- Gauging Proximities:An Inquiry into a Possible Nexus between Middle Eastern and Western Painting
The blind and the seeing are not equal.—Koran 35:20
There is nothing more going on between the things and the eyes, and the eyes and vision, than between the things and the blind man’s hands, and between his hands and thoughts.—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” p. 3021
Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk stages an exploration of the art and philosophy of Ottoman miniature painting in his 2001 novel, My Name Is Red.2 Pamuk’s work clearly suggests parallels between the Middle Eastern miniature tradition and twentieth-century Western philosophy of art. Why would a contemporary reader with a Western education find My Name Is Red appealing? Why do Middle Eastern paintings themselves, or Islamic philosophy, seem to lack the proximity to the West that is suggested by the novel? A response may perhaps be found in another set of questions: What could be the inspiration for a twentieth-century author who writes about Ottoman miniaturists? Ottoman history, clearly. Islamic philosophy, perhaps. But what about twentieth-century Western philosophy?
This paper primarily examines whether the proximity between Islamic and modern Western philosophy of art implied by Pamuk is [End Page 563] really possible, or whether Pamuk’s assertions are instead influenced by the twentieth-century Western philosophy of art, including the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida. I believe that the philosophy of art portrayed in My Name Is Red is at least unconsciously conditioned by, if not consciously fashioned after, the recent Western philosophy of art. Nonetheless, the novel opens up a space for inquiry into a possible nexus between two art forms, specifically miniature painting and twentieth-century Western abstract painting, which seem to be not only historically but philosophically radically apart from each other.
To God belongs the East and the West.—Koran 2:115
The old masters of Shiraz and Herat … claimed that a miniaturist would have to sketch horses unceasingly for fifty years to be able to truly depict the horse that Allah envisioned and desired. They claimed that the best picture of a horse should be drawn in the dark, since a true miniaturist would go blind working over that fifty-year period, but in the process, his hand would memorize the horse.(MR, p. 24)
We read in My Name Is Red that a miniaturist needs to paint the same figure over and over again to achieve a depiction that is “perfect,” or in accordance with God’s perception. After many years of illustrating the same form, it would appear, the process is memorized not only by the miniaturist’s eye but also his3 body. Thus, a miniaturist can carry on painting, even after the loss of his eyes, to fulfill the demands of his work.
According to the miniature tradition described in My Name Is Red, going blind after having devoted a lifetime to painting is reason to be proud. It is believed that God’s vision or perception of the world can be manifested only through the memory of a blind miniaturist. Blindness is the final destination of the miniaturist in his search for God’s vision; the inimitable perspective of God can only be attained through memory, after the eyes have perished. As Pamuk states, “When this image comes to the aging miniaturist, that is, when he sees the world as Allah sees it through the darkness of memory and blindness, the illustrator will have spent his lifetime training his hand so it might transfer this splendid revelation to the page” (MR, p. 97).
However, what is really valuable is not physical blindness but the substitution of visual and bodily memory for eyesight. As Pamuk puts [End Page 564] it, “A blind miniaturist could see the horse of God’s vision from within the darkness; however, true talent resided in a sighted miniaturist who could regard the world like a blind man” (MR, p. 348).
The idea of God’s darkness is central to the thought of miniaturists in My Name Is Red. This darkness exists before...