My Name is Red Paratext

In class we discussed how Orhan Pamuk emphasizes the importance of vision and seeing not only to experience illustration, but also to question the world around us.  I though it would be interesting to incorporate what we’ve learned about paratext from previous classes into how one sees and reacts to the cover art of this literary work. Below are a few covers:

The first one is most similar to the one I own. My initial reaction was that this is an eastern novel, but other than that it was difficult for me to predict what the plot could be. Now I realize that this was intentional because it’s a mystery that leaves room for a lot of interpretation.

The second cover also informs me that the novel embodies something of eastern culture, but shows this with more religious undertones than the first one. I think by incorporating the intricate arabesque as a major focal point, connotations of religion, specifically Islam, naturally drift into the viewer’s head. Also, it seems as if this cover is more wordy than the other three, but I think that may be due to the structural arrangement. By centering the words, it is evident that western ways of composition have influenced eastern publications.

The third cover is similar to the first cover in that by only showing half of the woman’s face and providing a collage of various natural elements, the plot and its’ meaning remain enigmatic. In my opinion, out of the four covers shown, this one is the least westernized.

For the final cover, my initial reaction was that it combined modern and aged elements. The font and structure makes it seem like an advertisement I’d see today in the west, but the aged style and color of the image makes me believe the novel eastern. Again, the battle between eastern and western ideas.

I think all of these covers show the main theme of the book that deals with conflict between western and eastern illumination.  What cover do you think is the best at representing the visual and textual messages of the novel? What were your initial reactions to viewing these covers?

I Am a Dog

The Persian manuscript of the dog (possibly tiger, but let’s go with dog) made revisit chapter 3 in My Name is Red, “I Am a Dog.” I found two quotes in this chapter to be particularly interesting, the first: “By pointing out this affection shown to the cat, which has incidentally been denied to us dogs, and due to our eternal feud with this feline beast, which even the stupidest of men recognizes as an ingrate, people have tried to intimate that the Prophet himself disliked dogs” (12). This quote follows the description of Muhammad cutting his robe as to not disturb a sleeping cat. I think this quote undermines Islam, and religion in general, by pointing out how far fetch such interpretations can stem from. The dog speaking in this chapter thinks it is unfair that humans have such animosity towards dogs because of their relationship to the cat. The dog, however, cannot seem to stick to one side of the argument.

In attempt to defend all canines, the dog cites a chapter of the Koran where seven men sleep for three hundred and nine years and awake attached to Allah. The dog notes that the eighteenth verse mentions a dog resting outside the cave and concludes, “as a dog, I take pride in this chapter, and through it I intend to bring the Erzurumis, who refer to their enemies as dirty mongrels, to their senses” (13). After implying that interpretations of prophet Muhammad’s actions were dubious, the dog then references the Koran for an explanation not all that different from the logic he is trying to refute.

The dog seems to be using the same flawed evidence that he is denouncing. Could this represent the struggle between the East and West? Is the dog being facetious when he references the Koran for evidence of dog’s loyalty and protection?

Original vs. Counterfeit – Is one really more valuable than the other?

In the 1966 film How to Steal  A Million, Nicole’s father makes his living selling replications of famous works of art. While I understand the criminality in the practice of claiming art to be created by another, more famous, artist, I never could quite grasp why a counterfeit piece of art was never as valued as its original. Nicole’s father is clearly talented, maybe even more so than the artists he copies because he has the skill to replicate, and to replicate so well he can deceive art experts. Why are these counterfeit artists not celebrated?

This question arose again the other day while looking at Trés Riches. Before the completion of the calendar, the two artists died. Thus, in order to finish the book, another artist was commissioned to create the months of November and December. Maybe it’s because I don’t have that well trained of an eye in regards to illuminations (yet), I would not have been able to tell the difference between November/December and the other ten months of the calendar. It was only when Professor Serrano commented that it was a “shame” to not have the entire calendar completed by the original artists.

Again, I ask why? Why are these two months not as respected as the others? Are they not as well crafted? Or is it simply because they are not the works of the Limbourg brothers?

With this question in mind, it was interesting reading the chapter “I Am a Gold Coin” from Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. If a replicated painting were animated, I’m sure it would feel just as the gold coin feels – neglected and fearful of being discovered as a fake. The gold coin explains:

“A broker, not recognizing that I’m counterfeit, who has counted out 120 silver coins in exchange for me, will berate himself in fits of anger, sorrow and impatience as soon as he learns he’s been cheated, and these fits won’t subside until he rids himself of me by cheating another” – pg. 104

Despite the fact that the coin is a fake, it has successfully travelled and been exchanged as a valid coin for seven years. However, even though the coin has been used for the same function as a real coin, as soon as it is discovered as a fake, all its value is lost.

