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The Orient Does Not Exist

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, once said: “L’Occident n’existe pas” (the West does not exist). This, perhaps unsurprisingly, echoes his contemporary, the surrealist painter Rene Magritte,  who wrote under his famous work, The Treachery of Images, “This is not a pipe” after literally drawing the picture of a pipe. Some may naturally agree: surrealism involves being honest in art, and it is, after all, not a pipe, but rather the picture of a pipe. Likewise, one may argue that the Orient and the Occident neither are nor can become the things they represent, since language is always prone to being representative. This exercise regarding paintings under the light of language and representation may alert the need to change our constructed way of understanding the Occident and the Orient.

In 1978, Edward Said extended Magritte’s criticism of the representation of a pipe to the terminology used to differentiate between the “Oriental” and the “Occidental” in his work Orientalism. The word oriental is not the orient, only a Western depiction of the true nature of the oriental. Thus, the Oriental subject, and all of its cultural, historical and psychological unconscious, is structured and split in the passage through the lens of a Western paradigm. Therefore we must ask, is our Western paradigm useful in comprehending and interpreting the social and cultural position of the Orient? In his book, The Psychopolitics of the Oriental Father: Between Omnipotence and Emasculation, Bülent Somay demonstrates the futility of attempting to employ the Marxist methodology in the so-called Oriental land’s economical structure. Although antique Oriental societies were ‘slave societies’ en masse, they didn’t employ slave labour in the actual process of production. How, then, one could deconstruct such a society by applying the Marxist methodology to feudalism? Likewise, other Western cultural, social, psychological and economical methodologies may feel like they apply, but not exactly. 

Without deconstructing the very fundamentals of both civilizations, the Western academic’s efforts to understand the Orient from the Orient’s point of view are prone to remain inauthentic and biased. After all, we have a centuries old Orientalist film, literature and visuals legacy, depicting the Orient to Western audiences: a land of exotic places where Indiana Jones goes to ‘save’ the white princess from the alienated, shisha-smoking “Arab,” for example. Consider the West’s understanding of Turkish baths (‘hammam’s, a charming space of loosened bodily inhibition), mysterious veils, harems (the blurred area between concealment and exhibition, Somay describes), to transcending consumption of opium and hashish… Long story short, no one else other than the Oriental subject could be more available for the Victorian gentlemen to attribute the job to feed the suppressed Western imagination and his disgraceful Freudian desires. All of a sudden, the Orient became a fantastic heaven, where anything was allowed, which of course gave the Oriental commodity its fethisistic character. A distant, mythical land, which the West both despised and could not keep his hands off at the same time. 

This centuries-old Western narrative dehumanizing the Oriental subject and culture can inevitably evoke a form of self-alienation for what we imagine as the “Orient” today when the Western hand attempts to deconstruct the Orient from the Orient. At this point, the myths of both cultures come to our help. The culture defines the texts it produces: the text is culturally reality, not just a cultural product. Peter Struck, a University of Pennsylvania classicist, argues,“When we dig down into the deep, hidden meanings of myth, what we’re really going to reveal is what it is to be a member of some specific culture. So if you really want to understand, what it is to be Irish or to be Native American, or to be from a Norse-based culture, or a South Asian culture, or East Asian culture, what you need to do is dig deep down into the local myths of those peoples to get a window on what it is to be a member of that culture.” Thus, by deconstructing the Western and Eastern myths, I propose that we can more clearly glimpse both cultures and understand what these myths imply about their civilizations.

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The Mythical Past

To begin with, we should first acknowledge that our way of looking at the Occident-Orient clash is again the legacy inherited by the Western intellectual tradition. Somay calls this the western ratio: “Western philosophy and social sciences cannot seem to do without them: materialism/idealism, mind/body or soul/body, qualitative/quantitative, nature/nurture, essence/appearance, temporal/spatial, content/form, tone but a few.” He suggests that these dualisms were constructed by the West, particularly during the 18th century, and attempt to encompass, more or less, the entirety of human existence. Fixed in a series of “mutual exclusives,” this way of reasoning requires picking one or taking sides against the other. These either/or epistemologies can be seen in the works of many previous Western philosophers. Even post-Enlightenment philosophers who exposed fault lines in their Western predecessors continued to think in terms of the dialectic: from Hegel’s master-slave relation, to du Bois’ double consciousness, to Nietzsche’s discussion of good and evil. 

