Polymath Authors

‘I’m not poet, fiction writer, critic, or academic’

On an overcast evening last November, I met the American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger at a gentrified West Village coffee shop. Having got there early, I was looking out the window to see him approach: an impressively balding man dressed in austere literary attire—faded navy jacket, plain t-shirt, lit European cigarette—placidly weaving his way through a crowd of suited professionals and hip yuppies.

It was an apt image, in its gentle anachronisms. The village, once a cheap artistic refuge, has today turned into a playground for supermodels and hedge funders. Most of its (and America’s) writers have in turn gentrified themselves, leaving society for this or that university. But through these dismal decades of late-capitalism, Weinberger has remained heroically independent: a lonely polymath upholding American modernism from his apartment.

This principled independence is one reason that he’s developed a cult following home and abroad, even if his books have been largely ignored by the American press. I first came across him when a renegade Chinese professor handed me a roughed-up copy of his 1987 pamphlet on translation, ‘19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei’, with the following words: “Weinberger is the only Westerner who understands Tang poetry.” A new version of that book, along with his latest collection of essays, The Ghost of Birds, were recently published in the U.S. They were my pretext for meeting him, though of course I hardly needed one.

‘I’m not poet, fiction writer, critic, or academic’

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Woody Allen voice

Born in 1949, Weinberger is a (more-or-less) life-long Manhattaner with a voice that you can hear in most Woody Allen films. Unlike the glibly insular whites who populate Allen’s universe, though, he has displayed a restless, lifelong curiosity about the wider world.

As a 13-year-old, Weinberger wanted to be an archaeologist who specialised in Mesoamerica. “I was reading all these library books on the Mayans and the Aztecs,” he recalled, “and one day found a pamphlet stuck in one of them: Sunstone by Octavio Paz. It was the first modern poem I read. Barely one page in, I decided to be a writer.” Unlike most middle-schoolers who make dramatic resolutions, Weinberger stuck with his. Through his teens he wrote and read voraciously. He also translated Spanish poetry, particularly Paz’s.

At 19, he enrolled in Yale, only to drop out within a year: “Half the students there were George Bush types,” he said, with lingering amusement, “the idiot sons of prominent families. And it was a boy’s school. I was one of like three hippies so I didn’t belong.” Soon after, he managed to get his translations across to Paz through a mutual acquaintance. The future Nobel Laureate liked them so much he invited him to translate a book: “I was 19, and I wasn’t doing anything. So now I could tell my parents I had something to do!” Thus began a long relationship that continued until Paz’s death.

Spanish literature is only one branch of Weinberger’s xenophilia. Under the influence of Ezra Pound, he embarked on a study of Chinese in his early 20s. “The problem with Chinese,” he now realises, “is that it’s so difficult that you have to devote your life to it. I was too much of a dilettante to do that. By the time I stopped, around the age 30, I had the literacy of an 18-year-old and the fluency of a 3-year-old.” Still, it was a useful education. Today, Weinberger has an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient and modern Chinese culture. He has written about the I Ching and Tang Dynasty art; about dissident poetry (which he’s also translated) and Confucian philosophy. Sentences like these are scattered across his work:

“The most beautiful autobiography in Chinese, Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life (1809) is organized by emotion: the delights of travel, the sorrows of misfortune, the pleasures of leisure. Yuan Haowen (1190-1257)… was a poet-critic in the true sense: that is, most of his criticism was written in verse form—a genre which seems to have dropped out of world literature.”

“On the 24th day of the 4th month of the year 819, Han Yu, Governor of Chao-zhou (Canton), instructed his officer Qin Ji to take one sheep and one pig and hurl them into the deep waters of the river Wu as an offering of food for the crocodiles.”

