Teju Cole’s Elegiac Criticism

Teju Cole’s Elegiac Criticism

For the novelist and photographer, to see—and to write about what one sees—is a way to confront the hard facts of the world.


Late in May 1606, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the prodigious and mercurial master painter, ran his sword through a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio had placed a bet on their game of tennis and lost, and Tomassoni wanted to collect on his win. Their extra set became physical combat, Teju Cole writes in his 2020 essay “After Caravaggio.” Tomassoni died; Caravaggio ran. “After two days of hiding in Rome, he escaped the city, first to the estates of the Colonna family outside Rome, and then, near the end of the year, to Naples. He had become a fugitive. Caravaggio’s mature career can be divided in two: the Roman period, and everything that came after his murder of Tomassoni. The miracle is that he accomplished so much in that second act, on the run.”

Caravaggio went south—Naples, Sicily, Malta—and would not attempt a return to Rome until 1610, when he traveled there seeking a papal pardon. Cole, one of Anglophone literature’s most forceful and multifaceted essayists, was in Italy during the summer of 2016, pursuing various projects, when he found himself adjusting his agenda in order to retrace Caravaggio’s escape route. Along the trail, he visited churches, galleries, and museums, studying various works from the painter’s second period, learning whether or not Caravaggio’s violent, combustible, bitter disposition influenced the changes—looser brushwork and more morbid subject matter—in his aesthetic approach.

Cole’s examination of violence and combustibility made sense, as this was also, of course, the summer of Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump in the US presidential election as well as the season when, as he puts it, “right-wing movements were gaining ground across the world. Fleeing war and economic distress, thousands of people were dying in the Mediterranean. The brutality of ISIS had made videos of beheadings part of the common visual culture. What I remember of that summer is the feeling that doom wasn’t merely on its way; it had already arrived. (It had arrived, but then it evolved, and this present evil, four years later, is something else again.)” Trekking to the ports of the painter’s exile, Cole docked himself at the “flash points in the immigration crisis.” Caravaggio’s paintings offered him both “the truth about doom” and a “reprieve” from the darkness circulating globally then.

Cole’s predilection for the kind of experiential turbulence that charges his senses also informs the essay’s shape. Outside those Italian galleries and cathedrals, he witnesses scenes of awesome tumult. What he views on his computer is equally disturbing, and Caravaggio’s artwork is again a guide:

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was difficult to absorb into my understanding of whatever it was I thought painting was. More than a year would pass before I found a key that helped me process what I saw in Malta: two brief video clips from Libya made in 2017. The first, filmed by an unnamed source, shows men being sold at a slave market. The second was made by CNN journalists who went into the suburbs of Tripoli to confirm the story. The men being sold are migrants from Niger, a few of them standing at night against a bare wall, a desolate courtyard like that in Caravaggio’s painting. The light is poor. It’s hard to see. The business is brisk and rapid: prices are called out, unseen buyers bid, and it’s over. In those clips, what I saw was life turned inside out, life turned into death, just as I had seen in Caravaggio’s painting. Not simply what ought not to be, but what ought not to be seen.

Trading human beings for profit is not some closed and distant 19th-century phenomenon; it’s a contemporary one. So too, Cole reminds us, are Caravaggio’s depictions of humanity’s bloody, grimy, deathly inclinations.

After Caravaggio” is the auspicious opening of Cole’s recent essay collection, Black Paper. Throughout that first essay, Cole touches on many of the collection’s “constellation of interrelated concerns: confrontation with unsettling art, elegies both public and private, the defense of writing in a time of political upheaval, the virtuoso use of shadow in photography, the role of the color black in the visual arts, and links between literature and activism.” Fashioned from a cache of his travel, lyric, critical, and personal essays, Black Paper argues “for the urgency of using our senses—interpreted as capaciously as possible—to respond to experience, embrace epiphany, and intensify our ethical commitments.”

Cole had already proved himself a literary and photo essayist of the highest order—particularly in his Known and Strange Things (2015) and Blind Spot (2017)—when he delivered the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2019. The three lectures he presented there—“Experience,” “Epiphany,” and “Ethics”—make up Black Paper’s fourth part, titled “Coming to Our Senses.” Cole develops a new critical language here, the book’s central processing unit. The section gathers his theoretical codes and ensures a consistent exchange of ideas with the other essays in the book—each of which seeks to expand experience beyond the five traditional Western senses. “There are nine, perhaps, or twenty-one,” Cole explains. “It depends on how you count, on how you categorize receptors. The original five are themselves now understood to be based on the fact that each has its own neural organization, and not simply on the fact of a visible sense organ. And on this basis, on the basis of neural organization, additional senses can be described.” Through our various physiological receptors, we can experience blendings, not of the senses strictly, “but modalities of sensing, such as colors, letters, shapes, and flavors.”

Cole enacts these sensational modalities when he’s interpreting the “dream hues and nighted color” in Lorna Simpson’s artworks, riffing improvisationally on the coloristic range of blackness in Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, and interrogating photos of the deadly and dehumanizing effects of government policies at the US-Mexican border. As he becomes more attentive to the nuances embedded in the artworks, Cole’s criticism reconceives epiphany and ethical action. Rather than a lyric moment dramatizing the resolution of conundrum within a literary work, epiphany in Cole’s hands becomes a stylistic approach to reassembling the self “through the senses. It is an engagement with the things that quicken the heart, through the faculties of the body, the things that catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” In the lamentation “Room 406” and the eponymous final piece, “Black Paper,” Cole essays transformation and reconstruction formally, puzzling the shards of his blown-open heart into lyrical testaments.

