Oğuz Atay’s s Novel “The Disconnected” from Habitus Perspective

DOI:  10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-11


In 1972, the Turkish literary world and Turkish readers were introduced to the novel, The Disconnected  by the young writer, Oğuz Atay. The avant-garde writer’s fear of being misunderstood was confirmed. The multi-layered structure of the novel, interrelation of fable and story, real story/fiction of structural oppositions, non-fictional/fictional/metafictional multiplicity, eclectic nature of protagonists, critical self-reflection, mythological-religious (clearly expressed Christian) archetypes, breaking the “classical story” had the novel evaluated as a deviation from the literary law, as an anomaly, oddity. Notwithstanding these comments, the novel has a very simple plot at first glance. The plot, the narrative of events is based on the relationship of two friends, one of whom ends his life by suicide, and the other tries to discover the causes of his suicide. He glues the fragmented life of his deceased friend together like a broken glass vessel and presents it as a whole structure. Presenting a monolithic image pushes him to get to know himself better. As a result of critical self-reflection, he becomes convinced of the absurdity of his own existence and finds the solution not in suicide, but in disappearing. As Turkish literary critic, Hilmi Yavuz admits, they all recognized the importance of Oğuz Atay’s novel later on; as he noted, even if its essence had been given due consideration, the novel would still not have been able to become part of literary agenda of that time [Ecevit, 2014:305].  It will be reasonable here to overview Turkish literary canon of the 70s of the 20th century (and not only this period). From the second half of the 19th century, the geo-cultural situation of the Ottoman Empire changed drastically. The Persian-Arabic literary tradition could no longer respond to the new challenges of the “new times” with usual effectiveness. The then-prevailing historical context itself determined the necessity of the pro-European course. This brought about the introduction of the Tanzimât Fermânı in 1839.   The establishment of the European concept, as Ratiani [2018:84] noted, led to the replacement of the mytho-poetic characteristics of Eastern poetry with the historical-cultural narrative of Western poetry. “Historical-cultural narrative” had a strongly politicized character - strong politicization of the subject and intensive reflection of social issues can even be considered as the main marker of the Turkish literature. The oppositional pairs of the East and the West, the oppressor and the oppressed, the officials and the ordinary people, the city and the village are issues that are given an important place in Turkish literature. In the Turkish literature of the 70s, the issue of the right-wing and left-wing conflict, the “rural novel” and, therefore, socialist realism, were brought to the fore. Oğuz Atay aimed at depoliticization and desocialization of literature, which, of course, caused the unhappiness of his contemporary writers and literary critics - he was called the author who writes whatever comes to his head. After the publication of the novel, the Turkish literary society chose to remain silent. Everyone refrained from evaluating the novel, being limited to general, introductory letters only. Faruk Haksal wrote in a newspaper article that the literary school of that time behaved strangely by being silent about the novel, as if  they were in hiding [Ecevit, 2014: 309].  And the reason for being “in hiding” was the deconstruction of the conservative structural models. The first criticism of the novel, The Disconnected, came from the writer, Mehmet Seyda, according to whom, the novel focused too much on unnecessary details and on demonstrating what the author knows and what he is not aware of putting everything that he could think of in writing [Ecevit, 2014:307]. Eventually, the author was even accused of writing an “humanless” novel. The reason for the “failure” was that it did not comply with the requirements that novels were supposed to meet. The Turkish literature used to focus on the didactic nature of the novel and its role to guide the reader – the novel neither responded to the political processes nor followed the social discourse of that period. Nevertheless, this attitude changed over time. In the 80s and 90s, re-reading of Oğuz Atay’s work even developed into a kind of trend. While studying the 20th century literary schools, theories, concepts and literary movements, literary critics and theorists who specialize in European languages and literature redirect their focus from the author to the text itself. As Orhan Pamuk wrote, the author’s level of emotionality, manner of describing things he focuses on, fears, distrust, irony, dialogue with himself all reminded Orhan Pamuk of himself - if he were 20 years older, he might have authored this novel himself [Pamuk, 2013:189]. Notably, the influence of Oğuz Atay on Orhan Pamuk’s literary taste is rather striking. Oğuz Atay is a writer standing on the verge of modernism and postmodernism; his work is both filled with scepticism and crisis, which is characteristic of modernism, as well as simulacra, irony, intertextuality, all characteristic of postmodernism.

