Friends of our too-long moribund Writing New York site, I hope you’ll come say hello while I’m in town, briefly, to participate in the following event, which draws on a new research project I’ve undertaken re: New York in the Age of Warhol.
Andy Warhol in Tehran
A lecture at NYU, open to the public
Thursday, October 23, 2014
19 Washington Square North, New York
In 1976, Warhol visited Tehran to take photos for a portrait of Empress Farah Pahlavi. In 1978 he painted the Shah and his twin sister Princess Ashraf as well, though the Revolution prevented these portraits from being publicly displayed in Iran. This lecture considers Warhol’s Iranian portraits in multiple contexts: the OPEC oil crisis; Warhol’s celebrity portraits of the ’70s; and today’s global art market, in which these paintings help pose key questions about American Pop’s global legacies.
Bryan Waterman, Associate Professor of English, NYU; Visiting Associate Professor of Literature and Program Head for Literature, NYUAD
Several events this week commemorate punk’s 40th anniversary:
Thursday, March 20, 7 pm, at The Strand, 828 Broadway: Richard Hell in conversation with Bryan Waterman, marking the pbk release of Hell’s autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. [open to public]
Thursday, March 20, 6pm, third floor, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections presents the GoNightclubbing Video Lounge, a multi-media installation curated by Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong paying tribute to the infamous Danceteria Video Lounge, which they created in 1980. [open to public]
Friday, March 21 through Sunday, March 23, 11 am to 1 pm, Silver 401, NYU: “Punk and the City,” a three-day seminar as part of the annual American Comparative Literature Association meetings. Twelve presenters on a range of related topics, from Latin American punk to Pussy Riot. [registration fees apply]
Saturday, March 22, 7 pm, Great Hall at Cooper Union: Punk Turns Forty: A Plenary Sponsored by the American Comparative Literature Association and the Fales Library. Part I: Brandon Stosuy, editor at Pitchfork, interviews Richard Hell; Part II: Avital Ronell moderates a panel with Vivien Goldman, Kathleen Hanna, and Tamar-kali. [Free admission at 6:30 for ACLA conference attendees and at 7:00 for the general public, as space allows]
Sunday, March 23, 5 to 8 pm, The Panther Room at Output, 74 Wythe Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Classic Album Sundays presents Television’s Marquee Moon. Presenter: Bryan Waterman, author of Marquee Moon (33 1/3 series). [Tickets: $10 at the door or online here]
So it’s just about three days since Lou Reed died and I admit I’m kind of holding my breath, waiting to see if he rises from the tomb on the morning of the third day. It’s hard to imagine him as anything other than transformed into a more perfect state.
A lot’s been said online and in print in the last couple days by a lot of people, many of whom knew Lou Reed the person or the vast corpus of Lou Reed’s work better than I do. I especially appreciated remembrances by Robert Christgau and Dave Hickey at Spin; our friend Caryn Rose, who came as close as anyone has to tapping into the vein of my own personal connection to Reed’s work; Sacha Frere-Jones. I laughed at Handsome Dick Manitoba’s account of Lou’s last public appearance and then was happy to find footage of the same event. (As a friend pointed out to me, it’s kind of great that pretty much the last lines Lou uttered to an audience through a mic were “Hey!! Shut! Up!”) I was really pleased to find a 1976 Voice essay by James Wolcott, one of my favorite on-the-scene writers from the period. I returned to Rob Sheffield’s appreciation of The Blue Mask, one of my favorite Reed records, on its 30th anniversary. I grieved in community with radio audiences via WFMU (10/27/13 show) and East Village Radio. I thought about the first time I listened to “Rock n Roll” and resonated with that heady mix of New York, rhythm guitar, and radio that really did feel like salvation to a perpetual outsider.
