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The Melancholies of Istanbul.

IN HIS RECENT BOOK Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk juxtaposes his autobiography as a child with the biography of Istanbul in the 1970s. (1) The connection between the individual and the city is not too difficult to make. Ever since Plato constructed the analogy between the ideal city and the happy citizen in the Republic, some part of us searches for happiness in the cities and towns in which we live. "To Be Unhappy Is to Hate Oneself and One's City" is one of the chapter headings of Istanbul. So are the titles that testify to the melancholic mood coming out of the city: "Black and White," "Four Lonely Melancholic Writers," "Gautier's Melancholic Strolls Through the City," "The Melancholy of the Ruins." But just whose melancholy does the text refer to--to that of Pamuk himself, of the writers he has read, of an anonymous resident in Istanbul, of the city residents, or of the city itself?

Pamuk suggests that melancholy caused by "poverty, defeat, and the feeling of loss" is the principal emotion of Istanbul that unites its residents. He draws connections between representations by such French writers who visited the city in the nineteenth century as Gerard de Nerval and Theophile Gautier, and those by such prominent Turkish writers of the early twentieth century as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpmar, Resad Ekrem Kocu, and Yahya Kemal. As we read the pages, we understand that the melancholic tone in these "Western" and "Eastern" representations of Istanbul constructed Pamuk's own insights about the city; we witness how he had "let these writers shape his understanding of the city in which he lives" and thereby shape our, the reader's, perceptions of Istanbul.

Pamuk couples the word melancholy with the Turkish word huzun (left untraslated in the English version). This association, which appears shocking yet intriguing at first sight, is, indeed, of great intellectual engagement. It is through this association that Pamuk brings together two distinct traditions in the complicated intellectual history of melancholy, and it is through this association that we start seeing both words differently.

Melancholy has been a topic of interest for numerous writers and physicians since antiquity. Over the years, it has usually been associated with sadness, suffering, and depression but also with creative energy, brilliance, thoughtfulness, and, in some cases, idleness. Many writers have characterized it as the swing between opposite emotions such as joy and grief, cheerfulness and despair, love and hate, overconfidence and unjustified fear. The etymology of huzun (deep sorrow, grief, or solitude) is no less complicated either. Pamuk reminds us of but disassociates the term from its Koranic and Sufi origins, suggesting that a new meaning has already emerged, one that can now be described as a collective melancholy.

Pamuk uses melancholy in two distinct senses, which in turn allows him to unite it with huzun. One of them is the more common association of melancholy with the feeling of loss. The second, less explicit one, is connected to the city's landscape (manzara). These distinct traditions are seamlessly woven together in Istanbul; but despite what one might think at first, I am not referring to the different traditions of East and West because, as far as the history of melancholy's meaning is concerned, there is no such difference. On the contrary, the idea of melancholy should be treated as an intertwined construction, a production defined through a series of cultural exchanges.

The first genealogy concerns the evolution of melancholy from antiquity to the twentieth century. In one of the earliest accounts on the subject, Aristotle associated melancholy with both brilliance and the fluctuating mood between confidence and fear, joy and grief, explaining its cause in terms of the vacillating temperature of the black bile. (2) Medieval Middle Eastern scientific books such as al-Kindi's Medical Formulary and Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine offered similar characterizations, improved explanations, and "cures" of melancholy as a disorder of the black bile. (3) It is well known that Middle Eastern science and philosophy later influenced such Italian Renaissance works as Ficino's accounts on melancholy, (4) to whom Robert Burton paid homage in the decisive work of the seventeenth century on the topic, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" arguably had the greatest impact on modern interpretations of the concept. One of the most significant and decisive contributions of Freud's theory to the intellectual history of the term was his association of melancholy with loss. Loss and deprivation were traditionally associated with melancholy, but it was Freud who singled out loss from a history of mixed definitions as the main cause of melancholy. In melancholia, the subject resists confronting the loss of the object and preserves it in the shelter of his or her ego. This intense attachment of the ego to the lost object leads to the object's internalization by the ego. "The shadow of the object [falls] upon the ego," so much so that the loss of object and the loss of ego become the same thing. (5)

The implications of this first tradition can be excavated in the early-twentieth-century literature of Istanbul, to which Pamuk himself refers. During that time, melancholy was a fairly common term in everyday Turkish as well as in prominent novels, poems, and cultural magazines. The new life that was constructed in Ankara in the early twentieth century as a sign of the new Turkish Republic resonated with a melancholic echo in Istanbul. Unlike the rapid population increase after the 1950s, Istanbul was a shrinking city during the first half of the twentieth century, with a population that remained around seven hundred thousand (quite smaller than the twelve million of today). The city's fabric was either left to slowly decay or disappeared due to the extensive tires that wiped out blocks of houses in a single night. The shredding of the city's fabric did, indeed, produce a literature of melancholy. The writers of the early republican times portrayed the city as the precious last remnant of a lost civilization. In Mahur Beste (1944), renowned Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpmar wrote that the Orient died with the collapsing and burning houses of Istanbul.

Istanbul is loaded with passages and homages to the writers who shaped Pamuk's melancholic perceptions. "As a child I had no sense of living in a great world capital but rather in a poor provincial city," Pamuk writes, associating melancholy with the feeling of loss. In an early chapter entitled "Black and White," which sets the tone for the entire book, Pamuk describes Istanbul as a city that mourns over its loss of color.
 I love the sweet melancholy when I look at the old
 apartment buildings and the fallen-down wooden
 mansions, whose neglected and unpainted walls have
 turned into the unique dark color of Istanbul.... To
 see the city in black and white.... this is how you
 grieve for a city of defeat and loss, of poverty and ruins,
 a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty
 years.


In this first tradition, melancholy caused by the loss of a civilization, the loss of a beloved object, is still an individual mood, even if it might be shared by other individuals; it is something that human beings have, not their buildings, streets, rivers, or cities. It is the subject that experiences melancholy over the loss of the object.

On the other hand, in the second, less explicit genealogy of melancholy, melancholy arises from the object itself. In this sense, melancholy is no longer dependent on the sorrowful individual who is trying to deal with the trauma of loss but on the beautiful object; in the case of Istanbul, the urban landscape itself. The definition of the beautiful as a melancholic object to be contemplated, a common theme among the romantics, surfaces quite consciously in Istanbul. "A sense of deprivation and hopelessness" verbalized by Baudelaire appears in Istanbul, as the melancholy generated by wandering in the poor back streets, in ruins from past civilizations, in the midst of an urban landscape that has deteriorated since the glorious days of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Melancholy is no longer something internal to the subject but something connected to the object. It is not a single individual who is melancholic; rather, the city's landscape (manzara), "the beautiful object," elicits the feeling of melancholy as a collective emotion. Melancholy thus leaves the isolated individual and infiltrates the city itself.

Again, this meaning can also be excavated in early-twentieth-century Turkish writers. In the words of Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar, "The Bosphorus has an effective and melancholic beauty like a full moon.... I cannot believe this past has been wasted.... The Bosphorus is the most beautiful part of the unmatched Istanbul, and yet, like all subtle and gracious things, it has a sad beauty" 0934). (6) Hisar also treated melancholy as something inherent in the object, in this case the Bosphorus, not necessarily in the subject looking at the object. For him, melancholic beauty is attached to the waterfront houses of Bosphorus, "the poetry that lasts for kilometers." (7) Hisar's book Bogazici Mehtaplari (The full moons of the Bosphorus) was a eulogy to these decaying Istanbul houses. (8) There is no plot in the book, no notable character, not a single short conversation between any people, no storyline or dramatic "action" that is consequential for others, no chronological presentation of occasional events, but a pure description of old Istanbul. Word after word, sentence after sentence, almost nothing "happens" in the book, only a long description that lasted for a tightly condensed 195 pages. This requires the reader to freeze time and meditate on descriptions without expecting a thrilling mystery, pathos, or even an emerging character. It compels the reader to contemplate the depicted world and to accompany the writer in his endless yet quite intentional repetitions, depicting the beautiful melancholic waterfront houses of the Bosphorus.

