Criticism of “My Name is Red”

Orhan Pamuk’s Multi-thematic Work

My Name is Red

By Source, Fair use

Orhan Pamuk paints a realistic image of the Ottoman Empire in 1591, in his novel “My name is Red.” Pamuk does a convincing job taking his readers back to a time of oil lamps, horses and sultans. The novel is a tale of political tension, artistic rivalry, religious persecution, and deception; that is all wrapped inside of a murder mystery. These elements of fiction are camouflage for the exploration of tensions between eastern and western philosophy.

The Sultan has ordered the formation of a secret collaboration of miniaturists for the purpose of creating a book. The book is to be styled in the manner of the Venetians or Europeans, but by Turkish artists. But before the completion of the book Elegant Effendi and Enishte, two of the artists commissioned, are murdered.

The main character, Black, is a civil servant that returned from the provinces, only to find himself entwined in the murder mystery. The story follows Black as he finds himself in the company of his childhood love, Shekure. Shekure’s father never approved of Black, but Black now sees this time as his opportunity to win Shekure by solving the mystery. Black’s opportunity to win Shakure is only granted because one of the murder victims is Shekure’s father and Black is now a prime suspect. 

The mystery is unraveled through the many characters of the novel. Each character including the color red, the painting of a horse and Satan give testimony to the murder. Every character provides testimony and slowly solves the mystery. Although Black is the main character, he is by far the least developed character. Shekure is a mystery woman who is a deep and well developed character even in her flaws. Both of these characters symbolize the conflict of eastern and western ideology 

Shekure is mysterious and subtle and emotionally controlled whereas Black is brash and fiery. These two characters are the symbolic representatives of opposing cultures. Black is the embodiment of Western/European thinking, ‘the Venetian infidel’ and Shekure is the persona of Islam.

The novel is thick with symbolism such as art being the backdrop of opposing philosophies of eastern and western thinking. The book explores the world of the Ottoman Miniaturists and their method of painting with exactness and detail. The miniaturist’s paintings were attentive to the detail of accuracy while lacking emotion and style. In opposition, to this form of art, there is the European/Venetian art that concentrates on emotion, perspective and represents the world in a more stylized manner. This is considered sacrilege and is forbidden by the Koran.

Pamuk challenges the old traditions of Islam by showing western thinking as something that is necessary, but also as something that can be taken with selectivity. Pamuk also highlights how the unchanging of Islam shall also be its undoing. This is shown best through the murder of the miniaturist masters being symbolic of Islam’s inability to recreate itself.

The murder is a metaphor for social and religious fear and how self destructive this fear can be in Islamic culture. For example, the miniaturists try to invoke western style and they are killed for their actions. This is so self destructive because the culture has killed its own people in an attempt to protect and uphold the Koran; the very book which forbids the murder of Islamic people. One can easily see the contradiction of thinking taking place.

This novel is a subtle protest against Fundamentalist Islamic belief. The intended audience is the followers of Islam, especially those who are fundamentalist. The author intentionally uses the mystery of murder to captivate the audience, all the while delivering his political and religious agenda.

“My name is Red” is a political metaphor that shows the ongoing tensions between the east and west. The best way to see this metaphor is through the use of cluster criticism that analyses the rhetoric of the novels characters. Each of the characters of this novel becomes objects for the main thesis. As well, the narration of the characters becomes rhetoric clusters around the central theme of the novel.

Through this criticism one can see the central theme of the novel, the friction between Islamic and Western thinking masked with art. But within this analysis one can see that Pamuk neither attacks western ideology nor does he exalt Islamic belief. Instead, Pamuk shows the self-destructive nature of a culture that has an unwillingness to change with time.

Analysis

Pamuk uses symbolism to express his argument. His argument becomes a syllogism hidden in symbolism. To find the premise of Pamuk’s thesis you must interpret the symbolism that surrounds this point. With the use of critical thinking and rhetorical criticism one can best understand this enthymeme.

Through the use of cluster criticism one can best analyze the thesis that “My name is Red” is a novel that highlights the opposition of Islam to Western thinking and how Islam must change or it will self destruct. The artifact of this thesis is the representation of art in opposition of eastern to western thinking. The symbolisms of the characters of the novel become one cluster of ideas that surround this artifact.

For example, the character Black is symbolic of western thinking and influence and this symbolism is one object of the characters clustering around the artifact ‘opposition of Islam and Western thinking as depicted in art’. Through the individual oration of each character, the character’s symbolism will become evident for the audience. For the purpose of analysis the clusters of ideas that surround the artifact, within the oration, will be underlined. 

