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Orhan Pamuk: Nobels, Genies, Junos, Junkshops and Genius
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Ever seen those bumper stickers that read, Keep Austin Weird?
I want to make a bumper sticker for artists that reads, Keep Artists Weird.
And in my eyes, the poster child for staying weird as an artist is a certain Turkish author. I think he must eat handfuls of “super-genius” vitamins for breakfast.
His name is Orhan Pamuk. Ever heard of him?
Pamuk is a professor and gifted author from Istanbul.
In 2006 Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his life’s work as an author.
(Nobel laureates in literature are almost always given the prize for their collective work as an author thus far, as opposed to say the Man-Booker Prize which is awarded to a single book.)
So far, distinguished and normal right?
But wait for the weird. It’s coming.
Four years prior to Pamuk’s win, back in plain old, pre-Nobel, 2002, the writer spent the majority of his days crafting a fairly not-weird political novel entitled (Snow).
As a metaphorical representative of Pamuk’s creativity, his muse conveyed the message to him that he needed to birth two new meaningful projects — in tandem, (aside from Snow.)
The First Set of Instructions from Orhan Pamuk’s Muse Involved Junk Shops
The first half of the instructions from Pamuk’s muse had him spending ten years searching for significant “bric-a-brac.”
You know, cheap stuff. Like broken mantel clocks, faux pearl clip-on earrings, and small plastic reindeer from the 1970s.
(Some would refer to Pamuk’s junk store treasures as “clutter,” the kind Marie Kondo fans might stroke out over.)
However, in Pamuk’s big, bright, imagination, each mismatched saltshaker or 1950s panorama photo of Istanbul at night that he purchased (or pilfered, and we’ll get to that in a minute) had a backstory.
Orhan Pamuk was birthing a new dream novel in his head. It was to be called The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi.) And he visited Turkish junk shops to gather stuff he saw as “belonging” to all the various characters in his future dream novel.
Are we on the outskirts of weird yet?
As American inventor, Ron Popiel used to say, “But wait, there’s more.” The bric-a-brac and the novel were just the first half of the muse’s instructions.
The Second Set of Instructions from Orhan Pamuk’s Muse Involved Making an Actual Museum
The second half of Pamuk’s muse’s instructions entailed him constructing a real, physical, museum in a then run-down part of Istanbul.
This real museum was going to house the bric-a-brac that Pamuk saw as actually belonging to the fictional characters in his future novel.
Have we fully touched down into weird yet? I’d say so.
But in Pamuk’s defense, we’ve arrived at weird… for a cause; weird, in service of a creative dream from quite a creative soul.
To follow his creative dream instructions, Pamuk went on purchasing thousands of objects like 1960’s ashtrays, broken bakelite radios, and even a taxi meter from Turkish junk dealers.
And if that wasn’t enough crazy, Orhan was also guiltily pilfering strange, “useless” things like sewing notions and quince graters from his own mother’s junk room.
Orhan Pamuk Pocketed His Mom’s Sugar Bowl for His Museum “Universe”
Artists throughout time have stolen small stuff that lights their creative fires, (see my article, O’Keeffe the Thief.)
And Pamuk is no exception.
Orhan’s tandem novel/museum idea was so wild he couldn’t even tell the truth about it at first, to anyone – not even his own mother.
“Sometimes I’d spot a teacup I wanted in an acquaintance’s house or inside the old cupboards where my mother kept the pots and pans she no longer used, her porcelain, her sugar bowls, and her trinkets for display, and one day I’d take it without telling anyone that it was destined for the museum. I began to collect these things from the mid-1990s onward to create the universe of objects that fills the museum and the novel.”
So you see, all these objects were helping Pamuk flesh out characters and imagine scenes for his dream book.
Isn’t that cool?
“The more objects I collected for the museum,” said Pamuk, “the more the story in my mind progressed (21).”
One reason I think Pamuk is the bee’s knees is that despite the weirdness of his idea, despite not even being able to speak it out loud to his family and friends for the first year or so, and despite having to battle a Turkish political regime who wanted to deport him for writing about Turkey in an “un-Turkish” way — Pamuk still devoted twelve years of his life to fulfilling his wild idea of a novel and museum for Istanbul, anyway.
Orhan Pamuk’s Genie Made Him Do It
Orhan Pamuk was filled with conviction but like us, he was also filled with self-doubt. In fact, almost every morning Pamuk sat down at his desk, he asked himself the same question everyone else had been asking him during the twelve years he worked on his inspired idea.