Nowhere but in Istanbul is this "melancholic landscape," these ruins where one "discovers the city's soul," so consciously and frequently painted in words.
 In Istanbul's poor neighborhoods, however, beauty
 resides entirely in the crumbling city walls, in the
 grass, ivy, weeds, and trees still growing when I was
 a child from the towers and walls of the fortresses.
 ... The beauty of a broken fountain, an old ramshackle
 mansion, a ruined hundred-year-old gasworks, the
 crumbling wall of an old mosque, the vines and plane
 trees intertwining to shade the old blackened walls of
 a wooden house.


The collective melancholy, huzun, is only possible when these two traditions of melancholy--the melancholy of the subject and melancholy as object--are woven together. In Istanbul, what makes melancholy contagious among the citizens of Istanbul is the city's urban landscape itself, which brings to mind the illustrious days that are now lost to the city. The urban landscape and the memory of the lost civilization imprinted on the city's ruins become the illustration of the melancholic mood of individuals. That is why this huzun inscribed deeply in the Bosphorus and ruined buildings of Istanbul is a collective melancholy, one that unifies its residents. In Pamuk's own words, "To feel this huzun is to be able to see the moments and places in which this feeling and the context that arouses this feeling mix together." What Istanbul illustrates vividly is, indeed, an endless and inspiring list of these places and moments where the melancholic subject and melancholic object are woven together.

From the bringing together of these two meanings of melancholy, perhaps even a third one emerges, a tacit one, one that needs to be excavated by the "analyst" perhaps, but one that could single-handedly define Pamuk's depiction of the Turkish psyche, not only in Istanbul but in his oeuvre as a whole. Pamuk often depicts living in Turkey in terms of the "feeling of being peripheral," as a feeling that swings between a "dignified pride" and an "inferiority complex."

This perspective can, indeed, also be defined as a melancholy that arises as a consequence of the asymmetric relations operating during the moment of modernization and Westernization of Turkey. Ideologies of Eurocentrism imported to Turkey during the process of modernization caused the idea of the "Western" (which itself varies and should not be standardized) to be perceived as the "ideal" norm for humanity, its cultural productions as the inescapable "universal" expression. In Freudian theory, the lost object causing melancholy does need not be a person or a thing--it may also be an ideal. The feeling of unworthiness and being peripheral, the pendulum swings between pride and inferiority, and the fluctuations between love and hate toward the lost object are nothing but the melancholic subject's perceived distance from the ideal. What happens when the ideal is socially constructed as "unreachable" in the dominant cultural politics? Namely, what happens when the ideal is constructed through the hierarchy set between the "West" and the "East"? How does this reflect on the psyche of the "non-Western" whose ideal is perceived to be something belonging to the "West" while she is excluded from the "West" in the first place? What exactly is this "feeling of being peripheral"?

Eurocentrism exacerbated the distance between the Istanbulite and his ideal. As Edward Said put it, "psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia" that dreads the invasion of "our" ("Western") boundaries by "them" ("Orientals"). (9) When Orientalism travels outside the "West," I suggest that the paranoia of the subject of Orientalism constructs the melancholy of the object of Orientalism. As long as we are speaking about a collective melancholy, the cause of this melancholy is no longer the loss of something previously possessed but rather exclusion from or the lack of an ideal.

As long as the historical process of modernization is defined as a "Western" ideal--namely, as a process whose torch is carried by the "West"--this inscribed ideal becomes an unattainable lost ideal for the subject who is categorized as the "non-Western" in the first place. In a world where the "West" is perceived as the maker of universal history and the "East" as its inferior follower, the others who are excluded from this definition of "universality" live through a loss or lack of a natural right. This is the natural right of being part of making history. (10)

