Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.4A, 36-44
Published Online April 2013 in SciRes ( DOI:10.4236/ce.2013.44A006
My Name Is Red: Acts of Literature and Translation in the
Margins of Cultural Literacy
Zelia Gregoriou
Department of Education, University of Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus
Received January 9th, 2013; revised February 10th, 2013; accepted February 26th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Zelia Gregoriou. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Taking as its backdrop the reception of Orhan Pamuk’s novels in the “West” as meta-commentaries on
the “clash of civilizations”, this paper discusses a Derridean approach to the value of teaching literature in
general and teaching literature for cultural understanding and global citizenship in particular. This ap-
proach implicates a double shift in education perspective: from the cultivation of narrative imagination to
a translational approach to literariness, and from Nussbaum’s definition of cosmopolitanism as develop-
ment of love for humanity across concentric circles of identification to a cosmopolitan framing of acts of
literature and translation. This double shift is elucidated in the paper through a double gesture: first, the
engagement with Derrida’s concepts of iterability, repetition, acts of literature; second, animating the per-
formative’s break from context by interlayering its elucidation with a performative reading of Orhan Pa-
muk’s novel My Name Is Red. The paper calls for an educational philosophy of literature in education that
addresses the self-reflexivity of the text rather than story line, form rather than content of narrative
imagination, and politics of translation rather than translation of cultural others. Cultural literacy and cul-
turally engaged readings of literature could learn from such an interlayered performative reading how to
preserve translation alive in the other, and, vice versa, how to reenact adventures of translation towards
challenging familiar and reified forms of cultural identity and not only orientalist images of “mullahs”.
Keywords: Derrida; Pamuk; Nussbaum; Literature; Literary Imagination; Iterabiblity; Performativity;
Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is R ed (Beni m Ad ım K ırmızı,
Instabul, Iletişim, 1998) was originally translated to English
and published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf and in the UK by
Faber and Faber the week before September 11, 2001. The time,
geopolitical milieu and media reception of its publication, in-
scribe My Name Is Reds circulation with the impossibility of
translation. The parallel relay of the book’s reception and the
apocalyptic representation of 9/11 as an exemplary instantiation
of the clash of civilizations framed the novel’s exegesis with
expectations for “lessons”: a fictional investigation of the war
of cultures; a search for the historical origin of the clash be-
tween East-West; a literary “dip” into cultural Islam. Could we
read Pamuk’s historical novel as something other than a diag-
nostic genealogy for the clash between East and West? Could a
pedagogical articulation of this book aim at a more radical en-
gagement with difference than what a “culturally responsive
teaching” (Gay, 2000) would do? What is the educational liter-
ary value of reckoning with the problems of translation? Do we
teach global literatures for “traversing the boundaries of indi-
vidual experience to connect with the experiences of others
different from ourselves” (Bell & Roberts, 2010: p. 2303), or
for reclaiming educational thinking from the synchronicity of
globalization (Papastephanou et al., 2012)? Could the release of
the imagination (Greene, 1995; Egan, 1985) become intertangled
with acts of literature that rupture the quest for lessons in the
story and release the text’s polyphonia and différance? What
would the educational value of such acts be? In an era of cul-
tural flows and global disjunctures, with various disciplinary
domains of educational studies becoming increasingly engaged
in the project of teaching for global citizenship, this paper
delves into acts of translation as reenacted in the unique idiom
of fiction and explores the potential of translational as opposed
to concentric cosmopolitanism. With regards to the teaching of
world literature, the paper calls for a philosophy of literature edu-
cation that addresses literary devises rather than story line(s)
and aporias of translation rather than the crossing of borders. A
culturally engaged reading of literature, I argue, needs to go
beyond an empathetic reading that cultivates concern for distant
humanity (the latter is problematically assumed to be conveyed
through the “voices” of characters). It needs to sensitize and
engage students in the multiple and interlaced layers of transla-
tion involved both in cultural change and artistic creativity. It
needs to revise the tools and not just the content of narrative
Set in Istanbul during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III,
1574-1595, and somewhat beyond into the reign of Sultan Ah-
met I, My Name Is Red chronicles one week that proves to be
the tipping point for a centuries-old Islamic artistic tradition of
miniaturists and illuminators whose art form began during the
Timurid Dynasty. Pamuk’s novel destabilizes the synchronicity
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
of the global perspective and displaces the notion of tradition as
a stable axis of cultural identity. Tradition, instead, is inscribed
and ruptured through the narrativization of artistic and religious
debates. These debates will be re-staged and re-iterated in the
most dramatic form in a seven-day long narration of miniature
painting’s demise. The poetic retrospect into the golden age of
Ottoman art, which had emerged from artistic influences drawn
from Persia, China, India and, most controversially, Western
Europe, is sculpted into a hybrid mix of murder mystery and
love story. The story centers—let us tentatively succumb to the
luring tropes of the genre of book reviews—on Black’s return
to Istanbul. Black is an itinerant secretary and part-time com-
missioner of illustrated manuscripts. He has been invited back
to Istanbul by Enishte Effendi, his maternal uncle and also fa-
ther of his childhood’s forbidden love, to work on a controver-
sial book of illustrations for the Sultan. This clandestine—and
for some, also blasphemous—book aims to “use the science of
perspective and the methods of the Venetian masters.” Even
more scandalously, the book will reproduce the likeness of the
Sultan himself.
