Orhan Pamuk and Modernist Liberalism

Orhan Pamuk and Modernist Liberalism

Snow
by Orhan Pamuk, trans. by Maureen Freely
Vintage International, 2006 463 pages $14.95

Is there a global culture today? I think there is. Its images come from movies, old and new, and from television; its sounds are rock-and-roll, rap, and heavy traffic on the street. But only the novel has the Faustian chutzpah to try to connect all the dots, to put this immense world together. Orhan Pamuk, one of the world’s great novelists, lives and works within shouting distance of Dissent. The least we can do is shout to our readers that he’s here. I don’t know him, but it’s a thrill to know he’s nearby. He spends half the year in New York, where he teaches comparative literature at Columbia, the other half in his hometown, Istanbul, where he speaks truth and gets in trouble.

Even if Pamuk weren’t this physically close, he would be easy to connect with. Most of his books are easy to get and remarkably easy to get into. They are at once brilliant debates and psychedelic trips. All are set in Turkey, last year or five hundred years ago. Pamuk country is weirdly other, yet he makes us feel we’ve known it all our lives. Now in his fifties, he is working at the height of his powers. People worried not so long ago about “the Death of the Novel.” Pamuk’s books, along with Roberto Bolaño’s, reassure us that this is not true. The novel is still what D.H. Lawrence said it was a century ago: “The one bright book of life.” Only now the light and the life are coming not just from a few centers, but from all over the world.

Pamuk’s novel Snow appeared in the West amid widespread anxiety triggered by the attacks of September 11, 2001. It was easy for reviewers and readers to frame it in the context of what one author (Daniel Benjamin) called “the age of sacred terror.” Pamuk turned out to be a terrific writer of melodrama, and his melodrama got incorporated into our collective melodrama. Snow became an instant bestseller. Now, living in a saner time, we can read it again and see more and find more between the lines. One thing we can find is first-rate dialogue on the question of what it means to be modern.

“Don’t be afraid, these people are modern.” Sunay Zaim, a cultural bureaucrat of the Turkish Republic, says this just before the end. He says it to Ka, a self-consciously “modern” poet. Ka has been in exile in the West for years. He has come back to this miserable border town to write an investigative article on a wave of religious—or pseudo-religious—suicides among teenage girls. We never do learn what is driving these girls; but we learn that, in Turkey at the end of the twentieth century, out-of-control violence is erupting in everybody’s everyday life. Sunay says that if people have faith in the republic, it will all work out. But in Pamuk country, the primary crop is irony. It grows all year round, even when all other crops fail. The Turkish people live on it, but there is plenty left for export. So when any Pamuk character tells any other not to be afraid, we can see the author ringing alarms. When a character says being modern will make the Turkish people stable and happy, we can hear the author’s ironic laugh, even when we’re not sure we get the joke. The one thing that seems to resist irony here is the snow itself, layer piling on primal layer, smothering history, freezing life, blotting out the sun. Yet we know it’s Pamuk’s snow, as artificial and as modern as everything else in his work. This snow falls on the beach and in the jungle as much as it falls at the poles; global warming offers no protection against it; it envelops the world.

Sunay offers his reassurance at the start of one of Pamuk’s most brilliant scenes, which forms Snow’s dramatic climax. He is a veteran actor, producer, show-biz tummeler, and overall wise guy who somehow has found a niche working for the Republic as a provincial cultural bureaucrat. He is a broadly comic character, as if on loan from some road production of Pal Joey or Guys and Dolls; it is surprising to meet him in the solemn world of Snow. His job in Kars is to be a kind of public relations man for modernity, for the Enlightenment, for secular humanism. Sunay overflows with cliché versions of ideas that most readers of Dissent believe in, and that some of us would die for. (Probably so would Pamuk.) This makes his presence truly grueling. We listen to his spiels, and we think, Is that what I believe in? Oy! But once we read to the end, we see we have to feel for him, because of what he goes through—or rather what Pamuk puts him through. He transforms his comedy into tragedy.

Sunay tells his friends not to be afraid. In Pamuk country, this message sets off every alarm. What disaster lies ahead for this poor man? Snow is almost over, so at least we know we won’t have long to wait. But in another way we’ll have to wait forever. Pamuk’s answer will only raise more questions and will open up a Moebius strip of what he calls “secret meanings.” It is typical Pamukian irony that this PR man for clarity and openness is about to become a mystery case that will never be closed.

