Jim Elkins's Reviews > Blind Spot

Blind Spot by Teju Cole
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Dangers of Following Sebald

Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American photographer, critic, and novelist who is also the photography critic of the "New York Times." (I imagine their choice puzzled some academics: there are many qualified people, who know the literature better than Cole.) "Blind Spot" is the kind of book that can only be produced by an author with popular appeal: it's 330-pages, all-color, with heavy coated stock and a cloth cover with an embossed tipped-in front cover image. Yet the text is more like an artist's book than a popular novel: it has no continuous narrative, and it's full of allusions. Most of the book has photos on the right and brief texts on the left, and each text is titled with the name of the place where the photo was taken. (There is also a map at the end of the book, and a two-page Postscript explaining how the author likes to travel.)

The narrator doesn't describe why or how he travels, which makes him seem much as he actually is: the privileged recipient of invitations "to literary festivals and to teaching programs," as he says in the Postscript. In the book, the narrator is simply a wandering observer of a number of cultures, superficially like the narrator of Sebald's books. But Cole's wanderings aren't directed like Sebald's were: he isn't circling around specific cultural memories. Instead he samples various atrocities and genocides as he goes (Balinese, First Nation, German, Syrian, even Swiss). When he's not commenting on historical events, the narrator usually wants to tell us about his own photographs. On a number of pages we're told what to look at--effectively, we're told why the photos are good. There are several sequences of text/image pairings that work as self-contained lectures, in which the narrator tells us how to notice things in his images (for example, pp. 64-71). These passages are unintentionally teacherly, for example this text, which faces an image of tables in a restaurant in Ferrara, with a panoramic painting of Ferrara on the wall:

"Only later did I see what was at stake. I had assumed that the image was merely saying something about the unsteady boundary between the real and the painted... But obvious as it was, I didn't see it until I saw it: the way the table on the left announced a phantom cityscape of its own, in homage to the old city of Ferrara, grouped glasses for towers, porcelain houses..." [p. 128]

It doesn't make the prose natural or conversational to pretend the narrator didn't see the virtue of his own photograph, and then to tell us about it. As a writerly device, this doesn't work, because it brings us out of the narration and into a lecture hall, where Cole, just offstage, uses a red laser pointer to show us the interest of his art.

Images that are not accompanied by historical facts, allusions to classic texts and artworks, or ekphrastic inventories, are explained by texts about dreams, memories, Christian themes, and a miscellany of travel ancedotes. Despite this variety the photographs are nearly always formal compositions of depopulated corners of cities, or people seen from behind: Cole's is a common contemporary photographic practice.

Unlike Sebald, Cole is just learning Western history and art, and it shows. In the Postscript he undertook research "as an art historian in training." His references are commonplaces of the art historical literature. Siri Hustvedt, who wrote a rambling poetic introduction to the book, lists "Caravaggio, Duerer, Degas"; there's also, for example, a text and image pairing inspired by Carel Fabritius's goldfinch. Cole's allusions are common, and often both pretentious and precious. Here is the text about Fabritius, called "Tripoli," in its entirety:

"The date to remember is 1654. He paints 'The Goldfinch' that year. The color harmonies are cool, the wall is as full of subtle character as a face. His life is like a brief and beautiful bridge. He studies with Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He teaches Vermeer in Delft.
"I am walking in the narrow alley between the castle of the Crusaders and the busy souk. There are children wild in the alley. There is a bird on the wall. It is him, Carel Fabritius. The bird suggests it (though this bird is a bulbul) but it is the wall that confirms it. Suddenly the gunbowder depot explodes. Fabritius is killed, and most of his paintings are lost to history. But not all is lost. The bridge has been built and it has been crossed, the bridge from shadow into light. He is not yet thirty-three years old." [p. 20]

The next-to-last line is an allusion to a cliche of art history, that Fabritius put light into Rembrandt's dark interiors, paving the way for Vermeer. It's also meant, I think, to resonate with the book's recurrent Christological themes. Fabritius's studio was near the Delft gunpowder storage facility. Cole's idea is to let Fabritius's story and his most famous painting (recently re-popularized in Donna Tartt's "Goldfinch") echo in his photograph of a bird in a cage hung on a scarred plaster wall. The photo itself is unremarkable; the wall could be an artwork by Tapies or Villegle or any one of hundreds of recent photographers who have fetishished the overlooked textures of cities. The birdcage only contributes another cliche.

What's worst about this is the way Cole twists his prose to avoid the appearance of lecturing. "The date to remember is 1654" is both teacherly and artificially literary. "Blind Spot" is full of pretentious allusions--Homer's catalogue of ships, an Ara Pacis style relief, the Divine Comedy, Ondaatje, Alkman (as Hustvedt notes). These allusions are settled uneasily into Cole's high-art prose, as if they were treasures brought up from a shipwreck. This is the opposite of Sebald's allusions, which are much more informed and more naturally spoken. Sebald is not uneasy about showing off his knowledge, because he is comfortable in what he knows. His history is woven into his concerns: Cole's is "research." He drops names: a picture of a detail of a map reminds him of something "Elizabeth Bishop, Luigi Ghirri, and Italo Calvino have in common" (p. 24). What he retrieves from his allusions is often thin: in one photo, "the city is shorn of all superfluity and reduced to its essentials, as in a play by Beckett" (p. 226). Given that Sebald's recurring center of interest, the black hole that keeps drawing him back in time, is the Holocaust, it is especially trite that Cole doesn't develop the title of his own book: it isn't until p. 80 that we learn that his retina was detached, making him temporarily blind in one eye; and it isn't until the very last line of the Postscript that he thinks to tell us that "To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?" (p. 325).

More successful pairings
"Blind Spot" can be read for individual text/image pairings, because some are very inventive. "Lagos," pp. 48-49, pairs a one-paragraph story about how the narrator's mother once forced him to stop striking out what he was trying to write, resulting in a clean page of "elegant-looking writing," with a brief second paragraph about the narrator's fascination with the white spaces around Cy Twombly's scribbles, and a photo (taken in Lagos), of a mirror or pane of wind glass resting one some newspapers in someone's a back yard. The slant rhymes of clean pages, blank margins, and empty reflections works well. The same dynamics, with similar imagery and a text on Swiss politics, can be found on pp. 12-13.

The pairings that work best, I think, are the ones where the text doesn't try for literary tone, doesn't try to instruct us about how to see photographs, and doesn't propose one-to-one correspondences between historical events and the everyday objects that are taken to allegorize them. Cole will be a better writer if he can give up his repertorial habits (as in novels like "Every Day Is For the Thief," about his return to Lagos and its politics), his art-historical ambitions, and his emulation of Europeans like Sebald. His photographs aren't often remarkable by themselves, but sometimes he finds things to say that glance off them, producing the kind of back-and-forth reading and looking that really illuminates both the writing and the images.
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Finished Reading
March 18, 2018 – Shelved
March 18, 2018 – Shelved as: nigerian

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