Sitting Together in the Dark
Teju Cole is a photography critic for The New York Times and the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. His books are Blind Spot, a book of photography and writing; a collection of essays, Known and Strange Things; and two novels: Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief.
Krista Tippett, host: Teju Cole sees overlap and interplay, “singing lines,” between Brahms and what he lovingly calls the “weird power” of daily technologies like Google. His New York Times column, “On Photography,” is about so much more than photography. His 2014 New Yorker essay about the novelist and social critic James Baldwin helped resurface Baldwin’s prescient voice for new realities. Teju Cole understands writing and thinking as acts that desire generosity and hospitality, so he sometimes also publishes free on social media. To delve into his mind and his multiple arts is to meet this world with creative raw materials for enduring truth and quiet hope.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zöe Keating]
Teju Cole: There’s a beautiful Inuit word “qarrtsiluni.” It means, “sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen.” I’m happy to have that be my new bio.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Teju Cole is the author of two novels and a collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, which his Baldwin essay opens. He joined me together with a live audience at On Being Studios in Minneapolis. He was in the Twin Cities with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series, together with the musician Vijay Iyer, for a presentation around his latest book of photography and text, Blind Spot.
Ms. Tippett: I believe in the opening essay in your book of essays, you wrote, “I used to wonder what creative freedom looks like.” And I have observed in life that often the things that we wonder about and also the qualities and pursuits that we long for actually turn out to be the things we’re suited for. The things that are actually calling to us to do, we admire them in other people, but it sometimes takes a while for us to grow into this realization. And all I could think when I read that sentence of yours is that you are creative freedom incarnate.
Mr. Cole: Oh, thank you.
Ms. Tippett: You grew up — and I think this is very poetic — between Lagos and Kalamazoo. I actually happen to know Kalamazoo, and I think it is one of these weird, secret centers of the universe. A lot of roads lead back there.
Mr. Cole: All mine do, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] All yours do. So you were born in Kalamazoo, and then your family moved back to Lagos. And then you went back to Kalamazoo, which you described as “home, strange home,” for college. Was there a religious or a spiritual background to your childhood? I sense that there was, although I haven’t found you writing about it in any great detail.
Mr. Cole: Yeah. Right, so when you talk about all roads leading back to Kalamazoo, in a strange kind of way, a lot of the spiritual grounding had a lot to do with Lagos, but also had a lot to do with Kalamazoo. I was born there. My parents were Anglican, which is Episcopalian here — they were Anglican. When they were here, they were Episcopalian. So when I was born in Michigan, I was baptized there. I was in Nigeria for 17 years, and in the interim, I got even more religious than what my upbringing was. In my early teens, I caught religion so that by the time I came back to Kalamazoo for college — I went to Kalamazoo College — I found that I wanted to be baptized again, this time —
Ms. Tippett: And was that a more Protestant tradition?
Mr. Cole: Yeah, evangelical, charismatic. So I’ve been baptized twice in Kalamazoo. I’m never going back there again because I don’t want to risk a third baptism.
But this fervent religion became the center of my life when I was 13. In fact, it was, in a sense, a kind of breaking away of the family, even though the family itself became steadily more religious as I got older, so that by my mid-20s, when I gave up on religion, they were devastated.
Ms. Tippett: There’s just this throwaway line somewhere that you were “once a fervid teenage preacher like James Baldwin.” So you actually had a preacher period too.
Mr. Cole: Yeah, I think we all carry our secret debts with us, the things that we owe and we can’t quite pay back. One of mine is that I did convert a lot of people to Christianity.
But what I have learned in the time since then is that what I’m up to is not an attempt to de-convert anyone. If you picked up something spiritual or religious in my work, it is because, even after having given up the credal belief, something about the language and the way it plumbs experience has remained intact for me.
One thing I do know for sure is that we all need a great deal of help. And a lot of the help that we need is in language, is in the language that has been boiled down to a quintessence so that it’s potent and effective. I continue to find a lot of that language in religious and spiritual traditions, as well as in literature and poetry — in Homer — without centering it on statements of belief, but centering it on experiences of insight or consolation.