Snow is set in a time of troubles that culminate in a military coup d’état. Some of my Turkish students think Pamuk means the coup of 1980; others deny a precise date, and say his point is to create a “typical post-1970s coup.” But first, Sunay wants to put on a theater piece that will rally the people of Kars to the republic. He thinks it can overcome their troubles—economic depression and mass unemployment are the worst—if they will only believe in it. He has faith that in the end they will. When he says the people are modern, he means they are self-aware, they are willing to fight for the right to think for themselves, for the right to love, for the right to be happy. Even if conflicts arise between modern people, or between modern values, “Don’t be afraid.” This is a classical humanistic vision of modernity; it could have been embraced by Stendhal, by Emerson, by Victor Hugo, by George Eliot, by John Dewey, by Margaret Mead. Sunay sees the pre-coup Turkish Republic as a realization of this classic vision.

Sunay says not to be afraid, and at once we worry. There is trouble with Kedife, his leading lady and old friend. He has composed a weird, disturbing script where his character urges her character to throw off her Islamic headscarf, in the name of human freedom. She resists, then hesitates, then gives way, and then after she does it, she turns on him and shoots him to death. For the curtain call, the actors will appear hand in hand, the best of friends.

Kedife is reluctant to take the role. There are nasty and belligerent people in the house, and she is worried about provoking them. But Sunay bullies her and she lets him and, at last she agrees to go on. Everything goes smoothly until the climactic moment: then it turns out that the gun is loaded, the bullets are live, the blood that drenches the stage isn’t stage blood, and Sunay really dies. People start screaming. Soldiers come in, a little late. The house is in a state of chaos and pandemonium. We know that if anything like this were to really happen, Pamuk the man and citizen would be horrified. But in a dramatic scene where ordinary life morphs into bloody horror, Pamuk the author is happily at home.

Many of Pamuk’s readers will find themselves as mystified by this climax as the people on the spot, or as the authorities trying to piece the case together later on. How could Sunay not have known about the gun? Are we meant to think he arranged to be killed? If he did, he didn’t let the killer in on it. Pamuk makes it clear that once Kedife sees what she has done, she is distraught. But even if she didn’t mean to kill him, the fact that she did will destroy her life more effectively than any religious veil.

What was he thinking? What inner demons drove this man who denied the demonic? In this mystery one thing is clear: these shots have blown to pieces Sunay’s sunny vision of modern life. The night has turned out to be, as he planned, a display of the modern. But it is a nightmarishly twisted modern, largely unconscious of itself, dense with psychic reversals and existential traps like landmines, where people become suicide bombs and destroy people they love as they destroy themselves. Sunay meant to show the glories of modern life; but somehow modern death steals the show. In fact, that irony haunts much of twentieth-century history. (Will it be better in the twenty-first? It’s too soon to know.)

As Sunay’s vital powers ebb away, his visionary power grows. He gets only one line before he dies: “They’ll never be modern,” he says, “they know nothing about modern art.” This is a great piece of black humor, dead serious. But why should a people want to know modern art? What can it give them? Pamuk doesn’t offer a single ringing answer, but here’s a start: A global horizon and an expansive flow of empathy, a feeling for irony and complexity, a capacity to embrace contradictory ideas and believe and love them both. The poet John Keats, as he lay dying, called this power “negative capability.” The anguished last sentence in Sunay’s life is also his first work of art. The heavy changes that Pamuk puts him through can help us see how modern art could be something to die for—or to live for.


In Snow, and in all his best writing, Pamuk creates a drama of modern life in the process of moving toward radical polarization. Modern men and women are under pressure, and they know it. What is to be done? There are two radically different roads people can take: (1) They may reach out toward the most open and generous inclusiveness; this, for Pamuk, is the meaning of modern art, the reason it has flourished, and still lives. Or else (2) they may plunge into the most rigid and violent exclusions; among the first to go will be modern writers and artists, whose love for modern life is greater than anyone’s. Pamuk makes it clear that he is rooting for Plan (1), but he worries about the raw demagogic power of Plan (2). He identifies with (1) because he thinks it is morally right, but also because, in the real modern world, it can bring us a happiness that is not only more intense and “hot,” but more solid and lasting. However, he thinks, in order to fulfill its human promise, (1) has to find a way to envelop (2). In other words, Modernism has an existential task, to somehow assimilate the people and the powers that want to destroy it.

One thing that will magnify this task—but also make it more profound and absorbing—is that the prime enemy of modernism is not, as people used to say when I was young, “tradition,” but something much weirder and more complex, which we might call Modernist Anti-Modernism. (For short, I’ll call it MAM.) More than any writer since Thomas Mann, Pamuk grasps the world-historical importance of MAM.

In the triumphs of the Third Reich, MAM shook the world. When the Nazis were defeated in 1945, liberals like my parents thought that it was gone for good, and that an age of honesty and openness had dawned. Alas, it didn’t work out that way. MAM has had a continuing enormous human appeal, and despite many defeats it keeps coming back. It fits comfortably into the most diverse political cultures; it unites parts of the left—not my part, and not Pamuk’s—with parts of the classical right. It haunted the whole second half of the twentieth century, and it is still alive and well.

