When Spaces and Genres Intersect: An Ottoman VenusZeynep Nur Şimşek
Mehmed Celâl is among a group of writers called “the in-between generation” because they continued to produce classical poetry alongside new prose and verse forms, and his novels have a hybrid character that transcends the classical vs. modern dichotomy. In 1886, Mehmed Celâl wrote Venus, in which he transformed the mythological narrative of Venus, reconstructing it in the Ottoman context. In this novella, literary genres from different traditions coexist, producing an intriguing Venus text that contains poems written in classical Ottoman forms. Diversity in Venus is not limited to genre alone. Unlike other novels of the same period, sea baths in Venus are a place where one can meet members of the opposite sex. The main character of the story, the Poet, meets his lover whom he has named Venus in the hidden forests of Istanbul. He watches her swim in a sea bath, the only place where crowds appear in the text. Recalling mythological narratives, Venus is described alongside depictions of the sea and nature. Mehmed Celâl’s statements at the beginning of the text demonstrate that the sea baths of that period constituted an alternative public space. This article aims to observe how the archaic Venus narrative was transformed by an Ottoman writer, and to assess Venus, an understudied text since it has yet not been Latinized, in terms of generic and spatial diversity.
Mekânlar ve Türler Karşılaştığında: Bir Osmanlı Venüs’üZeynep Nur Şimşek
Yazdıkları romanların yanı sıra klasik şiir geleneğini devam ettirdikleri için edebiyat tarihinin “ara nesil” olarak adlandırdığı yazarlardan biri de Mehmed Celâl’dir. Romanları, sert çizgilerle kategorileştirilen klasik ve modern edebiyat ayrımına ters düşecek derecede melez yapıda olan Mehmed Celâl 1886 yılında, kendi deyimiyle, Venüs isimli bir “romancık” yazar. Mitolojik Venüs anlatısını dönüştürerek Osmanlı bağlamında yeniden kurguladığı novellasında farklı geleneklere ait edebî türler bir aradadır. Bu sayede, aruz kalıpları ile yazılmış şiirlerin bulunduğu ilginç bir Venüs metni ortaya çıkar. Venüs’teki çeşitlilik sadece türlerle de sınırlı değildir. O dönemde yazılan romanlardan farklı olarak Venüs’te karşı cinslerin karşılaşma alanı deniz hamamlarıdır. Hikâyenin ana karakteri olan Şair, Venüs ismini verdiği sevgilisiyle İstanbul’un gizli kalmış ormanlarında görüşür. Onu, metinde kalabalıklara rastlanılan tek mekân olan deniz hamamında yüzerken izler. Mitolojik anlatıyla da denk düşecek şekilde Venüs, deniz ve tabiat tasvirleriyle birlikte anlatılır. Mehmed Celâl’in metnin başında yaptığı açıklamalar, sayfiye yerlerinde kurulan deniz hamamlarının dönemin halkı için alternatif bir kamusal alan teşkil ettiğini gösterir. Bu çalışma, arkaik Venüs anlatısının Osmanlı’daki bir yazar tarafından nasıl dönüştürüldüğünü görmeyi amaçlıyor. Henüz Latinize edilmediği için gölgede kalmış bu metni, türsel ve mekânsal çeşitlilikler üzerinden incelemeye açıyor.
Based on Mehmed Celâl’s novella Venus, this article aims to investigate the diversity of late Ottoman literature intrinsically and in relation to Greco-Roman mythology. In his novella, Mehmed Celâl transforms the mythological image of Venus into a local one. Having removed Venus from her mythological context, Mehmed Celâl chooses a most appropriate venue to match the archaic narrative: sea baths. As the only places in the text where crowds are encountered, Mehmed Celâl’s depiction of sea baths provides important details in understanding gender roles in the period. Thanks to sea baths, the Poet has the opportunity to gaze upon his lover while she is swimming. Mehmed Celâl feared that these swimming scenes would attract negative attention, as it was uncommon for women to swim in public. He therefore provides information about sea baths in the preface to make it clear that his portrayal of them is accurate. He claims that swimming in the sea baths is common for both men and women in some districts of Istanbul, and that it is considered normal to see Christian women swimming in public. He demands that his readers not doubt his depiction and not regard these scenes as unusual.
Surrounded by wooden canopies, cliffs, and caves, the sea baths remained outside the usual narratives of public space in nineteenth-century Ottoman literature. Despite being a women-only space, historical records demonstrate that restrictions preventing access by men were easily overcome. Interestingly, the popularity of sea baths in the literary sphere suddenly grew after Venus. İbrahim Cemal published Deniz Hamamı Risalesi (Sea Bath Treatise) in 1890, seeking to answer all the questions that might arise regarding sea baths. His treatise includes a wide variety of information, from water temperature to wind direction, and it can be seen as an indicator of increasing interest in sea baths. These developments enable us to evaluate sea baths as a new public space in the late nineteenth-century.
Although Mehmed Celâl does not completely reject traditional forms of Ottoman poetry, he stretches its content by selecting a Roman goddess, Venus, as the subject of his work. He uses traditional Persian and Arabic phrases and “mazmuns” along with newly invented ones to build his narrative. Poems, written in a variety of classical Ottoman verse forms such as gazel and musaddas, incorporated into the prose sections and including correspondence work together to create a formally hybrid text. Mehmed Celâl not only transforms classical Ottoman poetry by utilizing mythological elements but also modifies the archaic narrative of Venus by Ottomanizing it. In some verses, he compares Venus to Zohra and refers to Venus as an angel rather than a goddess. After the publication of Venus, the number of books written on mythology increased remarkably. Famous Ottoman writers Şemseddin Sami and Nabizade Nazım each wrote a work of non-fiction titled Esâtir, and interest in classical mythology thrived in the Ottoman literary field. In short, all these developments helped to pioneer the movement of “Neo-Hellenism.”
Consisting of forty-five pages of text, Venus is a striking novella that recreates mythological elements in the Ottoman context. As is clear from contemporary criticism, the subjects and forms he employed were not well-received in the literary circles of the period. Changes in literary taste left Mehmed Celâl and his texts forgotten and excluded from the literary canon. However, even if his novels are considered weak relative to current criteria, their hybridity contains clues essential to understanding the Ottoman novel and positioning it within world literature.