Joseph “Bozart” Cohn lives in a small apartment where a double-screen PC, glowing and humming, towers over an unkempt bedroom and the unkempt-ness of Cohn himself, who had not shaved. He offered me a Guinness, the only drink of the house, but I declined.
Better known by his username, Bozart, Cohn has more than two hundred Youtube videos featuring his Minecraft creations. Cohn has his own entry on the Minecraft Wiki, and his mods are legendary. Trugrav, for example, adds a physics engine that replicates structural necessities in any in-game building. In other words, a stone castle must have appropriate architecture or it will collapse. Cohn created the mod “because it felt like cheating to set a flying buttress off a wall for no reason.” Over a million users have downloaded the mod, but none have outdone Cohn’s feat of building two replicas of Chartres cathedral—one upside down on the other.
But I steer the conversation toward a project about which only rumors shed light—“Bozart” Cohn’s epistemology.java.
I have done my research. I’ve seen Cohn’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness into a vast jungle biome world, visited the server on which an historically accurate version of Jerusalem undergoes Jewish history from David’s construction of the city to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war without cease over the course of 72 hours, repeatedly, as a loop. He does not seem surprised that I know any of this. Cohn only explains how he sees history as a constant rebuilding over the same space, his server being only a visual representation of the pattern.
It isn’t until I take what I imagine is a concealed drink from my flask that Cohn opens up. With a toasting gesture of his stein, Cohn smiles for the first time in the evening and turns to his massive, purring computer.
There, in his list of worlds, I see it: epistemology, between babelbiblio and ziztest.
Mobs low and cluck. Apparently it’s set to peaceful. A tunnel leads into the ground, and as Cohn, now Bozart, descends the ladder, he explains the idea behind the world.
Cohn, he explains about himself, is a very organized person. He feels anxious when there is not some sensible system overarching his life and work. (I guessed as much from his notebooks and Getting Things Done printout on the wall.) The initial stages of organization, Cohn says, are relatively easy: one’s calendar, address book, todo lists. In research, there are systems for tracking multiple sources, lines of inquiry, databases. Certain open-source programs can track such things and more, with searchable indexes, ad nauseum (his phrase). These tools are soothing to him—assurance that his life is in order is a sort of existential necessity. One great variable remains: the brain. Or, he says, more specifically, the mind experienced as a web of connected thoughts whose depth and content is opaque.
There are those, whose names Cohn forgets, who suggest technology is an “external brain” to organize, store, and retrieve ideas. And then there is the vast expanse of Minecraft, a canvas eight times the size of the earth. Could such technology catalog that which has never been cataloged—the total contents of a human mind?
The ladder ends in a circular chamber that looks something like a Victorian train station. Cohn apologizes that it is so simple despite the massive size of the chamber, the many tunnels leading out, and the gold filigree along the great dome’s ribs. Each tunnel, I notice, bears a title above it: technology, philosophy, art, history, Judaism, gender, psychology, mathematics, astronomy. Bozart enters the chamber labeled “Art.”
The hall is arched, golden. Paintings line the walls. At the hall’s end is a wide area covered in a glass pyramid. It takes me a moment to recognize the hall as a replica of the Lourve. Several pigs wander in the midst. Perhaps that is a joke.
Doorways lead off to various media: the written word, visual art, screen art, live art, game art. “The labels are approximations,” Cohn explains. “As you will see, works break my attempts at distinctions so much that I gave up early on. This chamber both organizes the following ones generally and gives a narrative of the growth of the project. In other words, this is the last time you will see these divisions.” Without waiting, he steps through the doors to the written word. We enter a turn-of-the-century college library, two floors of shelves along each side of an open aisle. From the corner of the screen I see a portal tucked away behind a shelf. When I ask what it is, Cohn tells me it leads to another world, his Babel Library. “I haven’t finished it,” he says.
Before I can ask whether the books are edited or not, Cohn’s avatar hops into a boat. The library ends in a pier. I hop into a waiting boat alongside him. Once we push off, a swift current carries us down a rough cave. Cohn explains, “Having given up on taxonomy, I thought a right-brain approach might correct the failures of a left-brain one. Thus, the bifurcations here become multifurcations or, out past Nabokov, panfurcations, according to what I felt were the neural or associative pathways between the works. I felt this setup to be more authentic to the nature of remembering them, but it does have the drawback that I don’t quite recall where anything is.”
That particular problem was evident and I quickly realized another: that it seemed damn near impossible to get to any of the works. Tiny, wool-lined piers jutted out bearing the titles of books—or authors, themes, recurring characters, intellectual periods, gender (of the author, protagonist, genders under- or over-represented), historical events portrayed. On top of the difficulty of simply getting to one of these stopping points, the stream divided into several channels, some of them marked. The only one I caught was “Easy/Hard.” The signs were nearly impossible to read at the speed we traveled. I asked Cohn how one accessed the works. “There are tricks,” he said. “Sometimes you paddle against the current to return to one, others you simply can’t get back this way. Flying, of course, works, but that’s cheating.”
