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History’s waiting room 2 mars 2015

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Books / Livres, History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie.
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Review (UK) March 2, 2015, p. 20

Pankaj Mishra

The Time Regulation Institute is a brilliant comic novel from 1962 about life in a Turkey forced to adopt western ways. Pankaj Mishra salutes its author, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. Orhan Pamuk has called Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-62) the greatest Turkish novelist of the 20th century. From the evidence of The Time Regulation Institute – and Huzur (A Mind at Peace) – Tanpinar may have a strong claim to this distinction. Born and educated in the old Ottoman empire, Tanpinar was clearly a major artist and thinker – a strong influence, among other Turkish writers, on Pamuk himself. However, it is difficult for the anglophone reader to verify Pamuk’s judgment. Translations from 20th-century Turkish literature are scarce. The history and culture of modern Turkey are not immediately familiar to readers in English: how, for instance, in the 1920s the Muslimmajority Ottoman empire was radically and forcibly reorganised into a secular republic by Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatürk), and everything in its culture, from the alphabet to headwear and religion, hastily abandoned in an attempt to emulate Europeanstyle modernity.
Tanpinar in 1960

There is another, even steeper, hurdle to understanding Atatürk’s drastic cultural revolution: the basic assumption, shared by many western readers, that societies must modernise and become more secular and rational, relegating their premodern past to museums or, in the case of religion, to private life. The idea that modernisation makes for enhanced national power and rapid progress and helps everyone achieve greater happiness has its origins in the astonishing political, economic and military successes of western Europe in the 19th century. It was subsequently adopted in tradition-minded societies by powerful men ranging from autocrats such as Atatürk and Mao Zedong to the more democratically inclined, if paternalistic, Jawaharlal Nehru.

They felt oppressed and humiliated by the power of the industrialised west and urgently sought to match it. It did not matter that their countries lacked the human material – self-motivated and rationally self-interested individuals – apparently necessary for the pursuit of national wealth and power. A robust bureaucratic state and a suitably enlightened ruling elite could forge citizens out of a scattered mass of peasants and merchants, and endow them with a sense of national identity.

But there was a tragic mismatch between the intentions of these hasty modernisers and the long historical experience of the societies they wanted to remake. No major Asian or African tradition had accommodated the notion that human beings could shape a meaningful narrative of evolution, or that the social order contained the general laws discovered by modern science in the natural world, which, once identified, could be used to bring about evergreater improvements. Time, in fact, was rarely conceptualised as a linear progression in Asian and African cultures. Nevertheless, scientific and technological innovations, as well as the great triumphs of western imperialism, persuaded many Asians that they too could manipulate their natural and social environment to their advantage.

Tanpinar upheld the felt experience of ordinary life against the empty promise of modern ideologies

As was seen in Iran under Reza Pahlavi, as well as in Mao Zedong’s China, these single-minded authoritarian figures inflicted immense violence and suffering on their societies. The outcome was always ambiguous. For, as Dostoyevsky warned: “No nation on Earth, no society with a certain measure of stability, has been developed to order, on the lines of a programme imported from abroad.”

Dostoyevsky was speaking from the experience of 19th-century Russia, the first society to be coerced by its insecure rulers into imitating the west: the result was uprooted and “superfluous” men, such as those he and his compatriots wrote about; bloody revolution; and a legacy of authoritarian rule that persists to this day. Japan had then followed Russia – and preceded Turkey – in trying to do in a few decades what it took the west centuries to accomplish. Japanese writers in the last century – from Natsume Sōseki to Haruki Murakami – have attested to the profound psychic distortions and widespread intellectual confusion caused by the Japanese attempt at westernisation that peaked with the rise of militarism and, after the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, turned Japan into an American client state.

