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Pamuk's Hüzün

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has just had the English translation

of his memoir, Istanbul, published in the U.S. (tr., Maureen Freely).


Istanbul illumines the ways a culture enables values  – Pamuk's in his boyhood and youth in that Turkish city, ours  in all our cultures elsewhere.

Culture:  the Stuff Holding all Possible Values and Personality in any Place

Istanbul:  Memories and the City portrays a singular place.  Throughout, but especially its chapter ten presents a quality unique, that nowhere in the world quite similarly has.  Pamuk calls this hüzün:  a melancholy, perhaps, or sadness, or sense of lingering spiritual loss imbuing all.  Claude Lévi-Strauss's Triste Tropiques, Pamuk says, comes close to catching this mood, or cultural leitmotif, in places around the world near the equator, but tristesse in the warmer climes, he says, does not quite match hüzün.  While neither is "a pain that affects a solitary individual," and "both suggest a communal feeling, an atmosphere and a culture shared by millions," both differ:

and if we are to pinpoint the difference it is not enough to say that Istanbul is much richer than Delhi or Sào Paolo.  (If you go to the poor neighborhoods, the cities and the forms poverty takes are in fact all too similar.)  The difference lies in the fact that in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible.  No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner – the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques –
inflict heartache on all who live among them.

Pamuk refers, of course, to the residual feelings in this city which for centuries had centered the Ottoman empire, and the Byzantine one before that.  Where long had ruled sultans, pashas, dervishes, janissaries, and harems, Atattürk and friends following the losses of WWI succeeded in founding a much smaller and western-oriented Republic of Turkey.  His Istanbul recounts his own feelings of hüzün – one which percolated over the years in all aspects of the city:  from the once-meticulously-planned and since-jumbled and weather-worn accidents of architecture – old wooden quasi-palaces on the Bosphorus and mosques still standing, city walls and bastions in ruins – to relics indoors of tapestries, carpets, and massive tables and cabinets of mahogany and other woods – to street vendored foods – to clothing spanning Ottoman and republican eras – to the fifties'-era American cars still rumbling the streets when Joseph Brodsky visited and noted them thirty years later – to the landscaped cypresses, pines, and cobblestoned streets, alleys, and lanes threading the Bosphorus hills.  All these conveyed a cumulative melancholy in continual contrast to the previously much-prouder, much-richer empire.

Pamuk's Istanbul also recounts the similar hüzün found in the culture of painters, poets, and writers who plumbed, coursed, strolled, loved, and despaired of this city before him.  Their works, too, evolved from out of the daily, primary cultural stuff, further expressing the spirit in that stuff – hüzün again, both in the negative version fitting empire's loss, and the positive one yet spurred by and spurring spiritual longing.

His memoir, too, acknowledges the growth of a narrow-minded nationalism that set in among his countrymen following their earlier-twentieth-century defeats and losses.  In the subtleties of landscape and neighborhood-by-neighborhood architecture of his boyhood Istanbul, he often dwells on the Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Kurds who formerly had much larger populations here, and much freer, more abundant lives.  Pamuk recounts the nationalistic persecutions that reduced these minorities as the Turkish economy fell along with them.  But in spite of these real wounds, and in addition to how classes and individuals spun off their own identities, his attention keeps returning to the ways that everybody in Istanbul had a certain culture in common – one set of cohering memory, imagination, and expectation thresholds.  Here where cohesive culture connected all in it, five areas emerge that hold the values all shared.  If Pamuk's memoir lingers on people – and on artists – with spiritual values animating them, these commingle with five areas of styles that shape and express them:  1) food, 2) clothes, 3) transport, 4) buildings, and 5) landscape.  By virtue his subtleties in seeing these primary areas, and his memoir's density with them, the secondary arts emerge with them.  Throughout Istanbul painters, poets, and writers illumine the spiritual drift pervading all those buildings, parks, shores, ferries, ancient cars, furnishings, fashions, and meals street-vendored and home-cooked.