As mentioned earlier, the “anomaly“ of the novel was determined by the strictly dogmatized nature of the literary canon and the reader’s taste. Its essence had also been understood differently. The suicide of the main character was considered a weakness. The unique features of the novel – its structural models, the social environment depicted in it and the reflection of the protagonists, the disposition and reflecting on the issue of establishing oneself in society or not being able to do so, taking into account the concept of habitus developed by Pierre Bourdieu – make it possible to follow the process of turning “an empirical individual” into “an epistemological individual”, which is believed to be the novel’s main message.

The term “habitus” was coined by Boethius as a translation of the term, “hexis” used by Aristotle. Then it was actively used in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and Scholastics. Later, this term was further developed in the works of Hegel, Husserl, Weber, Durkheim and Mauss. Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding and purpose of the term differ conceptually from the interpretations of the said authors. The essence of the term, “habitus” lies in its dual nature. From morphological perspective, habitus reminds one of the word - “habitude”, which means “a habit” in French. In this respect, they are even similar to each other. Like habitus, habit is formed through multiple repetition.  Interestingly, Mauss reflected on the said term stating the following: “Please note that I use the Latin word-it should be understood in France-habitus. The word translates infinitely better than 'habitude' (habit or custom), the 'exis', the 'acquired ability' and 'faculty' of Aristotle (who was a psychologist). It does not designate those metaphysical habitudes, that mysterious 'memory', the subjects of volumes or short and famous theses. These 'habits' do not just vary with individuals and their imitations, they vary especially between societies, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges” [Berdzenishvili, 2018:160]. The concept, “habitus” established by Pierre Bourdieu refers to mental or cognitive structures, which help people orient themselves in social reality and act accordingly [Berdzenishvili, 2018:146]. In social reality, habitus can be acquired as a result of having experienced a certain state for a long time. Accordingly, in the social world, habitus differ according to the individual’s  position. In a specific period of time, habitus is developed in the course of collective history. Bourdieu writes that habitus, which is the end-product of history, produces individual and collective practices and therefore, creates history according to the patterns created by history itself  [Berdzenishvili, 2019:159]. Habitus creates social reality and at the same time, is itself created by this reality. On the one hand, habitus is a “structuring structure”, that is, a structure that creates the social world; on the other hand, it is a “structured structure”, that is, a structure created by the social world. According to Bourdieu, habitus is the ability to structure practice (social life); it is a system of moods (dispositions), which is both objective and subjective - habitus combines the subject’s bodily movements with an objective social will [Kachkachishvili, 2014: 62]. The concept of habitus cannot be understood without the social field. The concept of “field” implies a multidimensional environment of social positions in which agents take on different positions. Having introduced the concept of field, Bourdieu attempted to further the understanding of habitus; it highlights the struggles between groups in the field for supremacy and social distinction. Each field is semi-autonomous and comprises self-determining entities and their respective fields. An individual’s cultural capital (skill) is a product of habitus, and a specific field is the objectified history that makes the habitus of the subject, who accumulates his/her skills in this field, real. Habitus is self-reflexive - it discovers itself in the form of an embodied objectified history [Kachkachishvili, 2014: 66]. There should also be an emphasis on the Bourdieu’s way of understanding disposition deeming it an integral part of habitus. It is the representation of individuals’ perception of their own situation, as well as schemes of action, thinking, and evaluation. The disposition reflects the subjective aspect of the social space, thus being different from the social position, which determines the real place of the individual in the social space and speaks of the objective aspect of the said space.

Through the concept of habitus and observing the protagonists of the novel, this paper will attempt to answer the following questions:

a) What kind of fields and habitus does the reader find in the novel?

b) Does the habitus, formed under the influence of the objective social environment and supported by preconceived schemes, change as a result of the new schemes included in it by the individual?

The story of the protagonists is told in such a manner that the focus of narrative is constantly changing. There is also uncertainty on whether a novel has one particular main character. While the story of one character, Turgut Özben, follows a chronological framework, the story of the other character, Selim Işık, is in constant dissonance with time. Oftentimes, there are so many voices united in the characters of Turgut and Selim that the novel assumes the nature of a “polyphonic novel”. The reader is first introduced to Turgut Özben.