That question Pamuk asked himself was:
“‘Why are you building this museum?’- And I could not seem to find a rational answer,” Pamuk said.
But Pamuk pressed on anyway because as he wrote:
“Some spirit possessed me, and almost forced me to make this museum. Alladin had been scared of the genie that came out of the lamp, but what I was doing was making me happy, so I consider myself lucky (The Innocence of Objects, 255).
And we too can be lucky if we muster up the courage to follow the instructions of our inner genie, or should I say our inner genius?
Genies, Jinns, and Junos
Did you know the words genie and the word jinn are derived from the ancient Greek word genius?
And those ancient Greeks got it right when it came to genius. Genius for them was not a label for an elite few.
You didn’t acquire genius. You didn’t become a genius. Instead, you had a genius-and that genius lived inside you.
Every man had a Genius within him that gave him his most incandescent ideas. And every woman had the same guiding creative force within her, in the form of her Juno. (More on Genius/Juno in Roman religion here.)
I think each one of us still does have a Genius or Juno within, waiting for our call, don’t you?
Only You Get To Determine You’re an Artist, a Writer, or a Genius
Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence project reminded me it takes courage to have a lifelong conversation with one’s Juno or genius.
Because we often get more condemnation than confirmation from society while we’re in the trenches taking dictation from our muse.
Mythologist Robert Graves made a profound observation about creativity in his book Mammon and the Black Goddess that I hope artists reading or hearing this will remember:
“No public honors, no consensus of other poets, no album of press cuttings, nor even the passage of time can give me, or anyone else, more than the courtesy title of poet. The one sure reward for whatever labors we may have undergone is our continued love of the Muse.”-Robert Graves
If Robert Graves is right, and we extend his observation beyond poetry, we can say that no one else can crown us a genius, an artist, or even a scholar.
The Greatest Reward Is The Creative Process Itself
“The one sure reward for our labors is the love of the muse.”
By that, I think Graves means the greatest reward for artists and writers is the creative process itself.
My friend, the mythologist Daniel Deardorff writes in his beautiful book The Other Within: The Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture, and Psyche:
“Genius, then, the guiding source of creativity, is confirmed alone and in the soul.”(143) – Daniel Deardorff
We wait around for decades for “an important authority” (ie not us) to pronounce our creativity as legit.
When all along the permission to be wildly creative, to tend to our in-born Juno, lay within.
Just like in the Wizard of Oz or other fairy tales.
The Happy Ending To Orhan Pamuk’s Fairy Tale
Speaking of fairy tales, Orhan Pamuk’s fairy tale has a happy ending. His novel The Museum of Innocence was published in 2008 and became an international bestseller.
Four years later in 2012, his team opened the doors to their magical museum; a hushed, lush, refurbished brownstone. Each vitrine within it is filled with the objects the characters in Pamuk’s fictional novel “used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”
And in 2014 the Museum of Innocence, on the corners of Çukurcuma Sk and Dalgiç Sk, in Istanbul won the European Museum of the Year Award.
And what a gem of a museum it is. Check out some of its eighty-three vitrine boxes here, (Pamuk made one vitrine for each of his eighty-three chapters- genius right?)
Objects Let Creatives Live Out Lives That May Have Remained Unlived
I want to end by telling you I find this story of creation so powerful for a reason.
Embracing his weirdness granted Pamuk a boon even greater than a best-selling novel or a successful, highly original museum.
It allowed him to live out his long-suppressed dream of becoming a visual artist.
“The six to eight months I spent going over the tiniest of details in the museum,” said Pamuk, “resuscitated the dormant painter inside me. For years I had sat in a room by myself writing novels and now I worked with a boisterous crowd toward a common aim and was as happy as I had been when I was painting during my university years.”
(The Innocence of Objects,255).
What might following your Genie or Juno do for you?
“The painting series or book of yours that critics will label as”refreshingly original,” will stem from an idea you now have that is so weird, so crazy, that you don’t even want to tell your mother about it. Take a chance on your weird.”
Feel daunted on how to access our genius?
Me too. But why don’t we take a clue from Orhan Pamuk as to how to start?
Your best and wildest ideas usually lie locked in the same mental suitcase you keep your most embarrassing creative eccentricities.
Open it. Or re-open it.
Let’s keep listening to the genie who comes out.
And stay weird my friends.