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  • Istanbul, Capital of Comparative Literature
  • Anca Parvulescu (bio)

"World literature needs to be studied onlocation, Goethe is telling us, and this is whatwe are doing here, in Istanbul, the city thatkeeps haunting world literature to this day. Iftraveling to Sicily is the best commentary onHomer, then traveling to Istanbul is the bestcommentary on world literature."

—Martin Puchner

"I would like to suggest that Comp Litcontinues to this day to carry traces of thecity in which it took disciplinary form—a sitewhere East-West boundaries are culturallyblurry, and where layers of colonial historyobfuscated the outlines of indigenouscultures."

—Emily Apter

"From its founding, then, comparativeliterature was imprisoned in its own anxietiesand distortions."

—Simon Gikandi [End Page 1232]

One of the most influential narratives we tell about the beginnings of Comparative Literature sees the discipline being born in 1930s Istanbul.1 Having lost their academic positions in what would become Nazi Germany, Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach found refuge in Istanbul. When they immigrated to the US, where they helped establish modern departments of Comparative Literature, they carried their Istanbul refugee experience with them. Following Edward Said, who advanced a version of this narrative, Aamir R. Mufti, Emily Apter, and Kader Konuk have revisited the Istanbul of the discipline's foundation. They have done historical work on Istanbul, tracking Auerbach's presence in Istanbul's libraries and detailing Auerbach and Spitzer's pedagogical practices; and they have creatively re-read both Auerbach and Spitzer as figures in a US-based narrative of disciplinary origins. This essay retraces, reinterprets and interrogates the well-known Istanbul narrative collectively assembled through these texts, recalibrating it around a critical reading of Orhan Pamuk's 2003 memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City. While virtually all accounts of the city's place in the comparatist imaginary downplay Istanbul's imperial and post-imperial relation to the Ottoman Empire, Pamuk's text—often unwittingly—reveals a portrait of Istanbul as a quintessential post-imperial city.

A few urgent questions for Comparative Literature are at stake in this re-staging of the discipline's Istanbul: What are the consequences of anchoring the discipline's new beginnings in a post-imperial city suffused with end-of-empire melancholy? What does it say about this discipline that scholars often chronicle French writers' passing through Istanbul, but none record the travels of post-Ottoman imperial subjects? Does it matter that the inter-imperial polyglottism of Istanbul is circumscribed in the Comparative Literature debate to an effort to "learn Turkish" (Apter, "Global"), the language of post-imperial nationalism? Should we speak of Auerbach as a "figure of minority" (Mufti, "Auerbach") with only passing reference to Ottoman populations minoritized in the wake of the Kemalist reforms—Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Circassian, Romani, Jewish? Alternatively, can we, in the Comparative Literature debate, invoke the Ottoman Empire as an empire and Istanbul as the capital of this empire—in an inter-imperial framework of reference (Doyle)? What would it mean to bring [End Page 1233] an expanded postcolonial theory—one that registers both colonial and imperial difference—to bear on the history of Istanbul, not only as one of the places for the enactment of European Orientalism and subsequently European-style modernization, but simultaneously as the ex-capital of an empire creating post-imperial myths meant to render its participation in the inter-imperial field fairly benign?

In a 2008 essay, Nergis Ertürk drew attention to the absence of Turkish writers and scholars in the Comparative Literature debate on Istanbul. Since 2008, a number of important interventions have expanded the conversation to include more Turkish texts and voices (Konuk; Oruc; Khayyat; Fisk). This essay argues, however, that there remain other crucial and consequential absent presences—as Ertürk puts it, "in an almost absurdly literal as well as critical-theoretical sense" (42)—in the Istanbul narrative. From the perspective of Istanbul as a post-imperial city, one is struck by the absence of post-Ottoman, non-Turkish voices in this debate. These voices are absent both from the comparatist conversation (Mufti; Apter) and largely from its supplement in the work of scholars who work...


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