Will the translation of Pamuk’s novel and Black’s crossing
into the Anglo world yield an equally blasphemous response,
one that scandalizes the traditional reception of tales from the
East? Such a crossing is almost impossible and the barriers to
translation are many. The least impermeable of these barriers
would be the difficulty to translate to English from Modern
Turkish, an agglutinative language, with S-O-V word order,
divided grammatical time, modifiers and clauses in com-
pounded suffixes (whose full meaning is not revealed until the
end of the sentence and whose deferring effect is further inten-
sified while repeated by Pamuk in long parallel structures). This
difficulty is discussed in depth by Erdağ Göknar (2004), Pa-
muk’s translator, who analyzes the challenges to literary trans-
lation. Even more difficult than translating from modern Turk-
ish to English is the difficulty of translating from Pamuk’s
“mixed style” (Göknar, 2012: p. 52) of literary Turkish which is
already “other” to pure Turkish. As Göknar explains, one of the
biggest challenges he faced in translating Benim Adım Kırmızı
was the challenge of preserving (i.e., recreating in “English”)
the aesthetic, narrative and historical effect of Pamuk’s use of
multiple language registers. Eventually, “Pamukʼs impression-
istic use of Perso-Arabic, Turkish and pure Turkish (öz Türkçe)
language registers would be met by Latinate, Anglo-Saxon, and
contemporary words and expressions—of which, to my advan-
tage, I had many, many more to choose from” (ibid).
The impossibility of translation, however, which this paper
reckons with, is of a political rather than literary nature (though
political is still related to the literary as I will explain later). It
refers to the use of Pamuk’s novel as a mirror for the represen-
tation and solidification of Western views about the relationship
between East and West and the latter’s war against terror. The
conditions for this mirroring would include both the reception
of Adım Kırmızı (Alfred Knopf and Straus and Straus publish-
ing houses’ “coat of arms” overlayed by the orientalist aura of
the book cover/s, reviews of the book, commentaries on covers
and book pockets, etc.) but also the reception and establishment
of Pamuk himself as the exemplary crosser of borders of tradi-
tions: cultural traditions, religious traditions, national traditions
(including the crossing of taboo national silences). The latter
kind of exemplarity would be exemplified by the global focus
on Pamuk’s 2005 comment on the mass killing of Armenians
and Kurds (the reference to Kurds would be progressively
eliminated from citations of Pamuk’s comment) and the sus-
tained coverage by Western media of Pamuk’s prosecution by
the Turkish state under Turkey’s criminal code on charges of
denigrating Turkish national identity (EU warnings to Turkey
about the slow pace of reforms towards EU membership often
pointed to the Pamuk case as a “litmus test” of Turkey’s com-
mitment to EU membership criteria). Finally, the crossing of
“translated Pamuk” to Western readership, authorship and au-
thority would be countersigned with a series of honors and
awards, including a series of awards specifically for My Name
Is Red (the 2002 Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France), the
2002 Grinzane Cavour Prize (Italy), the 2003 International
Impac Dublin Literary Award (Ireland) and, of course, the 2006
Nobel Prize.
What kinds of emotions and cognitive appetites are being
capitalized, what kind of cosmopolitan western subject is being
interpellated and which idealizing memory of worldwide-
ization is reiterated as the reader is called forth to read Adım
Kırmızı? With the “sublime” image of the burning twin towers,
orientalist mullahs and doctrines on the “the clash of civiliza-
tions” at the backbround, the heading of the culturally engaged
reading is becoming beautified, beatificated and reified: a nub-
tale of jealousy and nostalgia, “as Western culture encroaches
upon the East” (Pamuk, 2002); a “cultural clash that apparently
echoes today” (Stefan-Cole, 2001); a lesson in Islam-ology:
“[t]hose readers horrified by the Taliban blowing away the
gigantic ancient statues of Buddha will certainly be intrigued by
this novel’s exposition of various Islamic arguments regarding
figurative art” (Harbor Press, 2003).
The “impossibility” of translation discussed so far must be
discerned from Derrida’s use of the same term. As I will ana-
lyze in more detail in the last section, Derrida uses the term
“impossible translation” to refer to the impossibility of a full
and accurate transference of an authentic and original meaning
as a communication across cultures and languages. This impos-
sibility questions the production of meaning as the becoming
present of the original’s representation but affirms, at the same
time, the production and multiplication of meanings though the
deferring effects of signifiers in general and of literarity in par-
ticular. This notion of impossibility is also meant by Derrida as
an ethical experience of aporia. It acknowledges, on the one
hand, the singularity of the other but engages, at the same time,
in a process of translation that endangers, corrupts and depilates
such singularity by iterating and inserting the other in an
economy of cultural biodegradability which changes its mean-
ing. Absolute translatability would mean annihilation of the
other; absolute singularization, on the other hand, would mean
the other’s monumentalization and sacralization, ultimately, the
other’ death.
This contradictory but not self-annulling participation of
translation in a double process of singularization and iteration is
enacted in Adım Kırmızı through acts of literature (the hybrid
tropes, the iteration of a story by different narrators) but also
through the novel’s own self-reflectivity. This self-reflective
narrative on cultural change and dissent envelops and simulta-
neously disrupts the nostalgia for an immaculate language of
manuscript painting. Culture is eventually construed as some-
thing that is already always in a relation of translation with its
own tradition and roots, a translation that involves both humor
and pain. Most critics of the novel note as an irony the coinci-
dence of its publication with the terrorist attacks of September
11. “[I]t’s an irony,” we read in PBS’s cover note on an inter-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 37
view with Pamuk, “because his novel deals with precisely the
issues that have dominated the news since: clash of civilizations,
Islam and the West” (Pamuk, 2002). “Did I hear Mullah Omar
calling?” critic Stefan-Cole remarks in brackets of ironic com-
mentary aside, as he cites hoja Nusret’s fanatic castigation of
Islam’s corruption:
... our having strayed from the path of the Prophet, to dis-
regard for the strictures of the Glorious Koran... tolerance
toward Christians, to the open sale of wine and to the playing
of musical instruments. (Sound familiar?) Add coffee-drinking,
opium use, and tolerance of sects like wandering dervishes—
beggars with a penchant for hashish, and buggery—and you
are pretty much where we are today (Did I hear Mullah Omar
calling?) (Stefan-Cole, 2001).