MAM both frightens and fascinates Pamuk. It inspires one of his most brilliant characterizations, the handsome womanizer and charismatic demagogue Blue. The main voice of modern art in Snow is the poet Ka. The conflict between Ka and Blue is one of the book’s driving forces. Much of their conflict is focused on Kedife’s sister, Ipek, an impressive and independent woman, and one of Pamuk’s best characters. She loves them both, she sleeps with them both, and they fight for her soul. Will Ipek embrace the poet of modernism or the genius of MAM? Pamuk gives her an inner radiance that makes us really care; for a little while, we feel that the fate of the world is riding on the outcome of this love triangle. (Pamuk has said he doesn’t think people appreciate his women and his writing about love. I hope there’s a way to let him know he’s wrong!)


Ka and Blue spend lots of time talking. Or rather, Ka talks. He tries to converse and argue. Blue rants; he talks to one person in exactly the same language he would use before a jammed football stadium. “Democracy, freedom, human rights, don’t matter” in the West, Blue says; “all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate them like monkeys…” Ka tries to explain that the West, at the end of the twentieth century, places value on human diversity. Blue just waves him aside. “There is… only one West and one Western point of view. And we take the opposite view.” Who are “we” in this sentence? Is Blue using the royal “we”? Is he trying to claim the whole non-Western world as his own? Whatever this is, it is a perspective from which people are interchangeable. This is how he treats women, and he finds plenty of women (including some pretty strong ones) who are glad to be treated that way. It’s also how he treats innocent militant kids: he manipulates his youthful followers into provoking the army and getting themselves killed—but “please don’t tell our mothers,” they say from their hospital beds before they die.

Blue is a leader of a militant Islamic movement, but he shows not the slightest trace of religious feeling. He is cold, detached, cynical, opportunistic, manipulative. If there’s one word for him, it’s a word that the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century put on the map. The word is nihilist. Ka’s first encounters with him reduce the poet to despair. He feels like the helpless suckers in W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Blue denounces the sexual license of the West, but, nihilist that he is, he is utterly blasé about conducting simultaneous love affairs in Turkey. His girlfriends include both Ipek and Kedife. There are more, and they all seem to know it. They throw themselves at him like groupies at a rock star; they regard him with total devotion, and eagerly offer up their whole being. (Ipek and Kedife would be a perfect sister duet for a classic torch song—say, “My Man” or “All of Me.”) Blue’s sex life is a kind of travesty of the vanished Ottoman sultans and pashas with their harems. But his power over women is postmodern; what turns him on is submission of the free. Pamuk puts arrows on the sidewalk that point us back to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. What do women see in Blue, anyway? When they try to explain, the one thing they come up with is Blue’s unwavering total certainty, which throws some of them into a kind of hypnotic trance.

Ka realizes he needs to sort out what his convictions are, and to offer Ipek some sort of happiness that she can’t get in Kars. Having been an exile in the West, mostly in West Germany, for more than a decade, he needs to remember what he has learned there:

They don’t live that way in the West. It’s not as it is here; they don’t want everyone thinking alike. Everyone, even the most ordinary grocer, boasts of having his own personal views…

Ka comes to realize that the freedom of “the most ordinary grocer” in a Western city in 2000 is a tremendous historical achievement; a modern poet can be proud to affirm it. (Any of Kafka’s Ks would have been glad to shop in this grocer’s bodega.) More good things go with these: honesty, complexity, respect, real love, a lifetime of intimate dialogue, communication with other people, exposure to relatively free and open mass media, and a ticket to a place where Ipek’s individuality will be recognized, where she will enjoy freedom of the city, and where she won’t be totally dependent on a family or a man. Ka develops a vision of them as a couple who would not only have a great time, but who would stand for something. The thing they would stand for could be called Modernist Liberalism. The biggest problem for this vision is that, as Pamuk sees it, it can’t be realized at home. They’ve got to get out.

Ipek is thrilled by this vision. For awhile she wrenches herself out of Blue’s grip; she and Ka have several love scenes, at once hot and tender; and she comes to yearn for a new life with him, in Germany, right now.

“When we get to Germany, we’re going to be very happy,” said Ipek, with her arms around Ka’s neck. “Tell me about the cinema you’ll take me to.”

“There’s a cinema in the [Frankfurt] Film Museum that shows undubbed American art films late on Saturday nights,” said Ka. “We’ll stop in one of the restaurants around the station and have doner and sweet pickles. After we come home, we can relax in front of the television set. Then we’ll make love. We can live on my political exile allowance and the money I’ll make doing readings of this new poetry book of mine—and neither of us has to do anything more than make love.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said.