‘I’m not poet, fiction writer, critic, or academic’

The final piece in (my simplistic) Weinberger literary map is the U.S. itself. A 60s drop-out, he came of age in the heyday of American late-modernist poetry, though it’s the outsiders—George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Loraine Niedecker—not big names like Bishop and Lowell that he favoured. At 27, he even founded a little magazine titled Montemora to promote unjustly neglected writers. Today, its list of contributors reads like an alternative canon: Aime Cesaire, Robert Duncan, Louis Zukovsky, Basil Bunting, August Kleinzahler, a young Rosemarie Waldrop.

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Idiosyncratic prose

What about his own writing? Weinberger’s 20s were a long and wonderful literary apprenticeship, but it didn’t produce much original verse. At 30, he switched to prose, which proved a major breakthrough. “I thought I could take all the things I had learned about poetry,” he told me, “and use it for writing essays.” What resulted is An Elemental Thing a potentially never-ending series of linked essays that, like Pound’s Cantos, is designed to digest and somehow unify all of world history.

Comprised entirely of (often unbelievable) facts, An Elemental Thing is a collection of idiosyncratic prose collages that cover a range of subjects that can only be defined as “everything everywhere from the beginning until now.” Lacking explicit argument but always conveying elusive truths, the essays travel across time and continents, touching on everything from Aztec urban planning to the sex-lives of mole-rats, from supernatural Italian monks to medieval Indian political theory, from Empedocles to Ezra Pound to Walter Benjamin to Mt. Bosavi.

Underlying them is a modernist conviction that all time periods and mentalities are accessible to us. (Pound described this as the “contemporaneity of history”.) Here, for example, is the opening passage of Weinberger’s recent essay on Tang dynasty art: “Women in the courts of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907) painted their eyebrows green; the standard of beauty was brows as delicately curved as the antennae of moths. Foreheads were powdered yellow with massicot, a lead oxide, for yellow was the color of vitality. Plumpness, as in many societies where the masses are hungry, was the ideal and useful, men claimed, in winter: in the poorly heated palaces, a prince or minister could huddle his heftiest concubines around him to protect him from drafts.”

The subject matter is 7th century China, but how immediate it’s been made! Weinberger doesn’t so much narrate history as sing it into existence; that way, the synchronic resonances can be heard. Free from academic contortion, his essays are nevertheless totally rigorous. “I read this 600-page book called The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat,” he told me, “and my family thought I was completely crazy. Then I condensed it down to three pages.”

As the Tang passage suggests, Weinberger doesn’t shy away from the violence and inequality of history. He’s written about the massacres of Kublai Khan, the barbarities of Spanish and Aztec despots, and, in a mauling essay titled ‘The Falls’, even tracked 3,000 years of racial categorisation: from the Biblical tale of Ham to the Rwandan Civil War. That said, his attitude towards life is essentially humanist. Weinberger is attentive to the whimsical and mysterious details of history, and he writes particularly well about art.

In an essay on cross-border cultural exchange, for example, he observes how: “Like the flapping kookaburra in Australia that sets off a tornado in Kansas, poetry operates under its own version of chaos theory: the unpredictable effect of remote, sometimes forgotten causes. A 4th century poet from Gupta India, Kalidasa, becomes a founding father of German Romanticism; Buddhist Jataka Tales turn up in Chaucer; a Finnish pseudo-folk sets the beat for a pseudo-folk epic called ‘Hiawatha’; a 11th century Persian, Omar the Tentmaker (Khayyam) transfixes the Victorians… and, in the 20th century, American poetry is inextricable from Classical Chinese poetry and the Chinese language itself.”

The problem—terrible word—with such writing is that it’s too formally adventurous for American editors. They don’t know how to classify it; as a result, they seldom run his work. Hard to believe, but Weinberger has in fact never written for staid publications like The New York Times or The New Yorker (which is something of a scandal when you consider the stuff they publish…) Only since 2000 has he begun occasionally contributing to the New York Review of Books.

Remarkably, this hasn’t prevented him from reaching a wide audience. With domestic channels blocked, Weinberger turned to foreign publications early in his career—to magazines in Mexico, Italy, Spain, Germany. “So many publications here are locked into their format,” he reflected without emotion, “Whereas abroad they have a much looser idea of what the essay is. Here, I tended to publish in small literary magazines; there I’m in mass-circulation newspapers.”