What is ironic, I would argue, is that a novel whose content
and pragmatics of translation/publication thematize translation
as a philosophical and literary problem eventually becomes
framed as an illustration, an-other example, that testifies to
Huntington’s (1996) master narrative on the “clash of civiliza-
tions”. If narrative imagination has a role to play today in reg-
istering cultural diversity and promoting intercultural respect
and cooperation, I would argue that this task involves reclaim-
ing works such as Benim Adım Kırmızı from their cultural
sedimentation as depictions of the other and thematizing, in-
stead, translation as the tool and topic of such texts’ pedagogi-
cal articulation. Questioning the limits of narrative imagination
as a tool for empathetic connection with other fellow human
beings (the model of narrative imagination articulated by
Nussbaum and others), the next section puts the literariness of
translation at the heart of the educational experience of litera-
ture. To the critic who might anticipate a resurrection of New
Criticism and accuse such a reading for closing up the text
against the human condition, against the passionate attunements
of identification which motivate any reading, I would argue that
such a post-humanist reading reserves new pleasures and pas-
sions for the reader. In its poetics of the particular, its meticu-
lous attention to nuances of styles, its depiction of actors in
shimmering contours, it can nurture other kinds of emotions,
not necessarily empathetic, and not necessarily anthropocentric:
sympathy for the tragic effects of cultural nostalgia, wonder for
the passionate patience of artistic creativity, tenderness for the
human beings caught into the treadmills of cultural change,
those whose soul is torn between a nostalgic heart and a mind
lingering with desire over the landscapes of the new.
“I am the murderer”: Displaced performativity.
Nay, I wouldnt have believed I could take anyones life, even
if Id been told so moments before I murdered that fool; and
thus, my offense at times recedes from me like a foreign galleon
disappearing on the horizon. Now and again, I even feel as if I
havent committed any crime at all. Four days have passed
since I was forced to do away with hapless Elegant, who was a
brother to me, and only now have I, to some extent, accepted
my situation (Pamuk, 2001: p. 18).
While reading the opening paragraph of chapter four of Pa-
muk’s novel My Name Is Red, we recollect that four days must
have passed since that other narrator, in the opening of the
novel, spoke to us in the uncanny voice of a corpse and obliged
us with a double dutywe might as well say haunted us with a
double threat: To trace his decaying body into the depths of a
deplorable well, and to find his murderer (and our own poten-
tial enemy). We are summoned not as witnesses to a murder but
as devotees to a tradition at risk. “Find my body without delay,
pray for me and have me buried,” pleads the haunted and
haunting corpse. Yet at the same time we know that a certain
delay is necessary if time will be granted for the telling to go on,
to unfold its dendrites and to uncover the identity of the mur-
derer, a “beastly murderer” whose imminent punishment
slowly splintering his bones, “preferably his ribs”is envi-
sioned and graphically staged by the corpse’s narrative imagi-
Unlike the expositional prose of philosophical writing, which
sets to establish something and then does so, without surprises,
life contains significant surprises. But literary form, more com-
plex, more allusive, more attentive to the particular and thus
more truthful to the depiction of human life than raw experi-
ence, Nussbaum suggests, also implies that our life contains
significant surprises: “that our task, as agents, is to live as good
characters in a good story do, caring about what happens, re-
sourceful for new things” (Nussbaum, 1990: p. 3). What kind of
value would the philosophical reading of a novel bestow to
“new things” if those “new things” triggered the most vile of
passions to the characters of humanity, if the narrative moral
perspective of the good story was displaced by the kaleido-
scopic narratives of unremorseful murderers and bileful corpses,
intriguing rivals, canny women weaving camouflage to nurture
clandestine loves, a coin, a dog, the ink of color red, Satan
himself? Building on the main argument of Loves Knowledge
that literary form can do things which cannot be stated in the
language of philosophy, I will try to stretch and test the limits
of narrative imagination towards the reading of works that do
not fit the prototype of Nussbaum’s English novel. Exploring
what kinds of ethical encounters literature can enact toward the
other, we will be addressing anew the old question “What is
We must discover who the murderer is. But we do not do this
just in order to cajole the disquieting aporia of a dead body
concealed, untraceable, in a well. Aporia is used in its double
sense: it refers to the question “Who is the murderer?” but also
to the dead’s lack of a passage since the status of his unburied
body obstructs his soul from making its passage to heaven and
gaining a panoramic view. The latter would annul not only the
economy of darkness but also the device of multiple narrators
and narratives used to establish the novel’s “meta-historical
themes and plot” (Göknar, 2004: p. 56). We must discover who
the murderer is in order to protect ourselves and “our tradition”
from a conspiracy of which the unconcealed murder is only a
small part. For, as the corpse has cautioned us, “My death con-
ceals an appalling conspiracy against our religion, our traditions,
and the way we see the world. Open your eyes, discover why
the enemies of the life in which you believe, of the life you’re
living, and of Islam, have destroyed me. Learn why one day
they might do the same to you” (Pamuk, 2001: p. 6). The two
commands interpellate us into a duty that is double and contra-
dictory (but not impossible). On the one hand, a duty to find
who the murderer is, to administer retributive justice and inflict
punishment. This duty is invoked as a promise to the dead and
enacted in reading through the narrative devices of the modern
genre of mystery fiction which Pamuk iterates and grafts onto
historical novel. On the other hand, an “other” duty: a duty not
to disclose the identity of the murderer, to postpone adjudica-
tion and to give the murderer time so that the cultural telling
(and our trip of acculturation into the society of miniaturists)
can go on. Abiding with this other duty would be a necessary
condition for the narrative disclosure of more perspectives to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
the cultural other:
Give me the license not to dwell on every single detail, allow
me to keep some clues to myself: try to discover who I am from
my choice of words and colors, as attentive people like your-
selves might examine footprints to catch a thief. This, in turn,
brings us to the question of style,” which is now of widespread
interest: Does a miniaturist, ought a miniaturist, have his per-
sonal style? A use of color, a voice of his own? (Pamuk, 2001: p.