I guess my main question is – how do we decide what is valued and what is not, especially when the two objects (whether they be two paintings or two coins) are identical therefore created with the same labor and effort?

Blindness and The Book of Kings

In My Name Is Red Master Osman blinds himself with a needle found in  Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings.  The Book of Kings was written by the Persian poet Firdawsi.  It is the national epic of the Persian-speaking world.  When Osman realizes that he cannot prevent the spread of the new, western method of painting, Osman sticks the needle in his eye, causing eventual blindness.   One of the major themes of The Book of Kings is apostasy.  The kingdom and the Temple is destroyed because the kings do not worship just Yahweh (god of Israel).   In My Name Is Red, the manuscript artists are taught that depicting Allah or individuals is against Islam.  Similar to The Book of Kings, the value of the masses, and the community, over the individual runs through My Name Is Red.   My symbolically giving Osman the needle, the Book of Kings is telling him and the reader that the book’s message should be practiced.

Unreliable Narrators in My Name is Red

Hearing from so many voices/perspectives in My Name is Red allows us to be skeptical of each character’s reliability in their stories. There are many instances where characters show moments of unreliability in their account of the truth. I think this is a critical part of Pamuk’s novel because it is up to the reader to be analytical in their evaluation of the story, especially the murder mystery plot line.

One example of this is on page 114 where Enishte accounts: “”In that case, he won’t be able to marry me,” said my clever daughter smiling. Where did I come up with the detail about her smiling? During the entire conversation, I noticed nothing accept the occasional glimmer in her eyes.” I think it is interesting how small of a detail this is to miss. It is so minor that it seems unimportant, but it also makes us skeptical of Enishte’s perspective of reality.

In a less subtle way, Sheukre openly tells us on page 43 that, “If I happen to tell a lie or two from time to time, It’s so you don’t  come to any false conclusions about me.”

I think there is an interesting paradox here: characters are willing to tell us when they are being dishonest or when they get the facts wrong, which is truthful, but they are being truthful about their unreliability.

Giving Voice to Art

An especially interesting part of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red is the format of the novel. It is split up into lots of short chapters with alternating narrators and these narrators are sometimes pretty unconventional. In addition to having the corpse of Elegant act as a narrator, the pictures hung up in the coffee shop act as the voice of several chapters. Instead of using ekphrasis to describe the drawings, Pamuk has the coffee shop storyteller act as a voice for the art. He is speaking as art rather than about it. This seems to elevate the drawings from being just a backdrop for his stories, showing that they have the power to tell stories on their own.

In the chapter I am a Tree, the storyteller seems to almost be making fun of the fear that all representational art is idolatrous. The tree says, “Since I’m not representing something in a book, what comes to mind is that my picture will be nailed to a wall and the likes of pagans and infidels will prostrate themselves before me in worship” (47). This is made to seem ridiculous coming from the image of a hastily drawn tree on a rough sheet of paper. In addition, even though the tree is not part of a book, the fact that the storyteller is speaking for it shows that it can still be part of a story. Art can act as its own story, whether being used to illustrate written words or not. By giving the pictures a voice, Pamuk almost brings them to life, showing that they have a purpose and a story to tell. They are meant to reveal meaning, and anyone who uses them as an idol to worship does not understand their purpose.

Great Art as a Threat to God’s Power

In Chapter 28 of My Name Is Red, which is narrated by the murderer, the speaker discusses the tenuous boundaries between artistry and blasphemy. Speaking to Enishte Effendi, he proclaims, “The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He” (160). Artists might express a creativity superior to God not only through a public declaration of this fact. This is why eastern art discourages the development of individual style-for fear that an artist’s singular creative brand will overshadow’s God’s creation(s). Thus recognition, too, in Eastern culture, becomes a nonissue. For to proudly claim one’s work is to boast of one’s craftsmanship-to set oneself on the same plane as God Himself.

The precariousness of this boundary is familiar in other realms beyond art. For example, in Puritan New England, those who wished to become members of the congregation were required to give testimonies of faith. Still, in these testimonies, testifiers and church members alike were hyper-aware of crossing the line towards forbidden knowledge. There was a great fear of disrespecting God and pushing into realms where humans did not belong by, almost accidentally, accessing this higher knowledge.

