KNOWN AND STRANGE THINGS
By Teju Cole
Illustrated. 393 pp. Random House. Paper, $17.
By Teju Cole
Illustrated. 393 pp. Random House. Paper, $17.
Teju Cole’s captivating and lauded novels, “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief,” reflect his identity as a writer with a global perspective — born in the United States and raised in Nigeria. His international access as an author, art historian and photographer — one who also teaches and is a photography critic for The New York Times Magazine — shapes not only his obsessions but, in a chicken-and-egg sense, determines his gaze. He takes in news from African countries and American cities; but also, by necessity and interest, Asian, European and Latin American culture and history. In short, the world belongs to Cole and is thornily and gloriously allied with his curiosity and his personhood. “Known and Strange Things,” his first collection of nonfiction, journeys through all the landscapes he has access to: international, personal, cultural, technological and emotional. When he feels homesick, he informs us in this book, he “visits” his parents in Nigeria through Google maps — a sweet if distant form of connection.
In “The Anxiety of Influence,” the renowned critic Harold Bloom argued that poets, especially those in the Western tradition since the Renaissance, necessarily negotiate the work of their predecessors as they write. “The precursors flood us,” Bloom wrote, “and our imaginations can die by drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if such inundation is wholly evaded.” Cole shares Bloom’s interest in the fraught and burdened relationship writers and artists have to our ancestors, and he seeks to answer yet another question: How does the imagination cross and recross racial and filial boundaries, and what does this crossing mean? With our ever-enlarging global access to the visions and voices and influences of others, Cole attempts to untangle the knot of who or what belongs to us and to whom or what do we belong as artists, thinkers and, finally, human beings.
In this light, “Black Body,” the opening essay in “Known and Strange Things,” engages the “question of filiation” that tormented James Baldwin in his essay “Stranger in the Village.” Baldwin, reflecting on his stay in the white-peopled Swiss village of Leukerbad, was moved to write that “the most illiterate among them is related, in a way I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo. . . . Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”
Cole, revisiting the terrain of Leukerbad, pairs himself with Baldwin (also echoing, in his parenthesis, the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”): “I am black like him; and I am slender; and have a gap in my front teeth and am not especially tall (no, write it: short) . . . and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me. The ancestor had briefly taken possession of the descendant.”
But Cole soon distances himself from Baldwin’s feeling of alienation. He states that Baldwin’s “self-abnegation” prevents him from embracing Bach or Rembrandt, who Cole insists do not belong to one race. He might even care more about these artists “than some white people do,” Cole writes.
The first section of the collection, “Reading Things,” has Cole claiming filiation with a number of authors (all male) who prove important to him. In the case of many of them, influence begets influence. Along with Baldwin comes V.S. Naipaul (“The 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 woman”); Tomas Transtromer (“It’s a good thing I’m unembarrassable about influence, because I realize now how many of Transtromer’s concepts I have hidden away in my own work”); W.G. Sebald (“This expert mixing of forms owed a great deal to his reading of the 17th-century melancholics Robert Burton and Thomas Browne”); Derek Walcott (“He names painters as his exemplars more often than he names poets: Pissarro, Veronese, Cézanne, Manet, Gauguin and Millet roll through the pages”); and André Aciman (“Aciman’s debt to Proust is deep and freely acknowledged”).
This opening section concludes with “A Conversation With Aleksandar Hemon,” in which Hemon — a writer and critic and self-identified “diasporic person” — questions Cole on what Nigerian history means to him. Cole’s answer catapults him into a global context: “My identity maps onto other things: being a Lagosian (Lagos is like a city-state), being a West African, being African, being a part of the Black Atlantic. I identify strongly with the historical network that connects New York, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Lagos.” Hemon is also interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.”