Ms. Tippett: And, I sense, the theology, the story, the poetry that these traditions carry forward.
Mr. Cole: I think, wherever human beings have gathered and with great seriousness tried to think through the predicament of being human, wisdom emerges. It’s not always helpful in its totality, simply because it emerges out of human processes as well, but there is something, all the way from cave painting to the church or to the modern theater, absurdist theater — there is something that emerges when we confront what it means to be here, that, if we are tuned in with enough precision, we might emerge with something that can help us and that can help other people.
Ms. Tippett: One of the pieces of language that I find you use that I actually found really useful in appreciating the breadth of your work and the breadth of influences — you said credal religion was no longer meaningful to you, and politics — which we all engage with as a matter of course and which you engaged with when you went back to Nigeria and here in your writing — holds a lot of disenchantment, even while it’s important. But you said that you always retained a faith in a “cloud of witnesses.” And I find that you really commune with many teachers across time and space. And I met a lot of people in digging into your work. You speak of Tomas Tranströmer, Swedish poet who’s one of your “ports of refuge.” Can you say a little bit about him — just, this person?
Mr. Cole: I’m going to go back to a word I used earlier, which is how much help we need. We sometimes think of culture as something we go out there and consume. And this especially happens around clever people, smart people — “Have you read this? Did you check out that review? Do you know this poet? What about this other poet?” Blah blah blah. And we have these checkmarks — “I read 50 books last year” — and everybody wants to be smart and keep up. I find that I’m less and less interested in that, and more and more interested in what can help me and what can jolt me awake. Very often, what can jolt me awake is stuff that is written not for noonday but for the middle of the night. And that has to do with — again, with the concentration of energies in it.
Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish poet, who died — can’t remember; maybe 2013 he died. He seemed to have unusual access to this membrane between this world and some other world that, as Paul Éluard said, is also in this one. Tranströmer, in his poetry, keeps slipping into that space.
In any case, I just found his work precisely the kind of thing I wanted to read in the silence of the middle of the night and feel myself escaping my body in a way that I become pure spirit, in a way. I remember when he won the Nobel Prize, which was in 2011. We live in an age of opinion, and people always have opinions, especially about things they know nothing about. So people who were hearing about Tranströmer for the first time that morning were very grandly opining that his collected works come to maybe 250 pages, that how could he possibly get the Nobel Prize for that slender body of work? — which, of course, was missing the fact that each of these pages was a searing of the consciousness that was only achieved at by great struggle. I think the best thing to compare him to is the great Japanese poets of haiku, like Kobayashi or Basho.
Ms. Tippett: Where every word carries so much more than one word.
Mr. Cole: Exactly. And as a writer, I know exactly how hard it is to get there. As Mark Twain said — sometimes, writing letters to people, he’ll say, “If I had more time, I would’ve made this shorter.”
Ms. Tippett: Karl Marx was supposed to have said that about Das Kapital as well. [laughs]
Mr. Cole: Oh, is that right? Yes, yes. Exactly. But this idea that somehow Tranströmer found the time to make it as short as it needed to be — that’s the miracle in it. So for many winters now, he is actually the primary poet I read through winter, to get me through winter. I keep returning.
Ms. Tippett: James Baldwin is also powerfully in your cloud of witnesses. I sense that you have a conversation with him across time and space. You were having a conversation with him as you wrote about him. I am curious how you — because I feel like his voice is rising up all over the place. People are rediscovering him. His words are out there in a new way. I wonder how you sense he might be speaking or would speak to this moment we inhabit. Is that on your mind?
Mr. Cole: Very often. Somewhere, he said — and it’s a terrible thing to misquote James Baldwin, but I’ll give you the gist, since the artificial Google chip has not been released to a general audience yet. Did you guys see this? There’s a thing where you can just think of the thing you want to Google, and it reads it back to you? We’re moving very fast — MIT.
Ms. Tippett: So one of the things you write about is the loss of forgetting — one of the things we’re experiencing now…
Mr. Cole: The loss of forgetting — absolutely. We’ll get to that in a second.
Ms. Tippett: …what we lose by being able to look everything up or have Google deliver it directly to our brains.
Mr. Cole: Absolutely — oh, it’s a tragedy. So anyway, I can’t look this up, but he says something like, “To be black and relatively conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Let me revise that: To be relatively conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage. As somebody else said, if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention. So I think a lot about what fury has meant to me in the past year and a half and in the past eight years and in the past 25 years since I moved to this country. But I also think about — and this one is a bit more complicated — about what his words do in our discourse. He’s very quotable, and I worry about quotation as a form of escape. If everyone’s so woke, why are things so terrible?
Societies are very complex —
Ms. Tippett: Well, there’s waking up, and then there’s living differently.
Mr. Cole: Right, but being “woke” is also different from waking up, because it’s a performing — knowing the right things to say so that you don’t get attacked. But the responsibility actually goes deeper than that — like, what does it mean to seek justice?
So I think about that in relation to him, and it connects to a further thought, which is that in his lifetime he had this early success, and then he lived — he didn’t live long enough, but he lived into some — a bit of old age. He really fell out of favor. He was sort of set up for it: He was black, grew up poor. He was queer, and he was independent-minded. White people attacked him. Black people attacked him. People thought he wasn’t going far enough in his radical ideas. People thought he was going too far. It was incredibly stressful. He couldn’t live here. And it wasn’t only because of racism. It was also because people on the left were attacking him.
So I think what I learned the most from him is not that you can mine his work and find the quote that fits our progressive positions, but what I learned from him is that taking truly progressive positions can be devastatingly isolating. If everyone is woke, you may be called on to be something else, something a bit more difficult than that. If we live in an environment where we take the “right” opinion for granted as a given — “Oh, everybody knows that” — maybe you’re called on to explore the ideas that not everybody knows.
[music: “Gestando” by Gustavo Santaolalla]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with writer and photographer Teju Cole.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve appreciated — recently, you’ve been speaking about how, as a writer, you think about generosity and hospitality, which to me feels like you moving towards this realization that you don’t just want to be writing for people who read The New Yorker and The New York Times…
Mr. Cole: No.
Ms. Tippett: …which is also part of the dynamic that you’re describing. It’s like we have to get out of all of these spaces, even the ones we love and admire and…
Mr. Cole: And that pay well.
Ms. Tippett: That pay well, right.
Mr. Cole: No, I mean really —
Ms. Tippett: So when you publish a short story on Twitter —
Mr. Cole: Real talk — for somebody like myself, if I wanted to only do paying gigs, I could do that. But then that shows up in the work in a certain way. So I have to do some paying gigs and some gigs that are resolutely not paying gigs. Can I read you a very short thing I wrote today after I got off the plane?
Ms. Tippett: Yes, please do. Where is it? On your phone? On your device?
Mr. Cole: It’s on my Instagram.
Ms. Tippett: Just think, one day it will be attached, and you will just be able to push a button and it will go straight into — yeah.
Mr. Cole: It will just be right here. Though there is more to say about that thing about memory and machines — I’m very afraid of the machines, but philosophically speaking, there’s an argument to be made for a theory of mind that says that anything that helps us remember is also part of our experience of the brain. Searching something in your brain and searching something on a machine, actually have more in common than we might think. But that’s very complex to argue.
But I wrote this today, and — for a long time now, but very definitely since January 1 of this year, I’ve been thinking about hospitality, because I wanted a container for some things I didn’t know where to put about the present moment. Who’s kin? Who’s family? Who’s in, who’s out? And just thinking this whole year about the question of hospitality has given me a way to read a lot of things that are very distressing, in this country and in the world, around the border but also around domestic policy. So this one goes against the grain, but I needed to put it down.
