Teju Cole, Zürich, 2014, from the exhibition “Teju Cole: Blind Spot and Black Paper,” on view at Steven Kasher Gallery from June 15–August 11. Courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery, New York.
When I was a kid, I always wanted to inhabit the Wild West. It was the most exotic place. And now, I guess, I do.
I never had a definition of my country, or my identity. Everything has been a series of oxymorons. I grew up in Britain: savage and polite, a European island. Within that, I grew up in London: the British capital, and the pure international. But we also lived in the north London suburbs, neither countryside nor city, and I went to a private high school that was basically Jewish and Hindu, with perhaps the occasional Muslim or Sikh or very rare stray goy. We were rich but not exorbitantly rich: we were rich but intellectual. Moreover, if I was definitively Jewish, I was also definitively half Jewish. For me, this series of oxymorons represented a kind of ideal state: placelessness was my idea of a utopia.
At the summer party for the Serpentine Gallery in London, a couple of weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire and the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, and about a year after the referendum to leave the European Union, when London continued to personify an anxious form of chaos, Michael Bloomberg—the chairman of the gallery—gave a speech in which he called for a minute’s silence to remember the dead of the Grenfell Tower. It made me, this moment of piety, a little uneasy. I had just been talking to a charming gallerist. I had also just shaken hands with George Osborne, the former chancellor and now editor of the London Evening Standard. I felt more than faintly corrupted. I would soon be introduced to a billionaire early investor in Net-a-Porter from Latin America. Or perhaps corrupted is not the right word, or if it is the right word then it is also universal.
In Wallace Shawn’s great monologue play, The Fever, the speaker says: “The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification … There’s no piece of paper that could possibly undo the reality of the blood that was shed so that I could live the way I live.”
A few nights later, I saw Thomas Ostermeier’s new play, Returning to Reims. Beforehand, I was not in the mood. In general, theater is an art form that depresses me. It was a Friday evening. I was super tired. Ostermeier is the director of the Schaubühne in Berlin, and the play featured Nina Hoss, one of that theater’s stars (she also starred in Homeland). The show was based on Didier Eribon’s book Retour à Reims, from 2009 (an English translation by Michael Lucey was published by Semiotext(e) in 2013) in which Eribon—now an eminent sociologist, biographer of Foucault, theorist of gay representation—described his origins in the working-class outskirts of Reims, in northern France, and his shame at his shame at those origins. And also he considers how his family had shifted its political allegiance from Communism to the National Front. To stage the text, Ostermeier had built a small recording studio on stage, complete with director and sound technician. In this studio, Nina Hoss played an actress taping extracts from Eribon’s text, as a voice-over to a fictional documentary based on Retour à Reims, a documentary that would also be a small history of left-wing theory and politics in Europe. Hoss played an actress, but she also played herself. Throughout the recording, she would stop, rephrase, argue with the director—until a moment at the end of the piece where a camera was turned on her, and she told the story of her own family, her own history as the daughter of a famous left-wing German unionist and politician. A play devised by a German director, based on a French book, using a German actor, staged in Britain! It was like a nostalgic echo of a previous European wholeness.
In an essay the French novelist Édouard Louis wrote, introducing a collection he edited celebrating the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, L’insoumission en héritage, he wrote: “For a long time I believed that politics was the name of a curse. A curse which fell on the poor.” For politics, in his definition, represented a form of constraint—when how you spend your time is “defined by other people, by the outside.”
To live oxymoronically, I guess this is obvious, is a form of luxury. It could be put another way: I have always lived in disavowal. I’ve always wanted to discard the various categories to which I might belong, or to use them to deny each other: too Jewish to be British, too half Jewish to be Jewish, too intellectual to be bourgeois … I loved it when Saul Bellow, on the back of the manuscript for Augie March, pencilled this one-sentence summary: “Doesn’t want to be what others make of him.” Just as I refused Sartre’s idea that “a Jew is a man other people take to be Jewish,” and that therefore “it’s the anti-Semite who makes the Jew.” The complexity, I wanted to assert, of my untrammeled inner life! And of course, this is also an alibi. In The Fever, Shawn’s speaker describes a primal scene, a birthday party in an elegant restaurant—“there’s the table with its sweet and pretty decorations, the fanciful centerpiece, pink and green, and there are all the women in bright red lipstick and the men in beautiful shirts, and all the gifts—outrageous, unexpected, funny gifts—and there are the waiters serving the salmon and pouring the wine, and there I am.” And then he adds a savage observation: “I wasn’t a person who was thinking about a party. I was a person who was at a party, who sat at the table, drank the wine, and ate the fish.” Ethics, in the end, like politics, is purely what you do, not what you think. It used to be, adds Shawn’s speaker, that it was the inner life that was hidden from people’s view. “But something’s been hidden from me, too. Something—a part of myself—has been hidden from me, and I think it’s the part that’s there on the surface, what anyone in the world could see about me if they saw me out the window of a passing train.” So much of what we do is done behind our own backs. We do violence, but our violence is super sweet. And yet to be multiple is surely an ideal, after all. The other day, walking from my house to the new bobo developments of Kings Cross to meet another international writer, over from New York, I heard a man say, “When I see a Gypsy, I call him a Gypsy, when I see an Irish, I call him an Irish.” And, well, I can’t help it. I prefer my airplane culture to this old-style xenophobia—even while I know that there is another way of describing the two positions: I am rich, and he was poor. (Just as I love the pirate network of island cities: New York, London, Shanghai, Valparaíso … even while I also know that these cities are, of course, instruments of a financial hierarchy and power—that the myth of pure freedom is a class mystification.)
Returning to Reims is a play that includes a film based on a book. It’s the story of a recording. And for a long while afterward, I thought about this mixture of media on stage. Everything centered on the presence and persona of Nina Hoss. (It would be unstageable in the same form without her.) This was partly because of her personal history—her relation to her father’s political history. But it was also because of the charisma of her movements. When she was reading Eribon’s text, the images projected on the screen behind her, from the fictional documentary, were mostly distracting. You only wanted to listen to her voice. But when the camera was on her, live, and the image projected on the screen was her image, describing her own relationship to this politics, it was suddenly magical. The theater had been replaced by an intimate form of cinema. I wondered: maybe this is why I always love the cinema. It is a magical form—in its plots and its production—for the invention of a community, and therefore of a sincerity. And the symbol of this sincerity—impossible for theater—is the close-up.
In the last year, whenever people discuss our political crisis, a certain insistence has been placed on ideas of dialogue. We need to understand, according to this insistence, the people who disagree with us: those who distrust the European Union, immigration, the state, the idea of solidarity. According to this argument, the catastrophe of a certain right-wing ascendancy—and I am not sure that this ascendancy has stopped—is because there has not been enough dialogue between the poor and the (intellectual) rich. But there are two things which worry me in this insistence. First, there is the possibility that with this absolute value placed on dialogue, we ignore the fact that no one can inhabit a total state of political relativity. Some views, in the end, have to be judged as wrong, or immoral. And the second problem is possibly deeper—this idea of dialogue is also based on an idea of persuasion through argument. But I am not sure that argument is such a useful model of persuasion. The other week, the Guardian published an extract from the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s new book, Everybody Lies, about truth and the Internet. One of his observations was about a speech former president Obama gave after the San Bernardino shootings. In it, Obama called for everyone to “reject discrimination” against Muslims. But, wrote Stephens-Davidowitz, “searches calling Muslims ‘terrorists,’ ‘bad,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘evil’ doubled during and shortly after the speech.” And yet there was one line which sparked a different response, when Obama observed that “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our coworkers, our sports heroes and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defense of our country.” After this line, notes Stephens-Davidowitz, “for the first time in more than a year, the top Googled noun after ‘Muslim’ was not ‘terrorists,’ ‘extremists,’ or ‘refugees.’ It was ‘athletes,’ followed by ‘soldiers.’ ” In other words, he continued: “When we lecture angry people, the search data implies that their fury can grow. But subtly provoking people’s curiosity, giving new information, and offering new images of the group that is stoking their rage may turn their thoughts in different, more positive directions.” I read this and remembered a conversation I had with Édouard Louis, after seeing Returning to Reims. Ostermeier had broken off the reading of Eribon’s text at the point where Eribon, as a kind of conclusion, offered his vision of a future intellectual task: “to construct theoretical frameworks and political modes of perception of reality that might permit not the effacement—an impossible task—but the maximum neutralization of the negative passions at work in society, and especially in the working class; to offer other perspectives and so sketch out a future for what could be called, once again, the left.” In the play, Nina Hoss had stopped. It was, she argued with the director, too abstract. And so she had told the story of her father and the detail of his political activism. Édouard Louis and I were now talking about this problem of offering new perspectives, of forming new communities—whether literary or political. The trick, he said, and I loved this idea, wasn’t to try to convince or persuade—you could never persuade anyone of anything—no, the trick was to instantiate new forms, and hope that they seduced.
