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.

Dashing through the Cold and into 2014 at Kenan

By Michaela Dwyer

Dear readers: I write to you hunkered down in the basement Bear Den (West Duke 01E) in the midst of polar vortex 2014, on a day when local schools are delayed due to cold weather and college students sit stranded on tarmacs in hopes of soon being en route back to Durham. It’s a new year at Kenan and the Insider is doing the groundwork to help usher it in—groundwork looking a lot like shuffling about to refill mugs of tea and emailing folks across the campus and across the country as we work to secure the moving parts of Kenan’s spring programming.

Over the holidays, I visited family up north. As happens at family gatherings, I was asked a lot of questions about what I “do.” As you may have surmised from my past blog posts, I’m the type of person who is easily overwhelmed by questions like that, because “doing” means a lot of different things for me on a daily basis: I read an article on my phone, alternate between projects at work, read a few pages of a book, go to an art exhibit or a movie, eat dinner. (Through all of these activities is an emotional flux too various and thorough to describe here.) Then I’ll go to sleep pulling at the strings of the past 24 hours, convinced that they weave together somehow, and wake up lingering in a dream threaded from one moment of the day before. As I enter a new year I want to take comfort in the idea that as humans we just get all of this; that our daily lives are scrapped from and connected by a series of thoughts and activities. But this leaves out the work that needs to be done—the making sense of things, the pulling at the strings in the company of others, like a giant communal Cat’s Cradle.

And I appreciate both being with family and ringing in the New Year for a chance to renew this mode of being, of doing. The postgraduate fellowship is multi-part, and moving-part by design, and, yes, explaining that is sometimes hard. To my cousin’s chagrin, my job is not just “sitting around all day and thinking about ethics.” It’s more like “moving around all day and thinking and doing ethics in a large and diverse community.” In the spirit of the new year, I’ve selected and profiled a few different programs I’m especially excited about this spring at Kenan—all of which reflect the wonderfully busy and interdisciplinary nature of the Institute itself.

Midway over the years. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

Ethics Film Series: The South

Way back in August and September of 2013, Nathan and I began throwing around ideas for the Ethics Film Series. They stemmed largely from our personal interests and movies we’d seen recently or wanted to see: “toward an ethics of art!” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present!,” “family!” As N.C. natives, we’d both entertained the idea of the American South, but (and I speak for myself here) feared its potential specificity, a restrictiveness in programming films that treat a certain geographic region. And then we realized that this concern was exactly what we wanted to unpack in a series of public film events. What does it mean to bind a region to certain themes, to understand it according to (often-)dark historical events? What does it mean to praise a “New South” defined by glitzy restaurants and urban rejuvenation as much as—and especially in North Carolina—stark poverty and deep divisions of race, class, and cultural attitudes? We think these are questions worth asking, and especially in the company of our local community. Our series, free and open to the public, begins on Tuesday, January 21 with the 2007 documentary Moving Midway. Director and Triangle native Godfrey Cheshire will be on hand to discuss the film, which feels particularly relevant after Ani DiFranco’s recent plantation-based artist retreat fiasco.

DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted

In the spring of 2012, I was on the cusp of becoming a senior and in the midst of re-working summer plans, doubting my major, pondering adding a certificate program to my course of study, and wracking my brain day after day about what I wanted my life to look like post-Duke. In short: lots of thinking at the expense of doing. DukeImmerse, which began that same semester, was nowhere near my college “plan,” as it shoddily and ambivalently was, and two years out, I regret that. That spring, Kenan piloted one of Immerse’s first two programs. It was themed around issues of human displacement, and is now known as DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted. This year, the semester-long program will engage twelve students in four related courses around a central research question: how does displacement affect the well-being and the social identity of those displaced? Students will collaborate with local and international refugee communities, work both in and outside of the field in Durham and in Nepal and Jordan, thinking and doing via oral history and original interdisciplinary research. The experience is both intensive and experiential, analytical and personal, and demanding in different ways than a typical academic semester. I’ll get a glimpse of what DukeImmerse looks and feels like this spring, as I work with the twelve students in their Field Ethics class on documentary ethics and production.

Teju Cole. Photo courtesy of A Piece of Monologue.

Ethics Book Club, Teju Cole, and the Humanities in full force

This past fall, I helped begin Kenan’s first staff-wide Ethics Book Club. Our group—hopefully the first of many at the university—has actively sought out texts that explore lively and unique narratives and tell of life from very different and very particular voices. We started with John Green’s Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and have moved to Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers. On the horizon is Teju Cole’s novel Open City. Cole is Kenan’s 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer, giving a talk on April 24 titled “Here Comes Everybody: The Crisis of Equality in the Age of Social Media.” He is also a photographer, art historian, cultural and political critic, and notorious Tweeter. He’s a model of what it means to live and work widely in the 21st century, and what it means to grapple, as we all do, with media, globalization, and the ethics of how we as humans interact—and especially how those forces can cohere into art. I’m excited both to read Open City and to meet Cole. And I’m excited that Kenan continues to push these issues to the forefront of this university and community, helping to shape a multi-dimensional and innovative understanding of the humanities in our time.