How to turn Turk?

17 September 2014
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The literary history of the Turk is long: from the Shakespearean Turk to Turkish humanist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's "dervish without the mantle". But what exactly does it entail, to turn Turk? E. Khayyat traces an intellectual tradition that begins with the characters of Don Quixote.

The ways in which the fear of the “Grand Turk” andthe accompanying threat of “turning Turk” shaped European culture have been exhaustively studied from literary and historical perspectives. Yet the question of the content and the particularityof the threat, i.e. what exactly it entails to turn Turk, has hardly inspired critical insight. This paper engages this content and the particularity and offers a general outline for a history of literary culture with the question of turning Turk at the center. The outline begins with Don Quixote and culminates in three contemporary and exemplary figures: the modern day “Sabbataian”; novelist John Buchan’s “Greenmantle” from his 1916 novel of the same name; and Turkish humanist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s “dervish without the mantle.”

Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that
Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomite?
Othello

The Turk in my title is a name with a long history. Think of the Shakespeareanor the Cervantine Turk, the one that was a major source of inspiration for centuries not only for plays and stories, novels and poetry, but also for fears and fantasies of all hues on the streets and in classrooms, on the battlefield as well as in the market place. It has designated a great many things over the centuries, some religious, some professional, some ethnic, or racial, or national, etc. Once, at any rate, there were multiple shades of Turk. Yet, despite the common usage, hardly anyone, if anyone, would come to the name ‘Turk’. The Ottoman, for instance, is sort of Turkish; the Arab wore “Turkish attire” and the Moor too; and Othello’s “turban’d” “circumcis’d dog” of Aleppo brings them together. Here and elsewhere, the Turk is the “circumcised Turband” one, and opposed to “the baptiz’d race.”1

Dervishes. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy. Source:Flickr

This Turk is coloured too, as in the Masque of Blackness, for instance. Byron would later conveniently name this colour ‘mahogany’. Not all the baptized are on the latter side of the divide, as the “Ottomite” knew very well in inventing the corresponding name Frenk for the “the baptiz’d race.” And Turkishness contaminates non-Muslims as well, who “are all clothed in long garments like the Turkes, & are not distinguished by any apparell they wear […]”2but only by their hats. The name hints at the fabulous state, the very
matter out of which the Muslim, but also the Oriental Christian, the Jew and the Arab were cast.3 We know how the threat of the Grand Turk, but more specifically that of turning Turk, was recounted in reality and in fiction since early modernity. Critics and literary historians have exhausted the topic, some even arguing that the European had in fact turned at least a little Turk in the face of the mighty threat.4 Yet the question of the content and the
particularity of the threat, i.e. what exactly it entails to turn Turk, has hardly inspired critical insight.

One should recall right at the outset that this Turk is overtly outwardly, reducible to garment already in the days of Shakespeare and Cervantes, when “Turkey” designated above all a space of conversion, in reality as on the stage. You could embrace Islam by donning the turban, since the “apparrell proclaimed you to be a Turke” and it did “discriminate you from a Christian” as the “Embleme of Apostacie, and witnesse of your wofull fall”.5

The European nineteenth century, with its fascination with mechanics and automatons and the possibility of a life without an inside, could seamlessly circulate a “Turk” across the world in the form of a chess playing robot. Figuring out the impossible partition, the impossible relation between the inside and the outside of that Turk was the first step in Edgar Allan Poe’s career, for instance.6 The Turk was more generally a blasphemous, indifferent entity, as well as the embodiment of sexual ambivalence. Nascent sociology was preoccupied with the question, and August Comte wanted the Europeans to be united like the Turk, to turn a little Turk.7 The fabulous Turk casts its shadows on our day and age. One can draw a straight line from Comte to Bourdieu, who much later would discover an equally fabulous “undifferentiated”
societal state among North African Muslims. One can draw another straight line from the “Grand Turke” and Cervantes’ anonymous Mohammedans to the Schachtürke that inspired Walter Benjamin to invent a narrative, theorizing history itself – and from there to Deleuze’s “desert”, for instance, a “Turkish” destination after all. The shadow of this fabulous Turk is long. Let us recall that it was in the same mold that the Muselmann – as opposed to the survivor – of the camps was cast.8

I am interested in two different phases – one classical, perhaps, and the other modern – in the history of the intellectual tradition that has at its center the question of the Turk, and more specifically the issue of turning Turk. The thought of outwardliness is key to understanding this transition from one phase to the other – this “history of conversion”.

