Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence explores the mystery of love through its protagonist Kemal Bay, a successful businessman, and Fusün, the shopgirl with whom he falls in love with for over 30 years and yet eludes him his enter life. In a psychological perspective, does Kemal have a love towards Fusün that is true and justified, or does Kemal fall victim to an obsession that is both neurotic and ethically abominable?
While there are all sorts of love and definitions for love—love of self, love for one’s parents, love for one’s siblings, love of friends, love of God, love of pets, love of foods—the relationship between Kemal and Fusün, if their relationship can be referred to as love, is called Courtly Love. Courtly Love, whether or not it was actually practiced among the nobility, was supposedly a virtuous adoration of a beloved subject from afar, though definitely not without sexual desire. The beauty of the beloved subject is deified and she becomes physically and spiritually pure to the adoring suitor. In this context, sexual love becomes the only meaning for man’s existence; he cannot help but act on his passion, and nothing—family feuds, marriage, physical separation—can stop him.
According to one source: “What distinguishes it [Courtly Love] from other forms of sexual love… is its purpose or motive, its formal object, namely, the lover’s progress and growth in natural goodness, merit, and worth” (Denomy 44).
Courtly Love is popularly associated with medieval literature, with knights in shining armor saving princesses trapped in towers and so forth. In the real world, this form of love was practiced among medieval and renaissance poets. Francesco Petrarch, an Italian poet from the 14th Century, one day caught sight of a woman named Laura while attending mass in a cathedral. The encounter awoke an extreme passion inside of him and the poet wrote hundreds of sonnets idealizing and praising her. Dante Alighieri, another Italian poet from the Middle Ages, was inspired by a lady named Beatrice Portinari. He only encountered his beloved twice in his lifetime, once as a child and again nine years later. He never even spoke to her, yet her effect on him was so profound that she appears his magnus opus The Divine Comedy as an angel of light who guides him through the spheres of Heaven.
But the practice of courtly love can actually traced back to the romantic revival among the Arab tribes in around the 8th Century AD. The story Majnun Layla has its origins in the Middle East. It is a tale of tragic, undying love very similar to Romeo and Juliet—a boy and girl fall in love with each other, but the girl’s father separates them and marries her to another man, so the boy goes mad and flees to the desert where he wanders for the rest of his life. Since the tradition of Courtly Love, which is stereotypically European, actually has its roots in Middle Eastern culture, it makes sense that Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author, would be extremely familiar with the agony of love. According to an article:
“Love poetry may best serve to exemplify classical Islamic poetry. Because of the universal human theme with which it deals, it is the easiest of access for the outsider from another culture. Because of the changing social context in which lovers meet and part, it serves to reflect the changing scene in social as well as cultural history” (Lewis 252).
But can we dignify Kemal’s outrageous infatuation for Fusün with the same poetic awe of the enlightened poets?
Not one bit.
Courtly Love, the way in which it has been summarized, is more akin to insanity rather than a healthy sexual bond between two people. Courtly Love is not actually love; it is obsession, and that is the reason why no one in his right mind practices it in the modern age. It objectifies the beloved subject, who is usually a woman. This is why I think that Kemal has gone mad with lust.
Kemal could not possibly be “in love” with this shopgirl in the same virtuous manner as the renaissance poets. Firstly, he cannot love her because he obtains his beloved in a carnal fashion, both at the beginning of the novel and at the very end.
“In its purest form, it [Courtly Love] eschews physical possession because, once consummated, desire decreases and tends to vanish. On the contrary, desire for union is to be intensified, fanned, and inflamed by every physical delight short of carnal possession, because it is desire which is the means to the end and purpose of Courtly Love: the ennobling of the lover” (Denomy 44).
Kemal objectifies Fusün in the same manner as many other men in her past objectified her. From the time Fusün was eight-years-old, she had been sexually abused by men. “She would not even discuss the hordes… who came to the Şanzelize Boutique and fell in love her on sight, and went on to buy loads of dresses, accessories, and trinkets from Şenay Hanım” (Pamuk 58). From the very beginning of the novel, Kemal takes advantage of Fusün by luring her into his empty apartment to have sex with her. That, of course, violates one of the most important principles of noble love: “Such love was spiritual in that it sought a union of hearts and minds rather than of bodies; it was a virtuous love in so far as it was the source of all natural virtue and worth” (Denomy 44). When his affair with Fusün first begins, he is already betrothed to Sibel, a wealthy upper-class woman. Essentially, the book sentimentalizes adultery.
