The Feral and the Sublime: On Animals and Trees in Turkey

March 21, 2020   •   By Birger Vanwesenbeeck

Animals and the Environment in Turkish Culture

Kim Fortuny

THAT IS NO COUNTRY for old men. In William Butler Yeats’s classic poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” the aged poet leaves Ireland — with its “birds in the trees,” its “salmon-falls,” its “mackerel-crowded seas” — for the stilled monumentality of the eponymous Turkish city. Even 90 years on, the poem remains an instructive exercise in Orientalist gazing, especially when considered alongside Yeats’s equally famous “Easter, 1916” poem. To be sure, the poem is allegorical — Byzantium is as much an idea as a reference to the actual city — but the fact is that such allegories are part of an established Orientalist tradition. Yeats’s poem presents itself as a sequel of sorts to Voltaire’s Candide; the philosophical garden that readers are urged to cultivate, in the novel’s famous final scene, is notably located on Oriental soil, just outside of Istanbul.

Even so, Yeats’s case is more curiously damning than Voltaire’s. By 1928, the year when “Sailing to Byzantium” was published, the Turkish republic, which grew out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, was in its fifth year of existence, following an emancipatory political struggle not unlike the one fought by Yeats’s countrymen. Nowhere would this parallel have been more apparent than in English-occupied Istanbul, where Turkish “home rule” had to be wrested from the very same adversary who denied it to the Irish at home. Not to acknowledge this parallel requires remarkable ideological blinkers. Whereas Yeats is able to see a “terrible beauty” in the Easter Rising sacrifices of Connolly and Pearse, he is unable to see how a comparable (and contemporaneous!) political dawn (or resurrection) has occurred on the Bosporus strait. Here no “vivid faces” or “[h]earts with one purpose alone.” Instead, Yeats’s imagined Istanbul is to remain forever Byzantium, a mausoleum stuck in time, a geriatric home of sorts where a “drowsy Emperor” presides over a collection of museum artifacts. Fittingly, the only animal reference haunting this stilted landscape (in contrast to the animated fish and fowl of the opening stanza) is that of a mechanical bird, perched atop “a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” That is no city, then, for animals, whether young or old.

Yet as the Istanbul-based scholar Kim Fortuny shows in her vibrant new study Animals and the Environment in Turkish Culture: Ecocriticism and Transnational Literature (I. B. Tauris, 2019), animal life in the Turkish megalopolis (current population: 15,000,000) is thriving. From the omnipresence of street cats (the subject of the 2016 documentary Kedi) and dogs to the European White Stork, whose biannual spring and fall migrations pass over the Bosporus strait, wildlife resists construction and suburban sprawl. Fortuny, a poetry scholar whose previous publications include a monograph on the travel poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and a study about American writers in Istanbul, returns to the stomping ground of that earlier book — except that now, save for a brief chapter on Melville’s Istanbul diary, her focus is on Turkish writers, both past and present, and their various reflections on the role of nature and wildlife in the city.

Animal studies monographs that focus exclusively on a non-Western and non-Anglophone context are relatively rare. And if her fusing of the personal and the academic constitutes a fairly common approach in such studies, it comes as something of a welcome change to see the anecdotal enter the scholarly discourse, not via that locus classicus, the scholar’s pet (as in Derrida’s discussion of his cat in the much anthologized essay “The Animal That Therefore I Am”), but with regard to “the feral.” The animals (and even the trees) at the heart of Animals and the Environment in Turkish Culture are, in short, not the domesticated kind but rather roam and proliferate freely in their urban environments, sometimes, as in Fortuny’s account of a chance encounter with a sea turtle off the Turkish Mediterranean coast, passing through on their way to other places.

It may be something of a stretch to extend the notion of the feral to trees, particularly if those trees happen to belong to a city park such as Gezi Park in central Istanbul. But here, it’s helpful to recall that, back in 2013, the Turkish government planned to demolish this particular park in order to replace it with a shopping complex, sparking a wave of protests and demonstrations that occupied the park for weeks on end. Clearly, something fundamental — call it ancient, primeval, or feral — had been triggered by the prospect of seeing one of the last green zones in the center of the city disappear. As Fortuny recounts, protesters hung out, they listened to music, they were sprayed by tear gas, they read. And they hung quotations from the Turkish modernist poet Nâzim Hikmet on trees. Why Hikmet? wonders Fortuny, finding clues both in Hikmet’s biography, well known to most Turks (a communist, he spent much of his life behind bars and, later on, in exile), and in his poetry’s particular evocation of nature as a homeland of sorts. As she points out, the Turkish word for citizen, vatandaş, is derived from the term vatan, which means both “home” and “soil.” In general, the natural, the political, and the notion of belonging are, for Turks, inextricably entwined, as in Hikmet’s poetry.

Arguably, the art of poetry is feral, Hikmet’s in particular. As the most ancient of literary forms, it speaks to us as nature does, making the presence of verse hanging on trees, for all of its staging, seem natural. It also helps explain why the Turkish homeland evoked in Hikmet’s poetry retains un-annexable elements, even as it is made to fit various nationalist and activist agendas. Following in the footsteps of the Romantics, he writes in the prison poem “About Mount Uludagh,” quoted by Fortuny in the translation of Mutlu Konuk:

For seven years now Uludagh and I
Have stared each other in the eye.
It hasn’t budged an inch
and neither have I
yet we know each other well.
Like anything living, it can laugh and get mad.

