Impossible otherness: Random ruminations on "The Stone Building"

There are two opposing poles in Aslı Erdoğan’s writing: her working style that never stops being objective in her definitions despite all the poeticality of The City in Crimson Cloak, and the other is the prose poems in her book In the Silence of Life

24 Ağustos 2017 13:23

It seems there are two opposing poles in Aslı Erdoğan’s writing: one is her working style that never stops being objective in her definitions and understanding despite all the poeticality of The City in Crimson Cloak, and the other is the prose poems in her book In the Silence of Life

“Life sometimes imitates art.” It is true that this is a cliché, a shallow statement often uttered superficially. But this superfluous generalization assumes an almost ironical timeliness and substantiality within the context of Aslı Erdoğan’s 2009 book Taş Bina ve Diğerleri (The Stone Building and Other Places). Seven years after Erdoğan wrote about a stone building, she found herself confined in one. Her confinement was not based on the book she had written: There was no causality between the two incidents — or at least it hasn't been put that way by our country’s law enforcement officials. But there could be a different kind of causality at work here — one like in the much exploited phrase by Nietzsche: “If thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

The following is my elaboration on the troubles pertaining to that long, persistent gaze.

A certain stone building is the central theme in all but one of the stories in the book (“Tahta Kuşlar/The Wooden Birds”). Towards the end of the third story we understand that this stone building is actually a police station.

“She stood still until the prisoner was taken out of the stone building and put into the police van. Unbending, out of reach, mute. Drifting with the wind. Open to all kinds of kicks.”1 But the historical identity of the building itself will be revealed in the interconnected chapters combined under the header “The Stone Building”: Although its name is not mentioned explicitly in the book, the building in question is the Sansaryan Han in İstanbul’s Sirkeci quarter — an impressive building, if I am not mistaken, with a black facade that was built by old stonemasons, and that served for around fifty years, until the early 1980s, as a police station for the İstanbul police department. The five-story building had a central courtyard and the lower floors served as office space while the fifth floor was home to cells that measured only two by two meters, referred to informally as “the coffinery”: “A gigantic courtyard inside the building, the staircases surrounding the courtyard confined by tall wire fences… so that no one could jump to death” (60); “TAKE THIS ONE TO THE FIFTH FLOOR!” (72).

Taş Bina ve Diğerleri, Aslı Erdoğan, Everest YayınlarıI did say the stone building was a central theme, but this is only partially correct: the stone building actually serves as some kind of a backdrop, or rather, a metaphor for a kind of impenetrability and the meaninglessness of an effort to penetrate that is shown to be doomed to fail at all times. (I will be demonstrating that the word “penetrate” in this context also stands for such meanings as summoning/being summoned; understanding/being understood, wanting/being wanted, and even exalting/being exalted.) At the foreground there are figures, or let me put it this way: one figure and various sides surrounding that figure which fall into disagreement in relation to that figure’s standpoint.

The author lays the first literary cornerstone at this point by way of revealing the following distinction between those “sides” at the very beginning of the section “The Stone Building”: “The phenomena are open, disparate, rough… Tend to speak noisily. I will leave those phenomena piled like huge rocks to those who deal with important matters” (59). We could call this “party” that is seemingly left aside “them.” The narrative/writer appears to say she will not be dealing with them anymore, but she can never fully separate from them either as she continues marking and describing them. For even further sides will be taking shape with contrast to and by separating from “them.” There was, for instance, a coffeehouse on the same street as the stone building: “The lives of the regulars of this coffeehouse are so plain, so dull that any words attempting to describe those lives would seem artificial, forced, extravagant. No one in this coffeehouse talks about himself at length anyway, and even if they did, no one would listen. The regulars of this coffeehouse, as inundated as they may be with destruction, defeat, humiliation, [still] believe humans are innately good, but cannot come up with a reason as to why there is so much evil on the face of the earth […] Clenching their fists, swearing, turning a blind eye, stealing, striving, but most of all, making do with [whatever they have]…” (61). Who are they — this group of simple, ordinary people? They are the unprivileged, the defeated. They are those who, despite all negative circumstances, fend off mass extinction — in short, they are “the people.” The narrative/narrator has no bones to pick with them, and they will not reappear later in the text. They will remain undisturbed, at a respectful distance. But note the words of choice used in describing them: “Their lives are so simple that any words attempting to describe those lives would seem artificial, extravagant,” way too pretentious and big. It is as if the text declares: Let’s not bite off more than we can chew by attempting to describe those people; they are beyond any kinds of narrative, at a spot that doesn't even need any narration.

