Sunday, December 7, 2008

The constraints of national literature; or, the opposite of flarf?

I regret that I have not been able to shake off the enlightenment utilitarian idea that books exist to prepare us for life. Perhaps this is because a writer's life in Turkey is proof that they are. But it also has something to do with the fact that in those days Turkey lacked the sort of large library where you could easily locate any book you wanted. In Borges's imaginary library, every book takes on a mystical aspect, and the library itself offers intimations of a poetic and metaphysical infinity, echoing the complexity of the world outside; behind this dream are real libraries with more books than can ever be counted or read. Borges was director of one such library in Buenos Aires. But when I was young there was no comparable library in Istanbul or all of Turkey. As for books in foreign languages, not a single public library had these. If I wanted to learn everything that there was to be learned, and become a wise person and so escape the constraints of the national literature - imposed by the literary cliques and literary diplomacy, and enforced by stifling prohibitions - I was going to have to build my own great library. [...] I have learned not to laugh at the books written by others, and not to cast them aside, no matter how silly, ill-timed, outmoded, outdated, stupid, wrongheaded, or strange they might be. The secret of loving these books was not, perhaps, to read them in the way their authors had intended.... The point was to read these books - strange, and indifferent, and interspersed with moments of astonishing beauty - so as to put myself in their author's shoes.

-- Orhan Pamuk, "My Turkish Library," NYRB, December 18, 2008

14 comments:

Jordan said...

I suppose this will sound like I'm asking you to like flarf, but really I just want to understand how you see Pamuk/Borges/National literature as the opposite of flarf... or rather, what about flarf in particular this quote opposes?

Don Share said...

I don't dislike (or like) flarf. I do see things in this quote to be opposite in spirit to flarf. But I will be told, I know, that I have failed to understand it. My main point is that Pamuk's nation is not Deer Head Nation.

Jordan said...

Yeah, the reverse-scolding teenage "you just don't understand" does get in the way.

But "I have learned not to laugh at the books written by others, and not to cast them aside, no matter how silly, ill-timed, outmoded, outdated, stupid, wrongheaded, or strange they might be," that actually is Deer Head Nation. The "not to cast the aside" part, anyway. It's willful of Pamuk not to laugh at what's funny.

Anyway, Pamuk's nation is Nemet-Nejat's nation, which coincidentally has had a role in shaping whatever spirit(s) we're talking about it.

Don Share said...

Thank you, as always, Jordan. You're absolutely right about Pamuk's willfulness, though I suppose (I'm not being sarcastic) that the criminal charges and burning of his books would made a guy feel a little sour.

I like Murat Nemet-Nejat's work & am trying to reach him about his own stuff and translations... Anyone have his contact info?

mongibeddu said...

The excerpt yokes together two very different ideas: "that books exist to prepare us for life" and that books should be loved "no matter how silly, ill-timed, outmoded, outdated, stupid, wrongheaded, or strange they might be." You could argue, I suppose, that the stupid etc. books prepare you for life, but that either bleaches wisdom away from the first proposition or forces one to dye wisdom into the second.

By and large, the forward drift of literature has tended toward bleaching rather than dyeing, and glancing briefly at Pamuk's essay (on line here), it looks like he shares in that drift, while feeling a twinge of nostalgia for his youthful optimism―his belief "that he could have dominion over the entire world through learning." Well, I can relate to that.

Anyway, yes, flarf is too mongrel for the culled bookshelves of a national literature as described―with no fondness at all―by Pamuk; the national library of Deer Head Nation would make even Borges's Library of Babel (with its endless symmetrical honeycomb chambers, or whatever they are) seem as rulebound and methodical as the U.N., which indeed it is.

But isn't Pamuk's point, finally, that all literature is the opposite of "national literature"?

Ben F.

Don Share said...

I think you're right about Pamuk's point, Ben - which is why the quote and the essay appealed to me so much. Thank you for this great comment!

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

Pamuk believes in being "universal," rather than "ethnic" (being considered "ethnic" maybe being his ultimate nightmare). "Ethnic" and "universal" are the words he used in an interview/talk he gave at Columbia University a few weeks ago. I have my serious doubts about the distinction he makes.

I think Don's placing Pamuk's views against Flarf is instinctual and a very correct one, "the universal" representing essentially a 19th century view of art and Flarf maybe the other extreme.

Ben, my view of Deer Head Nation, I am not sure if of flarf in general also, is that it is mongrelism on steroid, an approach with which I have visceral problems also. Interestingly, Deer Head Nation can be seen as (is) a parodic reductio ad "extremis" of Pamuk's "universality."

Ciao,

Murat

mongibeddu said...

Murat! Always nice to hear your voice.

I share your doubts about "ethnic" (or "national," or "particular," or whatever) vs. "universal." Any Jew with a sense of history would, I think: it's one side of a moebius strip declaring war on the other.

On reflection, I think "mongrel" is the wrong word; it's too steeped in nineteenth-century racial thinking.

Is mutt any better? Probably not. But even so, flarf is really mutt-like, isn't it? A dog at the pound, put to sleep if no one will adopt it. And such a lovable puppy too! Without papers, or toilet training, and a little too rambunctious for little kids or apartment dwellers, but FUN, and ready to run you ragged chasing a stick.

Ben F.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

Ben,

Nice to hear your voice also.

I actually like the word mongrel, including adopting its negative associations and transforming them into positives. In the Eda anthology, I refer to Istanbul as the "mongrel accumulation of historica detail" or something close to it.

I love your comparing flarf for a pound dog, not quite toilet trained, waiting for adoption. I think adoption has already occurred. The question is, when this loveable rascal is house bound, what will it become, a clown? What is the function of such a creature? If toilet trained, is it still what it was?

Just riffing a bit.

Ciao,

Murat

mongibeddu said...

Of course, now that I think of it, I realize that flarf isn't one dog. It's a whole pack of 'em, each with its own personality and fate.

For myself, I've found it fun to roam the streets, picking through garbage, playing with strangers. But I'd like someday to be adopted by a family and brought to the country, so I can spend my old age sleeping in the grass, under the sun.

Oh, wait, that's just what happened!

Murat, you make me want to reread Eda.

Ben F.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

Ben,

Garbage is a great source of poetry, as you, as a connoisseur of Poe and streets of 19th century New York, etc., would understand. This is even more so than Wordsworth's "tinterabbeylar" English countryside. It seems in a dog's life things happen in reverse.

Yes, I do believe Eda bears and even needs reading and re-reading. I do remember your initial intense positive reaction to it ("its giddy sense of lyric possibilities").

Are you following the exchanges about a a new kind of lyric in the Poetics List?

Ciao,

Murat

mongibeddu said...

Murat:

This is turning into a squat! You need a blog. I would definitely read that--the poetics list, not so much.

Ben

M. R. said...

Ah, the infinite dispensability of the Poetics List.

This Pamuk piece appears with an article on Bolaño in which it is revealed that as a young man he satisfied his own need to build a library by shoplifting books - thus freeing me to admit that in my early twenties I too often had recourse to this pastime. No skimping on haircuts for me - just slip the book down my pants & stroll out.

Was it wrong? Yes. I haven't shoplifted anything in well over a decade. But I certainly was a well-read little criminal.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

Pamuk would be too proper for that.

Ciao,

Murat