Erdağ Göknar, Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Erdağ Göknar (EG): I have both an academic and personal interest in Pamuk. I first met him when I was a graduate student and have known him for fifteen years. I am also the translator of his historical novel My Name Is Red, a book that ushered him onto a world literary stage. The translation won the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award in 2003; Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize three years later.
Despite the acclaim he has received, there were no books that introduced and analyzed his work in its totality. The timing was right for an academic book that would break this critical silence. Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy traces Pamuk’s development from national to global author and is the first complete study of his oeuvre, including the early, untranslated work.
As with my teaching, my scholarship is based on reading the novel as a window onto the conflicts and cultural codes of contemporary Turkey. At times, readers find Pamuk’s work complex and confusing. He is often misread and his work is filled with transgressions of political norms and literary traditions that are not widely known outside of Turkey. Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy clarifies Pamuk’s project and his relation to the national tradition. The book reads modern Turkish history and politics through the novel, where hidden traces of unacknowledged legacies from Sufism to Ottoman material culture persist alongside tropes of Turkish secular modernity.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EG: The book explores the limits of the secularization thesis in Pamuk’s work, pointing to the presence of religious themes. It is divided into three conceptual parts. Part I, “Tropes of Turkishness from Sufism to State,” situates Pamuk’s work within the secular, Republican literary tradition, as well as detailing his early attempts at transgressing that tradition. Here, I introduce tropes that reflect the cultural politics of religion-and-state (or din and devlet), which I argue is one of the dominant antinomies of Turkish literary modernity.
Part II, “The Archive of Ottoman Istanbul,” describes the Ottoman urban past as an unacknowledged cultural archive. In literature, this archive becomes an engine of critique with respect to the secular modern present. Pamuk’s work, in excavating this archive, serves to mount a political critique of two varieties of orientalism: Orientalism as articulated from colonial Europe, and orientalism as an internalized gaze informing the Republican modernization project. In short, if Republican modernity “otherized” the Ottoman Islamic past and accepted an orientalist perspective, the modern Turkish novel recuperated that past as part of a sustained critique of secular modernity.
Part III, “The Literary Politics of the Secular-Sacred,” explains how Pamuk’s work re-sacralizes the once-dominant social realist literary tradition through writing that novelizes secular and Sufi subjects together. Here, the cosmopolitan spaces of Istanbul re-emerge as sites of secular-sacred manifestations, and of a redefined literary modernity situated between the national tradition and world literature.
In the modern Turkish novel, with surprising consistency, the authority of the state is contested by the agency of authors. The most recent Istanbul protests are no exception, with authors like Adalet Ağaoğlu, Orhan Pamuk, and Elif Şafak weighing in on the side of the protestors. The photo below shows Turkish riot police firing a tear-gas canister. In a telling irony, the sign in the background indicates the way to Pamuk’s recently opened Museum of Innocence. In this snapshot, state violence intersects with the innocence of cultural production. The state/author juxtaposition is a dominant theme in much of Pamuk’s work. I don’t think it is possible to read Turkish literature without accounting for the intervention of state authority into the everyday. My book begins by exploring this dominant opposition.
[Photo by Mine Sözenoğlu, via Instagram: http://instagram.com/p/arPpyYwySm/]
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EG: I think students and scholars in Turkish studies and Middle Eastern studies would find the work useful and illuminating. I would like it to have a cross-disciplinary appeal, from comparative literature to religious studies. My aim is to encourage further critical engagement with the secular and religious themes raised in the book.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EG: I am working on a book about the occupation of Istanbul by European armies between 1918 and 1923. It has the working title Occupied Istanbul: Turkish Subject-Formation from Historical Trauma to Literary Trope. This book also focuses on the intersection of literature, history, and politics. The occupation of Istanbul is a little-known historical event outside of Turkey and the Middle East. European powers occupied Istanbul to enforce the partition of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The partition took five years and led to the emergence of the new nation-states, mandates, and kingdoms that would constitute the modern Middle East. Yet the occupation of Istanbul is an event that has been marginalized in histories. The studies that exist in Turkish approach the occupation as an event that was “overturned” and thus do not consider the profound legacy of this event on modern Turkish identity, politics, and culture.
J: How does your book contribute to and/or diverge from other scholarship on Pamuk`s work?
EG: This is the first study to examine all of Pamuk`s books since his first novel appeared in 1982. My aim was to look at the long trajectory of Pamuk`s work, in addition to doing individual close readings of novels. In English, very little Pamuk scholarship considers the tradition out of which Pamuk emerged. So my book situates him into a genealogy of lesser-known authors of the Turkish tradition. In Turkish, the literary-critical establishment produces excessively secular readings, often with a psychoanalytical orientation. My book reads for the presence of unacknowledged religious tropes in the Turkish novel. In this way, Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy bridges two distinct scholarly traditions.