In recent times, Pamuk’s fiction has eloquently attested to what he calls in his novel The White Castle the alienation wrought by “the transformation of people and beliefs without their knowledge”. But what Tanpinar identified as a peculiar “fatality of Turkish history” was not particular to his or Turkey’s experience. Both China’s Lu Xun and India’s Rabindranath Tagore confronted what Tanpinar described as “the awful thing we call belatedness” – that is, the experience of arriving late in the modern world, as naive pupils, to find one’s future foreclosed and already defined by other people’s past and present. There is much literary, historical and sociological evidence of the spiritual and psychological as well as political damage caused by top-down modernisation. Still, most commentators in the west continue to insist that non-western societies, especially Islamic ones, ought to quickly become modern: in other words, be more like the west. These reflexive and unexamined prejudices emerge, understandably, from the exceptional experience of western Europe and America. But at least some of them have to be overcome before we can understand the nature and extent of Tanpinar’s achievement – his sense of foreboding and loss, and his evocation, in particular, of the melancholy, or hüzün, of those doomed to arrive late, and spiritually destitute, in history. Though Tanpinar knew his European literature – his Baudelaire, Gide and Valéry – the anguish “that sustains all of his work”, as Pamuk writes, “arises from the disappearance of traditional artistry and lifestyles”.

Tanpinar grew up, for instance, with the Ottoman music and poetry that Atatürk’s cultural engineering made inaccessible to later generations. He seems to have recognised that Atatürk’s new republic could not be a tabula rasa, no matter how hard the state tried to eradicate the fez, the Muslim calendar, and Arabic numerals and measures, and replace them with the European clock, calendar, numerals and weights and measures.

But Tanpinar did not respond to this feckless programme of westernisation with a conservative or backwardlooking project like Dostoyevsky’s pan-Slavism. He hoped for a synthesis of past and present that went beyond secularist slogans and state plans for modernisation. In opposition to a parochial nationalism, he invoked the cosmopolitanism of Istanbul. The old city brought the traditional together with the modern, the foreign with the domestic and the “beautiful with ugly” – an intermingling originally forged by “the institutions of Islam and the Ottoman empire”. And it was important to emphasise this because, Tanpinar wrote, echoing many writers in Japan and other parts of Asia, it was of no use to keep thinking of the east and west as separate; they had to be seen as “an invitation to create a vast and comprehensive synthesis [terkip], a life meant for us and particular to us”.

Tanpinar’s brooding and intricate novel A Mind at Peace (1939) attempts such a synthesis – one reason why it became popular in the 1980s as Turkey began to emerge from decades of soulless Kemalism. Its most cherished character is Istanbul itself – the city’s poor neighbourhoods, dramatic sunsets and long Ramadan evenings – celebrated with no less lyrical intensity than Baudelaire had showered on Paris. It is against the backdrop of the city in the 1930s that Mümtaz, a young writer, pursues a near-mystical romance with a musically gifted woman named Nuran, while staving off the intellectual and romantic challenge of Suad, a Nietzschean dandy. His cousin, the cultivated Ihsan, introduces the conventionally westernised Mümtaz to the works of Ottoman poets and composers. As though fulfilling Proust’s maxim that what we love in others is the particular world we think they represent, Nuran embodies, in the rapturous eyes of Mümtaz, the superseded Ottoman-Turkish culture.

The symbolism is rendered in a dense, opaque prose and unchronological sequences that speak of a deliberate attempt to appropriate the techniques of modernism. The Kemalists had tried to enlist Turkish writers into the national task of creating new role models and educating a loyal and intelligent citizenry. But Tanpinar, with his poetics of the indolent flâneur, rejects the social-realist tradition that was dominant in Turkey (and indeed in all new national societies in the 20th century). He seems to have taken to heart Baudelaire’s dictum that the modern artist is “the painter of both the passing moment and everything in that moment that smacks of eternity”. He lingers defiantly on classic Istanbul scenes: ferries with melancholy foghorns and broken marble fountains.

Once discarded, Tanpinar implies, tradition cannot always be retrieved and used to re-enchant the world – a warning to those who today rummage through Istanbul’s cosmopolitan past for clues to their identity.

The suicide of Suad, who hangs himself while listening to Beethoven, further hints at the impossibility of synthesis. The Orient is doomed to inauthenticity, to be forever seeking fragments it can shore against its ruins.