More so than the sublime, itself the focus of a later chapter in Animals and the Environment in Turkish Culture, what is being described here is the feral in nature. The lyrical I, gazing at Mount Uludagh (Turkish spelling: Uludağ) from within the confines of his prison cell, is no leisurely wanderer beholding a panoramic mountain range, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting. Neither does the mountain refuse knowledge as the sublime is traditionally said to (“We know each other well,” so the poet states). For all of its knowability, the mountain does, however, maintain its distance (“It hasn’t budged an inch”) from the imprisoned poet, thus reinforcing the contrast with Friedrich’s wanderer who finds himself enveloped by the mist and mountain landscape he beholds. If awe and terror are the epithets traditionally ascribed to the sublime, then what Hikmet’s lyrical I experiences is what, for lack of a better term, one might call familiar deference. Precisely because the lyrical I knows the mountain well, he knows it to harbor similar moods to his own: “Like anything living, it can laugh and get mad.”

Not exactly anthropomorphic, it places man and mountain on equal footing within their broader ecosystem. If there is terror in the threat that the mountain poses, then it is more precisely the beginning thereof, as with the worldly angels (“every angel is terrifying”) populating Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Beauty, so we read here (in the translation of A. S. Kline), “is nothing but / the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear / and we revere it so because it calmly disdains / to destroy us.” If it wanted to, the Uludagh mountain might well destroy the lyrical I (and the prison compound with him) but it “hasn’t budged an inch”: it neither heeds nor needs us. The feral is ultimately another word for nature’s radical indifference toward us.

Small wonder then that, as Rilke’s elegy goes on to argue, “we are not really at home / in this interpreted world” of ours, in contrast with the “resourceful animals” who, lacking our superior cognitive abilities, are fully integrated in their landscapes. One such resourceful animal at the heart of Fortuny’s book is the Istanbul street dog, the subject of a fascinating chapter. If Yeats’s mechanical golden bird stands at one end of the city’s imagined fauna, then the Istanbul street dog stands at the other, a comparably near-mythical, but nonetheless very real, creature whose centuries-long presence in the city has alternately been celebrated and eschewed, both in the name of tradition and of modernity. A first large-scale attempt to eradicate the dogs is said to have occurred at the instigation of the Orthodox Muslim community, although others say it was a Frenchman or Englishman who complained to the city’s rulers about the dogs. Under the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (1861–1876), Istanbul’s street dogs were rounded up and shipped to the nearby deserted islands in the Sea of Marmara. And in what is arguably the most gruesome of these anecdotal histories of organized canicide, many of Istanbul’s dogs were shipped off to Marseille at the beginning of the 20th century at the behest of French industrialists trading in leather, bone meal, fertilizer, and oil. Today many Istanbulites feed the dogs. Others stand in deference to them. Although the Qur’an stipulates that all animals are souls and therefore deserving of our sympathy and care, many Sunni Muslims believe that the touch of a dog is haram or forbidden. Today’s secular Turks, meanwhile, find themselves torn between an unconditional commitment to animal wellness and the Western notion that dogs belong in households, not on the street. Neither wild nor tame, the Istanbul street dog is thus a profoundly ambivalent signifier not unlike another Turkish symbol, the headscarf, a sign of oppression and stilted tradition for some, a modern sign of identity assertion for others. As Fortuny puts it succinctly, “[T]he Istanbul street dog, serving no clear or tangible purpose to modern man, lacks a concrete definition. Roaming outside and beyond the traditional lexicons and taxonomies of civilized society, the feral dog belongs to another place and another time.”

Given her focus on the feral, it is no wonder that Fortuny repeatedly expresses dissatisfaction with existing theories of ecocriticism even as she acknowledges her debt to them. Her critique of Donna Haraway’s account of an encounter with Puerto Rican street dogs offers a case in point,

Despite the truly revolutionary ideas proposed in The Companion Species Manifesto and elsewhere in Haraway’s oeuvre, one notes a certain loss of momentum when the focus migrates from domestic to feral dogs […] Although Haraway exposes her struggle with the problem of the foreign street dog, she nevertheless does not engage critically, at least here, with a notion of place consciousness when place is a feral space rather than a human home, an animal shelter, or the wild.

Part of what is at stake here, Fortuny reasons, is the Western scholar’s relative unfamiliarity and discomfort with encountering the feral in an urban context. Within so-called First World cities, street animals are quickly put down or moved to shelters, and so have become nearly extinct. Not so, however, in cities like San Juan or Istanbul or various places in the Global South. How to make sense of this curious feral presence amid the urban? How to do so in a way that neither repeats the colonial gaze of Yeats nor that of more diplomatically veiled contemporary versions? Such is the political task that Fortuny has set herself in Animals and the Environment in Turkish Culture. That she is so clearly able to recognize and diagnose these stakes is because she recognizes them as her own. As she writes of the Istanbul street dog, “American-born residents of Istanbul, like me, struggle to make room for her in our own imported frames of reference.” Rethinking those imported frames of reference is something that Animals and the Environment in Turkish Culture urges readers to do time and again, which constitutes its central contribution (and challenge) to the field of ecocriticism as we know it.


Birger Vanwesenbeeck is professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia.