Our Senses at Night: On Teju Cole’s “Black Paper”

December 11, 2021   •   By Thomas J. Millay

Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time

Teju Cole

IN MINIMA MORALIA, Theodor Adorno complains about cheaply produced doors making too loud a noise when they shut. People don’t even seem to notice, Adorno laments, because they themselves are like these doors: too loud, too invested in novelty, not quality. There is a bit of the curmudgeon in this, but Adorno does have an important point to make: modernity has deadened our sensory apparatus. Industrial capitalism not only produces commodities; the very means by which we absorb the physical world — our senses — have been commodified. The commodification of our senses means they have been linked to profit, such that we are constantly pressured to exist in loops of repetitive indulgence that increase shareholder wealth. Despite living in an age of relative physical comfort, we are less and less able to aesthetically appreciate that which is available to our senses. Our senses have been reduced to what aids the bottom line of unseen agencies.

Adorno’s project was critique. There is no doubt something productive in criticism, as it cultivates a desire in us for something different — for another type of existence or experience, another way of inhabiting our sensible bodies. But there are other ways to respond to the situation Adorno has correctly diagnosed.

The career of Teju Cole is dedicated to such an “other way.” Cole is keenly aware of our sensory alienation, and he feels compelled to use his gifts to take us to a place where the glory of our sensory world is once again available to us. Furthermore, Cole wants to hone our moral sensibilities, which have been coarsened along with our physical senses. He has embraced his task in a variety of forms: through photographs of out-of-the-way things, often overlooked; through commentary on photography; through curated Spotify playlists that refuse standard narratives about what is musically available to one listener (one can either appreciate J. S. Bach or Fela Kuti, not both); through Instagram close-ups of select portioned-off panels of paintings; and through Open City (2011), a peculiarly embodied novel which seems to be mainly about walking around and sensing things.

Black Paper — the latest iteration in Cole’s comprehensive, multimedia project — is a collection of essays, like his 2016 book, Known and Strange Things. But Black Paper is not simply a collection. There is an identifiable through-line which brings these multiple essays together into a unified text: namely, a reckoning with aesthetic experience when one is surrounded by darkness. If impaired vision is the issue in his earlier Blind Spot, total loss of sight is what is at stake here. Can we become comfortable seeing in the dark, or even seeing darkness and welcoming what is there to be found? Or have we lost this crucial ability?

The stakes are high. According to Cole, what we are in danger of losing is our humanity. “Survival has often depended on nocturnal alertness,” Cole writes, “seeing in the dark, hearing in the dark.” The survival of our humanity is dependent upon finding epiphany in darkness — “an engagement with things that quicken the heart, through the faculties of the body, the things that catch the heart off guard and blow it open,” he writes. Such epiphanies lead to “the reassembly of the self through the senses.” Darkness is not a void, but a luminous place, a place of revelation. Darkness calls forth the urgent use of the senses, and, as Cole puts it, “These essays collectively argue for the urgency of using our senses — interpreted as capaciously as possible — to respond to experience, embrace epiphany, and intensify our ethical commitments.”

In such a time as our own, the aesthetic essay takes on heightened importance. To write about Caravaggio might seem recherché in an age where migrants are dying on the Mediterranean Sea. But what if we remember Caravaggio’s own fugitive existence and are led into sensing the “endangerment” evident in his canvases of deep dark and flesh-haunted light? Can such experience not make those now secure newly knowledgeable of peril, a knowledge which can then be translated into ethical commitment? What if looking at Caravaggio fuses us into connection with endangered persons, such that they can no longer be — as they so often are — forgotten?

To be clear, Cole is not arguing that the appreciation of art is necessary to morality. It is not as if we have to enjoy Caravaggio in order to be a moral person. “I don’t mean that exquisite sensitivity is required in order to be morally alert,” Cole says. Rather: “I mean that [art] can function as a reminder, as an intensifier, of what we have always owed each other.”

The transformative power of becoming aesthetically awake is in itself a hopeful thought; it takes on utopian dimensions when you realize that, for Cole, this is a collective project. It is something we can do together. What is aesthetic observation, then, when it is done correctly? Cole explains:

I open myself up to shake off “raising awareness” and take on “bearing witness,” to go closer, to feel what I feel there (wherever “there” may be), to observe what I sense and transmute that into shared responsibility, into a knowledge that my body — our bodies — were made fit for.

Notice that Cole first addresses only his own body, but then corrects himself, reminding himself and his audience that he wants to speak to all of us together. It is not that Cole thinks we all have the exact same experiences of the world, but he does write from the conviction of a shared embodiment. We all have similar sensory capacities to which the world can speak. The hope is that this commonality can be built upon to forge a further sense of the shared.

Cole not only writes to what he hopes is a collective audience; he is writing to create that collective audience. When imagining a ceremony which celebrates the 14th-century Ife king Obalufon II (or, at least, his near likeness), Cole lays out the various elements of celebration — clothing, face covering, percussive music, dance, incense, the bitter taste of the kola nut on the tongue — and then writes of the ceremony: “They are at this moment collectively human because they are sensate, sensible, sensitive in every sense of the word.” In the senses of the body lies the capacity to become collective again.

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Beyond returning us to aesthetic objects, Cole also makes of his own essays an art that demands to be appreciated, particularly in his crafting of images. Out of many possible examples, I was struck by an image that begins in a dream. Writing an elegy to his friend Okwui Enwezor, Cole says:

O. shows up in my dream last night. He is standing there as though listening to something. Wearing a dark, beautifully cut suit as usual. There’s a great look of concentration on his face. He says nothing but, finally, he takes off his jacket. He folds it carefully, sets it down.

These sentences are marvelously capable of producing a vivid mental image, which then reoccurs throughout the essay in flashes. He quotes, for example, lines from Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay: “You remember too much, / my mother said to me recently. / Why hold on to all that? And I said, / Where can I put it down?” There again, the theme of putting down, though now it is connected to a burden and associated with lament. Finally, Cole writes in the essay’s penultimate entry: “‘The dead’ as a category — into which I am reluctant to admit either of you. The lament is an obituary that has forgotten its manners. Where can I put it down? Like a jacket removed and folded and set down.”

The very image which Cole uses for the laying down of his burden is the same image which reminds him of his friend — of his grief. This life is all entangled up, if you are paying attention. Self-knowledge, while it is essential to our humanity, is also painful. Cole is returning us to our own experience, asking us to interrogate our dreams and memories as he has done, and to find in their farraginous sensory images that which can be plumbed and entered into with a depth from which we usually flee. Thankfully, through the artful vehicle of his precise prose, Cole has arrested us. He has made us stop, ponder, and pay attention.

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Thomas J. Millay is the author of Kierkegaard and the New Nationalism, forthcoming from Lexington Press.