This is about figs, because the opening of “The Sixth Elegy” of the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke is about them, and I turn out to live among them.

Fig trees growing like weeds on Ayşecik Sokağı
Fulya, Şişli
November 15, 2021

The fig trees growing like weeds above are seen from the entrance to the apartment building on Ayşecik Sokağı (“Little Aisha Street”) where Ayşe and I live in Istanbul. The street is not named for my wife in particular; still, whoever did name it was being cute – and inclusive. The stairway is nominally the continuation of Ballıca Sokağı (“Rather-honeyed Street”), which leads to an alleyway called Bülbül Sokağı (“Nightingale Street”), which feeds onto Mehmetçik Caddesi, “Little Muhammad Road.” Mehmetçik is well established as a term of endearment for the (male) Turkish soldier.

Fig growing from a crack
Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University
Fındıklı Campus
December 23, 2010

The figs above are growing from the base of what was first the Cemile Sultan Sarayı, built around 1860 for Cemile Sultan, one of the daughters of Sultan Abdülmecid. Her palace would later house the two chambers – Meclis-i Mebusan and Meclis-i Âyan – of the Ottoman Parliament, after a fire at the Çırağan Sarayı. Then the empire would be abolished, and the capital of the new Republic of Turkey created in Ankara.

Having been founded in 1882 by Osman Hamdi Bey, the Mekteb-i Sanayi-i Nefise-i Şâhâne or “School of Art Fine Imperial” in the Persian word order that the Ottomans used, moved to the old palace and parliament building in 1926. The school ultimately became Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, where, a year after I took the fig photo, Ayşe and I would be working, having transferred from Middle East Technical University in Ankara. Meanwhile, the photo below is from the same visit to the seaside campus (which is unfortunately not the one where we work).

Seaside esplanade

I found the 2010 photos when looking for pictures from a visit to Istanbul, in July of that year, during which I bought a translation of the Duino Elegies. Though a Facebook album has a selection of photos from that visit, it seems I have lost the originals in my own computer (perhaps I never saved them).

A fig tree or trees
Kore Şehitleri Caddesi
“Korea Martyrs Road”
Saturday, November 13, 2021

Here is the opening of “Die sechste Elegie” as apparently Rilke wrote it, from the German Wikisource:

FEIGENBAUM, seit wie lange schon ists mir bedeutend,
wie du die Blüte beinah ganz überschlägst
und hinein in die zeitig entschlossene Frucht,
ungerühmt, drängst dein reines Geheimnis.
Wie der Fontäne Rohr treibt dein gebognes Gezweig
abwärts den Saft und hinan: und er springt aus dem Schlaf,
fast nicht erwachend, ins Glück seiner süßesten Leistung.
Sieh: wie der Gott in den Schwan.

I don’t read German though.

A fig tree or trees
Kore Şehitleri Caddesi
November 13, 2021

I don’t read German, but am glad it is provided opposite the translation of Edward Snow in the edition of the Duino Elegies published by North Point Press (2000):

O fig tree, how long I’ve pondered you –
the way you almost skip flowering completely
and release, unheralded, your pure secret
into the sprigs of fruit already poised to ripen.
Like a fountain’s pipe, your bent boughs drive the sap
downward and up: and it leaps from sleep, almost
without waking, into the joy of its sweetest achievement.
Look: like the god into the swan.

A fig tree or trees
Kore Şehitleri Caddesi
November 13, 2021

Here is another translation, available on the web, by A. S. Kline:

Fig-tree, for such a long time now, there has been meaning for me,
in the way you almost wholly omit to flower
and urge your pure secret, unheralded,
into the early, resolute fruit.
Like the jet of a fountain, your arched bough
drives the sap downward, then up: and it leaps from its sleep
barely waking, into the bliss of its sweetest achievement.
See: like the god into the swan.

A fig tree or trees
Gazi Umur Bey Sokağı at Seydi Ali Reis Sokağı
November 15, 2021

For the first few years of graduate school in College Park, Maryland, I lived in a house with a fig tree in the back yard. I paid it little mind, though I did eat some of the figs. I could not see it from my window.

