Teju Cole Reminds Us of Life Beyond Politics, and the Beauty of Art
Adam Fitzgerald in Conversation with One of Our Great Essayists
As America chooses its next president today, and we contemplate the end of an awful and grueling two-year campaign season, it is perhaps worth trying to remember that there is life outside and beyond the partisan rancor that has consumed so much of our daily lives. While it is perhaps foolish (and morally dubious) to consider art outside of politics, this conversation between novelist and essayist Teju Cole and poet Adam Fitzgerald, which took place earlier this fall, reminds us how expansive the world can be.
Adam Fitzgerald: What’s immediately striking about your recent collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, is the fluency in traditions and identities both your own and not your own. Can you speak to me a little about how you layer those selves and histories as a writer? This voice in this book is distinctly that of a black writer, also an African one.
Teju Cole: I get different things from being an American, from being Nigerian, from being Yoruba. For example, there are forms of argument present in the Anglo-American legal tradition that are more helpful to me than traditional Yoruba jurisprudence. In the latter, my rights as a community member are defended but not always my rights as an individual. I can’t look into Yoruba history and say “Oh, we have a free speech tradition.” We have an egalitarian tradition, by the way, but not a free speech tradition. And that’s very important to me. Being here helps me understand that I’m African in specific ways that are invaluable to me. But it also helps me understand that I’m an American in ways that I’m eager to preserve.
Some Nigerian government official this weekend said, “We believe in free speech, but that doesn’t mean you can insult the country.” Well, actually, that’s what free speech means. It means that I cannot do you active harm but I can certainly insult you. But then again this is a worldwide argument, not only Nigerian government officials are confused about this. It is a very interesting thing where you’re actually learning from as many different sources as you can. America has contributed so much to feminism, and yet its feminist commitments are, to say the least, far from being complete. Rape culture is rampant, people are afraid of having women leaders, any authoritative woman is immediately described as “bitch,” all this stuff. And, meanwhile, Yoruba society—in which wives are generally expected to cook and raise the kids—is very seriously egalitarian. Yoruba women are the most confident women I’ve ever met. Certainly far more than American women. Because not only do they not worry about what you think of their appearance, they actually know they have a kind of active power over you.
AF: In taking from so many different intellectual and cultural traditions, are there any anxieties to make them fit together, to speak to one another?
TC: Anxieties, no—but I do try to strengthen whatever I’ve learned there with what I have learned and am learning here. I try to hold on, as we all do, to the idea that when we say that diversity makes this country stronger, we’re not talking about skin color, merely, but the diversity of experiences. What’s so worrisome about Trump is his attempt to foreclose those possibilities of discourse. It’s racism, but it’s also actually a narrowing of pretty sophisticated insights that we’ve been collectively working on for quite a long time.
Take the possible bases of civic disagreement, for example. We don’t eject people from rallies for disagreeing. That is such a fundamental thing that we defend here. What does our disagreement look like? Well, according to this dude… And this is why I think that the ways in which our politics is sliding toward certain forms of illiberalism, regarding speech, is very worrisome. Not talking about Trump now. I’m talking about surveillance: the way Snowden is being treated, the way that revelations about government spying are essentially met with a shrug. I thought the Snowden revelations were very deeply consequential, and people were like “Eh… you know. It’s Obama. He’s not gonna do anything bad with it.” This fundamental undermining of what it’s fair to call a sacred principle: it would be easy to say that in the wrong hands, the effect could be devastating. But what I actually want to say is that there’s no such thing as the right hands. This current administration was very aggressive against whistleblowers, and that is just fundamentally bad. Because, again, our freedom of speech is a central element in our social contract. To be able to speak the truth without fear of persecution (disapproval, sure, because that’s also part of free speech; but not persecution) is actually what we most want to defend in this space. Anyway, that’s how you go about building an ethical self: you take what works here, you take what works there that we don’t have here, and you try to build a progressive community around those agreements.
AF: By temperament, I also want to think of free speech as this fundamentally sacred and universal thing. At the same time, I’m aware how often in the last couple of years, most acutely, too many self-described progressive voices—in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, the Times, elsewhere—have used the fear of censorship to shut down or put in check another generation’s emergent activism and ethos, like the protests on college campuses and elsewhere, not to mention inane animosity toward Black Lives Matter among other social movements distinctly 21st century.
TC: Right, a tendency to mock the “new progressives.”
AF: For instance, the banner of free speech is made to say, “You don’t get to change the name of this building” or “You don’t get to pushback about the coverage of rape culture.” So there seems to be this—and nobody, sanely, I bet, would say there’s one answer to this—reevaluating of certain fundamentals and the contexts in which they’re applied given certain power dynamics. Is that a tension you wrestle with?
TC: You’ve put it well. It’s genuinely complicated. Folks like David Brooks, who maybe think it’s simple, are the ones penning these op-eds that talk down to activists, so a good daily principle to adopt is: “I don’t give a fuck what David Brooks thinks.” Where he’s coming from—the world he wants to see come into being—is so protective of him and his own priorities and his own little circle that it’s of fairly limited help for many of us. And yet, the free speech thing, which as I’ve said is a real commitment for me, sometimes puts me at odds with my friends, who tend to be much more situational about it than I am. And there are strangers who, because of certain positions I’ve taken on certain things, even assume that I’m Muslim.
But, like what I said earlier about the legal tradition that we are working on in this country: one of the things that I value about it is that it allows us to parse things very finely. It is legal to say “nigger” in the US, even though it was a term that bore the threat of murder. That’s what that word meant. It meant: “Your life is in my control. If I kill you nothing’s gonna happen to me, because you’re less than human.” And the archives are full of instances of the murder of black people that were not accounted crimes because, de facto and sometimes de jure, they were not crimes. So that’s the historical antecedent of that word. But the word is legal, even today. You can’t arrest me, while walking down the street, for saying that word. But if you’re part of my community and you say that word, you can get sanctioned for it, because communities have norms. You have the right to say it, and you have the right to–
AF: –accept the consequences?
TC: Yes, if we are at university in New York, and you decide that you want to go around saying the n-word or you that want to call your professor a cunt, actually, you have the right to do that. And the university, as a community with norms, has the right to sanction you. So, free speech is different from mindless neutrality. There have to be arenas in which these things can be thrashed out, argued out. This is to talk about stuff that is well within the law: the right to protest, the right to be disagreeable. Each society, and each sub-division of society, has to figure out what its own norms are about what it wants to do. But then, to complicate matters, we can talk about the further ethical responsibility, under certain conditions, to defy the rules. Contravening norms or even breaking the law is sometimes the right thing to do.
Everybody we admire contravenes norms and breaks the law. Our rules are already very robust and capacious, so that even our adversaries don’t understand how those rules work. I can go to a protest march and shout slogans in a cop’s face. You know? That’s my right, one that there might be just situations to assert, because people are dying. But even beyond that, there are gonna be people who are gonna do things that are actually illegal. It’s often said that the riot is “the protest of the unheard,” and there’s more than a smidge of truth in it.
AF: Yes, Martin Luther King. A quote that white liberals like myself don’t like to remember.
TC: Extremely uncomfortable! Listen, do you know how many people died after Rodney King?
Everybody forgets: many people died. It was a nasty time. But our society as a whole does not disavow violence—what we have is a selective disavowal of the violence when it is wielded by the oppressed. This is more than hypocritical; in fact it is vaguely nonsensical. Violence cannot only be sanctioned and legit when it is the state that is wielding it. So, that’s where I come down to on that. My general tendency is to say, “The kids are alright. It’s gonna be uncomfortable for a bit, but Yale is gonna be fine.” I remember being at Yale last year and being unnerved by this tradition of theirs of calling the heads of the residential colleges “master.” You can’t go through life pretending that we’re not living in the aftermath of horror. Slavery built the country, and had no small role in the life and prosperity of that college up in New Haven. And then you want your undergrads to come in there and call people “master”? It’s only right that protests ensue.
Unfortunately what triggers this stuff can—from the objective, bespectacled, editor-in-chief position—look infantile or like bullshit. It looks like the kids cannot deal with any form of difference. It’s easy to make fun of them as Internet Social Justice Warriors. But let’s not get distracted by what triggers the protests in any particular case. What are the underlying issues? One is that black people can’t get a mortgage in this country. But that awful fact by itself doesn’t spontaneously generate protests, so we have to use what we can for leverage. Remember, Al Capone was done on tax evasion. This is the civil rights equivalent of that. You’re gonna look for those particular forms of disrespect that allow you to kick down the door, and then talk about the wider issue. The kids at Yale don’t give a shit about Halloween. They’re just saying, “We’ve been here for four years and we can’t breathe. And there’s nothing we can do to make you even consider that, because you’re comfortable in your faux-medieval colleges, you’re happy in your bowties.”
AF: Talk to me about James Baldwin, perhaps our greatest American essayist. Your whole collection opens with him: one knows it’s a crucial framing.
TC: Baldwin was black. Baldwin was queer. He grew up poor. Look at what he did with that much disregard. He used all that hurt to find for us the words we need. That’s why we’re talking about him now.
AF: In re-tracing cross-Atlantic travel as well as topics from institutionality and literature to the body, I was wondering in some symbolic literary way were you consciously trying to reckon with his work or shadow at the onset? At the same time, what’s amazing is when you write: “I’m not an interloper. I care more about Rembrandt than most white people do” which directly contradicts the observations of Baldwin in “Stranger in the Village.”
TC: Filiation. Who’s who’s son? I wanted to think about influence. But that particular section was also my way of touching on something that people don’t deal with, which is that James Baldwin is a secular saint. Ya’ll didn’t always think that though. I’m talking to white people and black people. James Baldwin was deeply unpopular. This dude had to leave the US. People thought he was kind of interesting in the 1950s and 60s. But in the 1970s nobody fucked with him. No one. He was a voice in the wilderness. So, I had to retain that passage about a mild disagreement with Baldwin because I have to be true to my reading. People have given me shit about that particular though. I heard something like: “If you don’t feel any racial anxiety when you look at a Titian, that means you don’t understand the nature of Black pain.” Spare me. You know? Give me a fucking break.
But there’s also the danger of plucking a single line from a four-hundred page argument and waving it above your head like a flag that vindicates your suspicions. My book has many focal points, but in essays like “A True Picture of Black Skin,” “Death in the Browser Tab,” “The Rewrite,” or “In Alabama,” in addition to the Baldwin essays, I actually think through some of the complexities of being this race and having this American citizenship. Disagreement is important, but I don’t want to fetishize disagreement. What we have to do is be honest about who we are and where we are. What’s interesting about Baldwin is not how closely his positions track to what is now considered “woke.” What’s interesting about him is his ability to read what was going on in his time, and his honesty in conveying that as filtered through his subjectivity. Some of the militant brothers had a huge issue with him. They thought he was sold out to whitey. They were like, “He writes for the New Yorker, he’s fucking white boys, he lives in France—he has nothing to say to brothers in the ghetto.” So Baldwin’s saying, “Violence is not going to save us,” and the militants are like, “Fuck you; because you don’t know what we’re going through.” He was very unpopular for that. But we’ve lost him a bit I feel, since his complexity was the very point. Now he has become little more than the go-to place for good quotes.
AF: And he has a lot of them!
TC: He has a lot of things that are just so accurate to where we are, but I always want to think about his unpopularity. Why was he so unpopular then? And why is he so popular now?
AF: Is that, in a way, due to his contrarian stance? The constant, almost existential way in which when he feels free to dissent with his elders—whether Ellison or Wright—while also honoring a specific lineage in order to clarify his own stance?
TC: And he was actually kind of tough on those guys, on Richard Wright in particular. In any case Baldwin’s safely dead now. Black and queer and eloquent and dead. What’s not to like? He can’t talk back. I wonder if there’s any contemporary analogues. The way we would look at Code Pink now. They’re such a pain in the butt, but they’re doing the work! And it’s very uncomfortable, because it’s much, much easier for people to be “woke” in a comfortable way. But people who are actually going to put themselves on the line and risk the displeasure, even of their own political allies: that is actually work thinking about. It’s only with historical distance that radicals become palatable. Even people in our government now say, “Oh, our heroes are Harriet Tubman.” It would actually be a good question to ask our current government and the people who head it—like Obama, Biden, Hillary Clinton, and so on—to ask, “Who are your American heroes?” They’ll give a list; and I promise you, all the people they name will be people who broke the law. So a good follow up question would be “What laws do you think it would be ok to break, right now, in pursuit of justice and civil rights?” And of course their answer, implicitly or explicitly, will be: “None of them.” Which means that they fundamentally misunderstand the principle by which all their alleged heroes were formed. Either that, or they’re childish enough to believe that all the battles have been won. Having said all that, shall we just knock on wood and hope that, as a final act, President Obama pardons Snowden?
AF: I don’t have much faith in that.
TC: What about Chelsea Manning?
AF: I have to say, of the two, that would be much more profoundly moving and radical a pardon. While Snowden is in Russia, with his wife, relatively speaking, he’s survived. Chelsea Manning is a trans woman imprisoned in a federal complex.
AF: Yes, wasting away. It’s unfathomable the cruelty. Do you think there’s any chance of something like that happening?
TC: They have given no hint; he has given no hint, but there was almost something I heard in Eric Holder’s admitting that Eric Snowden had done a service. You know how Holder’s position keeps softening?
AF: Followed by the turret-turning of “but…” As in, “that’s why we want you to come back here and be dealt with legally.”
TC: Right, there’s still that. But yeah, they don’t want to deal with the Manning thing. And it probably won’t happen, just because the false god to which we sacrifice our children is militarism. That’s the American cult. So he probably wouldn’t want to annoy the military.
AF: I wanted to ask you about the way in which you rescue Western art from simply being merely associated with, or unconsciously re-inscribed by, imperialist ideology, canon-formation and the like. In the same spirit where you claim Bach and Rembrandt as belonging to you more than hypothetical white people, contra Baldwin, you also triangulate Bessie Smith into the conversation. Clearly, these figures aren’t all taught as the ground-shifting geniuses they are, but that won’t stop you from pairing them.
TC: Precisely, and I enjoy both of them. I enjoy both of them. Ella more than Bessie, Brahms more than Bach. But you get the principle.
AF: So can artwork be removed from the cultural forms of oppression it’s linked to?
TC: I think maybe sometimes it can. Very late on in his life Schubert is writing “D 960,” the last sonata he writes, dying too young. He’s 31. Jesus. I mean, that’s incredible. And this is very, very good music. It flows, it has so much variety of feeling in it. The weirdest thing is those last two movements, which are actually quite happy and jolly—and they’re amazing! After this huge first movement and the huge second movement. It doesn’t get much deeper than that until Mahler. They’re amazing. And then this rush of joy in the last two movements.
AF: The joy of that music is unassailable.
TC: Absolutely! Because he just tells you that, “You know what, that’s also part of it. Light comes through the window; what are you gonna do?” Fine, the music is great. Now, do you know, what did Schubert thinks of Jews?
AF: You know, I don’t know.
TC: You’re afraid I’m gonna tell you something that’s gonna break your heart. But you know what? I have no idea. It’s actually a historical question. I don’t know what he thought of Africans. I have no reason to think he was significantly out of step with his contemporaries. I don’t even know what he thought of women and their roles, or their relative intelligence to men. He was possibly queer; it’s not unlikely. What’d he think about the assertion of state powers over individuals? What’d he think of democracy vs. monarchy? What was his view on Napoleon? Some of those things we can find out, some of them we cannot.
AF: Important, not important?
TC: It’s not one single answer. In the case of Schubert, I don’t give a shit. I like Degas a lot, and when I think about the fact that he was kind of an anti-semite, it bothers me. It bothers me that Picasso was such an enthusiastic misogynist; I still look at his stuff, but his personality does spoil it for me a bit. But then there are those cases where you give absolutely no quarter. Just this morning I was thinking, is there a white actor voice that whispers to itself: “It’s a Woody Allen movie, but I can’t pass up the chance”? Is there like a thing that goes through their head? Because why is he still making movies? Why are they all still doing the movie with him? Maybe it matters if the person is still alive, and is an unreconstructed asshole. Maybe what matters is if the person is significantly out of step with their contemporaries.
But let me make my own personal argument in defence of making art: I don’t even know who fashioned this particular phrase or idea, but there’s this idea that we do war so that our children will do commerce so that their children will be poets. Well, Adam, I’m not doing war, and I’m not gonna waste my life with commerce. Whether or not it’s financially viable for me, I want my goal of civilization to be as follows: to do the work, to pay attention to what’s beautiful, to encourage others in that form of attention as well. That’s where I want to be. And I will listen to Bismillah Khan and I will listen to Young Thug. Deferring one’s pleasure because of other peoples’ anxieties seems kind of weird to me.
AF: There’s a complex moment in the book where you deal with that, at the end of one of your Naipaul essays. You write that he’s overly fond of the n-word, that he’s aggressive towards Africans, brutal to women, but here he is this old man getting up to go and you feel for him. And even in your toast to him, which you recount, earlier in the evening, you’re saying, “Listen, I strongly disagree with some of your positions, but at the same time I’m acknowledging my debt to you as another postcolonial writer, and I love your work.” And obviously his ingenuity as a stylist of the English sentence is one of his incomparable gifts. In 2016, our ability to hold these simultaneities and dissonances as readers, as intellectuals, as writers, is as charged and problematized and unresolved as, in some ways, as our political rhetoric across media.
