The Misery of Catching Up

in Sikora, P. & Kvocáková, L., The New Dictionary of Old Ideas, MeetFactory, Prague

The New Dictionary of Old Ideas is a network of independent cultural institutions within Central and Eastern Europe. The platform we aim to create comes along with the process of cultural exchange and intense research of our common identity. Through political issues, visual culture, art theory, and the history of the region, we wish to explore Central Europe as an intriguing phenomenon. Coming from the experience of cultural mobility, we have established a residency project as a helping tool in furthering research that goes hand in hand with a set of theoretical terms known as The New Dictionary of Old Ideas.

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Kamal, a young rich westernized businessman in the Istanbul of 1975 is about to become engaged with aristocratic Sibel, and live a perfect life. He accidentally meets Füsun, a distant poor relative of extreme beauty, and falls madly in love with her. They spend a month of love in his garçonnière, at the end of which he gets formally engaged to Sibel and Füsun disappears. He spends a year of agony, during which he breaks up with Sibel. He retrieves Füsun, who is married to an aspiring filmmaker, and starts visiting them and her parents for over 8 years almost daily. He starts a film company with Füsun’s husband, all the while refusing her the desire to become an actress. Instead, he spends each moment following Füsun’s every gesture and collecting objects related to her daily life, which he gathers in his garçonnière; he becomes completely disengaged from his high society life of parties, restaurants and holidays. Eventually, the husband cheats on Füsun and she divorces him. Kamal and Füsun decide to get married. They plan a trip to Europe, but on the first night of the trip, after having slept together for the first time in 9 years, Füsun tells Kamal he has made her utterly unhappy and drives the car into a tree, thus encountering death. Kamal survives to build the museum bringing together the objects he has been gathering and to tell the story of their love.

I read Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Museum of Innocence” not as a love story but as a political fable. The main character is an embodiment of the man of the periphery: he has been given the candy of the west and can no longer return to “innocence”. He is in an 8 year-old limbo, between resolving he cannot follow the full path of the west, yet he cannot take an entirely personal path. He is an impotent, who by his impotence makes all those around him unhappy. He cannot fully choose, so he prefers to fantasize about both worlds, keeping his distance from both. The character of Füsun is not real (she never has her own thoughts, we never know what she thinks – the author manages at the same time to expose misogyny and exploitation of women, yet another symptom of a self-colonized society). So when she finally becomes available and the main character can marry her – read “own” her – she eludes him, exposing the man’s impotence to have given the full dignity to a human being. Kamal did not trust her at any point to create together with her their personal path, no matter how difficult it may have been. So they remain together in a horrible limbo – something in the style of Sartre’s “hell is other people” – during which she constantly faces reality and he escapes it.

The innocence Kamal has lost can only be preserved in a museum: like all things in this constructed space, it is also a construct. That innocence is constructed après coup, when the west has spoiled it. And although at first glance the ending – “I want the reader to know that I was happy” – sounds like salvation, it is the fiercest affirmation of the character’s impotence. Being happy comes from “happy those who are fools”, i.e., innocent. Innocence is now dug up for what it really is: a tool to keep those who want to act in check. Kamal could have shown a different path to those in his world, but he didn’t have the courage: he relapsed into fantasy and innocence, and remained irrelevant. His life is a museum because museums are irrelevant: they are dead, they are prisons, they cannot hurt those alive. 

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