I was really moved when, in the middle of the night after Reed died, a recent student of mine — someone who’d been in my Andy Warhol seminar last semester — sent me a condolence email. I don’t have any stories about accidentally running into Reed on the street or meeting him at somebody’s party, but the music sits with me about as deep as anyone’s. Aside from my own private listening, which spans more than two decades at this point, my intimacy with Reed’s work really deepened in the classroom over the last dozen years. In 2002, the first honors thesis I advised at NYU, by Nicholas Taylor, was on Warhol and the Velvets (find a trimmed-down version of it here), even though my field of specialization was still, at that point, the eighteenth century. Cyrus and I taught The Velvet Underground and Nico for a decade in our Writing New York class, and I got to cover things with thicker strokes in the Downtown Scenes class that spun out of that WNY unit. I’ve read dozens of student papers analyzing Reed’s lyrics, screened documentary footage, and assigned accounts the Velvets’ history, from the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Warhol’s a: a novel and Popism to gossipy biographical accounts by Legs McNeil and Bockris and Malanga to the astute criticism of Ellen Willis and the temper tantrums of Lester Bangs. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the many faces and phases — and hairstyles — Reed went through and had occasion to consider his vast influence. Imagine! Without Reed (well, and Warhol, too) we wouldn’t have had David Bowie’s entire 70s corpus. It just wouldn’t have happened the same way. And sure, Reed owed an awful lot to Dylan, and to Jackie Curtis too, for that matter, but that influence folded back upon itself, the same way the Stones later said they were influenced by the Velvets. Once I was even moved to write a monologue in the voice of Rachel, Lou’s longtime lover, a former Club 82 drag queen whose story I became fascinated with while working on my Television book.
One of the big challenges to teaching The Velvet Underground and Nico is getting students to hear what’s radical about it. After all, most of what we call punk, post-punk, college rock, alternative, or indie is so indebted to the Velvets — and so many of those sounds have been so thoroughly disseminated throughout global pop culture by this point — that it’s sometimes hard to peel back those layers of influence and listen to the record fresh. To illustrate my point that the Velvets weren’t mainstream — and still aren’t by many standards — I used to tell a story in lecture about the days when I would write in a bar at the South Street Seaport, just before the Fulton Fish Market closed. The fish guys would come in on Friday mornings when their shifts ended for the week and start ordering beers around 8 am. They’d rhapsodize about the olden days, when their pops worked the market, and they’d request an awful lot of Sinatra from the bartender, who usually indulged. One morning she was playing the Velvets’ first record instead, and part way through “Black Angel’s Death Song” one of them finally had had enough. “What is this shit?” he shouted. The bartender replied, maybe a little defensively: “It’s the Velvet Underground. You don’t know them? This is classic rock!” To which the fish guy replied: “The Velvet Underground isn’t classic rock! It’s East Village junkie music! And it should stay in the East Village!”
I’ve been slightly horrified by the onslaught of Lou Reed listicles over the last couple days, as if any one list could identify his twenty best songs or snippets from his lyrics. The thing I’ve noticed, though, is that aside from obligatory inclusion of “Satellite of Love,” “Walk On the Wild Side,” “Coney Island Baby,” and “Street Hassle,” any consensus in these lists breaks down. It’s clear which writers haven’t listened to anything later than New York (1989) and which know the Velvets much better than even the 70s solo records. There’s hardly any mention of the “New York Trilogy” — New York, Songs for Drella (1990), and Magic and Loss (1992) — as such. (I have to admit my own knowledge of Reed’s music tapers off after Drella, and one of the pleasures of the last few days has been listening to some of the later records: Magic and Loss, especially, but also Set the Twilight Reeling (1996) and Ecstasy (2000), which is the record Christgau says he’d been playing since he heard Lou was ailing late last week.) What’s clear about all this is that we’re dealing with one of the most prolific artists of the last 50 years, someone whose output, musically and lyrically, competes with the likes of Irving Berlin or even Dylan. We simply won’t have a handle on it or its impact for a long, long time. So many of these songs are songs that could be — and should be — kept a live for a long, long time, not just in Reed’s recordings, but in other people’s voices as well.
What follows isn’t a listicle, I promise. It’s just a collection of clips I’ve enjoyed the most over the last couple days, in roughly chronological order. Some I’d seen before, many times. Some were new to me. Do you have favorites that aren’t here? Lemme know in the comments.