J: In what ways might this book be considered controversial?
EG: It is unusual to read Pamuk as an author with political agency, but my work does so. From the perspective of Turkish social and historical realism, Pamuk has often been considered to be a depoliticized author of the generation of the post-1980 coup. In contrast, I argue that the constant formal innovations in his work manifest an ongoing political critique.
My book also transgresses the limits of a monolithic disciplinary approach and does not stay within the confines of traditional literary approaches. I am constantly putting literature into dialogue with historiography, the Ottoman archive, political power, and identity- and subject-formation. I argue that Pamuk’s work introduces various challenges to accepted cultural norms.
As a simple example, through his two Ottoman novels, The White Castle and My Name Is Red, Pamuk reintroduced Ottoman cultural history and Islamic aesthetics into popular culture. In Snow, by relying on a secular protagonist who repeatedly senses the divine, he was able to write one of the best parodies of Turkish political ideology since A. H. Tanpınar’s The Time Regulation Institute, published fifty years earlier. In The Museum of Innocence, he created a tri-partite work of art: a novel, a museum, and a catalogue that focused on Turkish material culture and revalorized the place of the everyday object in Turkish cultural production.
Finally, I’m certain my book will raise an eyebrow or two because it takes Islamic culture and mystical themes seriously as an ignored aspect of Turkish literary studies.
Excerpts from Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel
From “Introduction: The Polemics of the Author”
Orhan Pamuk has long been the focus of various media polemics in Turkey. He occupies the paradoxical position of being both an icon of serious literature as well as a spectacle of popular culture. He is a best selling author whose works are debated at the highest academic levels. Yet he is also the focus of tabloid sensationalism that at times veers into the realm of conspiracy. The media discussions focus on what Pamuk is perceived to represent as a “Turk” and on his authenticity as a writer. They often revolve around his relationship to orthodoxies of Turkish secularism and national identity. Extreme commentaries accuse Pamuk, a secular Turk, of being a Jewish convert, or dönme, of being an enemy of Turks or a self-hating Turk, of opposing Kemalism and social revolution, of being entrepreneurial, apolitical, a comprador, a bourgeois elitist, a commodifier of literature for promoting novels through TV ads, of being in the service of foreign lobbies or conspiratorial networks, and of selling out his country for personal gain. As a corollary, his writing is often dismissed out of hand. He is accused of writing for non-Turkish (Euro-American) audiences, of writing in dense prose that his readers can’t fathom or finish, of writing ungrammatically, of orientalism, and even, of plagiarism. These polemics alone could be the topic of an academic study, but they would tell us little about the author’s novels, their insights and complexities, their literary innovations and their transformative function for the Turkish and world novel. If we read the situation in its reverse however, approaching popular reactions to the author with the understanding that what is being revealed has less to do with the author and his work per se than with the tectonics of cultural and political power in Turkey today, we’d be better served. Such an approach would help survey the cultural logic Pamuk has had to negotiate to write novels that question that same logic.
Much of the media hype amounts to defamation of an author who has successfully negotiated conflicting sites of power and an ideological minefield from socialism to nationalism to Islamism, and who has, in the process, garnered an international audience exponentially larger than his Turkish readership. As an author with a global profile, Pamuk has been put in the unwitting position of representing the Republic of Turkey, something he has never sought, aspired to, or desired. One of Pamuk’s repeated complaints is that he is pigeonholed as a “Turkish” author rather than a novelist per se. It is this “Turkishness” that preoccupies, frustrates, and restricts him. It is more than ironic, then, that this is one of the main subjects of his fiction.
The clash of politics and representation in the figure of Pamuk is a symptom of larger changes in Turkey. Over two short decades since the end of the Cold War in 1991, processes of globalization have transformed Turkey from an inward looking third world nation-state to a resurgent economic and political leader in the region. Its economy is the sixteenth largest in the world, it is involved in high-level diplomacy and foreign policy, and it is considered to be one of the most viable geopolitical models for the union of democracy and Islam in the Middle East. Turkey’s growing pains, which have severely questioned the secular state model that dominated until the end of the Cold War, have found a convenient outlet in the cosmopolitan intellectual Pamuk. He is, as headlines reveal, the author Turks love to hate. Many of these reactionary attacks emerge from a perceived threat to orthodox discourses of modernity, secularism, national self-determination, “Turkishness”, and the Kemalist cultural revolution. In other words, Pamuk, an author of culturally and politically challenging novels, is considered to be a threat because he transgresses discursive and epistemological boundaries established by the powers of modernity in Turkey. Consequently, he is a lightening rod for the frustrations of socialists, secular Kemalists, nationalists, and Islamists. We could summarize by saying that the tabloid debates revolve around a collective anxiety: Does Pamuk represent the end of the social and national project of progress, development and modernity that has defined the Republic of Turkey since its establishment in 1923? In other words, does Pamuk spell the end of homo secularis, the human subject produced by ideologies of secular modernity, Kemalism and Turkism?
