Literary ADHD: review of Joshua Cohen at the London Review Bookshop

Published in Litro

In his classic textbook on The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James famously claimed: “Everyone knows what attention is.” That hasn’t stopped the emergence of an academic cottage industry of studies into attention, by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, educationalists and, now, the postmodernist novelist Joshua Cohen, whose own hyperkinetic prose is symptomatic of a literary permutation of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His most successful novel yet, Witz, with its exhausting shtick of cascading, Kafkaesque clauses, is a trial of attention-holding. It should come as no surprise that the three-time novelist should now turn his attention to that very subject.

He began his talk at the LRB bookshop, as he begins the book itself, with William James’s well-worn definition of attention: “the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” Already failing to hold his attention, Cohen, however, was more interested in James’s definition of its opposite, “the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction”. Curiously enough, his brother Henry, in his novel The Tragic Muse – also from 1890 – likewise alights on the Gallic character of ‘distraction’: “a new distraction, in the French sense, was what he flattered himself he had discovered.” And of course this fact, this sibling symmetry, is nothing more than a distraction from the subject at hand.

Cohen’s contempt for that subject soon became apparent. “I hate attention!”, he declared with gusto, adding: “Of course, you hate what you cannot hold.” He seemed fittingly ill at ease even talking about it, his bespectacled eyes literally lacking the “focalisation” William James defined as an attribute of attention. One gathered that his book is a sort of masochistic act of love, whose seminal result is a meditation on attention that, in fact, says more about attention when not paying attention to it, his Tristram Shandy-esque digressions a poetic pointer to the nowadays unattainable state of attentivity, or “apperception”. Cohen is fascinated by the soupçon of the brothers James that, precisely in 1890, distraction was still seen as “French”. Now, of course, in the age of the internet’s myriad possibilities, we have all become French, distraction the modern malaise.

In both his talk and his book, Cohen is too distracted to see the real significance of both James’ statements and the year they made them. Writing on the cusp of modernism’s efflorescence in the years to come, they were anticipating a movement that would, in part, be defined by that malaise, the futile search for meaning, the inability to find certainty among a multiplicity of competing sources, scriptures, narratives – Kafka’s long, tortured letters are not merely a matter of writer’s block, but a manifestation of the spirit of the age, the inability to focus, to focalise.

Cohen is almost there, typically remarking on its corollary instead, the frenzied state of attention to be come by in the premodern practices of all religions, from Zen to the zikr of the Sufis, the repetition of holy words, mantras, the attention of yeshiva students as they bob back and forth memorising meanings of words possessing absolute certainty. No wonder the first definition of ‘attention’ in English, by William Bonde in 1526, runs: “Attencion or intencion for our purpose here is onely the attendaunce study & diligence that man or woman gyveth to their dede as prayer.” Cohen’s theological erudition is a much-needed counterpoint to the philistine dismissal of that tradition in contemporary letters, only just recovering from the late Hitchens low point, Cohen’s wry dismissal of which (“If you’re averse to religion, skip directly to chapter 4”) is well taken.

That evening Cohen’s wide-ranging, hyperkinetic patter, only a little less barnstorming in person than in prose, threw up some resonant contemporary criticism, like his relation of the rise of attention-related psychometric studies to our broader capitalist climate. Psychologists’ construction of an entirely artificial commodity known as the ‘attention span’ represents, for Cohen, nothing less than the commodification of time itself. An artificial commodity can be manipulated to induce an artificial scarcity and in the ensuing marketplace attention can be purchased and bargained for, an abomination that admittedly resonated with theLRB audience more than it actually made sense.

This was often the case, but it matters little. The thrill consists in keeping up (he confessed that at least half of the book was written while on psychostimulants “both legal and illegal”); if you catch him out the thrill is all the greater. Cohen was distracted by arcane histories of writing systems, noting ancient South Arabic’sboustrophedon style, or “cow-path writing”, where lines alternate left-to-right and right-to-left. But the art of Cohen’s own meandering, boustrophedon digression lay either in a poetic truth about attention, at the very least about its amorphous ungraspability (“attentio” is Latin for “to grasp”) or, miraculously, bringing the digression back home. So after riffing on Semitic stone-chiselling, he explained that the Greek “stilus”, the pen avant la lettre, meant merely a “marker”. This became the Latin “stimulus”. What Greek understood as an instrument for marking, Latin understood as meriting attention. If Witz has already marked out his name, Attention shows he merits attention. Joshua Cohen is nothing less than a modern magus of free association, the very doyen ofdistraction. In the French sense, of course.