One can call the tradition in question Orientalism. But Orientalism, in the form of an enabling gaze, is at once larger and smaller in scope than the historical discipline. One can also lightheartedly call it literature in the modern, western sense, as I will explain shortly. But this too can be misleading, since I am not interested in the peculiarities of the modern institution of literature, but in how different ways of employing words and names, of saying and listening, condition ways of being and seeing in reality. This is to say that I am interested in the historical and political relevance of that specific way of distinguishing reality from fiction – or the carving out of a literary space out of the flesh of the world, which, I believe, can be taken to be a perfectly historical event. Critics have invented many scholarly terms and narratives to account for this event and its implications in different parts of the world, but I do think that, at a certain register, the effort itself is essentially quixotic, which is why I take Don Quixote to be the best possible guide in this quest. The historical argument, in short, is that once it was easy to turn Turk, for the Frenk as for the Turk, threatening as this may have been at that point; later, it became impossible to turn Turk, both for the Frenk and for the Turk. I only outline the historical phases in question here. First, a few notes on the times when one could still turn Turk. The outline culminates in three figures with which I later reframe the question in the title: How to turn Turk? The three “modern” figures are figures of madness, in keeping with the literary tradition dating back to Don Quixote who will also help me set to work. The first figure is a disgraced Messiah, the second aBritish spy and the third a Turk. What they have in common is that they all fail to turn Turk, which is maddening. The second figure gives something of an explanation for the madness of the first, and the predicament of the third explains a thing or two about the madness of the second.

ostensible: ostens- ‘stretched out to view’,
from ostendere; ob- ‘in view of’ + tendere ‘to stretch’.

Don Quichotte est fou par devoir.
Rancière, La Chair des mots

I will have to rely on the first novel ever, i.e. Don Quixote, and its Turks to be telegraphic about matters. The first madman of letters stands on the edge of the historic transition from one phase to the other and thus can give us a bird’s eye view of the two sides of the divide.

Much has been said about the abundantly fleshly figure of the Turk, this fabulous Turk of the western imagination, which is the cornerstone of the great edifice of Orientalism and the sine-qua-non of all oriental fantasies. The Turk is his skin, turban or robe. The Turk is his passion, pain or obsession, or ultimately his selfless submission to any or all. Don Quixote draws for us the perfect Turkish image in a passage from the second volume, which problematizes the possibility of naming the Turk and helps us understand the nature of his substance.

The Turk is so exclusively fleshly, so phenomenal, so ostensibly devoid of interiority that he is almost anonymous, without name: “it is the custom of the Turks to bestow names that signify some fault or virtue. This is for the reason that they […] take their names and surnames from bodily defects or
moral characteristics”.9 The name is too much for the Turk. The Turk has nothing to hide, even beneath a name, thus at best even his/her name is fleshly and of this world. Not only is “Turk” not a name proper, the Turk cannot have a name proper. “Turk” names some sort of anonymity.

I take this passage to be the perfect depiction because it is a provocation to speak up in the name of the Turk. In recent times statements such as these have been interpreted as Orientalist or inherently racist clichés, but such protests have themselves become clichés already. This is, first of all, because the quixotic reasoning in question may as well be accurate one way or another, even if the hierarchies that make it meaningful were problematic.

There is enough material on the “Turkish” side of the divide to make the case above in a different manner. In the end, black can be beautiful and anonymity an ideal. So the question of whether or not the Turk in reality has an interior, for instance, is not the main issue from the perspective of this talk. Nor do I think that its “denial” to this or that culture or tradition is necessarily problematic. In fact, it could be enlightening.

The difference concerning the ostensible has certain practical consequences here. First, in this mental universe of difference, of ostensible differences and the difference concerning the ostensible, one is either a Turk, or one is not a Turk. Sancho Panza and his master are non-Turks, so much so that whenever they need us to take a leap of faith in their extraordinary accounts of things, they tell us that if they are untruthful they shall turn Turk.

And we believe them. We believe them because we know that they would hate to turn Turk. We believe them because ideally they would never turn Turk. But what does it mean to be non-Turk in this economy? How does one remain non-Turk and be true to one’s word?

Sancho Panza and his master have names. Moreover, they can change their names. But we would still know what is hidden beneath the name. When Don Quixote, on the noble quest that befits his new name, talks and walks like the knight he has become,, we know who he is in reality. If Don Quixote took a new name “from a bodily defect” or “moral characteristic”, and imitated a “Turk” the way he imitates the knight, that would make him completely crazy and we would never know if he was true to his word. But he is a madman on a mission. Because “after the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain, there are no longer Jews, Muslims, and Christians; there are only more or less real, more or less authentic, more or less accepted, Christians. This period in the history of conversion introduces the possibility of hidden differences, qualities and beliefs that cannot be seen”.10

This is also when King James poetically demarcates the Christian race in its difference from the “circumcised Turband Turke”. Don Quixote, whose figure stems from a history of conversion, i.e. the Christianization of Andalusia, first wants to turn the exact opposite of Turk. He wants to be not only ostensibly but truly Christian, according to a particular way of taking the ostensible into account.

His is a world where everyone, and even the Christian, has to convert every day in order to be Christian. Don Quixote mocks Sancho Panza who claims to be of clean birth, of the “Old Christian” stock, but Don Quixote also shows his sidekick the way to live; what and how to fight, and how to hide and expose oneself in this world. It is not enough to talk and walk like a Christian anymore, for instance, nor is it enough to live the life of the chivalric crusader or to enact the truth of the Book in a monastery. Enacting the truth of books in general, converting every day, converting the everyday through any and every book or whichever book comes in handy is the task.11

One reads everything the way one reads from pleasant Bibles. It is the way of reading that matters. From then on, to be Christian is continuously to battle to turn truly Christian. The enemy here is a particular indifference, or a way of being and seeing, saying and listening that would be content with that which indifferently extends itself before one. There is a reason why Don Quixote fights against windmills and sheep. Don Quixote, the Christian knight, in his fullblown attack on the flesh of the world, first madly rearranges the visible and the tangible in a particular manner, parting that which stretches itself before him, the visible itself, into the visible and the invisible.