TC: That’s right. We can do better than that, but neither can we invigilate every artistic encounter for its level of wokeness. We have to be in the muck of the world. What was important for me was to include both of those Naipaul pieces. One about the man and the other about the work. I wrote the first one; he read it. He and his wife read it, and then they asked me to do the intro for A House for Mister Biswas. I mean, whatever weird complicated thing is happening with that invitation from them, it is important that both pieces be in the book. What I don’t like is when people have some kind of innocence about the lives of artists. Like, “Oh, everything is fine.” I don’t know about Schubert and his views on all of that, but we know that J.S. Bach had an anti-Semitism that was very much in-keeping with his time—they were Lutheran and the view was pretty much, “The Jews killed Jesus,” and many of the masses are full of that prejudice, and I actually can hardly listen to them for that reason. But just to admit the complexity of the things that are going on…
AF: So, engage and embrace the complexity? I’m nodding internally but then again wondering that there must be artists I’m assuming you decline to tolerate, to accept their dissonances.
TC: That’s right. Part of it is that there are some things that you don’t allow to really develop into a passion or appreciation. But you can’t determine that for anyone else. I don’t really fuck with Wagner. I just do not. Or Paul de Man, or Heidegger. If I was not already there, I’m not necessarily going to seek it out and try to invest it in it. If it’s already atmospheric in the way that I’m there, it will be much loved but not a favorite. I think a part of my very strong attraction to Beethoven and Brahms—Brahms is my favorite composer, Beethoven is the next—has to do with the fact that at this period, early 19th century for Beethoven and late 19th century for Brahms, they were avowedly secular. They both had this sense of humane philosophy. I mean, Beethoven was a total weirdo about that. But this thing about equality, about brotherhood, about: “The only god we need is human fellowship.” Because I fundamentally agree with him it also makes his music that much more audible to me than, say, someone like Bach who is as technically ferocious a composer, certainly as moving in certain pieces, and yet who cannot be the one who has my deepest heart because, philosophically, there’s that distance. When you take someone like Brahms who, to the extent that I know anything about his thinking, he’s a place to come to rest. Not that everything is politically right but that there’s broad agreement of temperament, allowing for historical differences.
I think about Virginia Woolf who projected this sense of embracing human variety—this is separate from the technical skills, the things she’s doing in Mrs. Dalloway or The Waves with stream-of-consciousness. That emotional range, I’m talking about the range of her sympathy, makes her much more valuable to me than Henry James, who’s also doing interesting things technically, a little more conservative, but technically incredible.
AF: Ah, I’m a Jamesian! My favorite stylist for the loose and baggy novel-monster.
TC: The dude was a master, and his repressed sexuality is very interesting. I don’t necessarily view it as a negative, because he still gets it in there; but the fact that there’s so much class hatred in his work, for me he can’t compete with Woolf (who’s also class-bound in her own way, but is freer) and certainly not with Joyce, who sees the world in a range that I would much more willingly embrace. Shakespeare is more interesting than Milton, and not only in technical terms. He’s more interesting in terms of who he lets in, which is pretty much everybody. And he gives them all good lines.
AF: I want to talk to you about the form, process and length of these essays. In your piece on Henri Cartier-Bresson, you question whether the translation should be of one his works “The Decisive Moment” or “Taken on the Sly”? This seems to me very relevant to your own tact and approach. Again, concerning the power of photography, you write in “Google’s Macchia” about how the concept of macchia almost demands a kind of keeping to the honesty of a tremendously quick impression, even though I sense just how formed and meticulous your prose must be.
TC: And yet there’s a lot of information in that quick impression. That’s a very nice analogy to use, or a very nice metaphor. And it absolutely hits the mark. I was resistant to writing longer essays because I wanted to write relatively short essays that were highly compressed. I think that going from a 1,500-word essay that really works to a 4,500-word essay that really works is not three times the difficulty. It’s exponential. So that a typical 1,500-word essay, which is about three or four pages, would take me two weeks to write.
Forty-five hundred or five thousand words, like the Baldwin essay or like another essay in the book, the one titled “Far Away from Here,” would take two months. With the Baldwin essay, it was actually three months, and it went through 12 very intense drafts. I had to start the book with it actually, because it damn near killed me. Every sentence had to be worked; and the rhythmic balance of the entire piece had to be stress-tested, and it had to satisfy the demands of narrative flow too. I generally do not have that kind of patience; it actually exhausts me. Open City came—though it was written over years—much more out of the flow of being in Julius’s space and letting it out like that—finding out what belonged in the book, this kind of assortment, and, course, then the edits. Maybe five or six edits. But an essay’s a different animal. On a page-by-page level, Open City was not as difficult as that. But essays, for me, are super ferocious. Each one had to be very finely wrought; and the longer essays were exponentially harder. So that’s part of the reason I don’t do too many of them, yes, I like a compressed impression, but also I’m simply lazy.
