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Fragments of Empire: Lessons for Americans in Orhan Pamuk's 'The Museum of Innocence'
The novel by a Turkish Nobel laureate should be required reading for Americans who face imperial temptations, who so often cling to fetishes of innocence to compensate for failing privileges.
By Jon Pahl
By about the middle of Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's brilliant The Museum of Innocence, I was about to put the novel down in moral disgust. Now, having finished the book, I'm glad I endured because it contains both a profound critique of imperial ambition, and a compassionate affirmation of ordinary life. The novel should be required reading for Americans who face imperial temptations of our own, and who so often cling to fetishes of innocence to compensate for our own failing privileges.
On the surface, the plot of The Museum of Innocence traces the complicated love affair of its narrator, a wealthy, thirty-year old Istanbul businessman named Kemal, with an eighteen-year old retail worker named Füsun (not coincidentally, as we shall see, Kemal is also the family name of Ataturk--the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey). More deeply, The Museum of Innocence explores Pamuk's conflicted love for his native land, and especially its most cosmopolitan city, Istanbul. Kemal's is a complicated romance. He falls in love with Füsun, who is his distant cousin, in 1975, while engaged to another young woman, Sibel. And by the time he calls off his relationship with Sibel, Füsun herself is married off to another man, Feridun. To compensate for the absence, or inaccessibility, of his beloved, Kemal begins to collect objects associated with Füsun, with whose family he strikes up an enduring and endearing (if slightly odd) relationship. He dines with them three or more evenings a week over the course of eight years, and spends hours in their small apartment watching television, drinking raki (an anise flavored whiskey), and chain smoking cigarettes. By the time I was about to drop the novel, Kemal had collected (usually by stealing them) an astonishing (and more than slightly odd) assortment of objects Füsun had touched: a doorknob, a teacup, and (eventually) thousands of Füsun's cigarette butts. Kemal stores this eccentric collection in a spare apartment that his mother had purchased in Istanbul, where he and Füsun had-- for a few short weeks prior to his engagement, and prior to her marriage--made love. This collection eventually becomes The Museum of Innocence.
Needless to say, this is no simple love story, but neither is it exactly "Lolita on the Bosporus," as Maureen Howard misreads the tale in her review in The New York Times. Consistent with the self-critical rigor that earned Pamuk a charge of "insulting Turkishness" shortly after the release of his 2005 novel, Snow, this new novel smolders with irony--in that sense it is like Nabokov--while also encouraging a profoundly Turkish Sufi-like love for the world in all its common contingency.
What saved me from giving up on the novel, actually, was a brief excursus by Kemal into Aristotle's Physics. According to Kemal, in that work Aristotle distinguished between "Time"(always capitalized)--which denotes the basic way we plot events from past to future, birth to death, creation to destruction--and the single moments that constitute the "present." "Moments," Kemal goes on, "are--like Aristotle's atoms--indivisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links these indivisible moments." "Remembering Time," Kemal continues, "is for most of us a rather painful business. . . But sometimes these moments we call the 'present' can bring us enough happiness to last a century."(287-88) It is in Pamuk's loving narration of these "moments" that the Sufi core of the novel becomes clear, along with its critique of imperial nostalgia and ambition.
The Republic of Turkey, built on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, is nearly a century old now. And as anyone who has visited Ataturk's impressive mausoleum in Ankara, Anitkabir, can report--veneration for the founder of modern Turkey includes attention to the most discrete objects associated with him. I remember the display with his cigarette holders as especially impressive. It is thus no coincidence that in an interview with Nathan Gardels, Pamuk contrasted Kemal's museum of quotidian objects with museums that are "about the power of the state. They are crude exercises." In contrast, the Museum of Innocence is "a museum not to power, but to the intimate experience of love, to an individual life." (See Nathan Gardels, "A Talk with Orhan Pamuk: Caressing the World with Words".
Yet the contrast also includes a parallel. In the novel, Kemal and Füsun stand in for the Turkish everyman and woman, including Ataturk. "This is not simply a story of lovers," the novel offers about itself, "but of the entire realm."(525) The Museum of Innocence, similarly, represents not only the memory of love, but also the fetishizing of modern commodities that marks the economic energy of the Turkish Republic, and of so many nations under the sway of globalization. "Real museums," Kemal narrates near the end of the book, "are places where Time is transformed into Space."(510) But of course this transformation, the obsession that fuels it, and the irresponsibility it can foster, has its costs. While planning for his own museum, Kemal travels to thousands of other collections around the world, including (of course) the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna. It is, however, in his commentary on seeing Caravaggio's The Sacrifice of Isaac at the Uffizi in Florence that Kemal reveals the deepest, religious motive for his collection of relics: "When I first set eyes on Caravaggio's The Sacrifice of Isaac . . . I saw in the painting that the unremarked lesson of Abraham's sacrifice was that it is possible to substitute for one's most cherished object another." (501)
As I have argued elsewhere, in my recent book Empire of Sacrifice, such substitutions are both the salve and sword of religious power. But Pamuk, unlike Kemal, does not cling to illusions that the substitution of an object for a living One can ultimately satisfy. His book's sharpest critique is precisely of this imperial longing to fix time by taking space: "the Museum of Innocence was to be a place where one could live with the dead."(503)
The consequences of this quest for a secular heaven, for life among the living dead, are revealed in Pamuk's unsparing narration of the fractured and suffering-laced relationships of the manifold characters; a narration that almost, but not quite, drove me away in disgust. The way the novel juxtaposes longing and alienation reaches nearly unbearable intensity in the story of Kemal and Füsun. The characters are caught in a largely unspeakable tension between respect for tradition and an obsessive quest for Western (and especially French) "happiness." They sit in theaters or in front of a television and smoke and drink themselves to oblivion, or they go off on frantic jaunts that lead them to self-destructive dissipation in webs of self-deception. Meanwhile, recurrent military coups in Turkey--rendered with extraordinary restraint by Pamuk--stifle free expression, and traumatize individuals: "For me," Pamuk comments, what matters is "not . . . consuming fanciful goods; it's . . . a system of free speech, democracy, egalitarianism and respect for the people's rights and dignity."
So for all of the ways that they are trapped in systems they neither create nor fully understand, Kemal and Füsun do find happiness, and even dignity, in fragments of empire, in experiences akin to what Paul Ricouer called second naiveté. These fragments of empire hardly constitute a simple innocence, but they do constitute its memory, as woven with words. In the most remarkable chapter in the book, entitled simply "Sometimes," each sentence of which begins with that word, Pamuk invites readers to consider the blessedness of ordinary (and critical) attentiveness, rather than utopian dreams for imperial or postmodern consumerist glory. "There is a kind of Sufi . . . quality to this love for the world," Pamuk comments in his interview with Gardels. "I identify with Kemal's attention as a lover to his beloved because it is like a novelist's attention to words. In the end, being a novelist, in a way, is loving the world, caressing the world with words." But Pamuk also knows that these words, like the objects Kemal collects, are fragments. Time erases linearity. Empires crumble. Yet, through memory, love endures. And the love that the author holds up as worthy of admiration in the novel is, finally, this: "deep attention, deep compassion."(524) Throughout this remarkable work, Pamuk's durable, persistent, and complex love for Turkey and its people--for the beauty of the Bosphorus, for the ancient, meandering streets of Istanbul, even for the influx of bumptious religious (but capitalist) migrants from the provinces--shines with aching clarity in a profound meditation on memory, time and space, tradition and modernity, and the love of innocence that so often turns into its ironic opposite.
Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author (most recently) of Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence (NYU, 2010).
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