Dispatches from a Land of Distraction

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Attention reveals a fresh, vital literary voice as it covers seemingly every imaginable topic relating to modern life.”—Entertainment Weekly 

“Joshua Cohen may be America’s greatest living writer.”—The Washington Post


One of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, Joshua Cohen arrives with his first collection of nonfiction, the culmination of two decades of writing and thought about life in the digital age. In essays, memoir, criticism, diary entries, and letters—many appearing here for the first time—Cohen covers the full depth and breadth of modern life: politics, literature, art, music, travel, the media, and psychology, and subjects as diverse as Google, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, fictional animals, Gustav Mahler, Aretha Franklin, John Zorn, landscape photography, fake Caravaggios, Wikipedia, Gertrude Stein, Edward Snowden, Jonathan Franzen, Olympic women’s fencing, Atlantic City casinos, the closing of the Ringling Bros. circus, and Azerbaijan. 

Throughout ATTENTION, Cohen directs his sharp gaze at home and abroad, calling upon his extraordinary erudition and unrivaled ability to draw connections between seemingly unlike things to show us how to live without fear in a world overflowing with information. In each piece, he projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his, and a voice as witty, profound, and distinct as any in American letters.

At this crucial juncture in history, ATTENTION is a guide for the perplexed—a handbook for anyone hoping to bring the wisdom of the past into the culture of the future.

Praise for ATTENTION

“Dazzling in its scope . . . If curiosity is a writer’s greatest innate gift, Joshua Cohen may be America’s greatest living writer.”The Washington Post 

“Cause for celebration and close study . . . [Cohen] will hunt after neglected shards of the past, minor histories, and charge them with an immediacy in the present. . . . He is experimenting with the essay form much more, and more cleverly, than any major American writer today.”The Wall Street Journal

“In Attention, Joshua Cohen makes an eclectic argument for how to improve our lives. . . . [He] tackles a surprising range of subjects to underline distraction’s role in our fraught predicament and to argue that paying attention could help us get out of it. . . . When it comes to making sense of our times with verve and imagination, few authors are more rewarding.”Financial Times

Under the Cover

An excerpt from ATTENTION

It’s a Circle

On the Closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringmaster

I’m the first person you hear in the circus. I give the circus a language. Nothing happens until I say it. Nothing matters until I say it. I take you in. I bring you across. Because people have to be told, they don’t always know how to act in the face of the extraordinary. . . . I don’t know what I’m doing next. I mean, I just lost my job and now I’m getting interviewed. I think I’ll write a book, not a tell-­all. Try and do some hosting, some voicework. People are always bugging me about getting into politics. . . .

The “grandstanding” is over, the “platform” is in splinters, the “bandwagon” has left town. The “tentpole” issues? Forget them. The inclusive “tent”? Without a pole, forget that too. No rings remain into which to throw your hat: The circus is shutting down.

On January 14, 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (henceforth RBandB&BC)—­America’s oldest and best circus, America’s last true touring circus—­announced that it was closing, and six days later the country mourned, with an exit parade, a grand-­finale funeral: the inauguration of Donald J. Trump.

From its very inception, which was coeval with this country’s inception, the American circus has been the imaginative grounds of American politics; its touring circuits became campaign circuits; its audiences became constituencies; its capacities for fame became convertible to power. And so the fact of its folding, especially now, can seem like a tragedy: equivalent to the tragedy of Trump, or even entwined.

At the very least, the shuttering of America’s top big top represents the shuttering of a substantial American culture: a medium, an aesthetics, a way of life, which has been dragging itself around this country, and around the world, under some merged, acquired, or freestanding variation of RBandB&BC’s moniker almost continuously for the last 146 years—­ever since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.

The circus: No other art form has ever been so vulnerable. No other art form has so swiftly become endangered and gone extinct. You can’t, after all, bring about the end of the novel. You can’t, try as you might, suspend the poem. But Feld Entertainment (the circus’s sole proprietor) can drop and—­with a proper display of fanfare, hesitancy, and remorse—­has dropped the curtain on the three-­ring lions-­and-­tigers-­and-­bears-­oh-­my Greatest Show on Earth®, and ladies, gentlemen, and kids of all ages, the loss feels as fundamental, but also as fundamentally contentious, as the death of jazz, or the death of the blues.

Because just like old black music was “appropriated” into newer, whiter pop, the American circus comes to a close having been gutted of nearly all of its major technical innovations, attractions, and acts, which have since gone on—­as if in a descent into an antiseptic ­afterlife—­to become the baseline components of contemporary performance, especially of contemporary recorded or mediated performance.

Not to be a joss (circus-­people slang for noncircus people) by spelling this out, but: The circus was how acrobatics and juggling got to the Super Bowl halftime; it was how magic got to Vegas. The circus trained the animals to sit, stay, and roll over for TV and Holly­wood, and pioneered the stunt work involved with leaping out of a conflagrant speeding vehicle and landing safely, way back in the dinosaur days before CGI.

