What’s the writer’s obligation during _____?

Way back in 2002, I wrote a post-9/11 article about the artist’s obligation in a time of crisis. It wasn’t as trippy as this one by Wayne Koestenbaum.

The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to play with words and to keep playing with them—not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience. I used the word “awakening” because my eye had fallen on the phrase “to wake the turnkey” from The Unnamable. Who is the turnkey? The warden who holds captive the narrator, if the narrator is a single self and not a chorus. “To wake the turnkey” is a phrase I instinctively rearranged to create the phrase “to wank the turkey.” Why did I want to wank a turkey? Is “wank” a transitive verb? According to the OED, the word’s origin is unknown, and it is solely an intransitive verb, which means it has no object. I cannot wank a turkey. You cannot wank a turkey. We cannot wank a turkey. They cannot wank a turkey. The turkey could wank, if the turkey had hands. I have no desire to investigate this subject any further. Before I drop it, however, let me suggest that Beckett’s narrator, the solipsist who paradoxically contains multiple voices, is, like most of his narrators, intrinsically a masturbator, as well as an autophage, a voice that consumes itself. The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to investigate the words we use; investigation requires ingestion. We must play with our food; to play with the verbal materials that construct our world, we must play with ourselves. Producing language, we wank, we eat, we regurgitate, we research, we demonstrate, we expel; with what has been expelled we repaper our bodily walls, and this wallpaper is intricate, befouled, and potentially asemic—nonsignifying scratches without a linguistic system backing them up, scratches we nominate as words by agreeing together that this scratch means wank, that scratch means cang, this scratch means diatomaceous, that scratch means masks.

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