Teju Cole sits in the dark

In 1960, the Swiss photographer Rene Burri shot a photograph in Sao Paulo. The photograph is called ‘Men on a Rooftop’, and Teju Cole wanted to find the exact spot where the image was taken. So in March 2015, he went to Sao Paulo to look for it. It took about a week of going into high-rise buildings, asking for permission to take a picture, and trying different lenses, but finally, he found the exact spot the picture was taken, he found Rene Burri’s photograph again. In his essay ‘Shadows in Sao Paulo’ Cole says of the experience – “But in discovering all that can be known about a work of art, what cannot be known is honored even more.” This is Cole’s focus, what is not known, what cannot be known, what do we not see, where are our blind spots?

There are 3 different ways to explain what a blindspot is:

  • A blindspot is a hurry, through which known and strange things pass.
  • It is also the spot where your optic nerve connects to your retina, which has no light-sensitive cells, so you can’t see anything there.
  • And it is an area where a person’s view is obstructed or an area in which a person lacks understanding or impartiality.

From these definitions one thing is clear, we all have blindspots, anatomically, in our knowledge, and in daily life. Let us consider for a moment the anatomical blindspot. Siri Hustevdt in his foreword to Teju Cole’s fourth book aptly titled ‘Blindspot’ explains it thus:

“ Inside each human eye and the eye of other vertebrates, there is a blindspot where the retina meets the optic nerve. In this area, the optic disc is insensitive to light and receives no visual information. Every person should therefore experience a significant blind spot in his or her visual field – about the size of an orange held at arm’s length. Yet, normally sighted people do not walk around with (these) holes in their vision. Somehow the absence is filled. The unanswered question is how? (or with what?)”

Cole is focused on the blindspot and because the human eye does not record accurately, he buys cameras and makes photographs. His four books – Every Day is for the Thief, Open City, Known and Strange Things, and Blindspot—are testament to his attempts to unearth or decipher what is really in the blindspot. In the hidden, in the darkness, what is there to see? What is looking at us from there?

In a recent podcast conversation with David Naimon, he explores the idea of the blindspot using the example of the Secret Service at a public function with the President of the United States. While the crowd is there to watch the President give a speech, the members of the Secret Service are looking for blind spots, for the things no one else will see coming. They are looking at everything but the main attraction. And so are the people who want to bring harm to the president; they are watching for a blind spot in the security protocol, a hurry, through which they can achieve their goal. Both sets of people are playing a cat and mouse game in the shadow of the blindspot.

In Open City, Cole’s protagonist Julius grapples with what it means to be a psychiatrist. If there was a blindspot in medicine, it is definitely in the darkness of the inner workings of the human mind – What do we not know that we do not know about the human mind? How much of our diagnosis of mental health issues are actually scientific?

We also look at cities through Julius’ eyes – What makes a city a city? What do the monuments and plaques mean? What history lies beneath the ground you tread on your way to work each day? In his essay In Alabama, we move through Selma as Cole unearths the history packed away beneath the red earth of Alabama.

In the penultimate page of Every Day is for the Thief, we see a tall man in a sky-blue cap, carving out a coffin on a Lagos street. One eye closed, he is moving his arms back and forth over the wood, the shavings pooling at his feet. Cole explains that the one eye is closed to the distractions of the living world as the man secures a befitting passage for the dead – a modern-day Charon. Cole shows that the blindspot is not always a bad thing, that it sometimes helps us focus on what is truly important.

Yet, even in staring so consistently into the darkness of the blindspot, Teju Cole reminds us that not everything must be illuminated, brought to light, explained.  It is okay for some things to remain as they are in the shadows. This idea comes to light when he looks at the work of DeCarava and Edouard Glissant in his essay A True Picture of Black Skin: Say this is what it is and move on. Not for the sake of seeming profound or mysterious, but because it is respectful and kind. Especially when we consider that black people are most times expected to perform, it is satisfying to see us in the shadows, ‘playing in the dark’ to borrow a phrase from Toni Morrison.

I find that I am increasingly interested in art that does this, stripping away the agenda and the propaganda, coming down from the soapbox, and speaking to what is. In the past, I have been afraid that being this specific could alienate the audience, but in reviewing the 2012 film Amour, Cole says – “It is more a matter of a willingness to push past the cliches of representation into a zone of discomfort so specific it achieved universality. The ability to be at once universal and yet ineluctably particular.”

 In creating art, may we always find the strength to sit comfortably in the dark.

2 thoughts on “Teju Cole sits in the dark”

  1. Nice one, Chika. I confess to not being a big fan of nonfiction, which is mainly what T. C writes(I’m sorry if I’m wrong) but somehow I liked this piece you wrote. Perhaps I will finally muster the strength to sit and finish a TC book, cover to cover.
    Thank you for this. And your last sentence was sublime!

    1. Ah. Open City and Everyday is for the Thief are works of fiction. Thanks for reading and please finish at least one. You will love it.

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