The chief genius of the circus, of course, was to have staged all this spectacle and more, always more, all at once, and for one low price of admission—­not merely live, but so precariously, proximately live that we the glutted audience were forced to contemplate the mortal risks being undertaken for our entertainment.

The earliest modern “circi” were glorified riding demonstrations, single-­ring answers to that most ancient of questions: What do you do with your soldiers in peacetime? In 1768, on the eve of what the British call the American War of Independence, Philip Astley and his fellow cavalrymen of the Fifteenth Light Dragoons opened an outdoor “riding school” at a track outside London. What made their presentation a circus, in the sense that we’d know it, was that it combined the displays of equestrian prowess—­including trick-­riding, jumping, and military maneuvers in the styles of the Prussians and Hessian hussars—­with interludes of clowning that allowed the riders and horses to rest, and were thought to appeal to women and children. Astley’s most popular routine was, at heart, a lampooning of democracy. It involved a clown, cast as the folk hero Billy Buttons, an everyman tailor who keeps trying to mount a horse to ride to the polls to vote in an election, but can’t quite get his act together: His saddle slips; his boot becomes stuck in a stirrup and he’s dragged; finally, he sits up in the saddle, but in the wrong direction, ass-­facing; he spurs the horse into motion, only to fall.

In January 2016, almost exactly a year before RBandB&BC’s end was announced, almost exactly a year before Trump swore his oath, the following exchange occurred on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD: As you know, people call you a lot of names. Some of it’s positive, some of it’s negative. I want to throw some by you. Let’s see. Some people are calling you the Music Man of this race. Kim Kardashian. Biff, from Back to the Future. George Costanza. P. T. Barnum. What’s—­any of those do you consider a compliment? Or do you—­


TODD: You’ll take the P. T. Barnum?

TRUMP: P. T. Barnum. Look, people call you names. We need P. T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country.

Racism, misogyny, poor-­hating, know-­nothingism—­by that point in the campaign, Trump had conditioned the public to expect anything, everything, from him, except this: insight. This introspection that most of America—­that most of even Trump’s America—­had simultaneously been hoping for, yet hoping against. Here was a Trump who not only appeared to understand Barnum, but also appeared to understand himself.

Either that or he was just repeating the last thing he’d heard.

A year later, however, it’s tempting to wonder whether now-­President Trump has changed his mind—­which is to say, with the end of RBandB&BC, might Trump regard its founder as a FAILURE . . . a LOSER . . . SAD? Or might he still admire Barnum, because though the business is perished, the name yet survives?

The name or, as Trump put it on Meet the Press, the “image”: a conceit for which Barnum, who had the benefit of Gilded Age lexical niceties, tended to use terms like “public opinion,” “reputation,” and “character.”

Also “appearance,” as in Barnum’s nostrum: “Put on the appearance of business, and generally the reality will follow.”

Generally: but not in the case of the circus.

In 1782, one of Astley’s former riders, Charles Hughes, founded his own clown-­and-­pony show, which he called—­in a mingling of Roman imperial and British monarchial gravities—­the Royal Circus, and, in 1793, one of Hughes’s former riders, John Bill Ricketts, brought a rowdier version to America, taking over a hippodrome in Philadelphia, where President Washington was among the first visitors. According to legend, Washington so enjoyed himself that he agreed to sell Ricketts his favorite white battle charger, Old Jack, for $150, and, in 1797, when Ricketts opened a circus in New York City, Old Jack hobbled along, and spent its retirement on exhibition, being fed lump sugar and petted by patriotic strangers.

On the surface, at least, which is where all vain fame addicts are happiest, Phineas Taylor Barnum (b. 1810) and Donald John Trump (b. 1946) might seem to share some traits in common: obsessions with pachydermatous size and promotional hype, along with a manic drive to project themselves, or their wishful selves, for profit. Both entered politics only later in life, capitalizing on their earlier careers as showmen. Both had lucrative sidelines in land speculation and development and mortifying dalliances with bankruptcy; both married significantly younger women (Trump and Melania Knauss: twenty-­four-­year age gap; Barnum and Nancy Fish: forty), inveighed against smoking and alcohol, and wrote or “wrote” volumes of self-­aggrandizing self-­help (The Art of the Deal is basically Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting, just with cruder prose and monetary sums adjusted for inflation by roundabout 200 percent). Both achieved notoriety through making unfulfillable promises to their countrymen who lived in the interior, far from the coasts they called home, and, above all, both amassed their fortunes by lying and then by proprietizing their lies through licensing or “branding,” which in Barnum’s day was more usually performed upon the bodies of livestock and slaves.

That said, Barnum—­who became more liberal as he aged, or just more of a fervent Unionist during the Civil War—­never got any further in politics than two terms in the Connecticut General Assembly (where his big issue, as the owner of an itinerant circus, was the breaking of the railroad trusts) and one term as the mayor of Bridgeport (where his big issue, as the head of a circus that wintered in Bridgeport, was utilities modernization). Trump, by contrast, has by the time of this writing already managed (among much else) to drop the largest nonnuclear bomb in the American arsenal on Afghanistan.