Regardless, one can’t help but acknowledge that perhaps some structures are simply too grounded to deconstruct, which is the case for both the Western and the Eastern imagination in regarding themselves and the ‘other.’ Thus, returning to our mythical deconstruction, what we see in the West is a constant motif of the brothers’ revolt and a following Brothers’ Compact after destroying the authoritative and absolute Father figure. The Greco-Roman cosmogonies are full of examples to this: Cronus killing Uranus and establishing a cosmic order with his brothers, Zeus-Poseidon-Hades killing Cronus and dividing the earth between the three, Zeus’s insecurity to maintain his authority and failure to prevent the birth of Athena (a father that lacks omnipotence). We see the reminiscences of these myths remain in the ‘actual’ historical narrative of these civilizations: classical Athenian democracy, early 13th century Magna Carta, modern-day European Union (ideally, the collaboration of equal, neighbouring powers). 

In the East, we see that the motif of patricide does not exist. In the Book of Genesis, which is a Mesopotamian-Asiatic/Middle Eastern originated myth, the story of Cain and Abel portrays an Oriental Father figure. The Old Testament God is unforgiving and authoritarian: he is not bound by his own law. The unloved, unfavored son Cain kills Abel, which is an act that is provoked by the Father himself. Yahweh first favors Abel’s sacrifice and heartily appreciates his gift while disregarding the other’s. Thus God/Father’s compassion and law are what propels Cain to fratricide, while maintaining both the name and the figure of the Father. The authoritarian, unmerciful Father remains alive. Returning to the ‘real historical narratives’ once again, perhaps one of the most striking legal examples is that of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, an Ottoman emperor. In Conqueror’s Codex, he famously wrote: “And to whomever befalls the right to rule from my progeny, it is deemed proper for him to kill his siblings for the sake of ordo sæcularum. The majority of the ûlema (wise men, legal scholars) has sanctioned this. So it shall be done.” Likewise, in the Iranian court, the absolute Shah had a similar castration function, as he, like the Ottoman sultan, incarcerated the princes for the purposes of his own throne’s safety. What we see, then, is that the paternal figure, rather than being destroyed by patricide, rather encourages fratricide in order to remain his name and omnipresence. The law-giving Father’s authority remains in the East and continues to bear the absolute power in both his symbolic name and legal body. The modern examples may vary from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s populist authoritarian ruler, to Ayetullah Humeyni, the founder of Islamic Republic of Iran after overthrowing Iran’s last monarchic leader, to Muammar Gaddafi, the founder of Libyan Arab Republic by removing the monarchical government through a coup d’etat called “White Revolution,” named after its bloodless nature. Despite being technically elected after a democratic voting process or initially appointed to office through the will of the people, these leaders metamorphosed into archetypical Oriental father figures in the blink of an eye. 

According to Machievelli, this difference can be explained by how the Occidental and Oriental states were politically founded in the first place: “The principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either (1) by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or (2) by a prince and barons, who hold that rank by inheritance and not by appointment by the prince.”