Now this parting is an attack on the feasibility of another conversion, I would argue, and not simply a mockery of Sancho Panza of the “Old Christian” stock. Once it sufficed to hold the sword of the Christian knight to fight the Turk, and Cervantes did this, as we will have to discuss shortly. But now there are other fronts. Don Quixote wants to turn the exact opposite of Turk and acts upon this premise. Because it is also here – perhaps also in reality, or according to another, “Turkish” way of making things with words – that the Turk begins to stand out as primarily of this world.12 The Turk is a worldly, fleshly, and ultimately outwardly creature, an almost anonymous figure of submission to this world and to the way it works. Don Quixote is an attack on the possibility of turning Turk, as in turning and whirling indifferently like those other madmen or dervishes, for instance.

Because if you put your mind to it and walk around with a Turkish turban and a robe, i.e. if you talk and walk and pray like a Turk, then you are a Turk, which right at this point is also the difference, the ostensible difference and the difference concerning the ostensible, between the Turk and the Frenk. It is for this reason that the western imagination could produce, in reality as in fiction and already in Don Quixote, a great many converts to Islam whose acts and words as Muslims were perfectly, even disgracefully felicitous. One could simply profess Turkishness, or even turn “Turk by profession”, and Cervantes’ world had many professional Turks: “Los turcos de profesión son todos los renegados que, siendo de sangre y de padres cristianos, de su libre voluntad se hicieron turcos […]. Estos y sus hijos, por sí solos, son más que todos los otros vecinos moros, turcos y judíos de Argel”.13 But we know who Alonso Quixano is in reality, regardless of what he professes to be, which is why our hidalgo is called engenioso. This is not only a matter of quixotic madness but has to do with ways of being in historical reality. Let us take a real, historical figure from Cervantes’ book and age to emphasize this difference concerning the ostensible: Giovanni Dionigi Galeni, later known as Uluc Ali Reis, or Kilic Pasa, or Uchali Fartax as Cervantes has it, was born a Catholic villager in Italy, captured by Turkish privateers, converted and so successfully turned Turk that he became a heroic admiral of the “Turkish” fleet. Uluc Ali fought in the battle of Lepanto on the side of the Grand Turke, as a Grand Turke, where Cervantes himself fought on the other side and also perhaps as a convert, as critics argue, despite the blood he shed and his certificate of clean birth. In short, in the days of Don Quixote, one could turn Turk.

Now, as a relevant digression, let me point out that working with these historical facts does not make the perspective here an historicist one, nor do I wish to dismiss the fictionality of Don Quixote’s world. I am not interested in sociologisms or psychologisms of any sort either. But I do believe that this key moment when the “madman of the Book” becomes “the madman of Books in general”, when everyone needs to convert, convert every day and convert the everyday too – this nascent “literary” moment has implications for realms far beyond the literary world. The literary space is carved out of the real world, and its dutiful madness is contagious by definition. So it may be the case that “to analyze prosaic realities as phantasmagorias bearing the hidden truth about the society, to tell the truth about the surface by tunneling into the depths and formulating the unconscious social text that is to be deciphered there – this model of symptomatic reading is an invention peculiar to literature. It is the very mode of intelligibility in which literature asserted its novelty and which it then passed on to those sciences of interpretation which believed that, by applying them to it in turn, they were forcing literature to cough up its hidden truth”.14 Don Quixote’s victory over the windmills and the sheep would pave the way for the social “sciences of interpretation” as well. The point is to see the quixotic nature of the quest. From then on a cigar is never just a cigar and a novel never just a novel. There is no way out of the quixotic madness, this “literature”.

So turning Turk was so painfully easy that this indifferent feasibility itself was a threat for the “Turk” himself. In “this period in the history of conversion”, the option and its seduction looms large and indifferently so. We know that Cervantes himself faced the seductive alternative to turn Turk, and some of his writings carry the traces of the moment of his decision.15 Perhaps every word he wrote was a moment of decision, which would further explain the endless zeal of our engenioso Hidalgo. Because if one must don the turban and robe and go about one’s business to turn Turk, then to partake in the “baptiz’d race” one must continuously fight to disrobe.

