The Istanbul Seaside

The original purpose of this article was to display and explain two photographs by me: one of a seaside park, the other of an abandoned car. I do this, and I talk about the stresses and compensations of the big city. I continue with the theme of Freedom from an earlier article of that name.

It is now early December in Istanbul, 2014. We have hardly seen the sun for weeks. Some rain falls almost every day. One has to learn to go out when one can. Last Saturday was cloudy, but dry, so we walked down to the Tophane-i Amire—the “Cannon Foundry Imperial.” The name is romantic, because it dates from Ottoman times, and because, like Koh-i-Noor, it is in a Persian grammatical form that is obsolete in Turkish. Today’s name of the cannon foundry would be Amire Tophane.

The foundry today is the Tophane-i Amire Kültür ve Sanat Merkezi, the Tophane Culture and Art Center. It is attached to our university, and there was a photography exhibit called Wet City, by Yusuf Murat Şen. The photographs were of Istanbul construction sites. They were in black and white, and they had been developed by an archaic process (wet plate collodion) that gave the feeling of Ottoman times. I think the photographer meant to criticize the “concretizing” (betonlaştırma) of the city, and it should indeed be criticized; but at the same time I think he found a way to make reinforced concrete romantic. There are examples of his photos at two of the links above; here is one of them.

MSGSÜ Fotoğraf Bölümü öğretim üyesi Yusuf Murat Şen

By Yusuf Murat Şen,
MSGSÜ Fotoğraf Bölümü öğretim üyesi

The photographs reminded me of the cover of the fourth Led Zeppelin album, showing the inner wall of a ruined house with a tower of flats in the background. As Tom Lehrer says, rock and roll is children’s music. That is fine: I liked rock as a child, and the child in me still likes it. There is something romantic about that Led Zeppelin album cover. Ruins are attractive to a child. Grown-ups do not go there, so there you can be free. You can attack the ruins. I remember finding a wrecked car in a parking lot at the age of thirteen. My friend and I proceeded to wreck it further. Then maybe we went to listen to Led Zeppelin.

Front and back of fourth Led Zeppelin album

Front and back of fourth Led Zeppelin album

I do not know why the authorities want to wreck Istanbul. There are standard explanations, like wealth and power—or promises made in pursuit of wealth and power; but such explanations are too abstract. When they cut down forests for highways or airports, or fill up disused athletic fields with towers of flats, the authorities will say that they are only developing the city. Right now, as the Prime Minister recently said, Taksim Square is very ugly. The car traffic is buried underground, but the surface is just a big concrete slab. The grass on the slope beside Gezi Park is not maintained, and most of it has been worn away. Perhaps this is by design. Considered in isolation, a well designed building on the Gezi Park site might indeed look better than what is there now.

But considering sites in isolation is why Istanbul is the crowded mess that it is. When there is a lot of open space, it is fine to build buildings on some of it. Now the open space is almost gone; but instead of recognizing that the remaining space is needed for the mental health of the citizens, the authorities want to fill up even what space is left.

There are spaces left in Istanbul. After visiting Tophane on Saturday, Ayşe went home, but I sat in a park for a while. I recorded the scene on my mobile, even as somebody else recorded the scene on her mobile.

Fındıklı Parkı, 2014.11.29

Fındıklı Parkı, 2014.11.29

Like Gezi, this little seaside park is not particularly well maintained. This may add to its charm. Syrian refugees camped out there in warmer weather. I am not aware that the park is under immediate threat. The threat is further down the shore to the right, where another shopping mall is planned; but that part of the shore was already built on years ago. Meanwhile, perhaps the park where I sat is safe. It is in Fındıklı, meaning Place of Hazelnut Trees; and here at least some trees are left, of whatever kind.

As I sat, I wrote in a notebook about causation. This had occupied my thoughts for a few weeks, since I worked through the relevant part of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics.

A standard example of a certainty is that the sun will rise tomorrow. For me, given that I am writing at five in the morning, the certainty is that the sun will rise today. More precisely, the certainty is that there will be light coming in through my window in a couple of hours: the sun itself is not likely to be seen through the clouds.

I cannot prove that there will be light. Nonetheless, I am confident that there will be light. What I get from Collingwood is the understanding that this confidence in nature is like our confidence in persons. I trust that the sun will rise, just as I trust that my spouse will return from a visit to Ankara. By Collingwood’s account in An Essay on Metaphysics, if we say that one thing causes another in nature, this is because we are anthropomorphizing. We retain the ancient animism that populated the universe with spirits.

Modern physics no longer looks for causes, but it looks for laws. I can remember the question raised after a Friday night lecture at St John’s College in Santa Fe when I was a student: Why do we refer to Kepler’s Laws or Newton’s Laws as laws? Human laws can be broken; natural laws cannot. Nonetheless, evidently we believe that, like ourselves, nature is under some kind of obligation to obey laws.

