What Kind of Criticism Do We Need Now? Coming to Terms with Teju Cole’s “Known and Strange Things”

Teju Cole on the outskirts of Ramallah during the Palestine Festival of Literature, June 2014. Photo: Rob Stothard.
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“We look at them for the way they cooperate with the imagination, the way they contain what cannot otherwise be accommodated, and the way they grant us, to however modest a degree, some kind of solace.”

– Teju Cole, “Object Lesson”

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole (Emily Bogle/NPR).

Remember the curious vignette from John Berger’s “And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.” We view a small town at 11AM on a sunny day: see it photographically as the future will, as belonging to a “distant past.” Berger sketches a blind man who knows his way down to the town’s square. He can’t see the faces of the townsfolk, but pictures the totality of their lives regardless. He has recently died. But, impossibly, he remains on the street in Berger’s snapshot. His bees produce more honey than anyone else’s, and he can walk the four kilometers from home to this center without error. All these paths are familiar to him, and his presence is deeply comforting.

I’m restless as I leaf through Teju Cole’s recent essay collection Known and Strange Things. Lulled and nearly hypnotized by an oneiric quality in the writing, drifting through the pieces, my mind indexes something: an itch. An irritating sense that I’m missing something that I crave. What we resist in our dreaming can be as telling as the dreams themselves.

Cole’s main preoccupation as a keen observer – and, in fact, a photographer – inflects all his writing. His first novel Open City (2011), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and brought him significant critical attention, might well be described as ambulatory prose. Its momentum depends on the protagonist’s ruminative urban wandering. Known and Strange Things, published in the summer of 2016, collects a decade’s worth of similarly peripatetic criticism, though perhaps in a more abstract sense. Cole writes about his topics (politics, race, art, travel), in the way one takes a stroll about a neighborhood – aimless, observant, unrushed.

And true to this spirit, Cole privileges note-taking over narrative (tellingly, in an interview with poet Aleksandar Hemon, he opposes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction). These notes pay dividends in the detailed composition of scenes, which always takes precedence over genre convention.

Cole holds the dense, cluttered vocabulary of institutional art criticism at bay. The now-ubiquitous high-decibel, all-frequencies static of political outrage has no place here. And now I recognize: the enervated part of me wants these essays to perform what the laziest part of me has lately become accustomed to reading: easy outrage. My impatience at Cole’s pace derives from the same set of urges as a daily impulse to check CNN a dozen times for fresh chills amid a shockingly banal dystopia. Pandering to this desire isn’t how good criticism works, nor is it Cole’s style.

Timely maybe, but not submerged in its moment, essential criticism runs alongside, against the day, usually arriving late and unapologetic. it reminds us of the truths (and untruths) behind daily myth and platitude. It uncovers overgrown trails into fresh, challenging places, and it checks long-secure footholds for weathering-away. It knows the timeline of erosion is slow, and that it must write slower to keep up.

At its best, the writing in Known and Strange Things embodies this spirit. “Death in the Browser Tab” wrestles poignantly with the visibility, virtuality, and ghoulish share-ability of Black suffering in the age of social media. “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” “Unquiet Skies,” and “in Alabama” are all more than equal to the difficulty of their intensely fraught, contested subject matter. Each of these essays manages to present complex critical sentiment that is somehow both unhurried, and urgent. They sacrifice none of their political sharpness by unfolding gradually, oscillating between personal reaction and historical reflection.

While Cole’s political criticism is slow, careful, nuanced, it’s often also searing. He channels anger into a quiet focus that hits hard. The real blood on the page casts a harsh light on my impatient yen for cheap thrills. Among the strongest of these pieces is “The Reprint,” an experiential journey through the day that Barack Obama won his first election – a lifetime ago – in 2008. He withdraws from the easy narrative of Obama’s victory and, in real time, tries to get a handle on his hesitations even while partly swept up in the moment. He reflects on the “American longing for simplicity,” and “a love of clear narratives and optimistic story arcs,” evinced in the euphoric crowds singing “’We Shall Overcome’ on the heels of a massively well-funded and astute display of machine politics.”

The measured, even-handed approach fueling the slow burn of Cole’s political pieces reads very differently when it infuses his art criticism. Rarely does Cole disagree with his aesthetic subjects. In the main, he writes about works he likes, and why he likes them. He sets the stage and helps us find our way to our seats. These expert recommendations cover, among other worthy examples, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Red; photography by Wangechi Mutu, Seydou Keïta, and Roy DeCarava; writing from WG Sebald, VS Naipaul, Derek Walcott, and Tomas Tranströmer. To read, watch, and listen to Cole’s favorites is to be enriched by a breadth of taste more impressive than Spotify’s panoptic algorithm.

