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The Ethics of Trauma

The nation is a specter that always returns, haunting the global with images of bounded space and historical ties of origins and becoming, unsettling the desire to imagine a world only of flow (Dalley 2013: 32).

The return of a female acquaintance from Nigeria, Moji, is the sole event which forces Julius to question his ethical engagement with others. Moji claims that years previously Julius raped her at a party and refused to acknowledge her presence in the aftermath. Disturbingly, the accusation fails to register in Julius’s memory: he ‘knew nothing about it, had even forgotten her, to the point ofnot recognizing her when [they] met again’; Moji’s painful recollections reveal that Julius has remained ‘ever-present in her life, like a stain or a scar’ and caused her ‘extended agonies, for almost every day of her adult life’ (244). Rather than demonstrating any remorse, Julius merely contemplates an old anecdote regarding Nietzsche, retaining an affective distance from the accusation of rape. The question of rape serves to accentuate the absence of Julius’s empathetic subjectivity throughout the narrative, and validates Moji’s claim that Julius had remained callous and indifferent to human suffering. Following the revelation, it is possible to position Julius’s psychological detachment and cultural dissociation as merely a tactical resistance to deny his abuse of Moji. This denial has led to a wider rejection of the cultural and racial formations with which he is supposed to identify, reflecting what Hamish Dalley terms ‘the ethical flaw of his attitude toward the ^connectedness of place and person’ (2013: 31). Moji’s reappearance in his life is the catalyst to tie Julius back to his African heritage and forges a strong relation between the ostensibly antithetical concepts of trauma and cosmopolitanism. Julius’s personal alienation is not simply explained by a sense of cultural dislocation within the US, but is rooted in a repression of his Nigerian past: ‘[t]hings don’t go away just because you choose to forget them’ (245).

Despite Moji’s accusation, Julius reasons that an individual has the innate capacity for good and evil, and that, ‘without claiming any especially heightened sense of ethics’, he has predominantly ‘hewed close to the good’ (243). The self-affirmation of his supposed virtuousness demonstrates a refusal to accept responsibility for inducing the effects of trauma in another. By determining that: ‘[e]ach person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy’, he fails to demonstrate a clear sense of ethical accountability (243). Julius’s subsequent meditation on his own ethical nature reflects the difficulties in judging one’s own subjectivity in relation to otherness, problematising any implementation of cosmopolitan ethics: ‘we are not the villains of our own stories [... ] we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories [... ] we are never less than heroic’ (243). Moji’s revelation in the closing section of the novel throws into question Julius’s subjectivity throughout the narrative. Thus far, Cole has only permitted the reader to view cultural encounters from Julius’s fragile, narrow psyche - a psyche now proven to be both unreliable and mercurial. The confrontation with Moji partly relates to his grandmother’s life, who is suggested to have been raped in Berlin by Russian soldiers. More importantly, the accusation forces the reader to reinterpret previous events in the narrative and enforces a reframing of narrative perspectives, most specifically regarding the subject of gender. Accordingly, although Julius consistently rejects any engagement in communal activities or activist movements, an anti-rape march through the city at the beginning of the novel reveals his peculiar blindness to women in general: ‘[a] single voice, a woman’s voice, shouted, and a crowd responded’ but ‘the words did not resolve into meaning’ (22). The indifference to both the march and its meaning, merely determining to shut his window on gender inequalities (specifically women’s right to move through urban space without being attacked), foreshadows his psychological block regarding the question of rape. Notably, rather like the migrating birds of the opening passages, Moji’s presence suffers from Julius’s psychological failings: ‘I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there’ (4). Further, while in Brussels Julius sleeps with an older woman he meets in a cafe. He not only forgets the woman’s name, and the encounter, but provides a false identity to remove himself from the intimate experience. Open City’s critical perspective on cosmopolitanism, then, interrogates the relevance of gender as well as race and class (a perspective often neglected in cosmopolitan paradigms). Due to his protean and secretive nature with regards to women, Julius emerges as an archetypal unreliable narrator, forcing the reader to retrace their steps through the narrative and retrospectively ‘trace out a story from what was omitted’ (9). His own assessment of psychiatry’s merits, ‘what we knew [... ] was so much less than what remained in darkness, and in this great limitation lay the appeal and frustration', could equally serve to define both Julius and the narrative at large (239).

The novel's subdued denouement preserves this notable absence of personal involvement with the protagonist and suppresses any sense of an ethical trajectory emerging in the narrative. By attending a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, where the entire audience are white, Julius resumes his preference for an aesthetic spectatorship that fails to result in direct cultural engagement. Julius’s love of Mahler suggests that a denial of his African heritage has manifested itself in the subconscious acceptance of his German roots. His fondness for classical European music suggests that he fits more comfortably into German stereotypes. In comparison to his discomfort at being associated with, or assimilated into, African culture, he notes how ‘easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them’ (251-2). Following the concert, however, he finds himself locked out of the hall on the ledge of a fire escape, detached once more from the white audience with whom he subconsciously seems to identify. The incident forces a re-evaluation of Julius’s earlier interpretation of an ‘elaborate fire escape’ on an old building as ‘a transparent mask to the world’ (190). The fire escape of Carnegie Hall thus reveals his own cultural mask - he places himself ‘outside’ and makes himself the

‘other’. The sustained attempt to deny his ethnicity and racial origins leads to a renewed state of physical isolation from the multitude, exposed and alone in the rain. By not coming to terms with his origins and attempting to disregard the actions of his past, both Julius and his narrative in general therefore remain in a form of cyclical stasis. The text’s final passage supports this reading, mirroring the opening scene of the novel in which Julius’s act of ‘taking auspices’ serves as an analogy for the fates of immigrants themselves (4).7 Innumerable flocks of birds lose ‘their bearings when faced with a single monumental flame’ of the Statue of Liberty - the iconic embodiment of place in New York (258). The presence of the birds suggest that the homogenising power of the US is responsible for both generating and arresting the mobility of migrants. By situating border control and national boundaries as the systems restricting cultural engagement, Open City supports Daniel Hiebert’s assertion that ‘national borders are “spaces of possibility” as well as spaces of control’ (2002: 211). More importantly, the analogy ultimately shifts the responsibility of transnational interaction from the individual level to the institutional level, implying that Julius’s own disjuncture from others serves as a wider critique for the ethical failures of global society to accommodate the lives of non-elite others.

 
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