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Orhan Pamuk and Modernist Liberalism

May 19, 2010

Marshall Berman in Dissent:

IN SNOW, and in all his best writing, Pamuk creates a drama of modern life in the process of moving toward radical polarization. Modern men and women are under pressure, and they know it. What is to be done? There are two radically different roads people can take: (1) They may reach out toward the most open and generous inclusiveness; this, for Pamuk, is the meaning of modern art, the reason it has flourished, and still lives. Or else (2) they may plunge into the most rigid and violent exclusions; among the first to go will be modern writers and artists, whose love for modern life is greater than anyone’s. Pamuk makes it clear that he is rooting for Plan (1), but he worries about the raw demagogic power of Plan (2). He identifies with (1) because he thinks it is morally right, but also because, in the real modern world, it can bring us a happiness that is not only more intense and “hot,” but more solid and lasting. However, he thinks, in order to fulfill its human promise, (1) has to find a way to envelop (2). In other words, Modernism has an existential task, to somehow assimilate the people and the powers that want to destroy it.

One thing that will magnify this task—but also make it more profound and absorbing—is that the prime enemy of modernism is not, as people used to say when I was young, “tradition,” but something much weirder and more complex, which we might call Modernist Anti-Modernism. (For short, I’ll call it MAM.) More than any writer since Thomas Mann, Pamuk grasps the world-historical importance of MAM. In the triumphs of the Third Reich, MAM shook the world. When the Nazis were defeated in 1945, liberals like my parents thought that it was gone for good, and that an age of honesty and openness had dawned. [More]

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