A a young Gambian, let’s call him D, is waiting in Syracuse. He arrived in Italy eight months earlier, having been smuggled into the country by boat from Libya. D has an easygoing and intelligent manner – an unexpected grace given what he’s been through. On a date with his afternoon companion, Teju Cole, D admits to never having set foot in a church: he was raised Muslim. As they enter Santa Lucia alla Badia together, he is amazed that no one questions his presence. What a rare taste of unhindered movement. The couple marvel at Caravaggio’s painting from the beginning of the 17th century, Burial of Saint Lucia. It is huge: 10 feet in diameter, over 13 feet high. Centuries have passed and the effects of time are reflected in damage to large areas of painting, but the work is no less magnificent.
This vignette takes place in the first try of Cole’s amazing new collection. Cole is famous for his novels Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief. But his resume contains much more: a doctorate in art history from Columbia, opinion pieces on culture and politics in the New York Times, photography exhibitions and, most recently, the Gore Vidal Chair of the practice of creative writing at Harvard. . These jewelry-like essays, developed from a series of lectures Cole gave at the University of Chicago in 2019, are a testament to both his many talents and the supernatural keenness with which he observes the world. His writings combine travelogue, art criticism and meditations on the cruelty of 21st century politics. But it may ultimately be humanity’s struggle for meaning and belonging.
Raised by Nigerian parents between Lagos and Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cole moves comfortably between places, people and cultures. At one point, he sees Edward Said on 116th Street in New York City. It must have been in the early 2000s, since Said is still with us, albeit in the twilight of his career as an intellectual, activist, orchestral impresario, Palestinian rights negotiator and one of the most transformative thinkers. of the last half-century. Cole, on the other hand, is a lousy graduate student. It’s easy to see why he’s in love with the humanist icon standing in front of him. Said is, as Cole says, “the word made flesh, the books in human form.” In the same essay, Cole takes us from New York to Ramallah where he confronts “the insult to human dignity that is military occupation”. His indignation consumes the page. He rightly insists that we must repudiate anti-Semitism and end the suffering of the Palestinian people. Anything less is inadmissible. We go to Beirut then to Berlin in just a few passages. Cole renders these urban landscapes like living fragments, the urban quartet bringing together the places that marked Said’s life. The result is truly an elegy for SaÃ¯d; it is touching when Cole describes the late scholar as a “navigation aid” that guided him to his own style of writer and thinker.
Said’s influence resurfaces when Cole approaches the power of the imagination to organize beliefs about Africa. “Have you ever heard something so absurd?” He asks: “Africa, Africa stunned by the sun and flooded with light, described as the ‘dark continent’? The poverty and prejudices of the colonial imagination have a long and dishonorable history. Where could we find new perspectives of appreciation for Africa in all its complexity? This question motivates an essay on the hit film Black Panther. Despite everything he’s done to establish a new mythology around African superheroes, Cole remains uncomfortable with the way he masks the African experience in a simplistic grandeur meant to delight American eyes. As with everything Cole writes, however, there is more to his review. Rather than talking about a film, this essay is a questioning of what it means to be African and Black in different contexts. Cole teases the diversity of Blackness; its ever-changing, contingent and cultural meaning; its vast and dissident potential.
Cole’s attention to the texture of things makes the writing extraordinarily vivid. It evokes unhappiness in Caravaggio’s paintings and imaginative abundance in the photography of Marie Cosindas and Lorna Simpson. He evokes the sensory pleasure of having a human body when he writes about nature, nowhere with more lust than in his essay Experience: with my nose smell grass and alpine flowers. I bring water to my mouth and I can taste its mineral intensityâ¦ My fingers touch the rough, smooth stones, the bed-like grass, the marbled pebbles, the fleeting water. For Cole, such moments in art, literature and nature are, in the words of Seamus Heaney, like a “rush through which known and strange things pass.”
Elsewhere, talking about water has another meaning. A recurring motif in this work is migration. In several essays, Cole reflects on the US-Mexico border. It bothers him like an inflamed wound that will not heal. The violence inflicted on desperate travelers is heavy and excruciating. Those who flee conflict, drown in the Mediterranean, or are sold as modern slaves face similar treatment. He rejects our use of “aquatic language” (a “flow”, “wave”, “flood”) when we speak of refugees. They are people, not inanimate objects whose movement is an aberration. It reminds me of Liisa Malkki’s analogous critique of botanical metaphors – land for nation, uprooting for displacement – which conceive of the natural / national order of things as sedentary. Of course, these are just some (usually dark) bodies whose movement tends to be punished and watched.
Despite all the rage just in these pages, Cole recognizes the limits of literature in changing the political world. Even so, I find it appropriate that he uses lyrical texts to write about dark times. For me, the beauty of this form, its hope and its power lies in its lack of rigidity, its challenge to preconceived ideas. What we see is an individual taking stock of their surroundings, a mode that Cole has mastered. To read this book is to take advantage of the generosity of one’s thought, to be invited to a contemplation of one’s inner life, to embrace the complexity of others, and to see in the dark not only despair but also understanding and even refuge.