It all started in the second half of the twentieth century, one night at Turgut’s place. Back then, there was no Olric, [he didn’t exist]; and Turgut was not so perplexed. Sitting at home, at a midnight, he was thinking. Selim, like everyone in these situations does, had left something like a letter a few days ago, and gratuitously left the world” [Atay, 2008:25]. Turgut Özben is a young, successful engineer with a wife and two children. He is a typical representative of the bourgeois class. The social field which he belongs to is the bourgeois class. His belonging to the said stratum is revealed first of all in the description of the place where he lives, which is very different from the arrangement and layout of a typical oriental house – a salon-salle-a-manger in the front, two bedrooms at the back, the kitchen-stack room-bathroom on the right of the corridor; on one side of the walls, there are framed pictures that he himself drew, while the other side of the wall is painted and empty - a striking example of modern art’s contribution to bourgeois existence [Atay, 2008:26]. Turgut spent his childhood with a religious father and an excessively strict mother. The school was followed by the university, and the university was followed by the position of a chief engineer in one of the companies. It was at the university that he met Selim Işık. At the initial stage, the friendship with Selim does not free him from the habitus that is structured by the schemes of the petty bourgeois class dispositions. On the contrary, he is an important part of the gatherings of the petty bourgeoisie. The monotonous life that the engineer, Turgut Özben leads is like the edge of a blunt knife that is no longer capable of causing pain. People trapped in the world of pseudo-values, “Homo Faberish” world are like molluscs. A cheap, fake, tasteless society, where happiness is measured by material well-being, where everyone has a single concern - to accumulate as much wealth as possible, to buy an apartment, cars, furniture - this is the kind of society and the social space Turgut Özben is an integral part of. His concerns are focused on being promoted at work, purchasing a new car and an apartment. This way of life is his choice - he is guided by the thought patterns, skills and habits that are defined in him by the norms and codes of the society. In similar conditions of existence, corresponding habits are formed, which Bourdieu calls “homological” habitus. Turgut Özben is the representative of the homologous habitus at the initial stage. However, habitus tend to experience a reflection, which is possible by incorporating new schemes into it.  Again, Turgut Özben confirms this. The bourgeois society described in the novel is like a machine - if even a small part of your clothes is caught within its cogwheel, you have to completely strip your clothes off to escape. And nakedness symbolically takes a person back to the beginning – he/she should get clothed again in order to survive. Turgut Özben’s act of donning once again is connected with the suicide of his closest friend, Selim Işık.

Selim is an intellectual young man in the novel who prefers to stay away from the petty-bourgeois social field. He assigns himself and people like him to a separate social field, with separate habitus. Selim Işık writes a paper about “The disconnected” where he compares them to an animal. “Discinectus erectus: A clumsy and easily frightened animal. Some can even be the size of a human being. In fact, at first glance, they even look like humans. The grip of his claws is weak. He is incapable of climbing hills, and comes down a slope by sliding (frequently falling as he does so). He has almost no hair on his body; he has large eyes but weak sight (…)”  [Atay, 2008:149]. Because they carry some dangerous germs, the Healthcare Department of the City allowed them to reside only outside the city [Atay, 2008:149]. Selim emphatically points out that he and the individuals that are like him are doomed to loneliness and alienation in a society fed by pseudo-values. Selim always seeks a human being. Having been accused of writing an “humanless” novel, the author of the novel was taken by surprise and wrote that his goal was merely to tell a story about a human being; he acknowledged that even those writers who had a narrow mindset would be very angry because of his attempt claiming that it was their job to reflect on a human being; his aim was to emphasize the simple truth – he was not one of those great writers who had people play like puppets on a string; indeed, he felt great respect for people, especially for the disconnected and felt for them [Ecevit, 2014: 242]. Selim Işık’s short life (28 years) is spent in search of people. Although he has many friends, none of them can adapt to his different habitus. Selim’s critical self-reflection irritates everyone; they see in him a clear reflection of their own hidden, distorted nature. He was rejected owing to his sincerity and humanity and accused of trying to deviate from the conventional path. He was reprimanded in the following manner:  “You, who was the child yesterday, dare and teach us a lesson? We have already done what we were supposed to do; it seems, we had not lived before you turned up (…)   Who are you?   Where you have come from? Who sent you to us? Someone call the guard and get rid of him” [Atay, 2008:388]. Selim Işık’s habitus can be called “existential habitus” since his thoughts and mindset are entirely taken by the philosophy of love, life and death. Selim achieves inner freedom through the reflection on his own existence. He lives by the values of Musil, Dostoevsky, Camus, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. He is somewhat similar to Don Quixote, but he is also the representative of a completely different social field and habitus. In a country where everyone is trying to find a place, Selim chooses to be an outcast. His attitude towards life is demonstrated in the form of a game. The alternative to linear, mercantile, petty-bourgeois existence is literature for him. Life spans of the hero are determined according to which writer he reads – there are periods of Gorky, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde. The protagonist’s last name, Işık, is associated with light - his personality is pure and full of fear. Since childhood, he has been trying to adapt to social norms, to justify the hopes set on him; quasi-normative relationships suffocate his soul. “I’m tired and no one can see this; they take my heartache as a joke. Only ignorant people can think like that. I don’t talk to anyone much anymore; I’m upset with them, although they don’t even know it. Once I leave, nobody remembers me, nobody cares for me, because I don’t deserve it. Well, I’m upset with them too. If I meet someone on the street, I force myself to smile. I try not to reveal my feelings. I don’t understand what they feel either. They don’t show anything through their face expression. That’s why I don’t want to see their faces. They are the cause of my sufferings. But they act casually and confidently as if nothing happened moving on with their daily lives. Maybe I’m the only one that is tired and forced to live like this”  [Atay, 2008:592]. Archetypes are thought to play an important role in the formation of habitus. In the novel, the archetype of Jesus unites all “Selim-like” individuals. Selim actively reads the Gospel. Its moral values, the concept of “illuminating the darkened hearts” of people and the salvation of souls, are based on the life and martyrdom of Jesus Christ. He establishes a direct connection with Jesus in the dimension of internal, subjective time; Selim writes letters and even talks to him daily.

