Distance in “Open City”

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“And as I stood there in the whipping wind and rain, I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life.” – Teju Cole, ‘Open City’

Teju Cole’s “Open City” is a work of misdirection. Cole’s narrator, Julius, spends dozens and dozens of pages relating stories of his days spent wandering New York City (with a brief vacation in Belgium), throughout which he incorporates commentary on a great breadth of topics. He exhibits an intimate knowledge of art, photography, music, literature, and global history and politics, and is adept at synthesizing his understanding of these varied fields into incisive, often profound insights. “Open City” lacks a plot in the traditional sense, but following Julius’ train of thought as he encounters landmarks and people and events throughout New York and beyond is deeply compelling in its own way. I think many readers will develop an admiration for the scale and scope of both his wealth of knowledge and his innate curiosity.

“Open City” contains more than just a collection of a man’s opinions on the world he observes, though. Julius circles around certain topics, often personal ones, never quite addressing them as directly or thoroughly as he does the paintings and architecture he comes across. But it’s through his fleeting visitations on these other aspects of his own life that we come to understand Julius as a person, not just a well-read writer and critic. The things he refuses to specify or analyze about his fraught familial relationships and his behavior toward his ex-girlfriend reveal the expansive distance that separates Julius from the rest of the world.

It’s not simply that Julius can be aloof, but that his constant pursuit of the intellectualized perspective leads him to refuse to acknowledge responsibility for his own behavior, for his own capability to cause pain in others. He favors his critical faculties over his ability to deal with trauma and grief in his own life and the lives of those he loves. Julius finds himself, or perhaps places himself, at such a remove from the present, intimate moment that even candid accusations about the damage he has done to others can’t keep his mind from drifting to artistic and philosophical commentary. It’s also distressing that he may not even be aware of these problems.

This is a troubling line of inquiry. Cole never summarizes or explains any of this, and for much of the book, it’s easy to trust Julius and to view him as as an authority on his own experiences. This trust then naturally extends to his observations on the culture surrounding him. But as the novel continues, moments of strange mis-applied analysis of certain works or situations creep in, and the reader can begin to pull on the thread that will finally reveal something more unsettling.

Otherwise, Julius seems to be an incredibly bright and entertaining guide. For all of his introspection, he’s sociable in casual settings and apparently an easy person for others to strike up a conversation with. He is, in some ways, an ideal of the cosmopolitan, engaging in great intellectual debates of history and contemporary thought with people from a huge variety of life experiences. He pulls from an impressive breadth of knowledge and experience. This is what makes the revelations about his lack of concern for others so disconcerting.

The desire to engage with history and culture of all different kinds (art, music, literature, philosophy, film, whatever else) motivates so many of us, often because we see it as a way to engage with what it means to be a person. This has been a pursuit for generations, of course. But especially now that so much is available to us almost instantaneously over the internet, there’s a desire to consume as much as possible and be a part of the discussion around all of it – say, by blogging about contemporary literature online (!). There is no end to this motivation. There will always be more worthwhile work to immerse ourselves in.

I think the concern that Cole teases at throughout his exceptional book is the idea that we might overlook the immediate humanity of the people in our lives because of our desire to be connected to some abstract, intellectual community, one that truly understands the human experience on a grand scale. It’s an understandable goal, and I’m not about to discourage anyone from reading more or listening to more music or watching more movies. But it is important to recognize the disconnect that can develop when this motivation is given too much reign over our lives. And it is doubly difficult to know if, or when, we have already allowed that to occur.

Cole’s strength as a writer is such that his novel never reads like a didactic exercise. It is far more ambiguous or suggestive than that, and he instead creates a character portrait of great depth and sincerity without looking for an easy reconciliation of these conflicts. What makes “Open City” such a profound success is the gap between author and narrator. For Cole, these questions of art and ethics are urgent. Julius only asks them philosophically. He does not know, or care, to ask them of himself.

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