Paperback review

Published in The Telegraph, 12/01/13

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

This post-apocalyptic tale begins with the end of the world and ends with a new beginning for humanity. After a great deluge floods the world seven miles out of existence, a single hospital remains, designed to keep afloat by prophetic architect John Grampus. In the self-sustaining, self-contained new world that is The Children’s Hospital, it is up to medical student Jemma Claflin, gifted with magical powers, to lead humanity – Moses to Grampus’s Noah. Adrian, a Harvard-educated oncologist and theologian, peppers his uplifting prose with harrowing descriptions of suffering, richly establishing himself as an American fabulist in the tradition of Tony Kushner (the story is narrated by angels, to boot).

Paperback review

Published in The Telegraph, 12/01/13

Jack Holmes and his Friend by Edmund White

Edmund White’s subtle portrait of gay libertine Jack Holmes and his straight best friend, Will, is a sophisticated examination of two selves that has as much to say about essential human desires as about 60s sexual mores. The novel follows the eponymous duo from their first meeting as writers in early 60s New York until the onset of Aids, charting their relationship as it’s shaped by unrequited love, aesthetic failure and the flowering, then foreclosing, of sexual revolution. Jack Holmes and His Friend achieves a greater clarity and a deeper empathy than White’s previous novel A Boy’s Own Story, and for these grown-up virtues it is worthy reading.

Paperback review

Published in The Telegraph, 12/01/13

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Starting from the premise that God is dead, Alain de Botton nevertheless insists secular society could do with the disciplines and practices enshrined by religion. He argues religion offers boundaries and insights that today’s corporations, universities and buildings lack. A Catholic Mass, for example, is a web of techniques to “strengthen congregants’ bonds of affection” and the Jewish Day of Atonement is a “psychologically effective mechanism” for the resolution of social conflict. Universities with relationships departments and e-Wailing Walls might help replace religion, but in penetrating, stately prose, de Botton ultimately presents religion as the greatest source of practical advice on how to live our lives.

Royal Society of Literature announces Jerwood Awards

Published in The Telegraph

Last night the Royal Society of Literature announced the winners of its annual Jerwood Awards for Non-Fiction at a ceremony in the Savile Club.

The awards – exclusively for works in progress by first-time authors – went to British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai, forensic psychotherapist Dr Gwen Adshead and the critic Edmund Gordon.

Navai, who has won plaudits as a foreign correspondent in Syria, including an Emmy Award for her work on the television documentary Syria Undercover, was awarded £10,000 for her book City of Lies: the Undercover Truth about Tehran, an exploration of the elusive character of the Iranian capital, weaving together the lives of its inhabitants, its colourful history and the rich tapestry of its cultural heritage.

Adshead, a consultant at the Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital in Berkshire, was awarded £5000 for A Short Book About Evil, an anatomy of evil that combines clinical vignettes with studies in psychology and theology.

Edmund Gordon was also awarded £5000 for his much-anticipated biography Angela Carter: the Biography, which will not only tell the story of the life of the English feminist novelist but also the cultural history of Britain in the 1960s.

They join a long list of literary luminaries who first found acclaim at the Jerwood Awards, running since 2004 with sponsorship by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, including Alexander Monro, Selina Mills and Rachel Campbell-Johnston.

The judges, authors Richard Davenport-Hines and Caroline Moorehead, and The Telegraph’s own literary editor Gaby Wood, stressed the importance of the awards as a financial lifeline for writers when most in need of resources.

City of Lies and A Short Book About Evil are both slated for publication in 2014, while Angela Carter: The Biography is due out in 2016.

Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare in the Arab world

This is a podcast from Pod Academy with Prof Margaret Litvin, looking at the curious phenomenon of Shakespeare in the Arab world. In it you’ll learn whether or not Shakespeare was an Arab called Shaykh Zubair, that Shakespeare had already been performed in Yemen within Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and that the most famous Shakespeare ‘text’ in the Arab world is not an early modern English stageplay, but a 20th-century Russian film.


Theatre’s Arab Turn

Published in The White Review

Apart from the odd Shakespearean exception, from Othello the Moor of Venice to the Merchant of Venice’s marginal Moroccan suitor, The Prince of Morocco, Arabs have never pulled off a prominent presence on the British stage. Strictly speaking, the examples cited aren’t even Arabs. However, in recent years a burgeoning fashion for theatre from or about the Arab world has madeBritain host to the Western world’s greatest cacophony of Arabic voices on stage.

