When expressing his skepticism about the power of an image depicting pain to change politics or the idea that “literature inspires empathy,” Cole channels many jaded journalists. And yet, he writes, it is true that sometimes a lot worse than taking a picture is not taking it, or not being allowed to take it, and sometimes the horror has to be watched. Along with Caravaggio’s masterful depictions of gruesome scenes, Cole examines a video captured in a Libyan slave market. As he writes in a fragmentary essay on Syria (its atrocities and its art), “I need to understand what I am sad about, not in the hope of erasing the sadness, but in the hope. to attenuate it ”. Maybe the point is, we should look at documentary evidence the same way we look at paintings – for meaning, not information. “When you look at a field,” he notes, “someone can still walk across that field. A painting, on the other hand, is settled. He is there to be watched. It calms the frenzy of the human heart.
The photographs nevertheless offer Cole a chance to move slightly through his forms and themes, as in an “incantation” on the photographer Marie Cosindas, whose cluttered, warm-colored compositions, according to Cole, are “like watching a single sentence unfold over multiple pages, driven by an invisible inner coherence.” The entire six-page essay is one such sentence. “Shattered Glass” begins with the image of holes made in the windows of the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay resort by a mass shooter in 2017 and winds through the history of glass in photographic technique – today, “the cell phone is kind of a window, and it’s always about to break.
This Cole’s collection is rawer and more personal than any that came before—Blind spot and Known and Strange Things– superimposing as he does his artistic essays with tributes to lost friends and an analysis of his own 2012 novel, Open city. There are times when the self-quote starts to feel complacent or when the intellectual swings into the plain pretentious (as with his studious avoidance of naming “the president who tweets”). “The conversations between the characters are going well; the countesses must, I suppose, sweep in the rooms, as they do in some novels. But the secret reason I read, “Cole confesses,” the only reason I read is precisely for those times when the story being told is so awake in the world. I admit sharing his preference for novels that feature disturbing encounters with the landscape or art rather than the countesses, but I’m still relieved when he shows a little humor. (Looking at old paintings, he writes, “can sometimes feel like an entertaining or irritating walk among white ancestors.”)