However, as previously argued, one needs to reach even further. Thus, returning to the mythical deconstruction, we could conduct a relatively more symmetrical analysis by comparing the myths of Oidipus (Greek) and that of Rustem and Suhrab (Persian). Even though the story of Oedipus was first brought into written literature by Sophocles under the name of “Oedipus Rex” play trilogy, it is somehow more familiarized thanks to Freud’s early 20th century Oedipus complex hypothesis. On the other hand, the 10th century Persian epic of Rustem and Suhrab, in which the father and son also cannot recognize and fight against each other on a battlefield, mostly remains forgotten. Strikingly similar family tragedies, yet with a dramatic difference: in the former, the son kills his father, in the latter, the father kills his son. Both of the protagonists are wooed by their unfortunate fates to commit such a regretful act, a tristful game their fate plays with them. It seems that even the cosmic and unpredictable Fate works, or rather is constructed to work, differently in both civilizations. Perhaps the answer to this mystery lies in the question of Ayşe, the wife of  “The Red-Haired Woman”s protagonist, and the conclusion the two reach afterwards:

“So Sohrab was just foolish, but was Oedipus any smarter?’ said Ayşe. The lure of Wittfogel may have quickly faded, but this book suggested by my father did point to a connection between the nature of a civilization and its approach to notions of patricide and filicide” (Pamuk, 154).

Whether constructed by the Western narrative or organically built differently, the distinct natures of the Occidental and the Oriental civilizations require case-specific analyses in order to address their unexpressed needs and bring them into our current political discourse. Otherwise, the Jacobean attitude of the West to ‘civilize’ the East is prone to make both parties remain as victims—leaving the former unsatisfied and the latter mentally (and, in most cases, also physically) abused. Moreover, it further strengthens the Western stereotypes of the East each time a democracy attempt fails. As a father who is disappointed that his son is not following his advice, so thinks the West: “foolish, illiterate East! It has managed to create an authoritative sultan-like leader again: even after a democratic election!” Unfortunately, the clash becomes more dramatic and the Orient is even more alienated. Without deconstructing the mythical past and historical narratives, we are prone to comprehend why the events occur in the way they do in our current political dynamics, and any attempt to employ an unfamiliar method in a region is prone to remain pretentious and temporal.

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So…What?

As I’m writing these words back at home in Istanbul, Jim Morrison preaches, “Some call it heavenly in its brilliance/ Others, mean and rueful of the Western dream” into my earphones. I’m an Istanbulite, a Yale University student who has graduated from an American high school in Turkey: one could easily label me as an already Westernized runaway of the Middle East, a hypocrite trying to adopt the role of a non-partisan observer. But hear me out: perhaps the answer lies exactly in remaining as a hypocrite somewhere in between and listening to blurry, unconfined psychedelic music—across Time, Space and all kinds of boundaries— while contemplating the Occident-Orient clash!  

When I first arrived at Yale in the fall of 2020, the campus was also shaking with an excitement other than that of the freshmen: it was the presidential election period. From the “Count every vote!” rallies in the New Haven green to dozens of Yalies launching campaigns to get people to vote, America was more than ready to select its new president. I couldn’t help but reflect back on my feelings back in high school, as a fresh 18-year-old ready to go to the polls for the first time. I remember feeling how futile was the attempt, of thinking how the Oriental father will never die anyways, how similar participating in elections in Turkey was to digging a hole with a needle or, trying to argue with purple, trembling lips that coldness only exists in mind after jumping into snow with bikinis. I remember how Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-born French author, defined the Middle Eastern people echoing in my mind as I gently left the envelope carrying my vote to the box: “people who get upset about everything but don’t care about anything.”

Two years later, my temporary conclusion is to believe in the saturation of the organic process, since I recently began to discover that the answer always lies in the margins. History’s aim, on the other hand, should be to construct a narrative that brings the margins to the center, but of course in the margins’ preferred way of self-expression. While Foucauldian heterotopias are still useful for a healthy self-reflection to see what lies beneath our rational and somehow ‘civilized’ face that we choose to present to the others, perhaps they should also represent the ignored and unimagined rather than mythicize the suppressed desires and project them to real subjects just ‘out there.’ Being aware of the urge to invent the enemy in order to get rid of the inner enemy may lead us to become more self-aware, only through which we can realize the role of the ‘other’ in our imagination and what it tells about us in return. It, for sure, is a long process. However, as the famous Latin adage says: festina lente, or, make haste slowly.