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.


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:


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.

My tone question was related, in a sense. The computer gives us so many selves, or gives us the option of being so many selves, that what’s needed—or what I need—is some variety of Gelassenheit from a core personality, or from the idea of a core personality. It’s my inability to release—let’s please release all the sex from that verb—that makes me wary of publicity. You’ve asked me to articulate a guiding policy or principle for peddling one’s own book, but that’s what I’d wanted from you—but that’s what you’ve given me. Your formulations are sound, especially this one: “Anything you’re willing to say ‘Yes’ to and actually do, you can be responsible for.”

That sounds, I am serious, like something Jesus would’ve said, had he taken a correspondence course in logical positivism.

I’ll end with the concept you find most interesting—the one I find most interesting too—at least a concept we both can address without getting too bijou philosophical or maudlin: Voice.

It’s true that voice has been troubling me lately. I seem to have become more social/engaged than ever—I have many friends, I read many things—but when it comes to writing I’ve lost any inkling of what one can assume when addressing a reader (or, for that matter, a friend). No, no, I haven’t lost that old power o’assumption—I never had it—and it’s only because I’ve become so friended and am reading so much that I’ve noticed, very recently, this lack.

Lately I’ve found myself very much taken with two ways of writing: very general and direct, not fablespeak but more like late Tolstoy, and very specific and personal/private, oblique, think diaries (Dostoyevsky’s, Pepys’s), letters (Byron’s), think of unbooks, unplanned, accidental, collations (often posthumous, often not intended for publication) of whateverthefuck by Canetti, and, oy, Kafka. Notebooks by Tennessee Williams, Ashbery. Anything in the middle reads, I was about to write “mediumsized,” but more like a sales pitch, an upsell beyond all comprehension. This might be Quality Grumbling—me complaining about contemporary writing without the skill to convince—this might even be Reality Hunger, with a side of fries, but I suspect—pace David Shields—that both those appetites are subsumable under a single rubric: we don’t know how to address one another anymore. Because maybe there isn’t an “other.” Maybe there are only fragments of a “one.” It could be that childhood, for everyone, was more whole and coherent. And that growing up is just this superdistracting superdistractible search for someone or something else. The keywords are “Sie und du,” “monoamine oxidase inhibitors,” “Saturday Night Function (Ellington-Bigard),” and “Gershon Sirota.”

Google “Gelassenheit”—the site autocompletes with “gelastic seizure”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gelastic_seizure


Discover More

Promowork: A Necessary Evil, Part II

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

Younger Than That Now

Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my ...

Putting Myself on the Line

As a book editor, my work had always been behind the scenes. When Ron Rubin (an author I had previously ...