Orhan Pamuk: Search for the ‘Secret Center’


Writing, Reading as Optimistic, Democratic Acts of Faith

Orhan Pamuk autographs books for fans after the first of his six Charles  Eliot Norton lectures at Sanders Theater, Harvard University.
Orhan Pamuk autographs books for fans after the first of his six Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Sanders Theater, Harvard University.

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On Tuesday, September 22, if Armenian members of the audience at Sanders Theater expected Turkish author Orhan Pamuk to mention the Armenian Genocide in his first Charles Eliot Norton lecture, they were disappointed. What they did hear was a subtle and stunning exposition of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s thoughts on writing and reading the novel.

There was a bow to Pamuk’s political sympathies in the introduction by Homi Bhaba, director of the Humanities Center at Harvard, when he characterized Pamuk as a “a defender of pluralism and opposed to dogmatism.” He also described Pamuk as “attentive to the wounds of others.”

But the Norton lectures, Harvard University’s most prestigious humanities series, are not intended to deal with the mundane. Founded in 1925, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry is dedicated to “the term Poetry [which] shall be interpreted in the broadest sense, including together with Verse, all poetic expression in Language, Music, or the Fine Arts.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Bhaba noted that the lectures are an opportunity to turn away from “gloomy financial realities” to embrace the message of the arts and the humanities and described Pamuk as an inspirational writer with a profoundly personal vision.

Pamuk joins a long list of prominent figures who have held the professorship since its inception including T.S. Eliot, Leonard Bernstein, Nadine Gordimer, Thornton Wilder and Robert Frost.

Pamuk, who appeared on stage in a sober grey suit, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, at first seemed reserved, but he soon demonstrated with the vigor of his prose and the exposition of his ideas that he could hold the capacity crowd rapt as he launched into his theme, “What Happens to Us as We Read Novels.”

He first paid tribute to his many connections to Harvard, noting that two of his translators, his favorite American critic, the recently-deceased novelist John Updike, his editor and literary agent, are all connected to Harvard. He then commenced hisalk, which lasted about an hour and a half. Pamuk’s core concept is that the writer and the reader are involved in a joint enterprise that he calls “the search for the secret center.”

Throughout his talk, Pamuk stressed the duality, the partnership and the dialectic between the writer and the reader as they pursue their shared search. “We read novels,” he said, to apprehend “second lives that are more real than our own real lives … .We wish the novel would continue … . There is the paradox that we know what is in the novel is not so but we pursue its message as though it were,” thus exercising the unique human “simultaneous ability to sustain contradictory states of mind.”

Pamuk talked of his own experience of reading novels as a young boy, curled up in an armchair in his family’s Istanbul apartment.

He said, “Reading novels in my youth, a peaceful landscape would appear. I was drawn in, sitting in the house in Istanbul. I would feel that the orange armchair, the ferries whistling in the distance would recede from my mind and a new world revealed itself in front of me.”

He added, “The real pleasure of reading a novel…is to see it through the eyes of the people living in their world…..Reading a novel is to follow the thoughts and actions of characters in the landscape. We the readers are now in the landscape.”

With references to his favorite authors, Leo Tolstoy (he considers Anna Karenina the world’s greatest novel), Thomas Mann, Stendhal and especially to the German poet and playwright, Friedrich Schiller (“On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”). Pamuk drew distinctions between the naive writer who simply recounts, as in an epic, and the sophisticated or “sentimental” writer who is self-conscious and aware of his method and style.
Pamuk compared the novelist to the driver of a car who moves the gears, the gas pedal and the brakes, but who does not always know where he is going.

Pamuk used three words, “optimism” “democratic” and “faith,” which seem to define the bedrock of his aesthetic as a writer. The writer is optimistic because he is creating and exploring. The reader is performing a democratic act because he believes in his own intellect as he attempts to discern the meaning of the novel. And both proceed with faith that they will find “the secret center.”

Through reading novels, said Pamuk in conclusion, “We search for the meaning of life seriously and with faith.”

Both the novelist and the reader search “for a secret meaning, which may or may not exist.” In the question-and-answer period, one audience member asked him if he had had a mentor who guided his reading as a young boy and man and Pamuk said no, that he was an “autodidact,” i.e. self-taught. Yet, aficionados who have read his Istanbul, a memoir of his family and childhood, might hazard that his father, who also was a voracious reader, who also aspired to live beyond the confines of a repressive Turkey and who wanted to be a writer, did, in some way, serve as a model for the boy who grew up to create the fictional worlds that he and his readers explore.

In his last lecture, “The Center,” Pamuk hints he will reveal the full meaning of his notion of “the secret center,” a revelation worth waiting for. In the meantime, the schedule of upcoming lectures and topics are as follows: Tuesday, October 13, “Character, Time, Plot; ” Tuesday, October 20, “Pictures and Things;” Monday, October 26, “Museums and Novels” and Tuesday, November 3, “The Center.”

All lectures are held at Sanders Theater, Harvard University, at 4 p.m. and are free and open to the public.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: