Writing Seeing: Open City (2)

Continued from the previous post.

“Brussels is old,” Julius says as he arrives in the city and observes what he calls “a peculiar European oldness, which is manifested in stone.” During the Second World War, he recalls, Brussels was declared an open city, essentially surrendering to German invasion in order to preserve its infrastructure and architecture, and, as a result, it avoided becoming “another Dresden” so as to remain “a vision of the medieval and baroque periods, a vista interrupted only by the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II.” Unlike the metropolitan layering of Manhattan, absent the palimpsest of newness erasing and writing over the old, Brussels’ comparative antiquity bespeaks a preservationist relationship to the past which captivates Julius and seems initially to satisfy his urge to find his place, to locate himself, within the totality of the network of relations he sees extending far throughout time.

Early after arriving in Brussels, Julius slips into a speculative way of seeing that involves imaginatively traversing both space and time to observe other people with whom he knows he shares some sort of connection. “In my mind’s eye,” he says as he stands in the heart of the city, “I began to rove into the landscape,” and so, envisioning that landscape as it existed several generations ago, he finds it steadily enlarging so as to incorporate the lives of all those who he knows were then living in it. First he imagines the fifteen-year-old version of the elderly Belgian woman he met on his flight to Europe. She is “sitting on a rampart in the Brussels sun” in 1944 and “delirious with happiness at the invaders’ retreat.” Next he imagines his old college professor, a Japanese man now on his deathbed, half a world away from the retreat that the woman witnesses. He is in internment, “unhappy” because imprisoned in “an arid room in a fenced compound in Idaho.” And then, of course, Julius imagines his own grandparents “in the middle of that day in September sixty-two years ago.” They are burdened by far more circumscribed ways of seeing than his own, going about their lives “seeing nothing of the brutal half century ahead and, better yet, hardly anything at all of all that was happening in their world, the corpse-filled cities, camps, beaches, and fields, the unspeakable worldwide disorder of that very moment.” Whereas Manhattan besieged Julius with anonymity and isolation that disconnected him from the world around him, Brussels seems to allow him both to peer into the past without having to peel away the layers of the present and to see, embedded in it, the roots of his own existence.

As time goes on, however, Julius finds that Brussels returns to him a sense of anonymity and isolation because the relational network of which he is a part obtains an incomprehensible breadth via the omnipresent ease of access to the past, the “oldness… manifested in stone” that preserves traces of everything from medievalism to modernism and, especially, colonialism. At one point, for instance, he enters a shop that houses a dozen booths from which customers are able to make cheap international phone calls and there he finds people, mostly immigrants, making calls to Colombia, Egypt, Senegal, Brazil, France, Germany, and elsewhere. “It looked like fiction,” he remarks, “that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places,” and his incredulity grows when he finds that the man at the cash register is able to speak no less than four different languages. At another point, in an inversion of his earlier efforts to imagine people he knows in the present on a particular day in the past, he focuses on himself in the present and incrementally expands the scope of his speculative sight in order to see how the present that surrounds him clearly bears the scars of the past. “Heavy [rain]drops tapped on the window,” he says,

[and t]he weather report was right: in ever widening circles from where I stood, rain was lashing the land. It fell heavily all over the Portuguese district, on the shrine to Pessoa and on Casa Botelho. It fell on [the] phone shop, where [the multilingual attendant] had perhaps just begun his shift. It fell on the bronze head of Leopold II at his monument, on Claudel at his, on the flagstones of the Palais Royal. The rain kept coming down, in the battlefield of Waterloo at the outskirts of the city, the Lion’s Mound, the Ardennes, the implacable valleys full of young men’s bones grown old, on the preserved cities farther out west, on Ypres and the huddled white crosses dotting Flanders fields, the turbulent channel, the impossibly cold sea to the north, on Denmark, France, and Germany.

This is what Brussels gives Julius: a mode of vision, a way of seeing, that has a greater temporal extent than what he had in Manhattan but also a greater geographical extent, and that consequently leaves him still surrounded by people to whom he cannot see himself connected because the roots of their pasts lie elsewhere. He realises this near the end of his stay in Brussels when he attends a church service amidst a predominantly black congregation and notices that the “fifty or sixty” people around him are all Rwandan. “It was as though the space had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying,” he says of his realisation:

What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting? Most of those there would have been teenagers during the genocide. Who, among those present, I asked myself, had killed, or witnessed killing? The quiet faces surely masked some pain I couldn’t see.

These remarks are echoed later, shortly after Julius returns to Manhattan and notices two young Hasidic Jews examining a photograph of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels on display in an art gallery. “I had no reasonable access to what being there, in that gallery, might mean for them,” he confesses. “[T]he undiluted hatred I felt for the subjects of that photo was, in the couple, transmuted into what? What was stronger than hate? … I needed to move away, immediately, needed to rest my eye elsewhere.” The results of Julius’ time in Brussels, then, are an appreciation of the impossibility of developing a godlike mode of vision — supra-spatial and trans-temporal — and the restitution of the isolation he felt before he left Manhattan. Once, perhaps, he aspired to be like the geese whose migrations he used to watch from his apartment window, looking down on the totality of the world from high above it, but now, returning to Manhattan, he finds himself closer in spirit to the hawk he encounters in Morningside Park, the hawk with the “predatory glare” that fixates on him and bores into his soul. Whether because the past has been buried and built over or because its visibility on the surface of the world gives it a breadth that thwarts all efforts to see it in its totality, Julius remains embedded firmly in the present and unable to read the past back into it despite the intense scrutiny with which he continues to observe the people around him.

Such access to the past is impossible because there is always a lag and therefore an insurmountable distance between the past and the present, and this is the lesson Julius learns just as his return flight begins its descent and he looks down on the city from the window of his plane. “[A]s we broke through the last layer of clouds and the city in its true form suddenly appeared a thousand feet below us,” he says, “I experienced… the unsettling feeling that I had had precisely this view of the city before, accompanied by the equally strong feeling that it had not been from the point of view of a plane.” He realizes that he had previously seen that view of the city in the form of a “sprawling scale model… kept at the Queens Museum of Art.” The model “had been built for the World’s Fair in 1964,” he says, “and afterward had been periodically updated to keep up with the changing topography and built environment of the city,” and he recalls being impressed by “the many fine details it represented.” Among these details were “the rivulets of roads snaking across a velvety Central Park, the boomerang of the Bronx curving up to the north, the elegant beige spire of the Empire State Building, the white tablets of the Brooklyn piers,” and, most notably, “the pair of gray blocks on the southern tip of Manhattan, each about a foot high, representing the persistence, in the model of the World Trade Center towers, which, in reality, had already been destroyed.” This collective effort to see the past in extraordinary detail in order to preserve it is here no more successful than Julius’ later effort to gaze into the night sky — into “the dark spaces between the dead, shining stars” — in search of stars that were “giving out light that hadn’t reached me yet” and were therefore perceptible “only as blank interstices.” The light they emanated long ago, he notes, “would arrive on earth eventually, long after I and my whole generation and the generation after me had slipped out of time, perhaps long after the human race itself was extinguished.” In this instance, the past, the distant past, is impossible to read into the present because it has yet to even leave a trace on it.

What all this amounts to, for Julius, is a heightened awareness of the ways in which the people around him, who appear to be just as alienated as he is, attempt to do what he knows is impossible and situate themselves in a relational network extending into the past. This awareness becomes particularly heightened when various people incorporate Julius into their own networks against his will, viewing him as some sort of circumstantial compatriot on the basis of qualities such as his literary sensibilities, his socio-economic status, his presence in a particular place at a particular time, or, most often, his skin colour. And although he comes to resent other peoples’ pretensions to ethnic solidarity — people with whom he shares “only the most tenuous of connections… based on our being young, black, male… ‘brothers’” — he also comes to see that it is this incorporation into a network, rather than his establishment of a network of his own, that restores to him the vigour, the life, that his isolation had consumed. “To be alive, it seemed to me,” he concludes, “was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.” Both to see and to be seen by others, others who impose their own senses of identity upon oneself, becomes, for Julius, proof of life, as distinct from the “perfection of the eye,” the development of totalising vision, that would seem to be both the province and the sign of death. “What does it mean,” he asks, facing an unexpected accusation of rape that dates back many years, “when, in someone else’s version [of my own life story], I am the villain?” It means he is alive, he is present, he has not achieved the mode of vision that would allow him to see himself in relation to all things, and there is nothing more for him to do but continue to struggle through the human experience of a broad and unfathomable world with all the limitations of his being.

4 responses to “Writing Seeing: Open City (2)”

  1. Brilliant, Dr. Davis Wood. I read Open City twice in the last couple of weeks, preparing for a presentation of it in a novel-writing class I’m taking, and I did a little search and found your essay. And now I am sorry I did, since my own elemental understanding will now no doubt be dominated by your truly superior insights!
    Just kidding, of course, about being sorry. I appreciate your explanation, it has added a whole new dimension to my understanding of this book.
    I have one minor correction. In the middle of the second page of your review, it wasn’t a church service where there were 50 or 60 Rwandans, dancing and flirting, whose quiet faces surely masked some pain… That was actually a nightclub called Le Panais.
    Thanks again! Lee

  2. Speaking from the 2021 here. After rereading Open City and then this two-part discussion of it, I admit that this is the most direct engagement with the meat of the novel. I am grateful and jealous of the range and accuracy of your observations and interpretation of the novel. I’ve read there is to be read in the literary magazines and none of them sink past the comparisons and glib summaries of the style and influences, But you go in deep and handle the theme of death and vision and the gaping blind spot of Julius himself. Thank you very much.

    • Thanks for the kind words! It has indeed been a while since I wrote about “Open City” (yikes, almost a decade!) but I have returned to the novel often since then, and I don’t find my views changing very much. And yes, I find the superficial comparisons — Sebald, et al — quite tiresome, along with the habit of using “autofiction” as a reader’s exercise in truth-hunting. Cole is up to much more than simply blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction in “Open City” and I’m very glad that there are still readers out there, like yourself, who are willing to respond to the depths of his work.

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