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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 647-661

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Ottoman Past and Turkish Future:
Ambivalence in A. H. Tanpınar's Those outside the Scene

Erdag Göknar

We're the children of a crisis of mind and identity; we're living the question "To be or not to be" more poignantly than Hamlet. As we embrace this dilemma, we will more fully take control of our lives and our work.

—A. H. Tanpınar, "Istanbul" from Five Cities

Reductive perceptions of Turkey as a nation caught between East and West, or moving gradually from the former toward the latter, give way to more meaningful insights when approached through the works of culturally astute writers like A. H. Tanpınar (1901–63), whose value in understanding the Turkey of tomorrow rests in his understanding of the late-Ottoman past. Tanpınar's attention to the psychological effects of the Kemalist cultural revolution of the 1920s and 1930s, his recognition of the persistence of an Ottoman Islamic cultural legacy, and his depiction of the individual alienated and divided by modernization make his work indispensable for anyone interested in modern Turkish society. His novels, articles, and critical essays provide insights into the contradictory aspects of a society that has been actualizing a "civilizational [End Page 647] shift" since at least the 1839 Tanzimat. Tanpınar's work has taken on even more significance as Turkey enters the twenty-first century, attempts to realize membership in the EU, and positions itself as the model of a "secular Muslim country."

The tone of Tanpınar's novels might be characterized as part lament for the loss of a late-Ottoman cultural past and part anxiety about the future of Turkish national society. Those outside the Scene, Tanpınar's third novel, set in Istanbul during the post–World War I period of European colonial threat, captures the psychological dilemma of a people whose identity has been transformed as a result of rapid sociocultural change. Faced with a decision between "East" and "West," modernity and tradition, and Ottoman past and Turkish national future, Tanpınar's characters cannot, or perhaps refuse to, decide. Indecision is their form of bourgeois protest. Indeed, Tanpınar's worldview is Janus-faced, implying that these choices are false, or even absurd. Rather than seeing the "two worlds" as alternatives, he sees them as synchronic, two cultural springs feeding his identity and his art. His cultural ideal thereby involves a lived synthesis of apparently contradictory identities (Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, Istanbulite and Anatolian, Islamic and secular) manifested by the people of Turkey.

Our approach to Tanpınar will be clearer if we set him against the generation of writers and thinkers that preceded him. 1 Broadly, that group of nationalist writers witnessed an Ottoman state whose desperate "Tanzimat-style" Westernization led it into semicolonial status. In response, they helped establish a new sociocultural narrative that imagined what might emerge out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: an independent Turkish nation-state. This involved not only a shift away from Ottoman-Islamic historiography, but also the creation of a new identity based on Enlightenment ideals. In order to reinforce this secular identity, the golden age of the new "Westernizing" Turkish Republic would be "pre-Islamic" and situated in Turkic Central Asia.

Thus, the generation that established the Turkish Republic in 1923 also articulated a didactic metanarrative that helped guide and imagine the transition from empire to republic, that is, from Ottoman Muslim to secular Turk. This narrative, which I've elsewhere termed the Turkish national core narrative (NCN) has four major plot points: (1) colonial encounter (foreign military occupation); (2) the Anatolian turn (a movement toward the people); (3) national consciousness (nation over self); and (4) cultural revolution [End Page 648] (a new history and identity). 2 Though this historically based narrative is a subtext in Those outside the Scene, Tanpınar leaves his characters in a Hamlet-like indecision regarding the break in history, culture, and identity that...


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pp. 647-661
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Archived 2004
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