Collingwood does not pursue this matter in the Essay. It must have been done by other philosophers, whom perhaps I ought to read. I do rather like what Pirsig says in Lila though: reading other philosophers can be a distraction from developing your own philosophy. On the other hand, I think Pirsig’s philosophy in that book is naïve, and it might have benefited from a reading of, say, Collingwood. In any case, Collingwood’s purpose in taking up causation in the Essay is not so much to investigate causation as such. The point is to show that such an investigation is an historical investigation into what we and others actually think. In particular, it is an investigation into the presuppositions that are behind or underneath our thinking.

I myself trace Collingwood’s thinking to a passage he wrote more than twenty years earlier, at the end of his Religion and Philosophy:

Granted—and by now we seem bound to grant—that a ball, let drop, falls in virtue not of an inexorable law but of a volition, and that the volition might will otherwise, we may still say that the possibility of a ball’s thus changing its habits need not seriously disturb our practical calculations. We have to deal not only with things, but with men; and if the engineer feels justified in calculating the strength of his materials on a basis of absolute uniformity, the organiser of labour is no less ready to calculate the average output of a workman and to act on his calculations. If we try to carry the principle of uniformity too far, it will fail us whether our assumption is that any man will write an equally good epic or that any steel will make an equally good razor. In practice, we learn to discriminate; we distinguish between the things that any man can do and the things for which an exceptional man is needed; and in exactly the same way we learn how far it is safe to reckon on the uniformity of matter and at what point we must begin to look for diversity.

Uniformity, in a word, is relative to our needs; and to suggest that a game of cricket, for instance, would be impossible if we supposed that the ball might suddenly decide to fly to the moon, is no less and no more sensible than to suggest that it is impossible because the bowler might put it in his pocket and walk off the field. We know that the friend we trust is abstractly capable, if he wished, of betraying us, but that does not prevent our trusting him. It may be that our faith in the uniformity of matter is less removed from such a trust than we sometimes imagine. Whether we describe it as faith in matter or faith in God makes, after all we have said, little difference.

I recently quoted the second part of this passage in another article, called “Uniformity” itself, after I had become aware that a friend had indeed been betrayed.

Since then, a similarly unpleasant subject was treated in the article Senior Bangladesh police officer blames women for causing rape by Jon Stone, in The Independent, Friday 28 November 2014. As the title said, an officer was quoted as saying that women’s inappropriate clothing caused them to be raped. I suppose such assertions are made all the time. As a child I found them plausible, though my mother did her best to disabuse me. The thought that I wrote down on Saturday in Fındıklı is that inanimate objects cause nothing. As an avowed monotheist, the Bengladeshi police officer would presumably not grant spiritual power to an article of clothing as such. He might revere the holy articles, like the hair from the beard of the Prophet, that are on display in the Privy Chamber of the Topkapı Palace, a ways down the water from where I was sitting. But if the police officer thinks objects can have the power of accomplishment that humans have, he is mistaken. He ought to be able to learn this from a theologian-philosopher whom he himself would respect.

To say that a woman’s clothing causes rape might be a way of saying that she causes herself to be raped. However, a woman does not want to be raped. Nobody “asks for it.” Therefore, obviously, she cannot cause it. Maybe you can cause yourself to get sick by going out with wet hair on a cold day. Maybe. But getting sick is not a crime. Being assaulted is a crime on the part of the assaulter.

The crowdedness of a city like Istanbul causes sickness. A dense population and development may or may not cause the spread of harmful germs; but it is a spiritual oppression. People trying to get home on busy streets in the evening are evidently not very happy.

By Collingwood’s account, if crowdedness causes sickness, we say this because we can do something about the crowds. The density is brought about by humans; we humans can see to it that our remaining open spaces remain open.

Like the photography exhibit in Tophane, the space in the park by the Bosphorus on Saturday was a compensation for the stress of the city.

When I left for home, I wandered the narrow streets of the hillside above the shore. Among the houses whose own views must be amazing, I could see a large tree from the shore road; but I could not find the tree when I made my way up the hill. I did however find a ruined car. It was at the end of Bat Street (Yarasa Sokağı).

Ruined car, Cihangir, 2014.11.29

Ruined car, Cihangir, 2014.11.29

I delighted in this car, because it said that there was still space in Istanbul. Here was a place that nobody was keen to fill up with anything else. It was just allowed to be.

One Comment

  1. Posted December 15, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink | Reply

    Anything derelict here gives me hope. Perhaps it will remain forgotten until it is safe to remember it.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Istanbul in the Sun « Polytropy on December 12, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    […] in another article, ”Taksim in Limbo.” They serve to illustrate the previous article, “The Istanbul Seaside,” on that earlier park visit; so do the photos […]

  2. By Romance « Polytropy on October 8, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    […] I find it in Ottoman terminology, reinforced concrete, and Led Zeppelin album covers. Somerset Maugham has a chapter called “Romance” in his collection of notes called On a […]

  3. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XIX « Polytropy on September 21, 2019 at 7:55 am

    […] on women. “Honor” killings are excused this way. Among the meditations of “The Istanbul Seaside,” I noted the absurdity of suggesting, as some men did, that a woman could in any way cause […]

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