Lou Reed, “Your Love,” 1962 demo recorded while he was a Syracuse student.
Warhol’s 1966 film, The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound.
The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On?” Live, 1969, set to a montage of Warhol footage.
Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico in Paris, 1972. Reed sings “Berlin” a few minutes in. (Embedding disabled on YouTube) ht Tim Wager
“Sweet Jane,” live in Paris, 1974.
“Street Hassle,” 1978, set to Warhol film, including Lou’s Screen Test.
“Coney Island Baby” and “White Light/White Heat,” with Robert Quine, in New Jersey, 1984.
The tail end of the video for “I Love You Suzanne,” also 1984, in which Mr. Reed really cuts the rug. ht Michael Daddino and Caryn Rose.
Patti Smith inducts the Velvets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996.
Lou Reed and John Cale, performing “Small Town,” from Songs for Drella.
“Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” from Magic and Loss, 1992. ht Jody Rosen
“Sweet Jane,” from the closing credits of Berlin, dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007.
Two years ago, we ran a virtual book club devoted to reading Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City. This fall, Lethem published a new novel, Dissident Gardens, which takes us not to Brooklyn but to Queens, inspired by in part by the apartment that his grandmother had in the borough while he was growing up. The novel depicts the lives of three generations in a family whose life is devoted to the pursuit of Communism in America.
I’ve written a review of the novel for Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, The National, which you can find here.
And because, for length reasons, a few ideas ended up on the cutting room floor, I’ve written a post over at patell dot org expanding my account of the novel’s portrayal of the workings of ideology.
Fans of Chronic City will find a sly nod to that novel in Dissident Gardens in the form of a disparaging review of a folk album by one of the new novel’s protagonists.
In anticipation of the NYUAD Theater Program and Theater Mitu’s presentation of MD (Or, The Whale) later this week, the Program in Literature and Creative Writing is sponsoring a marathon reading of novel, which the play takes as its inspiration.
The reading should take around 24 hours total, spread out over 3 1/2 days. On Monday, 30 September, reading will run from 10am-5pm; Tuesday, 1 October, from 10am-6pm; Wednesday, 2 October, from 10am-5pm; and Thursday, 3 October, from 11am-1:30pm (UAE times; for NYC, subtract eight hours).
We’ll stream as much as possible here. Keep checking back to see if we’re on!
One of the great delights of the decade Cyrus and I spent teaching our Writing New York class was the repeated opportunity to screen clips from Ric Burns’s monumental New York: A Documentary Film. Without a doubt, the highlight of that film is — for me, at least — the series of appearances by the philosopher and social critic Marshall Berman. The interview was clearly done in one long sitting, and over the course of it Berman begins to tire, to slouch a little, to nod his grizzled head to one side, almost coming to rest on his shoulder. And then, in a flash, he’ll animate, lean forward, offer a stinging indictment of Robert Moses or wax poetic about the fact that New York offers the possibility of living car-free. In the clip above he concludes his commentary on the lasting devastation of Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway with a lecturette on the birth of subway graffiti and hip hop among ruins in the South Bronx. “We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined,” Berman says, offering the story as a parable of the ways in which urban life can foster thrillingly creative moments even among the destructive forces of modernity.
New York lost one of its intellectual giants yesterday, when Berman passed away, and this morning I’m treasuring all the more the chances we had not simply to learn from him and to let him teach our students, but also to collaborate with him over the last few years, to count him a partner in our projects on the city’s literary and cultural history. From the first, when we taught Ginsberg’s Howl in our course, we structured the lectures using Burns’s treatment of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and the urban renewal movement at mid-century. Burns relies in those segments on the story Berman tells in the final chapters of his classic text All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). After a few years of listening to Berman sum up this historical episode in Burns’s film, we began assigning the chapters from Solid along with Ginsberg’s poem. Berman’s triangulation of Moses-Jacobs-Ginsberg isn’t the only way to read Howl, of course, but it became a very compelling reading for us and, I think, for our students.
