Day 103: Film editor Walter Murch for Profilia

Another profile on the list for possible inclusion in the anthology Profilia, which is coming latter this summer, is one of my last pieces for Johns Hopkins Magazine, about film editor, sound designer, and polymath Walter Murch. Here's a bit that begins with the journalist Lawrence Weschler:

Weschler sometimes talks about how Murch used to carry around a cloth sack filled with slips of paper. He would extend the pouch and urge you to take out one of the slips. Each one carried a snippet of text, something Murch thought you might find interesting or provocative: “Translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing—Robert Bresson.” “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it—Albert Einstein.” Receive email from Murch and you will discover that to each note, Murch appends not an email signature but an image or curious fact. In my correspondence with him, he has sent a photo of a 4,650-year-old pyramid at Meidum, Egypt; a portrait of Vasili Arkhipov with the story of how, as a Soviet submarine officer in 1962, Arkhipov vetoed the impending launch of a nuclear torpedo at a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Cuban missile crisis; a diagram he devised to show the atomic particles of the standard model of physics; and a microphotograph identified only as “cross-section of Gustav Klimt’s neurons.” All byproducts of time spent in various rabbit holes.

“Right now, I’m obsessed with the object called Plimpton 322, which is a piece of clay with cuneiform mathematics on it that seems to indicate that 3,200 years ago, the Babylonian Sumerians knew about the Pythagorean theorem and had a kind of trigonometry,” he says. (Pythagoras, again. With Murch, things have a way of coming back around for new convergences, as you will see.) “I’ve been riding that particular hobby horse for the last couple of months. I wrote a paper on the Pythagorean theorem for a course in high school and probably ran across Plimpton 322 then. It was in the news again two or three months ago for some research that some mathematicians have done in Australia. There’s a real tug-of-war between people who believe that it is a trigonometric table and people who think that it isn’t. So, I was trying to determine for myself what it was.” He has been using mathematics software to work out what might have been the Sumerian math. “It’s written in sexagesimal mathematics, which is how the Sumerians worked, base 60 rather than base 10, so you have to convert the numbers. Once I did that, it all seemed pretty clear to me. I finally came down on the side of yes, it is definitely a trigonometric table. It has what we’d call tangents and secants and that kind of stuff.”

The tablet, he says, looks to be an exercise book that would be given to a student. It has four columns and 15 rows. One column is the number of each row, one the length of the hypotenuse of the triangle, one the length of the “short” leg of the triangle. “And the last column is the square of the tangent of the angle shared by the hypotenuse and the short leg, and this would permit a smart student to derive the length of the missing long leg of the triangle,” Murch says. “It’s just a remarkable thing to think that 3,200 years ago, people were dealing with pretty sophisticated mathematics. Then it all seemed to disappear. There was something called the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 B.C. that decimated the civilizations of the Near East, and a lot of that information was lost and had to be recovered later. It was kind of like our Dark Ages in Europe.”

He is patient while he waits to see whether anyone in astrophysics takes up his ideas about Titius-Bode. “These things take time,” he says. “I’m perfectly happy in my rabbit hole. I have a day job making movies. I don’t watch television, so I have to do something in the evening. My wife knits, and I sit here doing pyramid stuff or Plimpton 322 stuff. She shows me her knitting and I show her my diagrams and we each say, ‘That’s nice, dear.’”

Day 77: The exemplars

The exemplars, unordered:

  • John McPhee — For being the consumate deep reporter, for prose that is the perfect alloy of precision and grace, for devotion to craft.
  • George Orwell — For his willingness to stare down anyone with acute questions, and his commitment to saying what was true.
  • Bob Dylan — For his work ethic, and for doing what he wanted to do and fuck everyone who was unhappy about that.
  • Walter Murch — For exemplifying the inquiring mind and the amateur scholar.
  • Christopher Hitchens — For courage, and for a savage wit wielded so well.
  • Lawrence Weschler — For being the model of the polymath scribbler.
  • Annie Dillard — For being a modern transcendentalist, for her unique and dexterous mind, and the best book on writing.
  • Craig Mod — For his thinking about the future of the book.
  • Seth Godin — For his wit, his nimble mind, and his clarity. And for always raising a ruckus.
  • Austin Kleon — For one piece of advice: Show your work.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin — For her defense of genre fiction, and for her steadfast and always courteous cussedness.

Day 61: Lawrence Weschler

Portrait of Ren Weschler by David Hockney

Portrait of Ren Weschler by David Hockney

In 2005, I booked the writer Lawrence Weschler as keynote speaker for a conference of university magazine writers and editors. Weschler is a very smart guy, a polymath and author of several fine books, including Boggs, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, and Waves Passing in the Night.1 His address did not land well with the audience; it was a bit of an indulgent ramble delivered with little energy. But he said several things that have stuck with me for a good 10 years, including this:

Everything in the world comes about as it is because it had to be that way. The writer’s task is to figure out all the interconnections that made it the only way it could be.

What an ambition for a piece of writing. And what an interesting deterministic view of the universe. (I think he's right about the writer's task, and right about the universe. But I could be wrong.)

Another of Weschler’s points was that all nonfiction writing is fiction:

All narrative voices—but especially the voices in true narratives—are themselves fictions. The world of nonfiction writing is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it—a division that is roughly contiguous with that between writing that’s worth reading and writing that’s not. Nonfiction texts are fictions in that they deploy the devices of fiction (pacing, modulation of voice, considered sequence of revelation, irony, metaphor, etc.) but even more so in that they are constructs (they’re composed, they’re in-formed and made up).

I think he's right about that, too.

Oh, and that first quote, about the writer's task? It's a paraphrase. Weschler said, in his keynote address, that in all of his many stories for The New Yorker and his books, he never quoted anyone verbatim; instead, he placed within quotation marks what he believed they meant to say, faithful to the meaning if not the exact utterance. He claimed that in all the time he'd been doing this, no one had ever complained about being misquoted.

Years later, I had the chance to bring this up with a fact-checker from The New Yorker. She was taken aback and visibly uncomfortable. Maybe even sorry she'd heard about it only now.


1 The latter book was written about film editor Walter Murch, and featured in my own story about Murch for Johns Hopkins Magazine. You can read that one here.

Lawrence Weschler maintains a website here.