Beyond the Grave

Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time BY Teju Cole. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 288 pages. $23.
The cover of Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time

A couple of hours from Beirut, if you’re fortunate with the traffic, you come within touching distance of the Syrian border. A course northward of that brings you through the Beqaa Valley and into Baalbek. We clambered through the palimpsest of ruins in Baalbek—the Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim ruins—and, wary of the proximity to the hot war just a few miles away, wondered if this is how people get kidnapped. That evening, coming back from the ruins, we thought we’d stop in Broummana, and see Edward Said’s grave.

Literature is haunted by gravesite pilgrimages. The acolyte seeks blessings. But are these visits also apologies of a sort? Apologies for having been born too late? Every visit to a gravesite is an act of regret: regret for imperfect reading, regret for writing imperfectly in the wake, for being unable to repair the tear in the fabric of experience. But I was to have another regret, for our driver advised against a detour that night. It was late and he could not be sure of the roads. We returned to the city, and I never had the opportunity to go back to Broummana. And yet, for the remainder of my time in Beirut, each time I passed by the building in Hamra that had been pointed out to me as the Said family home, I felt my heart race.

Edward Said loved music, and I loved his love of music as well as the musicality that characterized everything he did. Because of his writings on late style, I think of him in connection with Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15, op. 132. This was Beethoven’s thirteenth quartet, but the fifteenth in order of publication. It’s the kind of work that tempts one to agree with the strange notion that there is such a thing as pure music, music better than any possible performance. This is a romantic idea, and it’s probably not true, since music exists in the hearing, not on the page. But listening to Beethoven’s Op. 132, you can see why people think so. Within the written tradition of Western classical music, as in all genres of music, there is music that exhausts superlatives. Late Beethoven emerges coherently out of mature Beethoven, and mature Beethoven is an extension and fulfillment of early Beethoven. These are major shifts and distinct modes of evolution, but they are not radical breaks.

Said tells the story of meeting up with his friend Hanna Mikhail, whose nom de guerre was Abu Omar. This was in Beirut one night in 1972. Abu Omar had received his PhD in political theory at Harvard at the same time Said had gotten his in comparative literature there. In 1976, by that time long physically engaged in the struggle, and very much admired for his tremendous courage, Abu Omar disappeared with a number of others in a small boat in the waters off the Lebanese coast. No one ever knew what happened to them. But that earlier night in Beirut in 1972, as Said recounts it, Abu Omar showed up. In his company was none other than Jean Genet. The two men arrived at 10 p.m. The conversations lasted well into the night, until 3 a.m.

The story of Said, Jean Genet, and Abu Omar sparks a pang of recognition in me. I am reminded of many late nights in Hamra with friends and recent acquaintances, over God knows how many bottles of arak, when we would discourse late into the night—Marxists, Marxians, Greens, anarchists—with an intensity I have never seen matched elsewhere. I am talking of professors and graduate students and bar owners and autodidacts, all of whom seemed to have a powerful notion of how much was at stake in our discussions, many of whom were younger than me, and all of whom had read much more than I had. The next morning, some would hurry away to go and read more and prepare themselves for the next night’s discussion at one or another of the apartments we frequented, or at Mezyan, where everyone felt at home, and even the nonsmokers hung out outside so that nothing would be missed. And then there would be live bands, and the solitary walks home at 3 in the morning, in the safest nighttime streets I’ve ever known. I am so grateful for how relentless those engagements were, and the indefatigable energy of my companions, who made my three weeks in Beirut feel like three months.

My Beirut friends were radical in the most beautiful sense. Said writes that “lateness . . . is a kind of self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it, and surviving beyond it.” The old-fashioned political commitment and fearlessness I found in Beirut changed me. It was a kind of lateness, a kind of survival past the indifference that characterizes so much of American life. We thought about and talked about many things: what it meant to be both stateless and homeless, and what it meant to do right by those who were in that condition. We talked about how greed and profit drove human misery, and how pernicious remained the idea that certain races were superior to others.

At the heart of Op. 132 lies a slow movement, molto adagio, which, in performance, can range from fifteen to close to twenty minutes. What matters is not the length but figuring out how to maintain and control the tension. The subtitle of that slow movement is: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart, “Hymn of Thanksgiving to God of an invalid on his convalescence, in the Lydian mode.” This movement, with writing of stupendous and aching beauty, finally delivers what we had been seeking in the earlier movements: organic unity. Slow sections, of which there are three, all similar, alternate with fast sections. The slow sections of this middle movement are in two parts: an overlapping motif in the instruments and a profound and simple chorale. It is this chorale, with its intense light, that will never leave the listener, a light like that of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon. / And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier . . .” The fast sections, marked Neue Kraft fühlend, are meant to suggest the feeling of strength coming back into the body. Beethoven brings us into a realm of fluctuations, with two positive feelings: serenity alternating with vitality.

“Late” suggests two different ways of being off: to be before one’s time is the more common, but to be after one’s time, to be born too late, is equally poignant. When we consider the two in tandem, when we consider how Beethoven strikes us as inexpressibly old and also mysteriously well ahead of us, we come to the idea that he has somehow managed to elude time, that he is neither early nor late, that he is beyond time.

In my novel Open City, near the end of the winding conversation between the narrator Julius and a secondary character named Farouq, the latter gives an account of his stalled education at a Belgian university and the reason for his anger. He says: “I had applied to do an MA in Critical Theory because the department here was known for that. That was my dream, the way young people can have very precise dreams: I wanted to be the next Edward Said! And I was going to do it by studying comparative literature and using it as the basis for societal critique.”

I think back to where my mind was when I wrote this passage. “I wanted to be the next Edward Said!” Where had that come from? I hadn’t given the line to my difficult and occasionally unlikable narrator. I had given it to Farouq, a young man with whom I felt more sympathetic. So, was it that I wanted to be the next Edward Said myself? After all, in those years, in 2006 and 2007, I was in graduate school working on a PhD in art history, in the very university where Said had until recently been the star professor. But I don’t think it was quite that simple. Writing fiction often contains an element of self-hypnosis, of flying in the dark. I already had intimations that the very book into which I was writing those words would be the book that led me out of academia. What I wanted to set down was the idea that Edward Said—what he wrote and who he was—was a kind of navigational help, an air traffic control tower for so many of us of so many different origins, talents, and ambitions. We were not supposed to become him, any more than he could have become the next Adorno or Benjamin. The ideal was to be in communication with his intuitions, and through them find our own way through the night.

In Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang, the use of the Lydian mode, an ancient mode, suggests something exotic, devotional, and mystically religious. Near the end of the movement is an instruction to play “with the most intimate emotions.” In those final measures, you almost feel your soul rising out of you, separating itself from the body. The chorale builds and builds, and it is as though the prismatic colored lights you have been watching for a quarter of an hour merge of their own accord into a glare, into a blinding brightness, and then slowly dim in intensity. The effect is shattering.

Reprinted with permission from Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time by Teju Cole, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by Teju Cole. All rights reserved.