A New Empire, and its Ignorance & Arrogance in Pamuk's Part of the World

though he makes no direct reference to the current  invasions &  occupations nearby, his Istanbul comes out midway 2005, when its intelligence and sensitivity to local milieu and history all the more contrasts the arrogance and ignorance the U.S. so pitifully displays in Pamuk's southern neighbor, Iraq.

While Pamuk's memoir looks to the past, and to understanding it – understanding how cultures work – its wisdom only highlights the folly of the world's single superpower repeating the same ignorance and arrogance in Iraq as it did in Vietnam.

David Halberstam called our architects of the war in Vietnam our Best and our Brightest – and they were that – except, too, they so trusted their own systems that they thought they could transfer them to southeast Asia without any regard for actual culture there.  They thought they could trust the few westernized leaders from among the Vietnamese, Laos, and Cambodians who posed as representative of the people – the same mistake a new generation of Americans has made in Iraq.  This new generation with its idiocy as to actual culture on foreign grounds differs from the previous one of equal idiots only in that the new one arranged their careers with virtually no military risks of their own.

idiot Cheney:  in a pre-war "Meet the Press" interview the vice president scoffed at the notion that it might take years and many thousands of troops to force a U.S. peace on Iraq – he instead guaranteed U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators; 

idiot Rumsfeld:  asked before the U.S. invasion of Iraq about the ethnic rivalries there, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied any seriousness to anyone's claims of differences among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and intermingled others;

 idiot Tenet:  asked before the invasion about U.S. "intelligence" regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, C.I.A. head George Tenet assured Bush & co. that their massive presence there was "a slam dunk" certainty;

idiot Bremer:  as a first move in office, Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer disbanded the standing Iraqi army, guaranteeing power vacuum, festering willed unemployment of 400,000 trained soldiers, and that available manpower for what would evolve as a murderous chain-reaction insurgency;

idiot Franks:  the commander of American forces taking Baghdad, General Tommy Franks did nothing to prepare for what he and all the Bushies imagined as easy post-war transition:  he allowed the lengthy and sustained looting; he had no Arabic-speaking military for training new Iraqi forces; and he gave no cultural training for U.S. personnel interactions with local Iraqis;

idiot Rice: National Security Agency head Condoleezza Rice dismissed the trail of facts that signaled the 9-11 attacks and more largely indicated the Muslim peoples' massively lethal discontent with U.S. policies – she instead had planned a talk the evening of 9-11 urging our national security priorities geared to Star Wars;

idiot Bush:  costumed in flight suit, grinning beneath his "Mission Accomplished" banner, two years later he would still tell Americans his war was worth "our" sacrifice – but would not see any of his family risk their lives for it, nor anyone in his administration, nor anyone in Congress, nor any of his CEO friends.

While these leaders have all committed monumental blunders reading realities on the ground where they have rushed (other families' kids) to war, the fact of their all being far-right ideological Republicans does not automatically explain their arrogance and cultural incompetence.  Our nice, liberal Democrats did the same thing – David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" – when a generation earlier they rushed us into their ideological black hole in southeast Asia.  The two, we in Iraq and Vietnam, have one thing in common:  in both we proved ourselves the same cartoonish "Ugly Americans" Lederer and Burdick had earlier portrayed in a book by that title.

Our Politicians, Our Academics:  Same Disconnect from Actual People in Actual Cultures

 Being on either political side cuts no extra enlightenment points for anybody.

 Condi Rice gets no special trophy points for being cute at classical piano.

George W. Bush gets no literature or other humanities points for claiming in his first, 2000 presidential run, Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher – no points because, in all the interviews, speeches, and talks in the years that followed has he never once cited the Nazarene in connection with any public policy.  (He may get private emotion points, as many of his followers do who reduce the public to the private.)

