A Sense of Things Ending

‘New York City, 2011.’ Photo by Teju Cole.

By Michaela Dwyer

In the last chapter of Teju Cole’s novel Open Citythe narrator, Julius, talks about the German composer Gustav Mahler, about his “obsession with last things.” Julius attends a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. “So strong is Mahler’s sense of an ending,” Julius says, “that his many musical stories of the end almost come to dominate what went before.”

Two weeks ago: a friend and I leave the Nasher Museum auditorium, a cocoon of plush green seats and wood paneling. We’ve just listened to twelve undergraduate students perform monologues adapted from life-story interviews with refugees living in Nepal and Jordan. I have listened to these monologues several times before, having worked with the DukeImmerse students throughout the semester. I have become accustomed to the monologues’ intensity. The audience tonight, most hearing them for the first time, has not. After the bows and the clapping, I see my friend is visibly affected by the production. He, a graduating senior, tells me his feeling is wrapped up in his attention, right now, to “things ending.” I nod. We adjourn for hummus and wine.

I nodded because I was there, in a sense, a year ago: not at the Nasher, certainly not in Nepal or Jordan, and not in the company of Teju Cole’s novel—nor Cole himself, for that matter, as I was this year. I remember mid-April 2013 and “things ending.” I remember sitting in my bedroom and writing my final editor’s note for Recess. I had been called upon to reflect, formally, on my year of work. I didn’t necessarily mean to get political, but the piece turned into a call-to-arms about visibility: to create and claim art as an everyday practice at this university, and to turn this awareness into community. But throughout the piece are glimmers of that month’s, that era’s, emotional intensity, of life getting in the way. When I read parts of it now I can feel the quick breathing, the anxiety of graduation and future plans and of a less immediate social network and of Am I On the Right Track. There’s the confusion, and doubt, and the eventual, political, resolve—that art could be more than paintings painted or dances danced for their own sake. That it could speak powerfully to our continuity in the world.

I am torn between three impulses here. I want to talk about Open City, and how I’m wondering if the novel could be read, in some sense, as moral instruction on how not to live. I want to talk about spending a day, more or less, with Teju Cole, about how his visit to Kenan already feels like a landmark in the life of a young person interested in how we navigate visibility and equality in the contemporary world. I want to replicate the way Cole frames and connects things: art and politics, flowers and drones. From his lunch with undergraduates, for which I served as photographer and happy interloper: “My tweets about flowers and my tweets about drones come from the same place of care about the world. People forget that ‘care’ and ‘accuracy’ come from the same Latin root.”

But, throughout, I am sitting here, on the cusp of May, and thinking about how curious it is that, in the academic world—to which I now have a different relationship, as a non-student—the year is thought of as ‘ending’ in May. We graduate, either formally or informally. We leave our shared space, or immediate social networks. We are called upon to reflect on our respective year(s) of work. We spend time experimenting with how we could exist outside of the space we occupy from August until May—even if, and especially as students, we’re returning to spaces of ‘home.’

And so we distill and teeter on stories of an end.

It’s easy to put endings into blunt terms; it’s not as easy to do the same with continuity. And maybe that’s right. Earlier in Open City, Julius visits Brussels in a halfhearted search for his grandmother. He befriends Farouq, a Moroccan man who works at an Internet café. One of Julius’s visits to the shop coincides with the Eid, which brings many international and immigrant patrons together, all calling home, wherever home is. Julius reflects: “It looked like fiction, that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places.” In his statement there’s inherent disbelief that quite ordinary life—a phone call home—could look like something imaginary, something worth narrativizing.

College, or a fellowship, or a 9-to-5 job, runs the risk of being thought of as an isolatable incident, or a collection of isolatable incidents. I began my fellowship at Kenan last summer, and I am proud of singular initiatives I’ve been a part of. They look nice if viewed as a tableau of achievements; a still-life up for aesthetic analysis by someone like Julius. But how to put in words the feeling that surfaces when I connect with a student after two hours of discussing her research paper on dignity in the context of displacement? When an audience member at a film screening tells me she’s never been to a Kenan event but took a chance because the documentary we’re showing was filmed near her house in Raleigh? Something in me moves; I am moved in turn.

Life gets in the way. Reading Open City, we as readers watch as this happens to Julius in a way discontinuous with his detached dilettantish worldview. We wonder if this changes him. Can his [fictional] existence still be continuous?

There are Mahler symphonies, sure, and graduation, sure, but there is also everything else, and our sometimes messy, and sometimes invisible, connections to the everything else. These are the stories that come before and after. And maybe, sometimes, these are the stories. Two days after Cole’s visit, he tweeted a quotation from Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov.

“There are things happening before and after the event. These things are even more important than the event itself.”

‘SOVIET UNION. Russia. Moscow. Firework display. 1983.’ Photo by Gueorgui Pinkhassov.