Review | Not Working by Josh Cohen

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Eliza Haughton-Shaw


Defying gravity

Not Working: Why We Have to Stop, Josh Cohen, Granta, 2020, 304pp, £9.99 (paperback)

At the start of Not Working, Josh Cohen reflects on the experience of caring for a friend’s rabbit, Rr. Expecting to develop some relationship with Rr., Cohen, a practicing psychoanalyst, finds himself frustrated with the rabbit in the same way that small children are, when confronted with babies or domestic pets who prove indifferent to their affections. Over time, however, he develops a begrudging respect for the fluffy insolent:

Sitting alongside his run, drained by the day’s demands, I would watch him shuffle across his parallel universe and make contact with the same secret, self-enclosed blankness in myself. I related to his incapacity to relate to me. Losing myself in his empty stare and aimless busyness, I felt empathy, and a little envy, for his indifference to the world’s and my existence.

Cohen’s book is full of such closely observed moments, in which what is desired is precisely the negation of desire, desire being the the thing that separates us absolutely from the often-enviably tensionless existence of Rr.

In a world where economic priorities dominate our lives – from zero-hour contracts to points-based immigration systems to digital technologies which encourage round-the-clock working – the pressing question becomes: when and how do we stop? A proliferation of ‘post-work’ literature assesses the future of a world without work, but Cohen takes – perhaps appropriately – a less directive approach to the question of how to rescue ourselves from activity.

The chapters of Cohen’s book are divided along the lines of four types – the burnout, the slob, the daydreamer and the slacker – and float informally between different literary modes, combining memoir, psychoanalytic case study, essay, and biography. Of these, the autobiographical moments are sometimes the weakest. (Cohen, unlike Freud, fails to allow for the same process of analysis when he turns the focus on himself.) We are less interested in the writer’s reluctant piano lessons or failed gap year than in the nuanced accounts of his patients: Chris, for instance, who suddenly stops going to his banking job and lets himself eat all day. His willingness to let himself go turns out to be a victory of a kind against the parental expectations imposed upon him as a child, symbolised by the marine cut forced on him by his father at fourteen: ‘that was kind of it, from that moment on. That was the cut.’

These modal shifts are partly reflective of the book’s larger project of relinquishing rigor or fixated concentration in favor of an untidier experience of wandering or Barthesian drifting: the greatest success, in Chris’s story, is the walk he takes without knowing where he is going. Rather than evolving incrementally, Cohen’s chapters resist progressive argument, operating more like overlapping conceptual circles than a chronological line. This often works, although the wish not to give us answers can feel evasive as well as challenging. Psychoanalysts, we read, nurture ‘a certain suspicion of the question ‘What should I do?’, yet the exemption offered by the analytic room does not extend so readily to less privileged enclaves, where it is less obvious how unproductive uses of time might have permission to flourish.

The organization of the book reflects Cohen’s sense that developmental narratives always operate backwards as well as forwards. Here, he is influenced by the work of the British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott. Human development, according to Winnicott, is only attractive if it is also reversible; if it can be relinquished again in favour of the states of aimless drifting or non-integration we enjoyed as babies. These unintegrated states become accessible again when we manage to let go of the experience of ‘doing’ in favor of ‘the simplest of all experiences, the experience of being’. Psychoanalysis offers one possible model for ‘being’, as an experimental space relieving us of ‘the pressure to produce, to formulate a solution, to get somewhere’; art offers another, and each of Cohen’s chapters ends with a meditation intertwining the biographical and creative lives of a different artist: Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Emily Dickinson, and David Foster-Wallace.

Borrowing from the lives of the creatively fruitful, Cohen suggests how much stasis and inertia there is within these lives, and how intimately art may resist (as well as produce) work. Rehearsing the well-worn ideas of Freudian analysis in impressively clear and jargonless terms, Cohen observes Freud’s bias toward productivity. Instead, Cohen shares Winnicott’s conviction that our psychic lives are potentially and often pleasurably motiveless. For both, creativity involves a reawakening of the omnipotence we enjoyed as babies, before the gravity of adulthood bore us down.

The human figures in Cohen’s book – from literary characters, to artists, to patients – are haunted by differently ‘weighted’ moments in their own developmental lives. His alignment of lightness and imagination alerts us to the links between matter and metaphor: one of Cohen’s strengths lies in showing how our physical bodies get caught up in our imaginative lives. The writer remembers, as a sluggish child, his imaginative identification with the heaviness of Schultz’s Charlie Brown, who, falling ‘WUMP’ to the earth, offers ‘a vision of formless collapse as a cosmic destiny’; those who portray weightlessness most busily, and enchantingly, are the daydreamers, whose capacity to be busy inwardly while appearing to ‘do nothing’ is ‘a kind of defiance of gravity, a rising above the laws . . . that govern life on earth.’

Like Winnicott, Cohen renders his theoretical ideas in disarmingly simple terms, through moments of metaphorical dexterity. The ideas of ‘being’ and doing’ are convincingly embodied in the repeating metaphors of weight and weightlessness: while ‘doing’ drags us downwards, ‘being’ allows us to revoke the burdens of gravity, however briefly. Observing children’s attraction to bubbles, kites, and floating things, Cohen describes aging, movingly, as a process of ‘renounc[ing] levitation, first as a physical aim and eventually as a mental state.’

Metaphor invites the revelation of unexpected correspondences although in its weaker moments it offers the writer an alibi against systematic arguments in favour of echoes and rhymes. For instance, Cohen is drawn repeatedly to moments where inertia commands energy. Describing a patient who is terrified of acting – because action obliterates other possible futures – he is fascinated by how ‘the dead end of her circular reasoning was always enlivened by the creative bite of her language’; elsewhere, the paradox of Emily Dickinson’s poems of weariness is ‘that they render these states so vividly’; and again, ‘in a striking paradox, the pyrotechnical energy animating [David Foster] Wallace’s sentences issues from a voice apparently depleted of vitality’.

If these rhetorical paradoxes evoke the dynamic gesture the book wants to describe, they also suggest the book’s tendency to settle into nested or parallel formulations of the same idea, sometimes indulgently. Ultimately, though, Cohen’s book is too likeable and full of compelling details for this to be much of a shortcoming.

In its simplest form, Not Working is a defense of our human balancing acts. We both fear and desire the inertia which overcomes us in our most secret moments, which the book encourages us to preserve (of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Cohen writes that it faithfully immortalises ‘a spot in us that . . . would surrender to entropy’). Without providing answers, it offers a timely encouragement to the reader to stop ‘doing’: it is a message with especial resonance in a moment of ecological crisis which demands that we invent alternatives to progress.

Words by Eliza Haughton-Shaw.

For more information and to buy Not Working by Josh Cohen, visit Granta Books.

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Eliza Haughton-Shaw is a writer and academic. She is currently writing up a PhD on literature and eccentricity at the University of Cambridge.


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