Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Teju Cole and Ralph Ellison's Aesthetics of Invisibility

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Teju Cole and Ralph Ellison's Aesthetics of Invisibility

Article excerpt

Considering "invisibility" as both subject matter and aestheticizing mode of experience, this essay uses the case studies of two American novels--Teju Cole's Open City and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man--to explore how a culturally specific, racially charged subject is mapped outward to occupy a broader aesthetic realm.

In an intriguing chapter that closes the 2008 Companion to Emily Dickinson, noted poet and scholar Joshua Weiner suggests that "when I listen to Thelonious Monk I hear Emily Dickinson; and when I listen to Emily Dickinson I hear Thelonious Monk." Admitting the ahistoricity of his comparative reading of these two radical figures' work, he nonetheless maintains that it is the way that their work brings "empty space--a musical pause or rest that signifies a greater silence--into the very structural principle of their respective art that announces their relation as artistic cousins" (490). Here Weiner implicitly draws a distinction between the different forms of the unspoken and the invisible that Dickinson regularly employed as subject matter (which were often tied to the restrictions of her place and conditions) and the aesthetic strategies that she and Monk both employ to coordinate their work, arguing that these can be understood in commensurate aesthetic terms. This treatment of invisibility, not simply as subject matter, but as a subjective, aestheticizing mode of experience, is precisely our subject here. Like Weiner, moreover, we approach it from an interdisciplinary perspective, using the case studies of two novelists (one African American, the other Nigerian American) and their engagement with other art forms to explore how a culturally specific and racially charged subject is mapped outward to occupy a broader aesthetic realm. Although in both Teju Cole's Open City (2011) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) invisibility is tied to the conditions of being black in the U.S., both authors draw on a Modernist French aesthetic regime to embed invisibility into the structure of their work, drawing analogies with music and photography to expand its implications beyond the act of not being seen.

In an article written for the Guardian in 2011, Cole lists Ellison's Invisible Man as one of his "Top 10 Novels of Solitude," emphasizing the work's relationship to a concept he called "the disregarded." Arguing that the unnamed narrator is "subject to disregard and petty humiliation, not because he is insubstantial but because he is black," Cole suggests that in contemporary American culture, "young African-American men still go about disregarded." His claim that when Ellison's novel "held an unflattering mirror up to American society" its readers "applauded, and looked away" not only staked out a critical stance toward his contemporary society, but tacitly positioned his then recently-published Open City as an ideological successor to Ellison's seminal text of subversive resistance to racial inequity ("Teju"). But while Ellison's critics have freely considered the implications of invisibility as a subject matter, few have looked at the way that contemporary writers like Cole have continued to use invisibility as an aesthetic strategy, drawing on other artistic practices to do so.

This essay poses a reimagining of invisibility through the test cases of Ellison's Invisible Man and Cole's Open City, considering invisibility as an aesthetic that operates formally and experientially. In doing so, we suggest that Cole's novel responds to and portrays the "turning away" he identified in the reception of Invisible Man, particularly through his dramatic reinterpretation of the much-neglected rape scene in Ellison's original. Like Invisible Man, Cole's book engages with the experience of isolation and the feelings of invisibility that weigh on the black subject's navigation of the American city as a cultural, material, and historical space. Both look outside America, moreover, to the tradition of the European avant-garde, to articulate their resistance to this cultural space and develop their hybrid aesthetic strategies: Cole returns to the same cultural archive as Ellison, drawing on Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin's flaneurs and Guy Debord's Surrealistic aesthetic. …

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