Why do some people mistrust creativity, while others feel it leads them to deeper faith? Is creativity inseparable from identity?
To God belongs the East and the West. –- The Koran
Four master illustrators have been selected to complete a secret book for the Ottoman Sultan, a book which strays from the traditional elements of Islamic art to include illustrations influenced by the “Frankish” or western style. Elegant the gilder is now dead, his body rotting in the bottom of a well. The murderer is one of the other three, but which one? Will he murder again?
Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red takes place in the Istanbul of 1591. To me, unfamiliar with Istanbul and Islamic culture, it feels timeless. The genius of the book is that, by weaving together disparate elements: murder, political intrigue, love, family, art and religion, Pamuk emphasizes that East and West are different reflections of the same humanity. The drive to be an individual is a universal challenge, although the response to it is, by nature, extremely varied.
Each chapter of the novel is titled with the identity of the individual who narrates it and immerses us in their prejudices and beliefs. We begin with I am a Corpse, which presents us with the soul of Elegant Effendi, severed from his battered and bloody body and calling for justice. The chapters entitled I Will be Called a Murderer are narrated by the killer, who manages to give us a trickle of information about himself, but not enough to establish his identity until near the end of the book. The three illustrators each have chapters, but again, little is revealed by the killer, who, by the end, has grown attached to speaking in two different voices, to being a divided soul. There are other important characters who speak to us, including Enishte, the well traveled old man who is preparing the Sultan’s book, his beautiful widowed daughter, Shekure, and her suitor, Black. Perhaps the quirkiest are the chapters narrated by the illustrations themselves, voiced by a master storyteller at a dark cafe. They provide wealth of insight into Islamic culture, especially the conflict between art and religion, and hint at the danger looming in the form of a radical sect inspired by a fiery local preacher.
Islamic illustrators of the time painted in a particular style which resulted from an uneasy blending of ancient Persian and Islamic traditions. Subjects were depicted from above, from what they termed “God’s view” and were not placed in the exact center of the page because that would give them an importance that is reserved for God. Images were rendered in traditional fashion as codified by artists of the past. For example, horses were painted with as few strokes as possible, beginning from the front hoof, often with two legs extended forward and two legs reaching back, and all beautiful women were portrayed with a Chinese face. The use of perspective was unacceptable.
These pictures were not painted realistically by looking at nature, but from memory, in order to honor their image in the mind of God. Many famous artists of the time either became blind or blinded themselves, which enhanced the legend of their mastery. Individual style was considered weakness and signing your work was crass, even heretical. But times were changing. The works of western artists reached Istanbul, breaking all of the rules without a thought, since western art was completely unaware of these rules. Those with enough culture and means to look upon this foreign art recognized great beauty and power. Many interpreted this power as devilish and evil, others found in it a different, but valuable appreciation of God and Creation. Some, such as those of the radical sect depicted in My Name is Red, were and remain against any depiction of the human form, deeming it a challenge to the creativity of God. This exacerbated the conflict and threatened to wipe out the profession of illustration completely.
It seems anathema that anyone should become violent over artistic expression and seek to suppress it, but people do censor art and do become incensed over it. Perhaps we contribute to this situation ourselves when we belittle one art form in favor of another, or reject an artist’s work because they hold beliefs contrary to our own. Art has a way of exposing us: our fears, our pettiness, our flaws, and also our beauty.
Is there enough room on this earth for each one of us to be creative in a way which is true to ourselves and our beliefs without ridiculing and destroying the creativity or beliefs of others?