Book review: Şerif Eskin, Zaman ve Hafızanın Kıyısında: Tanpınar’ın Edebiyat, Estetik ve Düşünce Dünyasında Bergson Felsefesi, Istanbul, 2014

Adem Dal, Yildiz Technical University

         We are the children of a world Freud and Bergson share together.

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The intricate relationship of fields like philosophy and literature is open to a broad array of interpretations and analyses. One such enterprise is Şerif Eskin’s book,[1] Zaman ve Hafızanın Kıyısında: Tanpınar’ın Edebiyat, Estetik ve Düşünce Dünyasında Bergson Felsefesi (On the Edge of Time and Memory: The Philosophy of Bergson in Tanpınar’s World of Literature, Aesthetic and Thought).[2] The book is largely based on Eskin’s MA thesis.[3]

The aim of the book is threefold. Firstly, Eskin seeks to determine the various projections of Bergson’s philosophy in the works and aesthetics of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, a Turkish poet, novelist, literary scholar and essayist considered to be one of the most significant representatives of Modern Turkish literature. The second and more specific aim is to investigate the constructive role Bergsonian philosophy plays in Tanpınar’s literary works, not only in terms of form but also content. Finally, Eskin opens such projections into discussion and contextualizes Tanpınar in wider philosophical and literary circles both nationally and internationally. He concomitantly discusses where Tanpınar’s views and literary works are situated in the sociological and political realms of Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, when Turkey was under the sway of a mass-scale modernization process.

Eskin cautions that his enterprise is not a philosophical reading of Tanpınar’s works per se but a textual archaeology. He adopts a theme-based textual analysis rather than a self-contained analysis of an individual work or genre. The book is quite rich in the variety of literary and non-literary works that Tanpınar produced, and Eskin analyses them to pinpoint the manifestation of Tanpınar’s philosophy in his art. Eskin uses primary sources to address Bergson’s foundational role in Tanpınar’s work. At times, he supplements references with footnotes to elaborate on the issue. Some of the works Eskin analyses include the following: Beş Şehir (Five Cities), a collection of essays on five Turkish cities, a trilogy of novels Mahur Beste, Huzur (A Mind at Peace) and Sahnenin Dışındakiler (Those Who Stand Outside the Stage), his most famous novel Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü (The Time Regulation Institute), his incomplete novel Aydaki Kadın (Woman on the Moon), his poem Ne İçindeyim Zamanın (Neither am I within Time), his essays Antalyalı Genç Kıza Mektuplar (Letters to a Girl from Antalya) and Sonbahar Türküsü (Ballads of Fall) and a collection of poems. Throughout these writings, Eskin traces various frameworks and concepts such as time, evolution, personality, consciousness, memory and dreams and considers them at the intersection between literature and philosophy.              

In the Introduction, starting with Plato, Eskin (2014) explains the relationship between philosophy and literature. He then abruptly jumps to Derrida and briefly to Nietzsche, to examine contemporary philosophy. Eskin highlights the complementary nature of the relationship and compares two figures: Jean-Paul Sartre and Marcel Proust. The former is used to show how a writer utilizes literature with the intent of conveying their philosophy while the latter demonstrates the literary production against the backdrop of a philosophy. Eskin adopts the second category and establishes that there are similarities between Proust and Tanpınar due to their emphasis on time and memory. From the onset, Eskin insists that the book aims to bring a descriptive and illustrative literary aspect to the fore rather than a philosophical argument that offers a theoretical framework.   

The first chapter illustrates the foundational arguments of Bergsonian philosophy. Eskin discusses four of Bergson’s major works, namely Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889), Matter and Memory (1896), Creative Evolution (1907), and The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). Eskin also uses Bergson’s own images, such as the nail-jacket to explain the more difficult arguments. Bergson (1896) states that the relationship between consciousness and the brain is similar to the one between nail and jacket. If we remove the nail off the wall, the jacket falls off. This being the case, however, it would make no sense to claim that the nail determines the form of the jacket. More importantly, Eskin contextualizes the development of Bergson’s philosophy. He highlights the fact that Bergson developed his theory against the dominant paradigms of 19th-century scientism, relativism, materialism and positivism. Eskin also pays due attention to Bergson’s notion of durée (pure duration) and intuition in addition to the philosopher’s frequent use of images and metaphors.

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The second chapter is about the introduction of Bergsonism in Turkey, the reasons for its adoption, and popularity among academic and literary circles. Eskin shows how certain scholars contributed to the spread of Bergson’s philosophy in various ways. Among those figures are academicians such as Suphi Ethem and Rıza Tevfik, and more importantly the ones who gathered around “The Journal Dergâh” for social and political concerns: Mustafa Şekip Tunç, Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, İsmail Hakkı Baltacıoğlu and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. Besides, Eskin (2014) quite successfully underlines the primary objective of the journal and its accompanying role: the pursuit of change and modernization that does not rule out ‘tradition’ in the constant conflict between the old and the new. Bergson, Freud and Mustafa Şekip are presented as the biggest influences on Tanpınar.

