‘Creative Innovation’ as a Language of Legitimation

By Monica Ringer
Submitted to Session P4880 (Tanzimat as Translation, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper focuses on the Tanzimat literary giant Ahmed Midhat’s novel Felatun Bey and Rakim Efendi as a deliberate project of generating citizens through modeling participatory subjectivities. In particular, I seek to uncover the author’s strategies of legitimizing change. Framed as a story of a dialectic between a Westernized Ottoman and a traditional Ottoman, this novel imagines the modern Ottoman citizen, someone who is neither formed through imitating the West, nor by a defensive embrace of the Ottoman status quo, but rather by what I term ‘creative innovation’ of the Ottoman, using Western forms and ideas instrumentally insofar as they address the needs of the Ottoman ‘modern’.

I am interested in the novel as embodying and modeling translation – how modernity is embodied, literally, in various characters that exhibit transitions and departures both between cultural spheres, as well as within them. In particular, I focus on ways in which Ahmed Midhat’s language and strategies of legitimization are embedded in and thus visible through the method of cultural translation itself; how claimed ‘borrows’ from the West to justify departures, even as he simultaneously authorizes innovation as a return to an essentialized original.

Although a staunch advocate of translating Western literature into Turkish/Ottoman, Ahmed Midhat did not see himself as simply transmitting Western ideas, but rather as advocating an instrumentalist use of Western novel forms. The role of Western characters in his novels must be understood as part of his larger project of creative innovation. I seek to focus on several instances of his use of relationships between European and Turkish/Ottoman characters to illustrate ways in which he insists that European cultural and moral practices are inferior to their Ottoman counterparts. At one level these instances can be read as Ahmed Midhat’s rejection of Western assumptions of superiority and a defense of Ottoman cultural norms. At another level, however, they suggest Ahmed Midhat’s strategy of legitimation of a genuine departure from Ottoman practices, yet not an imitative departure – instead one of creative innovation.