Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Teju Cole's Open City

Teju Cole's Open City is one of the most effective examinations of privilege that I have ever read.

Some reviews take the title of the book to refer to New York City.  For instance, James Wood's review in the New Yorker describes New York as open, "but perhaps only in a negative way:  full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another."

To me, this reading of the title seems overly generic and literal.  It is like using "fellow traveler" to mean a traveling companion—that's not wrong exactly, but it misses quite a lot.  To be precise, an open city is a city that announces that it will not resist an invading army, in the hope that the army will spare it.  Brussels is the literal open city of Cole's book, having yielded to its Nazi occupiers without a struggle.

If Brussels was an open city, Stalingrad was the opposite, and their divergent fates illustrate what is for me the key theme of Open City:  privilege that consists of ignoring the moral demands that the world would otherwise impose on you.  The ability to abstain from the struggle, the ability to remain aloof.  Brussels made its compromise with evil and gave the Nazis little trouble.  Stalingrad fucking bled them.  But Brussels preserved itself, keeping its pleasant medieval buildings and streets intact, while Stalingrad was utterly destroyed.

To Brussels, the war was something that largely happened somewhere else, in cities like Rotterdam and London, Dresden and Tokyo. Being an open city meant not having to think about tragic choices like the British decision to destroy the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, or for that matter Churchill's decision to wage total war on the Nazi regime, a decision which entailed losing the British Empire.

And as the narrator of Open City suggests, there is something a little insane about going the way of Stalingrad.  Amsterdam will always be considered a greater city than Rotterdam, partly because it acquiesced in evil.  So wasn't that the healthy choice?  And how often must Amsterdam even consider whether it did the right thing?  Open City reminds us of the disturbing fact that one of the features of privilege is that it is not required to recognize itself.  To a large degree, privilege consists of things that don't happen to you, choices that never present themselves, facts that don't seep into your awareness.  Not only will the privileged be spared the horrors of war, they will not even have to confront their own abdication.

It's a disgusting lesson, so Open City is not always an enjoyable book to read.  But in a way it is its own antidote:  it sheds light on privilege, stripping from it that character of self-ignorance that is so repugnant.

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