Celebrated novelist and critic Teju Cole meditates on what it means to keep our humanity—and witness the humanity of others—in a time of political and social darkness. In these essays, he ponders migration, Italian art, the late scholar and activist Edward Said, the nature of photography and many other cultural artifacts and ideas.
... astonishing ... These jewel-like essays, developed from a series of lectures that Cole delivered at the University of Chicago in 2019, are testament both to his many talents and to the uncanny acuity with which he observes the world. His writing weaves together travelogue, art criticism and meditations on the cruelty of 21st-century politics. But it is perhaps ultimately about humanity’s grappling for meaning and belonging ... Cole’s attention to the texture of things makes for extraordinarily vivid writing ... For all the righteous rage in these pages, Cole acknowledges the limits of literature to change the political world. Even so, I see it as fitting that he uses lyric essays to write about dark times. For me, that form’s beauty, its hope and its power lie in its lack of rigidity, its defiance of preconceived notions. What we see is an individual taking stock of their surroundings, a mode that Cole has mastered. To read this book is to enjoy the generosity of his thought, to be invited into a contemplation of your inner life, to embrace the complexity of others, and to see in the darkness not only despair but also understanding and even refuge.
This collection of Cole’s feels rawer and more personal than those that have come before...layering as it does his art essays with homages to lost friends and analysis of his own 2012 novel, Open City. There are moments when the self-citation begins to feel self-indulgent or when the highbrow tips into the merely pretentious ... I admit I share his preference for novels that feature unsettling encounters with landscape or art over countesses, but I am still relieved when he shows a little sense of humor ... The feeling of sadness that obviously motivated these essays, the feeling of being weighed down by all one is called to see—the phrase is bearing witness, after all—is made lighter by the example of other artists, the potential for joy in sensing all the world is.
While there is nothing else here that quite matches the stylistic brilliance and visceral thrust of that opening essay, Cole’s writing throughout hums with a quiet intensity and sometimes a palpable anger at the inhumanity he witnesses on his travel ... Elsewhere, though, Cole seems less sure-footed ... I was also unsure about the inclusion of a selection of Cole’s critical writings on photography which, while trenchant, have a markedly different register to the more personal, and politically engaged, writing ... The most powerful essays in this book are born out of dissonantly transformative moments ... In articulating them, Cole asks hard questions of himself and of everyone who reads his work: questions about the nature of our shared sense of responsibility, and about how we live in defiance of this ever darkening time. How, to paraphrase one of his essay titles, we resist and refuse.