“The extraordinary courage of Lassana Bathily, an immigrant from Mali, saved six lives during a terrorist attack at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes in 2015. He was rewarded with French citizenship by the French president, François Hollande.
“But this is not a story about courage.
“The superhuman agility and bravery of Mamadou Gassama, an immigrant from Mali, saved a baby from death in the 18th Arrondissement in May 2018. He was rewarded with French citizenship by the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
“But this is not a story about bravery.
“The superhuman is rewarded with formal status as a human. The merely human, meanwhile, remains unhuman, quasi-human, subhuman. Gassama crossed the Mediterranean in a tiny boat — that was superhuman, but no one filmed that, he remained subhuman, and there was no reward.
“Such is Empire’s magnanimity. Merci, patron. Je suis tellement reconnaissant, patron.
“The hand that gives, it is said in Mali, is always above the hand that receives. Those who are hungry cannot reject food. Not only those who are hungry but those who have been deliberately starved. But soon come the day when the Hebrews will revolt and once and for all refuse Pharaoh’s capricious largesse.
Because I wanted to think about this beyond what seemed, to me, too easy — the headlines, the gratitude — “Oh, he was heroic. He was like Spiderman, and the French government did a great thing and made him a citizen.”
How did we get here? Why is this enough? How did we get into the position where he kneels down to receive the crumbs?
If I were still on Twitter and I wrote that, I might get cancelled. You get cancelled when you’re out of step with the general opinion.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I feel like the language of “blind spot,” which is a story you start telling in the last chapter of your book of essays, and it’s the title of your photography book — you write, just in the epilogue, “To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?” I find that useful language.
Mr. Cole: Well, thank you. I find it very fortifying as an idea, to think about what is not evident, what’s not apparent. I have a real struggle, especially when I’m writing for the Times. I have a very sympathetic, understanding, and encouraging editor, who lets me get away with all kinds of things, but I’m always trying to lower the volume of my essays. Very often, I’m trying to write and not say more than can justly be said. I want to reduce the number of sparks. I want to embed hesitation and lack of certainty in it.
Ms. Tippett: That’s countercultural.
Mr. Cole: It’s countercultural, and it’s quite hard to write hesitation. I think my ideal dialogue is two people saying — one person saying, “Well, I don’t know,” and the other person saying, “I don’t know.” And then the other person saying, “I don’t…” In the past couple of years, for sure my most-used emoji is… [shrugs]
…which doesn’t translate very well to radio.
Ms. Tippett: It doesn’t translate to radio.
Mr. Cole: So I’ll describe it.
It’s not a shrug, but it’s the shoulders raised and palms turned outwards in a gesture of “search me” — to which, of course, has been appended the right skin tone — emoji.
Ms. Tippett: But I think it’s refreshing to name this. You paraphrased Baldwin by saying, “Anybody who’s conscious — to be conscious is to be enraged.”
Mr. Cole: In a state of rage.
Ms. Tippett: In a state of rage; and also, I think, to be conscious is to be confused, right now.
Mr. Cole: Absolutely — to be conscious is to be in a state of…rage; strength on behalf of the weakened. There are some things I’m still strong about that maybe you’re weakened in, and I have to be strong on your behalf and vice versa.
Ms. Tippett: There’s us, needing help.
Mr. Cole: Right, but also, to be in a state of quiet sorrow and knowing that there are things we cannot solve. And maybe that moment of contemplation, that moment of quiet sorrow, is the anteroom to what the solution, someday, could be.
There’s a beautiful Inuit word, “qarrtsiluni.” It means “sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen.” And I’m happy to have that be my new bio.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, that’s great.
[music: “The Dawn and the Embrace” by When the Clouds]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Teju Cole. You can always listen again and hear unedited versions of every conversation I have on the On Being podcast feed — now with occasional, special bite-sized extras wherever podcasts are found.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a live conversation with the writer and photographer Teju Cole. He is a passionate explorer in image and in writing, whose subjects range the globe from art to politics and everything in between. We spoke together at On Being Studios on Loring Park in Minneapolis. He was here to present from his latest book of photography and text, Blind Spot, with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series.
Ms. Tippett: We’re not talking much about photography, even though you’re here principally as a photographer with Liquid Music. It’s hard to have a conversation about photography on radio, but I do want to ask you — there’s an essay, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” in which you describe a photograph, which you said left you short of breath the first time you saw it. It’s called “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963.“ You say, it challenges a “bias of mainstream culture: that to make something darker is to make it more dubious.” And you said, “These pictures make a case for how indirect images guarantee our sense of the human.” I just think that’s such an intriguing statement. I wonder if you’d say a little bit more about what you mean — “how indirect images guarantee our sense of the human.”
Mr. Cole: I just find that anything really loud and hectic can just last for a moment, but it does not get to that deepest place, that place of self-recognition, which becomes indistinguishable from other-recognition, which is continuous with world-recognition. So I’m attracted, in all the arts, to those places where something has been quietened, where concentration has been established. I think one of the great artistic questions for any practitioner of art is, how do you help other people concentrate on a moment? This photograph, it’s a frontal portrait of a young woman, but it’s not a posed portrait. She’s in a crowd, and he has photographed her. She’s African-American, but her skin is dark, and he has made it darker still in the way he has printed it so that your first thought is, “Oh, could we lighten that a little bit?” And then you think, “No — no, no, no. Why am I feeling this way about this image?” In all the arts, there are those moments that are as though somebody has made the gesture of raising a palm, which is not a stop sign, but a — ”Attend, hush, listen.”
I think those are the moments we really live for in art, the moment where the artfulness falls away, and all that is left is that thing we don’t have a better word for beyond poetry.
Ms. Tippett: I had a conversation a few years ago with Elizabeth Alexander about poetry and what poetry works in us. One of the things she said that I think about a lot, and I think it’s part of what you’re saying when you say, “It comes down to poetry” — it’s that poetry gets at undergirding truths, which is something distinct from mere fact.
You wrote an interesting article after — I think it was the Charlie Hebdo events in Paris — about how we have these moments where we talk about the crisis of free speech or the crisis of “facts” — this is what we’re talking a lot about in this country right now. But you said, this isn’t causing the crisis. We were already there. And in my mind, I feel like we’ve been working with an impoverished way of speaking about truth. We have a truth crisis and not a fact crisis. The fact that our facts are failing us, the way we have received them, is bringing it home, but I’m still not sure we’re naming it. I don’t know, I’m just curious how you think about that matter of truth and how you look at the way we’re struggling now with these subjects.
Mr. Cole: My sense of sorrow extends beyond this present moment. I think for many Americans on the left, there’s a nostalgia for the Obama years and for the person of Obama himself, who in very obvious ways is, compared to this vulgarian — I’m thinking of a photo I saw, this past week, of a bus used by ICE to transport babies. It’s a bus full of child seats, when babies are taken away from their parents. We really want that photo to be a Trump-era photo. But it’s an Obama-era photo. Does knowing that change the way we read that photo — that so many babies have been taken from their families that we need a bus equipped with child seats, an entire bus where you lock babies in?
[Producer’s note: Mr. Cole’s statement implies that the ICE bus in the aforementioned photo was used to transport children who had been separated from their parents as a result of immigration policies in place under President Obama. This is incorrect. You can read more about that 2016 photo of the bus — and the backstory behind it — here and here.]
Ms. Tippett: And you mean that it’s a consequence of policies that have been around much longer than the Trump administration?
Mr. Cole: Well, I’m certainly saying that, but I’m also saying, we do get caught up in the personality aspect of the game, which turns it into a game, which turns it into an entertainment, and “in the blue shorts, and on this side of the ring in the red shorts.” Sometimes that’s actually necessary because we have to oppose what’s happening right now, but there’s a deeper thing in there somewhere. Art, poetry are those things that can maybe disabuse us of too easy a sentimentality about our relationship to the state, for example. But as it is now and as we have generally known it, the priorities of the state actually tend to be inimical to priorities of ethics and justice.
