Serious Conversations, 10

From Part 2, Chapter VI of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute, this description of a coffeehouse in the Sehzadebasi district of Istanbul:

What wasn’t discussed in the coffeehouse? History, the philosophy of Bergson, Aristotelian logic, Greek poetry, psychoanalysis, spiritualism, everyday gossip, lewd adventures, tales of terror and intrigue, the political events of the day—all gathered up into one swollen conversation that burst like a spring deluge, carrying away everything in its path, as surprising as it was senseless, one topic seething forward before the other was finished. But, then, of course, nothing was ever discussed in detail. In the coffeehouse a story would rise up as if from a long slumber, or like a faint memory of the ancient echo of a death. As conversation turned deliriously from one subject to the next, Alexander the Great would join forces with Hannibal or the Kantian imperative, all to serve as antidotes to daily life. With even the most benign adventure, the pleasure was in the retelling. The patrons had listened to one another for so long that they could guess more or less what would happen in any story. Conversation was merely a platform for the speaker to display his eloquence; it was more like a play, or the recitation of a dearly loved work, for the exchanges were executed according to predetermined conditions—not at all unlike the traditional Turkish mime theater, ortaoyunu. The story would be interrupted by the same interjections, and laughter would follow; if certain members of the crowd were directly involved in the tale, they would make their defining pronouncements at just the right moment. If the narrator introduced new details, he would be cut off at once with, “You made that up!” But it was these new twists that people came to enjoy most in later recitations. And no one ever found the endless—and mandatory—repetitions tedious. In fact it was only the out of the ordinary that met with some resistance. New ideas were at first humored out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation. A new story was accepted into the repertory only once it had been reduced to a base sexual escapade, a tale of pederasty, a piece of slapstick shadow-puppet humor, or the replica of an ortaoyunu. There was a specific name given to those who discussed serious matters: they were known as the “world regulators,” the aristocrats who busied themselves with the regulation of the world.

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