From Chapter One: “Literary Revisions of the Secular Modern”
Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, Pamuk accepted an invitation to serve for one day as editor-in-chief of the Turkish Istanbul daily Radikal. In this capacity of traditionally socially engaged journalism he ran a front-page piece in the 7 January 2007 edition about Turkish writers and artists who had been persecuted by the state, just as Pamuk had been before the Nobel award. The headline, Let ‘Em Spit in His Face, was taken from a 1951 article that originally ran in the staunchly secular-national newspaper Cumhuriyet (The Republic) about dissident poet Nâzım Hikmet. Though fifty-six years had intervened, this time, it referred to Pamuk as well who had also been labeled a vatan haini, a “traitor to the nation.” The group Pamuk assembled included dissident authors of socialist engagement Nâzım Hikmet, Yaşar Kemal, and Sabahattin Ali. Pamuk also made room for singer Ahmet Kaya, who was prosecuted for a pro-Kurdish stance, and ran a piece on the Ottoman writer Ahmet Midhat Efendi, a forefather of the modern Turkish novel who happened to be traveling in Stockholm for the 1889 International Conference of Orientalists over one century before Pamuk received the prize in the same city.
The starting point of this study is an instructive discrepancy. The dissident status of the author in the international arena, which was sealed through his 2005 prosecution under Article 301-1 for insulting “Turkishness,” rose in direct contradiction to his authorial past. Pamuk’s new political positioning was ironic, for he’d spent the early part of his literary career as the lightening rod for criticism about his own social and political disengagement. He’d often been attacked as a representative of the depoliticized literature of the post-1980 military coup. An Istanbul author from a bourgeois background, he described how he’d sequestered himself in an ivory tower.
Given that Pamuk-as-editor later associates himself with the very generation of Turkish dissident authors he here disavows, how are we to interpret the statement “that kind of politics [engaged literature] only damages your art”? What should we make of the fact that since his Nobel award he has generally refused to explicitly comment on or engage in matters of politics?
The group that Pamuk assembled in newsprint could be read as part of an authorial fantasy about Turkish authenticity and solidarity with a socially engaged tradition of Turkish writing. Granted, his first novel, Cevdet Bey and Sons, does bear the influence of the social realism that informed the Republican novel. But he quickly rejected and was soon excluded by the practitioners of this variety of Turkish literature. In Turkey, a country whose national identity has been constructed upon the unstable nexus of modernity, secularism and Islam, the significance of aesthetic innovations in literature, or “literary modernity,” stems from its often-negative relationship to secular state power. In Turkey, “literary modernity” describes transformations in literature that often transgress Republican articulations of secular “Turkishness.” “Literary modernity” in the Turkish novel is not merely innovation in form and content, but a foundational means of political critique of what cultural anthropologist Talal Asad terms the “formations of the secular” (Asad 2003). Thus “literary modernity” describes a persistent conflict between literary authorship and the authority of the state and its modernization history, one that can be traced in Pamuk’s oeuvre and much of the Republican literary canon. In this study, this concept enables the Turkish novel to be read with or against narratives of the secular modern.
Pamuk’s stated ambivalence toward the Turkish literary tradition is a clue that Pamuk-as-editor is doing much more than expressing belated solidarity with the literary left. Rather, he is attempting to reconcile his position in the Turkish national tradition with his international identity as a dissident author confirmed and validated by the Nobel Prize. In this sense, he demonstrates the type of mediation between national and world literatures that is a hallmark of his novels. But this is still only half the story.
A critical examination of the discrepancy between Pamuk’s “disengagement” and “dissidence” provides a measure of his literary modernity. His work experiments with techniques from social realism to metafiction before settling into innovative forms of Istanbul cosmopolitanism that synthesize internal and external influences. These transformations in literature present “Turkishness” as being contingent on a multitude of cultural contexts beyond ethno-nationalism, including the Ottoman past, Sufism, Islam, and even orientalism. Pamuk uses the novel form, I am suggesting, to pose persistent political challenges to the state and the secularization thesis that informs Turkish modernity.
[Excerpted from Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel, by Erdağ Göknar, by permission of the author. © 2013 Erdağ Göknar. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]