Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Down With Book Learnin'

In the interests of equal time (apparently), yesterday's Wall St. Journal op-ed page hosted some impressive anti-intellectualism about Orhan Pamuk in honor of his Nobel Prize in Literature.

The author is Melik Kaylan, a British-raised Turk who is known for being one of the founders of Spy magazine and for defending Ann Coulter in the pages of, again, the Wall St. Journal.

Kaylan takes an inordinate amount of pleasure in his own thickheadedness.
If the Nobel jurists, in awarding their prize, droned rather opaquely about Mr. Pamuk's qualities—he has "discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures"—who can blame the committee? I have read Mr. Pamuk's novels in both English and Turkish and I couldn't tell you now, or even while reading, what happens in most of them.
Simplemindedness is not a virtue when discussing literature, nor should it be. The crux of Kaylan's op-ed is that if he's too dim to understand Pamuk's books, well, by gosh, so are you.

He assails the wonderful My Name Is Red for being impenetrable and complains about its "hundreds of pages" like a high school jock jonesing for the Cliff Notes. He also claims that The White Castle is about someone trying to move "a giant cannon up a hill for an entire book. I believe that's what happens. You're not really supposed to know."

For the record, The White Castle is about what most of Pamuk's books are about: the treacherous borders where East meets West. The central plot line of the book revolves around the relationship between a Turk and his Venetian slave. The two grow together and become interchangeable to the point where they ultimately switch places, with the Turk going to Italy to experience life in the West while the Venetian assumes the role of a military engineer in the Ottoman Empire.

But I'm not supposed to know that. His books are meaningless, after all.
Nobody knows what's going on but they're in the temple of smartness and too ashamed to admit their stupidity before the next guy. Mr. Pamuk's obscuration is the more impressive for being utterly beyond one's ken; the percipient Nobel selector compliments himself by discerning the "reality" we cannot.
Kaylan is perhaps a little to liberal with his us of the word "we" here. While he is certainly not too ashamed to admit his own stupidity, he mustn't assume that others share his sad predicament. It is blindingly obvious that Kaylan resents Pamuk and, curiously, he seems to do so for political reasons.

It's not clear whether Kaylan toes the Kemalist line on the Armenian genocide and insults against Turkishness. I doubt it. He simply resents the fact that the Nobel Prize went to a writer with any political consciousness at all—especially one he can't understand.

"The pity of it all," he laments, "is that Turkey desperately lacks a writer to explain itself to the world." This strange comment raises the quite serious question of whether Kaylan has actually read Pamuk's work at all, and whether he possesses even the most basic facility to understand literature.

At the very least he convinces the reader that he truly did not understand any of Pamuk's books, and reveals that he obviously didn't read Pamuk's latest work, Istanbul, a memoir of his childhood and of the monuments and ghosts of the city where he spent it. Pamuk's writing really does warmly and richly "explain" Turkey to the world. The problem is that Kaylan does not like Pamuk's explanation. The philistinism to which he stoops to disparage Pamuk and his Nobel Prize tells us more about Kaylan than it does Pamuk, however, and that's nothing to be proud of.
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