Teju Cole is a kind of realm. He has written three books—two exceptional novels and the volume of essays to be considered here—as well as many uncollected essays, interviews, newspaper columns, and a vast online oeuvre made up of skeins of tweets on fixed themes, faits divers, e-mail arguments, captioned Instagrams, mixed media exercises, and rants. At the moment he is credited with more than 13,000 tweets, 263,000 Twitter followers, 1,035 photos, and around 22,000 fans who officially like his Facebook page. Even in a time when many writers are enlarging their literary footprints by means of the Internet, he is a prodigy.
There is a strong interconnectedness between the different parts of his work. Cole’s personal story, sometimes given straight, sometimes fictionalized, pervades. The bicultural Teju Cole was born in the US in 1975, raised in Nigeria until his seventeenth year, brought back to America where he first studied art and attended medical school, and then went abroad to study African art history; he later studied Northern Renaissance art at Columbia. His initial novels brought him a storm of prizes and attention. He is currently a writer in residence at Bard College and the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine and is himself an exhibiting photographer. Cole has said in an interview that the essays on photography in this collection, which also collects many of his writings on literature, travel, politics, and art, are the most important of his writings.
Cole is very conscious of the difference between what one might think of as books aimed at a presumed posterity and his online works, aimed at a real-time and frequently interactive fandom. He discusses this subject in a conversation with the novelist Aleksandar Hemon in the first group of essays in Known and Strange Things. “For sure,” he says,
some of the smartest and most interesting literary minds of our generation and the generations to come will work in areas that are not “books” as we currently think of them…. But I think some of these people will also write books.
Cole’s essays are brilliantly written—sharp, intelligent—and yield a pleasurable sweetness. His prose, in its variations, is impeccably where he wants it to be. His erudition is put to work humbly. But in encountering these essays, perhaps the most important quality to grasp is Cole’s deep sense of the seriousness of life, which is sustained in different registers throughout. Rotating through his compositions, and sometimes shouldering aside their announced subjects, is an array of thematic problems routinely confounding to the educated secular leftcentric urban readerships of today. Here are two examples among the many that Cole discusses. One: In a world that is post-credal, post-religion, and post-socialism, in what should humanism be grounded? Two: When liberal empires engage in overseas criminality, what are the responsibilities of that empire’s domestic beneficiaries—the lucky, the talented, the wealthy?
The Literary Sublime
“The balance favors epiphany.”
From “A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon”:
AH: Where do you stand in relation to transcendence? Do you pursue it? Must we pursue it?
TC: As for faith: I don’t believe in the Christian god, or the Muslim one, or the Jewish one. I’m sentimentally attached to some of the Yoruba and Greek gods…though I don’t ask them for favors.
What do I believe in? Imagination, gardens, science, poetry, love, and a variety of nonviolent consolations. I suspect that in aggregate all this isn’t enough, but it’s where I am for now.
The pieces in Section I, “Reading Things,” introduce a selection of the works of some of the creators of Cole’s personal literary sublime. He says, of André Aciman’s discriminations among the varieties of lavender, found in his book of essays, Alibis, something that might apply equally to his own work: “The pleasure of reading him resides in the pleasure of his company.” He praises Aciman’s thoroughness, calling Alibis “an extended aria on the sense of smell.” In Ivan Vladislavić’s novel Double Negative, Cole finds an artist who successfully brings the detail of photographic high art to life in his narrative.
Cole gets to the heart of Derek Walcott’s poetry: “Epiphany became Walcott’s favorite mode, his instinct, even as he struggled to satisfy each poem’s competing demands of originality and necessity.” He reveres the art of W.G. Sebald, and not only the novelistic works. He provides a concentrated encomium for Sebald’s lesser-known excursions into poetry. In an emotional, but not maudlin, essay he describes a visit to Sebald’s grave. His attentions to poetry here conclude with an acute, tender, and comradely tribute to the somber Tomas Tranströmer: “In a Tranströmer poem, you inhabit space differently; a body becomes a thing, a mind floats, things have lives, and even non-things, even concepts, are alive.”
The essay “Black Body” is a tour de force, an appreciation of James Baldwin in his prophetic modes, which touches on what Cole calls Baldwin’s “question of filiation,” that is, his conflicted relationship to classic works from the canon of the oppressing culture. Cole wrestles with his own variant of this perennial trouble. On the subject of difficult-to-mix feelings, Cole is clear-sighted. He meets with V.S. Naipaul:
This benevolent rheumy-eyed old soul: so fond of the word “nigger,” so aggressive in his lack of sympathy toward Africa, so brutal in his treatment of women. He knew nothing about that. He knew only that he needed…help walking across the grand marble-floored foyer toward the private elevator.
The tale of this encounter coexists with another essay wholeheartedly endorsing Naipaul’s great A House for Mr. Biswas as a lasting work of “imaginative sympathy.”
For their artfulness, intelligence, and candor, Cole’s essays on writing all have something fresh. The next-to-the-last piece in the “Reading Things” section is a compressed presentation (in the spirit, as Cole acknowledges, of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas) of the bromides and clichés that corrupt literary and political discourse and block the powers of written art. For example: “SCANDAL. If governmental, express suprise that people are surprised. If sexual, declare it a distraction, but seek out the details.”
The group of essays called “Seeing Things” pursues instances of sublime experience apart from literature. The first of them, “Unnamed Lake,” is a composite creation—part personal essay; part reflection on twentieth-century history; part criticism about music and philosophy—examining the repressed horror that floats over a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Cole is listening to a recording of a particularly brilliant realization of the work in 1942 by Wilhelm Furtwängler:
The adagio is clear and tender, played slower than usual…. No one who heard it could have failed to be moved to human kindness. Could they? (In addition to Hitler, both Himmler and Goebbels are in the audience.)…
The previous week, on March 17, a Nazi camp had begun operation in Belzec, southeastern Poland.
After this comes a miscellany of appreciations of the Kenyan sculptor Wangechi Mutu, the filmmaker Michael Haneke for his film Amour, a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Julius Caesar by a black cast, the music of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Cole has his eye on instances of art whose power to move may not have been appreciated. He writes about a picture of a young woman in a freedom march by Roy DeCarava,
one of the most intriguing and poetic of American photographers. The power of this picture is in the loveliness of its dark areas. His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph.
The essays on photography do triple duty. Overall, they argue for elevating photography to a level equal to that of the other graphic and plastic arts. They give prominence to master photographers such as DeCarava. And they refine the measures used to make discriminations regarding quality among specimens of photographic art. Cole is convincing here, but certain parts of the discussion—discriminations of “opacity” in DeCarava’s work, for example—struck me as rather more metaphysical than is usual for him. A much fuller complement of representative plates would have been helpful; the works of Zanele Muholi, Thomas Demand, Sergei Ilnitsky, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita, and Glenna Gordon will have a different luster when they are encountered in future.
“Being There”: Travel, and Then Politics
Robert Owen, the great patriarch of socialism, was asked what we would do once Utopia was established. His reply was: “We shall travel.” For Cole, travel itself can yield a kind of second-order sublime. Strictly concerning the anatomy of travel, Cole has much to say:
When you do visit Zürich or Cape Town or Bangkok, they are very much alike: the amusement parks have striking similarities, the cafés all play the same Brazilian music, the malls are interchangeable, kids on the school buses resemble one another, and the interiors of middle-class homes conform to the same parameters.
This doesn’t mean the world is uninteresting. It only means that the world is more uniform than most photo essays acknowledge…. I like Italo Calvino’s idea of “continuous cities,” as described in the novel Invisible Cities. He suggests that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: “Only the name of the airport changes.” What is then interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.
So travel requires discipline and self-awareness and an awareness of travel’s limitations, like Heimweh and Fernweh. Heimweh is the German word for homesickness. It can of course strike at any time and screw up an experience. “Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in faraway places. Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge.” It too can strike at any time. To illustrate Fernweh, he quotes Elizabeth Bishop:
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?