Nevertheless, that coffeehouse and its customers do serve a moral-literary function. For right across the coffeehouse there is a bar. “Suppose that across from the coffeehouse that doesn't even have a shop sign […] there is a bar. For the regulars of the bar, the lives they see across them constitute a story they would want to tell someday. When they attempt to conjure up a story based on the human experience… (Isn’t the art of telling stories in one way the art of sifting out the embers without burning one’s fingers?)” (61).

It is now time for an initial observation on the book’s style, technique and genre. For if that first sentence about the police station (“She stood still until the prisoner was taken out of the stone building and put into the police van. Unbending, out of reach, mute. Drifting with the wind.”) was not enough to reveal that this narrative sets aside all kinds of objective description to instead embark on a piercing subjective analysis, then at least the phrase that begins “Suppose that” clearly alerts us that what this book offers is, perhaps even beyond a subjective-impressionist narrative, an allegorical work of fiction; that nothing in this book is the product of a realistic descriptive style. First of all, there was no coffeehouse across the stone building in real life — not even a tea booth, for that matter — and second of all, for a coffeehouse and a “bar” to be located across from each other could only be possible in a work of fiction; a “make-believe.” Both the coffeehouse and the bar are ideas: each is a proposition (and surely the “stone building” too, for that matter) that assumes meaning and function with regard to each other, based on the contrast among them. But let’s get back to “them.”

They, the executors of the art of the narrative, those who manage to collect chestnuts from the stove without burning their fingers, would at the same time want to suck out the truthfulness they’re lacking from the “lives across,” just like a vampire, “when they become weary of the labyrinths in their souls that work like a clock” (61). When they are bored with the small talk among their community, the bar crowd rushes out to the streets to derive stories to tell: “Destitution is a right they like to enjoy from time to time, a vileness; a privilege that is enjoyable so long as it is in moderation. Plus, who wouldn't want a life full of adventure and struggle? Moreover, they have suffered as heavily as the Titans, gone through many losses already […] Far from the absolute good and the absolute evil, at the secure distance of mediocrities… In the end, each human life is a defeat, but some defeats are more glorious” (62).2 At some point in the book, through an even bolder and inclusive approach, “they” will be referred to as “the human world” (122). Towards the end of the book, those who have something to tell each other and who do so without trouble, without feeling ashamed, will have turned from mere chatterers who are “hungry for life” to “us all”:

People, people, others, gathering, talking, silent people, each surrounded in their own fog. Full of stories, decisions, judgments. Under the strong, low-lying roofs of their fiefdoms’ illuminated abundance, surrounded by panes, signs, mirrors, lightbulbs, they talk at dining tables where they sit with the same amount of hunger every single time even though they eat every single day. As if they’ve always been treated unfairly, but have never given in, surrendered, died. They passionately lay claim to the bulging void in their hearts. Certainly they deserve to live more than anyone else; it’s always someone else who dies. (126)

In this case, besides being a moral category, the term “they” also manifests as, or perhaps is, rather, a style, a technique, a narrative style rejected in this book, that could draw each of us to our own untruthfulness: “Haven’t we, all people, climbed up the same cliff? The next morning, when the pain had come back, [it] had turned into something else […] into a past that belonged to me. It’s nice to have a past, really nice to be able to tell one’s story in past tense” (128). They: those who find — or talk about — anything that could have happened during the night in their hands, like a dead short story “in past tense” the next morning; those who can but tell stories with definite beginnings, climaxes and endings — this writer distinguishes herself from those with a clear gesture: “Surely, they deserve to live more than anyone else, those who die are always the others […] everything is an ordinary story, a picture without a background — alas, I have no stories to tell whatsoever!” (126).

