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Julius is the Mote Suspended in the Slow-Moving Music in Teju Cole’s Open City

by Jeff Atuobi

And so when I read “Morningside Heights,” I found that Google Maps was an easy place from which to set out into Teju Cole’s Open City. In less than a second of searching Morningside Heights, images of the buildings and roads scrolled on my screen. My eyes read the text alongside the images of the high rises, streets and rivers, slowly constructing the space within which Julius listlessly wanders.

Julius, our protagonist, is fond of walking nowadays. He has only two friends, Professor Saito and another who loves jazz and suicide. Julius also has an ex whom he recently broke up with. To balance the strict regimen of his psychiatry profession, he acquires a peripatetic hobby. It leads him into many interesting conversations with strangers. One November evening, he falls into the same path with a marathon finisher going home alone and exhausted. They share a word or two and continue their walk in silence. Then Julius’s mind zips over two millennia, back to Philippedes, who died after running from Marathon to Athens, inspiring the modern-day sport. This begins a motif in the work—we will see Julius finding traces of the past in the present. Sometimes, the traces do not exist in the present, but they remain legible to him. The penetration of his mind’s eye reminds me of the novice advised by the sardonic narrator of Nabokov’s Transparent Things:

When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!

Man-made objects, or natural ones, inert in themselves but much used by careless life […] are particularly difficult to keep in surface focus: novices fall through the surface, humming happily to themselves, and are soon revelling with childish abandon in the story of this stone, of that heath. I shall explain. A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise, the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish.

Julius is the inexperienced miracle-worker who can’t but see the past shining through the transparent present. The language of his descriptions throughout the novel is precise and pat. He colours New York or the inhabitants only necessarily. Sometimes, his prose soars as high as the high rises and the geometrically intricate ceilings of the halls and chapels. Conversations are often elided to exclude his replies, or, perhaps, he barely speaks and only listens. When he speaks on classical music, he permits his sentences and phrases all the aureate musicality befitting the subject. Gustave Mahler gets many, sincerely precious turns of phrases. Through his descriptions of paintings to rivers to Purcell and theatres, Julius’s palate finely renders a grisaille portrait of New York, coloured sparingly in cool hues. The city passes through a brilliant prism which is his mind, and his ever-vigilant eyes, like a camera lucida, produces a bright overlay of his knowledge of the city’s invisible history upon the material city itself. As his eyes perfect this mode of seeing, we see, along with him, more deaths, even in unlikely places. Since he slips easily into the past and sees more darkness which he dispassionately observes, Julius’s commentary has a leaden and fatigued quality. But once he returns to the now, he recognises a joke when he sees one, too. For instance, in an evening walk in December, he sees the Freudian slip of America in neon: SUPPORT OUR OOPS.

Cole disclosed in his essay “Epiphany,” that Open City is about many things, including “how one man’s life is invaded by literature and literary antecedents.” Julius is that man, whose life is so literary that, on meeting a real person, his impulse is to use a fictional character, Pnin, to describe his physical features. In his free time, he flits through Altenberg’s decadent Telegrams of the Soul, Jelloun’s wanly narrated The Last Friend and Barthes’ Camera Lucida. The final book, which is broken into two parts and combines a passionate poetic evocation with meticulous technicality, is the one Julius keeps on reading even in Brussels. It is one of the pieces of literature that invades Julius’s life, as Open City is a mix of impartial disquisition and melancholy lyricism and is divided into two parts. Cole goes on to say: “The secret reason I read, the only reason I read, is precisely for those moments in which the story being told is deeply and almost mystically alert to the world.”

Simply speaking, Cole is a sucker for epiphanies. The Dead, James Joyce’s slim masterpiece of epiphanic writing—one of those invasive literary antecedents—demonstrates this mystical alertness to the world. The final paragraph of the first part of Open City, in flattering homage to James Joyce’s The Dead, depicts this alertness, by the dilation of the Emersonian eye, a perfect, transparent circle pulsing at its thinning circumference, as nude Julius swoons to the thought of the rain:

[which] kept coming down, on the battlefield of Waterloo at the outskirts of the city, the Lion’s Mound, the Ardennes, the implacable valleys full of young men’s bones grown old, on the preserved cities farther out west, on Ypres and the huddled white crosses dotting Flanders fields, the turbulent channel, the impossibly cold sea to the north, on Denmark, France, and Germany [and over all the living and the dead].