Fig leaves cover the floor of a hotel room

Apparently what Rilke is alluding to is that the skin of the fig surrounds what were once the flowers and have become the fruits, thanks to fertilization by a little wasp. I had no idea of the biology till visiting “Have you ever seen a fig tree blossom?” – part of which is shown above in a photograph from the website of the 14th Istanbul Biennial, 2015. This work by Meriç Algün Ringborg was filled with the scent of the fig leaves (renewed periodically) that covered the floor of a room in the Adahan Hotel in Beyoğlu. A “site-specific installation,” the work consisted of “graphite drawing, plaster cast, fresco, video, fresh figs, marble, plastic, metal, slide show, dried fig leaves collected from local fig trees.”

A fig tree or trees
Kabalak Sokağı
(“Street of the Ottoman Sun Helmet
Οrtaköy (“Middle Village,” Μεσαχώριον)
Monday, November 15, 2021

As I recall from a text that was part of Algün Ringborg’s work (and Ayşe independently confirms my memory), when the artist explored Beyoğlu, looking for fig trees, she would encounter security guards. Learning what she was doing, at least one guard said Olmaz: “It is not [done].”

boxed hardback book standing on table
14th Istanbul Biennial catalogue
September 11, 2015

Algün Ringborg contributed two found essays to the Anthology that makes up 160 pages of Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms, the 540-page catalog of the 14th Istanbul Biennial, “drafted by” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The first, by Walter Benjamin, is called “Fresh Figs” (1930, translated by Rodney Livingstone):

No one who has never eaten a food to excess has ever really experienced it, or fully exposed himself to it. Unless you do this, you at best enjoy it, but never come to lust after it, or make the acquaintance of that diversion from the straight and narrow road of the appetite which leads to the primeval forest of greed. For in gluttony two things coincide: the boundlessness of desire and the uniformity of the food that sates it. Gourmandising means above all else to devour one thing to the last crumb. There is no doubt that it enters more deeply into what you eat than mere enjoyment. For example, when you bite into mortadella as if it were bread, or bury your face in a melon as if it were a pillow, or gorge yourself on caviar out of crackling paper, or, when confronted with the sight of a round Edam cheese, find that the existence of every other food simply vanishes from your mind. – How did I first learn all this? It happened just before I had to make a very difficult decision. A letter had to be posted or torn up. I had carried it around in my pocket for two days, but had not given it a thought for some hours. I then took the noisy narrow-gauge railway up to Secondigliano through the sun-parched landscape. The village lay in still solemnity in the weekday peace and quiet. The only traces of the excitement of the previous Sunday were the poles on which Catherine wheels and rockets had been ignited. Now they stood there bare. Some of them still displayed a sign halfway up with the figure of a saint from Naples or an animal. Women sat in the open barns husking corn. I was walking along in a daze, when I noticed a cart with figs standing in the shade. It was sheer idleness that made me go up to them, sheer extravagance that I bought half a pound for a few soldi. The woman gave me a generous measure. But when the black, blue, bright green, violet and brown fruit lay in the bowl of the scales, it turned out that she had no paper to wrap them in. The housewives of Secondigliano bring their baskets with them, and she was unprepared for globetrotters. For my part, I was ashamed to abandon the fruit. So I left her with figs stuffed to my trouser pockets and in my jacket, figs in both of my outstretched hands, and figs in my mouth. I couldn’t stop eating them and was forced to get rid of the mass of plump fruits as quickly as possible. But that could not be described as eating; it was more like a bath, so powerful was the smell of resin that penetrated all my belongings, clung to my hands and impregnated the air through which I carried my burden. And then, after satiety and revulsion – the final bends in the path – had been surmounted, came the ultimate mountain peak of taste. A vista over an unsuspected landscape of the palate spread out before my eyes – an insipid, undifferentiated, greenish flood of greed that could distinguish nothing but the stringy, fibrous waves of the flesh of the open fruit, the utter transformation of enjoyment into habit, of habit into vice. A hatred of those figs welled up inside me; I was desperate to finish with them, to liberate myself, to rid myself of all this overripe, bursting fruit. I ate to destroy it. Biting had rediscovered its most ancient purpose. When I pulled the last fig from the depths of my pocket, the letter was stuck to it. Its fate was sealed; it, too, had to succumb to the great purification. I took it and tore it into a thousand pieces.

A recipe blog (inactive since 2006) also has the Benjamin text, broken into paragraphs and traced to Frankfurter Zeitung, May 1930.

