Witnessing Miracles in Teju Cole’s Blind Spot

By Austin Adams

“There is more in the world,” Teju Cole writes in his latest book Blind Spot, gesturing to Hamlet’s famous lament. The heaven and earth of Cole’s philosophy is local and seasonal. Structured as a book-length series of pairings of photographs coupled with text, we are given to consider several hundred images of day-to-day life from across the globe — happenstance corners, detritus and, occasionally, people and things that inhabit the world without spectacle or choreographed meaning. At this moment, in the first text-image pairing, we are with Cole in Tivoli, where spring has doubled the earth: “Everything grows, both what receives the light, and what is cast by it. There is more in the world, all of it proliferating like neural patterns.”

Blind Spot concerns itself with shadows, the chiaroscuro of the world: what is seen, what is hidden, what is present, what is past, what can be known, what can be only intuited. Cole’s photographs take as their subject the plain fact of the world, yet through his erudite and humane meditations, the photos, and the world, boast an incantatory intelligence. A book of implication, not insistences, Cole’s texts are personal, idiosyncratic and ostensive: they do not attempt to serve as exegesis. Here is something that exists, Cole says with each photo, and here are some thoughts this photo evokes in me. On this tour through the liminal space of mind and matter, Cole serves as our scholarly companion rather than as a patrician guide.

In Lagos now — each pairing is headed by the city, town, or borough in which the photo was taken, many of which are revisited — a man lays sleeping. The photo is gritty and textured — a floor of smoothly polished concrete blocks, a rough, porous wall, the figure facing away from us atop a table of mottled wood, key-lime plastic chairs forming a semi-circle of witness around him, save one which faces away, covered with a white coat, sheet, or crumpled shroud. Cole writes:

One sense of sleep is the disappearance of the eyes. The head turns inward, toward darkness. Another is an entry into a state of being carried. Outside a church in Lagos, a man sleeps. The body transitions from carrying itself across the earth into being carried by it, into giving itself up to that.

Among all the implications of this observation, Cole could be speaking about the inexhaustible re-contextualizing power of photography. A photo subsumes the subject, atomizes content into visual grammar, the narrative significance of which is hinted at by the photo’s composition but is ultimately the responsibility of the viewer to decide: the subject gives itself up to the viewer. And the viewer can make any sense of the image they want. This process of sense-making is the fundamental experience of the human condition, yet our day-to-day narratives are, perforce, utilitarian. By inviting calm scrutiny, photography encourages broader and deeper interpretation, narratives hungry for the sublime. Familiar forms dissolve and play. Cole continues:

The body of Christ is on the now-lowered cross. A white cloth is draped around him…The earth carries the cross. The cross carries the body. The body on the cross carries the world…In sleep, one form of vision is foreclosed, and another becomes available. Outside an Anglican church in Lagos, the sleeping Christ dreams of sustenance and levitation.

The commonplace scene conflated with the divine — conflated, but, it seems, not elevated: Cole does not compare narratives across a hierarchy of value. The figure in the photo has not earned his godliness, Cole has simply imbued him with it. Cole implies each narrative is immanent in the other, that in every stranger we feel the dignity of the divine, and that we instill in our gods the humility of the anonymous stranger. Near the end of the book, in São Paulo, the image of a van sporting a photorealistic advertisement returns Cole to this subject: “Years later, I lost faith. One form of binocular vision gave way to another…If one of the advantages of irreligion was an acceptance of others, that benefit was strangely echoed in the visual plane, which granted the things seen within the photographic rectangle a radical equality.”

It is not that things, narratives, physical images, and imagined ones, are the same; it is that there exists an aesthetic parity and a family of association among art and experience. Any image, any thing, can mean anything. It is a heavy responsibility to decide for oneself what a given thing means, and the service of photography is to give us pause, to allow us time to consider what something ought to mean, and, by isolating an instant, to sanctify being through what Cole describes as, “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” He concludes the São Paulo pairing, “The very contingency and brevity of vision become the long-sought miracle.”

Blind Spot sustains this heady high note of oneiric sublimity, but Cole just as often employs his intelligence and compassion to unearth the grief and terror latent beneath the surface of an image.

I am on the board of an arts organization. We meet in the organization’s postwar building. The design is beautiful, the rooms large and airy, the whole structure surrounded by a park. For three days we talk about the future. We drink coffee, look at charts, and exchange ideas. I enjoy the intelligence of the curators and my fellow board members. At the end of the third day, the director draws our attention to the past.

Cole begins this section, Berlin, with the ominous but inarguable fact that “each brick contains within its form something crushed.”

Opposite the text, reflected buildings wobble on a polished surface (puddle, car roof, granite?) garlanded with fallen buds and stems the color of pollen. The reflected buildings demure from the reflected sky, slate and cloudless, and at the far end of this reflection, opposing and doubling the buildings, is a gash, an uncovered shard, a something raw beneath.

On the map of the building we are in, a second map is superimposed: the building that had been there before, before its destruction in the war…After 1933, the Jewish owner is no longer allowed to operate the clinic…Charlotte H. has three sons, all of whom flee Germany. Charlotte H. remains, steadily becoming poorer, and in March 1943, she is deported from Berlin to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her fate there is (un) known.

Known but unknown, suspected but easily ignored. In charged landscapes across the globe, Cole’s camera gently pierces the veneer of unseeing — the passage of time, the painted-over surfaces, the willful ignorance that attempts to temper historical anguish. To record is to witness.