That the first hundred days of Trump’s presidency coincided with the last hundred days of Barnum’s circus seemed a sign. It seemed to represent a final “appropriation”—­not of any circus routine this time, but of a basic circus principle: Chaos, or the artful manipulation of the image of chaos, was now being staged not in the center ring but in the Oval Office.

Kenneth Feld, CEO, Feld Entertainment, owner and operator of RBandB&BC

The biggest resentment I have is when they say Washington is run like a circus. If only it was so disciplined and organized.

Here’s the provenance, the tangled line of succession: In 1870, Barnum and William Cameron Coup established P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, which met with great acclaim, and train derailments, collisions, labor disputes, and fires, until, in 1881, it hitched itself to a rival circus run by two Jameses: Bailey and Hutchinson. After Barnum’s death in 1891, Bailey—­formerly the ringmaster—­assumed control, and after Bailey’s death in 1906, five of the seven Ringling Bros. of Baraboo, Wisconsin—­the sons of a German immigrant (Rüngeling), who’d been running their own circuses since the 1880s—­purchased the remnants of Barnum & Bailey’s, and presented it as a separate enterprise until 1919, when they consolidated all their properties into a lone extravaganza.

John Ringling North, a Ringling Bros. nephew, spent most of the ’50s partnering with, and in 1967 finally sold his family’s show to, a man named Irvin Feld, a son of Russian Jews who’d parlayed the success of his Washington, D.C.–­area record emporium into the then-­novel field of concert promotion, primarily packaging black artists for majority white audiences: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Platters, the Drifters.

America under Eisenhower was in the midst of a building boom, fueled by its large labor force of veterans. To be considered a city in this country—­a true destination city—­you had to have an amphitheater: a War Memorial Stadium or Soldiers’ Arena. This was the last age in which public buildings were still named after public servants or epochal events, and not yet banks or cable companies. But with only eight teams in the NBA and six teams in the NHL, there wasn’t much happening inside them. Irvin Feld, more than anyone else in ’50s and ’60s America, developed and promoted the “content,” whatever would fill the seats.

And so the circus: It was Feld’s innovation to ditch the tent and bring the American circus indoors, and he announced this grand-­scale relaunch with a purchasing ceremony at the Coliseum: not the one in Nassau County, Long Island, where the circus held its last show on Memorial Day Weekend this year, but the one in Rome.

By promoting a relatively luxurious circus experience—­a circus roofed, and amenitized with A/C and upholstered seating—­Feld gave RBandB&BC another half century of life, but also changed the nature of the spectacle. The show, now, had to get bigger by the season, not just to impress in bigger surroundings, but also to reimpress itself on younger generations weaned on screens. What followed was an increasingly unsustainable balancing act, between the circus’s constant adaptation to impatient if not childish tastes and the maintenance of the slower-­paced traditional elements preferred by the paying adults, who yearned for RBandB&BC as it used to be, or as they imagined it used to be: Americana, not America.

But by the time Irvin Feld died, in 1984, and his son, Kenneth, took over, running a circus in this country meant hiring the preponderance of your performers from overseas. The best strongmen were Bulgarian; the best trampolinists were Romanian; the foremost equilibrists were from Russia and Ukraine (often alumni of the USSR Olympic gymnastics program), while most of the horse talent was sourced from Central Asia. In the Soviet sphere, the “circus arts” were always considered official national arts, on par with academic painting and sculpture, and so were supported with state money at state circus schools connected to state circuses. Kenneth Feld would fly behind the Iron Curtain almost annually, seeking performers to sign to twelve-­week stints (the maximum that they were permitted to travel and work in America), and though defections were common, his access was never completely curtailed, because the governments—­acting as talent agents to Feld’s talent scout—­would take a percentage on all contracts, and RBandB&BC deals were reliable sources of hard cash.

With the USSR in collapse, RBandB&BC began hiring a rising number of Chinese performers—­who, along with the current ample contingent of South and Central American performers, helped to put on this most North American, this most proudly American-­American, of shows. These immigrant or, more precisely, these wandering-­migrant performers were doing the jobs that most natural-­born Americans now just can’t or won’t do: hanging upside-­down and executing multiple somersaults between trapezes.

The circus, like the Circus Americanus—­aka America at large—­is and has always been about foreigners and the otherwise Othered putting themselves in harm’s way for the delectation of paying natives. But while both madcap enterprises are decidedly capitalistic, RBandB&BC functions internally like a planned economy, a heterogeneous mobile welfare state governed in toto by a single family (Kenneth Feld’s three daughters are company executives). Due to the logistics of touring, all circus employees receive, in addition to their salaries, full room and board. They eat with the circus, they sleep with the circus. Most of what they casually wear, at least most of their casual outerwear, appears to be circus-­branded. Their children, both the children who perform and the children who don’t, learn with circus teachers and go to circus dentists and circus doctors. Their pets, like the animal performers, go to circus veterinarians. This bizarre but constitutive expenditure is one reason, but only one, why the circus is failing.

- About the author -

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

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Dispatches from a Land of Distraction



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