Imagine my delight one day in 2007, then, when I found myself in line at Tekserve, in Chelsea, behind Berman, who was there with his son in an attempt to diagnose a damaged laptop. (I’m pretty sure the kid said he’d whacked it for running too slowly.) I wanted to introduce myself, but instead became a fly on the wall as I observed one of my heroes engaged in parenting. I blogged about it later, not imagining I’d ever get to know him personally. Berman was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Marx brothers above the text: “Why yes, I am a Marxist,” or something like that. He and his son were engaged in a conversation about ecology:
“I don’t get it,” the kid said. He seemed genuinely thoughtful, a bit abashed for his violence toward the pokey laptop, and not at all aware that his pop was one of the smartest people on earth. “There’s a lot of open space on the planet that doesn’t get used at all,” the kid said. “Why don’t people just spread out?” Berman gave a thumbnail overview of the forces behind early urbanization and explained that it was a good thing some land was yet unused. “Imagine a society where global warming has made living in some cities impossible,” he said. “People may have to return to farming.” Besides, he explained, not all of the empty space was amenable to habitation or agriculture. Deserts, for instance would have to be irrigated, “and irrigation is expensive,” he said. “Fantastically expensive. Spec-TAC-ularly expensive.” The conversation turned to the history of L.A. right about the time my number was called.
When I finally met him a couple years later, I had trouble toning down my fan-boy excitement. It turns out his son and my daughter ended up attending the same high school on the Upper West Side. I realized this at a parent meeting for a Paris study abroad trip during my daughter’s freshman year. Catching sight of Berman across the crowded high school library, I passed my daughter a note, asking if any of her classmates had the last name Berman. “Yeah, Danny,” she wrote back. I passed another note: “His dad is one of my great intellectual heroes!” She’s never let me live that down. A few weeks later at the airport, putting our kids on a plane to France, I finally had a chance to introduce myself. He invited us to ride back into the city with him and his wife (“Cab? No, we’re subway people”) and we talked with him about his own first trip to Paris, by steamer, when he was 20. It changed his life, he said.
Berman was delighted that we taught his material and never failed to offer suggestions for things we should include in our histories of New York lit. “You need a chapter on mothers and playgrounds,” he said once. “It’s one of the most overlooked scenes of cultural life in the city. Read Grace Paley.” When we hosted our Lost New York conference in 2009, he agreed to keynote it in conversation with David Freeland. We’d originally invited David Byrne as well, and though he couldn’t make it, his publicist wondered if Marshall would appear with Byrne at a Barnes and Noble reading instead. “Not if it means just showing up as a fan,” Marshall said. “Has he read my books?” During the planning of that conference I realized that Berman preferred phone to email, but I still loved the way he signed his emails with an exuberant “Shalom!” When I last saw him, at a conference on Modernist Manhattan in early 2012, he buzzed with excitement when he talked about the underground circulation in Iran of an unauthorized Farsi translation of All That Is Solid. (He also wrote about this in a new 2010 Afterword to the book.)
What I appreciate most about Berman’s thinking is his ability to remain optimistic about modernity even as he theorizes its devastating effects. Skyscrapers might remove community from the street, I heard him say once, but people love to live in skyscrapers for the views. Mass culture, for Berman, wasn’t something to bemoan, but to celebrate, not only for its “global reach,” but for its potential to convey “emotional depth and power.” (That quote from his stunning reading of the Kol Nidre sequence in The Jazz Singer.) In support of this optimism, Post-War New York again serves him as a parable. The transformations under Robert Moses in the 1950s and 1960s, he writes, created a new New York not necessarily hospitable to writers and artists. Some retreated to the universities. Some left the city. Some holed up in new countercultural enclaves downtown: SoHo and the East Village, which would begin to foster new art scenes during the years in which Berman wrote Solid. He refers to the split between the city and its artists as a “split between the modern spirit and a modernized environment.” For him, the opportunity to be modern always mitigated the darker forces modernity carried in its train. That’s not the only lesson I hope I’ve learned from him over the years, but it’s an important one. Again from All That Is Solid:
To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.
… To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”
Indeed. Our thoughts are with your family, Marshall. Thanks for sharing part of your journey with us.