In both eastern and western cultures centuries ago, religion permeated every realm of society, and became, in some respects, a restrictive force. The illuminators in My Name is Red are bound by a requirement to respect God, to curb artistic liberty in order to maintain this dedication to one’s faith. It was not only reverence, and perhaps more so fear that kept artists in line. To surpass God in any endeavor, particularly creative, was inconceivable. Punishment for such a transgression was too, horrifying yet unthinkable. In this climate of apprehension, most artists wouldn’t dare cross the threshold to create anything that even potentially compared to God’s work. Fear of this transgression is at the root of Elegant Effendi’s objection to the project of the secret book. Yet in refusal of this belief that their work could be blasphemous, the speaker murders him.

The murderer and Enishte Effendi seem to concur that artistic liberty  and success can be divorced from irreverence. Pamuk alludes to the fact that this is an idea which came to the West much sooner than the East. Could masterful artistic works, rather than casting doubt upon God’s authority and creativity, in fact underscore his Glory and his exalted position in the human world? Effendi pushes for the completion of the book seemingly ripe with this belief.


Identity and Art

A prominent theme throughout “My Name is Red” is representation vs. mimesis in the creation of art. When visiting one of the apprentices who he worked with named “Butterfly”, Black listens to his three parables that expand on this conflict. The third story combines those of the first and second to conclude, “that ‘signature’ and ‘style’ are but means of being brazenly and stupidly self-congratulatory about flawed work” (66). By this logic, to sign one’s work after imitating another’s style through one’s own interpretation is to reveal a flaw.  This concept around one’s signature even used when the murderer worries that he has left traces of his own style on the dead body.

If we compare this sinful association with style to a Western philosophy of art, especially in periods of the Renaissance and Baroque, we find a direct conflict. It is a common practice within the study of art history to train your eye to recognize distinguishable qualities in paintings that allow you to identify their artists.  For example, in the painting below by Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, one can identify his style in his use of chiaroscuro, the balance between light and dark that provides the illusion of volume, and tenebroso, shadowy and murky light.  As one looks at Caravaggio’s paintings over time, one can begin to recognize the typical attributions of his figures.

The ability to create something distinguishable and to recognize styles of others are two qualities that are esteemed in the Western art world.  As illustrated in the novel, this difference partly stems from religion. I wonder what Western art during these periods would look like if concepts of representation for God and Jesus were the same as those for Allah?

Style and Signature in Religious Paintings

Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red observes the relationship between the East and the West and notably, the effects of Western influences on art. Returning to Istanbul after 12 years, Black notices the many things that have changed since his departure, recognizing they originate from the growing influence of Western civilization on the East. One of the central themes of the novel revolves around the clash between Eastern and Western methods of painting, which merely express different ways of seeing the world. Islamic painters attempted to depict the world from Allah’s point of view, whereas the Europeans from a human perspective. I really enjoyed looking at the different eastern book covers in class on Monday and seeing which ones seemed to accurately represent what art should epitomize in eastern countries: no discernible faces and no sense of hierarchy. The various narrators often bring up the idea of “signature” and “style” – in the East, all painters were to imitate the work of their older masters, there was no room for personal/identifiable style or technique. However, in the west, painters ubiquitously would take credit for their work by signing their art pieces or making them recognizable with a personal style. Being a westerner, I never really gave much thought to the idea of showing belonging with a signature on religious artwork. I don’t believe this is as controversial nowadays; however, it makes me wonder if any art work that has a religious purpose should be taken credit for, as opposed to merely dedicated to the Divine. I believe that in the end, the debate between East and West regarding art is somewhat futile and only reflects different ideas of devotion to religion, which the East and West may simply not share.

The Tres Riches Heures in Conversation

I really appreciated seeing the calendar months from Tres Riches Heures projected side by side in succession. Seeing the months next to each other as they would have been invites comparison and a conversation between the two. I realized that it was almost always an alternating presentation of the nobility/aristocrats and then the peasants save for a few exceptions. This thus allowed us to see both groups in wealth, prosperity, and happiness and there were always subtle unifying elements in the works that encouraged such a likeness to be brought to mind. For example, in the months of May and June:

The angle of the castle sloping in the background of June (on the right)  mimics the procession of nobles heading to their summer palace to go hunting. The two complement each other as our eyes naturally follow both scenes from the right to the left where it disappears beyond the frame suggestive of the expansive lands belonging to Duc de Berry. To match the predominantly green scene of June, some of the nobles depicted in May have also been clothed in green. Similarly, the peasants in the foreground of June have been clothed the dark beautiful blue to match the rich robes of the nobility. The religious motif is present in both with the crossing of the trumpets in the month of May and the church depicted in June.

Just as interacting with the physical books last Wednesday added the additional dimension of sensory understanding, seeing the two calendar months next to each other enriched the meaning of  each. The similarities that could be drawn between the two emphasized the highly romanticized depiction of the peasants that follows our discussion of the calendar meant to pamper the Duke’s vanity.