Each character identifies the artifact of the thesis through their narration; clustering not just character symbolism around the artifact, but as well, their oration. This oration becomes proof of the artifact of the thesis. I have chosen this method of cluster criticism because I believe that it will best illustrate and define the deeper meaning of the novel (Making Sense of Messages: A critical apprenticeship in rhetorical criticism, 2005, pp68–69). 

The Corpse is the first character to speak in the novel and is symbolic of the fear of losing Islam to western thinking. The corpse is Elegante Effendi and continuously admits this fear in clusters. For example, in this quote the underlined words cluster in synch with the fear of change; 

My death conceals an appalling conspiracy against our religion, our traditions and the way we see the world. Open your eyes discover why the enemies of the life in which you believe, of the life you’re living, and of Islam, have destroyed me. Learn why one day they might do the same to you (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp 5). 

The corpse explains in this chapter how he is the Master Elegante Effendi, a professional miniaturist commissioned to do work for the Sultan illustrating books. Elegante admits that he ignored the warnings of the Koran by trying to illustrate in a manner that is considered sacrilege and thus has met his fate;

When I was an apprentice, I too feared and thus ignored underlying truths and voices from beyond. I’d joke about such matters. But I’ve ended up in the depths of this deplorable well! (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp 6) 

The underlined sections further highlight the artifact of fear of losing Islam and the repercussions for doing so. Simply speaking, Elegante is expressing how he ignored the teachings of the Koran and how. this insolence led him to be murdered and thrown into a well.

The second character (the protagonist Black) and not surprisingly the second chapter of the novel, further promotes the idea of fear of losing Islam. Black, the name itself, is dark and foreboding, symbolizing the foreign European thinking that is presented by the venetians. When Black narrates the second chapter he sounds like a foreigner. He seems detached from the world around him because he has been gone for twelve years. He talks of the rumors of ungodly people inhabiting the coffee houses all night and these same persons dancing wildly through the night and having sex with boys,

I was told that scoundrels and rebels were gathering in coffeehouses and proselytizing until dawn; that destitute men of dubious characters, opium-addicted madmen and followers of the outlawed Kalenderi dervish sect, claiming to be on Allah’s path, would spend their nights in dervish houses dancing to music, piercing themselves with skewers and engaging in all manner of depravity, before fucking each other and any boys they could find (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp10).

Black seems to be led by his desires as his narration leads from talk of his estranged love Shekure (who is named in a later chapter) to talk of forbidden activities at the coffeehouses. Black reveals himself as being symbolic of European/Venetian influence. The prior quote Black is really describing himself and his world and as if to confirm this description he goes on to say, I found myself turning down one of the narrow alleys behind the slave market — well after the streets had become dark — and located the coffee house(My Name Is Red, 2001, pp10).

Black seems to take his place amongst these scoundrels or should we say infidels. Pamuk even mentions Kalenderi which historically was an outlaw dervish sect that attempted assassination on the Sultan Bayezid. 

In contrast to Black being the influence of western civilization, Shekure is Islam and devotion to the Koran. She is younger than Black, but describes Black in the past as having been immature and her Father did not want her to be with him because, “he did not have his wits about him.” (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp40) Shekure is deep and calculating about her feelings towards Black and you get the sense that she would like to have been with him as a wife. But with her obedience to Islam she sides with her father’s wishes and marries another man.

As the story progresses, Shekure relates how her marriage is drenched in the traditions of Islam such as when her husband goes missing during the war. She is then left to live in the home of her husband’s family who do not wish to admit that he is dead. She is forced to stay in the home of her husband according to the rules of Islam;

Of course, I could’ve immediately come back here to the home of my Father, but according to the Kadi judge my husband was legally alive, and were I to anger my in-laws they might not stop at forcing my children and me back to my husband’s home, but humiliate us further by having me and my father, who had ‘detained’ me, punished. (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp44) 

Although Shekure follows the rules of her religion she expresses how she is also trapped in the rules of Islam. Hasan, Shekure’s brother-in-law wishes to marry Shekure but can’t because his brother has not been declared dead. This is a strange predicament for Shekure;

Because this dilemma bound me to that house and that marriage, my in-laws preferred my having a “missing” husband and the continuation of this vague situation. For lest you forget, I saw to all their household chores, I did everything from their cooking to their laundry, and furthermore, one of them was madly in love with me. (My Name Is Red, 2001,pp.45) 

If Shekure is Islam, she is a more realistic symbolism than Black as the Infidel. She shows Islam with all its flaws such as its ability to enslave a woman in marriage. By Shekure being devoted to her religion she is at the same time forced to tread with certain cautiousness. This caution shows the flawed nature of Islamic rules, that even as devoted as Shekure is, she can become imprisoned by her own beliefs.

