remains, why do you care? Or rather, why do you care so much? Because I think you really do care.

Errol Morris: 

Ultimately, why do people care about reference? Because… let’s put it this way. If you care what our connection is to the world around us, then you care about basic questions. Questions of truth. Questions of reference. Questions of identity. Basic philosophical questions. So go back to the [Roger] Fenton photographs for a moment. I want to know what I’m looking at. I think photographs have a kind of subversive character. They make us think we know what we’re looking at. I may not know what I’m looking at, even under the best of circumstances here and now. But I have all this context available to me. I know you’re Ren Weschler. I’ve met you before. We actually are friends. And I have this whole context of the world around me. But photographs do something tricky. They decontextualize things. They rip images out of the world and as a result we are free to think whatever we want about them.”

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From “David Hockney’s iPhone Passion,” a 2009 New York Review of Books article about an older artist becoming obsessed with new technology, by the brilliant non-fiction writer Lawrence Weschler:

“Hockney first became interested in iPhones about a year ago (he grabbed the one I happened to be using right out of my hands). He acquired one of his own and began using it as a high-powered reference tool, searching out paintings on the Web and cropping appropriate details as part of the occasional polemics or appreciations with which he is wont to shower his friends.

But soon he discovered one of those newfangled iPhone applications, entitled Brushes, which allows the user digitally to smear, or draw, or fingerpaint (it’s not yet entirely clear what the proper verb should be for this novel activity), to create highly sophisticated full-color images directly on the device’s screen, and then to archive or send them out by e-mail. Essentially, the Brushes application gives the user a full color-wheel spectrum, from which he can choose a specific color. He can then modify that color’s hue along a range of darker to lighter, and go on to fill in the entire backdrop of the screen in that color, or else fashion subsequent brushstrokes, variously narrower or thicker, and more or less transparent, according to need, by dragging his finger across the screen, progressively layering the emerging image with as many such daubings as he desires.

Over the past six months, Hockney has fashioned literally hundreds, probably over a thousand, such images, often sending out four or five a day to a group of about a dozen friends, and not really caring what happens to them after that. (He assumes the friends pass them along through the digital ether.) These are, mind you, not second-generation digital copies of images that exist in some other medium: their digital expression constitutes the sole (albeit multiple) original of the image.”


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