work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

sufi and cinematic imagination

01.21.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Slowly making my way through Elif Şafak’s Pinhan I’ve come across these lines, in which the protagonist’s favourite Sufi teachers are described thus:

‘Kul Hüseyin ile Budala Tosun dudaklarından tebbesüm eksik olmayan, ağızlarından bal damlayan, kimsenin kusurunu görmeyen dervişlerdi. Adeta tüm ömürlerini, dâr-ül hayal ile dâr-ül hakikati birbirinden ayıran hatt-ı fasılı silmeye vakfetmişler.’ (Şafak 2001: 18)

‘Kul Hüseyin and Budala Tosun were dervishes whose lips never lacked a smile, from whose mouths dripped honey and who never saw fault in anyone. They had dedicated their whole lives to wiping away the dividing line between the realm of imagination and the realm of reality.’ (my translation)

One could say that Şafak here characterises the work of the Sufi as cinematic – in the sense that Walter Benjamin celebrates the cinematic imagination as welcome intrusion into the grey modern day life.

‘Unsere Kneipen und Großstadtstraßen, unsere Büros und möblierten Zimmer, unsere Bahnhöfe und Fabriken schienen uns hoffnungslos einzuschließen. Da kam der Film und hat diese Kerkerwelt mit dem Dynamit der Zehntelsekunden gesprengt, so daß wir nun zwischen ihren weitverstreuten Trümmern gelassen abenteuerlich Reisen unternehmen.’ (Benjamin 1963: 41)

‘Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.’ (Benjamin 2005)

In traditional Marxist manner, it would be easy to dismiss both the Sufi and the cinematic imagination as ideological veils – or one could see both as carrying a utopian potential that transcends the societal orders that produced them. As Appadurai puts it:

On the one hand, it is in and through the imagination that modern citizens are disciplined and controlled – by states, markets, and other powerful interests. But it is also the faculty through which collective patterns of dissent and new designs for collective life emerge.’ (Appadurai 2001)


Appadurai, Arjun (2001): ‘Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination’, A Appdurai (ed.): Globalization,Durham: Duke University Press.

Benjamin, Walter (1963) [1936]: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Benjamin, Walter (2005): The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marxist Internet Archive

Şafak, Elif (2001): Pinhan, İstanbul: Doğan Kitap

2 Responses to “sufi and cinematic imagination”

  1. Michael Hauskeller says:

    All true what you say about the ambivalence of imagination, its enslaving and liberating potential, but why do you call the blurring of the boundaries between the real and the imaginary “cinematic”? Isn’t it also a characteristic of literature, or at least some forms of literature, to “wipe away the dividing line between the realm of imagination and the realm of reality”?

  2. Oh yes, definitely. I’ve only gone for the cinematic imagination because the Benjamin quote was the first thing that sprang to mind when reading this passage in Pinhan (which, of course, is a novel itself, wiping away on the hatt-ı fasıl, the dividing line). In my book cinema is much more an heir to the novel than it is to drama and photography – and the fact that such a great number of films are based on novels (and hardly any on plays) seems to justify that view. I’m particularly fascinated by novels that do not just enable you to cross the hatt-ı fasıl but in which such crossings are also thematic (I’ve got a weak spot for Phillip Pullman…).

    This is in the context of me writing about possible links between the emergence of consumerism in Turkey and the fact that Turkish Islam is very much Sufi inspired (i.e. Sufism playing a similar part in the development of consumer culture in Turkey as, according to Colin Campbell, Romanticism has played in Britain).
    One issue that fascinates me with both the Romantic and the Sufi imagination is that despite proclamations to the contrary, however far journeys into different realities are undertaken, there always seems to be a return into Reality with a capital R. You leave the cinema, lay aside the novel, put down the game console to go back to work or meet friends – and the ecstatic experiences of the Sufi are also always limited in terms of the this-worldly time-space continuum. On the one hand this could be seen as the way how both the post-romantic consumer pleasures and spirituality are nothing more as a temporary escape to make the dire world of capitalist exploitation bearable (not quite happy with such crude critique-of-ideology type of arguments, but they seem to be widespread, as Taira argues). I suspect it’s rather something that’s inherent to the imaginative adventure, the reassuring knowledge that the experience is one under a Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief, i.e. that I can always come back to Reality… As Chesterton put it in his Orthodoxy
    ‘What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. […] How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?’
    And, of course, the existence of a safe (if dull) home base is also a precondition for the multiplicity of alternative realities we’re provided for by the constant stream of new novels, films, games tackling the existential threat of boredom in a way anticipated by the 13th century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi, who according to Chittick (1989: 105) reasons in his Meccan Illuminations:
    ‘God’s perpetual self-disclosure to the creatures means that creation is renewed at each instant. Hence, no one with any understanding of the nature of the things can suffer boredom (malal) whether in this world or the next.

    G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, New York: Doubleday 2001
    W. C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, New York: State University of New York Press 1989

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