The task of identifying the footsteps of the murderer gets
even more complex as we are admonished to defer any
presencing of meaning: representation is not allowed; we have
to translate even our reading devices. “Open your eyes,” the
corpse remarks with caution, calling on “us” to learn why one
day they would do the same to “us”. In order to learn, in order
to engage in an inquiry for this upcoming destruction, we have
to defer as learners our phototropic desire and sustain, with our
“pupils” blinded, the impossibility of translation. For the up-
coming destruction, predicted in an apocalyptic manner by
Nusret Hoja of Erzurum, derives its power, like the Koran,
from its impossibility to be depicted. It is not accidental that in
most “petite recits” depicting the culture of miniature painting
the protagonist is blinded once his inquiry approximates the
revelation of a deep secret. But his eyes are not the only ones to
be blinded. The tip of any narrative that exceeds the narratives
of other multiple speakers and threatens to become a dominant
narrative, a “central root” (in the terms of Deleuze’s rhizomat-
ics), is severed. In a similar manner, our desire to follow a cen-
tral story line and identify with the protagonist’s ethical inquiry
is decapitated. Which doesn’t mean that other kinds of pleasure
or other kinds of ethical experience are not possible (e.g., the
emphasis on the particular, the enchanting descriptions).
To position ourselves at the multiple perspectives of the
various and different heroesor better, to rotate amongst them
kaleidoscopicallyand to understand the particulars of the
interlocking moral dilemmas that torment them, to perceive the
cognitive dimensions of their emotions and to follow up their
inquiries into the good life but also into truthful explication of
tradition, we would have, as witnesses to the murder (and as
recipients of the murderer’s summons for a resolution), to place
ourselves, imaginatively, “there”: Istanbul. But how can we
embrace that ideal reader perspective when the narrative acts of
the novel are staged specifically for a Turkish audience which
stillperhaps for everremembersnostalgically or remorse-
fullyand re-negotiates its relation to the Ottoman history? “It
could be said,” points out Göknar (2004), “that one of the sig-
nificant aspects of MNR is that it manipulates the discourses of
Orientalism in some measure to explode the limits of national-
ism” (p. 56). What Göknar describes here has nothing to do
with a dialectic or a clash. Rather, he talks about the temporali-
zation of the present: “Pamuk, as author, uses the Ottoman past
to achieve his triangulating perspective, to take a critical look at
the present […] what is ultimately revealed in the novel is not
an exotic world but a lesson in how to ‘read/translate’ and un-
derstand the other, the ‘old Turk’” (p. 59). There are limits,
however, to the intelligibility of narrative triangulation. The
very same Ottoman Past that triangulates perspective for the
ideal reader is exactly that which undermines the critical per-
spective of the nonideal reader in a context that facilitates an
orientalist conflation of Ottoman Past with menacing Islam.
Could western readers in a post 9/11 epoch perceive Pamuk’s
polyphonic narrativization of the Ottoman Past as a device that
serves historical reflexivity when the ‘other’ has been synchro-
nized with the war on terror and “Islam has been fixed as the
universal Other” (Majid, 2008: p. 135)? Can the dead’s admo-
nition for watchfulness against an appalling conspiracy against
“our” tradition (and our way to see the world) sustain its cita-
tionality (and temporality) when such an admonition has al-
ready been fixed as the universal perspective of the new world
My pondering over a possible formalist contradiction be-
tween the ideal reader, invoked by the original novel, and the
Western subject, is only temporary and tentative. The purpose
of my reading is to problematize the discourse of “narrative
imagination” in its particular use as the means for cultivating
cultural literacy and intercultural dialogue in the context of a
cosmopolitan project. The reason we cannot embrace the per-
spective of Elegant Effenti or that of the murderer is not be-
cause we cannot study Islam due to constraints of cultural in-
commensurability or because the narrative devices of the text
are effective only in an ideal (i.e., Turkish language) speech
situation. In “Signature Event Context” Derrida argues that the
performative’s (including literary acts’) force is not conditional
upon its original context. In other words, the effect of a text
exceeds its context and the production of meaning and puts out
of place the situation of a communication that would deliver,
intact, messages. In the double writing of “Living On/Border-
lines”, a text where the philosophical and the autobiographical,
the expository and the intimate, suspend each other’s totalizing
effect, Derrida writes:
A text lives only if it lives on, and it lives on only if it is at
once translatable and untranslatable [...] Totally translatable,
it disappears as a text, as writing, as a body of language. To-
tally untranslatable, even within what is believed to be one
language, it dies immediately (Derrida, 1979: pp. 102-103).
The aim of my reading then is not to argue that there is a cul-
tural incommensurability between Benim Adım Kırmızı and
western audiences. Rather, my goal is to question and expose
the limits of a theory that projects the reader’s identification
with a novel’s characters as the ideal condition for an ethical
inquiry that promotes cultural understanding and cosmopolitan
bonding on the basis of (recognizing) common humanity. Iden-
tification is deliberately ruptured throughout this reading not
because I hold that it cannot motivate a passionate reading or
does not reveal truthful depictions of the other, but because it is
inappropriate in iterating those acts of literature that mark
postcolonial literature in general and Pamuk’s novel in particu-
lar. That is, acts of translation that iterate (and preserve) and, at
the same time, pollute and change the “original”. Such proc-
esses of translation are multiple, interlocking and mutually
enabling. First, the storytelling iterates narrative devices from
multiple and culturally diverse genres such as mystery and love
novels and mixing them with magical realism produces a mul-
tivocal, post-humanist text (not the inner voices of people but
the stylized voices of dogs, ink, stylized elements from manu-
scripts, a horse). Second, the theme of the novel is the investi-
gation of a culture’s translation of its own roots and tradition,
particularly in conditions of fear and panic.
At the same time I question narrative imagination and, in
particular, identification with characters as the basis for ethical
inquiries, I want to suggest that there is something ethically
important about our encounter with texts such as Benim Adım
Kırmızı. But the ethical does not lie in the pursue of the Aristo-
telian inquiry of how the good life should be, or in the cultiva-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 39
tion of empathy and appreciation for our common humanity, or
in the search for commonalities among the values narrativized
in culturally diverse stories (though I would not disagree with
Nussbaum that such goals are both useful and “honorable”).
