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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Lawrence Weschler
Pantheon Books, 412 pages, $25.95
Weschler’s world of wonder yields complex portraits


Lawrence Weschler, who devours novels, admits he could never write fiction. Were he forced to create an imaginary tale, he would not know where to place it, for the world, as he sees it, is packed with stories, “filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences and consequences of consequences.” Tracing those interconnections, “taking any single knot and worrying out the threads” is what his work as a reporter has been about.

We get an impressive sampling of the thoroughness of Weschler’s mind in his 11th book of nonfiction, Vermeer in Bosnia, an eclectic collection of 21 of his essays written over the past two decades. Most are expanded versions of pieces that originally appeared in The New Yorker, where Weschler worked as a staff writer for more than 20 years until his recent retirement. He now serves as the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University.

The subject of these essays varies greatly. In these pages, Weschler reflects on the value of Bosnian war crimes tribunals and muses on the “wondrous mystery” of his infant daughter’s gaze. He follows the turbulent life of highly acclaimed Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski and recounts the accomplishments of the lesser known craftsman Ed Weinberger, a man gripped with Parkinson’s disease who designs modernist furniture. Weschler profiles the perversely cynical Polish politico Jerzy Urban and records Californian artist Robert Irwin’s wistful reminiscences of his high school days. He examines the legacy of his grandfather, German composer Ernst Toch, and he examines the cast of light in Los Angeles.

Within these pieces are plots and characters as complex as those found in any novel. There is war and love and parodies of love. People haunted by their pasts and people who rise above it. Taken as a whole, the collection reflects Weschler’s conviction that we were put here on this earth to study the world in all “its ravishing complexity,” to gaze and to marvel.

War is the book’s dominant political tragedy and features prominently in the five essays on the Balkans. Well aware of the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war, Weschler grapples with how we determine who is guilty of these crimes.

He finds one answer to the question in the paintings of Dutch artist Jan Vermeer.

In the autumn of 1995, The New Yorker correspondent is at The Hague observing the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal for Dusko Tadic. Considered a “small fish” among Bosnian war criminals, Tadic was nonetheless accused of heinous crimes, some of which are recounted to Weschler by the Italian jurist Antonio Cassese. In addition to various rapes and murders, the Bosnian Serb is “alleged to have supervised the torture and torments of a particular group of Muslim prisoners, at one point forcing one of the charges to emasculate another -- with his teeth. The one fellow died, and the guy who bit him went mad,” Cassese says. Knowing that accounts of atrocities are this judge’s daily fare, the journalist wonders how he keeps from going mad.

“Ah,” answers the Italian jurist, “I make my way over to the Mauritshuis Museum in the center of town so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.” From there the essay soars into a sublime reflection about the Dutch painter, described by Weschler as a heroic artist who painted serenity in a time of war. “It’s almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace,” he writes.

The Bosnian war, Weschler believes, brought us back to “the moral universe of epic poetry” where individuals have predetermined parts in a history that becomes “vengeance for vengeance for vengeance for who-any-longer-knows-what?” Vermeer’s heroism lay in his attempt to steer clear of such depersonalization. The people in his paintings, particularly the women, are not “a type, a trope or an allegory”; if they stand for anything, they stand “for the condition of being a unique individual human being worthy of our unique individual response.”

For Weschler, Vermeer’s humanistic lens provides a way of viewing Tadic and understanding the work of the tribunals. A man now on trial, Tadic was “not a stand-in for anybody other than himself, a quite specific individual in all his sublime self-sufficiencies.” By rejecting the “epic” habits of typecasting the guilty along ethnic lines, the courts at The Hague, like Vermeer, were inventing peace.

The creative process fascinates Weschler and half the book explores the lives of artists and their work. A two-time winner of the George Polk Award and a Pulitzer finalist, he is an extraordinarily talented writer who exhibits his best in these profiles. His tale about filmmaker Roman Polanski, whose works include “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and, more recently, “The Pianist,” is the book’s masterpiece. Biography and film text intertwine so seamlessly that after a while you do not which is which. And perhaps that is the point of this long essay examining the “uncanny, clammy interpenetration” of a man’s life and his work.

In another piece, Weschler traces in exquisite detail the creative evolution of photo collage artist David Hockney, who moves from painting to Kodak assemblage to elaborate configurations of still shots that convey motion. The essay not only considers Hockney’s technique but his intent -- the basic human urge to depict. The need to render the real world is a “ten thousand-year-old longing,” Hockney tells Weschler. “We don’t create the world. It’s God’s world. He made it. We depict it, we try to understand it.”

Vermeer in Bosnia’s explicit endorsement of international war crimes tribunals is much needed and timely given our government’s persistent efforts to undermine the fledgling International Criminal Court. (We have recently threatened to revoke nonmilitary aid to any country that refuses to promise not to prosecute Americans.) More important, however, is the book’s implicit call to attend to the world in all its confounding details and to hold human beings in long and thoughtful regard.

My only criticism is Weschler’s range of view. The atrocities in his scope -- such as the Serbian persecution of Muslims -- is an acknowledged atrocity as far as American audiences go and therefore safe to consider. We now need someone with Weschler’s depth of perception to look in other corners of the world that remain gripped in epic conflicts, their peoples an indistinct blur.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy has visited postwar Bosnia three times. She is a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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