u_topn picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

From Shapinsky's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True-Life Tales, by Lawrence Weschler

The pieces collected in this volume generally began betwixt and between. That is to say that over the years, especially after I joined the staff of the New Yorker in 1981, I developed a pattern of shuttling back and forth between heavy political themes and more lighthearted cultural ones. Or so, anyway, did I come to explain myself to myself. I used to imagine that these cultural forays cleared the palate, as it were, between courses of heartier political fare. They were recreations -- occasions for re-creation. Thus, for example, I might parse the comic adventures of a frantic Indian schemer at the highest reaches of the contemporary art world between stints of reporting on marital law in Poland and torture in Brazil. I'd flee to these bright cultural venues as temporary respite from the darker political topics, which nevertheless continued to exercise a deep pull on my concerns.

But in rereading many of these cultural pieces in preparation for the current volume, I've come to see that such simple dichotomies won't do; they explain neither what I nor what my writing has been about. To begin with, these cultural pieces are themselves often quite political: the story of the hell-bent Indian, for instance, opens out onto some fairly complex and subtle terrain involving the distribution of power in the art world. Beyond that, many of the central themes in my political reporting made their first appearance in these lighter venues, or else were recapitulated and refined there.

Thus, for example, the theme of passion. I used to speak loosely of these as my "passion pieces" without even noticing that I'd earlier titled my book on Solidarity The Passion of Poland. In all my writing, I guess, I have been concerned with people and places that were just moseying down the street one day, minding their own business, when suddenly and almost spontaneously they caught fire, they became obsessed, they became intensely focused and intensely alive -- ending up, by day's end, somewhere altogether different from where they'd imagined they were setting out that morning. Many of the finest theorists and activists in Solidarity used to describe that movement as an expression of "the subjectivity of the Polish nation," by which, they'd explain, they meant its capacity to act as the subject rather than the obejct of history. Such transformations are, at root, grammatical -- an entity that was content to receive the action of its sentences now suddenly demands itself to initiate such actions -- and are, of course, metastable. They are perpetually up for grabs and under siege (indeed, in the political realm, states of siege are launched precisely to upend them), but once they've occurred the field of play is forever changed.

Similarly, these passion pieces are punctuated with grace notes, and this mysterious working of grace is something I've likewise often considered in my political reporting: grace in its original sense as gratis, for free. Once works and works and works at something, which then happens of its own accord: it would not have happened without all the prior work, true, but its happening cannot be said to have resulted from all that work, the way effects are said to result from a series of causes. There is all that work, which is preparation, preparation for receptivity, but then there is something else beyond that which is gratis, for free. August 1980 in Gdansk, Poland, would never have happened without the years and years of tenuous labor by a small band of seemingly marginal activists -- no one denies this -- but when that strike suddenly happened, it seemed to come out of nowhere, to happen all by itself. Everyone still talks about this (particularly the activists), talks about and wonders at the sudden overwhelming sense of rightness that descended on the place at that moment.

The descent of grace, like the upwelling of passion, occurs in the lives of individuals as well as in the lives of polities, and though such occurrences are often fraught with significance, they can aslo be quite comical as well. There is something both marvelous and hilarious in watching the humdrum suddenly take flight. This is, in part, a collection of such launchings.


Return to the Atlantic Unbound interview with Lawrence Weschler.

Discuss this excerpt in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

From Shapinksy's Karma, Boggs's Bills, and Other True-Life Tales, by Lawrence Weschler (North Point Press, 1988), pp. vii-ix. Copyright © 1988 by Lawrence Weschler. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search