Podcast • May 17, 2011

Teju Cole: A “Seething Intelligence” on a Long Journey

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States.


Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States. It’s not just the quick resumé that reminds you of Rana Dasgupta — who was born and educated in England, then returned to his father’s country, India, to write stories and the novel Solo, set in the everywhere/nowhere of Bulgaria. Both writers — friends and mutual admirers, both in their mid-thirties — seem to have undertaken a project without borders. Cole tells me he likes to see himself evaluating a scene, he says, like an detective in a cop show: “What have we got here?” First, he looks; then he starts digging. History is the new geography, even at Ground Zero in Manhattan:

This was not the first erasure on the site… The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased and rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furst and timber of the island and its calm bay. Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories…

The narrator “Julius” at the World Trade Center site, in Open City by Teju Cole. Random House, 2011. p. 59

Teju Cole in conversation is sprightly, almost ecstatically musical, well-read and warm. He spins, riffs, notices and links — much as he does on the page. On an effulgent May afternoon in New York we are sitting on the grass, as it happens, before the brick row houses around Henry James’s Washington Square Park. Talk about palimpsests! And Teju Cole, feeling “more alive than on other days,” is peering through the layers and disguises of the scene, picking out evidences of his “open city” transformed.

What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…

This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.

Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.

Teju Cole is opening up, too, about the music that’s written into Open City — for example, the pattern of “doublings” (as in instrumental voices) of characters and cities, themes and phrases (like the air of a man “who had undertaken long journeys”) that recur in different rhythms and harmonies, so to speak. In particular, Gustav Mahler is another of those “vanished” who inhabit Teju Cole’s present and obsess his character Julius, a psychiatry resident about to start his clinical practice. Mahler (death centennial next year) was himself drawn to the “open city” of New York in a tormented late act of a great composing-conducting career. He was, Cole writes, “the genius of prolonged farewells,” in a long series of “final statements,” up to his unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Mahler’s music flows somewhere under Cole’s elegiac novel — “a story,” he calls it, “of mourning, for the feeling this city carried with itself after 9.11.” But what is it, I wonder, we are still bidding farewell? “It’s as if,” Cole says, “after 9.11 we entered a new phase in the life of this civilization. But I think it was also clear that it was the end of something… There’s a strong goodbye element in this novel, too.” The last chapter of the book, we’re noting, has three endings: one at Carnegie Hall, in a Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s Ninth; another in a view of the stars over Manhattan; the last in a harbor-cruise view of the Statue of Liberty.

There are two “open cities,” it turns out, in Teju Cole’s novel. Julius travels in search of his German mother to Belgium. Brussels is the city which gave Hitler’s troops free passage in World War II and preserved its medieval design but which, by 2006, is half-paralyzed by dread of Muslim immigrants. Brussels is where Julius meets his own double, a Moroccan Islamist of “seething intelligence,” a phone-store clerk who wants to be Edward Said when he grows up. And then there is Brussels’ “double,” New York, open to the deadbeat and the driven, thriving on perpetual renewal, and “saturated with the ominous energies” of its inherited past.

But then a student delighted Teju Cole on a school visit with the thought that his invention Julius — a solitary walker and cool, catalytic conversationalist with a stunning variety of New Yorkers — is himself the Open City.

Teju Cole’s last word with us — very much in that Open City spirit — was about the work ahead: first, a non-fiction account of Lagos (another “doubling,” it seems, of Rana Dasgupta’s work in progress on New Delhi) and then another novel:

“It’s simmering very softly below the surface. I don’t know what it’ll be. I don’t know where it’ll go. But I am going to have to confront Ulysses. We can’t keep pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t keep writing 19th Century novels, you know. We can’t pretend that that amazing unexploded ordnance of a book did not happen.” On the other side of Washington Square Park we hear sounds of kids cheering. “And in the far distance,” Teju Cole closed, as if on cue, “people applaud that idea. So I take it as a sign from the gods.”

Podcast • May 19, 2009

Colm Toibin: the living spell of Henry James

Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3) After The Master, his ...
Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

After The Master, his breakthrough meditation on Henry James, there’s no detaching the Irish novelist Colm Toibin from James’ own “dramatizations of secrecy.” Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn will remind you oddly of The Portrait of a Lady, as his modest Irish heroine, Eilis Lacey, arriving in the States from County Wexford in the early 1950s, can be read as a re-casting (in a different direction) of Isabel Archer.