In our day and age, in this period in our history, the conditions are a little different. Don Quixote has prevailed in that imaginary battle insofar as his madness has become the norm in our world, and even when we read literature. To understand the implications of his victory, we can take yet another
step and consider how today even Cervantes himself, the flesh and blood author of Don Quixote, is engulfed in the space Don Quixote carved out of the tangible. I have in mind the suggestions of Cervantes’ Jewish ancestry.16 The scholarly suspicion is that the Christian warrior may have been a Jew in reality. In fact, we know that he himself applied for his certificate of clean birth, which was to prove that he was neither a Morisco nor a Marrano, and this was not to provide documents for his future biographers, but for a particular reason. As a Morisco or Marrano, or as a New Christian, he could not serve in the army of the Holy League. Cervantes himself needed this document to join the army of the Holy League, which is how he ended up fighting against the Turk in reality in the battle of Lepanto. We know that he was sick when the battle began, but he still made a heroic effort to fight, and at the end of the war lost one hand. In the western imagination, the battle of Lepanto in 1571 marks a crucial moment. The Holy League, defeating the Turk, put an end to the myth of the invincible Turk, ushering in an era of hope for western Christendom. While the Christian victory in Lepanto was the most defining moment of Cervantes’s life, the Don Quixotes of our day read his novel to find clues of secret Jewish symbolism.17

Moreover, while one of the reasons why Cervantes the Christian warrior wrote Don Quixote was that he could not serve in the Christian army with the one hand he had left, we have not been able to relate Don Quixote’s battle of Lepanto. And this despite the fact that the novel narrates an endless war, one that is fought on a front that had hardly existed before. Just as one can draw a straight line from the battle of Lepanto to WWI to outline the history of the decisive victory over the “Turk”, one can write a history of Don Quixote’s perfectly historical war.

Although this is beyond the scope of this talk, if we were to think such a history, such a “literary” history, we would have to remember that “since the Renaissance, the spirit of Europe has been shedding myths and mythologies”. (The myth of the invincible Turk among them, of course, and perhaps the last drop.) “Despite all that, European literature has created three great symbolic figures: Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faustus”. (We could think of an army of new, fictional crusaders, led by Don Quixote, one that would eventually be commanded by a triumvirate.) “Strange enough, all three are readers of books, in other words, intellectuals”. (They do what they do imaginatively, and in the realm of writing, in books and on paper. If the crusaders of old fought with steel, these fought with letters, words, and numbers etc.) “Given their frames of mind, all three see their lives disrupted”. (They share a pattern of madness. But there is a truth to their madness, to their fictionality, to this world of fiction, to this fictional world Don Quixote carved out of the tangible. If railroads carried soldiers during WWI, the ways of saying, seeing, and listening, hiding and exposing paved by the first madman of letters carried the likes of Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faust to the battlefield.)18 “Let us stop a moment to look at their origins and extraction: Don Quixote is Spanish and a Catholic; Faustus is German and a Protestant, while Hamlet is between the two, in the chasm that defined Europe’s destiny”.19 And the world’s future, we would have to add.

Because Don Quixote came to Istanbul in disguise, donning the Turkish robe and a new name: Danis Celebi. Already his entrance in disguise frames the setting for quixotic warfare in every possible way. Don Quixote came to Istanbul on a mission obviously, out of duty, as a spy of sorts.

This is not an “enforced” reading of Midhat’s “Istanbul’da Don Kisot”.20Midhat explains how he could not have possibly brought the knight himself to Istanbul, i.e. translated the novel word by word, because it would not have made sense in Muslim Istanbul. So he changed the knight’s name and lineage a bit, presenting him as a celebi chasing sheiks, demons and elves, of whose reality Danis Celebi had convinced himself because he had read too many books, too many of those books of magic and alchemy popular in Istanbul back in the day. But we know who Don Quixote is in reality!

So once the Turk was his skin, his turban or the robe, and it was easy to turn Turk. Then came the literary crusade of Don Quixote followed by centuries of battles real and fictional. We know what happened historically – the Turk met his doom. The three figures I discuss below explain what happened literarily, during the expansion of a realm of this dutiful madness in the real world.

For a circumcised Jew this required little formality […]
Scholem

And inside I am a dervish
Accomplished, without the mantle.
Tanpinar

Sabbatai Sevi’s story is fairly simple. He is a simple man from Izmir, the son of a father neither too wealthy nor poor. He declares himself to be the Messiah in 1648, then follows up with changing the dates of certain holidays and inventing new rituals to fulfill the Messianic promise to restore the law to its original state before the fall. Jews across the world, seeking redemption and salvation from their oppressors, gather around him, and they all attest to how the smell of the Garden of Eden emanates from Sabbatai’s body. Eventually the simple man Sabbatai, now the King of Jews, faces the King of all Kings, i.e. the Ottoman sultan Mehmet IV. The world’s Jewry hold their breath as they await the outcome, and the least expected comes to pass. Sabbatai apostatizes, and having turned Turk comes out of the palace with a new name: Aziz Mehmet Efendi. Legendary accounts of the event emphasize the sartorial context: “the sultan with his own hand quickly put the white turban on
Our Lord and dressed him in a special royal robe”.21 This is how Scholem explains the overall situation, with attention to that which remains under the robe: “For a circumcised Jew this required little formality: he merely had to throw away his Jewish headgear and don a Turkish turban”.22

