Bookshed: The Innocence of Objects

Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, published in 2008, is the story of the star-crossed love affair (is there any other kind in literature?) of Kemal and Füsun. The story, which takes place over thirty years, ends not with a fairytale – but with a Museum in which Kemal curates all the artifacts of his love, right down to the quince grater used by his object’s mother, and the butts from cigarettes that Füsun herself smoked.

This is not so much a novel about love as it is about obsession. It is a novel of fetish in the form of inhabited, personfied and collectible objects. And it is a novel of Istanbul’s modern history as lived by the characters, and as symbolized by the objects that pass through their hands, are lost, and then collected by Kemal in a desperate attempt to hold on to a certain time and feeling, as impossible as that proves to be. Before picking up this most recent work of Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects – the catalogue to the real world Museum of Innocence which opened in April, 2012 – I would highly encourage you to read the novel first. Half the delight in this catalogue comes from recognizing and remembering the artifacts as described by Pamuk, and the materialization of the objects only serves to underscore his powerful ability to evoke – time, place, and artifact.

The minute I saw the photograph of the Museum itself I thought “Ah! There is Füsun’s apartment building”, and throughout the catalogue I am reminded of conversations and scenes I encountered three years ago, brought back through the arrangements in boxes – one per chapter of the book – beautifully lit and photographed for publication. Passages from the novel are sometimes quoted alongside, or explanatory notes – but the images speak the novel so plainly, I’m not sure how necessary that is (if one has read the novel).

In the fifty pages of introduction, Pamuk describes how the idea of the Museum and the novel came about, his process of collecting the artifacts from antique dealers in Istanbul (and particularly in Füsun’s neighbourhood), and his decision to purchase the building in 1999. He talks about how his prosecution for speaking out about Armenian genocide and the mass killing of Kurds, as well as certain artistic decisions, delayed the opening of the museum – contextualizing the personal, political and artistic barriers that might challenge a project such as this one.

But despite these hurdles, the physical Museum of Innocence is now open to the public and Pamuk asks “Why has no one else ever thought of something like this, of bringing together a novel and a museum in a single story?” An apt question given the fact that as far back Rousseau’s Julie we have evidence of tourism based on visits to locations in fictions. (Julie was so incredibly popular that it spawned pilgrimage-like tours to the region of Switzerland in which it is set). In part, he answers his own question in his “Modest Manifesto For Museums” where he states

“Large national museums….. took shape and turned into essential tourist destinations alongside the opening of royal and imperial palaces to the public. These institutions, now national symbols, present the story of the nation — history, in a word — as being far more important than the stories of individuals. This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.”

It seems to me that a museum based on a novel faces two hurdles to being taken seriously 1) As Pamuk says, museums are conceptualized for the display of “history” rather than “story” and thus funded by states and institutions who have this conception of artifcat, and 2) The novel, because it is “story” and “made-up” is not seen as an adequate representation of “history”. Never mind the fact that the novel (and to some degree personal essay and poem) is the only vehicle through which we can understand the interior (metaphysical) state of previous generations, which is no less important than the exterior factors which shape their (physical) lives. But in mass culture we must struggle with this – whether that is controlled state or media consumerism – that our stories matter. And that our stories are the artifacts which fix time and place in a way that physical objects can’t.

Pamuk’s marriage of story with object provides us with a meditation on time, art, artifact, and humanity. But interestingly enough, for a story about lovers, it is very little to do with love of a person so much as love of (and nostalgia for) a particular time and place. I think Pamuk is simply genius, and this museum catalogue is a must-have for those of us who love fetish-boxes, meditations on history, and the melancholy of human drama — not to mention some well articulated ideas on the purpose and future of museums in our culture.

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