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A Conversation on 'Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity'

Published February 18, 2020 by Oğuz Tecimen

Istanbul 1940 And Global Modernity, Erich Auerbach, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, Halide Edib, Europe, Literature, West, East, Orient, Faith, Religion

A Conversation with Efe Khayyat on Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019)

Professor Khayyat's most recent book Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity: The World According to Auerbach, Tanpınar, and Edib engages Erich Auerbach's pioneering works of comparative literature in a new light. It interprets Auerbach's works against the background of his Turkish colleagues' analogous works that, like Auerbach's masterpieces, were drafted at Istanbul University in the 1940s. Before I met Khayyat in Istanbul, I had the opportunity to discuss Istanbul 1940 with him via email exchanges as I read the book. It was wonderful to talk about Istanbul 1940 in the city where Auerbach, Tanpınar and Edib met almost a century ago. The following is an excerpt from our conversation that is forthcoming in the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics.

Oğuz Tecimen: Istanbul 1940 is an extremely ambitious book that strikes the reader from the very first sentence: "I wish I could start where Erich Auerbach left off and write a book that, like Mimesis, 'may be cited as an illustration' of how history is better off as fiction." The final chapter of Auerbach's Mimesis deals with modernist fiction. Towards the end of the book, Auerbach suggests that the fragmentary, perspectivist form of the modernist novel informs his own historical-philological method as well. You show that he contrasts this method with the totalising methods of what he calls "historical sciences". Why do you think it is not possible to realise your wish today?

E. Khayyat: You are right, I don't think that it's easy to start where Auerbach left off because of the way we study culture today. The kind of literary criticism we practice and teach today seems to me to be quite regressive and far less political. Think of his signature style: that understated tone that marks all of his writings. I can tell you from my classroom experience that those reading him for the first time often find his excruciating attention to detail, accompanied by his monotonous, nonchalant voice, terribly boring. I think all this is sheer irreverence and an expression of humility at once on his part. On the one hand, he merely performs literary criticism, always with a keen eye on style, like a well-behaving, if also a little boring, university professor. On the other hand, his criticism draws conclusions that gradually shape an understanding of our political history, an intellectual history of our global modernity. Moreover, literary history as he conceived it, is at the same time history of religion. His attention to style teaches us something new about the relation of faith and fiction to reality, and the relation of politics to religion, not only in the modern world but since time immemorial! Critics often observe that he wrote histories of mentalities, what they mean is that Auerbach drafted an intellectual history of our present, of the modern subject – a genealogy of the mental theatre of modernity.

Auerbach thought he could do this as a philologist or as a man of letters, but not simply because he prioritised his field over and against other fields of study. It’s not that philology is better or more truthful than philosophy, history, political science, or sociology. His philology offered truths of a different order. He did consider his critique an heir to Geisteswissenschaften, but at the same time he was completely aware of the belatedness of such approach. In other words, he did not employ what you call the "totalising methods" of the nineteenth-century European mind, while still providing a "total" view of things. He sought to avoid the loudness, the authoritarian certitude of the nineteenth-century European mind by allowing his method for humanistic inquiry to be informed by the literary in the modern sense, by inviting a degree of fiction into his strictly historical account. That is what I find fascinating about his ambitions and his understatements. For him, practicing modernist philology was to do what Geisteswissenschaften once did, but without any claim whatsoever to scientific, philosophical, or other authority or certitude. Practicing philology or literary criticism in the twentieth century, then, is to step back from Auerbach's perspective, to relinquish scientific authority to claim the license to say anything and everything and in every possible way. This is how Derrida once defined literature by the way, describing his own somewhat literary technique as an effort to say anything and everything and in every possible way, and pointing out that the modern institution of literature overflows, opposes to, or even seeks to undo institutionality. There you see the reason why I take Auerbach's equation of his philological method to the method of the modernist novel as essential in doing his work justice. Nowadays though, even in literature departments where we assign bits and pieces of Auerbach's writings to our students, disciplinary organisation and specialisation are but sine quo non. Everyone wants to be loud, certain, exact etc.