The crux of the argument lies in the third and fourth chapters of the book in which Eskin decodes Bergson’s philosophical underpinnings across several works of Tanpınar. He adopts a systematic and sometimes didactic approach in his analysis. He first explains certain concepts in Bergson’s theory and then analyzes passages from Tanpınar’s works. The third chapter titled “Duration and Creation” primarily lays out how and why Bergson places durée at the heart of his whole theory. Duration as a theory of time and consciousness is shown to be heterogeneous, which means it is not constituted as a succession of distinct parts. Tanpınar extensively employs a philosophy of time. For this reason, Eskin’s emphasis on the contrast between mechanical time (sometimes referred to as mathematical time) and psychological time (pure duration) illuminates certain aspects of Tanpınar’s ideas. Mathematical time is conceptualized and formed within ‘space’, and it is calculable and divided into parts as in the calendar. In contrast, durée, is experienced in consciousness, but states of consciousness are not about amounts and numbers, but quality and volume. According to Bergson, our fallacy regarding duration mainly stems from the fact that we tend to perceive it through the lens of ‘space’.    

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Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

        

The second section of the third chapter is devoted to multiple passages that exemplify how Tanpınar adopted and internalized Bergson’s durée and conveyed his understanding through literature. Eskin clearly demonstrates one-to-one correspondences between Bergson’s concepts and Tanpınar’s choice of words. For example, Tanpınar’s use of the phrase yekpâre zaman (monolithic time) is shown to refer to durée. Moreover, Eskin claims that the constitutive structure of Bergson’s philosophy is projected into Tanpınar’s works through his allegoric and symbolic style. For example, each of the two clocks and two watch repairers that Hayri Irdal, the protagonist of The Time Regulation Institute, gets acquainted with in his lifetime represent two distinct and opposite world views and approaches to life as well as to duration. The first clock is named Mubarek (sacred) by family members, and it is said to have a history that lasts for generations. The clock is personified and described quite elaborately. It is also depicted as if it has its own working mechanism and perception of time. Similarly, Nuri Efendi, the first watch repairer, for whom Hayri Irdal works for some time as an apprentice, does not see clocks and watches as merely mechanical machinery. Instead, Nuri Efendi identifies them with human existence and establishes an unworldly attachment to them rather than an objective one and this stance determines his philosophy of life and interpersonal relationships. In stark contrast, the second clock, and the second watch repairer represents what the former ones do not. For instance, the second clock does not even have a name, and it is depicted very briefly and plainly just as a regular clock. Likewise, Asım Efendi, the second watch repairer has no philosophy of time. His relationship with watches, and thereby time, do not go beyond mere mechanical physicality.

The fourth chapter titled “Self, Consciousness and Memory” first explores the place of memory in Bergson’s theory, in which memory is the creator of character and selfhood. Moments of remembering and forgetting are explicitly manifested in Tanpınar’s works. The coding implemented by Tanpınar is successfully decoded by Eskin (2014) who then establishes a close link with the philosophical atmosphere of the time. One of the things that enriches Eskin’s analysis is the resemblance he discovers across literary works by different authors. For instance, Eskin claims that the smell of a rose in Tanpınar’s book serves the same purpose as a Proust’s madeleine. They both invoke unexpected and involuntary remembrance of memories of the past, referred to as Bergsonian mémoire involontaire.   

A Critical Assessment of the Book

Despite the challenging nature of his task, Şerif Eskin accomplishes what he has set out to achieve. He produces an analysis of formal and stylistic components such as time, location, plot, dominant setting and characterization in Tanpınar’s works to be able to determine the presence of a founding philosophical framework of Bergson. He examines a wide range of genres including academic books, novels, essays, poems, letters, conference speeches, and even lecture notes belonging to Tanpınar. Therefore, this book will appeal to those with an interest in literature or philosophy. The intended audience will be readers with an academic background but the clarity and detail of the descriptions and explanations make the book accessible to non-specialists.   