The opposing form of art between the miniaturists and the venetians is the backdrop representing the opposing ideologies of Islam and Western Thinking. The characters Black and Shekure represent these conflicting thoughts through their dialogue about the different styles of art. Black in chapter 11 asks the old master,

My great master, my dear sir, what separates the genuine miniaturist from the ordinary? (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp 60) 

The asking of this question shows a lack of character development, since in the second chapter Black talks about how he hired and used miniaturists for projects. As well, in the second chapter he talks about how he had drawn a picture of love for Shekure. Surely, by this point in Blacks career, he understands the difference between extraordinary artists and mediocre illustrators.

But besides this being a lack of character development, it is also significant of the lack of understanding for the western/venetian world. It is insight into the authors own one sided understanding of the west. Pamuk cleverly conceals this ignorance within the character of Black. Purposely, Pamuk under develops the character in an effort to not have to explain much about the venetians. 

In chapter 13, the tension between eastern and western art is exposed with great detail. When the artist Butterfly is questioned by Black the east vs. west art debate is bluntly exposed,

As long as the number of worthless artists motivated by money and fame instead of the pleasure of seeing and a belief in their craft increases…we will continue to witness much more vulgarity and greed akin to preoccupation with ‘style’ and ‘signature’…has come to us all the way from the east by way of certain unfortunate Chinese masters who’ve been led astray under the influence of the Europeans,.. (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp62) 

This statement by Butterfly shows the Islamic viewpoint of the Venetian artists. The artifact of the thesis is fear of change and the underlined sections show how that fear is translated into despise of western ideology. Butterfly continues his tirade against western influence with three parables teaching not to fall prey to the evils of style and signature. These parables express how much opposition there is to western thinking within Islamic tradition.

The western influence of perspective and style violates the sanctity of Islamic belief in art. At this time, in the Ottoman Empire, the miniaturists are forbidden to paint with style. Faces look the same and are generally emotionless. Beautiful women are always depicted as being Chinese. There is no perspective in drawing as this is considered sacrilege, because it is the style of the infidels. 

This is a hard concept to understand that true art comes from the soul and is a gift from Allah. A true master is humble and creates with the exactness of skill that he cannot be distinguished from any other master of the day or in the past. In chapter 13, the artist Stork explains eloquently the artistry of Islam;

The primary distinction of this master, who having begun his apprenticeship at the age of nine, illustrated for more or less 110 years without going blind, was his lack of distinction…His humbleness and complete devotion to illustration and painting, which he deemed a service to Allah. (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp 72)

This particular cluster of ideas exemplifies how Islam is so totally in opposition to western thinking. Yet, it is obvious to the reader how the Islamic faith is oppressive to the individual by not allowing artists to explore a broader range of skills. Cleverly, Pamuk has hidden his agenda, to show the Islamic world that they are being self destructive, by attempting to keep out western ideology. The author pointedly shows the audience the hypocritical stance of the Fundamentalists Islamic belief through the description of art by the Murderer.

In chapter 28, the Murderer goes on a tirade talking about the artist Sheikh Muhammad of Isfahan and how he was unsurpassed in his abilities. But because Sheikh lent himself to the exploration of style, he created monsters, demons, and sinful pictures forbidden by the Koran. Sheikh had fallen prey to his own ability and lost his faith. 

…Sheikh Muhammad had burned down Prince Ismail Mirza’s immense library containing hundreds of books the he couldn’t cull his own from the others. (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp157–159) 

The Murderer really thinks that he is protecting Islam and his reputation by killing Enishte. The Murderer relates how rumors are spreading that the book is blasphemous and how the miniaturists commissioned to illustrate this book have served their own desires. The Murderer is consumed in the fear of crossing his religious beliefs and his act of killing is the pinnacle of the self destructive Islam.

Of all the characters that Pamuk creates, he chooses to use the painting of the Horse to question the art of the miniaturists. Pamuk chooses the Horse because paintings of horses are widely popular in the Turkish world. What better spokesman is there to speak against the art of the miniaturists than their own art? 

The Horse attacks the miniaturists as being dull and practically talentless. He explains how the miniaturists fail to see the uniqueness of each individual horse and how they never show mares properly when at a gallop. 