“We in the West,” writes critic (and novelist) Philip Hensher
for Daily Telegraph, “can only feel gratitude that such a novel-
ist as Pamuk exists, to act as a bridge between our culture and
that of a heritage quite as rich as our own” (book jacket on
mass-market paperback, Faber and Faber, 2002). Cultural
bridges or bridges of cultures are exactly the structures of
thought and reading to be questioned here.
The empathetic perspectivism of narrative imagination:
Unfit for fanatics?
“‘Do you think this is what weve been doing?’
Never,’ I said with a smile. However, this is what Elegant
Effendi, may he rest in peace, began to assume when he saw the
last painting. Hed been saying that your use of the science of
perspective and the methods of the Venetian masters was noth-
ing but the temptation of Satan. In the last painting, youve
supposedly rendered the face of a mortal using the Frankish
techniques, so the observer has the impression not of a painting
but of reality; to such a degree that this image has the power to
entice men to bow before it, as with icons in churches. Accord-
ing to him, this is the Devils work, not only because the art of
perspective removes the painting from Gods perspective and
lowers it to the level of a street dog, but because your reliance
on the methods of Venetians as well as your mingling of our
own established traditions with that of the infidels will strip us
of our purity and reduce us to being their slaves (Pamuk, 2001:
pp. 178-179).
In Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum argues that three capaci-
ties, above all, are essential to the cultivation of humanity in
today’s interlocking world: Socratic inquiry applied towards
critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions, concern
and empathy for other human beings and, finally, narrative
imagination. These could be perceived as interlocking and mu-
tually interdependent skills of cultural literacy. The latter is
defined as “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the
shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent
reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions
and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have”
(Nussbaum, 2002: p. 299). Though this ability, Nussbaum ar-
gues, is cultivated in courses in literature and the arts though
many “standard and familiar works”, there is reason to focus
specifically on literary works that combat the “refusals of vi-
sion.” Focusing on groups with which “our citizens’ eyes have
particular difficulty”, such works educate them to see “complex
humanity” in places where they are most accustomed to deny it.
That is:
works that confront students vividly with the experience of
minority groups in their own society and of people in distant
nations. The moral imagination can often become lazy, ac-
cording sympathy to the near and the familiar, but refusing it to
people who look different. Enlisting students sympathy for
distant lives is thus a way of training, so to speak, the muscles
of the imagination (Nussbaum, 2002: p. 299).
Which are these “carefully chosen” literary works that, lin-
gering between emotional identification and moral confronta-
tion, stretch and strengthen those lazy muscles of moral imagi-
nation? Castigating the “unseeing characters” of Ellison’s In-
visible man and Scrooge’s example of bad citizenship in Dic-
ken’s novel A Christmas Carol, Nussbaum parallels Scrooge’s
first venture outside the walls of his successful business and
blunted imagination to a belated liberal education. But the
journey into the literary devices that host and nurture narrative
imagination never ventures beyond the English novel.
Where closer encounters with non-western literary texts take
place, the emphasis shifts radically from the literarity and nar-
rative devices of the works to content. For example, blatantly
didactic and exhaustively cited, Rabindranath Tagore’s novel
The Home and the World provides a pool of figurations for
cosmopolitans, nationalists and, in-between the previous two
categories, mediating women with agitated feelings and divided
loyalties. In Nussbaum’s essay “Citizens of the World” (a de-
fense of liberal curriculum for cross-cultural understanding),
corporative cosmopolitanism is narrativized as the adventures
of cultural illiterates in Anna’s (a political science graduate’s)
“passage” to China (Nussbaum, 1997: pp. 50-51). How cos-
mopolitan journeys replicate one-way globalism flows is not
problematized in Nussbaum’s educational vision. This excludes
from a cosmopolitan consideration issues of immigration, eco-
nomic embargos and colonial legacies. Wouldn’t “she” (Anna,
or any other American ‘graduate going cosmopolitan’, or any
American business going global) have been better off if she had
known the “other” (i.e., non-western culture) better? Nuss-
baum’s cosmopolitan proposal, in its effort to both vernacular-
ize Socratic pedagogy and preserve the origins of the cultural
tradition of liberal education, often collapses the problem of
cultural translation to knowing “some rudiments about others”
(p. 11), “something about Chinese gender relations”, “some-
thing about academic women’s studies in the United States,
which have influenced the women’s studies movement in Chi-
nese universities”, “something about the history of Chinese
attitudes about race and sexuality” (pp. 51-52).
The paradox in this approach to cultural literacy is that Oth-
ers are excluded as subjects and partners from the espoused
political culture of ethical reasoning, whereas the “Jamesian
angels of fine-tuned perception and bewildered human grace”
(Nussbaum, 1990: p. 379) succumb to the blunt imagination of
“rudiments” of culture. Why are others banished from the jour-
ney in and through literature? Is it because not all angels have
the moral perceptiveness of James or the Aristotelian perspec-
tive of good life? While today’s cosmopolitans are historically
located at the crossroads of cultures, their education is still
teaching them the rudiments of other cultures but nothing about
the triangulation of cultural sensitivity. Liberal philosopher
Seyla Benhabib, adopting a cultural deconstructive approach to
the canon, argued back in 1996: “The university of the twenty
first century will have to be a home to the mestizos of the
mind” (p. 17). I cannot say if the university has become a home
to the mestizos or mestizization of the mind but I can definitely
say that lessons about the cultural other are increasingly finding
niches in the university especially under the aegis of boutique
multiculturalism, migration management and conflict diagnosis
and prognosis. Usually diagnosed as prone to indigenization
and lacking in self-reflexivity, the other meets its benign ar-
ticulation only when it is codifiable into rudiments of culture
and perceived as useful for flexing the cosmopolitan bending of
the Western subject. The other reveals then to the reflective
inquirer the conventions and tropologies of culture, enabling
him/her to understand how cultural conventions might obscure
ethical judgment. Cosmopolitans are depicted as interpreters of
culture but never as shapechangers across cultures, never
haunted by fear and existential guilt at the brim of cultural
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
change. Culture and its narrative voice remain ancillary sup-
plements to cosmopolitan education: providing a pool of exam-
ples and figures for its rhetorical articulation and decorating
pedagogical primers for the study of others. Still, could we read
Nussbaum against Nussbaum, could we recover the insights of
Loves Knowledge and radicalize the contribution of literature
to the understanding of culture and cultural difference?