After living with Fusün’s family for eight years, even when Kemal is finally able to renew his relationship with Fusün, he still continues to objectify her. “A person married to a beautiful woman could make love to her from dawn till dusk, wasting no time on anything else” (Pamuk 480). This is ultimately his downfall and the reason why he can never have a fulfilling relationship with Fusün. He treats her like an object, a divine goal, rather than a subject who is a flawed yet still beautiful human being.
It is commonly argued by book reviewers that, through Kemal’s obsession with Fusün and his journey of collecting all of her possessions, we are given an illustration of the life and culture of the city of Istanbul. It would be wonderful to romanticize Kemal’s psychological condition by allowing it to encompass an entire culture, but I believe that Kemal’s desire for Fusün was in reality far more rudimentary and vulgar than most would care to admit. When Kemal makes love with Fusün for the second and last time towards the end of the novel, he creates a meticulous record of every physical detail on Fusün’s body; he assesses his relationship with her completely based on that one sexual experience. Even if that sexual experience is euphoric, it is still perverse. “Even as I rejoiced at having in the end mastered her, I could not but feel for her, admire everything about her” (Pamuk 478).
The emotional bond that ties Kemal to Fusün is not love. Kemal is experiencing the symptoms of an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Symptoms of OCD include the following: “(1) Thoughts, images, or impulses that occur over and over again and feel out of the person’s control. (2) The person does not want to have these ideas. (3) He or she finds them disturbing and unwanted, and usually know that they don’t make sense” (Bell). This list of symptoms describes quite accurately the internal torment that Kemal articulates when his dear Fusün no longer visits him in his apartment:
“A man like me, too long captive to a destructive passion, will continue on the course his reason tells him is wrong, even if he knows it will bring him to sorrow; in time, he’ll see only more and more clearly how wrong was his path” (Pamuk 228).
He develops a fetish for all items that were once possessed by Fusün or otherwise associated with her. Others would argue that these objects, which Kemal collects over the course of his lifetime, are far more than just fetish-objects, but represent all of the culture and life of Turkey. One praising review says “The gallery of his dreams displays not ephemera devoted to delusion but close attention to the “beauty of ordinary life’ that has almost eluded Kemal” (Howard). Yet that explanation only makes Kemal’s obsession acceptable in the context of the novel. In real life, if Fusün were to call the police frantically reporting a stalker on her trail, as most often happens in cases of obsessive love, would they have ignored her because her stalker was on some “great journey” to find true happiness? What existential drivel!
“These things that Fusün had touched, these objects that had made her who she was—as I caressed them, and gazed at them, and stroked them against my shoulders, my bare chest, and by abdomen—released their analgesic and soothed my soul” (Pamuk 185).
Could anyone honestly say that the inspiration for this perverted behavior is the same breed of love that produced wondrous poems in Petrarch or Dante? Kemal seems more like Golem doting over his precious Ring rather than a noble lover.
To my personal relief and satisfaction, the novel ends with Fusün dying in a car accident. After she is dead, Kemal spends the rest of his life roaming across the world to continue collecting items that remind him of Fusün. In his attempts to resurrect her, Kemal becomes alienated from the world, and sadly Kemal becomes hopelessly lost in a world of fantasy, adoring her little photograph until the day of his death. “I wanted to sleep surrounded by all the things that reminded me of Fusün and made me feel her presence” (Pamuk 510). He dwells on sentimental memories for the rest of his life instead of living out his years healthily coping with Fusün’s death, while creating new happy memories all the while. His consequent Museum of Innocence may have coincidentally turned out to be a testament to his nation’s culture, but I believe that it is also a monument to Kemal’s delusion. Ultimately, even though Kemal’s obsession with Fusün has allowed readers a deeper insight into the beauty of ordinary life in Turkey, the psychological condition that causes his infatuation cannot be revered as the pure, noble love romanticized in literature and art of all media.
Bell, Jeff. “Obsessions and Compulsions.” International OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) Foundation. International OCD Foundation, 2012. Web. 13 May 2013.
Denomy, Alexander J. “Courtly Love and Courtliness.” Speculum 28.1 (Jan. 1953): 44-63. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2013.
Howard, Maureen. “Lolita on the Bosporus.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Nov. 2009. Web. 13 May 2013.
Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years. New York: Touchstone, 1997. Print.
Pamuk, Orhan. The Museum of Innocence. Trans. Maureen Freely. New York: Vintage International, 2010. Print.