I love the pirate cities. The cities form an endless community for me. And yet also, and just as much, my community is my neighbors here in London, and the neighbors of my neighbors. It’s just, it is far more difficult for me to inhabit this apparently obvious fact. The comfortable—maybe this is one way of putting it—always live, wherever they are, in a form of suburbia, in places of separation, both ontological and political. We come to not inhabit the community of which we are a part.
Before Retour à Reims, Eribon had written another lovely book, Réflexions sur la question gay, where he examined the formation of a gay identity out of the experience of insult and rejection. It is a book that explicitly derives from his biography of Foucault. For Eribon, Foucault offers a model of thinking in terms of power, and of resistance to power. And so Eribon notes not only the forms of homophobic insult and caricature but also the ways in which a gay community has formed new types of community, replacing biological family with intricate (urban) networks of friendships. I read this book only recently, after seeing the play, and realized that it offered the public edifice to which Returning to Reims was the private sketch. Its basic energy was contained in this sentence of Sartre on Genet: “What’s important isn’t what people make of us, but what we ourselves make of what people have made of us.” Culture, in Eribon’s model, is based on arrivisme. Everyone is in flight. But also, fleeing is difficult, it is never total, and so everyone is in mourning for their self’s endless incompletion. And as I read this, I also wished that Ostermeier had made more of his decision to cast a woman as the actor reading Eribon’s text: for of all the class struggles, of all the struggles of insult and objectification, surely the struggle of women against men is the most enveloping and universal. Although, I wasn’t sure in what direction that would lead. I was sure, however, that I liked the general direction of Eribon’s argument, that the task of a live culture is to expose this initiating shame—whether sexual, social, racial, whatever: to make this shame and melancholy the fermenting agent of a future art.
In the same way, I was thinking, while drinking terrible red wine with Édouard Louis, what I liked in his two novels wasn’t so much the honesty, the truth telling, as their relationship to melodrama. They risked tones which usual literature prefers to reject as shameful: the exaggerated, the tearful. There is courage in describing the violence he describes, but there is also another type of courage in using such silent-movie modes. Truth, I was thinking, isn’t something to be included in a novel: it’s something that’s produced—when the usual contract between the reader and the work, or the reader and the author, is contaminated, or made fuzzy; and one way of doing this is to talk in a way a novelist is not meant to talk, sleazily, or desperately, or maybe using real names. Like the way Nina Hoss had suddenly spoken as a version of herself, showing photos on her phone which you had to believe were childhood photos of her own. For a moment, when that happens, there is a community of two people: the imagined narrator and the imagined reader. And for a moment, these disparate people have something to do with each other.
So many Westerns, after all, are spaghetti Westerns. The ur-American is really European. A place—like a self—can always be reimagined as something else. It can always resist a single definition. In London now, this place of contemporary frontier wildness, the possibility of such resistance represents a (miniature) hope.
Adam Thirlwell is The Paris Review’s London editor. His most recent book is Lurid & Cute.
Last / Next Article