Weinberger’s books have met a similar bizarre fate. He has published nine essay collections in the past three decades, but till date has received only three reviews in major American newspapers. On the international literary circuit, by contrast, he’s something of a celebrity. And the Mexican government even awarded him their highest cultural honour, the Order of the Aztec Eagle Medal.

“I have stacks of press clippings in Italy and Spain,” he told me with, still bewildered, “But I’m almost never invited to give readings or appear anywhere in America. Perhaps it has to do with my style. I’m not a poet, I’m not a fiction writer, I’m not a critic, I’m not an academic. I can’t be pinned down, so they don’t know what to do with me here. But this isn’t a problem abroad, where the concept of writer is more capacious.”

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Doesn’t like idiots

If aesthetics is one point of conflict between Weinberger and the American establishment, the other is politics. He is one of few contemporary American literary writers—really, you can count them on your hand—who has remained meaningfully political throughout his career. That is, he attends to hard reality—tax policy, military manoeuvres, legal developments, senate meetings—not just “identity politics and its nerd brother, theory.” He’s been scathing of his fellow writers’ incompetence: “After 30 years of self-absorption in MFA and MLA career-mongering and knee-jerk demography and the personal as political and the impersonal as poetical, American writers now have the government we deserve. We were good Germans under Reagan and Bush I; we were never able to separate Clinton’s person from his policies and gave him a complacent benefit of the doubt; and the result is Cheney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and Perle and Wolfowitz and Scalia and Rice and their little president.”

Since most American publications wouldn’t touch writing of this register, Weinberger once again turned to foreign magazines to express his views. He was particularly active in the years following 9/11. His political essays from the time were later published under the revealing title, What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.

Like Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, it is Weinberger’s anti-establishment stance that’s won him most readers. He is best known for ‘What I Heard about Iraq in 2003’, a lyric essay that chronicles the ‘truth drain’ of the Bush Years. An extended anaphora, it’s comprised of a long list of mendacious government claims about the war, compressed and rewritten by Weinberger, each beginning with the phrase “I heard”. First published in 2005, it soon went viral. Eventually linked on over 1,00,000 websites, adapted into protest theatre on various continents, described by Pankaj Mishra as the “most eloquent artistic witness to America’s catastrophic… blundering,” it is today the most read piece on the London Review of Books (LRB), where it was not even originally published.

“I wrote it as an email,” Weinberger told me, “as I was doing with a lot of my political stuff at the time. It’s an ideal format; readers vote with their forward button. That’s how ‘What I Heard...’ ended up in Tariq Ali’s inbox. He then got it published in the LRB.”

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Indian spread

A self-professed “total indophile,” Weinberger’s essays abound with references to classical and modern Indian culture. He’s written about Patanjali, Valmiki, medieval Mewar political philosophy, a 11th century Kashmiri text titled ‘The Ocean Made of Streams of Story’. His latest collection even features a short essay on contemporary Indian poetry in translation. The love isn’t purely textual. Weinberger has spent over three years travelling across India. He’s friends with Sharmistha Mohanty and Siddhartha Deb. I was rather startled to find, reading his 1981 essay on the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, that he knew the layout of Mumbai’s red-light district Falkland Road.

His curiosity has been rewarded. A few years ago, Weinberger was hired by the Murty Classical Library to be their literary editor. It’s the closest thing to a day-job that he’s ever had. The only non-specialist on the board, his role is similarly idiosyncratic.

“So many of these scholars know everything about the original language,” he told me with typical self-deprecation, “but communicating in English is totally another question. I’m there to check the readability, to line-edit, to see if the notes are useful. Basically I’m the man-in-the-street English language reader.”

He’s not the type to take much pride in his posting, but I believe it’s a testament to Weinberger’s wider achievement. “The Murty Library is a 100-year project,” he told me, “I should get reincarnated so I can finish my job.”

The author is a New York-based writer.


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