Many Jews were shocked that Sabbatai did not opt for martyrdom, which would have preserved the momentum among his faithful, perhaps also leading them to their doom. But Sabbatai had a following in apostasy as well: “many Jews flocked in, some as far as from Babylon, Jerusalem, and other remote places, and casting their Caps on the ground […] voluntarily professed themselves Turks”.23 In the beginning, there were theories about how Sabbatai’s body and soul had in fact ascended to Heavens, and that it was only his shadow that appeared with the Turkish robe. Eventually, in keeping with Sabbatai’s Messianic authority, his faithful converted too, but they did so in order to remain Jewish. And there we have the paradox: The Messiah himself having shown the path to redemption through sin, his faithful simply followed, which is to say, paradoxically, they converted in order to remain Jewish. Everything would remain the same anyway, just a little different: they “merely had to throw away the Jewish headgear and don a Turkish turban”. But Sabbatai and his faithful did turn Turk, paradoxically and easily so, and for more than two centuries, the community of converts or the Dönme prayed in their own mosques; they were taxed as Muslims, fought as Muslims, and were considered Muslim for legal purposes as well. The community flourished over the centuries. There were many Dönme among the revolutionary Young Turks, who dethroned the tyrant Abdulhamit II in 1908 to open the Ottoman parliament.

Now the vast literature on Sabbataenism has given us a diagnosis, which presumably explains Sabbatai’s audacity, which in turn may be among the reasons for the success of his movement. Scholem was the first to retroactively diagnose Sabbatai with a particular madness, namely that of “manic depression.” I do not know if diagnosing Don Quixote or Jesus himself with schizophrenia would be helpful for literary critics or historians of religion. But the kind of madness I have in mind in this talk, especially in the case of Sabbatai Sevi, is not one concerning his person, whatever this may mean, but rather one concerning what happened to his figure centuries later. This is right around the time of the second figure I will engage shortly, when the novel Greenmantle was published, around the time when Sandy the Mahdi fails to turn Turk. It is then that Sabbatai fails, retroactively as it were, leading his faithful to disgrace. One proof of this is a group of “Turkish”
intellectuals who decide to call out to the community of Sabbataists to give up on their Jewish customs and to join the struggle of the Turkish folk in the early twentieth century.24 But the Dönme were already converts, and they were already part of the struggles. Already in the year 1666 the sultan had put the white turban on Sabbatai and dressed him in the robe. What exactly were they supposed to do now? What were they going to convert into? My second figure explains the condition a little better. Greenmantle is the title of a 1916 novel by one John Buchan,25 whose name is familiar nowadays perhaps only to some students of English. Buchan’s 39 Steps, adapted for the big screen by Hitchcock in 1936, is among the first man-on-the-run narratives, very popular in contemporary fiction, and quite central in Hollywood as well. In such narratives, an innocent individual finds himself/herself in harm’s way, and in self-defense gradually and sometimes unintentionally discovers a great plot. Greenmantle is the story of a note on a slip of paper left by a junior British spy killed in Turkey. The discovery of the note by the British intelligence leads to suspicions about Germans and Turks plotting a world war, and this leads to an operation in the Middle East by a motley crew of spies. The spies travel to Istanbul – at one point passing through Belgrade, by the way – and then they go further East to Erzurum. They eventually find out that Greenmantle is the code name for a usurper, a Muslim Messiah or Mahdi whom the Germans and Turks manufactured to unite South Asian, Middle Eastern and African Muslims for a war against their British oppressors. One of the spies, Sandy, is the most interesting character in this story. He is similar to Lawrence of Arabia or to the German Baron Oppenheim, in that he has no difficulty whatsoever in “going native” among the Orientals. He
speaks Turkish and Arabic fluently and also expresses a patronizing sympathy or admiration for the Turk. But because he is also genuine about his sympathy or admiration for the Turk, he appears mad from time to time. At one point he emerges as a crazy Oriental dancer, among what appears to be a group of whirling dervishes.

Eventually, the British mission turns the tables and uses the Turko-German plot against the plotters. Sandy, donning the Muslim robe, or the green mantle, himself impersonates the Mahdi and thus saves the Muslims, and the British empire, from a German Mahdi.

And there we have the paradox again. One cannot possibly argue that Sandy is a usurper, that he did not in fact turn Turk, that he is in fact British or Christian or atheist, and not Muslim, according to the fabulous logic of the Turk. Because what is being Muslim, what is “turning Turk”, if not donning
the robe or the turban and verbally attesting to being a Muslim? Sandy is mad because, despite going native and turning Turk, despite donning the robe or even the green mantle and whirling with the dervishes and all, i.e., despite having already turned Turk in word and in deed; despite becoming the penultimate Turk, the leader of all Turks and their savior, the Mahdi, he is not a Turk in reality. But what can possibly be more tangibly real than the robe, more performative than the performance, or more meaningful than the word and more effective than the act? What happened to the real Turk?
Now, my last madman is a real man of letters and he brings all this together: Turkish historian, novelist and poet Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. The epitaph on his tombstone, which consists of two lines from his most famous poem, reads as follows: “I am neither in time / Nor outside of it completely”. So if we take him at his word, it is hard to say whether he is a “historical figure”. Perhaps he is somewhere between Sandy the Mahdi and Sabbatai the disgraced Messiah. What best describes Tanpinar’s position in life, as a man of letters, as a thinker and a Turk and Muslim, is his belief that “one has to put on the society like a piece of cloth. The society has to be like one’s external garment”.26 Writing and thinking, just like everything else related to living, being, and saying in common, must be like donning the robe, the sensory cloth of the living people. It should be going about one’s own business wearing what is customary to wear for no particular reason other than to be, and to be in common. So this is what Tanpinar wants to be: anonymous and with nothing to hide, simple and poor in the world. Tanpinar borrows these ideals from an intellectual tradition that Don Quixote the crusader fought against in that battle against the flesh of the world. This tradition, which is called harabat, was not specifically literary, since its way of making things with letters and words could also serve the purpose of worship. “Harabat” means both “the tavern” and “ruins”, and is the mystical gathering place of poets in the ancient Muslim world who are called the “harabati” or the ruined, literally drunk, the wasted. The harabati sang what we now call wine poetry, getting ruined
and wasted with the divine ecstasy of words of worship. This amounts to turning and turning in circles, like the whirling dervishes, to forget about writing or reading, or reading too much into this world, and to go about one’s own business in divine ecstasy, writing poems as if one were making
shoes and vice versa, which is how this mortal world works on all counts, and wine is the cure for anyone afflicted with a solitary madness of one’s own thoughts, reason or words. This submission was particularly significant as worship for those whose thoughts, reason or words were an obstacle in the path of turning into a thing of this mortal world. So worldly, so fleshly was this mystical ecstasy that it could only be formulated as the drunkenness of the wine-drinking blasphemer.27 It is as if to say there was nothing in the way of thinking, saying and being of these perfect Turks that was destined to be beyond or beneath this world.

