Teju Cole, ‘Known and Strange Things’

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Teju Cole, best known in development circles for his trenchant critique of what he called ‘The White Saviour Industrial Complex’, is also a sophisticated novelist and art critic. This insightful collection of essays demonstrates Cole’s formidable knowledge and the wide range of his interests and passions. But it also points to ways in which ‘culture’ seems to be simultaneously bridging one societal divide whilst creating another one.

There’s a passage in George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, an account of life in the industrial North of England in the 1930s, which considers how ‘proletarian intellectuals’ see ‘bourgeois society’:

“By his own efforts and sometimes with frightful agonies he [the proletarian intellectual] has struggled out of his own class into another where he expects to find a wider freedom and a greater intellectual refinement; and all he finds, very often, is a sort of hollowness, a deadness, a lack of any warm human feeling – of any real life whatever. Sometimes the bourgeoisie seem to him just dummies with money and water in their veins instead of blood.”

It’s a passage which I think still has some resonance today, if you substitute ‘African intellectual’ for ‘proletarian intellectual’ and ‘Western society’ for ‘bourgeoisie’. There’s something in the writings of several radical African writers, from Frantz Fanon to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which seems to contrast the vitality and strength of African art and literature with the emptiness and hollowness of ‘colonial’ culture.

The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole emphatically does not fit into this pattern. As he says in the opening essay in the collection, he does not feel disconnected from ‘high’ Western culture. Bach is his heritage, as much as it’s that of any human being. He does not feel like an interloper when he looks at a Rembrandt portrait. While Cole spends much of the book celebrating the work of African and African-American artists, he does not feel a need to trash Western art in order to celebrate that of the ‘oppressed’. He sees both as fitting into a broad concept of world culture, where there is room for anything which conveys beauty or truth.

The book contains some 50-odd pieces, of which forcefully argued polemics on subjects like the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, Obama’s drone wars, and Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem take up perhaps a quarter to a third of the available space. The rest is filled with accounts of Cole’s travels, and his wide range of literary and artistic interests, especially photography (he is the photography critic of the New York Times Magazine). For those, like me, who came to Cole through his criticism of the development industry in ‘The White Saviour Industrial Complex’ and his account of life in Lagos, Every Day is for the Thief, it’s something of a surprise to find that he writes more about art than politics and was a critic before he became a novelist. In fact, for me, his critical pieces are stronger than some of the political ones. I was especially touched by an account of Michael Haneke’s Amour, a film about the “day-to-day horror” of aging. Cole manages to capture the film’s sparse beauty and the predictable agonies of the last months of someone’s life; he describes a scene in which the eighty-year old woman’s body is bathed as “at once dignified and totally lacking in dignity”.

Even when Cole gets on to the YouTube videos of black men killed by white policemen in recent years, anger does not drive his argument. Instead, he goes into reflective mode, considering artistic and photographic descriptions of the moment of death in history, starting with Hans Holbein the Younger’s Pictures of Death in 1526. Over time, we have become more and more used to photographs and even videos of the actual moment of someone’s death, to the point where it almost seems normal to open up the internet browser and watch another one. But Cole sees the personal tragedy alongside the political one in having “the sudden, unjust, and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, who he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t” available for public viewing on the internet. “I recognized the political importance of the videos I had seen, but it had also felt like an intrusion when I watched them: intruding on the sorrow of those for whom those deaths were much more significant, but intruding, too, on my own personal but unarticulated sense of right and wrong.”

For all Cole’s trenchant political views, for me the great value of this book is the way he puts forward an idea of an inclusive world culture in which all people and all art are welcome. It’s an optimistic vision of the future, where Ife sculpture from West Africa is valued as highly as Roman busts, where African photographers such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe take their place alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cole does not believe that the struggle for equality for blacks, women, gays and other minorities is over; in fact he often talks of the ‘microaggressions’ of racism which he experiences every day. Nonetheless it is heartwarming that Cole, unlike many previous African writers, seems to feel part of an inclusive global artistic and literary community.

There is a downside to this optimistic conclusion: the global artistic and literary community, whilst it’s open to everyone in theory, can be quite exclusive in practice. It’s not just the fact that you need quite a bit of money to participate in the international jet-setting life that Cole leads (a two week stint which takes in London, New York, Moscow, Amman and Ramallah; dinner at an Upper East Side penthouse apartment where the host “had a name that through long association with money had itself become a shorthand for wealth”). There’s also the language he uses, which though often chatty and familiar can also get quite dense, especially when he’s talking about art or photography: the music in Amour is “diegetic”, a poem by W.G. Sebald is “gently ekphrastic” while street photography has “oneiric possibilities”. The name checking of famous poets, photographers and other artists, whilst it’s not intended to be intimidating, can tend to reinforce the sense that Cole knows more than we do. And overall I am left with the sense that whilst one cultural divide is being bridged – the one which had labelled African art as inferior, of anthropological rather than artistic interest – another one is being opened up. I now have more in common with someone like Teju Cole than I do with many people in the UK, just as he has more in common with his fellow art critics and novelists than with many in Nigeria or America. His idea of an inclusive world culture, much as it means to me, is not accessible or even interesting to many people on the planet. Just like in previous centuries, culture has a power to divide as much as it has to unite.

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