I believe the insight of Loves Knowledge can be rephrased:
certain literary texts, more appropriately than others, can em-
body philosophical questions in their own stylistic choices and
narrative structures and can enable a reader’s emotional and
mental involvement while pursuing such questions: “As readers
of stories we are deeply immersed in the messy impure world
of human particularity; and we learn, as readers, to ascribe a
high importance to events that befall our particular heroes and
heroines as they move through the world of contingency”
(Nussbaum, 1990: p. 386; emphasis added). Where the prose
becomes more expository in anticipation of a philosophical
closure, ethical insight becomes solidified into a normative
ethics: certain literary texts can adequately “state” certain “im-
portant truths” about the world, embodying ethical perspective
in characters’ narrative perspective and “setting up in the reader
the activities that are appropriate for grasping them” (p. 6). This
thesis sometimes becomes entangled with a didacticism that
appears to reduce texts to “optical instruments” and literary
reading to a philosophical supplement: “I suggest that we
would do well to study the narrative and the emotional struc-
tures of novels, viewing them as forms of Aristotelian ethical
thinking” (p. 390). The more the reader-text relationship is
figured as a pedagogical one, the more the connection between
form and content becomes solidified into a search for an inter-
nal consistency that aspires to expel any différance: the novel is
defended as an appropriate host of inquiries because it can state
them [certain truths] in its form and its content “fully and fit-
tingly, without a contradiction” (p. 7). While both New Critical
formalism and normative ethics were earlier questioned by
Nussbaum for expelling contingency and establishing closed
texts and closed lives, in this pedagogical figure they are reac-
tivated towards a double Platonic pursue of certainty.
Yet, where Nussbaum’s text becomes forgetful of its peda-
gogical responsibilities, the reader-text relationship is detached
from the optics of representation and becomes more receptive
to the contingency involved in reading. In this latter approach,
the intimacies of reading are not materialized as romantic iden-
tifications with characters but rather as “comparisons.” As we
engage with works of literature, Nussbaum (1990) argues, we
are “bringing to the text our hopes, fears and confusions, and
allowing the text to impart a certain structure to our hearts” (p.
22). At the same time, we are bringing to the text ethical in-
quiries: “how to be”; “what to be”; how to live “together in a
community, country, or planet.” As we compare the multiple
conceptions of the ethical expressed in the novels with one
another and with our own active sense of a good life, we come
to “recognize that the novels are in this [ethical] search already”
(p. 24). Yet every text maintains a singularity, a moral perspec-
tive of the particular, which exceeds both the repeatable narra-
tive forms and the structures of feeling that made our intimacy
with the text as well as the appeal of the text to us possible.
This singularity that emerges in literature’s own translation (i.e.,
of literature as philosophy) and resists the full accommodation
of literariness into preset ethical inquiries slips into forgetful-
ness as Nussbaum’s work becomes more programmatically
oriented to the articulation of problems such as ethnic strife and
cultural relativism. Is it accidental that the shift from the origi-
nal project to broaden the possibilities of what is human (Fra-
gility of Goodness) to a normative view of humanity (the
ground for the adjudication of cultural conflicts in Sex and So-
cial Justice and Cultivating Humanity) coincides with a shift
from the wonder of (and wander in) the particular to the tran-
scendent query into the canon’s universal messages?
I believe there are ways to engage narrative imagination in
the cultural turn and avoid, at the same time, both the allure of
exoticism and the nostalgic search for a confessional voice. The
premise of Loves Knowledge that as readers of stories we are
deeply immersed “in the messy impure world of human par-
ticularity” could open up to different kinds of search regarding
both the connection of literature and philosophy and the sus-
tained engagement with cultural particularity in literary experi-
ence. For example, how do we become, as readers-translators,
deeply immersed in the messy impure world of cultural particu-
larity? What kinds of emotions and which experiences of in-
commensurability are implicated in the cultural mediation of
texts? If the relation of literature to itself and to philosophy is a
process of iteration rather than representation, then the impurity
and messiness of human particularity must be re-positioned
from the story and the moral dilemmas of the characters to the
textual devices of the authors. The ethical questions that a cul-
turally engaged reading of stories activates are slightly different
from the Aristotelian kinds of questions: What are one’s debts
to one’s tradition, especially during times of cultural change?
How is authenticity re-enacted in experiences of cultural trans-
lation? What kind of agency is built into storytelling? Does
creativity (of the artist, of the writer, of the reader) sustain or
undermine the structure of iterability that is built into culturally
established forms and genres?
We are back in the culture of miniaturists, tracing the mur-
der’s footsteps in the distinctive nuances of his storytelling, in
his depiction of a horse in the manner of the Islamic tradition. If
he has reached, as a master miniaturist, the point where he
paints as if he were blind, depicting things in the way Allah
perceives him, how can we possibly recognize distinct traces of
inventiveness, a signature of artistry and murder? “This, in
turn,” he concedes, “brings us to the question of ‘style,’ which
is now of widespread interest: Does a miniaturist, ought a
miniaturist, have his personal style? A use of color, a voice of
his own?” (Pamuk, 2001: p. 20). The three miniaturists who
have been working on the blasphemous book in the manner of
the Venetian artists are all considered to be suspects for the
murders of two other artists who were also working on the
blasphemous book. The test of “artist’s proof” to which master
Osman subjects all three of them, is the task to paint a horse in
the manner of the great masters. Only the one who has suc-
cumbed to the lure of Western techniques will depart from the
Islamic form and will leave traces of this peculiar cultural poi-
soning in the immaculate form of the horse (in the same way he
left traces on the shred of his artwork that is held by the gate-
keepers of traditional miniature painting and used as a reference
point for deciphering the code of his style). “But who am I?” he
reflects as he has just taken the test and engages in a monologue
that relocates existential anxiety from the depths of the self to
the surfaces of artistic creativity, where singularity borders with
cultural transmutation. “Am I an artist who would suppress the
masterpieces I was capable of in order to fit the style of the
workshop or an artist who would one day triumphantly depict
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 41
the horse deep within himself?” Suddenly and with terror, he
feels the existence of that triumphant miniaturist within him: “It
was as if I were being watched by another soul, and, in short, I
was ashamed” (p. 339).
