Orhan Pamuk on the Turkish modernization project: is it a farewell to the west?

Author:Daglier, Uner

The mainstay of the Turkish modernization project in the twentieth century has been relegating religion to the private sphere. To this end, traditions associated with Islamic civilization were banned from Turkish public life: women gained a degree of public presence and the semblance of equality; Western style clothing became the only acceptable mode in public life; traditional laws with religious character gave way to modern legal codes; and, above all, the Arabic script was replaced by its European counterpart.

With all due respect to modern Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk, especially his vision for a new Turkey and statesmanlike tact in laying its grounds, the political and intellectual climate of the 1920s was more suitable for carrying out such a radical program of cultural change than that of our time. The reigning intellectual climate in Turkey and the West has changed drastically since then. The success of postmodernist critiques of reason and Enlightenment in the West gradually undercut the intellectual supports of secularization in Turkey, and the westernized Turkish intelligentsia came to be divided within itself. (1)

The Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk (2006 literature) has been skeptical of Turkey's state-led modernization project from early in his career. At its current and most mature state of evolution, his perspective seems to be in tune with that of contemporary critics of the Enlightenment in the West who claim that there is not a binary opposition between modernity and religion. (2) This aspect of Pamuk's art drew international academic attention after the publication of Snow, his self-avowed first and last political novel. (3) Leonard Stone interprets Pamuk's artistic views on the rise of political Islam and the future of democracy in Turkey as cautious optimism. David Coury argues--perhaps erroneously (Pamuk was critical of secular republicanism from early on)--that Snow signifies a shift in Pamuk's political loyalties. (4) Having said this, Pamuk's bitter criticism of state-led modernization in Turkey does not necessarily correspond to Islamic ties or sympathies. If anything, Pamuk defines himself as a rationalist, (5) and according to his former translator Guneli Gun's account, he is a nonbeliever. (6) Scholarly opinion, however, is divided over the extent of his commitment to rationalism. The majority of Pamuk's critics characterize him as a relativist, (7) or a skeptical postmodernist, (8) but Marshall Berman, on the contrary, maintains that Pamuk would probably die for ideas including modernity, the Enlightenment, and secular humanism. (9)

This article seeks to interpret Pamuk's emerging optimism in Snow concerning the rise of political Islam and the future of democracy in Turkey from a culturalist perspective on modernization and development, which holds that some cultures are more suitable for social, political, and economic progress than others. (10) Within this context, this article maintains that, in contradistinction to Pamuk's earlier novels, the lack of a reference to religio-cultural obstacles to individuation, modernity, and even democracy in Snow is unconvincing. To go a step further, Pamuk's covert argument for Islamic modernity in Snow (which is a variation of the multiple modernities theory) at the expense of a westernized secular polity in Turkey is insufficiently grounded. Arguably, Pamuk's earlier novels are based on a more sober understanding of the connection between culture and progress. For example, in The Black Book, Pamuk is bitterly critical of the state-led Turkish modernization project and its benevolently despotic masterminds for seeking to abandon Turkey's traditional values and identity. Paradoxically, however, he does not engage in a concrete attempt to vindicate those traditions or offer a viable political alternative to state-led westernization or secular modernity. (11) Rather, in My Name is Red Pamuk suggests that westernization in the Ottoman Empire and in the later Turkish Republic is bound to fail because of deep-seated religious and cultural traditions that hinder the prospects for individuation and modernity. For audiences familiar with his earlier novels, Snow is extraordinary because there Pamuk suggests that the only glimmer of hope for Turkish modernization comes from Islamists. This, however, signifies less a shift in Pamuk's political loyalties than a problematic self-rebuttal of his earlier criticism of religio-cultural traditions in Turkey as obstacles to individuality, modernization, and political development. (12)

Ultimately, of course, numerous statements about identity, change, and modernization in Pamuk's novels do not constitute a political theory. The attempt to hold the artist up to the standards of theoretical rigor, or consistency, is warranted only to the extent that it contributes to a wider debate between the proponents of westernization and the multiple modernities theory in the Near Eastern context. Therefore, this article begins with a brief account of Pamuk's objection to Turkey's state-led modernist tradition based on The Black Book. What follows serves as a critical exposition of Pamuk's contrasting views on characteristic Eastern or Islamic values, most notably the lack of individuality or the prejudice against it in My Name is Red, and the prospects for its emergence in Snow. At this stage, suffice it to state that Pamuk's focus on individuality and derivative values is not accidental; as the contemporary German academic philosopher Habermas once remarked, individuality is the quintessential modern value. (13) That is, from an epistemological perspective, individuality acts as the fountainhead, and other modern values such as intellectual skepticism, political liberty, and social progress flow from it.