This fantasy is so sweet! One thing that makes their love so hot is our knowledge that they have had to build the bed themselves. If sexual love means, as John Donne says, that a couple “make this little room an everywhere,” we get to see this couple construct their room, create the existential space they share. Before they could be there, they have had to fight both others and themselves: he, to break out of his inner isolation and focus on another person; she, to break away both from a loving but enveloping family and from a domineering lover to whom she still yearns to submit. In order for modernism to deliver on its human promise, it has to be shared. To reach that point of mutuality takes tremendous struggles, struggles that good people can easily lose through no fault of their own.

Ipek’s line, “When we get to Germany we’re going to be very happy,” is so poignant and heartbreaking that it deserves scrutiny on its own. I know the German-Turkish connection goes back centuries, to a time when Germany was provincial and Ottoman Turkey was perhaps the most powerful country in the world. What does it mean today, that a smart and soulful Turkish woman should dream of Germany? Turkey and Germany have a deep darkness in common: both nations have been perpetrators of genocide. The darkness goes even deeper. In 1942, when some of Hitler’s intimates worried about the long-term scandalous impact of the Nazis’ “extreme measures” against the Jews, the Führer is said to have exclaimed, “Who remembers the Armenians?” So, Turkey’s mass murder of Armenians during the First World War was not only monstrous in itself, but served as a precedent for an even greater mass murder. Moreover, genocidal policy stemmed from a belief that it was feasible to extinguish not only people’s lives, but even the memory of their lives; so that genocide, if done “right,” would never be criticized, because the victims would never be remembered.

But in fact, post-Nazi German governments have made extraordinary efforts to remember—the people who were killed, the ways in which the state killed them, the people who participated in the crime, and the mechanisms with which the whole thing was covered up and denied. Genocide is so humanly inexplicable that we still don’t really grasp how it could happen; the struggle for memory and understanding has to go on and on. But this struggle has helped to make Germany a more open and humanly caring society than it ever was before.

Meanwhile, it seems, Turkey has worked equally hard to forget. About half a century ago, Alcoholics Anonymous coined a phrase that fits Turkey very well: in denial. Both Ipek and her creator seem to believe that a country in denial is poisoning its springs of life and inviting more darkness. This is why Ipek is thrilled at the chance to get out, and why many Turks today see Germany and German culture as sources of light, against the background of their shared darkness. Germany has made a commitment to being open and honest about its genocidal past. This has to be one reason why, half a century after the first Turks began going to Germany for work, many Turkish intellectuals still see Germany as their promised land.

It may take heroism for Ka and Ipek to get there. But the life they look forward to, once they do get there, will be unheroic, ordinary, “normal.” When I was growing up in the Bronx, in the years after the Second World War, it was full of Jews who had just survived the Holocaust. When I met them, they were butchers, bakers, jewelers, tailors, cab drivers, owners of hardware and stationery stores. They were just like Ka’s “most ordinary grocer”—plain Bronx Jews going to the movies and yelling at their children (who were often my classmates and friends) to do their homework. But although most of them didn’t like to talk about it, many of them had been heroes of resistance movements against the Nazis only a few years before. They suffered horribly, but when they survived, they had a chance to become something like the people Ka and Ipek hope to be.

In the history of modern culture, the archetypal couple presiding over Ka’s and Ipek’s fantasies and hopes come from the moment of the French Revolution: they are Papageno and Papagena, from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Ka and Ipek, two centuries later, would be a modernist variation on Mozart’s theme. Their embraces will be accompanied by all the latest mass media, by movies and television, by computer hookups and hyperlinks, and by dreams of America—of undubbed America (Pamuk highlights this), an America in as raw and direct a form as they can imagine. Americans can feel proud to be part of their dream life and their pursuit of happiness.

Why shouldn’t they have all this? In fact, it is only drastic last-minute plot intervention by the author that keeps the heroine off the train to freedom. Maybe Pamuk thought it would be a better story this way, and if he did, who knows, maybe he was right. Maybe stories of love crushed are more poignant than stories of love fulfilled. Or maybe the best story is love crushed after it’s fulfilled: for readers, it might be a way to have the best of both worlds. Think Romeo and Juliet; or, closer to our time and our world, think A Farewell to Arms.

But there’s a difference between the logic of a story and the logic of history. At the start of the twenty-first century, our history may be more open than our literature. A great many people have got out of nightmarish situations all over the globe, and America has given them space to breathe. On any Saturday or Sunday afternoon, at Herald Square, on Telegraph Avenue, in shopping malls in all sorts of American places I and Pamuk have never heard of, you can find couples that look a lot like Ipek and Ka (they are often of different colors), schlepping their babies around in ultra-modern snugglies, overflowing with new life. We could give them a super-title: Modernist Liberalism Lives.


Marshall Berman teaches political theory and urbanism at CCNY/CUNY. His most recent book is On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square (2006).