Tanpinar wants to merge with this world, he wants to simply live as one among many, and this is how he wants to write as well. He just wants to go about his business. This was precisely what the harabati wanted to do. Many of Tanpinar’s writings address a paradoxical situation concerning
this ideal submission. He wants to merge with the life in this world and go about his business, but then when he looks around, all he can see is a wall of secularized Christian civil societal institutions – academia, the radio and the television, salons and societies, the humanities and the social sciences,
sociology and psychoanalysis, etc.; in short, the wall that separates the flesh of the world from the quixotic space carved out by our engenioso Hidalgo.28

The tavern is nowhere to be found nowadays, and writing is not something ecstatic either, nor does it resemble the work of the shoemaker. It’s not at all prayer at least. A shoe is not just a shoe anymore, nor is a poem just a poem. Everybody is chasing sheiks, demons and elves. Even when Tanpinar opens his mouth to recite poetry in the old fashion, his audience would hear, listen, and interpret him in ways that would simply appear irrelevant from the point of view of the tavern. Or, at the very least, the reactions he receives would be but an obstacle on the way to drunkenness. No one goes about one’s own business anymore. There is too much action and reaction in these urban centers and public squares. Everyone has become a Don Quixote, a Hamlet or a Faust. But then Tanpinar is so desperate to turn Turk that he finds another way of going about his business and donning the sensory cloth of the living people. In yet another paradox, Tanpinar makes the final decision, one that is perhaps similar to Sabbatai’s. As we read this poem, let us remember that for Tanpinar “one has to put on the society like a piece of cloth. The society has to be like one’s external garment”:

I am neither in time
Nor outside of it completely
In the indivisible flow
Of a vast moment of unity

Every shape is enchanted
By the colour of an odd reverie
No feather in the breeze
Has been as light as me

My head is a boundless mill
To grind the silence
And inside I am a dervish
Accomplished, without the mantle

The world has become ivy
I feel, its roots are inside me,
A blue, utterly blue light
I am swimming in it

If he wants to don the sensory cloth of the living people, to go about his business as a dervish of sorts, he must paradoxically disrobe, he must “take off the mantle”. But how can one be a “dervish” without the mantle? Was it all about the mantle? Yet Tanpinar must disrobe. Here then we have something resembling apostasy embraced as resistance to apostasy in this world of apocalyptic partitions. It’s not possible to simply be, or be Muslim anymore. It’s not possible to turn and whirl like the dervishes, it’s not possible to turn Turk anymore. One needs to turn Frenk to remain Turk, and this is what the nationalist Tanpinar would end up fighting for the rest of his life. Tanpinar fails to turn Turk.

But then he cannot indifferently turn Frenk either, as if this could be an alternative way of being a thing of this world. One can always call out to the Turk-turned-Frenk to give up on his Turkish customs, just as the Turk-turned-Frenk can call out the Jew-turned-Turk, for instance, to give up on his Jewish customs. Because, in the end, if one must don the turban and the robe and go about one’s business to turn Turk, then to partake in the “baptiz’d race” one must continuously fight to disrobe.

In other words, to decide that “inside I am a dervish / Accomplished, without the mantle”, one must be completely crazy. To be Muslim inside is already to turn Christian. This is why Tanpinar seems to embrace silence as his discursive material.29 He is a silent dervish as opposed to a loquacious man of
letters. But the disgruntled madman of letters, whose “head is a boundless mill / To grind the silence”, “silently” writes poems to be recited generation after generation!

Not that Tanpinar contradicts himself. Perhaps he is merely explaining that there is no way out.30 And thus he inspires a different way of engaging literary history, another way of being literarily critical. This way exposes the conflictual nature of the business, not as a solution, but as disgruntled critique. Needless to say, it offers a way of rethinking critique as well.