Hayatın Sessizliğinde, Aslı Erdoğan, Everest YayınlarıThey, those who rush out of the bar searching for new scripts whenever they’re bored, and who are made to sit back down (if possible, without spilling blood) when (thankfully) they fail to find one, but who at the same time “stand at a safe distance where words avoid like the plague” to look at everything “from behind words” (59) — we cannot stop getting the impression that this is the very crowd to which the words of the Stone Building are addressed, however scorned or frowned upon they may be.

But the writer had already made a distinguishing move right at the beginning by leaving the piled up phenomena to “those who deal with important matters.” That was to say, I am not there. “What compels me is only the murmur among them [the stone phenomena]. Vague, obsessive… A mere handful of truth I could lay my hands on after sifting through rocks and rocks of phenomena. […] I’m after the song of the sand, a handful of sand that will slip through my fingers in case I manage to return [to the surface] once I dive deep, real deep, and reach the very bottom, chasing after a gleam” (59). This way, the author skillfully gives up on the effort to penetrate into the stone phenomena, right from the beginning. With this resignation, the text is also liberated from certain obligations or limitations of narrative. This jettisoning simultaneously creates its special “ease” and paves the way for mastery: the subjective, impressionist narrative style is at long last headed towards an extreme where its solid truth will also be shaped.

This is observable in the relationship between the text/the writer and the main figure. In addition to the plural “sides,” there is a singular figure too: “a man in front of the coffeehouse, in winter and in summer […] his face, divided by a deep scar into two nonidentical pieces, refuses to reveal any of his secrets, not even his age. But if one were to trace this scar throughout his skull, caved in at various spots, as if following a mountain trail, after encircling his desolate, sorrowful eye sockets one would find herself on the edge of a cliff. A cliff that speaks the language of not the humans, but the wind and the moonlight, and of stones. Since one cannot dare ask him his name, one could call him the first letter of the alphabet: A.” (60-61) Who is “A”? How exactly is he related with the two (or one-and-a-half) “sides” in the narrative and with the narrator/writer?

First of all, he is the one who is always ostracized: “He was often left outside the doors, where he would roll himself up, shivering with the cold amidst puddles of mud and urine… He spoke and spoke. Laughing at random, laughing more often as he went on… He couldn’t find but one person who would listen to what he had to say. So A. learnt how to speak with the dead, with birds, with the wind…” (67, 103). This exclusion leads to some sort of primacy; a figure that perhaps we could bill as “the negative sublime” appears before our eyes, purged, made incorporeal (the text goes, speaking to A): “Silently you look down at the wet, gleaming roofs, at streets that bear no trace of you, and neither of your absence […] At the horizons that promise nothing but yet another disappearance. All alone, in pain, you rise up, beyond hope and hopelessness, beyond good and evil, as your arms, dangling with weakness, hang like a pair of broken wings on both sides” (84). A sublimated figure stands before us with an elevated image (or soul, perhaps) looking down on those who ignore him, even though his body may be curled up on the pavement. As it is, in the section of the book that comes right after this part we see the word “angel” come up: “We all saw the angel […] Standing at a dormer as he was calling out to the stars passing by […] As he was waiting among the stones, ordinary, naked, hopeless, having rejected his name, his fate, the paths offered by the sky […] He was fluttering about the borders between what was and what was not, the visible and the invisible, constantly appearing and disappearing […] None of us could gaze at him at length” (89). But the angel-A takes on a messianic role even as he is dying (or perhaps because he is dying), becoming the representation of the unrealized hopes of “us” in the text:

When you died all alone, vehemently alone, thanking the stars, on a starless morning, you stopped the night, with a single move of your head as it bowed down. You stopped it for all of us. You spread your wings too early; on the very first stone steps of the stairway to the skies, you spread one wing towards the light and the other towards the dark. Lighting the last candle of your fortitude, you handed it to the dawn, perhaps with a smile. At that very moment, a star was reborn. Just so I could see life as if it were a miracle, you left your eyes with me (85).

