Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan




Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W.G. Sebald, and the Alienated Cosmopolitan by Michelle Kuo & Albert Wu

The evolution of the flâneur

February 2nd, 2013 reset - +

Still from Grant Gee's documentary Patience (After Sebald)

IN HIS 1863 ESSAY “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire introduces his audience to Monsieur Constantin Guys, the “perfect stroller (flâneur).” This cosmopolitan gentleman is driven by curiosity, joy, and a desire for new experiences. A “passionate spectator,” he strolls about urban spaces, observing the crowd. Even though the flâneur is alone, he is at ease. His wandering gives him inspiration. He is “away from home” yet feels “everywhere at home.” He is at once an artist, a man of the world, and a “spiritual citizen of the universe.” Baudelaire’s perfect flâneur is gifted with the ability to both understand and penetrate the world: “Few men are gifted with the capacity of seeing; there are fewer still who possess the power of expression.” Not only does the flâneur capture our world, his art transforms it. “The external world is reborn upon his paper,” Baudelaire writes, “natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, strange and endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of its creator.”

Two recent debut novels, Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, question such optimism in the transformative potential of the flâneur’s wandering gaze. The 21st century flâneurs at the center of these novels are dislocated and wayward. Adam Gordon, the narrator of Lerner’s novel, is white, born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, living in Madrid on a prestigious arts fellowship. Julius, Cole’s protagonist — a half-Nigerian, half-German immigrant living in New York City — is also completing a fellowship, in psychiatry. Both are well traveled and erudite, steeped in their knowledge of the Western arts and humanities. And both, like Constantin Guys, wander about their respective cities, going nowhere in particular. They become increasingly thoughtful, yet also remain alone inside their thoughts. They are liberal, yet doubt the efficacy of political action; they are erudite, yet question the use of erudition. Knowledge, they realize, is neither a refuge nor a means to liberation. Both are fundamentally alienated from the society in which they have chosen to live. Both narrate their lives in similar form — the plot of each novel is as desultory as the narrators themselves, and unapologetically interior. 

This obsession with interior life prevents the narrators from making a connection with others. Julius cannot feel kinship with Africans who try to connect with him on the grounds of racial solidarity. Exiting a museum and encountering a rainstorm, he hops in a cab and fails to greet his driver. The driver, an African, takes offense: “Hey, I’m African just like you, why you do this?” Julius apologizes, but thinks to himself, “I wasn’t sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.” Nor can he feel at home in America. Refusing to listen to American radio because of its endless commercials — “Beethoven followed by ski jackets, Wagner after artisanal cheese” — he instead tunes into stations from Canada, Germany, or the Netherlands. 

Like Julius, Adam is an outsider. He is driven by a self-conscious fear that he is a fraud. Unable to express his emotions in Spanish, he uses his linguistic ineptitude to his advantage when he dates a Spanish woman named Isabel. “Our relationship,” he writes, “largely depended upon my never becoming fluent, on my having an excuse to speak in enigmatic fragments or koans.” But Adam, too, takes no consolation in the company of his fellow expats, who he finds insufferable: whenever he encounters another American, he “shower[s] him or her with silent contempt.” 

This disconnection from other humans contradicts the political and philosophical ideal of cosmopolitanism, as outlined by Kwame Anthony Appiah, the British-Ghanaian Princeton professor and philosopher: “[T]he idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship.” For Appiah, cosmopolitan thinking guides ethical and moral responsibility, and is inherently political. Above all, conversation is at the heart of the cosmopolitan project. Appiah’s optimism undergirds a belief that crosscultural conversation can foster both a mutual respect for difference as well as an unveiling of commonly held beliefs and ideas. He aspires to the ideal of a “rooted cosmopolitan,” or the “cosmopolitan patriot,” a person who can be simultaneously loyal to a particular place, and to universal ideals.

In Cole’s Open City we encounter a whole host of Appiah’s “rooted cosmopolitans.” One of the emotional centerpieces of the book occurs when Julius meets Farouq, a Moroccan who mans the cash register at an Internet and telephone café in Brussels. Farouq is thoroughly cosmopolitan, able to greet his customers in French, Arabic, English, and Spanish. He is also learned, quoting from Edward Said and Gilles Deleuze, engaging Julius in a conversation about Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” Farouq marvels at his job, showing Julius the log of calls on a computer that monitors all of the Internet and phone traffic. Colombia, Egypt, Senegal, Brazil, France, Germany — the list “looked like fiction,” Julius says, “that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places.” And Farouq utters a sentence that might have come straight from the mouth of Appiah when he calls the Internet café “a test case of what I believe; people can live together but still keep their own values intact.”