  1. King James writes these lines celebrating the victory in Lepanto: "which fought was in Lepantoes gulfe / Betwixt the baptiz'd race, / And circumcised Turband Turkes" (11. 6-11). James I, His Maiesties Poeticall Execises at vacant houres (Edinburgh: 1591). Quoted in Daniel J. Vitkus, "Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor", Shakespeare Quarterly 48. 2 (Summer 1997): 149.
  2. Giovanni Botero, Relations of the Most Famous Kingdoms and Common-weales, trans. Robert Johnson (1601; rpt. 1608), 267. 
  3. "If there ever was a time in the world's history when the eyes of Europe should have been turned to the Orient, the sixteenth century was that time. And if there ever was a period in which interest in the East was not merely one of curiosity or novelty, but an active interest made necessary by the conditions of the time, it was the Elizabethan period", Louis Wann, "The Oriental in Elizabethan Drama", Modern Philosophy 12. 6 (1915): 184. Once the eyes of Europe locate the fabulous raw material, "Persians, Tartars, Arabs, and Egyptians might all have been cast in the same mold". Jews and Eastern Christians follow in Wann's list. (180-2) Abdulla Al-Dabbagh thinks that Wann's essay pioneers the post-colonial view of these matters. See Shakespeare, the Orient, and the Critics (New York and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010). Nabil Matar thinks that even the American Indian is of the same ilk: Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
  4. See Matar, Islam in Britain 1558-1685 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998).
  5. Matar, Islam in Britain 1558-1685, especially 198-229.
  6. Poe, "Maelzel's Chess-Player," Southern Literary Messenger, (April 1836, 2):318-326. Tom Standage's The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (New York: Walker, 2002) tells the story in detail and provides an extensive bibliography as well.
  7. See for instance Auguste Comte, Système de politique positive, ou traité de sociologie, instituant la religion de I'humanité 3 (Paris, 1853), 562, and 4 (Paris, 1854), 505- 11; also his letter dated February 4, 1853 in Auguste Comte: Correspondance generate et confessions (Paris, 1987), 38-41.
  8. So the shadow extends all the way to Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (New York: Zone Books, 1999). Rancière's "Existe-t-il une esthétique deleuzienne?" in Gilles Deleuze, Une Vie Philosophique, ed. Éric Alliez (Paris: Institut Synthélabo, 1998) gives an account of Deleuze's desert describing the direction in the context of an impossible conversion. For Bourdieu see for instance The Logic of Practice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 117-18 and Pascalian Meditations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 146-50.
  9. Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote De La Mancha, trans. Samuel Putnam (New York: Modern Library, 1998), 414-415.
  10. See Elizabeth Spiller's extraordinary reading of Don Quixote in Reading and the History of Race in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 133.
  11. See Jacques Rancière, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 71-128 for the difference between the madmen of God and the madman of books in general. After all, even the story of Shylock's conversion is one of aesthetic education -- the education of the Jew who reads in a manner that remains at the surface ("Bond, my bond, let them look to the bond"), treating words like things, which is the exact opposite of what Don Quixote does
  12. Here is a suggestion from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, whose failure to turn Turk we will address later: "It is always possible to reduce the most apparent differences between the Occident and the Orient into a few notions, which then would allow critical engagement. As I understand it, first come the behaviors of these two distinct mentalities vis-à-vis the good and the thing. Needless to say, here we take words in their most general meanings, i.e. we consider the good and the thing, but also the stuff of thinking and imagining, all the material of mental and social life, which is to say we consider the 'object' in the face of the thinking mind and the processing hand. The Orient accepts the thing as is or as it appears in the first differentiation it is assigned at the first encounter. [...] The Occident grabs the thing to turn it around, holds it before the mind, looks for additional traits to assign and other possibilities of perfection to pursue, wrestles to know the thing as thoroughly as possible and as a result of all this endeavor makes the thing into almost something other than itself. It could be argued that the Orient appropriates the good only generally. Sometimes it is as if the Orient simply borrows the good from nature. The Occident owns the good completely by understanding its bodily constitution and testing all of its possibilities". Edebiyat Üzerine Makaleler ["Essays on Literature"] (Istanbul: MEB, 1969), 132.
  13. Antonio de Sosa, Topografía e historia general de Argel, vol. 1 (Madrid: Sociedad de Bibliófilos Españoles, 1927), 52.
  14. Rancière, The Politics of Literature, trans. Julie Rose (Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2011), 22-3.
  15. "Un falso bien te muestra aquí aparente,/que es tener libertad, y, en renegando/se te irá el procurarla de la mente", writes Cervantes in El trato de Argel. Quoted in María Antonia Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002), 59.
  16. See for instance Américo Castro, Cervantes y los casticismos españoles (Madrid, Alianza, 1974), or Barbara Fuchs, Passing for Spain: Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Spiller's Reading and the History of Race in the Renaissance engages the matter in the most productive way.