I suppose I was aware that I was dealing with a young woman, as Henry James said about Isabel Archer, “confronting her destiny” but doing so almost ironically in the sense that she doesn’t really confront anything and she doesn’t really have a destiny; and that I was dealing with something that is one of those great, almost hidden subjects, oddly enough, which is the subject of Irish immigration. Though we know so much about it, we end up knowing so little about it. There are very few novels about it, for example…

The James thing was interesting to me, too, in that James deals with dramatizations of secrecy and of people having things they keep to themselves and that, if known, will be explosive. So too, in this book there are two sisters and they keep things deep in themselves. And I was interested in that dramatic power of withholding, which is something I think I learned a lot about from James — in his own life and perhaps moreso in his work.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, May 2009.

Our fresh conversation on Brooklyn is topping up a sort of seance Colm Toibin and I enjoyed five years ago at the James family burial plot — on the fringe lawn, oddly enough, of the lesser Mount Auburn immortals. For me, nothing summons the ghost of the great Jameses, all of them, more studiously and more persuasively, than the melodious Irish voice of Colm Toibin. On Henry, for example:

You begin by admiring the work. But then I found that the life is so ambiguous and so interesting. His relationship to his family is constantly in a state of flux. He himself — in London, say — longs to go out. He longs for society; he gets an enormous number of stories from duchesses and archbishops. But he also longs to be alone. He never longs for the same thing twice. The next day he wants something else. He is a very fluid and mysterious character.

He sexuality remains mysterious. What sort of erotic life he must have had, what sort of dream life, remains entirely mysterious. It’s a pre-Freudian existence as Freud is coming into vogue. It’s a pre-Wildean existence as Wilde is coming into vogue.

He exile is also strange: the way in which he never really wrote about the English very well. His English characters don’t work for me. And yet he couldn’t write about a settled Boston. The Boston of the Metaphysical Club — that is lost on him, too.

So he realized in his last years that he could actually go and describe those Americans in Europe again — the disruptive presence of Americans whose wealth or whose ambitions would fit against an older and much more duplicitous society. He knew about duplicity, just as he knew about secrecy… His life as lived — the level of industry, the level of care taken with work, the secret suffering and also the secret glamor, the going to Italy, the living in palaces — all that is what he had.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, 2004.

December 31, 2006

William James: Son, Brother, Hero

The quick-silver mind of William James -- "incandescent, tormented, mercurial" were his wife's words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience -- leaps off the page of Robert Richardson's new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson.

The quick-silver mind of William James — “incandescent, tormented, mercurial” were his wife’s words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience — leaps off the page of Robert Richardson’s new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson; to be with him is to feel the glow of his “minds on fire.” In William James’s case it’s the reckless, ever-experimental energy, what novelist Henry James remembered from boyhood as “my brother’s signal vivacity and cordiality, his endless spontaneity of mind.”

Just to remind you, James was first among the Harvard faculty giants a century ago, a man who’d tutored Teddy Roosevelt, W. E. B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein, a famous international lecturer who also dabbled in drugs and mind-bending gases and who, on his death-bed asked his brother Henry to linger in Cambridge for 6 weeks post-mortem, to receive if possible William’s messages from the next world.

Beyond his imprint on canonical learning and common understanding of psychology, philosophy and the study of religion, Robert Richardson writes: “James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson and Emerson.”

Robert Richardson says there will always be three reasons to reacquaint ourselves with William James. I would add two more. Please add your own below.

1. James fathered the study of “consciousness,” about the same time Freud (a passing acquaintance) was developing the unconscious. James conceived of mind as a living stream of activity. His emphasis was on the action in consciousness, inseparable from the physiology and chemistry of the individual brain. The elementary fact of mental life “is not thought, or this thought or that thought, but my thought.” James is the source point of the cognitive sciences and the widespread study today of “how the mind works.”

2. William James was the philosopher of “Pragmatism,” i.e. the now old-fashioned American argument that the truth is something that happens to an idea; that the truth of something is the sum of its actual results. As in his psychology (where he argued: the child is not crying because she’s unhappy; she’s unhappy because she is crying), Pragmatism put the focus on the “fruits, not the roots” of ideas and feelings. President McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines, for example, demonstrated American Imperialism to be a Bad Idea:

… during those three years and more when our army was slaughtering and burning, and famine, fire, disease and depopulation were the new allies we invoked… The most sanguine expect no real assimilation of our prey to us or of us to our prey for fifty years to come, and no one who knows history expects that it can genuinely come at all.

William James, Address on the Phillipine Question, December,1903

3. James was the re-inventor of religion, most especially for the multitudes (then and now) itching to loosen the authority of church and dogma. James created the modern universe of religious studies by shifting the focus from saints, scriptures and creeds toward the actual experiences of individuals — both common and peculiar.