Today’s installment in our discussion of Teju Cole’s novel comes from guest blogger Martha Nadell, who teaches at Brooklyn College and is at work on a literary history of Brooklyn. The author of a book on image and text in early twentieth-century African American culture, she also wrote the chapter “Writing Brooklyn” in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York.
Less than two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, genre-bending novelist and Brooklyn resident Jonathan Lethem published “9 Failures of the Imagination” in The New York Times Magazine. Lethem recalled the hours and days after September 11, describing how he moved among the homes of his friends and visited and revisited the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which offered him a close vista on the “raw, unmediated plume, now black, now white, now gray, now black again.” Lethem found himself wondering, just days later, if he were willing to write the “unimaginable fact” of the fall of the Twin Towers: “Can I bear to narrate this into normality, 40 hours after they crumbled and fell? To craft a story: and then, and then, and then? Will the words I’m spilling here seem fatuous or hysterical or naïve by the time they’re read?” Lethem was, in all probability, one of the first writers to speculate about the possibility and nature of literary responses to 9/11, what many have described as a world-altering event.
Despite Norman Mailer’s admonishment to Jay McInerney – to wait ten years “to make sense of it” – Lethem and a host of other writers addressed, some directly and others even more obliquely, the events and aftermath of 9/11. The first decade following the event saw the publication of a spate of novels that scholars have used as evidence of post-9/11 genre: Art Speigelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (2005), Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006), Don Delillo’s Falling Man (2007), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005), John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland (2008), Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil (2010), among others.
Scholars, of course, had to get in on the act and have argued about the characteristics of post-9/11 literature (if they believe it exists at all), its ethical and political responsibilities, its formal innovations, or lack thereof. They have called attention to repeated tropes and common themes: depictions of falling or obvious references to the falling man depicted in Richard Drew’s harrowing photographs; the trauma of familial, domestic, and national loss; connections with other national and international traumas. Richard Gray argues that American literature post 9/11 has failed to address adequately the meaning of September 11, because it couches the unfamiliar and traumatic in familiar personal stories and literary forms. Michael Rothberg follows Gray, arguing that American writers are unable to deal with the complexity of global political discourse. Both insist that American literature has not yet been able to deal with what Catherine Morley calls “the figure of the Other” — a problem, given (as Gray writes) that the US has been shaped as much by its multiculturalism and immigration as by 9/11 itself.
Gray and Rothberg have in mind a particular idea of what literature should do – to engage in political and historical discourse on a global scale, to imagine not just the trauma on the domestic level, among families and communities split apart, but to present accounts of the US and its power in the context of world affairs. Literature, in their view, should be a means to address politics and power and should move beyond the discourse of trauma that emerged in many of the novels published in the years immediately following September 11. For Gray, O’Neill’s Netherland is a candidate for the successful 9/11 novel. In its intertwining of the stories of two immigrants – a Dutch banker and a Trinidadian entrepreneur cum gangster – and their experience of cricket in New York, Netherland offers the possibility of a cosmopolitan vision of America. Rothberg, however, doesn’t want to remain on US soil. He worries that novels focused on immigrants within the US run the risk of maintaining national boundaries. He calls for a post-9/11 literature that moves abroad and interrogates what the meaning of the US not only for its citizens but also for others outside of its national borders.
What would these scholars make of Teju Cole’s Open City?
Early in Open City, Julius finds himself in an alley – “not one’s preferred route to any destination … all brick walls and shut-up doors.” It seems to deny entry, movement, the legibility that De Certeau’s view from 110th floor of the World Trade Center offers. But then the alley gives way to a view of “a great black building,” the distant tower swathed in black netting, and then to a vast, empty space that was “the ruins of the World Trade Center.” Julius begins to reflect on the site — “a metonym of its disaster” – but then finds himself in one of the conversations that punctuate his walking in New York and abroad. When he returns to his walk, he reflects on the other city walkers he sees, the memorial to fallen police officers, the individuals who pedal on their stationary bikes as they look out from a gym onto the 9/11 construction site. In his view of the cityscape and its visitors and inhabitants, he reflects on the historical persistence of atrocity and on the creative destruction that marked the construction of the World Trade Center, thereby resisting any possible sense of historical or national exceptionalism.