Let’s repeat a question we asked earlier: How exactly is A. related with the sides and social groups referred to in the book? Also, who and what exactly does the word “us” stand for in relation to A? We have already seen that he served as a potential (note that only a potential) story for the bar crowd. How about the coffeehouse crowd — “the people”? There is no sign that they recognized the figure lying on the pavement. Neither does the text imply that one of them could all of a sudden fall from his or her relatively stable position in the coffeehouse to turn into another “A.” But why? Because A is actually what’s inside the stone building left outside and the coffeehouse crowd hasn’t been inside (so far, at least). Then again, A is at the same time a compound or a plural figure — the incorporeal materialization of all “juvenile offenders”: “They had turned up as if in dreams, among the tall wire fences, naked walls, stones, on dingy basement corridors […] Leaning on each other, they were walking slowly. Hesitantly, staggering, stumbling […] They appeared in the shape of young, silent silhouettes carved out of darkness, on the borders of the visible and the invisible […] These were the children of the stone building. Swarthy and scrawny, mercilessly beaten juvenile offenders. Inheritors of all the offenses committed throughout so many generations, more accustomed to the cold and the humiliation than we were” (78-79).

The intentional repetition of the phrase “appeared quietly on the borders of the visible and the invisible, from the dim dreams of the underground” highlights the representative relationship between those kids and A. But this “poetic” style that reminds one of Jean Genet’s first novels (“bunched up like newly blooming branches […] they passed […] And the world fell completely silent as they passed, releasing its breath, as silent and still as a mirror, watched its injured children to whom it couldn't look in the eye” 79-80) should not drown out the following prose related question (which is arguably about “them”): In the text, what is the exact position or function of “us” — a side ridden with guilt that shamefully and without being able to look them in the eye watches those children (and A) as they pass? Those kids “were carrying the corpses of our childhoods on their shoulders as well as their own” (79). What exactly are “we” in relation to those kids who have taken the punishment for us (like Jesus, perhaps)? We cannot be “them,” who were set aside by a sharp moral-literary move. We’re not part of the coffeehouse crowd either. Who, then, are we? A potential congregation that has yet to form, that awaits salvation with the touch of an angel, or, with the words of some post-1960s French philosophers, an “impossible community”?

Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent, Aslı Erdoğan, Everest Yayınları

Let’s take a look at the community A. creates through his messianic touch: “He had heard us, and descended from the heavens at once […] To some, he had given back their childhood, and to some a call that carried them away to eternity… […] He embraced us all, with a gentle touch of his supple wings, with a whisper […] he calmed us all down. We couldn't have been dreaming, for we had long extinguished our dreams. Had we managed to come together —which we couldn’t— we would have gathered his scattered visions to rebuild them, one piece at a time. We could have completed his unfinished story if we each added one sentence from our own, and saved him. But then again, perhaps we couldn't have. He was everything that we’ve lost, lost forever, and everything we will ever lose” (90). In this case, the impossible community also stands for an unfinished story that will never get finished.

They, “the white,” are not part of the community of hope which will always remain as a potential — nevertheless I cannot stop thinking that all this agony may have been offered up to them to watch, even if it is only aimed at disturbing them. For they are the ones who are here and now, those who spend money for books, those who possess a certain literary fondness, and those who are active in the publishing industry, alongside the author. The coffeehouse is either behind or beyond words. But the existence of A (as well as of the children he symbolizes) is mainly verbal, or even “literary” — whatever will be done, will be done through words and phrases: “Then I recognized your voice,” the text calls out to him, “My own voice materializing in you. Strange though, I was most fearful that you’d cry, beg, kneel. You did none of these. It was as though death was an overly dramatic ending that I had been keeping for myself, a literary conclusion. But you were stuck in the middle of a sentence where the dawn never broke […] Lighting the last candle of your fortitude, you handed it to the dawn” (68). As made clear with the repetition of the phrase (“the last candle of fortitude”), A is an idea that can only be grasped through verbal patterns, linguistic gestures (through “drama”).