Ms. Tippett: Dehumanizing.
Mr. Cole: Dehumanizing is what states are very, very good at, both the states we hate and the ones we kind of like. That can be hard, for people to confront that. In fact, when you speak in such terms, people say, “Well, then, you’re not being pragmatic enough, and we’ve got to make progress,” and all of that. And I say, “Oh, I’m plenty pragmatic. I grew up under military dictatorships. I know horrible states, and I know less horrible ones. But I also know what their general tendencies are.”
Ms. Tippett: And that we don’t place our entire faith in states.
Mr. Cole: We cannot.
Ms. Tippett: We cannot, which is a lesson being learned so harshly right now. But I think you’re saying, it’s a truth that is enduring and that applies, also, in times that feel less hard.
Mr. Cole: I think there are truths that endure. It’s very confusing, actually, to know exactly how they do their work. There’s so much good work from the first half of the 20th century in all the arts, incredible stuff that will last millennia. And yet, this was a period in which all of humanity seemed intent on obliterating itself — just mass killing everywhere, at a frenetic pace, in the same period that gave us literature and jazz and painting and bold new moves and new things in poetry that were as powerful as the Iliad and the Mahabharata.
Ms. Tippett: We are both/ands.
Mr. Cole: We are both/ands.
Ms. Tippett: We are not one thing.
Mr. Cole: Well, Virginia Woolf talks about the future being dark. Rebecca Solnit cited this. The future is dark, and that’s the best thing it can be. “The future is dark” doesn’t mean that it’s bad. “The future is dark” means we don’t know. And that, itself, is a consolation. It probably is not going to be our very worst fear. And John Berger talks about the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is “Oh, well, it’s all gonna be fine.”
Ms. Tippett: Wishful.
Mr. Cole: Wishful thinking, impractical; but hope is this kind of — it’s an arm you extend out into the dark on behalf of others. To go back to the idea that in a moment like this, we all have different strengths — with all the privilege I have and all that is working out for me and all the access I have to certain forms of concentration, how dare I be hopeless? There are people who need the hope that I can convey. Even if I’m writing about something very dark, to take it through eight drafts, to take it through ten drafts is an act of hope, because you’re saying, even in this moment, a well-shaped sentence matters — because somebody could say, “We’re facing the apocalypse. Who gives a shit how well it’s written?” And my hope is that if it’s written well, it might catch somebody’s attention and be a balm for something that they’re going through, if it’s written well. And so I try to write it well.
This is bad. This is bad. I believe this is a disaster. But it’s not yet the apocalypse.
Primo Levi was in the camps. And he talked about how he had to face the fact that — he was in Auschwitz, and he said, “I didn’t go through the worst,” because to have gone through the worst was to not have come out of the camps. The worst implies not living to tell the tale. This is somebody who saw hundreds of thousands of people killed for no reason, who was starving, who was on the verge of death, and who ended up killing himself. And he said, “I didn’t go through the worst.” So we have a collective responsibility recognizing that as bad as it might be for us, we haven’t been through the worst, because there was a young woman who was shot on the border last week for the crime of trying to be here with us. She was shot in the head by an agent of our state. She went through the worst. We have not been through the worst, and so we have to keep hope alive in order to help each other.
[music: “Tonight We’re Thinking of You” by Arms and Sleepers]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, writer, photographer, and art historian Teju Cole.
Ms. Tippett: I made some notes, and in my notes it got disconnected from — it was one of your essays. But it was just these lovely things you were saying about us, about being human. There are these phrases — “We are creatures of private convention.” We are creatures “with coasts” — you didn’t say it that way, but — we are creatures with “vital enthusiasms.”
Mr. Cole: “Vital,” or “vinyl”? Both are true, but…
Ms. Tippett: I’m pretty sure you said “vital” with a “t”.
Mr. Cole: Oh, vital. OK, sorry, vital.