However, much as Cole champions his subjects, his art writing seldom challenges them. Known and Strange Things gives no testament of artworks that he contested. Given that this, his first anthology, devotes so much space to treatments of things that he enjoys, it’s worth asking whether this kind of work means to function therapeutically. It’s often a pleasure to hear someone of excellent taste thoughtfully describe their sources of inspiration: a balm against an abundance of toxic cynicism. But is Cole taking it easy on us? And is this not an irresponsible presentation for a talented critic to assume in fraught times? He’s painting obvious  studies with a brush suited for finer work.

In fairness, Cole does handle the decidedly unsafe: in his writing on drones; surveillance; race, violence, and politics. There are two articles boldly addressing movement restrictions in Palestine. One couldn’t accuse Cole of being unconcerned, or of sidestepping difficult terrain. But his art criticism sacrifices the provocation that I value in critical writing, opting instead to offer solace and sanctuary. What we gain in this trade is a deeper field of colors. Cole’s essayistic photographs render more shades, coax gentler insight, in a meditative tone where nothing resolves quickly. Sometimes nothing resolves at all.

An odd piece called “Two Weeks” stands out as a microcosm of the collected works. It’s composed of brief snapshots from Cole’s diary, and captures the subtle, occasionally frustrating allure of his writing. Intricate little scenes that hold a lot: Ennui seethes during a writing residency in London as he visits disappointing galleries; then dislocated alienation in a hotel room after a warm reception at a Midwest American writing festival; later, quiet outrage at checkpoints in the West Bank, and at the inability to navigate the minefield of conversations about these checkpoints. And there are tranquil moments, like the one at a quiet ruin near a once-bombed village in the Golan Heights, that rest on the simple perfection of careful composition.

Cole never dwells long enough for a resolved critical point to emerge from any of these places. He isolates single frames for us to countenance unquietly, on our own. From the anxiety in this incompleteness, instructive turmoil ensues. We’re left to sort out: Is this enough? Is this what Instagram does to writing – places it in a feed of fragmented, recontextualized images? Shouldn’t critical writing aspire to do more than the snapshot? But then, perhaps, this is to underestimate what is potential in an image, and to lazily deny the bright, imaginative part in ourselves that exists to constellate. Perhaps the open space of Cole’s fragments is precisely the undecided territory this kind of criticism needs to thrive.

We’ve had a rough year. For some, there’s a deep need for the comfort of favorite things: security blankets whose worn-in auras now function as sleep aids. Perhaps the function of media like this is no longer primarily to shake, challenge, or confront. For me, Kafka’s infinite hopelessness, Tarkovsky’s gauzy alienation, Herzog’s comic gloom reappear, weirdly, as salves. Returning to them now feels like going home. Maybe therapy is irresponsible at a time when it would be more human, more vital, to feel ill at ease. Surely there are moments when it behooves us not to feel at home.

Then again, we might have become complacent and failed to arrive at this question, were it not for Cole’s haunting of familiar streets. John Berger’s old man returns to me here. Before he was allowed to disappear from the frame, he signified the virtue of sustaining a fragile composition, unresolved, suspended over what Cole might call “the subterranean truth of things.” Like this man,  Cole is momentarily fixed over nothing, a great unnamed lake, a bulwark against a void of uncaring, or forgetting.

4 Comments

  • Matt Cahill says:

    “Maybe therapy is irresponsible at a time when it would be more human, more vital, to feel ill at ease.” I understand what the author is probably intending with this phrase, however, the most powerful psychotherapeutic discussions are often about living with the unfillable holes in our life (death, ordinariness, isolation). I think it’s a misnomer that therapy should be about painting over what we don’t want to see. (Otherwise, this is a great review)

    • Casey Beal says:

      Hi Matt,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond kindly to my piece.
      Your point about my somewhat vernacular use of the term ‘therapy’ is well made (and certainly understandable from the perspective of a psychotherapist). I’m tempted to try to get myself off the hook by saying that the looser definition of the word ‘therapy’ that informs my calling Cole’s critique ‘therapeutic’, is the same as the one underlying its more everyday use in phrases like ‘spa therapy’.
      But I also think that the definition you propose (living mindfully alongside ‘the unfillable holes in our life’) is similar to where I arrive, in my final paragraph, after rethinking the “maybe” in the passage you quote. Maybe his therapy is not so irresponsible, then, if by its reluctance to resolve easily, it suspends us thoughtfully in proximity to the sources of our anxiety – our death, ordinariness and isolation.
      All Best,
      C

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