The Spring Issue: Joshua Cohen
March 17, 2011 | by Moe Tkacik
Okay, so: mostly what I loved about this story was a meta-thing, which was that it was not true.
“Meta-thing”—that sounds like a nefarious robot, or a late-night omelet. Anyway, I’m with you; it’s not true, it’s fiction.
But I am still too traumatized from the daily onslaught of interactions with Internet people and their tsunami of experiences and opinions and consumer preferences to know how to fashion prose from anything other than what I know or feel at any given time actually happened and/or was true. Which is to say, I know for a fact this story, “Emission,” about a twenty-something exposed on the Internet as a sexual deviant, is based, partly, on “real-life events,” because you admitted in an earlier e-mail to being inspired by a terrible night we spent with that dreadfully boring coke dealer someone inadvertently brought home one night after an n+1 party, a Tunisian I’ve been condemned to wonder about repeatedly, unimaginatively, since Tunisia spread the Facebook meme of democracy across Arabia.
And yet, what I see as a composite sketch of an unremarkable, ruined evening becomes a vivid fable almost by magic once the characters have been outfitted with better names. There is Richard Monomian-cum-Dick-cum Mono—conjuring up onanistic activities (su mano); dread diseases contracted through insanitary contact with adolescents; the lone son too simpleminded for his father’s polynomials, his solitary life and single Google hit, et cetera, et cetera. And Emmanuelle and the unsavory fumes of her Emission blog, collateral damage of the benevolent reign of the omniscient God that is the Internet; fearless, prolific Emmanuelle who is crucified merely for delivering truth. May she rise again in the sequel?
There won’t be a sequel, I don’t think (unless you decide to write one and post it online without approval). But as for “inspired by”: yes, Methyl, the dealer in “Emission” is half based on that “Tunisian” (read: New Jerseyan) coke dealer we brought home that night, who so mercilessly hit on you and, I believe, stayed for breakfast. My man’s other half is another dealer who calls himself, seriously, Blo J. When I used that name in the story, Lorin suggested, “Change it. No dealer’s called that.” Good edit, bad sense of reality. Let that be the slogan for the “new” Paris Review.
See, that would infuriate me! Almost every great career disappointment I can think of right now essentially came down to some gatekeeper telling me my story was too weird, too big, too crazy, unbelievable, that the “characters” weren’t sufficiently sympathetic. But what about the part where it actually happened? The world is nothing like your magazine editors and book agents would have you believe: it is much weirder. It has gotten so I’m stubbornly defensive about literal facts. I’m addicted to amassing evidence; I can’t emerge from discovery. I’ve become what I hated so much back in Catholic school: a nun made us write an essay on the question of whether Gregor Samsa did, actually, become a bug.
I remember this despite having repressed almost every other detail of high-school existence because I found it so infuriating that someone would bother an entire class—generations of classes!—with such a pointlessly literal question. But so much of the conversation about books seems consumed with zealous fact-finding pursuits into the real characters and intentions of authors: Who was and wasn’t a raging misogynist/communist/hypocrite/bourgeois snob? Is Josh Cohen so cagey and inscrutable because he’s an asshole who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else? It seems to be an affliction larger than me and journalism and the Internet.
Moe, here is your new assignment. Answer the following questions: Was Samsa a bug? Was Kafka Samsa? Does that mean that Kafka was a bug? Can Kafka be Samsa-as-bug without becoming, himself, a bug? Would Kafka have to first become a bug before becoming Samsa? Or could Kafka become a bug first who, then, in an effort to understand his humanity, “becomes” Samsa? And isn’t the nature of that scare-quoted “becoming” a sign of human, or humanish, intelligence otherwise unknown among the insects? Okay, here is how I understand The Metamorphosis in contemporary terms: Kafka, tired of keeping his diary (that password-protected, or merely locked-drawer, blog), starts a real blog, online, on which he posts as a bug—“Abug”—and, because nobody reads his blog, he begins commenting on his “own” posts as “Samsa.” Academia, or rather the study of literature, begins when “Samsa” starts his own blog, which has more followers than “the original."
I want to talk about Emmanuelle. I think we were supposed to see Emmanuelle as a ruthless troll, a merciless snitch who lays waste to Mono’s employment prospects with a bratty Tumblr, rendered invincible in part by the thin patina of feminist “serviceyness” in which she semicouched the original post. She totally sucked, almost as bad as her obsequious band of mostly anonymous commenters. (And did I already thank you for sending her to Princeton, which is one of the few schools more obnoxious than Penn?)
But anyway, my (typical? quite deliberately engineered) reaction to the blogger cunt was interesting to me precisely because I have personally detailed the pervy behavior of real-life dudes, extensively, on the Internet, for pageviews. In all of my cases, of course, they were asking for it, but whether or not Richard Monomian “did” what Emmanuelle says he “did” doesn’t matter, because merely thinking that scenario up bespeaks TOO MUCH INTERNET PORN.