  17. Michael McGaha, "Is there a hidden Jewish meaning in Don Quixote?" Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 24. 1 (2004). Even if Cervantes were "Jewish", whatever this may mean, as Norman Roth points out: "the conversos are not only important as a subtopic of the history of the Jews of Spain; they also played a major role, if not the major role, in the development of Spanish poetry and literature in what has been termed the 'Golden Age' of that literature, already beginning with the fifteenth century. (How ironic it is, perhaps, that the greatest period of Jewish cultural achievement is popularly called the "Golden Age" of Spanish Jewry, while the 'Golden Age' of Spanish literature is chiefly the product of the converso enemies of Jewish culture!)" Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), xiii.
  18. Ömer Seyfeddin, one of the founders of Turkish nationalist thought and letters, sums up the Ottoman modernist position, explicitly and without reservation, as an anti-Hamlet and anti-Cervantes dedication to Don Quixote in his "Don Kisot", Yeni Mecmua 2. 37 (March 28, 1918): 202-204. Hamlet was trapped, according to this logic, in purgatory, which was the reality of life, "a most violent purgatory in between bestiality and humanity", as Seyfeddin formulates. One needs "faith" (like Don Quixote, who is above all a man of faith, after all) to step out into humanity. But one who cannot take this step cannot reclaim bestiality either, remaining there suspended forever in purgatory. Cervantes, by torturing that most faithful and most human knight, Don Quixote, as he does throughout his novel, remains in just such a purgatory. Don Quixote, accordingly, is more real in his humanity than Cervantes, which is the reason why Seyfeddin just cannot forgive the latter. Cervantes is a little like Hamlet, frozen, as it were, in that in-between realm forever, incapable of acting like a human would and should, as Seyfeddin explains in another essay titled "Hamlet", in Yeni Mecmua 2. 33 (February 21-28, 1918): 124-126.
  19. Carl Schmitt, Hamlet or Hecuba: the Irruption of Time into Play, trans. Simona Draghici (Corvallis, Oregon: Plutarch, 2006), 45.
  20. Ahmet Midhat Efendi, Cengi, Kafkas, Süleyman Muslî, ed. Erol Ülgen and Fatih Andi (Ankara: TDK, 2000), 1-40. Cengi, which contains "Istanbul'da Don Kisot" ["Don Quixote in Istanbul"], was first published in 1877 in Istanbul (Kirkambar, 1294). 
  21. Quoted in Gerschom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 685.
  22. Ibid., 666.
  23. Ibid.,729.
  24. For a modern history of Sabbataeanism see Marc David Baer, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010). See also Tahir Alangu, Ömer Seyfeddin (Istanbul: May 1968), 173-174.
  25. Greenmantle (London: Hodder & Stougton, 1916).
  26. Günlüklerin Isiginda Tanpinar'la Basbasa (Istanbul: Dergah, 2008), 288.
  27. Tanpinar says that the shocking thing about "our old poetry" is that it "praises real love in an abstract language but realistically, ending up giving us a realistic way of loving too". Ondokuzuncu Asir Türk Edebiyati (Istanbul: YKY, 2006 [1949]), 22. Of course not all "Muslim" or "Turkish" poetry is about wine, but the figures of wine and harabat are most useful in thinking about the implications of the fixation on "form" in what Tanpinar calls "our old poetry", or the poetry of the "Muslim Orient".
  28. Tanpinar's novel Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsu [The Time Regulation Institute] (Istanbul: Dergah, 2008) tells the story of a simple "Turk" who, upon finding himself in a similar situation, helps us understand the quixotic nature of the overall enterprise of "Turkish modernity".
  29. For him the basis of his art ("if one can speak of such a thing", he adds) is poetry, which is a way of remaining silent. He says his prose narrates the things that he keeps silent, while his poetry is simply silent. See "Antalyali Bir Genc Kiza Mektup" ["Letter to a Young Girl from Antalya"] in Edebiyat Üzerine Makaleler ["Essays on Literature"] (Istanbul: MEB, 1969), 567-572.
  30. I have already mentioned that around the time Tanpinar, the madman of letters, produced his masterpieces, i.e. during the late thirties and early forties, there emerged in Germany yet another figure cast in the mold of the ancient, fabulous Turk, carrying the centuries-old burden of the fabulous name. Perhaps this figure can better help us understand the nature of the decision involved. Holocaust survivors popularized for us the figure of the Muselmann. The Muselmann of the camp is a figure of absolute submission reducible to flesh and garment. For this Jew-turned-Turk there is no future in which his customs could be called into question, nor does he have secrets to be unearthed. The Muslim of the camp is the one who gives up and goes about his business. There is no poetry here, or literature. Yet we know that, even here, the "absolute present of the event of  discourse, subjectification and desubjectification coincide at every point and both the flesh and blood individual and the subject of enunciation are perfectly silent". (RA 117) This is another way of saying that the silence of the Muselmann speaks louder than the loquacious memoir. On the one hand the perfect Turk here, in his ultimate submission, is perfectly Jewish. Yet even the indifferent submission of the Muselmann places one at the "absolute present of the event of discourse", and not on the side of the Muselmann or Jewish silence.

Published 17 September 2014

Original in English
First published in Belgrade Journal of Media and Communications 5 (2014)

Contributed by Belgrade Journal of Media and Communications
© E. Khayyat / Belgrade Journal of Media and Communications / Eurozine

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