Saturday, October 14, 2006

A cusp of history

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature. I took note of one of his novels in my most recent book, Walking Zero. Because the subject is topical, I excerpt it here:

There is a wonderful novel by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most popular contemporary writer, that takes us to that moment in world history when Europe crossed an intellectual divide from which there would be no turning back. Part murder mystery, part love story, part historical fiction, Pamuk's novel is called My Name Is Red, and is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman sultan Murat II has secretly commissioned a book that will celebrate his life and empire, to be illustrated by a group of master miniaturists, men trained in the artistic styles of the great traditional masters of Islamic text illumination. Why secrecy? The illustrations will be in the new European style of realistic representation, with shadow, perspective, and all the other tricks-in-trade of European Renaissance art -- all heretical by Islamic standards. Shockingly, the book will also include a recognizable portrait of the Sultan himself, not as a stylized appendage to Allah's word, but as an object of admiration in itself. Portraiture, of course, had recently been brought to a high level of accomplishment in Europe; think, for example, of Hans Holbein's familiar portrait of Henry VIII. Within sultan Murat's secret book, innovation confronts tradition, secularism confronts theocracy, individual artistic style confronts anonymous conformity to established modes of expression. Soon, two men are dead, and we have a baffling murder mystery on our hands that is not resolved until the final pages of the novel.

Pamuk's story concerns itself with art, but of course something else, not unrelated, was happening in Europe in the 1590s. Astronomers debated the truth of the Copernican system of the world, which removed the Earth (and humankind!) from the center of the universe. Anatomists dissected the human body, and used their careful observations to challenge ancient learning. Galileo began his studies of terrestrial motion. Soon the telescope and microscope would reveal new worlds, William Harvey would discover the circulation of the blood, and William Gilbert would explain the magnetic influence of the Earth. This upheaval in science can trace its beginning to art.

Once an artist such as Albrecht Durer could take as his subject a single rabbit or patch of weeds, and describe with lifelike realism every hair and whisker, every leaf and stem, the Scientific Revolution was inevitable. Once an artist, such as Durer, prominently signed his work and took pride in his individual style, the Reformation and collapse of monolithic theology was inevitable. With the Renaissance, Europe embraced progress, individual creativity, and empirical learning, and turned its back on tradition, religious conformity, and the authority of the past.

As the 16th century began, Islamic civilization was experiencing a Golden Age, and one might reasonably have thought that the East was destined for cultural and military dominance over the West. It was not to be. The Turks were turned back from the walls of Vienna in 1529, and beaten at sea at Lepanto in 1571. But it was in the realm of ideas, not on the battlefield, that Europe gained its primary ascendancy. In his novel, Pamuk describes a large mechanical clock with statuary sent as a gift to Sultan Murat II by England's Queen Elizabeth I, meant to represent, presumably, the best of European scientific, technical and artistic innovation. Will Islam follow Europe's lead? Will Murat's illustrated book, in the European style of realistic representation, set a new standard of artistic illustration? Murat dies. His less forward-looking successor, Ahmet I, takes a mace to Elizabeth's gift clock and bashes it to pieces in the name of Allah -- and returns Islamic book illustration to slavish imitation of the past. Pamuk's wonderfully original whodunit evokes a moment in Islamic history replete with all of the conflicted loyalties -- to past and future -- that are Islam today.