A fig tree or trees
Kabalak Sokağı
November 15, 2021

The anthology is introduced by Ingo Niermann in “Literature and Concentration”:

One activity that requires a particularly high level of concentration is reading. It involves an enormous narrowing of attention. No other medium conveys less information per unit of time than a text, and no other medium allows for less distraction. Text is the least tolerant medium in competition with other stimuli, and yet it also leaves the most room for your own imagination. Though decoding and comprehending a text occurs largely unconsciously with experienced readers, even trivial texts cannot be understood without consciously focusing on them. If you are listening to someone speak, looking at their face is usually enough to keep your mind on track. At first, reading is impossible without speaking aloud. It takes a lot of practice to read silently, without even an internal voice.

A link to the catalogue is in a tweet of mine (September 11, 2015) that refers to Niermann’s essay.

A fig tree or trees
Kabalak Sokağı
November 15, 2021

The other entry selected by Algün Ringborg is from Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual (1978). It is about jigsaw puzzles, and I in turn select what I think is the key passage:

You can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces.

I was thinking this way when the Republic seminar spent two sessions on the Sun and the Divided Line. Since some participants had not read the Republic before, I had thought it might be better not to delay our reaching the end. I am not sure I was right.

A fig tree or trees
Kabalak Sokağı
November 15, 2021

I recall too a passage that, it turns out, I also recalled when writing about poetry seven years ago, after a session at the Cemile Sultan Sarayı by the Bosphorus. On a voyage to the Dutch East Indies, 1938–9, making notes for what was supposed to be “The Principles of History,” Collingwood wrote,

The Comparative Method … is the apotheosis of anti-historicism in a positivistic interest. You cease to care about what a thing is, and amuse yourself by saying what it is like. (A critical discussion of the idea of similarity would be useful here.)

I am amusing myself by trying to make connections. I cannot say I illuminate Rilke. I may be as clueless about the Duino Elegies as the middle-aged couple are about philosophy in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life:

WAITER: Good evening! Uhh, would you care for something to … talk about?

MR. HENDY: What is this one here?

WAITER: Uhh, that’s ‘philosophy’.

MRS. HENDY: Is that a sport?

WAITER: Aah, no, it’s more of an attempt to, uh, construct a viable hypothesis to, uh, explain the meaning of life.

MR. HENDY: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Would you like to talk about the meaning of life, darling?

MRS. HENDY: Sure. Why not?

WAITER: Philosophy for two?

MR. HENDY: Right.

WAITER: Oh, uhh, you folks want me to start you off?

MR. HENDY: Oh, really, we’d appreciate that.

WAITER: … look. Have you ever wondered … just why you’re here?

MR. HENDY: Well, we went to Miami last year and California the year before that, and we’ve –

WAITER: No, no, no. I mean, uh, w– why we’re here … on this planet.

MR. HENDY: Hmmm. No.

WAITER: Right! Aaah, you ever wanted to know what it’s all about?

MR. HENDY: Nope.


WAITER: Right-o! Aah, well, uh, see, throughout history, …

MR. HENDY: M-hmm.

WAITER: … there have been certain men and women who have tried to find the solution to the mysteries of existence, …

MRS. HENDY: G-reat.

WAITER: … and we call these guys ‘philosophers’!


MRS. HENDY: And that’s what we’re talking about.

WAITER: Right!

MR. HENDY: Yeah.

MRS. HENDY: Ohh, that’s neat!

WAITER: Well, you look like you’re getting the idea, so why don’t I give you these, uh, conversation cards? They’ll tell you a little about philosophical method, …


WAITER: … names of famous philosophers, – Uh, there you are. Uhh, have a nice conversation!

MR. HENDY: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

MRS. HENDY: He’s cute.

MR. HENDY: Yeah, real –


MR. HENDY: Real understanding. Mmm.

MRS. HENDY: Oh! I never knew Schopenhauer was a philosopher!

MR. HENDY: Oh, yeah! He’s the one that begins with an ‘S’.


MR. HENDY: Umm, like, uh, ‘Nietzsche’.

MRS. HENDY: Does ‘Nietzsche’ begin with an ‘S’?

MR. HENDY: Uh, there’s an ‘s’ in ‘Nietzsche’.