What is the continuing relevance of the melancholy Pamuk depicts in Istanbul? Today, Istanbul is a lively and modern city that serves as a global capital. Entertainment scenes, shopping malls, construction sites, business districts with high-tech skyscrapers, and luxurious five-star hotels adorn the city, in addition to the common symbols of Istanbul's historical peninsula and the Bosphorus. Many visual and verbal representations today portray Istanbul as a complex and colorful global city with a cosmopolitan population, hybrid roots, corrupt and ruthless businesses, and somewhat self-confident and experienced people. Istanbul is no longer a black-and-white city, as it appeared to Pamuk as a child, but a multicolored booming metropolis, developing and expanding, generic and flashy, hybrid and nerve-racking, speedy and enthusiastic, spontaneous and dynamic. The accomplishment of Pamuk's Istanbul, in contrast, resides in its ability to speak to the readers who can still look through this booming global city and see its melancholy in the background. The global city is global only when one fails to see its hidden lingering melancholy. Ever since Aristotle associated melancholy with "brilliance" and "thoughtful being," this meaning has rarely been lacking from connotations of the term, although it usually remained in the background. (11) Melancholy is characterized as a sadness that, nevertheless, has charm, a desirable tune. This appealing sorrow is also the retreat of the individual who wants to be disassociated from the dominant process of history, where "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." (12) For Pamuk, this characterizes the remaining Sufi influence in the modern word huzun as well: "Imbued still with the honor accorded to it in Sufi literature, huzun gives the resignation of [Istanbul's residents] an air of dignity, but it also explains their choice to embrace failure, indecision, defeat, and poverty so philosophically and with such pride."

Columbia University

(1) Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Hatiralar ve Sehir (Istanbul: Yapi Kredi Yayinlari, 2003); Eng. Istanbul: Memories and the City, tr. Maureen Freely (New York: Knopf, 2006). Throughout the text, I followed Maureen Freely's translation, except in a few cases where the translation was transformed based on the argument.

(2) Aristotle, "Problems Connected with Thought, Intelligence, and Wisdom," in Problems II, tr. W. S. Hett (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), book 30.

(3) When the Persian philosopher and scientist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) entered the service of the court, he treated the prince of Rayy for melancholia. In The Canon of Medicine, Ibn Sina used similar definitions for the signs of melancholy such as bad judgment, fear without cause, quick anger, delight in solitude, and anxiety. He also improved the Aristotelian specifications of the relationship between melancholy and disorder in the black bile. See al-Kindi, Medical Formulary, or Aqrabadhin, tr. Martin Levey (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966); and Ibn Sina, Treatise on the Canon of Medicine, tr. O. Cameron Gruner (London: Luzac, 1930). The English translation of the section on melancholy appeared as "On the Signs of Melancholy's Appearance" (77-78).

(4) Marcillo Ficino, Three Books of Life, tr. Carol Kaske & John Clark (1482; reprint, Binghamton: Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1991).

(5) Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 3 vols., ed. Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair (1621; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 1:170.

(6) Abdulhak Sinasi [Hisar], "Madalyonlar II," Varlik, 1 June 1934, 344-45.

(7) Abdulhak Sinasi [Hisar], "Yikilan Yali," 245.

(8) Abdulhak Sinasi [Hisar], Bogazici Mehtaplari (1943; reprint, Istanbul: Baglam, 1997).

(9) Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), 72.

(10) For more on this topic, see Esra Akcan, "Modernity in Translation: Early Twentieth Century German-Turkish Exchanges in Land Settlement and Residential Culture," Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2005.

(11) Aristotle, "Problems Connected with Thought, Intelligence, and Wisdom."

(12) Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 256.

ESRA AKCAN lives in New York, where she works as a postdoctoral core lecturer at Columbia University and teaches graduate seminars at the New School's Parsons School of Design. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture from Middle East Technical University and master's of philosophy and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Akcan has published articles in books and various journals, including the Journal of Architecture, Architectural Design (Great Britain), Architectural Theory Review (Australia), 9/11, New York-Istanbul, Mimarlik, Toplum Bilim, and Studios (Turkey). She guest edited a special issue on globalization for Domus in in 2001 and has published a book-length work, (Land) Fill Istanbul: Twelve Scenarios for a Global City.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION; Orhan Pamuk; "Istanbul: Memories and the City"
Author:Akcan, Esra
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:3134
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