The primary difference between your “journalism”—do you mind that I scared-up quotes for that, too? I don’t mean to offend, just to say that there’s a degree of personal/avenging angel activism in what you do that’s entirely of the Internet, and entirely at odds with that mid-twentieth-century journalistic ideal/dodo bird we call objectivity—anyway, the primary difference between your “journalism,” as I was saying, and Emmanuelle’s ruthless trollism, is that you are/were advocating for the validity of your own experience: you are/were consciously transgressing that objectivity standard in favor of presenting the perspective of what might charitably be called “the I’m trying to be objective subject,” i.e., invoking that common online belief that ostensibly dispassionate reporting is just one mode of reporting, one mode of many, and obviously cannot always be expected, but also might—on occasion, every full moon—be expected, from someone like yourself who not only reports the “news,” but also is the “news.” Especially in your if-only rape situation, which was not witnessed by a third party, and certainly never adjudicated, the only standard we can maintain is that there can be no standard, and that if you say you were not raped, we have to believe that you were not raped (unless Paul Janka decides to claim otherwise, in which case I’d believe, which is to say disbelieve, you both but would have Mr. Janka committed). Emmanuelle did not witness Mono’s “transgression.” And she certainly wasn’t his victim.
Is there anything unfortunate about you on the Internet?
Not yet. But there are a lot of Joshua Cohens.
My name has always referred pretty much singularly to me, whereas your name is completely generic. An ex-boyfriend used to use his Hebrew name because he suffered from your same predicament. I recently reviewed a great book, The Economics of Good and Evil, which postulated that Adam Smith is associated with “invisible hand” market deism mostly because Adam Smith is a great name for a first man of economics. Are there any other formidable Joshua Cohens out there? I think I’m Facebook friends with at least two, neither of whom, I am pretty sure, are you.
I know of: Joshua Cohen the political scientist, formerly of MIT, presently of Stanford; Joshua Cohen the mayor (D) of Annapolis, MD. I’ve found: ten gynecologists, eighteen tax attorneys, three rabbis, JC of Las Vegas ISO squash and/or racquetball partners. Joshua Lionel Cowen, formerly Cohen, inventor of the toy train. Yehoshua (my Hebrew name) Cohen, the Lehi assassin and, later, bodyguard to Ben-Gurion. As for the Internet—isn’t it enough that we’re friends in the flesh? I miss you!
Yes! But are you a man with secrets, whose exposure on the Internet would be dismaying? I’m only asking because you don’t really seem like a guy who is hiding much.
I’m hiding everything, Moe. Secrets, like sweat glands, are necessary. Total transparency would deny me—I don’t know—that useful 3 A.M. inner conflict? Public diction—by which I mean exposing everything about myself online—would hinder private contradiction, or let’s say this inner inconcinnity I’m nurturing, which I think might be necessary to creativity (translation: life’s flaws are the work’s perfection). How can you “contain multitudes,” when the computer does it for you? Never underrate the value of the intropunitive! My parents taught me that. And the rabbis ...
I’ve always been discreet, more than discreet. When a friend calls and I’m doing something innocuous, like cooking dinner, I tell them I’m reading, or running out to the movies. It’s the surveillance I can’t stand. For example: I’m not home, I’m in Kansas, but I am home. It’s snowing out and seventy degrees. It’s fifty years from now and I’m reading this answer online. I’m still not answering your question.
When you say you have secrets, do you mean you might have surreptitiously enriched yourself via some privatization scheme in Eastern Europe? Big secrets? Or just secrets of the “unfilmable night” variety? Were I assigned to profile you would I turn up anything “sensational”?
I’ve never enriched myself via privatization schemes in Eastern Europe. I once couriered a large sum of money over a border, a very large sum, so my, um, employer could avoid paying taxes, but I kept the suitcase closed (anyway, it was locked), and he paid me in dinner and—let’s just say he paid me in dinner. Were you assigned to profile me I’d rush out and get an assignment to profile you—we’d ask for advances (indeed, it’s a fantasy!), then take the Greyhound down to Atlantic City, where I’d lose my share at poker then borrow from you, at interest so low it can only be offered by sympathetic (read: uninsured) financial reporters, and then I’d act all magnanimous while “I” bought you drinks.
I am curious what real-life Internet scandals might have inspired you. Unless that is one of those things about which you insist on opacity.
I’m not insisting on opacity—there wasn’t one specific scandal that inspired. The idea wasn’t to dramatize anything real, rather to write something “exemplary” (yes, yes, hello Cervantes!), something almost didactic, a story with a moral. As for women taking to Sunday hungover blogging in a Great Internet Feminist Rectification (GRIEF REC), I’m not sure that such a hope, or suspicion, is anything more than typical male sexual paranoia: the result of the desire to be known as a sexual alpha (which is extremely male), at odds with the desire not to be known for having done “wrong” (which is extremely human).
Readers know that the Internet was invented by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels1, 1721–1725.
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The first Professor I saw was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room; he said, perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas by his contrivance, the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematicks and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study. He then led me to the frame, about the sides whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.
Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.
He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”
I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”