Still, I’m sick of being incorrectly depicted by miniaturists who sit around the house like ladies and never go off to war. They’ll depict me at a gallop with both of my forelegs extended at the same time. There isn’t a horse in this world that runs like a rabbit (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp218). 

The preceding quote is extremely important because it shows bluntly how the miniaturists are so blind in their following of the Koran that they will continuously recreate a mistake in illustrations. From the Horses description, you really begin to understand the bland nature of the Turkish art. As well, the Horse provides the most compelling argument against the miniaturists, thus the fundamentalist Islamic regime;

Artists who are discontent with what they see with their eyes, artists who draw the same horse a thousand times asserting that what rests in their imagination is God’s horse, artists who claim that the best horse is what blind miniaturists draw from memory, aren’t they all committing the sin of competing with Allah? (My Name Is Red, 2001, pp 218)

The ideas in this cluster show the logical contradiction of thought taking place in Islamic viewpoint of art. This is a perfect example of a logical syllogism stating; if what rests in the imagination is God’s then those who draw from memory commit the sin of competing with Allah. This is a logical fallacy since the miniaturists believe that being able to duplicate perfectly from memory is the attribute of a master artist, but at the same time abide by the concept; ‘that what is in the mind belongs to Allah.’

In almost every chapter and in every character it is easy to see the conflict between Islam and Western thinking. Every character has a cluster of rhetoric objects that show the artifact of ‘fear of change’, ‘fear of the unknown’, or simply fear. Even the love story between Black and Shekure is a forbidden affection because of the rigid Islamic rules.

The symbolisms of the characters lend themselves to a broader view of cluster criticism as we have seen. In greater detail, Black is symbolic of the infidel west coming to destroy Islam, but really he is just the injection of new idea to replace the antiquated notions of the fundamentalists. The character Shekure is Islam being tempted by the west to turn away from the teachings of the Koran. But, she is not the Islam of the past and she goes to Black, representing the change of faith and the acceptance of new ideology. The Corpse is symbolic of the fear of change the fear that Islam may die with acceptance of western ideology.

Every aspect of this novel screams for political and religious change within the Islamic world. No matter what form of analysis one would use to explore “My Name Is Red”, one would always expose the issue of Islam’s resistance to change.

Interpretation

Orhan Pamuk uses the tool of logical proof to advance his idea that Fundamentalist Islamic culture and religion are self destructive. This thesis contains the artifact (fear of change) and the clusters shown in the analysis portion of this text give evidence to this idea. Pamuk is a detailed author who layers his message and argument deeply within the plot of his book.

This is a book that is really not meant for the outside world as much as it is meant for Islam. Without a direct knowledge of the fables and folklore that is presented by the different characters, one can become lost in the Ottoman historical lore. The author is aware of this problem and installs a Chronology in the rear of the text to assist the reader. With brief interruptions in reading the reader can still navigate his way to the main point of the author.

“My Name Is Red” is a self criticism of Fundamentalist Islamic faith with its willingness to bring harm against itself in order to exclude western influence. Pamuk shows how the intolerance of Islam ultimately leads to hypocritical actions of the characters. In example, the killing of the master miniaturists, in order to protect Islam from the western incursion of thought, is contrary to the teachings of the Koran.

Pamuk brilliantly uses the Turkish fables to express the rigid inflexibility of the Koran without directly attacking the religion. The author shows his audience how fear binds the artists from achieving their full potential and the contradictory nature of the miniaturists thinking. Pamuk is a bold writer given the political and religious tension in the world today, but not so bold as to not disguise his agenda in mystery.

Although the message of the author was directed at Islam, the western world with its inflexible ideas in Christian living could learn some lessons from this book. In the United States one has the luxury of speaking out against religious ideology without the fear of physical harm, but even here in the United States there exists fundamentalist Christian ideas.

Intolerance of new thinking or different religious viewpoint can be seen in America via the examples of abortion clinic bombings by Christian fundamentalists, protesting of movies that depict Christ in any light other than what the church dictates, and even the debate over the rights of homosexuals to marry. It is easy to see with these examples that Christian thinking can also be stubborn and intolerant of opposing viewpoint.

References

 

My Name Is Red, 2001 by Orhan Pamuk

Making sense of messages: A critical apprenticeship in rhetorical criticism, 2005 by Stoner, M., and Perkins, S. 


Citation

Vincent Triola. Fri, Mar 05, 2021. Criticism of “My Name is Red” Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/criticism-of-my-name-is-red