Cole’s interpretations elucidate and demystify, illuminating new angles of recognizable subjects while also bringing, strangely enough, the encompassing cultural expanse into focus. For instance, Cole explains that “photography writes with light, but not everything wants to be displayed.” He concludes his thought with a reference to and expansion of Edouard Glissant’s theorization of opacity, writing: “Among the human rights is the right to remain obscure, unseen, and dark.” Like Glissant, Cole has the capacity to take in all manner of art and art forms while maintaining connection with those in the shadows, the wretched of the earth, and those who are darker than blue. At one point, Cole cites Faith Ringgold’s assertion that “Black art must use its own color black to create its own light, since that color is the most immediate black truth.” Black Paper fulfills her instruction. When Cole claims that freedom is Simpson’s “starting point and her permanent theme,” he may as well be describing himself.

Black Paper has an elegiac sensibility. Though it was compiled during the pandemic’s early stages, Cole doesn’t mention Covid in the book. However, I see Covid sitting alongside the human calamities that he confronts in these essays. The book’s second section comprises a suite of elegies for, among others, Aretha Franklin; the art critic and novelist John Berger; the curator and historian Okwui Enwezor; and Cole’s beloved maternal grandmother, Abusatu. “Mama’s Shroud” is his essay about receiving a cousin’s text message relaying news of their grandmother’s imminent death. The message contains a photograph of the matriarch supine on her hospital deathbed. The tiny digital image takes on grand ritual power. As Cole explains, “Photographs are there after people pass away serving both as reservoirs of memory and as talismans for mourning.”

Reading this memorial, I was taken back to the worst stretches of the pandemic in 2020, with the news reports of doctors and nurses using mobile phones, tablets, and laptops to connect families with their quarantined, intubated, and dying loved ones. Given the millions who have photographs (if that) as their only “reservoirs of memory” and “talismans for mourning,” I’m fascinated with the lack of photographic documentation of the cultural and religious practices with which we attend to our dead. Cole’s claim might be key to a larger complexity of the Covid era. His willingness to mourn publicly and his critical concern for images and their meanings offer a useful psychological and emotional attitude for our slow crawl through a period of malady and death. Without a photographic record or representation of the millions around the globe who have died (both from Covid and the restrictions on proper care of other diseases and ailments), how can we bear witness—collectively, appropriately—to the massive loss of life?

I think that there is also a parallel but inverse question at issue here: What is the toll—emotionally, psychologically, socially, politically—from witnessing violence and its traumatic aftereffects with daily frequency? Have we become inured to violence and its consequences, as well as to the images of both that make up so much of our visual culture? What has happened to our imaginations and souls, I wonder frequently, in witnessing terrorist attacks on New York City and the US Capitol (both broadcast on television in real time); videos of beheadings; the mobile-phone-recorded or livestreamed instances of police beatings and killings; the scenes and sounds of Central American and Mexican children separated from their parents in migrant detention centers at the US-Mexico border; the 2019 photo of Angie Valeria Martínez Ramírez, the 2-year-old Salvadoran girl who drowned with her father, and the one from 2015 of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned with his mother and brother en route to Greece?

Writing about the images of these two toddlers, Angie and Alan, in death, Cole argues that by capturing the ravages of war or climate-change-driven migration, photojournalism can “quicken the conscience and motivate political commitments.” Even so, he warns, “on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis, photography implicitly serves the powers that be,” thus maintaining the political status quo. We are also under the sway of imagination, which, through its delicate powers of decorum, redirects our eyes away from pictures of disaster, mayhem, and death. Photographs, after all, insist on raw facts, confronting “us with what we were perhaps avoiding.”

As “images of violence have both proliferated and mutated,” Cole argues, we must develop new forms of image literacy. His excellent second novel, Open City, points to this necessity as well. In it, the protagonist, Julius, finds himself gazing into the open pits where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood and insists that serious noticing isn’t enough: “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.”

Cole’s criticism—indebted as it is to Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and, especially, Berger—demands that we bear witness not only to the images that he cites here but also to the ones circulating around us now, even those we might wish to turn away from. “Seeing,” Cole insists, “is part of our coming to terms” with the world. Perhaps in our search for lines of connection to these images, engaging them ethically, sensationally, and bodily, they will be able to pierce and blow us open. Here, Cole’s sense of epiphany is important as a mode for reassembling the self, even for seeing and recognizing the self.

To see is also to refuse to turn away from the hard facts that images often convey to us. In the essay “Resist, Refuse,” Cole admonishes us to “refuse a resistance excised of courage. Refuse the conventional arena and take the fight elsewhere…. Refuse to play, refuse decorum, refuse accusation, refuse distraction, which is a tolerance of death-dealing by another name. And when told you can’t refuse, refuse that, too.” For Cole, the first act of refusal requires our seeing and feeling images, bearing witness to them appraisingly and capaciously.

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