Sunday, December 21, 2008

Liminal States

In this month's The New York Review of Books, Nobel-Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk discusses his literary inspirations and the creation of his personal library in his essay, "My Turkish Library." I am going to avoid both of these topics, though I find the commentary about his library, which is the bulk of Pamuk's piece, to be of immense interest only because I empathize with his experience in the creation of my own library. His portrayal of his mother demanding that he not buy any more books until he finished those he already had could just as easily come out of the mouth of my mother or, now, wife. But the creation of a personal library is not what I want to discuss here.

Rather, I want to focus on a quote in his article pertaining to one of my academic interests at the moment:
The vexing questions associated with "drawing from tradition" greatly occupied the writers of the generation that came before me, and my own generation, too. Because Ottoman poetry had flourished for centuries, always remaining aloof to Western influence, there was a sense of continuity, and that made it easier and more comfortable to discuss literary and philosophical questions with reference to poetry. Because the novel was a European import, novelists and writers of prose wishing to connect with our own literary tradition turned their attention to poetry.

Though Pamuk obviously left this traditional stance and wrote many novels of contemporary importance which earned him the Nobel prize in 2006, here in this quote he is saying that writers in his country, for reasons of tradition and national character, turned to poetry as the conventional means to communicate those ideas of culural importance. This quote reminds me of Pamuk's novel, My Name Is Red, which I am currently teaching in my 20th Cent. Fiction course. Without going into great plot detail, the narrative is set in late 16th century Istanbul and focuses on the differences between the Herat/Islamic style and the Frankish/Venetian (European Renaissance) style of painting. The traditional artists, who emulate the great master miniaturists of the Herat style, feel the invasion of the Frankish/Venetian style is a corruption that verges on, if not is outright, blasphemy. Just as the writers in Pamuk's childhood only wrote poetry instead of prose, the miniaturist painters in My Name Is Red only paint in the traditional Herat/Islamic style. Although many readers might stop at this thematic concern in order to explore the differences in the Islamic and European cultures, the novel actually goes beyond this point by examining the false constructs we use to categorize the world. Pamuk's actual theme is that there is no 'pure' art, whether it be Islamic or European. They are influenced by other art styles which disrupt the 'essence' of what we desire to label 'Islamic' or 'European.'

We might call these unclassifiable territories (constructs, categories, etc.) 'liminal states.' My Name Is Red is full of these liminal states. The setting, Istanbul, Tukey, is a liminal state itself. It is neither European or Asia; rather, it is a bit of both. It is European in the sense that it does belong to NATO and it is in negotiation to become a member of the EU. Istanbul historically was a westernized city, Constantinople, at times also. Though it does have European associations, it is just as much considered a Middle-Eastern country. Its populace is mostly Muslim, and everything from its architecture to its art strongly speak of an Eastern influence. It is a unique blend of Eastern and Western, a liminal country that helps Pamuk carry these themes to the reader. There are many other situations in the book that explore these liminal states. Shekure, the female protagonist, is not sure if she is widowed or married, and she is in love with her brother-in-law, Hasan, and her childhood love, Black. A murderer (the novel is loosely framed as a mystery, though it does not follow many conventions of the mystery genre--ugh, classifications and labels, the stuff of fetishism) is stuck between a transvaluation of personal pride and obediently following the footsteps of the master miniaturists and defending the morality of Islam. Other liminal state balances the reader between public and private, sleep and wake, and objectivity and subjectivity (especially since the narrative point of view is multiple first-person). There are most likely many more liminal states, but they are fairly minor compared to the examples here.

Liminal states shatter the idea of dichotomized thinking, the simplicity that shuns the gray for the ease of black and white, stifling relativism for absolutes. When we realize that we are all tainted, that contact changes the colonizer as well as the colonized, then we will understand that respecting difference is more imperative than maintaining the staus-quo. Anyone interested in the literary portrayal of these ideas should read My Name Is Red. I am reading Pamuk's, Snow, at the moment, but as of yet, I cannot comment on if it also discusses the same concepts.

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