But Julius is skeptical of Farouq’s cosmopolitan ideals. Returning to the Internet café, Julius spots Farouq engaged in a conversation with an older Moroccan man. Farouq “was in the grip of rage and rhetoric […] A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves, and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something.” Recoiling, Julius leaves the cafe. Julius suggests that the cosmopolitan ideal may be illusory, slipping easily into a politics of injury: “It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties.” Yet even as he casts judgment on others’ wrathful politics of injury, Julius recognizes that his own political abstinence — he is the man “magnificently isolated from all loyalties,” the man with no cause — is equally damning. His own lack of loyalties, he thinks, may very well be “an ethical lapse graver than rage itself.”

A similar political abstinence characterizes Lerner’s protagonist. When asked to comment on the relationship between poetry and politics, Adam reverts to his standard refrains: “I don’t know” and “Poems aren’t about anything.” On March 11, 2004, coordinated bombings go off in Madrid, killing hundreds. The morning of the bombings, Adam awakes at the Ritz, where he has just engaged in a failed attempt to woo Isabel. (He has charged the hotel expenses to his parents’ credit card, which he has been warned to use only in an “emergency.”) In the aftermath of the bombings, Adam’s Spanish friends are swept up in the political fervor and demonstrations, but Adam, for the most part, does not participate, choosing instead to sleep and watch from the sidelines. Teresa — another woman he wants to sleep with — asks him how he is going to “participate in this historic moment.” Adam responds, “It’s not my country.” Later, he remarks, “When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.” Adam’s tone here is typical: offhand, self-deprecating, and never claiming to take part in that which has political stakes or historical meaning.

For Adam and Julius, it appears that all available ideological and political options are unappealing, or have failed: right-wing fascism, left-wing modernism, cosmopolitan patriotism, the belief in the West and in the arts as a source of progress. Instead of committing themselves to an ideological position, they wander. Wandering may be a very literal way to avoid staking out a position. To wander is to avoid belief.

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This habit of avoidance leads to a series of prevarications for both protagonists — most disturbingly, in their relations with women. Adam lies, repeatedly, in order to bed women. He lies, first, to Teresa, claiming that his mother is dead, as a way to evoke sympathy at his tragic situation, and later repeats this lie to Isabel. Julius, on the other hand, lies to himself. A startling revelation occurs in Open City’s final pages when Moji, the sister of a childhood friend from Nigeria, invites Julius to a party. She speaks to him “in a low and even voice, emotional in its total lack of inflection” and tells him that, when she was 15, he forced himself on her. She has thought about that day for the rest of her life. But, she charges, Julius behaves as if he “knew nothing about it, had even forgotten her, to the point of not recognizing her.”

The shock of the idea that Julius might be a rapist requires us to circle back to the beginning of the novel, searching for clues, hoping that we can know for certain what took place. Suddenly the genre of the work has shifted. We are in the world of detective stories and mystery. Did Julius do it? We find no clues in the scene at the supermarket, where he and Moji meet: “It was clear she expected me to remember her. I didn’t.” Later, at a picnic, he signals to the reader his attraction to her: “She leaned forward to pluck a grape from its stem on the plate. She was wearing a tank top, and I caught sight of the dark curve of her breast.” Though sinister in retrospect, even here there is no hint of whether he indeed forced himself violently on her. (There are other clues, even more attenuated, to which we might point. When Julius hears the sounds of women activists protesting, holding a vigil, he closes the window. Does his disinterest in their political cause, his absence of any investment in it, suggest that he could have been callous to Moji in the past? When his mother tried to tell Julius that he himself was a product of rape, he didn’t listen — this, he tells us, is a long-suppressed regret of his.)

Thus, at novel’s end, and even after rereading the text in its entirety, we cannot be sure whether the rape occurred. This is likely Cole’s intention: were we certain, we could too easily cast judgment on Julius, leaving us — the readers — unimplicated. Cole suggests that Julius’s crime is not physical but mental: not an outrageous, externally identifiable act of violence, but the repressions of his self-rationalizing internal life. A woman, after all, has told him he raped her, and Julius declines to reflect upon it, speaking about it only briefly and abstractly: “we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.”

What is most striking about the potential rape is how Julius speaks of it in the same, remote manner as he speaks of the strangers he has previously encountered. Julius folds his accuser’s narrative into the rest of the stories, refusing to accord primacy to her beliefs. His distance from her sorrow, his capacity to hide from it — whatever else occurred, here is a crime of which we can be certain. In constructing an unreliable narrator, Cole may be suggesting that the reader must now rise to the task of judging him. How we read Julius implicates us. We ought not to forgive a poet, Cole tells us elsewhere, for “writing well.” 