In the chapter that follows, the storyteller will reiterate the
condemnation of artistic ingenuity. This time, however, he will
be speaking through the mouth of Satan himself: “I had the
urge to say, ‘It was Satan who first ‘I’! It was Satan who
adopted a style. It was Satan who separated East from West’”
(p. 349). Despite the fact that many critics cite this passage as
the overall “thesis” of the novel, the condemnation needs to be
read in the context of the narrative devices that frame it.
“[B]ecause I’m the one speaking, you’re always prepared to
believe the exact opposite of what I say.” Where narrative
imagination, devoted to the search for the good and unable to
sustain its interest when storyline is subverted by double voices,
would simply dismiss Satan as an unreliable narrator, a cultur-
ally engaged reading would thrill on such an instance of double
writing. The latter forces us to go back, to re-read the story one
more time, to re-evaluate the statements taken too literally, or
too seriously, in the first reading. A difference kind of cultural
reflexivity is implicated in this never ending call to translate
and multiply meanings and contexts. What kinds of philoso-
phical tools are required for this double reading? To understand
the art of repetition, one needs to go beyond a transcendent
reading, beyond distinguishing truth from lies, good from evil;
one needs to ask what acts of literature the Satan stages rather
than what statements he actually utters.
Literariness in Acts of Translation: Iteration
and Singularization
I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain
falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a
woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience. I
believe in my self, and, most of the time, pay no mind to whats
been said about me [...] I was created from fire, a superior
element as all of you are familiar. So I didnt bow before man.
And God found my behavior, well, proud (pp. 349-350).
In an interview with Derek Attridge entitled “This Strange
Institution Called Literature,” Jacques Derrida (1992) claims
that the institution of literature in the West is linked to an “au-
thorization to say everything.” Doubtless too, it is also linked to
what calls forth a democracy. This duty of irresponsibility, of
refusing to reply for one’s thought or writing to constituted
powers, does not mean that literature suspends contexts and
disregards its readers. On the contrary, it depends on historical
contexts, while the force of its singularity to produce events is
suspended awaiting for the reader’s countersignature. This act
of literature, this promising of being able to say everything, is
not realized as a juridico-political institution (though it relies on
such institutions) or a formal device but rather as an oscillation,
a vibration between two other literary acts of translation: itera-
tion and singularization: “The uniqueness of the event is this
coming about of a singular relation between the unique and its
repetition, its iterability” (Derrida, 1998: p. 68). What these acts
entail, what conditions they require but also what they necessi-
tate, how they are fictionalized, repeated and singularized, in a
historical novel that addresses specifically the thematic of cul-
tural change is what I will explore next.
“Iterability” is the necessary repeatability of any item ex-
perienced as meaningful. At the same time, it can never be
repeated exactly since its grafting and translation in the poten-
tially multiple contexts where it is re-enacted contaminates the
“original”. Its original singularity is compromised by this
openness to change and loss. At the same time, it is only
through such structure of iterability that literature can speak to
An absolute, absolutely pure singularity, if there were one,
would not even show up, or at least would not be available for
reading. To become readable, it has to be divided, to partici-
pate and belong. Then it is divided and takes its part in the
genre, the type, the context, meaning, the conceptual generality
of the meaning, etc. It loses itself to offer itself (p. 68).
Derrida often cites the function of the proper name as the
exemplary example of this mutually constitutive co-occurrence
of the singular and the universal. A proper name is supposed to
refer to an original and not to mean (which would implicate its
contamination). Yet, this “properness,” as Attridge (1998) notes,
depends on its occurrence within a system of differences, it has
to be repeatable and “can never been prevented from sliding
into the functions of common nouns” (p. 19).
It is exactly this “properness” of East as a set of culturally
solidified idioms that Pamuk’s novel opens up to literary itera-
tion as he fictionalizes the history of manuscript painting. In
Heart and Shiraz, when an old master miniaturist would be-
come blind from a lifetime of excessive labor, it would be ac-
knowledged as a sign of the master’s determination but also
commended a God’s acknowledgment of his talent. In fact,
among great master miniaturists there would not be difference
between the blind and the sighted artist as the talented hand
would always draw the same horse, that is, the way Allah per-
ceives it. The quest for singularity in developing a style, the act
of signature in affirming one’s unique way of seeing things,
would be reserved for the Satan and the Frankish innovation of
perspectival painting. But an idiom is never pure, Derrida ar-
gues, as “its iterability opens it up to others” (Derrida, 1998: p.
62). It is not the Frankish style that contaminates Allah’s way
of seeing and the culture of manuscript painting. This culture is
already contaminated within its own tradition in the sense that
its preservation necessitates its iteration. Unavoidably, however,
it also necessitates its singularization when iteration is enacted
in encounters of inter-cultural artistic exchange and hybridiza-
tion, usually in the context of conquest. The idiom of the
“blind” (or, the blinded) artists already undergoes a unique
differentiation (and thus a singularization) in becoming a style
when it is adopted by Abu Said, Tamerlane’s grandson from the
Miran Shah line of descent. After he conquers Tashkent and
Samarkand, he will introduce a “further twist” in his workshop:
“the practice of paying greater homage to the imitation of
blindness than to blindness itself” (Pamuk, 2001: p. 348).