Ms. Tippett: “And creatures with touchstones, encounters that form us ever after.” I wonder, if I ask you this very large question, which is definitely a 5,000-word question, but just say, how would you begin to answer it now, this existential question of what does it mean to be human and how — I feel like you’ve been speaking to this, but how, with the life you’ve lived, this moment we’ve arrived at now — how is that evolving for you? How do you begin to answer that now?
Mr. Cole: This is going to be my worst misquotation of the evening. But Toni Morrison talks about — we die, and that may be the — does anybody know it? — that may be the length of our lives or span of our lives; but we do language, and that may be the meaning of our lives — something in that direction. And I think it is somewhere in there. A frank confrontation with the facts is that between two cosmic immensities of time, you are born, you flare up for a moment, and you’re gone. And within two generations, everybody who knew you personally will also be dead. Your name might survive, but who cares? Nobody’s going to remember your little habits or who you were. So one meaning of our lives might be that we die.
But then the other is this other thing that has nothing to do with the noise out there — advertising, arguing on social media, which we all can get tempted into — or even our personal disputes or even our anxieties, even our struggles — but some other thing that is like this undertow that connects us to everyone currently alive and everyone that has lived and everyone that will live. So I think there’s just the stark, existential fact. It’s not fashionable to take up labels or whatever, but on some level, I’m sort of an existentialist. I don’t think it necessarily has a grander meaning. I certainly don’t believe that God has a wonderful plan to make it all OK. I used to. I don’t believe that anymore. You die; I don’t know what happens. I talk to my dead; I don’t know if they’re anywhere. You die, and it hurts people who love you.
But then, the other thing is that if there’s no grander, larger meaning, in real time there does seem to be a grand and large meaning. Right this minute, this does seem to be something that is real, that might not be meaning but comes awfully close to it: to be sitting together in the dark of this political and social moment, to be sitting together in the dark of what it actually means to be a human being, even if this were a euphoric political moment.
So there’s the grim view of, we’re not here for very long, and LOL no one cares, and then there’s the other thing, which is when your favorite song gets to that part that you love, and you just feel something; or when you’ve had a series of crappy meals and then finally, you get a well-spiced, balanced goat biryani — you know, when the spices are really fresh? Black pepper — a lot of people get black pepper wrong. Really fresh black pepper — and you have this moment.
So these moments of pleasure, of epiphany, of focus, of being there, in their instantaneous way can actually feel like a little nudge that’s telling you, “By the way, this is why you’re alive. And this is not going to last, but never mind that for now.” It happens in art, and it happens in friendship, and it happens in food, and it happens in sex, and it happens in a long walk, and it happens in being immersed in a body of water — baptism, once again — and it happens in running and endorphins and all those moments that psychologists describe as “flow.”
But what is interesting about them is that they happen in real time. As Seamus Heaney says, “Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly. You are […] / A hurry through which known and strange things pass.”
You’re just a conduit for that. But if you are paying attention, it’s almost — I’m not sure if it’s enough, but it’s almost enough. I’m certainly glad for it. I’d rather have it than not have it.
What do you think?
Ms. Tippett: Fortunately, I’m on this end of the questions. [laughs] I think that was a tremendous meditation on that question, and I think that somehow we managed to circle back to a third baptism in Kalamazoo. So it’s probably where we should finish.
Mr. Cole: [laughs] All right.
Ms. Tippett: And I’m so happy that you came here tonight.
Mr. Cole: Well, it’s been a pleasure.
Ms. Tippett: We got to be attentive, and I suspect that everyone here will notice, whether it’s ten minutes from now or tomorrow, when they have one of those flow moments and, perhaps, enjoy it for just a second longer. So Teju Cole, thank you so much.
Mr. Cole: Thank you.
[music: “Kagerou Railway” by Hyakkei]
Ms. Tippett: Teju Cole is the photography critic of The New York Times and the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of creative writing at Harvard. His books are Blind Spot, Known and Strange Things, and two novels: Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.