Just like the coffeehouse crowd, he too stands behind words, he is mute, but at the same time completely and excessively verbal. The writer/narrator says the following about him: “He doesn't try to understand the world — I guess I’m attempting to do that for him” (63; note the use of “attempt” — a word that denotes both assertiveness and humbleness). And thus the main aim of the book, its main literary venture is determined: with a slight shift, the text’s efforts to permeate into stone is replaced with the writer’s attempt to get “inside” the stone building, an attempt to conquer A.: the text will “attempt” to understand the impossible otherness curled up on the pavement and perceive the world from his point of view. What depicted him as a solid “otherness” before our eyes was the text itself, and now the same text is trying to perceive that otherness with a suitable style (“murmurs”), and contain (without taming) it. Would that be possible?

Sadly, A. too, is all too verbal: that locked up, curled up figure “speaks and speaks” even though no one listens. This lack of response pushes him beyond language and reason, towards mad laughter: “… was speaking with his bare hands. Eventually he started laughing, a laughter so hard, so horrible, he abandoned his own story. He wiped out his name from the alloy called life” (71). At this point the writer reappears on the stage — that is, if she is not already there. She becomes a performer of A’s verbalism and his muteness, his story and his storylessness. And right there before our eyes occurs an infiltration, an occupation, an invasion: the thing called writing or narrative would not let any kind of difference, or otherness, survive. Thus the main figure acquires duality: it is now both A and the writer who attempts to (make the readers) understand him. In any case, difference is not allowed. “Inside a room that has become your reflection, you just stand, turn around and wait […] No one comes along. It’s only the executor in you and the victim in you who are standing face to face […] they hold each other, look themselves in the eye as if looking far away in the distance” (95). And: “Then I recognized your voice, my own voice materializing in you […] Then I recognized your voice, nobody’s voice materializing in you. I wove you, knot by knot, out of my own soul that they had woven knot by knot, I gave you my own name” (95, 99).

This might seem like an unfamiliar development for those who came to know Aslı Erdoğan with her very beautiful, very “successful” book Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak, 2001). In that book, various subjective experiences from a city were made to “clash with each other,” so to speak, and all that confrontation among those different perspectives ended up yielding some kind of an objectivity layer: a reality that rendered all kinds of experience concerning itself slightly obsolete, that appeared in neither tourist guidebooks nor in NGO directives, untranslated, solid, irreducible yet constantly moving. Here, the writer seems to have forgone all kinds of “reader-friendly” gestures: She warns that “we-they” will get to know pain, that irreparable pain: the unrescuable itself. Given that the book recently had an eighth edition, printed in September 2016, many readers out there must have already gone through that process of getting to know pain. Yet, it must be pointed out that this is not a process: everything happens at the very beginning, with the first moral-literary distinguishing move. “You don't hear me, do you?” yells A-the writer to us-them. “Perhaps I shouldn't have recounted in the past tense. Once again, I started singing from the wrong line, in the wrong key” (64). The book ends with the same phrase: “I understand that I still hear, that I always hear this melody that comes from nothingness, and that is reborn with everything […] the melody of everything [that will remain] unsaid even though they have been said… But certainly, I always join in the song from the wrong line, in the wrong key” (135).

In the closing paragraph, she calls out to him: “Your head was hanging down. It was as though you were still managing to oddly bloom, amidst all the paper rolls they had plastered on your wounds. Your eyes resembled two wet, lonesome stars concealed behind the branches. You left them with me. I pulled the branches apart, one by one. I pulled them apart for days and nights, for years. By the time I was done, you were already gone (135).” From these kinds of sentences with neat word choice, grammar and punctuation, which we could only wish to see more, emanates the scent of four o’clock flowers or perhaps honeysuckles. It seems to me however, that this intense fragrance (perhaps it also includes the scent of roses, but freshly cut lawn is missing) serves to make you-us-them forget for a brief moment that the wacko A (and we’re still unsure whether he was or was not a past resident of Sansaryan) is but a writer’s excuse. Or it fails to make us forget that.

