Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

Last October I went to see Teju Cole be interviewed for BBC Radio 3 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07yb85h) to coincide with the release of the collection Known and Strange Things (2016, 392 pp).  Cole is the author of two previous novels, an art historian a photographer, a contributor to numerous publications, the photography critic of the New York Times Magazine and a keen embracer of the internet as an artistic medium.  Although no longer a user he was once the epitome of that very twenty first century phenomenon, a ‘good tweeter’.  In the interview the host made allusion to Theresa May’s then recent pronouncement about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere.  If Open City weren’t argument enough, this collection shows that, culturally at least, Teju Cole is a good example as anyone of how enriching being a ‘citizen of the world’ can be

Born in America to Nigerian parents, Cole was brought up in Nigeria until the age of seventeen when he moved back to the States.  He studied art history at SOAS and Columbia, teaching at the latter, and is now the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.  He is well travelled, a lover of both old and new technology (he tells us of his tendency to ‘hold out, then I plunge’) and seemingly at home anywhere from Brazil to Brooklyn to Switzerland (‘I was most at home in Switzerland precisely because I wasn’t’).  In the pieces that make up this book he moves comfortably through the registers from French theory to acerbic tweets, from Coltrane to orchestral music, and his lightly worn learning, redolent of many a cool young American author, is superabundant.

We see this in the cracking opener Black Body in which Cole travels to Leukerbad, in the footsteps of James Baldwin.  It was here that the latter wrote his essay Stranger in the Village.  Cole’s anger at the treatment of black people is as earnestly felt, if not as fiery, as Baldwin’s.  Throughout this collection, Cole is more than alive to the realities of racism, both the everyday microagressions and the more overt and violent kind.  As we see him converse and console and spar across time with his predecessor the two part company over culture.  For Baldwin, apotheoses of ‘high’ culture like Chartes Cathedral and Rembrandt were for whites in a way they never could be for blacks; they somehow belonged to whites instinctively, in their bones, while they would always make blacks into outsiders.  Cole sees their equals in African culture and, while acknowledging that he has a privileged life that allows him access to these treasures, he sees no distinctions: ‘Ife sculptures are equal to the works of Ghiberti…There’s no world in which I would surrender the intimidating beauty of Yoruba language poetry for, say Shakespeare’s sonnets…I’m happy to own all of it.’

The essays in the collection are grouped into three sections.  Black Body opens Reading Things in which we are taken through the writers which constitute Cole’s ‘ports of refuge’: Baldwin, Sebald, Naipaul, Walcott, Transtromer, Heaney (from whom the collection takes its title).  Cole is an enthusiastic critic, one who always gets across the experience of reading a book and who is not afraid to quote at length to support his enthusiasms.  There is an introduction to A House for Mister Biswas which is light on deeper aspects of the novel but is good on its set pieces, particularly Naipaul’s tangible materiality in the junk and clutter of Biswas’s life ‘strewn like jewels.’  He picks up this quality in Sebald as well, focusing not on his novels but on his earlier poetry.  It was refreshing to read a piece on this work and to be reminded, for all its labyrinth difficulty, just how good Sebald was at writing about people and his ‘vigilance about the world of things’, something much more apparent in these earlier shards of poetry.  Elsewhere, Cole flourishes lengthy passages to illustrate the painterly quality of Walcott’s poetry or how smells almost waft off the page in the writing of André Aciman.

Cole, like all committed readers, displays tenderness towards these members of his personal canon.  At the end of an evening with Naipaul he doesn’t see the grouchy old man ‘so fond of the word “nigger”, so aggressive in his lack of sympathy toward Africa’, but a good dinner companion approaching his twilight with vertigo and hobbling on a stick.  He makes a melancholy tinged pilgrimage to Sebald’s grave, a writer he ‘loves to the point of tears’.  It is beautiful piece writing and a remarkably moving illustration of just how deeply words can cross time to express truths we either didn’t know or had buried somewhere.  Reading Things still has a place for Cole’s humour.  He has a go at assembling his own twenty-first century version of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, ‘an intolerance of stupidity’.  Entries include ‘CARAMEL. Term used to describe black woman’s skin.  No other meaning known’, and ‘PROUST. No one actually reads him.  One rereads him, preferably on summer vacation.’

Seeing Things is mainly comprised of Cole’s photographic writing, work he has referred to as his most important.  I was quite keen to read these essays, as someone who is never quite sure how to respond to photography and who is allergic to our modern need to record every last banality of our lives on a camera-phone (or phone-camera, as Cole points out they should be called).  He is a good guide to photography and is perceptive about the visual impact and the wider ramifications of the work of a wide variety of photographers, ranging from the Kenyan Wangechi Mutu to the Ukranian Sergei Ilnitsky to the Malian Malick Sidibé and further.  The piece on Roy DeCarava is an excellent challenge to those who use film and photography to denigrate black people as suspicious.  Cole draws needed attention to work, work that gets made very day, that proliferates the bias that ‘to make something darker is to make it more dubious.’  He argues correctly that ‘indirect images guarantee our sense of the human and DeCavara’s portrait of a young female freedom marcher included in the book is a great challenge to standard representations of black people (I learned that Kodak once produced ‘Shirley cards’, a picture of a white model whose white skin tone was to be taken as ‘normal’!).  Cole makes the excellent point about the use of intensified darkness to make people seem ‘more private, more self-contained.’

