Hüzün in the ruins of defeat: Istanbul Reading Orhan Pamuk
Went to Istanbul this past weekend. On the plane i read Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City. What follows are some passages from the book that inspired me & some random textual & visual impressions of Istanbul.
I'd never read Orhan Pamuk before so not only was this an introduction to Istanbul for me but a first impression of the nobel laureate (& now i'm intrigued to read more)(thanks J & L for lending me the book). It's a rather philosophical & personal (perhaps overly so) account of Istanbul, with an emphasis on the hüzün—«We might call this confused, hazy state melancholy, or perhaps we should call it by its Turkish name, hüzün, which denotes a melancholy that is communal, rather than private.»
Pamuk keeps coming back to hüzün as the prevailing mood that binds Istanbullus, melancholia as a spiritual state, a glue, for Istanbullus living now in the seat of a ruined crossroads, struggling to be modern, yet to still retain the dignity of their past.
Pamuk's vision of Istanbul is informed not just from relentless flâneuring in his city, but from reading—from digging deep in newspaper archives to reading foreign poet's & artists impressions upon visiting Istanbul.
The hüzün of which Pamuk speaks is a bit different than the 'tristes tropiques' that Lévi-Strauss speaks of in that hüzün is a lifestyle choice, not an imposition of poverty. It is the mood of devotion that hangs like a curtain over Istanbul. It is somewhat rooted in resigned defeat & coming from Rome it is interesting to note the similarities—how centuries of resignation & defeat have shaped both cultures & how foreigners find this air of defeat to be exotic & enchanting.
But the Italians response to repeated defeat has been markedly different. Whereas Turks have opened up, embraced western culture & allow themselves to see themselves through the eyes of foreigners, the Italians have responded with frivolous introspection. Per Luigi Barzini [grandfather to the next Calamari Press publication]—«Under the surface, the Italians invented ways to defeat oppressive regimentation. As they could not protect their national liberty in the field of battle, they fought strenuously to defend the liberty of the individual and his family, the only liberty they understood anyway. [...] But the Italian nation never managed to solve it's elementary problems and the Italian armed forces rarely succeeded in defeating their enemies. Italy has never been as good as the sum of her people. The people not only defeated their rulers but also managed to invent splendid and melodramatic ways of making each humble or ignoble hour as bearable and satisfying as possible. This is the reason why their manners, food, houses, cities, love-life are so delightful. This also why their art, or most of it, is principally designed to give the public oblivion and bliss. They have naturally been accused of being frivolous and never going beneath the brilliant surface of things. The reproach is justified, of course. But they are frivolous because they cannot be anything else. Many great artists left private documents showing they were deeply tormented by the tragedy of their life.»
Italians also share this sadness, though their sadness manifests in different ways. «There is a sadness, a subtle sadness that's not to be mistaken for the more ordinary kind that is the result of remorse, disillusionment, or suffering: there is an infinite sadness which comes to chosen souls simply from their consciousness of man's fate... This sort of sadness has always prevailed among intelligent Italians, but most of them, to evade suicide or madness, have taken to every known means of escape: they feign exaggerated gaiety, awkwardness, a passion for women, for food, for their country, and, above all, for fine-resounding words: they become, as chance may have it, policemen, monks, terrorists, war heroes. I think that there has never been a race of men so fundamentally desolate and desperate as these gay Italians.»—Ignazio Silone [The Abruzzo Trilogy: Fontamara, Bread and Wine, The Seed Beneath the Snow]
But whereas Italians mask their failures & sorrow, the Turks tackle sorrow head on: «Imbued still with the honor accorded it in Sufi literature, hüzün gives their resignation an air of dignity, but it also explains their choice to embrace failure, indecision, defeat and poverty so philosophically and with such pride, suggesting that hüzün is not the outcome of life's worries and great losses but their principle cause.» [—Orhan Pamuk]
After reading half the book, we landed in Istanbul. It was raining & cold. We checked into our hotel (the Nomade, which coincidentally is in the publishing house district) then took the tram across the Galata bridge & some sort of subway thing up the mountain to Beyoğlu. Scampered around some alleys, but couldn't really explore around too much on account of the freezing rain (not that it stopped the Turks, they enjoyed themselves smoking & drinking in open-air bars as if it was summer). Ended up eating at Refik—all sorts of meze (like Spanish tapas) washed down with raki (made cloudy with water), in the boisterous company of Turks from all walks of life.
