Melancholy and Huzun in Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul

By Helvacioglu, Banu | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2013 | Go to article overview

Melancholy and Huzun in Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul


Helvacioglu, Banu, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Istanbul: Memories of a City is a tightly woven text in which Orhan Pamuk narrates three stories: how he decided to become a writer, how he positions himself in relation to Turkish melancholic writers, and how he responds to the prevalent melancholic perception of Istanbul's historical and cultural status as a fallen city and to his memories of it. The text follows three intertwined temporalities. First, Pamuk uses historical chronology of particular episodes in his life, in his family's life, and in Turkey's history; the book ends in the mid-1970s, when he is in his early twenties. Second, tapping into the reservoir of Pamuk's memory, the text flows in the temporal dynamic of selective/voluntary remembrance. On one hand, then, the narration defies any historical analysis, but on the other, it carries the trademark of Baudelaire's modern aesthetic tradition (84, 203; see also Baudelaire's Selected Writings and Paris Spleen) and the critical analysis of Walter Benjamin's memory (216, 232; see also Illuminations and Charles Baudelaire). Third, he maintains that temporality on land and temporality at sea follow different moods, evident in specific scenes of the Bosphorus--"Hymn to Smoke" (257) and "The Ship on the Golden Horn" (314). The two contrasting moods keep each other company: "if the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness" (41). Similarly, in certain locations, joyful moments on land are accompanied by deep sorrow. Perhaps because of the finely tuned construction of temporalities, Pamuk himself appears almost as a skillfully developed character in a novel, and indeed, the writing reflects his selective, playfully tailored autobiography (see Other Colours 361, 366).

To address a question Pamuk raises, "Why have I devoted so much energy to convey to the reader the melancholy I feel in the city where I've spent my entire life?" (209), this inquiry suggests that Pamuk's conceptualization of melancholy/huzun is embedded in the creative tension between the personal and the social and the historical and the atemporal. (1) My objective is twofold: to explore how Pamuk in Istanbul stands as a local, European, and Westernizer (his term for one who is pro-modernization) on one hand, and as a wanderer in a fictitious, fantastic location on the other; and how these constantly varying viewpoints help him transform the personal, historical, cultural, and psychological attributes of melancholy from grief, loss, defeat, and resignation into instants that he calls "delicious melancholy" (320), moments of rapture "where melancholy mixes with joy" (61), and timeless, spaceless moments in one's life that defy any representation. (2) Similar to Burton's technique, which Cowan (242) and Flatley (160) refer to as "melancholizing," Pamuk yields to the depressive mood of melancholy/huzun, but at the same time, by contemplating his mood in an aesthetic and historical context, he transforms collectively experienced resignation into a creative endeavour to understand the specific historicity and spatiality of Istanbul. This understanding makes it possible to explore how melancholy in aesthetic production transverses with melancholy as a historical condition of modernity and with melancholy as a cultural condition. (3)

To begin with the specifics of the text, Pamuk presents himself as a resident of Istanbul, an Istanbullu. (4) The word Istanbullu retains its intrinsic quality in the book's English translation such that outsiders, including citizens of other cities in Turkey, gain a convincing picture of what it means to hate oneself in general and Istanbul in particular (286-93). As Pamuk also offers observations such as identifying the humming sound that emanated from the engines of Kocatas, a certain ferry (319), the term Istanbullu denotes an intense relationship with the awkward soul of the city.

In this context, Istanbul's collective huzun is heightened by Pamuk's sensibility. …

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