“I adore imaginary monsters, but I am terrified of real ones,” says Julius’s mentor, an old Japanese professor. The monster, Cole suggests, is Julius himself. The way we narrate ourselves lies at the heart of evil. Of what do we neglect to speak? To which people, and to what acts, do we accord primacy? We are not heroes, and our narration does not make us such.

“You’ll say nothing,” says Moji, the potential rape victim, to Julius, her potential rapist. “You’ll say nothing.”

And indeed Julius doesn’t, least of all to his readers.

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This false, slippery narration, which the reader is called upon to interpret as self-deception, damns the 21st century flâneur. The erudite wanderer, it turns out, is not a “spiritual citizen of the universe” but a fraud; far from wanderers like Adam and Julius being “gifted with the capacity for seeing,” the reader is commanded to see through their lies. Lerner and Cole’s alienated cosmopolitans reflect a radical break from the 19th-century vision of the flâneur that inspired Baudelaire, the wanderer “everywhere at home.” For Adam and Julius, there is nowhere they might call home.

It’s not surprising that these 21st-century flâneurs are different creatures from their 19th-century predecessors. It is evident that Lerner and Cole have been influenced by a multitude of contemporary factors, from the insights of postmodernism and postcolonialism and the ease of travel, to the dislocation of living in a globalized age and the instant gratifications of technology. But there are 20th century literary antecedents to Adam and Julius, too. Standing between Baudelaire’s flâneur and the one found in these recent books is the figure of W.G. Sebald, a German writer to whom both Cole and Lerner have been frequently compared. (Both borrow trademark Sebald devices: Lerner inserts cryptic photographs into his text; Cole tells self-contained, seemingly disparate stories of the people and places he encounters; all three writers structure their novels as a series of first-person essays.) Sebald was a product of the cataclysmic 20th century: his father had served in the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army, and helped to invade Poland. A prisoner of war in France until 1947, he never talked to Sebald about his wartime experience. It is perhaps not surprising that Sebald’s characters — most of whom are travelers or flâneurs of one kind or another — write as if steeped in melancholy.

The unnamed narrator of Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, for instance, wanders throughout the county of Suffolk, England. In the book’s final chapter, he traces the journey of a silkworm moth. The domesticated silkworm, Bombyx mori, is one and a half inches across and one inch lengthways. Its wings are ashen white. The creature has extraordinary, natural gifts. Within the span of six or seven weeks, it “reel[s] out an uninterrupted thread almost a thousand yards long.” According to legend (Sebald’s narrator recounts), the silkworm was first cultivated by the ancient Chinese emperor Huang-ti. These techniques traveled from China to the Western world — to Greece and the Aegean Sea, and then to early modern Italy, France, England. The early industrial revolution, coupled with an increasingly administrative state, extracted prolific amounts of silk from these tiny, yet resilient, worms.

The tale of the silkworm ends with the Nazis, who, “with that peculiar thoroughness,” assume totalizing control over its powers of production. Sebald’s narrator is surprised when he comes across a Nazi propaganda film that promises that silk production will bring “the best and cleanest of all worlds.” The film of “truly dazzling brightness” shows men and women in white coats, in white rooms, at snow-white spinning frames:

We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.

Sebald is too delicate, too oblique to explicitly link the silkworm to terms such as capitalism, globalization, modernity, totalitarianism, historical trauma, or, finally, genocide. But one gathers, by story’s end, that the story of the silkworm is valuable to him less as a matter of historical fact than as a parable: a lens that brings history into focus.           

Sebald’s melancholy flâneur, then, already disinherits Baudelaire’s 19th-century optimism. In Sebald’s world, Baudelaire’s giddy intoxication with worldly knowledge takes a darker turn; the quest for knowledge only leads to a never-ending void. “The greater the distance, the clearer the view,” he writes in The Rings of Saturn:

[O]ne sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says [Thomas] Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world.

The silkworm is like that isolated light in the abyss of history. It guides us imperfectly, to see where we have arrived.

Crucially, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn does not tell us personal details of himself, so that his grief appears to have little to do with his own life and everything to do with the silkworm. Whatever trauma he may have experienced — perhaps exile from Germany, loss of family members in the war, or something else entirely — is relevant only insofar as it explains an acute sensitivity to all forms of death. Indeed, his cryptic withholding of personal details about his life feels remarkably natural to his being and his tone. His grief absorbs the grief of others, and his melancholy merges with the decaying landscape.

