On collective melancholy

The Galata Bridge at midday, 1954. Credit Ara Guler/Magnum Photos
The Galata Bridge at midday, 1954. Credit Ara Guler/Magnum Photos

From his memoir of Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk wrote:

“All happy cities resemble one another, to paraphrase what Tolstoy famously observed of families, but each melancholy city is melancholy in its own way. The saudade of Lisbon, the tristeza of Burgos, the mufa of Buenos Aires, the mestizia of Turin, the Traurigkeit of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston share only on the surface a common sense of melancholy.

The melancholy of Istanbul is hüzün, a Turkish word whose Arabic root denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” Hüzün is not a singular preoccupation, but a communal emotion. Not the melancholy of an individual, but shared by millions.”

In 2013, after graduating from MA from a university in London, instead of heading back home to Malaysia I decided to rent a flat in the Beyoğlu district in Istanbul. To this day I still struggle with the question, “but why were you there?”, to which my answer would be, “because I wanted to.” People do not always take kindly to answers without practical purposes — is it for work? School? — or in ways that would appease their deep-seated suspicions — boyfriend? A romantic partner, somehow?

No, I just wanted to.

I understand in a way, my answer reeks of privilege. Not many people can just pack up and decide to stay for a month in a city with surroundings completely new to them, and whose language they don’t entirely master. But I know as an Asian daughter soon to be bound to a filial responsibility, my freedom has an expiry date. I needed to take my chances as soon as I could, so I did. After all, it was just for a month.

Geoff Manaugh wrote in his BLDGBLOG book on acoustic tourism:

“How often do people make travel plans based on the way their chosen destination sounds? You’ll go somewhere because of what it sounds like when you look out your hotel window, go for walks at night, or eat lunch? What is the acoustic side of space — and how can we best explore it?”

When I think of Istanbul, I can almost hear its many sonic qualities. Istanbul emits the sound of sizzling chestnuts, squawking seagulls fighting over leftover simit, the splashing waves as the vapur passes by — and distant, although visibly audibly variety of languages through the street of Istiklal, spoken by over its 14 million population of the magnificent city.

Obviously, I am very bad at describing them all. But I would imagine if I were to return, I would be able — and definitely be more diligent — to document more of the city’s unique acoustics. All the voices of the city — in all its maze-like streets, crumbling buildings, ubiquitous minarets, majestic churches, and clandestine synagogues — that make up this city’s collective melancholy.

So tell me, how does your city sound like?

(P/s: If you want to read more about the state of hüzün, here’s an excellent essay examining the condition in 3 contexts: as a historical condition of modernity, in aesthetic production, and as a cultural condition.)

Comments 2

  1. Martina Korkmaz January 23, 2019

    I’ve just started writing about the concept of hüzün this morning and I hope to post about in a few days. Funny that I should come across your post by coincidence. I hope you enjoyed your stay in Istanbul. I look forward to reading the essay you mentioned. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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