I would have liked more colour imprints, particularly those of Cole’s.  He takes a good photograph and I kept finding myself looking at his picture of Sasabe, a Mexican border town complete with chain link fence and wall, taken when President Trump was no more than a joke in The Simpsons.  The way the blood red border fence rises above the chain link except right in the middle of the shot provides and easy focal point before we are drawn left to the half fallen white wooden cross (a grave?).  To the right a road parts company with the wall and disappears over the hill beneath an indifferent partially clouded sky; an escape route that will fail most of those who try to follow.

Several of the pieces address directly or touch indirectly on the impact of the internet and mobile technology on photography.  On balance, Cole is keen on these new technologies and thinks that ‘it’s no bad thing that everyone is a photographer these days.’  He does have some reservations in discussing what Whitman called ‘the great Phantom concourse’.  He is not so much against the metastatisation of the photographic image but by the uniformity of social photography, manipulation with ‘the same easy algorithms, the same tiresome vignetting, the same green wash.’  The constant unimaginative point and click with an applied filter that has no relevance to your fridge or your sandwich ‘makes the image “better” in an empty way, thus making it worse.’  Yet Cole, a discerning taker and consumer of photography is happy to live in a world where ‘lying in bed in the morning, you can see the latest work from a photographer you find interesting.’

This might be ok for Cole, a ‘pure lover of the image’, but I’m not sure it applies to a lot of us.  The relentless archiving and curating of our lives doesn’t seem to me to be for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of images.  Cole thinks that it is a good thing that people can curate their lives.  I think a lot of the problem is the way that world has entered our culture in recent times.  Nobody has ever convinced me, and Cole takes it as a given, that our lives are something that need to be curated; that I have to exhibit every aspect of my being for public consumption in a way that projects a certain version of myself.  It’s tiring and it sucks the joy out of life, replacing it only with worry.  Indeed, the only parts of this book that convince me of the good of social photography are the ones where it is turned into something that resembles more received ideas of art, whether it is Penelope Umbirco’s collage of sunsets from Flickr that looks like a Paul Klee painting or Erik Kessel’s piling up of Flickr photos in galleries or James Bridle’s undramatic satellite images of the strikes of drone sites.

The final section, Being There, documents Cole’s travels.  We follow him to Switzerland, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, camera in hand always alive to the ‘less obvious differences of texture’ that distinguish place from place.  Cole feels both Heimweh, homesickness, and also Fernweh, that melancholy tinged desire to be far from home.  He seems most at home when on the move yet, always the questioning type, wonders about the point of travel with the help of Elizabeth Bishop

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

His answer is that to have merely thought and not travelled would not have revealed its subtle peculiarities.

On his travels, Cole is always alive to the question of race, drawn to African street sellers in Rio and Rome, and talking with Angolan priests and Nigerian migrant workers.  Being There contains the most political writing in the book and Cole gives an angry introduction (to this ignorant reader anyway) to the politics and horrific extrajudicial killings in his native Nigeria.  Included also is The White Saviour Industrial Complex, a response to the reaction whipped up by a series of tweets Cole posted after watching the Kony 2012 video.  Here are two

The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
The White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice.  It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

His target is the idea that ‘the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations’.  People need to realise that western policy, particularly the foreign policy of the U.S, is a complicated and slippery contributor to world problems and that the people being helped need to have their own agency recognised.  The more sober and detailed argument in the book is more effective than the tweets, if less funny.

Obama looms large in these essays and we see Cole’s changing attitudes from the cautious optimism of election night to disappointment at the President’s embracing of drone strikes.  In A Reader’s War, Cole begins with the much held hope that Obama, a cosmopolitan lover of literature would be a better President than his predecessor, a man who ‘didn’t know much about the wider world, and did not much care to learn.’  The Oval Office was now inhabited by a published writer, a lover of Marilyn Robinson and Herman Melville, a ‘reader in chief.’ Yet as his the years have passed, Obama has not significantly reduced America’s military reach and has expanded the programme of drone strikes.  Cole is bereft, mainly at what has happened to literature’s power to inspire empathy; how could this most compassionate and literate of men turn to such means?  As refuge, Cole takes to Twitter

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Pity.  A signature strike levelled the florist’s.

Throughout this collection, Cole is tremendous company, an insightful critic and a great teacher.  His capacious knowledge, his Sontag-like interest in seemingly everything, his well aimed moral indignation and his capacity for empathy all make for writing that is engrossing, witty, warm, combative and open minded all at once.  There is an epilogue in which he details his diagnosis of a visual disorder known colloquially as ‘big blind spot’.  I hope it does not get worse as he is a writer, to use his own verdict on Sebald, for whom I feel enormous affection and gratitude.

 

 

 

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