In the second part of the novel, subtitled I have searched myself, Julius is inspired by a velleity to search for his grandmother one evening after seeing a film. This weak wish leads him to roam the streets and high rises of Brussels, conversing with strangers and an acquaintance, even having a fling. He returns to New York without finding his grandmother or even trying hard enough. He visits his ailing friend, Professor Saito, who dies some days later. Shocked and grieving, he calls up Nadège. She advises him to refrain from calling her. Finding no classical music to match his mood, he steps out of the room and finds a hawk on a low branch. “We looked at each other,” he narrates, “and looked, until, spooked, I lowered my eyes, turned around, and carefully, evenly, walked away from him, the whole while feeling those eyes boring into me.” Later, he wanders into Chinatown. The dizzying activities in one of Chinatown’s tiny streets prod him into an antique shop. Here, he has a sorrowful epiphany:

…I experienced the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who, in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall, could clearly see the world doubled in on itself. I could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began. This point-for-point imitation, of each porcelain vase, of each dull spot of shine on each stained teak chair, extended as far as where my reversed self had, as I had, halted itself in midturn. And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, begun to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.

This “point-for-point” imitation, where the copy is identical to the real, is an echo of the scene where he sees New York spread beneath him as a plane he’s on descends through the clouds:

Our view from the plane, as we banked over Queens itself, brought all of that back to mind, and in this case it was the real city that seemed to be matching, point for point, my memory of the model, which I had stared at for a long time from a ramp in the museum. 

However, in the highly detailed model of New York in the Queens Museum—“the pair of gray blocks on the southern tip of Manhattan, each about a foot high, represent[ed] the persistence, in the model, of the World Trade Center towers, which, in reality, had already been destroyed”—mourning is natural and healthy when the deceased is assimilated into the life of the bereaved. But when mourning goes wrong—

[t]he dead occupy only a part of the one who has survived; they are sectioned off, hidden in a crypt, and from this place of encryption they haunt the living. The neatness of the line we had drawn around the catastrophic events of 2001 seemed to me to correspond to this kind of sectioning off.”  

The persistence of the World Trade Centre in the copy, even when it was destroyed in the real, is perverse mourning, the Freudian melancholia. The World Trade Centre becomes just a “reflection alone,” an obstinate simulacrum, like the false leg felt by an amputee.

Let us return to Julius who feels slightly attracted to Moji. He flirts with her in knowing futility during a house party. By dawn, when everyone is almost asleep or has left, Moji sits beside him while he is observing the Hudson and the rising sun. She reminds him of something that happened between them eighteen years ago in Nigeria, the same year and country in which Julius’s father died and was buried. Julius listens soundlessly and wishes that she does not cry. It is his habitus to never find the thread that connects him to anything so that when Moji calls him a callous know-it-all who has not changed, he simply listens. He narrates: “Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him.” 

In other words, every watchful eye must assume that it has no blind spot. The truth is, the blind spot is practically invisible. It takes special conditions to reveal it. But more than its invisibility, it is a consequence of our biological process of seeing. The blind spot is where all the sensory impressions of colour, shape and movement pass into the brain. But near it is the fovea centralis, which records the greatest details of our vision and holds the sharpest focus. Julius perceives the world with the fovea centralis of his mind’s eye. Yet with this extreme concentration comes the narrowing of the field of vision, blurring it into obscurity, as if the eye were blind to the rest of the world and the observer himself.

Julius is prone to such absorption that, sometimes, he returns to the present unable to speak, just as in the Museum of American Folk Art, when he contemplated the silence in Brewster’s paintings. A photographer covering an event thinks of himself as invisible. People in the event do not interact with him while he works and plays along with the charade of his invisibility and intangibility. Julius buys into that mode of being, perfecting the eye at the expense of his tangibility and agency.

I cannot resist noting that the eye is a camera obscura, the counterpoint of which is the camera lucida. While both cameras work with light, the former is internally dark while the latter has a brightly lit interior. Does Julius think of himself as a camera lucida when he is a camera obscura?—and is it for his sanity? Whether or not it is intentional self-deception or genuine normalcy, Julius’s words obliquely render a faithful portrait of his psychology:

This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused. I stood on the promenade and looked out across the water into the unresponsive night.

Teju Cole, confirming that Open City is a post-9/11 novel, says the way to talk about such traumas properly is by talking about everything else. Could it be, this was the technique used by Julius? Julius knows a lot about the sorrows of the world around him but he turns away from his own sorrows just as Manhattan turns away from its river. When Nadège complains, he finds her complaints petty and disconnected from him. To be fair, after the break-up, he wonders what he did wrong. But it was only once and the line of thought was not pursued. In Brussels, he reads Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, a passionate elegy to the author’s then late mother’s photographs, but Julius pays his mother no mind. Even as a teen, he found her grief oppressive and embarrassing. Moreover, Moji exists in the periphery of his mind as a distant admirer, a mildly appealing but unavailable lady and an inconvenience when she gets closer, even while she tells him her deepest pain. He even abandons his search for his grandmother whom he has some affection for.