Even if George W. in public life could connect to persons such as Jesus – even if Condi can show acquaintance with classical musicians – such references count on a vital – yes – but secondary level.  Many people know film, but not music.  Or they know dance, but not theatrical arts, or poetry, or other forms of literature.  Though nice – for them – none of these forms of reference necessarily touch others.  (As Auden said, "Poetry makes nothing happen.)  Our primary forms of culture do.  Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul shows these first, non-optional categories:  food, clothing, buildings, transport, and landscape.   Across every page of his memoir he returns again and again to them:  arts all, forms we all inhabit.  In whatever nuance or subtlety, intensity or repetition, we all inherit these five primary areas, first in styles from our families and communities.  Then, in a constant interplay of waves we ever ride, the larger culture delivers them in further styles.  They go on shaping and enabling us – or, too, limiting and closing us off from each other. 

Cheney, Rumsfeld, Tenet, Bremer, Franks, Rice, and Bush – like their predecessors McNamara, Rusk, Rostow, the brothers Bundy, Taylor, Kennedy, and Johnson – all belong or have belonged to a singular, homogenized, corporate culture.  If we ignore what they may parrot for appearance sake, we can see their truest loves:  gods reducing all people to systems management, rationalized bureaucracies, achievement incrementals, and all by quantifiable measures.  We can see the desiccated values in them by looking at their cultural uniformity:  the suits they wear, the rank-seating joining food to power rituals, the gas-guzzling fleets of SUVs and jet airplanes that keep all in thrall to fossil corporations, the hermetically-sealed, energy-intensive office buildings that divide all by flow chart cubicles, and the landscapes that kill nature for cul-de-sac sprawl and parking lot cubes – and sell triumph by mass doses of asphalt, concrete, neon, and plastic.

We can see the true values of corporate souls – never mind the prattle many also vaunt about chimerical other values.  Our self-designated "Christians," for instance, demonstrably put their truest values – those exacting the most in time and money – on display in the massive parking lots around their churches.  Parked outside, these shining gods of truest idolatry announce the most deeply-invested powers of sprawl culture – those obliging, in turn, our support of thugs and dictators abroad, and arousal of hatreds from their people – consequences of our true culture which self-love pieties ever hide.

We can see the same corporate souls in our institutions of so-called "higher education" – and never mind the casual flauntings here of flannels, jeans, and open collars.  These costumes of course mean something (typically, complacency) – as do the ghetto styles students bring in response (for reciprocal cultural entitlements of anger and stress).  Corporate academia announces itself in its five areas of primary culture:  the "casual" clothes, the soporific lull of sylvan landscapes, the parking lots and parking garages, the big box buildings, and the vending machine and franchise fast foods.  This culture announces itself more, however, in the ways that the authorities in it routinely fail to reference outside their specializations.  If Bush and his idiots cannot see foreign cultures – or anyone outside their self-privileging system – as their predecessors the Vietnam era's Best and Brightest could not see outside their comfortable idiocies, their similarities in arrogance and cultural incompetence go beyond the mere charm of systemic repetitions.  We have crippled imaginations in seeing cultures – ours, others' – for the same reason we have "intelligence" services that make a mockery of the word, and "leaders" that make further mockeries of everybody.  We end up in idiot war mistakes and more idiot war mistakes – more cycles of mindlessness, more arousal of hatreds from peoples around the world – because we stay locked in our one, singular, cannibalizing-itself corporate culture.  And this depends on a system of "higher education" modeling everybody's withdrawal into the most sophisticated ghettoes of mutual isolation.

Orhan Pamuk shows it's possible otherwise – it's possible to acquire the arts for seeing "others":  for his own culture – which he himself learned to see as odd – as hüzün – a skill in seeing he learned by learning to see "others":  those of the ascendant "west," those of Turkish painters and writers who aped the west, then also saw their own hüzün, and those of the minorities nearer by, Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and Kurdish, and their real suffering at the hands of his own people.

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