If Sebald’s world is a house of grief that invites the reader in, then the house Cole constructs in Open City appears locked, his pain exclusive to himself. Observing other people’s pain, Julius repeatedly deplores his incapacity to imagine it, whether from this century or the previous ones. Coming upon mass graves of black people, he reflects: “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.” Later, witnessing a group of Rwandans dancing, he asks himself, “Who, among those present […] had killed, or witnessed killing? The quiet faces surely masked some pain I couldn’t see." 

Cole’s narrator suggests there is a cyclical nature of trauma — arguably, this is an ahistorical view of suffering. What propels his grief is not a view of history’s trajectory, but his own incapacity to assimilate into its all-encompassing present or past. Nor does he tell us what appears to be the origin of this incapacity: we never find what provoked the estrangement between Julius and his mother, a key to the puzzle. Cole’s personal withholding of crucial details further isolates him from us, the readers. Indeed, this is how both Julius and Adam strive for, and establish, their authentic voices: they alienate readers on purpose. They are too self-conscious to risk appearing ideological, and too paralyzed to speak of where their generation stands vis-à-vis history. In contrast, Sebald’s withholding draws in readers, who view it as evidence of his trauma. Doubting their own empathy, Julius and Adam do not expect that we mourn alongside them; Sebald is sure that we will.

Herein lies Cole and Lerner’s essential difference from Sebald. Though Sebald is silent about politics, his silence does not originate from ambivalence and doubt — doubt of others’ sincerity, doubt in his own capacity to feel fully, and, finally, doubt in his own position to speak. Rather, his silence comes from certainty. Through his story of the silkworm, as with his other worlds — of the dying herring, of cities destroyed by carpet-bombing — he tells us what is worth grieving: the 20th century’s extraordinary and permanent breakage from the past. This trajectory is unrecognizable from previous paths we have taken.

Sebald’s view of suffering, then, is deeply historical. With clarity and momentum, he builds the case for his melancholy, which — by virtue of being born into this historical trajectory — we each have been bequeathed.

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From where do postmodern cosmopolitans like Adam and Julius find hope and relief from melancholy? There is light to be found in Open City, its main sources art and music. In Leaving the Atocha Station the light is at first humor, of which self-deprecation and compulsive lying are the materials. The plot eventually offers some relief too: in the final pages, Adam develops some confidence in his Spanish and builds a genuine connection with a woman. Lerner suggests that hope lies in the excision of self-consciousness, a less partial view of oneself.

For Sebald, hope is the same as wonder. This wonder is the current that propels his narrator, and that pulls him ashore. In spite of the cataclysms of the 20th century, Sebald retains some of the passionate and joyful curiosity of the 19th-century flâneur, as he wanders not only in space but through time. The mere length of his enumerations signals his delight. He describes Sir Thomas Browne’s compendium of real and imaginary creatures: the chameleon, the salamander, the ostrich, the gryphon and the phoenix, the basilisk, the unicorn, and the amphisbaena, the serpent with two heads. Investigating further, Sebald’s narrator discusses another creature he finds in this compendium: Baldanders, a sixth-century Germanic myth in which the creature “changes into a scribe […] and then into a mighty oak, a sow, a sausage, a piece of excrement, a field of clover, a white flower, a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet.”

Why collect and delight in these fabled creatures? The perpetually metamorphosing Baldanders, the silkworm unspoiled by human use, the unicorn and basilisk and gryphon — each of these spell out human desire. Though the object is fantasy or whim, our desire for it finally is something that we might call universal. In these myths, beings can endure forever, even though “nothing endures […] [o]n every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation.” Sebald suggests that these imaginary and real creatures grant the possibility that “our world [is] no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.” Elsewhere, he speaks of the afterlife: he does not mean a Christian or even religious concept, but rather an alternate world, and in particular, an alternate history.

What ultimately drives Sebald’s narrator is not doubt, but desire: to believe in a shadow world; to find evidence of it in the wondrous impossibilities of the natural world; to tell stories of metamorphosis, and therefore to imagine the indestructibility of soul, being, or spirit. Through these desires, we escape the mourning that we each have equally inherited. Thus, unlike Cole and Lerner, Sebald does choose a position from where his narrator speaks. In grief yet also in wonder, he invites us to observe alongside him. What certainties arise from his observations? The history of our world, for Sebald, is like a thread of a thousand yards woven by silkworm. Our recent past has broken it irrevocably.

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