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.