On the Transit of Toledo

Joshua Cohen

Spring 2018

In the world above our world there lives a race of perfect beings—beings who are perfect because they are unities, because they are wholes—who are always being called down to this world by half-wits and fools, and who only occasionally, in rare foolish moments of their own, heed that call and decide to descend. They come down to us, they come down to us slowly, but then ill-advisedly they speed up their descent as our summons of them becomes more and more impatient and insistent, and, in passing through the nearly imperceptible white sheet that separates their world from our world, they are mutilated, they are maimed. In their passage, their perfect forms become imperfect: deformed.

These deformed forms then proceed to drag themselves around our world, around our highly flawed and polluted planet that we call “earth,” complaining for years, for decades, even in some extreme cases for over a century, about how good it used to be, about how good they used to have it, and how utterly repugnant and defective they are now—whining about how Up There was so much better than Down Here, and about how they were lured Down Here by false representations, by misrepresentations—they were victimized, defrauded, cozened by lies—and they go on like this, these deformed forms, moaning and groaning and just generally making an intolerable fuss for as long as it takes them to fully embody their grievance, for as long as it takes them to become nothing but their rage, in doing so once again attaining a state of total purity, at which point they are allowed to ascend: they are allowed to travel back through that flimsy atmospheric sheet to the world from which they came, and in the process of that return, they mysteriously reacquire their original perfections.

I have the fantasy that were this legend I’ve just related to you to be translated into the terms of some dead language, like ancient Greek or even Latin—were this legend to be translated in that impossible direction, the past—that some wayward ancestor of mine might recognize my description of what’s now known as Neoplatonism. My admittedly completely imperfect description of what’s now known as Neoplatonism.

If Platonism is the belief in perfect forms dwelling in some higher world or alternate dimension, then Neoplatonism is the conversion of that belief to Judeo-Christianity: a revision in which these perfect forms enter our world through a fall—they enter through a fall from grace.

Our earth becomes their exile, and their bodies—which they acquire in their plummet, and which have to piss and shit and age and become flabby and weak and cancered and stuck in traffic—become their exile too. These forms are us, of course. Or they become us. They are our souls, and they can’t wait to get out of here, and be rid of all this dumb flesh and unread email.

There are certain ridiculous bureaucratic situations I’ve gotten into while traveling, or while on a quest for employment, in which I’ve been asked my nationality, and even my gender and my religion—questions which have always irked me and which I always answer as follows: “I am a divine soul trapped in a loathsome body, from which I seek release.”

In response, the bureaucrats who are interviewing me just give their nod, the nod of officialdom, which indicates neither understanding nor nonunderstanding. They shuffle their “forms” and possibly check the box labeled “crazy.” Sometimes I am searched, and my bags are searched. Sometimes I am hired and pitied.

But I am not crazy.

I am just a Neoplatonist, or a practicing neo-Neoplatonist, as I suspect all writers are (though they might not be aware of it).

Joshua Cohen lives in New York City. “On the Transit of Toledo” is part of his first collection of nonfiction, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, forthcoming from Random House this summer.

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