Something deeper than travel connects these essays in the third section of Cole’s book, called “Being There.” If it’s fair to see Cole as engaged in a complicated process of assembling his own brand of aesthetic humanism (for want of a better term), then his small histories can be perceived as testing events for his evolving ethos.
Take “A Reader’s War,” which is an essay sandwiched between pieces about travel but is not about travel as such. It is one of two essays built around Cole’s consideration of Barack Obama. Here’s the thought sequence in “A Reader’s War.” One:
“Thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires…civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.” This defense, made by Mario Vargas Llosa when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature…, could have come from any other writer. It is, in fact,…a cliché. But clichés, so the cliché goes, originate in truth. Vargas Llosa reiterated the point: “Without fictions, we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion.”
There was a feeling during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency that his gracelessness as well as his appetite for war were linked to his impatience with complexity…. His successor couldn’t have been more different. Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history…and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction…. It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the president’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine…. We had, once again, a reader in chief.
The United States is now at war in all but name in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. In pursuit of Al Qaeda, their allies, and a number of barely related militias, the president and his national security team now make extraordinarily frequent use of assassinations…. The White House, CIA, and the Joint Special Operations Command have so far killed large numbers of people…. The precise number is unknown, but estimates range from several hundred to over three thousand…. Many of the dead are women and children. Among the men, it is impossible to say how many are terrorists, how many are militants, and how many are simply, to use the administration’s obscene designation, “young men of military age.” …There is also the testimony of the survivors of drone attacks: heartbreaking stories of mistaken identity…. The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will.
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy?
I know language is unreliable…but the law seems to be getting us nowhere. And so I take helpless refuge in literature again, rewriting the opening lines of seven well-known books:
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle…has come for me from an unknown location.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
Mother died today. The program saves American lives.
Understandably, this conceit of Teju Cole’s has become famous.
Cole is an accomplished observer of himself as a political animal. Independent Nigeria has gravely disappointed him. His travel writing about the land he grew up in combines travelogue, accounts of homecoming, and disgust at the present state of Nigerian public life. (He is at work on a nonfiction study of modern Nigeria.) Cole’s third world may be beautiful in places, but it is sad. Interestingly, what hope exists seems to arise primarily from unpredictable incarnations of the art impulse—a privately funded jazz school in Nigeria; a Nigerian woman, solitary and out of place, carrying a copy of a novel by Michael Ondaatje under her arm.
Finally, and not to be missed, there is “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” a revised version of a 2012 essay in which Cole reflects on the furious and now notorious polemic he delivered in a string of tweets earlier that year (setting off much comment across the media):
1. From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
2. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
3. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.
4. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.
5. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
6. Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.
7. I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.
The occasion for Cole’s polemic was the documentary Kony 2012, a video that he felt neglected the contributions of the white West to the creation of the conditions enabling the appearance of the macabre Lord’s Resistance Army. (Concerning Cole’s first and sixth points, it should be noted that Nicholas Kristof was an early critic of the war in Iraq, and that in 2002 Jeffrey Sachs cautioned against “pursuing war [in Iraq] where diplomatic means…might suffice.”) I read the manifesto as a kind of berserk attempt by Cole to get at the Gordian knot of his feelings about Western altruism and Western death and destruction. His readers may, I think, find the same knot, somewhere. This bracing provocation is now permanently part of the discourse on Western development and charitable aid. Elsewhere, Cole is at work on other current social causes—pardon for Snowden, reform of the immigration process, the still-missing Chibok girls.
Known and Strange Things ends with Cole’s account, in a coda essay, of a frightening visit to his doctor in response to a totally unexpected attack of papillophlebitis, also referred to as “big blind spot syndrome.” It is an idiopathic disease that comes and goes and that brings episodes of partial blindness. His vision is clear at present. My own deep hope is that this does not happen again. I am sentimental about Teju Cole and think of him as an emissary for our best selves. He is sampling himself for our benefit, hoping for enlightenment, and seeking to provide pleasure to us through his art. May his realm expand.