MRS. HENDY: Oh, wow. Yes, there is. Do all philosophers have an ‘s’ in them?

MR. HENDY: Uh, yeah! I think most of ’em do.

MRS. HENDY: Oh. Does that mean Selina Jones is a philosopher?

MR. HENDY: Yeah! Right! She could be! She sings about the meaning of life.

MRS. HENDY: Yeah. That’s right, but I don’t think she writes her own material.

MR. HENDY: No. Oh, maybe Schopenhauer writes her material.

MRS. HENDY: No. Burt Bacharach writes it.

MR. HENDY: But there’s no ‘s’ in ‘Burt Bacharach’.

MRS. HENDY: Or in ‘Hal David’.

MR. HENDY: Who’s Hal David?

MRS. HENDY: He writes the lyrics. Burt just writes the tunes, only now, he’s married to Carole Bayer Sager.

MR. HENDY: Oh, waiter. This conversation isn’t very good.

John Cleese was the waiter there; as Basil Fawlty, he had abused the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Recently some young people felt abused by him because of a tweet of his containing a “woke joke.”

A fig tree or trees
Palanga Caddesi
November 15, 2021

It makes perfect sense that it would exist, but I didn’t know about it till I read,

One of the most popular genres of movie “criticism” on the internet right now is the “ending EXPLAINED” video, where any ambiguity or multiplicity of meaning you felt at the end of the film you’ve just seen can be cleared away like spilled popcorn. How did Jack Nicholson get into that old photograph at the end of The Shining? Is Travis Bickle dead at the end of Taxi Driver? Is Deckard a replicant?

That’s from Aisling McCrea, “Satanic Panics and the Death of Mythos” (Current Affairs, February 2021), where the concern is that people want only logos, and this means clear answers. Those people include evangelical Christians, and this makes sense, if their very God is Logos. Aisling does not seem to pick up on this point, although this very fact may lend weight to her perception that

it’s logos that they [evangelicals] love, and mythos they have no use for. For example, other schools of Christianity could understand Genesis as truth without it being literally true; God could have handed down to mortals a story about the Earth’s creation that imparted some kind of divine meaning, without negating everything logos told us about evolution and cosmology. But to fundamentalists, the Bible being true meant the Earth must have been made in seven days, because the Bible is the Word of God and every word of it is true, and true means materially and logically and scientifically true.

Passing from the Bible to art – art in general, I would say – Aisling laments that people don’t get it.

This rejection of imagery, symbolism, or any higher meaning that cannot be reduced to the literal, has become especially pervasive in contemporary art criticism. This is not to say that there isn’t still great art criticism; it’s just that the internet has led to a much greater volume of all criticism, and much of it is dominated by a worldview that seems to reject metaphor, symbolism, mood and tone, or at least render them secondary to “plot.”

Hence the “ending explained” videos. Nobody wants to lose the plot!

A fig tree or trees
Palanga Caddesi
November 15, 2021

My American friend on the Asian side of Istanbul coincidentally sent me a sentence from Mina Urgan, whose celebration of Mustafa Kemal I have blogged about. In Shakespeare ve Hamlet (s. 330) she apparently says:

Çünkü bir matematik probleminin bir tek doğru çözümü vardır, ama bir sanat yapıtının doğru sayılması gereken bir tek nesnel ve kesin yorum olamaz.

Because a mathematical problem has a single correct solution, but no single objective and definite interpretation can be needed to count an artwork correct.

I have given my English interpretation, but am not sure that Urgan is willing to count an artwork as “correct” at all.

A fig tree or trees
Mustafa İzzet Efendi Sokağı
November 15, 2021

Rilke apparently worked on the ten Duino Elegies for ten years (1912–22) until he could judge them as finished.

A work by Meriç Algün Ringborg appeared also in the 12th Istanbul Biennial, 2011. It was a Swedish-Turkish dictionary, of which visitors such as myself could take home a copy. There are 1270 words, each of which is spelled exactly the same in Turkish and Swedish, and I used the dictionary as an example in “Discrete Logarithms.”

One Trackback

  1. By Imagination « Polytropy on December 3, 2021 at 10:55 am

    […] see this in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (the sixth of which inspired the post called “Figs”). The first of the Elegies […]

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