Author Blog: Self-Surveillance
In this week’s installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchanged ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part I here and Part II here. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Joshua Cohen to Justin Taylor:
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,
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 forHarper’s Magazine.
Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.
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