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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 599-628

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Dandies and Originals:
Authenticity, Belatedness, and the Turkish Novel

Nurdan Gürbilek


Let's start with an impasse in our reading practices. Criticism in Turkey—not only social and cultural criticism but also literary criticism—is mostly the criticism of a lack, a critique devoted to demonstrating what Turkish society, culture, or literature lacks. Thus statements of lack ("We don't have a novel of our own" or similarly "We don't have a tragedy, a criticism, a philosophy, or an individual of our own") are typical of a critical stance that positions itself from the very start as a comparative one, presuming that it becomes convincing only when it talks about something the "other" has but "we" don't have, pointing out to the persistent lack, the irremovable deficiency, the unyielding inadequacy of its object: Turkish culture.

It would be unfair to say that this is merely a discursive fallacy. A whole set of social-economic-cultural reasons are at work here: a society that is "belatedly modernized," 1 a system of thought that has come to accept its insufficiency before a modern one presuming to be superior, and a culture that has adopted an infantile role when confronted by foreign modern ideals. What the Greek scholar Gregory [End Page 599] Jusdanis calls "belated modernity," what the Iranian scholar Daryush Shayegan describes as "a consciousness retarded to the idea," 2 what the Turkish scholar Jale Parla explains by a sense of "fatherlessness" 3 and what the Turkish critic Orhan Koçak discusses within the framework of a "missed ideal" 4 are all related to the traumatic shifting of models generally discussed under the heading Westernization. This cultural context forced Turkish literary criticism toward being an anxious effort of comparison programmed to discuss from the very start the deprivation, insufficiency, and shortage of its object: Turkish literature.

In fact not only the critic's but also the reader's critical response is rooted in a similar complaint of insufficiency that has become an almost automatic response, a reflex action throughout the years. Most theoretical works in Turkish give us the impression that they are translations from a Western language, crude adaptations of an alien theory, shallow imitations of an original model inevitably deformed when carried to a different cultural scene. It is as if the Western concepts have lost their viability or they have become somewhat decorative figures in an inert local theory that is belated and artificial at the same time. There seems at least to be an irremovable tension between the foreign theory and the local reality, between the alien concepts and the native cultural scene.

Criticism of the novel gets its share from the tension. Most Turkish critics blame Turkish novelists for creating secondhand characters lacking spontaneity and originality, characters who are prisoners of imitated desires, copied sensibilities, bookish aspirations, and belated torments. It is as if the critical attempt has eliminated itself because of a defect inherent in the object itself, the critic becoming a Western observer entrusted with the task of showing how "presence" is spared from the local object, someone in charge of declaring that the original version of everything local is elsewhere, making record of foreign debts, imitated books, stolen plots, and derived characters. Hence Turkish criticism is born into an arrogant detachment from its object presumed from the very start to be crude, primitive, and childlike.

The criticism of lack is in fact torn between two extremes. The first one assumes that what is original is elsewhere ("outside," namely in the West) while the second insists that we do have an authentic literature and a genuine native thought but in order to appreciate it we have to leave aside all those lifeless imitations and snobbish efforts related with the West. [End Page 600] The first one, accompanied by an unconditional admiration for the foreign model, devaluates its object by reducing it to an import, while the second takes sides with a true self that was almost crushed by the...


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pp. 599-628
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Archived 2004
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