Academic journal article ARIEL

Music and Latency in Teju Cole's Open City: Presences of the Past

Academic journal article ARIEL

Music and Latency in Teju Cole's Open City: Presences of the Past

Article excerpt

I. Dissonant Voices in Open City

In Teju Cole's novel Open City--a complex work about migration, transcultural violence, memory, and the arts--the narrator-protagonist, Julius, wanders restlessly through the maze-like streets of New York. Upon the corner of Sixty-sixth Street, he notices signs announcing that the big Tower Records store is "going out of business" (Cole, Open City 16). "[I]ntrigued also by the promise that prices had been slashed," Julius enters the music store and is captivated by the "music playing overhead" (16). Almost against his will, he becomes "rapt" in Gustav Mahler's late symphony Das Lied von der Erde (17), luring him into "the strange hues of its world" (16). In a state of "trance," Julius notes:

On hearing Christa Ludwig's voice, in the second movement, a song about
the loneliness of autumn, I recognized the recording as the famous one
conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964. With that awareness came another:
that all I had to do was bide my time, and wait for the emotional core
of the work, which Mahler had put in the final movement of the
symphony. I sat on one of the hard benches near the listening stations,
and sank into reverie, and followed Mahler through drunkenness,
longing, bombast, youth (with its fading), and beauty (with its
fading). Then came the final movement, "Der Abschied" the Farewell, and
Mahler, where he would ordinarily indicate the tempo, had marked it
schwer, difficult.
The birdsong and beauty, the complaints and high-jinks of the preceding
movements, had all been supplanted by a different mood, a stronger,
surer mood. It was as though the lights had, without warning, come
blazing into my eyes. (17)

Impressing deeply upon Julius' memory, the epic symphony, composed during the most painful period of Mahler's life, becomes a site of "new intensity" (17), of affect and excess, causing a longing to hear more. And yet, though evoking an affective intensity and presence, the translation of music into words also highlights the unbridgeable gap between these modes of signification. While references to music conjure up sounds, tonality, and rhythms, their reliance on words simultaneously underlines the absence of actual music, thus giving way to a multidimensional interplay between presence and absence, fulfilment and loss. Intermedial references to music weave their medial otherness into the text and introduce a number of dissonances that partially suspend and displace the meaning-making mandate of narrative. In contrast to Julius' many explicit meditations on history, which testify to his intellectual mastery, the interplay between the intermedial references that pervade Open City and its plotless narrative structure create a certain "mood" (17), a sense of foreboding and an atmosphere of expectation. This atmosphere gestures toward something beyond Julius' control and existing dominant orders of knowledge and prescriptive normalcy, i.e., something that is there and yet remains latent. Such latent living on--a sur-vivre in the Derridean sense (1)--indexes an intractable persistence, a presence of the past that conjures up alternative, largely forgotten histories that haunt and affect subjects "without warning" (17), as Julius puts it. For immediately after listening to Mahler, Julius connects the music to the workings of memory, admitting that the force of the music escapes his control: "The five-note figure from 'Der Abschied' continued on from where I escaped, playing through with such presence that it was as though I were in the store listening to it.... My memory was overwhelmed. The song followed me home" (17). For Julius, music threatens to overwhelm him and troubles his sense of continuity, causing him to experience a disrupted chronology.

It is this unruly dynamic created by the interplay between words and music, past and present, as well as sameness and difference that this essay is concerned with. Open City, we argue, reconfigures these dichotomies as a disjunctive interplay in which conflicting experiences and dissonant voices are bound together to create frequently uncanny echoes and unpredictable resonances. …

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