Curiosity got the better of me, and I double-clicked the spacebar to fly.
“You’re cheating,” said Cohn.
“But I must see one of these rooms.”
Maneuvering between the close cave walls and the rushing river, I came to rest on a platform labeled “House Made of Dawn.” Inside was a panel-lined room with a portal. “Do they all have portals?” I asked. “Is there a new world for each of these?”
Cohn said, “I debated how to represent each work. In the end I settled on a single image or impression of each, accurate to the work itself, which made the greatest connection between my mind and the work. That is, avoiding a fully impressionistic representation because that would be too much in the reader-mind, but finding the midpoint between the author’s intent and the reader’s perception.”
“Do they each have their own other world?”
“No. It would be easiest to show you.”
We passed through the portal and onto a wide, grass-spotted plain. No sounds interrupted the silence—something about the vastness of the landscape also gave the feeling of silence. Far away, at the edge of render-distance, stood a long mesa. The square sun rose precisely in the center of it. “So this is a novel for you,” I said.
“Have you read Momaday?”
“You must. Then you can think back to this and understand. Keep in mind, of course, that half of this is my readerly response.”
We returned to our boats. Having gotten a glimpse of Cohn’s method of cataloging his reads, I peeked into other small caves. Indeed, many were simple portal rooms, but others held small scenes or tableau. Beloved, for example, contained a rustic cabin’s kitchen filled with red light and an ambient noise that made me uneasy. From another cave came the screams of a pig mob, and in passing I saw that it contained perhaps a dozen of them as well as the floating hunks of meat signifying some had been killed. Perhaps it was Animal Farm. I couldn’t read the title well enough as we passed.
A thought struck me. I asked Cohn, “Where does it end?”
“It’s kind of a figure-eight thing. Only with more lines. Like a Spiragraph, if you remember those.”
“So it doesn’t end?”
“Of course it ends. It just never stops going.”
Having just met the man, I didn’t say that he sounded like an ass. Cohn displayed no signs of joking. He continued, “You have to drown for it to end.”
“Fine,” I said, and jumped into the water. There was no discernible bottom. At the last moment, it seemed I saw a vast serpent moving, but it might have been an odd texture, a glare on the monitor. The screen reddened with our deaths (Cohn had jumped too) and we respawned in a Japanese garden, surrounded by blooming cherry trees. The white petals fell onto pale green grass. The sky seemed to be no color at all. “What is this place?” I asked.
“Tranquility. I don’t count it, technically, as part of the overall world. But I would like for it to be.”
Birds chirped, the tiny pixels of their bodies flitting from tree to tree. I asked Cohn, “Have you finished it?”
“The world—epistemology. Have you completed it?”
“Each time I think one section might be complete, or even a part of a section, a new memory pops up. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, while I’m still in bed. In the shower, or while driving, I get a flash of something to add, something else this brain,“ Cohn said, pointing to his head, “has ferreted away in its depths. Of course it can’t be infinite. Even if the capacity were potentially infinite, there are only so many thoughts in the whole of human experience and creativity. Many of them, sure, but not an infinite number.”
“But isn’t there always originality, a new thing?”
“Each new thing is build on forty thousand old things. In the history section I ran into this problem, that new events occur but very few leave the general bounds of the events that came before, that in fact make it up. I think I could build a history section of general trends and responses in an expanding loop except for, if you’ll excuse it, phenomenal acts of God. And of course, there’s a sort of war between history and theology on that. I mean I actually placed cannon firing back and forth.”
Our avatars rested in that final world. Cohn seemed to study it a moment. “Maybe there isn’t a totality of thoughts, as there is of facts.” He laughed, a strange, hoarse sound but a pleasant one. “Our minds are in beta forever.”
I asked a question that had bugged me since we began. “Do you include personal experience? Your memories?”
“Only where my mind touches the external, such as a book, a work of art, an event in history. I was vain enough to place a copy of myself in the Occupy section.”
“But I mean memories of your family, your life.”
Cohn seemed to consider this. He said, “There is only so much that space and tableau can do.” We drank. Cohn said, “To make it too personal is to limit it. Currently my mind occupies forty chunks of a Minecraft world, or sixty-three point six square miles. Somehow to make it about family shrinks it.”
“Then it’s about vanity.”
“Art is only vanity that keeps its author.”
“Did you come up with that?”
Cohn raised his glass. “Plagiarized every bit,” he said, and we drank together into the night.