“Like speech, which leaves no mark in the air, the arrangement of our bodies leaves no mark in space.” We are with Cole in Berlin, again, or still. A crippled man reads a sign. The sign blocks his view of the standing man, leaning on a tree. The standing man looks off in the distance. Both men, from our position behind them, look the same, are dressed the same, might have been the same under different circumstances. “There are thousands of such echoes every minute. Almost all go unseen, and almost none are recorded, unless photography intervenes.”

The bitter concomitance of their resemblance, the historical resonance of violence and circumstance in this city of “ever-proliferating and overlapping peripheries…made of wounds.” For Cole, history is not prologue but the contemporary of the present, testified to as much by its monuments as by the inescapable narrative it forces onto the landscape. The cathedrals of Nuremberg, the legacy of Volkswagen, each in their way Nazi apologetics. The wither and orange of a recent Alabama autumn: black bodies singed with cattle prods, summer 1963, the local flavor of police barbarity — decades separate Cole’s gently bucolic photo from those terrible events, and while nothing within the image admits to the local’s complicity, “There’s Klan in those woods still.” Beware beauty: any image, any thing, can mean anything, even a lie.

In the later summer of 1943, over the course of two days in mid-August, Milan was reduced almost to rubble by more than two thousand tons of bombs…But what is true of Milan, and true of any city, is that there’s also the scarred emotional landscape of many of its citizens, which is related to war and not related to war, and this is harder to show in photography. So we show something else.

Cole shows a heavy folded curtain raised above streaked darkness. In his earliest image of Nuremberg, the folds of a translucent drape glow like the ghostly x-ray of a pipe organ. He writes:

Folding, “falten”: to bring something together, and also to iterate that bringing together: a joining and a repetition. In the crumples, pleats, gathers, creases, falls, twists and billows of a cloth is a regular irregularity that is like the surface of water, like channels of air, like God made visible. The human is the divine enfolded in skin.

The human is the divine folded together in skin. And so he shows a heavy folded curtain raised above streaked darkness. Photography assumes a complexity of its subject just as, Cole argues, the generous spirit assumes complexity in every person he meets.

This commingling of past and present allows for a more positive transcendence as well, where a stranger can be Christ, repetition a benediction: “You take around 7500 steps each day. If you live to eighty, inshallah, that comes to 200 million steps over the course of your life, a hundred thousand miles. You don’t consider yourself a great walker, but you will have circumnavigated the glove on foot four times over.”

The sentiment might be maudlin were it less plainly stated, were it less than plainly true. Cole repeats: “Downstairs to get the mail. Basement for laundry. Living room to bedroom. Up in the middle of the night for a glass of water. Walking through the darkened house, you suddenly pause.”

In March of this year, Teju Cole delivered the opening keynote address at Columbia University’s Tribute to John Berger. Berger, a giant in art criticism, and an immensely talented writer of fiction, occupies an outsized place in Cole’s pantheon of influences. Cole once said of Berger, “I was already on a path. Then I saw, here was this master, who had actually cleared the road.” In superficial details — style, genre — Cole’s work hardly resembles Berger’s, yet in works like Berger’s essay “Understanding a Photograph,” one encounters Cole’s intellectual forbearer, the trailblazer who helped clear the path for Blind Spot. Berger writes:

A photograph is already a message about the event it records. The urgency of this message is not entirely dependent on the urgency of the event but neither can it be entirely independent from it. At its simplest the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.

…The photograph is an automatic record through the mediation of light of a given event: yet it uses the given event to explain its recording. Photography is the process of rendering observation self‐conscious…The formal arrangement of a photograph explains nothing. The events portrayed are in themselves mysterious or explicable according to the spectator’s knowledge of them prior to his seeing the photograph. What then gives the photograph as photograph meaning?…A photograph, whilst recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen.

To Cole, what is worth recording? What is deserving of love? “What I love about Bali is what I love about São Paulo, Nairobi, Seoul, and Reykjavik: material evidence of human life, which goes on in spite of the world’s enmity.” With his curiosity and generous eye, Cole countermands the world’s enmity, illuminating the sanctity, menace, and the innate interest of the human landscape. Blind Spot is a book of encounters — linked, isolated, bitter, and holy. I would like to celebrate more of them here — street garbage strewn like paint across an eccentrically cramped Cy Twombly canvas, PVC pipes that buckle like the legs of the poet Tomas Tranströmer, close to death — but there are, as with the world, too many moments to commend.

Yet one final moment bears scrutiny. As a young man of 15, before he lost his faith, “at a time when God had been moving through [him],” Cole played at faith healer. We are with him in Lagos, his thumbs pressed against the eyelids of a boy nearly blind. ‘Do you believe that you can be healed?” Cole asks. The boy believes. ‘Then be healed in the name of Christ. Take off your glasses.” But no miracle has occurred. The boy walks away, vision blurry, mind puzzled, “though,” Cole writes, “there was no puzzle there really, beyond his lack of faith.”

Cole demands faith of his audience still, though of a different kind. The boy preacher gives back sight, not to the blind, but to the fast and careless. With every encounter, Blind Spot asks: how much more is there than you ever dreamed? And answers that on any given corner, in any given room, there are miracles to witness, common and profound: cry hosanna, cry inshallah.

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