Author Archives: Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen

About Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and most recently Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). He is the New Books critic for Harper's Magazine.

Self-Surveillance

This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchanged ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Today, Joshua responds to Justin’s post from yesterday.

Justin,

I like this idea of the computer being an “extension of [your] bedroom.” But I’m not sure it’s extended enough. Because for me it’s an extension of my bedroom as well, and of yours also, which is to say of Amanda’s too—sorry if that’s creepster.

What I mean is, I’m going to hold you to your Hendrix promise. He deserves more than 45 min.

I can only say that I wish I shared the options of your optimism with regard to the (other) options available. I would like to say the computer has enlarged my world in a positive way, but that would mean my assent to the idea that enlargement-of-world (TK Heideggerian German compound) is or could be positive. Rather to bastardize Wittgenstein I’m convinced that the opposite, not the world, is everything that is the case. I am too much the information addict, too much the hoarder. My head’s an uptown brownstone tenanted by the bros. Collyer, who’ve recently stopped paying rent.

My only hope, I tell myself, is surveillance, self-surveillance. So much of my life is lived under the sign of this limitation, this autorestriction. In the same way I can’t be around drugs, because I’ll take them. All of them. I’ll never keep a firearm in the house (the apartment, I mean, not the Collyer cortex). This is one feature of my personality it’s painful to admit to my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends/myself, but !unsurprisingly! less painful to admit in an email to be posted on a blog to be read by googolions, including, I’d assume, my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends. Myself. One way I have of explaining this unsurprise is through fiction: If I write it, then it can’t be true, ergo it is not true. Another way is through nonfiction: By writing it, I have freed myself to live a fiction (denial). Regardless, it’s a fact that there’s never been an access I haven’t advantaged. It’s also a fact that I derive a certain pleasure from the intropunitive. I feel like, lamb spines aside, I should be paying you by the hour.

It’s out of this regulatory impulse that I wrote Four New Messages—what I told you on that drive up to that crazy Jewish bookery outside Amherst still holds (I was being “honest”). These messages were meant to be instructional, exemplary: “Emission” telling you to be careful about what you say, anything and everything will be held against you not in the divine court/congregation/community marketplace, but everywhere—even by strangers, who are the freshest gods. “McDonald’s” exchanges a sacred fear of words—the Tetragrammaton, for instance—for a profane fear of being labeled “the type of guy who lunches at/writes fiction using the word McDonald’s.” It’s an exercise in typing—not with the keyboard but with the mind: typology. “The College Borough” warns against exogenous ambition: beware of challenging the world. “Sent” warns against endogenous ambition: beware of challenging one’s self. It’s a depressing msg, further burdened with a don’t mistake the real for the virtual sermon straight out of Antiquity, whose transmission was also “wireless”. A crude summation, but at your request and, again, I can’t help myself.

I’ve always loved “the cautionary tale”—stories wherein a hero’s felled by worst weaknesses in a fashion so schematic as to put the lie to art. From Aesop to Belloc’s travesties, to Der Struwwelpeter (my father’s favorite book growing up) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (one of my own childhood favs), these are moral works not just because they contain morals but because of why they were written, or what they were written for/instead of (their justification) (raison d’êtiolation): implicit in all of them, in their very bound being, is this auxiliary lesson that it’s good to make good art, but it’s even better to save a soul. That’s why I chose the title, which rings to me like a companion to How Much Land Does a Man Need? or What Is To Be Done?

Of course I understand how deep my tongue is in everyone’s cheek with all this didactic pedantic pedagogical ethical shit. Obviously too I believe in art, good words (gospels) in good sentences, and haven’t yet discalced the Nikes to go a’begging. But the impulse remains: I needed rules for myself, I wanted rules, and these are they—narratized only because it was never the blank prose of the NJ criminal law code that kept me out of trouble, but the case histories of strangers, acquaintances, friends.

I’d like to conclude by noting that writing itself developed this way (the Book Council will appreciate this, trust me): the ten commandments appear only in the second book of the Bible, condensing a Genesis that less efficiently, but more effectively, formulates/dramatizes what happens when you take a life, lie, cheat, covet.

We’ll sacrifice our lambs on the morrow and dedicate all but their spines to yud hey vuv hey,

j

Posted on August 10, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Quality Grumbling

This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Here, Joshua responds to Justin’s post from yesterday.

Justin,

This is what I’ve come to expect from you—this level trust of gut. It’s one of your best qualities—both as a writer and a friend. And it’s a quality I frankly covet for myself. When you write that it doesn’t bother you to “use the same computer to type [your] fictions as [you] do to write [me] a note about where to lunch on Sunday,” my commonsense alert goes off and I get depressed and crawl into a corner where I smoke and drink icewater and lament my preciosity. (Both you and I know I could have used the word “preciousness.”)

So I’m chastened, but still some quivering gelatinous part of me—say, my knee—wants to maintain that there’s an element of computerwriting that somehow eludes analogizing with writers of the past using the same pen to draft both a shopping list and War and Peace Redux. The computer, for me, has always had a business aspect, or, better, what the MBAs might call an opportunity cost. It seems to professionalize me in ways that disgust. It does this by insisting, by its boxy gray existence alone, the concept that my writing might, will, one day be public. Now my conscious mind knows this, my conscious mind craves this, but I’m not sure that the conscious mind is the best of all minds, for me, to be writing with. I need to fool myself to write. To tell myself nothing matters, no one cares, I don’t care. That the desk and chair I’m describing has nothing to do not only with the desk and chair I’m occupying but with all possible desks (escritoires) and all possible chairs (Aerons) I might access online.

