Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Secret Center

Orhan Pamuk offers interesting insights on the art of writing in his Harvard lectures. Using Schiller’s essay on naïve and sentimental poetry as a starting point, Pamuk ventures forth on his own experiences as a writer and reader. He chart’s the development of his craft that I admit offers the best framework of understanding the act of writing than most books I have read. His concept of the ‘secret center’ is something I have not read about from any other writer though he does quote some writers who have similar conceptions on a novels ‘center’. It’s an intriguing concept as the ‘center’ evolves organically and not planned or structured the way a writer started out to construct when he began writing his book. In fact, the novel’s ‘center’ may not be what the author had intended but results from the reaction of the reader as he reads the book. Hence, it‘s an unintended consequence of reading that formulates out of each readers make-up: his culture, upbringing, education, experiences and so on. But the ‘center’ is also evoked from the writer’s work as he writes his passages, his narrative and the objects and sensations he places on the page – all based on his own make-up, too.

Being a writer from a developing country, although the recipient of an ancient culture, specifically an Islamist upbringing with echoes of Byzantium and Ottoman legacy, Pamuk has the same sensibilities as writers from the third world. Specifically a culture where only a small elite writes for their own class, at least during the start of his career, where an enlightened mass of citizens don’t exists unlike in the developed world with universal education and a mass reading public. It’s an intriguing viewpoint that I appreciate: the question is raised: who do I write for? The Western reader where the mass market exist or the small elite of one’s country: the decision would impact the way the novel is written. This will sway the novel’s ‘secret center’ and Pamuk covers all the territory that would impact the developing writer. It is a unique and informed insight and he cites samples from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and other great writers who were not really consciously aware of the ‘center’ as a literary model. The theory of the ‘center’ is what distinguishes genre and literary novels and he proves to be a well-read writer citing popular authors like John le Carre as one who moves away from genre towards being a literary novelist.

His book is highly original (despite starting off with Schiller’s premise using Goethe as his model); I have not had such incisive insights from other writers who write about writing such as Ayn Rand, Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway. I attribute this uniqueness to Pamuk’s intriguing background where he comes off as a sophisticated or cosmopolitan writer from the Middle East, someone who has Western sensibilities with no hint of Islamist tendencies. Perhaps this is a reflection of Turkey itself; a modern secular state that abolished the caliphate – a truly revolutionary act (perhaps akin to Mao’s Cultural Revolution) that boldly strives forward into the modern age by cutting its ties to the past. Indeed, abolishing the Islamic caliphate is like the Western states abolishing the papacy; thereby, getting rid of the Pope’s role. Hence, Turkey can be seen as heralding the future to the Middle Eastern, a call to modern ideas that has proven radical that only a few Islamic countries have followed. Perhaps being a native of Istanbul (or the former Constantinople) with one foot in Europe and one foot in Asia provide Pamuk with a synthesis that few Western writers (or critics) can understand but whom Asians can identify with.

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