As the groundbreaking World Shakespeare Festival comes to a close, it is worth noting a salutary fact amid worsening regional relations: there were more Arabic-language productions in Britain than in any other language besides English: Cymbeline at The Globe in Juba Arabic; Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad at the Swan Theatre in Iraqi Arabic; and a Palestinian Arabic production of Richard II, also at The Globe. There even came a point a few weeks ago where it would have been possible to see Shakespeare in Arabic three days in a row.

One might legitimately ask whether these Shakespeare performances are Arabic voices. Shakespeare was no Arab, although some Arabs have been wont to pass him off as one; an Iraqi literary critic once joked that Shakespeare is an Anglicism of an Arab bard named Shaykh Zubair; who else but an Arab could hate Jews, Turks and the French with Shakespeare’s stubbornness?

Even amid The Globe’s Elizabethan awnings and Tudor beams, no one could doubt while watching the Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre Company’s Richard II that this was an original Arabic voice, especially when a dethroned Richard rots in a morbidly Middle Eastern gaol (not necessarily Israeli, and the better for it). Meanwhile, a symbolically subverted (South) Sudanese Cymbeline sides with the ancient Britons against imperialRome, but – in a postcolonial twist – the Romans arrive dressed in the khakis of British imperialism.

This was Shakespeare directed and performed by Arabs in Arabic. Once, Shakespeare’s Arabs were ciphers for his voice – like countless Middle Eastern politicians, those Arabs were puppets at an Englishman’s mercy. But at the World Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare himself became a cipher for Arab voices. In the Arab world, this is actually nothing new. Shakespeare remains perennially popular fare in the theatres of revolutionaryCairo, strife-riddenDamascus, even on a few, gender-segregated salafist Saudi stages (where, with women forbidden from performing the female roles, performances are arguably truer to Shakespeare than anything at The Globe).

The Arab Shakespeare isn’t English, and indeed never was. Even the most famous Shakespeare text in the Arab world is a Russian film, Grigori Kozintsev’s Gamlet from 1964. Dutifully dispersed in the Middle East by the Soviet Union’s army of cultural attachés, Gamlet’s prison guards, spies, effigies of the dictator Claudius, resonated with Egyptians under Nasser. Only the Prophet Muhammad himself is more commonly quoted than Shakespeare, and lends only a little less legitimacy.

But the Arab appropriation of Shakespeare usually takes an original, and unexpected, turn. The hesitant Hamlet’s existential dithering, translated into Arabic as “Shall we be or not be?”, becomes invested with the radical urgency, once of Arab Nationalism and now the Arab Spring, emblazoned in felt-tip all over cardboard placards at Tahrir Square. Even Islamists were quoting Hamlet at the time of the Danish cartoon controversy a few years ago: “Something is rotten in the state ofDenmark”. Shakespeare donned a turban and went native. Or as they would have said in Shakespeare’s day, he “turned Turk”. This summer, for the first time, Shaykh Zubair visited Shakespeare’s shores.

But Shaykh Zubair is not alone. His visit is part of a much more exciting phenomenon, which involves less ambiguously Arabic voices than the appropriation of a classic, “Western” author. The National Theatre of Scotland’s coincidentally coterminous season, ‘One Day In Spring’, has brought to Glasgowand Edinburghseven new plays from the Arab world – despite the NTS’s parochial remit. The London International Festival of Theatre also includes the premiere this month of Lebanese dramatist Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus, as well as Leila and Ben, a Macbeth-inspired Tunisian tragicomedy, to premiere in July. At Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre curtains have also just opened on Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak’s The Prophet. Why does British theatre now have its sights set on the Arab world?

The topical currency of the Arab Spring is an inevitable influence – the NTS season’s title, ‘One Day In Spring’, as well as The Prophet’s staging as part of the Gate Theatre’s ‘Resist!’ season, somewhat gives the game away. But only somewhat. The Globe’s Arabic productions had already been pencilled in before Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, literally sparking off the Arab Spring. None of the Shakespeare performances had any obvious allusions to these events, not even Richard II, a tale of an over-powerful overlord, overthrown by popular uprising. As the Ashtar team repeatedly professed: “It’s notSyria!” OrEgypt,Libya,Yemen, or any of the countries that have played roles in the drama of the Arab Spring.

The cultural currency of the Arab Spring doesn’t do justice to the full story behind even those plays staged as part of obviously political programmes. Although it is set in Cairoamid Mubarak’s fall, The Prophet is a domestic drama that takes place inside the claustrophobic confines of an apartment. Its protagonist riffs on the benefits of a Brazilian and while her contrived connection between the concepts of “the pubic” and “the public” hint at goings-on outside her private sphere; this is a play whose meaning and reputation will stand above contemporaryCairo.