Could the 9/11 of Julius be a combination of all these cordoned-off “embarrassing secrets” in him, which he has neatly sectioned off or banished from his awareness? Is he truly as clueless of his own sorrows as the millions who live on Manhattan Island are of the river around them? Or is it the case, that a kind of blindness, as Paul de Man asserts, is necessary for his global and penetrative insight? What do we make of this blind spot? Is it the paradox generated by his psychological complexity or just old-fashioned rationalised hypocrisy?

Open City is nominally and thematically about New York’s multiculturalism, Belgium’s martial strategy and Julius’s open-mindedness. But the conflict of the story is also open to interpretations or, even better, strong misinterpretations. The personal revelations are few while the metaphors and metonymies abound. Death is linked to history to memory to birds to aeroplanes to light to elevation to mirrors to cameras to mothers to grief to duplication to blindness to insight to self-deception to The Dead. But there is more we do not know about Julius and his relationships with the women in his life, which is what we want to know. 

Although it is not mentioned, a biblical notion of knowledge and death weaves into Julius’s rationalisation and possible motivations for his wandering. Paul exhorts in his first book to the Corinthians, after a list of the attributes of love and its superiority, that our knowledge, while we remain in the flesh, is partial. But after we shiver out of this mortal shell, then we will arrive at a total clarity of our vision of the world and self. Julius writes this about Farouq, an acquaintance he made in Brussels: “his clarity seemed to belong […] to someone who had undertaken long journeys.” Therefore, clarity, to Julius, belongs to long travellers. Julius also claims that all lovers live on partial knowledge. Could it be that Julius still loves Nadège and his wandering is an answer to the stagnant loneliness of his profession and home? Furthermore, could this peripatetic project, weaving throughout New York and Brussels, be an unconscious attempt to rid himself of the residue of his love for Nadège and arrive at the clarity reserved for the dead?

Many details, hints and winks have been sampled, relished but put aside, as my review “steadily lengthen[ed], taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from [my primary purpose].” I find no overarching message, just open-ended questions and barefaced intertextualities. The novel is, in parts, clues and red herrings. Everything is meaningful as if they are all held together by a precise logic within each sentence but the departures are as random as life itself, only tangentially related. The journey through this type of writing is a Borgesian labyrinth, ultimately futile but delightful, always forking away instead of converging to one meaning, one message; as most excellent pieces of writing, Open City resists summary. Its self-contained particularities are immune to the “moonshine of generalisations.” It invites infinite rereadings.

In the final chapter, we go to the “fluorescent green fleck against the sky,” not with the optimistic aplomb of The Great Gatsby, but the deadpan lucidity of Julius. Towards the light in which birds meet their death, we sail calmly upon the Hudson, sombrely illuminated with more questions than answers.

We could go on, and on, about when his wandering goes awry and he is trapped at an emergency exit; we could elaborate the roaring comedy of it; while here, we could turn up to the stars, the unresponsive night, and return to the perfect solitude of Julius and his epiphanies about the dark, distant future impatiently cutting through space only to touch the earth when all of us are dead and gone without a trace: but let us rather comfort ourselves in the sombre, prismatic image evoked by Julius during the performance of Mahler’s death-laden Ninth Symphony:

In the glow of the final movement, but well before the music ended, an elderly woman in the front row stood, and began to walk up the aisle. She walked slowly, and all eyes were on her, though all ears remained on the music. It was as though she had been summoned, and was leaving into death, drawn by a force invisible to us. The old woman was frail, with a thin crown of white hair that, backlit by the stage, became a halo, and she moved so slowly that she was like a mote suspended inside the slow-moving music. One of her arms was slightly raised, as though she were being led forward by a helper—as though I was down there with my oma, and the sweep of the music was pushing us gently forward as I escorted her out into the darkness. As she drifted to the entrance and out of sight, in her gracefulness she resembled nothing so much as a boat departing on a country lake early in the morning, which, to those still standing on the shore, appears not to sail but to dissolve into the substance of the fog.◙

Jeff Atuobi is a Ghanaian writer whose short stories, under the pseudonym Andrew Aidoo, have appeared in Praxis Magazine and Jalada Africa.