Not that the escritoires and Aerons haven’t helped me, but the computer compels me toward that help.

So yes, yes, our conclusion might be the same: the problem “is not with the tool but with the user.” But then the very moment I agree to agree, Heidegger jumps me with his Ge-Stell, or “enframing”: the artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist. I fantasize, whenever I make a mess of my life, that all equanimities and pragmatisms are just technological enframings of a natural frenzy.

Here, I’ve searched it up for us:

http://ssbothwell.com/documents/ebooksclub.org__The_Question_Concerning_Technology_and_Other_Essays.pdf

This, though, is from The Discourse on Thinking:

“Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. We can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.

“But will not saying both yes and no this way to technical devices make our relation to technology ambivalent and insecure? On the contrary! Our relation to technology will become wonderfully simple and relaxed. We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, that is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time ‘no,’ by an old word, releasement-toward-things.”

In Heidegger’s day I would’ve been too lazy, or too dead, to have typed this out. Thank God for copy/paste.

The German for “releasement” (indeed, Heidegger/his translators, John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, could have used “release”) is Gelassenheit.

That’s a good old word to repeat while waiting for the F Train at 4AM. Continue reading

Posted on August 8, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Promowork: A Necessary Evil

This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Today, Joshua begins the conversation.

Justin,

I hope you’re doing well. I’m looking forward to the lamb spines, certainly. Sunday would be good. They’re on me, of course, of course. I owe you as much plus drinks for your help with this—this—I don’t know what this is. The Jewish Book Council has apparently read and enjoyed this new book of mine, Four New Messages—now that, after Citizens United v. FEC, a for-profit corporation can be considered a person, I feel comfortable saying that a nonprofit corporation can at least read my fiction and enjoy it enough to ask me to write a series of posts for their blog, gratis. Rather the recompense is contained in the idea that these emails-to-blogposts—a medium perhaps appropriate for the book, because the book is set, partially, on the internet—would help publicize the book, would help sell the book to the Jewish bookbuying public (who buys books? Jews, women, Jewish women). I didn’t know what to write, so I roped you out of Park Slope and into public.

Which will be, essentially, our subject.

Now I’ve read a lot of your writing—I’d guess about 4x what’s been published—and you’ve read a lot of mine—let’s agree on the same random ratio(cination). Though most of the writing we’ve sent each other hasn’t been writing-writing, but this: emails. Stuff about what, where, when, a sliver of how—the why’s always implied. In fact, if this were an email only to you and not an open crier type bellringer I wouldn’t have to explain all these facts. We’ve already discussed this exchange. We’ve agreed that you’ll be remunerated for this interlocution in lamb spines at Xi’an Famous Foods. On Sunday. Time and which among the East Broadway, Bayard, St. Marks locations (not Flushing!!), TBD. We’ve discussed, we have, the Jewish Book Council. Their cattlecall auditions that offer Jewish or Jewishish writers slots in various book or bookish events throughout the country. Their general—let’s say shepherding or herding, to continue the metaphor—of the Jewish(ish) (and Jewish[ish] female) reading public(s). We know all this. We also know what it’s like to publish and promote books—to have to promote books—and God knows you’ve given gracious audience to my own whisk(e)y philosophizing over the necessary evil of this promowork, my barstool history take on how writers even just a generation older than us never had to care much about this, really actually didn’t feel it necessary to care much about this because the book advances and criticism gigs paid high enough and living costs were lower.

Also there’s the pride or pride in art issue.

Writers were either dignified or Norman Mailer (which was another form of dignity, perhaps).

But the purpose of this email isn’t to ask you to articulate your feelings about the devolution of authorship/authority via the devolution of PR responsibilities (though if you’re so inclined, go ahead), rather the purpose is to ask you how you feel, specifically, about my writing—our writing—this.

We spend most of our days writing words, some written for an intimation of eternity that to my mind has been projected from the purview of fantasy or dream to that of technology (our writing might last forever—not because it deserves to but because of the bytes), but others written to communicate South of Union Square Chinatown food options/rescheduling due to mass transit malfunction. Yet we write them on the same platform: the computer (to be sure: I use the computer only for journalism and to edit—all fiction’s drafted by hand).

I guess I’m not asking about your process (again, unless you’re inclined to address that)—or about if/how you consider those two types of writing differently (again, again, etc.)—I’m not asking about anything that might be answered better with a sneer at preciousness or, best, the offer of a singleride Metrocard to Maturityville—rather I’m asking about registers, valences, casualness/formality, Truth. How honest should I be about my attitude toward publicity? Should my attitude change and why? What are the uses of distance and estrangement and obfuscation and plain old lying—in life? in fiction? Lastly, until you give me your lastly: Omniscient narration and dialogue in fiction are often delightful when delivered in the same “tone,” and often delightful when delivered in different “tones.” But so many books I’ve read lately—contemporary books—fail to find a convincing similarity (everything overassumes in the vernacular, or bores back to the nineteenth century) OR convincing difference (the narrations stately like Henry James but the dialogues like a scatological Hank Jim). Why is this? Do people—which is to say “nonwriters”—have the same problem “in life”?

Answer those and I’ll spring for the ribs.

-j

Posted on August 6, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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