Was woken up the next morning by the call to prayer & ships horns echoing off the Bosphorus. Went to the Sultan's palace—fairly spectacular, but honestly I was more blown away by the Alhambra in Granada. Walked around down by the water amidst snow flurries. Had some lentil soup & a kebap that hit the spot at some dive i forget the name of. Hopped on a boat that went up & around the Bosphorus. Then went to the spice market & flâneured our way home.
That night (x-mas eve & our 15th anniversary) we ate at some swanky place called 360 that had incredible views of pretty much all of Istanbul. It was also up in the Beyoğlu district, which i guess is the hip part of town.
Next day we went straight to the Hagia Sophia, which was mind-blowing, even if you are expecting it. Beyond words or even photos. Then we went to the Blue Mosque which i was not so impressed with.
Had some tasty goulash & lentil soup at Khorasani. Then we went & took Turkish baths—quite an exhilarating & relaxing experience. You leave all your clothes in a room (with men outside playing dice) then wrap a little cloth around your waste & shuffle into the baths wearing awkward wooden clogs. I opted for the economic self-serve so lathered myself, but most had others soaping them up, which i think would be strange. Lounged around on marbled slabs in the steamy environments, relaxing, mesmerized by the sound of all the men's banter echoing off the domed roof.
But mostly j & i were on our never-ending quest for the beauty in the breakdown (or the «beauty OF the breakdown» that Luca Arnaudo attributed to us, in his excellent essay on Syracuse in Artribune.)
Beauty in the breakdown is always more exotic to the outsider. Poverty & ruin are never interesting to those living in it. Not that Istanbul has poverty—to the contrary it seems better off than Rome. & far more functional & efficient & hip.
As Pamuk describes it, a certain self-consciousness has seeped into their culture, in embracing western culture. «Whatever we call it—false consciousness, fantasy, or old-style ideology—there is in each of our heads a half-legible, half-secret text that makes sense of what we've done in life. And for each of us in Istanbul, a large section of this text is given over to what western observers have said about us.»
Then we gravitated down to the waterfront. Had a beer on the Galata bridge, with all the fishing lines hanging down over us, occasionally pulling up a fish.
Istanbul's psyche, the facets of pride, like Ethiopia, perhaps also hinge on the fact that it was never colonized, so there is less resentment with regard to how it's perceived by westerners. Pamuk embraces the westerner's p.o.v., learns from it, rather than be guarded like how many other cultures are—for better or worse.
One night i couldn't sleep (because some guys were doing illegal construction after midnight, drilling holes & hammering into the wall a floor down from our window) so i did some drawings in the dark (doctored some after the fact).
Pamuk also talks quite a lot about art & painting (i guess his first love before he became a writer). And the book was filled with excellent photos of Istanbul by Ara Güler. These not-so excellent photos are mine (yes, i guess my moratorium against photo-taking is over, especially considering the thousands of starling photos i took for the posts before this).
On this note, i've run out of words. Except to say, you should see Istanbul for yourself & read Orhan Pamuk for yourself. The rest leave to your imagination.
Oh, we also did some shopping in the grand bazaar. There's this old book bazaar where we bought a few more paintings done on old Arabic manuscript pages like the ones we bought earlier this year in Delhi. Also got an old mathematics book in Arabic so i can make my own. And got a frame that was worth more than the image it was framing. And a rug of course.
& one of my favorite things is that there's dogs & cats all over Istanbul. They are well-fed & well-loved. Every block we met a cat or dog we made friends with. There's also loads of birds, mostly seagulls & crows, at times swarming on the surface on the Bosphorus, or catching drafts over the city.