Jesse Jarnow

the light of l.a.

If Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an album that has inextricably bound me to a group of friends, then Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders is its literary equivalent. The book, as well as David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which it is about, have been the root of a half-dozen convergences in my life — doubly strange, given the importance of the word “convergence” in Weschler’s vocabulary.

In 2004, Weschler — a former New Yorker correspondent — published Vermeer in Bosnia, an eclectic collection featuring pieces about the director Roman Polanski, artist David Hockney, Shakespeare, war trials, and many other topics. Several of the pieces focus on Los Angeles, including a beautiful, brilliant entry called “The Light of L.A.” In it, he surveys filmmakers, artists, scientists, and poets, synthesizing it all into non-fiction transcendence.

Weschler has just learned of “airlight,” a scientific term describing the interference between one’s eye and the mountains beyond, when there seem to be “a billion tiny suns between you and the thing you’re trying to see.”

The next morning, I happened to be jogging on the beach in Santa Monica, heading north, in the direction of Malibu, as the sun was rising behind me. The sky was already bright, though the sun was still occluded behind a low-clinging fog bank over LAX. The Malibu mountains up ahead were dark and clear and distinct, and seemed as if freshly minted. Presently, the sun must have broken out from behind the fog bank — I realized this because suddenly the sand around me turned pale purplish pink and my own long shadow shot out before me. I looked up at the mountains, and they were gone: lost in the airlight.

1 Comment

  1. Eric says: - reply

    Convergences, eh?
    Wechsler’s “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees : A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin” is an amazing book about art and perception. Irwin designed the Garden at the Getty Museum in LA; this book profiles him and his work more than a decade earlier.