AF: I don’t think it’s lazy!
TC: Well, it’s lazy. I mean, I don’t want to be like Ben Carson in being like, “I would have gotten into West Point.” But I do have the impression that, if I were less averse to work, I could be on staff somewhere, just doing a few long stories each year, like a responsible adult.
AF: And you’re not tempted?
TC: Well it’s two things. Like I said, too lazy to actually just devote my entire work year to five long pieces since each one takes two months to write. It’s very hard. But let me clarify, though, the essays in this book are not “takes.” That’s the difference. They are essays, but short. I cannot write a 1,200-word essay if I don’t have three different things I want to bring into the same room for the first time. Even a 1,200-word essay is going to have that. And the pleasure of the short form—and that brings us all the way back around to Twitter—is answering the question, “Within this small space, what can you make flow”? It is an interesting technical challenge for me. Also, what is the ethical responsibility inside the agora. This is where people are, how can I speak to people in here? And relatively short pieces seem like one way of doing that. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I admire Kazuo Ishiguro, who disappears from our lives and only shows up once every five years. And so far what does he have, only the seven novels or something?
AF: Remains of the Day is just the most amazing thing.
TC: It is amazing, and many of those books are similar books but they’re all like, “Yeah man. You went, you did five years.” An Artist of the Frozen World is also kind of great. But, you know, that’s one approach. But then the other approach is you find tha inner John Cage, which is that being an artist and being a person are not things that you shelve into different categories.
[…] I think about this line that comes from Beckett and Camus and Coetzee which is, “What is the role of seriousness, what do we do with the writer who refuses to tap dance, the one who refuses to entertain?” What is the valence of that? In “Black Body,” which is not only about Baldwin but is also an homage to Baldwin stylistically, I do what Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts calls “the Jimmy” in the middle of it. There is an approach that Baldwin always takes, where he’s very directly appealing to your conscience by using his extremely jazzy eloquence to move you, and he does it by zooming out unexpectedly. I like it. But I’m not always there. There’s something else I tend to be much more interested in, which is: what does it mean for a black writer to be dry, to be severe? This is the sense in which I’m not at all like Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom otherwise I very much admire and respect. I’m interested in what dryness can look like artistically, and then how that get’s read—culturally, racially. It’s Glissant’s “opacity.” It’s Miles Davis playing with his back to the audience. It’s one of the things I like about Claudia Rankine: she can be very beady-eyed, and I really like the way that self-containment, how it crackles, the ironic charge of it.
AF: Is it related to her absolute ingenuity of writing with the subtlest flat affect?
TC: Absolutely. If you’re not really there with me, section two of this book can be hard, the photography essays. I get my Sontag on. I’m not appealing to you emotionally, I’m just thinking through a space. I very much like reading Geoff Dyer and Julian Barnes, who are two of the best critics in the art game. I’m not really trying to be them, though. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it by being embodied, being subjective, and at the same time saying, “I’m gonna be humane, but I don’t really need to be your best friend.” Because that’s the kind of respect that I want you to bring to the material. And I also want to say, “Trust me, you’ll also feel better about it, because I’m not entertaining you. Maybe we can arrive at a place together.” In person I’m not really an introvert, as you can see. I’m an extrovert, I’m a bit talky. But I always remember being in social situations where I feel an immediate attraction to the introvert in the room. The nicest, nicest compliment anyone ever gave me was, “I like you because I don’t feel like you’re trying to impress me.” Again, I love Dyer’s writing, and Barnes’s. God help me write that finely someday. But they’re British and, as Dyer rightly observed, a lot of British life is propelled by class distinction, and even class hostility. And so there’s a lot of class signaling that goes on. If they’re charming, there’s a class thing there.
AF: In the way of like, “charmed” is charged.
TC: Yes. In lots of canonical writing, the mode is: “People like us think this way.” I’m always curious: what constitutes this “us”? Who are “people like us”? We who? But that’s a clever question with a difficult answer, because you then have to decide whether to make the in-group very capacious and flexible, or to do away with the whole concept of in-group. And neither is easy to do. But the old way isn’t really working either, is it?