But this is just a brief moment in Cole’s novel, which wanders through space, time, and voice. Julius does not simply encounter or engage with others: Faroq, Professor Saito, Dr. Maillotte, etc. The novel inhabits the multiple voices and narratives of Julius as well as these individuals. It allows them to comment on New York, the US, and the world both in the post 9/11 era and before, in ways that are both political and deeply personal. The novel, then, fulfills Rothberg’s call for “a centrifugal mapping that charts the outward movement of American power.” And yet it does more than that. In its migrations through history and memory, it offers multiple “cognitive maps” that de-center the politics and power of the contemporary US. Consider this passage, which reflects on the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan:
The squabble about the construction of the monument did not interest me. There was certainly no chance that six acres of prime real estate in lower Manhattan would be razed and rededicated as holy ground. What I was steeped in, on that warm morning, was the echo across centuries, of slavery in New York. At the Negro Burial Ground, as it was then known, and others like it on the eastern seaboard, excavated bodies bore traces of suffering: blunt trauma, grievous bodily harm. … How difficult it was, from the point of view of the twenty-first century, to fully believe that these people, with the difficult lives they were forced to live, were truly people, complex in all their dimensions as we are, fond of pleasures, shy of suffering, attached to their families. (221)
Cole’s novel faces the anxiety of the post 9/11 era, often emerging in Julius’s experiences of being read, most often racially, as he walks the city. But, as Julius reads the city, its inhabitants, and its history, the novel does something else; it engages with difference on a fundamental level. While it reckons with the complexities of power, nations, and atrocity, as Gray and Rothberg would have it, Open City also insists on interrogating individuals, their histories and memories, their rich or vexed emotions, always in their idiosyncratic contexts.
In an interview, Cole commented :
This is a book set five years after 9/11. There’s a public response to 9/11 that’s the most well-known, and for me the most agitating being that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. That was a response, a significant part of it. There was an invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion of Iraq, and enhanced security in all parts of public life. Those were the three main responses. But there was something else going on, especially for those of us who were in New York before, during, and after the attacks on the Twin Towers.
It’s the “something else going on” that makes Cole’s novel a post-9/11 novel of a different and new sort.
Today’s installment in our book club discussion comes from long-time friend-of-the-blog Sunny Stalter, an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University. Her research examines technology in American literature and culture. Her book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, will be published by the University of Massachusetts this fall. Follow her on Twitter: @slstalter.
*Spoiler alert*: those who have not read Open City should be warned that I discuss its one major plot twist throughout this post.
Cultural historians of the city like to talk about the split between different spatial perspectives taken by recorders of urban life: David L. Pike distinguishes the “view from above” and the “view from below”; John Kasson sees writers and artists in nineteenth-century New York either taking a “bird’s-eye view” or a “mole’s eye view.” (Nineteenth-century New Yorkers thought about this division in another way, looking at New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.) But whatever you call it, this difference in perspective marks a difference in attitude: you’re either removed from the space you’re observing and thus detached, or you’re in the thick of things, up close and, often, implicated in what you’re observing. For the view from above, think about Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Pictorialist photograph The Octopus, with its godlike perspective of Madison Square Park. My favorite view from below can be seen in Walker Evans’s magisterial book of portraits, Many Are Called, where subway riders are framed singly or in pairs, shot by a man who sat across with them with a camera hidden in his coat. But the view from below need not be literally underground: the street-level observations of the flâneur and the urban sketch artist both qualify. Open City interests me because it moves so fluidly between the personal and the panoramic.