O.T.: This piques my curiosity because you also state in the opening paragraph that your book "involves a degree of fiction". It may seem as a shocking statement for a scholarly book of this caliber. Perhaps you gave us an off-the-beaten-path, rather imaginative type of scholarly book, like Auerbach's? Except for your tremendous endnotes and bibliography, of course.

E.K.: This is a book about three intellectuals – Auerbach, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, and Halide Edib (Adıvar) – who got together in Istanbul in the year 1940, working at the same institution and pursuing the same goal for years, which was to modernise and Europeanise that institution. In the nineteenth century, that institution, or the Darülfünun, was conceived of as the non-European equivalent of the European university. Its Europeanisation at this point in time coincides with the darkest hour of European history, accompanied by unrest, violence, and destruction taking hold of the entire world.

These intellectuals posed themselves as always looking at the larger world, the world beyond Istanbul while writing their histories in pursuit of their common goal. Yet for each of them that background of a larger world was something different. For Auerbach it was the West, for Tanpınar and Edib it was the Orient, Muslim Orient or the East at large. Although they worked together and they all worked to explain how and why they had found themselves at their moment in (European or Europeanising) history, and even though they had similar methods, as the book shows, they did not and could not feed one another intellectually, at least not on the surface.

We have hardly any comments in their writings about one another. This does not mean that they did not complement each other, though. That is why being a little imaginative, some digging into depths is necessary to place them next to one another retrospectively. Bringing them together, interpreting their writings together today draws different pictures of their lifeworlds and enables new ways of viewing their legacies. It provides a more complete view of the world and the world-historical moment they approached from different angles but from the common point of view of their meeting place in Istanbul. It also provides a more complete view of what they took literature and critique to be. All this, I believe, has a lot to teach our present in so far as the world historical moment of these critics' narratives has shaped and continues to shape our present.

O.T.: Since there is no direct interaction between them, what are your grounds for imagining affinities between these three figures?

E.K.: Well, first of all, my goal was not to show or claim that these three intellectuals influenced one another. Such an argument would not be worth making anyway. It would have been difficult to prove too. After all, they studied different traditions. Yet their ambitions and reservations mirror each others'. The impossible scopes of their intellectual histories – from Homer to Woolf, or from the Mu'allaqat to Nazim Hikmet – mirror one another as well. Despite having directed their gazes in different directions – Auerbach to the West, Tanpınar the Muslim Orient, and Edib at once further East and further West – it is clear that they were responding to the same moment in history, from Istanbul where they worked together, and with the same concerns. This is why I thought it was even more interesting that they ignored one another – apart from some general comments they made, which could as well be interpreted as anti-Semitic in Tanpınar's case, by the way, biased in different ways in Auerbach's and Edib's cases.

They were all in a hurry to salvage what they could from their respective archives right where they all thought was the end of history. Perhaps that is why they didn't have the time to study each others' works. Regardless, that is one of their meeting place in their minds – right at the end of a world. But there are other meeting points. Another is, I argue, the space of literature, of modern literature. Because as humanists and literary critics, they all reacted to the methods of modern disciplinary history and social sciences in the same way, and they all seemed to have a similar understanding of the literary method, or literature as method, as it were. While working to recreate an outdated, still very much "Oriental" educational institution in the image of the modern European university, they had the opportunity to rethink the university and the humanities at the end of times – right at the end of Europe from Auerbach's perspective, at the end of the Islamicate civilisation from Tanpınar's and Edib's perspectives. I would go so far to argue that they together, that is, as a collective, even reinvented the European humanities. Unfortunately only Auerbach's portion of greater invention has reached us to pioneer cultural criticism and comparative literature as we practice them today. Imagine what comparative literature would have looked like if Auerbach had reached us as part of the collective I study – or what other disciplines and fields of study would have emerged if Tanpınar and Edib had reached us together with Auerbach. As you see, one must be imaginative to do this collective justice.

Oğuz Tecimen is an Istanbul-based novelist and the editor of the cultural journal Notos. Prof. Khayyat (Rutgers University) is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Woolf Institute and a Senior Research Associate at St Edmund's College.

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