Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pamuk and Neoplatonism

This is only marginally related to A Confederacy of Dunces. I just enjoyed the novel My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. One of that novel's main themes is the nature of art and its relation to Islam. It is clear from the philosophical ideas espoused in the book that these Islamic illustrators had been influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas. Confederacy's use of Neoplatonism is Pamuk's connection to this blog.

In "Red," set in the 1590s, the Ottoman Sultan wants his illustrators to create a book with illustrations using the new artistic techniques being pioneered by the western Renaissance. Because of the traditional proscription against idols, many Muslims are suspicious of any representational art. Those illustrators who do create representational art often follow a Platonic theory of representation. You should not draw the horse that is in front of you; you should draw the ideal horse as God envisions it. Illustrators should not have their own individual style but should try to follow the old masters as perfectly as possible. Old illustrators who have mastered their art will even take a stylus and poke out the lenses of their eyes and blind themselves. They then create illustrations from memory, holding in their minds the ideal leaves on the ideal trees. The plot revolves around the disruption in society stemming from the introduction of empirically driven, western artistic techniques.

A Confederacy of Dunces also draws on some Arab influences. I posit in my Dialectic of American Humanism that Toole learned his Neoplatonic ideas and his astrological personality characteristics from Paul Oskar Kristeller, a professor at Columbia. Kristeller was a scholar of the Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino. With regard to Ficino's theories of personality, Kristeller looked favorably on the research of the art historian Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky showed that Renaissance astrology was influenced by the Arab astrologers such as Abu Masar, who created a system of personality characteristics influenced by the stars. Both Ficino and the Arabs held Neoplatonic ideas. By way of Kristeller and Panofsky, Toole used the Arab characteristics of the "child of Saturn" when crafting the character of Ignatius Reilly. In Confederacy, however, this Neoplatonism is mocked in the funhouse mirror of New Orleans Carnival.

I do not necessarily fully understand what Pamuk is striving for in his book, but he seems to treat the Neoplatonic worldview with more respect than Toole does. That having been said, there is a full awareness of the merits of both the more Aristotelian, empirical worldview of the West and the other influences on Islamic culture from China and the East.