Dear Jesus,

I am so sorry for what happened. I know that I am to blame. I have been thinking about you all the time for days. I am like glued to your book. You are right in all cases. If yesterday  I had known what I think today, everything would be different now. But, if we happen to meet again, you will see how I become a man as you wish. I have changed so much that you will not recognize me. On Wednesday, my parents will not be at home. We can talk in peace if you can come here. Yours affectionately, Selim” [Atay, 2008:154]. Selim identifies humanity’s betrayal, crucifixion of Christ and failure to recognize him with his own existence and life. He is constantly thinking about how to bring society out of darkness, how to become an example with his own life. “We deliberated on how to make people happy until midnight; Selim struggled driving himself to the limit” [Atay, 2008:16]. Selim hopes that after the Second Advent, all to be blamed will sit on the judgment seat. The archetype of Jesus embodies virtuousness, compassion, humanity in Selim’s personality. His suicide is ontological in nature; he chooses this path consciously. This is the only way he can awaken other people. For Selim, Jesus is a symbol of the power that can be accountable for our lives. He was “crucified” by society just like Jesus. Turgut changes his habitus only after Selim’s suicide. He discovers the absurdity of his own existence through looking into the causes of Selim’s death. “How could the protagonist of cheap life, the last representative of cheap chivalry novels say no the grace and perks of the kingdom of molluscs” [Atay 2008:314]. Turgut’s searching involves journey within himself. His last name also bears that implication: Öz-ben means return to oneself. Turgut skirts away from his own social field - he leaves his family and starts traveling to different cities, and finally his trace is lost. Before his complete disappearing, Turgut realizes that he no longer wants the “old” life, the life that is determined by others, the life that is full of “dead remains” where there is nothing “living” in it. “I don’t want to live according to their wishes, I want to write the preface of my life myself, I want to create a new language, a language that expresses who I really am. I don’t want to be a continuation of any tradition, I’m not Karagöz  for people to sit and watch, this is not a puppet theatre, here the person has his soul tormented”  [Atay 2008:514].

Considering the concept of habitus in the novel and the example of the protagonists, two social fields and habitus characteristic of these fields could be identified. Dispositions characteristic of the bourgeois class consist of solid structural models accumulated in the vast part of the society. And these models may change over time based on radically different schemes. Just as Turgut Özben’s “homological” habitus got replaced by Selim Işık’s “existential” habitus. In the novel, the “act of replacement” is defined as intensively as the act of suicide per se.


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თანამედროვე სოციოლოგიური თეორიები, თბილისი.
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