The stunning second section, “Seeing Things,” is especially captivating and reveals Cole’s voracious appetite for and love of the visual. Taken together, the essays in this section provide a comprehensive look at contemporary photography, placed within a historical framework. This approach brings forward evidence of things unseen, things, as Susan Sontag put it, “least likely to be known.” The artists who have Cole’s attention impose their individual and subjective sense on the material of the world, rejecting the notion, as most photographers do by nature, that it is possible to capture objective “records of reality.” He is drawn toward filmmakers and the visual artists who see with this photographer’s orientation. The collage work of Wangechi Mutu, described as “both easy and difficult to look at, seductive in their patterning, grotesque in their themes,” relies on actual photographic images; Cole’s favorite films by Michael Haneke and Krzysztof Kieslowski bring into view images of life so ordinary they could escape our attention. Cole believes that all of this work allows us to think with the eyes, and though the Australian composer Peter Sculthrope is also included here, his music becomes a passageway into the landscape and history of Australia.
But it’s the essays that focus explicitly on photography, especially, that demand our attention. Cole considers here the work of both well and lesser known photographers such as Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe, J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, Joseph Moise Agbodjelou, Zanele Muholi, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sergei Ilnitsky, Sam Abell, Glenna Gordan, Saul Leiter, Richard Renaldi, Thomas Demand, as well as Google-based photographic and filmic practitioners like Doug Rickard, Mishka Henner, Aaron Hobson, Michael Wolf and Dina Kelberman. These photographers, whether reframing “anthropological images of ‘natives’ made by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries” or applying a curatorial eye to the world around us, are democratizing the history of photography.
When the occasional essay fails to hold interest it’s because the connections Cole draws to some European lineage remain tenuous. This is the case, for example, with Cole’s meditation on death through the woodcuts entitled “Pictures of Death,” by Hans Holbein the Younger, which brings him to the killing of the African-American Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer in 2015, which in turn makes him think about the writer Sir Walter Scott and one of his short stories, about a premeditated murder, “The Two Drovers.” This associative style enables Cole to move across disciplines and through time, but in this case seems tendentious.
In the third section, “Being There,” photography’s ability as a discipline to present a unique archive of reality comes most clearly into light. These essays track Cole’s journeys around an explosive world of drones, wars and diseases, including the kidnappings of young girls in Chibok and assassinations of terror suspects by drone warfare. Cole happens to be streets away when the poet Kofi Awoonor is killed in a terrorist massacre in a Nairobi mall. He finds in Awoonor’s work some echoes of T.S. Eliot, but Cole ends his essay with a line from Awoonor, himself quoting “an ancient poet from my tradition”: “I will say it before death comes. And if I don’t say it, let no one say it for me. I will be the one who will say it.” Even as Cole positions Awoonor relative to the European tradition, he also allows Awoonor to have the last word.
One of the most resonant and powerful essays in “Being There” is “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” an expansion of Cole’s seven-part-Twitter-feed response to “Kony 2012,” a video calling for the arrest of the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. He meditates more fully here on the interconnectivity of American political polices to their outcome. Activist philanthropy that begins in amnesia lacks, in Cole’s words, “constellational thinking.” He lays bear the relationship among sentimentality, ignorance, corruption, pillage and complicity within our global communities. Under Cole’s watchful eye the world shrinks into a network of countries, communities and individuals influenced by, dependent on and affected by other countries, communities and individuals.
This brilliant collection closes with an epilogue, “Blind Spot,” in which Cole recounts the time he first had an episode of papillophlebitis, or “big blind spot syndrome.” If epilogues benefit from hindsight, it’s difficult not to feel the piece is intended by Cole to be read diagnostically, beyond its autobiographical content. In the essay, Cole admits to feeling shame as he worries that a waitress in a Hudson, N.Y., cafe he stumbles into might not interpret his inability to read a menu as eye trouble but assume instead that he was “illiterate.” This use of the word “illiterate” is an echo of the James Baldwin quotation in the first essay in the collection, “Black Body.” Suddenly the essays endeavoring to connect and build lines of influence between the canon of Western and African literature and art tremble as they stand in relation to the strange and surprising feeling of being misread. How quickly the black body can be thrown out of its cosmopolitanism and literacy, as the author’s own anxieties overtake him sitting at a counter in that cafe next to “two blond women and two men, also fair haired.”
Cole’s global perspective hits its limit here. History — literary, political, social or personal — offers us a vast archive of knowledge that both influences and challenges the definitions we construct for ourselves. On every level of engagement and critique, “Known and Strange Things” is an essential and scintillating journey.