The Black Book and Political Criticism

Within the context of his earlier novels, Pamuk most lucidly repudiates the state-led Turkish modernization project and its benevolently despotic masterminds in The Black Book, which is considered to be his magnum opus due to its innovative dimension and artistic impact. The Black Book is the story of the dreamy lawyer Galip in search of his wife and cousin Ruya who deserted him for another cousin, the elusive columnist Celal. The narrative of Galip's quest for the deserting couple over and under Istanbul is laden with esoteric and exoteric references to cultural change and reformist leaders throughout modern Turkish history, including Kemal Ataturk and Sultan Mahmud the Second. However, Pamuk's critique of modernization in the novel lacks a constructive dimension, as it does not offer a viable political response to the circumstances, especially the sense of civilizational decline, which originally prompted Turkey's reformist statesmen to opt for westernization.

According to hostile critics, Pamuk's repudiation of the secular republican project and its principal founder suggests that the novelist is in denial of his own privileged background. Pamuk is the grandson of a railway tycoon who had made his fortune during the early years of the Turkish republic when the founding president Ataturk was still in power, and his family had close ties with the governing elite of the time. However, tracing his paternal roots to the Islamic clergy in the provincial Aegean town of Gordes in Manisa, Pamuk also partakes of a traditionalist heritage. (14) (In his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Cevdet Bey and His Sons, Pamuk provides a detailed account of his ancestral family traditions.) (15) If anything, the maze of personal influences on Pamuk accounts for the diverse texture and the conflictive elements in his novels, traits that won him international acclaim.

In The Black Book, Pamuk makes use of esoteric literary devices in order to rebuke Atatiirk. (In the heyday of the Islamic civilization, before philosophy was banned altogether in the twelfth century A.D., Islamic philosophers such as Al-Farabi had made use of esoteric literary devices in order to fend off possible charges of heresy. (16) In contrast, Pamuk's discretion in hiding his intentions is due to the secular Turkish public's sensitivity over Ataturk, particularly against slurs by religionist circles, as well as to legal limitations on free expression.) Early in The Black Book, the narrator refers in passing to "the story about the crazy and perverted sultan who had spent his childhood running amok with his sister, chasing crows in a vegetable patch. ..." (17) Although the story of an Ottoman sultan chasing crows in a vegetable patch was unheard of before the publication of The Black Book (after all, saving the family plot from ravagers is an activity reserved for the plebian class), the Turkish public is well aware of Ataturk's history of chasing crows with his sister during a brief period in his childhood. (18) Seven chapters later, an unnamed prostitute provides a follow-up to Pamuk's perplexing reference to a crazy and perverted sultan: she refers to "the last testament of that queer, the last sultan. ..." (19) Since Ataturk founded the Turkish republic and thereby abolished the Ottoman sultanate, there cannot be another sultan after his likeness, or the sultan who chased crows. Hence, Pamuk's attentive readers are led to associate the crazy and perverted sultan who chased crows with the last sultan who was queer (thus, becoming partners in crime). On this occasion, the unnamed prostitute adds that her car's license plate number is, "34 CG 19 Mayis [May] 1919. This is the day Ataturk left Istanbul to liberate Anatolia from invading western powers. (20)

Pamuk is equally hostile in his references to Sultan Mahmud the Second (reign 1808-1839), who spearheaded a westernization movement in the Ottoman Empire, which ultimately culminated in the founding of the modernist Turkish republic in 1923. To this end, an unnamed character in the novel (the mysterious man on the phone) refers to an "engraving that shows...

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