4. As the son and brother of two remarkable Henry Jameses (Sr. and Jr.), William is a human study of endless interest. Growing up in the “gleeful anarchy and high-toned hilarity” of a rich, over-gifted family, eldest-son William felt pressure from his noisy, peripatetic father to be a scientist, and from himself to be an artist. He wrote in a letter from Germany at 16: “I will be prepared for everything.” Will we ever grasp how these James boys (the Good James Boys, as opposed to Frank and Jesse, their contemporary Bad James Boys) came to their enthusiastic mastery of multi-lingual reading, non-stop writing, distillation, argument and style? Richardson is brilliant on another personal secret: the process by which William, near suicide in his mid-twenties, “turned trouble into insight and self-loathing into energy.” James himself wrote later: “Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up.”

5. As a prose stylist, William today is arresting, fresh, original and quotable as he ever was — quite as perfect for his own purposes as was Henry, the beloved brother that William never stopped needling for his wordy abstractions in fiction. William James’s sentences have the sound of a man’s voice teaching — and of family-friend Emerson’s rockets going off. As, for example, in the line drawn against Platonism in his essay, “The Stream of Consciousness”:

…A permanently existing ‘Idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.

William James, The Stream of Consciousness, 1892

When Jimmy Carter in the oil shortage of the 1970s called for “the moral equivalent of war” against a ruinous energy addiction, he was of course drawing on one of William James’s most eloquent, uttlerly ageless essays, a sweeping denunciation of war and at the same time, a paean to military values:

…History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizens being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

…All these beliefs of mine put me firmly into the anti-military party. But I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built — unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths, fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a centre of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.

William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, 1910

I think of William James as he thought of John Stuart Mill, “whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today.” Or, as the philosopher George Santayana thought of his colleague. William James, Santayana said,

…kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, wizards, cranks, quacks and imposters… He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him…. Thus, William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, passionately hungry individuals of which America is full.

George Santayna, Winds of Doctrine, quoted in Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, page 160.

I think of William James, in short, as our mightiest, most inclusive American mind, still amongst us with an almost neighborly familiarity. Where shall the conversation begin?

Robert Richardson

Author, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Extra Credit Reading
Matt Asay, Open source: pragmatism buys in, InfoWorld, January 28, 2007: “I know I find open source in everything, but it seems to me to be a perfect rendering of James’ pragmatism. It’s not about the theory behind open source that matters. The only thing that matters is the output. That output makes me think that open source is “true” in the Jamesian sense.”Paul Vitols, searching for beliefs, Genesis of a Historical Novel, March 30, 2007: “Like everyone else, I take actions through the day. Right now I’m writing this blog-post. That means I have certain specific beliefs, in James’s view, that are propelling me to this action. I believe that writing this post is furthering my interests or aims somehow. His point would be that those beliefs, whatever they are, are already there; they already exist and are active, whether I’m aware of them or not.”

William F. Valicella, Suggestions for Writing Well Part One: The Example of William James, Maverick Philosopher, January 16, 2007: “To write well, read well. Read good books, which are often, but not always, old books. If you carefully read, say, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, you will learn something of the expository potential of the English language from a master of thought and expression.”

Gabriel, Gabriel’s LiveJournal, The Older, Cooler Brother, March 3, 2007:

“I’ll just leave you with these facts to explain why William James is so awesome:

* The Principles of Psychology are really just the notes William James made when he invented the brain.

* William James’s stare is ‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’

* William James doesn’t write books, he stares down his brother Henry until Henry takes dictation.

* Anytime you experience anything, William James experiences it, too.

* William James’s fists cure stupidity, too bad he’s a pacifist.”

Jonah Lehrer, A Console to Make You Wiip, Seed Magazine, November 16, 2006: “To understand how the Wii turns Zelda into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by the great American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his 1884 article ‘What is an emotion?’ James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body.”

Diego Saa, Out of Self: Day 247., Teachable alcoholic, January 17, 2007: “Anyway, it has been an exceptional week so far, and for that I’m grateful to God. We’ve got a book reading club going with my homegroup and some of us are currently reading William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s proving to be quite a reaffirming experience to me; in that my personal belief of a Higher Power is predicated upon tangible phenomena.”

Mike Lynch, The Varieties of Religious Experience, PrawnWarp’s LiveJournal, November 29, 2006: “James, as an old-fashioned psychologist, is primarily concerned with the subjective experience of religion by its adherents. It’s his patience with the effusions of the revival-tent Methodist, the Mind-Cure movement and various mystics which I think would drive Dawkins to distraction. It tries my patience, and James is continually apologising for the imposition on his auditors of yet another excerpt from a tract or pamphlet; but the source documents are fascinating, and often hilarious.”

Maureen Ryan, A graduate seminar on Milch-ology: The creator of ‘Deadwood’ speaks, The Watcher, January 13, 2007: “Here’s what Milch said in response to a question about where he drew his inspiration from: ‘William James — and several of the actors have attempted to take their lives in the aftermath of my protracted speaking about William James.'”