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Şerif Eskin

On the other hand, the fact that Eskin examines select passages from Tanpınar’s various works when he focuses on certain themes brings certain drawbacks. The readers may feel that Eskin jumps from one piece of writing to another to solely prove his point. This has two main consequences. Firstly, the unity of Tanpınar’s specific work at hand is impaired as Eskin provides extracts from the same investigated work under distinct themes. The reader may, as a result, lose track of which character is being mentioned at any given moment. To illustrate, Eskin mentions Sabri Hoca, a character from Mahur Beste while analyzing the role of ‘memory’ in plot on page 149. The next paragraph on the following page is about Mümtaz, a character from the novel A Mind At Peace, and the following one concerns some other character from a different work. Under another theme, these characters are mentioned again without referring to the names of the works. So, readers might have trouble following the unity and integrity of a specific work. Secondly, even though it is easy to follow a “common thread” in a specific chapter, providing very similar extracts one after the other leads to repetition and over-interpretation. In a similar vein, some themes such as disengagement are overly explored through different texts.    

Eskin explains Bergson’s positive reception and the influence he had on the fields of history and literature. Nevertheless, he fails to include the criticisms directed at Bergson’s philosophy and its reception by other philosophers both in Europe and Turkey. He only mentions how some writers exploited Bergsonism in their literary works. Given that Bergsonism fell out of favor as of the 1940s, information about its negative reception and the reasons for its historical decline would have been a helpful addition. In this way, we could gain some insight as to why Bergson’s philosophy has been coming back into favor recently. In addition, while Eskin mentions against which schools of thought Bergson’s philosophy was mobilised, he provides no information about  the sources Bergson used in developing his own theories. Lastly, although Eskin makes it clear that both Bergson and Freud played a founding role in Tanpınar’s aesthetics and literary vision, he appears to understate the intricate relationship between Freudian philosophy and Tanpınar in his analysis section.

Overall, there is substantial value in Eskin’s in-depth analysis of the themes and his skill in showing the reflection of Bergson’s philosophy in Tanpınar’s world of literature, aesthetics and thought. It makes a contribution to the literature in two noteworthy respects. The first one is related to the timing of the book. There is a relative lack of scholarship written about Bergson in Turkey and the existing literature, in particular the works of  Suphi Ethem, Mustafa Şekip, Nurettin Topçu are, to a large extent, descriptive, theory-laden, and explanatory in that they solely introduce Bergson’s philosophy (Gündoğan, 2007; Kök, 2001; Bayraktar, 2010; Irem, 2004, 2011; Yıldız, 2011). In contrast, the current book explores how Bergson’s philosophy can be traced in a Turkish writer’s fiction and non-fiction works thus introducing an interdisciplinary approach.

Besides, Eskin places Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar along with T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Marcel Proust in the same ranking. Thus, we can get a broader and more international grasp of a modernist Turkish literary figure. It is undeniable that this book is also a good contribution to the literature at a time when interest in Bergson’s philosophy is undergoing a revival.    

 

References

Bayraktar, L. (2010). Bergson’da Ruh-Beden İlişkisi. Istanbul: Dergah Yayınları.

Bergson, H. (1889). Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, 1889) – Bergson’s doctoral dissertation.

_______ (1896). Matter and Memory (Matière et mémoire, 1896). Swan Sonnenschein 1911, Zone Books 1990: ISBN 0-942299-05-1.

_______ (1907). Creative Evolution (L’Évolution créatrice, 1907). Henry Holt and Company 1911, University Press of America 1983: ISBN 0-8191-3553-4.

_______ (1932). The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les Deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion, 1932). University of Notre Dame Press 1977. ISBN 0-268-01835-9.

Eskin, Ş. (2012). Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’ın eserleri ve estetiğinde Bergson felsefesinin izdüşümleri ve kurucu rolü. (MA thesis, İstanbul Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü).

Eskin, Ş. (2014). Zaman ve hafızanın kıyısında: Tanpınar’ın edebiyat, estetik ve düşünce dünyasında Bergson felsefesi. Dergâh.

Gündoğan, A. O. (2007). Bergson (Istanbul: Say Yayınları, 2007). pp. 15-93.

Irem, N. (2004). “Undercurrents of European Modernity and the Foundations of Modern Turkish Conservatism: Bergsonism in Retrospect”, Middle Eastern Studies, 40:4, pp. 79-112.

_______ (2011). “Bergson and Politics: Ottoman-Turkish Encounters with Innovation”, The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, 16: 7, 873-882.

Kök, M. (2001). Mistik Dünya Görüşü ve Bergson. Istanbul: DergahYayınları.

Yıldız, Y. (2011). “Bergsonculuğun Türkiye’ye Girişi ve Türk Felsefesine Etkisi”, Türkiye Araştırmaları Literatür Dergisi, 17, pp. 333-356.

 

[1] Şerif Eskin completed his doctorate studies in 2017, and at present he works as a faculty member at The Turkish Language and Literature at Istanbul University. He is interested in relationships between literature, ideology, and philosophy, literary theories, modern Turkish literature.

[2] The book was published by Dergah Publishing House in Istanbul in 2014 and it consists of 213 pages including the Bibliography and Index.

[3] 2012, the Department of Turkish Language and Literature

 


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