‘One Day In Spring’ adopts a similar attitude. The season’s eponymous keynote performance, a play curiously “curated” by David Greig from texts by Arab authors, revolves around “24 hours in the Middle East” . It doesn’t shy away from the banalities of, say, a supermarket shopping spree or an off-the-cuff one-night-stand: agitprop, it ain’t. The Guardian’s Mark Fisher even called it a “comic cabaret”, although that’s not quite right. Cabaret is the epitome of theatrical escapism, but One Day In Spring was still a politicised portrait of Arab revolution, just warts and all. It might be better christened a political pantomime, what with its gamely audience shouts of “Down with the regime”.

At any rate, David MacLennan, the producer, was already in talks with Greig about bringing Arab voices to the Scottish stage when events kicked off in December 2010. Pegging the programme to the Arab Spring was more an after-thought, or a marketing move. But if not the Arab Spring, what then accounts for theatre’s Arab turn? One might mischievously note that Monadhil Daood, the Iraqi director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, is married to the World Shakespeare Festival’s director, Deborah Shaw.

In truth, all of this has been anteceded by a little-noted insurgence of interest in the Arab world that has played out in British theatres (alongside galleries, cinemas, publishing houses and university departments) for some years now. When did it all start? Notably, no Arabic-themed theatre production can be traced in the year 2001, but in every year since then a dramatic rise in such productions can be observed. It seems theTwinTowers weren’t the only things to explode on 9/11; an explosion of interest in Arab-themed theatre soon followed and has grown unabated to this very day.

Take the halfway point between then and now, the year 2007, and the upsurge is remarkable. The Arabic-themed theatrical highlights of that year included Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Baghdad Wedding at the Soho Theatre in 2007, recounting the returning experiences of London-based Iraqi expats; David Greig’s Syrian satire of cultural correctness, Damascus (successful enough at Edinburgh for a London transfer); and Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, at the Swan theatre, by Anglo-Kuwaiti dramatist Sulayman al-Bassam.

Unlike a play like Gregory Burke’s Iraq War-set Black Watch (2006), where the Middle East is a dusty, desert backdrop for British characters dealing with British themes, these plays directly address the difficulties of Arab-British relations. Damascus was about a British publisher off to flog textbooks to the University of Damascus, only to have his expectations confounded by a sexy Syrian academic who, for starters, insists that the female illustrations in his books remain unveiled. Baghdad Wedding’s bisexual, pro-invasion Salim also has his perception subverted, turning against Britain after a wedding is wrecked by a missile. Even al-Bassam’s Richard III was hijacked by references to the Koran, kohl and camels,(what to expect from a director whose Al-Hamlet Summit depicted Ophelia as a suicide bomber?). In creating authentic Arab theatre out of a history play set during that most iconically English period, the War of the Roses, it was for one critic “a meta-meditation on the mobility of literature between England and the Arab world”.

Even when the pre-eminent theme of Arab-British relations is not directly addressed within the play’s internal world, the performance of Arab voices in Britain is itself a direct challenge to the status quo of Arab-British relations; once characterised by absence, but now by as impassioned a voice as, say, Raja Shehadeh’s When The Bulbul Stopped Singing (2004), which documents the occupation he endures in Palestine for a British audience whose government tacitly allows it to continue.

Most importantly, this isn’t a one-way process. At the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, Egypt’s first arts festival since its revolution, a panoply of English experimental theatre did the rounds in Cairo. Tim Etchells’s Sight is the sense that dying people lose first was publicised as a “free-associative monologue by a child, a psychotic or a Martian”. Quizoola!, by Forced Entertainment, was an encyclopaedic interrogation of three clowns in shabby make-up, the audience free to leave as and when they please. That wouldn’t have been possible at Ant Hampton’s Ok Ok, where the audience became the performers, communicating with an animated face on a television screen while receiving instructions from headphones. As an Egyptian audience member put it: “it was like being on a kind of mental amusement park ride. The surrender of agency was a relief.” Egyptians have been as surprised by their exposure to British theatre as Brits have to theatre from and about the Arab world.

These populations have long seen each other as crusty cultures. Now a new perception is taking root, one of openness, boldness and non-conformity. The curse of Arab-British relations was that they perennially pointed to the past. Now, in the theatre at least, their images of each other are locked in on the future. Amid the region’s present precarious politics, some hope can be garnered from the theatre as a flourishing forum for Arab-British encounters.

At times relations between Britainand the Arab world have actually galvanised the odd theatrical landmark, most famously John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) set during the Suez Crisis. But right now, we are witnessing the inverse: a few theatrical landmarks are galvanising relations betweenBritain and the Arab world.