Cosmopolitan Conversation: Open City Book Club, Part 2

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.

Appiah

Appiah

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 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, who 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.

Martin and Malcolm: still from Do the Right Thing

Martin and Malcolm: still from Do the Right Thing

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 Hulius.

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.

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