This idea of the view from above as detached, godlike, and (faux-)authoritative has helped me understand the one issue that most critics have found problematic in this otherwise much-lauded book: Moji’s revelation that when she and Julius were teenagers at a party, he raped her. Notably, the narrative does not use that word to describe what happened. Russian Army soldiers raped women during World War II including, presumably, Julius’s maternal grandmother. His own actions are described as “sexual abuse” and “forc[ing] himself” on Moji. She has told him everything that she remembers about this event and its aftermath while both of them watch the sun rise on the Hudson. After she has finished, she continues to stare in silence. Their scene does not read as a traumatic revelation from the outside, however: “Anyone who has come out onto the porch at that moment could not have imagined that we were doing anything other than enjoying the play of light on the river.” What looks like an abstract, aestheticizing gaze is instead a mute attempt to process trauma.
Or at least it is on Moji’s part. Julius is thinking high-flown thoughts worthy of his view, thoughts that only obliquely acknowledge the pain in front of him. We hear about a story he’d read in Albert Camus’s journals where Friedrich Nietzsche imitated the actions of ancient Roman, who thrust one hand into a fire to display his fearlessness. In Camus’s version, Nietzsche grabs a coal and burns himself proving the point to his friends, scarring his hand permanently. This is not the real story, though, as Julius later finds out: young Friedrich used matches, and an older student quickly knocked them off his hand. Julius understands the world through the lens of high culture, and in this moment we can see him thinking about the fallibility of memory and the way some painful things leave a permanent trace and others don’t. What would have been elegant contemplation elsewhere in the book, however, seems particularly cold here.
Reviewers don’t like this plot point: at least two call it a misstep, and one ignores it altogether. They do so, I think, because they’ve enjoyed Julius’s company, his knowledgeable voice, even his occasionally wry detachment. But it’s a useful reminder of some of the major critiques that have been visited upon the flâneur figure in the past, especially his privilege to roam where women could not and to gaze at his surroundings in ways that women could not.
The last chapter finds Julius looking out over the Bowery from the office where he’s gone into private practice with a fellow psychiatrist. He thinks about bird migrations, which he watched from his apartment window in the novel’s first chapter. In the pages that follow, we see lots of scenes that ironically reverse the sense of authority and detachment usually ascribed to the view from above. The most literal comes when Julius attends a Mahler concert. Exiting from his fourth-floor balcony seat, he accidentally leaves Carnegie Hall through a fire door and finds himself outside on the scaffolding of the building as rain beats down. Here, the view from above is a vertiginous one; it even transforms into a view from below when he notices how many stars are visible above him.
After the concert, he takes the subway downtown to 23rd street, walks to Chelsea Piers, and joins a cruise that’s going to the Statue of Liberty. The tour guide tells them, or the narrator tells us, “The crown of the statue has remained close since late 2001, and even those visitors who come close to it are confined to looking upward at the statue; no one is permitted to climb up the 354 narrow steps and look out into the bay from the windows in the crown.” The vantage point that gives you that kind of view is too great a security risk. Michel de Certeau’s wonderful essay “Walking in the City” discusses that privileged view that one experienced from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, a view that “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.” For all of the clarifying that Julius does in his lovely, meditative voice, some things about the city remain opaque and unfixed.
As Bryan pointed out in last Monday’s post, Teju Cole’s novel Open City is about wandering: Cole’s Nigerian-American narrator, Julius, is a flâneur, both an observer and a participant in the life of the city, primarily New York, but also — for a set of chapters that rounds out the first half of the novel — Brussels.
The book, however, is much about conversation as it is about strolling the streets of the city, because Julius is constantly engaging in conversations with those that he meets. Conversation is the primary way in which Julius participates in the life of the city, and the conversations that he has are generally more than simple chat-chit. Instead, they are the kind of conversation that our colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah describes as a crucial component of any true cosmopolitanism.
Appiah thinks about conversation in a double way: first, “in its older meaning, of living together, association”; second, in its modern sense of talking with one another (see his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers). We must learn to talk with another in order to learn how to live with one another. So these must be serious conversations in which we listen carefully to what other people have to say with the willingness to change our minds about something very important to us if we found that our partner in conversation has a better idea or way of thinking than we do. We are, after all, fallible beings, so we need constantly to be on the lookout for ways either to correct errors in our modes of thinking of behavior or simply to improve them.
