Istanbul melancholy

The theme of Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical book Istanbul: Memories of the City is hüzün. That is a Turkish word for melancholy, but it doesn’t mean a private sadness that causes one to retreat by oneself. It is a communal sadness, a shared feeling that is perfectly compatible with mass gatherings or everyday sociability.

The special hüzün of Istanbul comes from the juxtaposition of historical grandeur with poverty and decay. It is the massive Byzantine walls of the city, crumbling next to crooked Ottoman houses that burn up or fall down one by one. It is “a cobblestone staircase with so much asphalt poured over it that its steps have disappeared,” “marble ruins that were for centuries glorious street fountains but now stand dry, their faucets stolen,” “seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels, unflinching under the pelting rain,” “little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby.”

The word hüzün is Turkish but the idea that Istanbul was melancholy was invented by European visitors in the 1800s. They provided the descriptions of the city, both verbal and visual, that are most influential in Turkey today. And their patronizing, sympathetic, appreciative, critical reaction weighs heavily on Turks like Pamuk. It actually causes the city to change, because when Westerners decry Turkish traditions, Turks repeal them. The Western eye also makes reality seem sad: grandeur in decay. “What I have been trying to explain is that the roots of our hüzün are European,” Pamuk writes. “So why is it that I care so much … about what … Westerners have to say about Istanbul?”

I have visited this great city twice, for a total of more than 10 days. In what turns out to be traditional style, I have wandered with a scholarly European guidebook through the poor western quarters of the Old City, finding Byzantine ruins, old mosques, and leftover Ottoman wooden houses whose upper stories lean over the streets. I have relished the hüzün that Pamuk has lived with for half a century. Pamuk both shares and criticizes that reaction.

My one disagreement with Pamuk concerns his use of the categories of East and West. Obviously, he knows his city better than I. But my sense is that Istanbul is not uniquely caught between East and West or between Europe and Asia (despite its literal location on that arbitrary border). Rather, the tension is between tradition and modernity.

For instance, Pamuk grew up in a modern apartment building, each floor of which was equipped with pianos that no one played and china in cabinets than no one opened. The whole building was occupied by members of his family, who left their doors open and visited constantly. They were using a modern apartment building to house a traditional Turkish extended family. You could interpret this case as East meeting West. But apartment buildings with pianos are not traditionally “Western.” Our American and European ancestors didn’t live that way. These are innovations of modernity.

It may be that we have a different relation to modernity in America because it seems more “ours.” When an airplane flies overhead, it symbolizes long-distance travel, which is modern and disruptive. But we know that two brothers from Dayton invented that machine, so it doesn’t feel as alien as it might in Turkey. Still, the spatial location of the inventor is only one aspect of this technology. The airplane has similar effects in Chicago as in Istanbul.

In general, I am suspicious of the concept of the West, or of Western Civilization, because it seems so vague, internally diverse, and porous. Here are some famous “Westerners”: Daniel Boone, Karl Marx, Torquemada, Oscar Wilde, Heidegger, Edison, Malcolm X, Hildegard of Bingen, Catharine the Great, Andy Warhol, Erik the Red, Phyllis Schaffley, Albert Einstein, Paris Hilton. If they have anything in common that a typical Turk does not also share, I’m at a loss to identify it.

I say this because I doubt that the melancholy Pamuk feels (especially as a sensitive and somewhat alienated writer) is as specific to Istanbul as he thinks it is. I suspect the hüzün of Philadelphia and Baltimore is actually rather similar. Like Istanbul, these can be great places to live, and one can love them. But it is hard to escape a sense that their greatness is past and that some kind of alien modernity (or post-modernity) has disrupted their traditions.