The Time Regulation Institute, published in 1962, confirms this despairing vision. The continuity between past and present dreamed of by Tanpinar seems no longer possible. The onwards-and-upwards narrative of progress, dictated by the state and embraced by a gullible people, has contaminated everything. The spiritual resources of modernism seem meagre compared with the great and irreversible material changes – industrialisation, mechanisation, demographic shifts, middle-class consumerism and rapid communications – introduced by Turkey’s Kemalist elite.

The novel’s narrator, Hayri Irdal, is one of those superfluous semi-modern men familiar to us from Russian ltrature: more acted on than active, simering with inarticulate resentments and regrets, a cross between Oblomov and the protagonist of Notes from the Underground . Confusion marks almost everything he does: “I was fording a deep-sea cavern lined by the remains of knowledge and by all the ideas I had ever failed to grasp. As they swirled around my feet I moved forward, and with every step I felt the coil of unfounded beliefs, ungrounded frustrations, and unending despair tightening around my chest and arms.”

By the early 1960s, Tanpinar had worked in a ministry and even been a member of parliament. His narrator has a keen appreciation of the absurdities of the self-perpetuating and self-justifying bureaucratic state that embodies progress and enlightenment in Turkey.

Tanpinar’s satirical intentions in this novel are clarified by the fact that in 1926 Atatürk had formally adopted western time by passing the Gregorian Calendar Act. Most people in Turkey, as in 19th-century Asia, had not needed to know the time with the precision offered by watches. The muezzin’s call to prayers or the sun’s journey sufficed. But Atatürk decreed that clock towers be erected across the country. They were to be part of the new architecture and urban environment in which Turkish citizens could pretend to be modern, and anyone still adhering to Islamic time, or time-keeper’s houses, was severely punished.

Atatürk was clearly influenced by western notions of maximising the efficiency of individual citizens. Irdal, however, has savoured another kind of life, one in which idleness, or wasting time, is a source of happiness. He dates his fall from this Eden to the time he is given a watch: “My life’s rhythms were disrupted, it would seem, by the watch my uncle gave me on the occasion of my circumcision.” From then on, he is a citizen of modern Turkey, expected to do his bit as an individual producer and consumer to boost its collective power.

Tanpinar uses Irdal to take aim at many aspects of Kemalist Turkey: counterfeit tradition, for instance, as exemplified by Irdal’s projected history of a 17th-century clockmaker called Ahmet Zamani Efendi, which tries to provide a respectable pedigree to the Kemalist state’s tinkering with the old temporal order and heal its ruptures with the past. Unlike Mümtaz in A Mind at Peace, who cannot get on with his account of an 18th-century Ottoman poet, Irdal manages to finish his book. There is, however, a problem: this account of a traditional herald of Turkish modernity, renamed Ahmet the Timely, is mostly bogus, depicting him, among other impostures, at the Ottoman siege of Vienna.

Like Tagore and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki before him, Tanpinar upheld the felt experience of ordinary life against the dehumanising abstractions and empty promises of modern ideologies. No longer seeking, as he did in A Mind at Peace, an immutable cultural identity in Istanbul’s past, he places himself on the side of the fragmentary and the gratuitous against the imperatives of history and progress.

He returns often to the question of human freedom – a theme that clearly preoccupied him a great deal and gave metaphysical ballast to his critique of secular modernity: “The privilege I most treasured as a child was that of freedom … Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. For I fear that those who see freedom solely as a political concept will never fully grasp its meaning. The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale – or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments.”

Tanpinar presciently feared that to embrace the western conception of progress was to be mentally enslaved by a whole new epistemology, one that compartmentalised knowledge and concealed an instrumental view of human beings as no more than things to be manipulated.

Max Weber, the tragic prophet of modernity, saw the bureaucratic and technological state as an “iron cage” in which we live as “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart”. Even worse, Weber feared, “this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved”. The Time Regulation Institute explodes that presumption by showing us, in our postmodern cages, glimpses of another kind of civilisation. It also mourns, more eloquently than any novel I know, the obscure sufferings of people in less “developed” societies – those who, uprooted from their old ways of being, must languish eternally in the waiting room of history.

The Time Regulation Institute, 
translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe,
is published by Penguin Classics.


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