It seems there are two opposing poles in Aslı Erdoğan’s writing: one is her style that never stops being objective in her definitions and understanding despite all the poeticality of The City in Crimson Cloak, and the other is the prose poems in her book In the Silence of Life (2006). It seems the second one is dominant here. Melih Cevdet [Anday] would say, “My dear sir, whenever we give up understanding, poetry is always there to help us.” I don't know what Wallace Stevens told him in response. But in The Stone Building the main issue is not poeticality; it’s not that everything remains as one of multiple reflections of “me” in a chamber of mirrors either. Everything, even the kids, are rigidly positioned as the spokespersons of the unrepairable suffering of “me,” the subject. A book begins and it ends — it should have a beginning and an end. Even though it cannot end, at some point it must recede. This is not the case here: the book keeps on billing us-you-them unpayable receipts for even those things that the book can't and will never accomplish. Charming sentences continue demanding without losing their charm, and thus a superego that can never get enough of punishing casts its shadow over everything. Even from the most incorporeal, the purest concept, comes the “…noise of a wing flapping. You're still alive. Hanging there, waiting, swinging like a needle, between the earth and the sky, almost between existing and perishing. You sense the living-you and the dead-you hopelessly call out to each other […] still calling out, always calling out, although nobody can hear them…” The conversation through mirrors between the executor-me and the victim-me, between the living-me and the dead-me, has now turned into a grievance that will constantly and forever hurt your-our-their conscience. That the style is in the tone of a “murmur” doesn't cancel out the persistence of the demand.

As for me… Every single time I talked about myself I left something out, it was incomplete, it was incorrect. Out of place, untimely. Either too dry, or with a language fit for a tragedy… I assembled a few words that echoed without a purpose, with the dreadfulness of a skeleton, I spoke with silences that could never be crossed, with sentences that are unspoken rather than spoken. Either like life had all of a sudden asked to be narrated, depicted, shown […] Until I had run out of energy. I wandered slowly among towering walls built out of words, in pain, I groped for a way into my story, like a ghost that appears only in moonlight, without being summoned — my story that was not less unfamiliar to even me anymore, my rickety, hypaethral story… Hollowed out in the wind, buried in sand and rainwater from the moment of its birth… There, amid layers of hollowed out stones, I was stuck all alone in a place where no one would come along (134).

If a text is embracing its very own “inefficiency,” its very own impossibility with this much affection, like petting a kitten, I’d advise readers to avoid it. The kitten must either be adopted, or immediately taken to the vet. Moreover, it should under no circumstances be left to our-your-their attention, conscience, sympathy, pity — but since the coffeehouse crowd is not paying attention either, you might ask whether there really is any other look that sees or any other heart that cares aside from ours-yours-theirs. I wouldn't know. It’s always good to prefer Rio, and Genet had indeed gone to Bethlehem.

A sentence appearing towards the end of the book will make us-you-them feel the awkward, unrealized, “outgoing” power of the Stone Building. A documentation of the book’s helpless awareness, its “self-conscious” that cannot calm down despite all the beautiful sentences that could sedate itself: “I couldn't find the right word that would bring me together with myself and would set me free from myself” (134). She’s telling us that she couldn't come up with the concluding, rescuing sentence that could send us home peacefully; and that she will not find it either, so you, me, they will continue to feel irritated. The thing is, sometimes you can get out of the stone building, sometimes you just can't.

Translated by Yasemin Gürkan
1 Aslı Erdoğan, “Taş Bina ve Diğerleri” [The Stone Building and Other Places] İstanbul: Everest, 2016 (8th Edition). The references in the article to the book are from this edition.
2 The residents of the coffeehouse reappear one last time at this point as yet another tool for comparison: “Those inside the coffeehouse know what hell is, although they do not name it… ‘Freedom’ reminds them of the courtyard circled with wire fences” (62).