Locked in the storage rooms of the Treasury of Topkapi Palace,
trying to trace similarities between the murderer’s style and the
great Masters’ works (diagnosing and territorializing the impact
of the polluting influence), master Osman will be surprisingly
enchanted by a multitude of stylistically nuanced singularities
in Islamic, Persian and Arabic miniature art. His self-inflicted
blinding in the end of his journey in the depths of Topkapi
could be read as a desperate effort to erase from sight such
multitudes, to resist the lure of translation, to preserve the sac-
ralization of the painting idiom and to contain the iterablity of
the sacred idiom by canceling his own countersignature. But, it
could also be read as theatrical staging of Modern Turkey’s
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
denial of its cultural past: a denial that has the effect of encas-
ing the idea of the past in the cultural nostalgia for the non-
translatable. This denial, however, is also staged, thus dissimu-
lating itself, challenging its seriousness, and affirming mod-
ernization as a threshold of cultural change and not as the death
of Islam.
At a time when Islam’s encounter with the West is diagnosed
with fearfulness of cultural contamination and linked to the
Fundamentalists’ turn to indigenization, Pamuk fictionalizes a
historical encounter between East and West which sabotages
with humor and critical reflexivity the dissimulation of any
artistic or cultural “properness”. Every time the event of an
untranslatable text occurs, writes Derrida, “every time there is a
proper name, it gets sacralized” (Derrida, 1988: p. 148). Ana-
lyzing the sacred as “the untranslatable in literature”, Benjamin
argues that the translation of a literary text into another lan-
guage should be able to preserve exactly this original non-
translatability. Reading Red is a as a literary “dip” into cultural
Islam (the dominant reading), we would probably locate this
original non-translatability in the miniaturist idiom of Heart and
Shiraz, in the Koran, in God’s vision of the world imprinted in
the books of the old masters and safeguarded in the Treasury
chambers, enveloped in blackness, dust and humidity, in She-
kure’s clandestine letter forbidding her returning lover to ever
visit her again, chained by the conventions of Islamic family
law to eternal awaiting for the return of her missing [probably
dead] husband.
And yet, there is another way to read the non-translatable, a
way that comes to life when we overcome the ethnographic
urge to read Red as a cultural narrative on/of the other, or as a
cultural war between East and West, when we give ourselves
over to the multiple duels of singularities that undergo the
novel: on the one hand, an urge to identify with the suffering of
old masters anticipating the decline of a civilization and their
nostalgia for the past; on the other hand, an urge to laugh along
with the Satan as he dissimulates the preachings of “learned
mystics” against western influence, deception and departure
from the non-translatable prescriptions of the Glorious Koran:
Even the Almighty couldnt find anything evil in passing
wind or jacking off. Sure, I work very hard so you might com-
mit great sins. But some hojas claim that all of you who gape,
sneeze or even fart are my dupes, which tells me they havent
understood me in the least (Pamuk, 2001: p. 351).
Those who would read the novel looking for Mullah Omar
calling would definitely find many echoes of his castigations.
What they would probably miss, however, is the waves of it-
erability to which a literary text subjects the words of mullahs
and preachers, inserting their words in citation marks, present-
ing to us the cultural other staging its own translation, some-
times with laughter and sometimes with the nostalgic sadness
of loss.
What remains non-translatable (thus what is preserved) in a
good translation, and also in the pedagogical mediation of a
culturally engaged reading, I would say, is this literary staging
of translations. “You did embarrass me once before, and after-
ward, I had to endure much suffering to regain my honor in my
father’s eyes,” writes sweet Shekure to Black, biding him to
please her by not calling on her again. But a letter doesn’t
communicate by words alone, we are reminded by Esther, the
deliverer of the letter, also a matchmaker and cloth seller who,
as a Jewess, is free to roam the streets of Istanbul as long as she
wears the identifying pink garment. “A letter, just like a book,
can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it” (Pamuk,
2001: p. 44). Fondling the letter, Esther teachers us how to
translate its folds. “Alas, I am rushed, I am writing carelessly
and without serious attention,” conveys fear and urgency per-
haps to terminate the romance. But the letters that twitter ele-
gantly as if caught in a gentle breeze convey the care taken in
each line, in the same way the phrase “just now come,” conveys
the deliberation of a tactics. We might read her like an Eastern
Penelope weaving ploys to defer the suitors, or like a slave in a
harem, one of the many slaves locked in the neo-orientalist
harems of “pink literature”. An iteration of such contexts is
unavoidable, necessary too to the extent the gesture of a love
letter would not be readable without the background reading of
love novels. Yet it is also imperative to discern the differential
mark of this gesture while receiving, recognizing and assimi-
lating it in the context of our familiar literary stories and de-
vices. In the folds of her unsealed letter, she sends her lover an
illustration of a classical love scene, a classical theme in tradi-
tional manuscript painting and often used as both referent and
signifier in the love letters of Istanbul’s lovelorn ladies. This
scene, however, has never been “cut out” and used as an object
of exchange before. Pamuk delivers to us the history of Islamic
manuscript painting through citations of love letters and love
scenes, borrowing the devices of the postmodern and postcolo-
nial novel to empty hojas’ and mullahs’ condemnations [of
illustrators] of their apocalyptic tone. The differential mark that
this repetition [and translation] of the history of manuscript
painting in a historical novel incites, while challenging the
western apocalyptic logos of the cultural clash, is that there is
culture in change rather than civilization in decline. It is this
singularity of Pamuk’s writing that I have tried to translate here,
recognizing the limits of preserving and reproducing but also
resisting the novel’s pedagogical translation into and through a
metalanguage. Cultural literacy could learn from such readings
how to preserve translation alive in the other, but also how to
reenact it by challenging the familiar and not only the oriental
mullahs. Perhaps the countersignature to Benim Adım Kır-
mızı/My Name Is Red is, yet to come, a literary translation of
the post-September patriotism. Or, is “our” mourning too sa-
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