October 21, 2007

Adopting a father from afar

A picture from the Sunday New York Times: an Istanbul cafe. Deep red-colored cloth on tables and dark wood chairs against the soothing yellow light. In the background, on the left, a picture suspended. In the foreground, to the right, as if sharing status in the image, a man smoking, head back in committed inhalation. The man is anonymous, the picture is of Ataturk. But at first glance it looks like someone else. The posture in the portrait, the angle of his position, a stray lock of hair on a wide brow, the eyes that seem to retreat from being seen while staring out in heavy-lidded suspicion and a back hunched into a heavy cloak lend the appearance of another iconic figure: Nadar's Baudelaire.

It is impossible to turn away from the fantasy that follows from the mis-recognition. A poet leaves France, and poetry; not Rimbaud, but instead, Baudelaire. He criss-crosses the Bosporus as if leaping from one world to the other. The destination of exile not Africa, but that corner of the nascent Ottoman Empire. Wandering the small alleyways looking for the living traces of what he had seen in the background of the watercolors scarred by pen and ink by Constantin Guys, waiting for the inevitable encounter with that which had lodged itself in his memory. One imagines he would have moved through the masses absorbing the quivering lines of dress and habits, the overflowing Orientalist's lust which was stoked in Paris, ebbing under the reality of the world encountered. The result might have been a sensibility like that of "a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life." This would produce "an 'I' with an insatiable appetite of for the 'non-I'" (The Painter of Modern Life).

Impossible to build to a nation on flickering grace. But in the fantasy of Baudelaire as Turkey's father, the refugees who streamed in during the Crimean and Russo-Ottoman Wars find not a voice that sanctifies the losses and explains the need for revenge and cold realism both, but an environment slack with the weakest form of imperial value; an ethos in love with "martial nonchalance."

Armies adopt a pose lavish in form only. The hierarchies are aesthetic and pertain to fashion. The nation develops as an anti-nation: devoted to the contingent, ephemeral, and momentary, with no time for myth nor nationalism born of wound, trauma, and despair. The potency of forgetting all but the "memory of the present," which offers salvation not in the rage of a broken empire, but instead the infinite "privileges offered by circumstance." No look to the past, which is bound to author the play of old pain and massacres.

"Almost all our originality," Baudelaire wrote, eye cocked to the coming of the night and the play of the city, "comes from the deal which Time imprints on our sensations" (The Painter of Modern Life).