That embrace of cosmopolitan conversation strikes me as one of the primary characteristics of Cole’s novel. Julius frequently reproduces conversations that turn out to provide the opportunity for both him and us to hear other people’s points of view and stories at length. Sometimes (as in the case of the conversation with the bootblack that Bryan discussed) Julius doesn’t even comment on what he’s heard, letting us judge things for ourselves. Usually, however, the conversation will prove to have some kind of resonance later on.
Cosmopolitanism is about being willing to cross boundaries and to embrace difference — not to close or eradicate the gaps between peoples but to bridge them. I like the Brussels section of the novel precisely because Cole suddenly crosses the conceptual boundaries that he seemed to have set up for the novel, which up until this point has been about exploring New York and exploring the self — more precisely, exploring New York as a way of exploring the self. Occurring about a third of the way into the novel, the Brussels interlude gives Julius a change to pursue his flâneurie in a different city, which is thereby set up as a foil for New York. (Or, perhaps, the interlude serves the same dramatic function that plays-within-the-play serve in Shakespeare.)
Julius decides to spend all his vacation time on a trip to Brussels in part because he has a vague hope of finding his oma, his maternal grandmother, a German woman who has moved to Brussels, whom Julius has met only once, when he was a boy in Nigeria. He doesn’t find her. What he does find are two interlocutors. The first is an “elderly lady” on the plane over who has suffered a recent loss and turns out to be a retired gastrointestinal surgeon; Julius arranges to meet her again in Brussels shortly before he returns to the U.S.
The second is Farouq, an immigrant from Morocco who works at the internet cafe that Julius visits and turns out to be an aspiring professional translator. Farouq had once sought to become a professor of comparative literature in the belief that that writing and studying literature might serve as a counterweight to the kind of oppression embodied, in his view, by the king of Morocco. His dream is dashed when his master’s thesis on Gaston Batchelard’s Poetics of Space is summarily dismissed by the examining committee at his university in Brussels for plagiarism, a charge that Farouq vehemently denies: “The only possibilities are that they refused to believe my command of English and theory or, and I think this is even more likely, that they were punishing me for world events in which I had played no role.” As a result, Farouq has become disenchanted with the possibilities offered by Europe and Western Enlightenment: readers of this site or viewers of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing will find his comments on the relative merits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King interesting (let’s just say that his views resonate with those that Lee expresses in the book that was published to accompany the film.
Farouq says that become a translator is his “practical project,” but “the deeper one” is what he calls “the difference thing”: figuring out how to get Westerners to accept difference with out orientalizing non-Westerners. From Edward Said’s writing he has learned that “difference as orientalist entertaintment is allowed,but difference with its own intrinsic value, no.” The position that Farouq ultimately stakes is what Appiah what describe as “multiculturalism” — respect for difference coupled with an aversion to change. Farouq conceives of cultural change only as the requirement that non-Westerners must change to accommodate the West: “There’s always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has noble ideas; I disagree with that expectation,” Farouq tells Julius.
Over the course of several conversations, Farouq talks with Julius about Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohamed Choukri, Benedict Anderson, Francis Fukuyama, and a number of other writers, as well as about European racism, the politics of Palestine, and global terrorism. Farouq’s recounting of his experiences leads Julius to reconsider the presence of racism in Belgium, and he finds himself becoming a little more cautious than he had been, given his own outward appearance.
The conversations with Farouq, however, are framed by Julius’s encounters with Dr. Maillotte, the retired gastrointestinal surgeon, and when they meet for lunch, she quickly dismisses Farouq’s point of view, calling him one of “these young men who go around as if the world is an offense to them.” She calls them “complainers,” and her account reminded me of the political theorist Wendy’s account of Wounded Attachments,” in which identity is formed by a sense of woundedness (see her 1995 book States of Injury).
Julius is bothered by the rapidity with which Dr. Maillotte diagnoses Farouq, but he doesn’t fully disagree, having himself earlier diagnosed Farouq as “thwarted.” Sympathetic as he is to Farouq’s point of view, Julius comes to realize that Farouq has more to learn if he is to realize his “deeper project.”
Julius’s remedy? Once back in the States, he sends Farouq a book.
It’s Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.