The current issue of SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism includes a review by Paul Harris of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s book Stone: An Inhuman Ecology (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), which can be viewed on Project MUSE or Highwire. Subsequent to the review’s publication, Harris asked Cohen about his interest in stone and how he came to write Stone.
PAUL HARRIS At the end of your introduction, you cite the “Big Rock,” a glacial erratic on a hill in your neighborhood growing up, as a sort of original inspiration in your lifelong explorations in lithophilia, literary and otherwise. Can you flesh out a bit more how you came to have a strong affective resonance with stone? Are there other specific stones or sites that stand out in retrospect as exerting a particularly powerful influence on you?
JEFFREY COHEN I grew up just outside of Boston, not far from Lexington and Concord … and this geographic situation really matters since when I was a small child the USA was celebrating its national bicentennial. The colonial musketeering, parades and flags and tricorns and redcoats were just too much for me. I became obsessed with deeper pasts. I’m sure that’s why I was eventually drawn to medieval studies. But I was also fascinated by the temporality of stone, how erratics like the Big Rock bore witness to a narrative of swamps and dinosaurs indifferent to the small human histories that bubble and pop around them. The Big Rock (what a poetic name!) was close to home and yet a constant invitation to the faraway. What I did not reveal in the book is that I tricked other children in the neighborhood into believing that if you sat on that rock at the right time of day you would be transported into another dimension and likely not find your way back. Well, maybe there is some truth to that.
I should also note that Stone is a book that keeps beginning: I tell a variety of stories for how I started the project in it, of various landscapes and encounters that triggered the project. Although they contradict each other somewhat, all of them are true, in the same way that stone is process more than object.
PAUL HARRIS I like how the physical and narrative powers ascribed to The Big Rock make it become a portal—one might call it a “fantastic” stone…. Your answer broaches a question that often surfaces in relation to deep time or Big History: is a turn to this temporality informed or accompanied by a desire to escape history? Or at least the politics of the present?
I enjoyed the recursive style and narrative form of Stone very much, and wondered about how such an intricately interwoven book came together, over the “long duration” you reference in the acknowledgements. When did you start working on the text, and what was your method?
JEFFREY COHEN Rather than a fantastic stone I’d call the Big Rock an adventurous one: full of futurity (advent, avenir) through its durability, its intimacy with a long past, its relentless suggestion of possibility. I’m not sure that what such adventurous objects offer is escape from the present exactly: more an unexpected widening of ambit than a flight from particular circumstance. Sitting on the Big Rock was always an essential component of the stories I told: that is, the narratives were always grounded in a time and a place, even if in lithic companionship they attempted to imagine larger prospects.
Stone took a lifetime to compose, since I have always been attracted to the substance. Or maybe the book took about six years to write, with the last three given over almost completely to its composition. It took me a long time to find the form the book wanted, so I discarded tens of thousands of words I’d composed and restructured the volume repeatedly. Once I understood though that the form of the book might perform its argument (because stone is always about recursivity within difference, circuits that open wider at each cycle and yet do come back in time) – and once I realized that I could not pretend that the scholarly and the personal are two disjunct realms — then Stone began to cohere. I was a little too obsessive with the project. Toward the end I injured my shoulder from poor posture at my laptop, a battle scar I still bear. Stone hurts! But I will never tire of its contemplation.
Paul A. Harris is co-editor of SubStance and professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time. His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is professor of English and director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University. His recent work includes the edited collections Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (Minnesota, 2013) and, with Lowell Duckert, Elemental Ecocriticism. Recently he co-wrote a short book called Earth (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in early 2017) with planetary geologist Lindy Elkins-Tanton.