Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who needs an ethos?

Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul is a brilliantly crafted textile woven of a collection of narratives that come together seamlessly and with great power. This novel truly lives up to the mouth-watering expectation set up by its organization that divides the work into chapters, each named after a food, drink, or flavor. I find myself devouring it voraciously. In line with our work last week regarding Etgar Keret's collection, I would like to speak directly to the most blatantly existential chapter in Shafak's book so far. Entitled "Vanilla," this section describes the seductive, smoky, and mysterious Cafe Kundera where young Asya meets with her intellectual friends to drink, smoke, and muse on the nature of existence. The whole set-up evokes the romanticism of the American expatriates pontificating at Les Deux Magots, post-Impressionist painters guzzling Absinthe in Montmartre, the entire catalogue of vague imagery associated with the prowess of Western intellectuals and artists. The chapter is a throwback, though Asya seems blissfully unaware of the repetition. In her self-proclaimed nihilism, she attempts to obliterate all memory, though, here, she participates in one of the oldest, most decadent of Euro-American tropes.

The conversation that takes place here is as overwrought as its setting. To be sure, Shafak is completely aware of this as she writes. Says the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist (the names in this chapter are priceless!), "Boredom is the summary of our lives. Day after day we wallow in ennui" (Shafak 81). In this chapter, the characters express what Keret's suicide victims leave to the imagination. The glaring difference is that Shafak's haughty intellectuals take refuge in philosophy, nihilism to be exact, while Keret's "happy campers" choose to take their own lives. In both stories, the overwhelming sense of ennui proves corrosive. The Cartoonist continues, citing Kundera himself, "The whole idea of lightness permeates our lives in the form of meaningless emptiness. Our existence is kitsch, a beautiful lie, which helps us to defy the reality of death and mortality" (Shafak 82). The act of existing, as Kundera puts it, is simple, too simple to be exact. Or, as our colleague Diane suggests, it is a socialized behavior. Existence as compliance with social norm speaks to the idea of nihilism. Nihilists, as Shafak casts them here, are simply too apathetic to take the next step. They realize the pointlessness our Sisyphian task here on Earth, but they are unwilling to allow the boulder to roll over them, ending the monotony.

"'There is an afterlife and it's going to be worse than here,' was the general opinion in the group. 'So enjoy whatever time you have left'" (Shafak 88). Perhaps these nihilists already know what Keret's characters only discovered after committing suicide. Would this outlook have changed their decision? Who's the "bigger" nihilist, then? One who despairs over a pointless life that will surely end, or one who has such little regard for existence he terminates himself?

More wisdom from Walter Sobchak. You've seen him on my blog before. I really think there is a Big Lebowski quote for every occasion. Try one at your next party, baby shower, or board meeting.

"Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."
-Walter Sobchak


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the book so much. Also, nice work on focusing on this section. I'm excited to see how the discussions in class will turn out.

  2. I also enjoyed the book. I didn't think that much about the Cafe Kundera was meant to be admired -- the pretense seemed to be connected to Asya's immaturity, arising, in part, from the situation of her mother, and so on.

  3. I also really enjoyed every aspect of this book, as well. I enjoyed the chapter title names too...I found them to be clever and also found myself to be searching through each chapter trying to find the meaning of the title!

  4. Sadly, I read _The White Castle_, so my question to you is based solely on your post and no other context.

    Do you think there's a case to be made equating the nihilism of the characters about which you write with suicide? Sort a figurative suicide by means of apathy and not really living, just breathing?