The Ethics of Witnessing in Pandemic Times

A Tandem Reading of José Saramago’s Blindness and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle

In: Journal of World Literature
Deniz Gundogan Ibrisim Sabancı University Turkey Istanbul

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Both individual and public witnessing have always been integral to the process of living through catastrophe. Writing, and particularly literature, is a powerful form of witnessing. Reading José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) in tandem with Orhan Pamuk’s The While Caste (1985), this essay engages with the concept of witnessing, extending and deepening the way we might think about witnessing in a novel way in times of epidemics and pandemics. By reading these texts as narratives of plagues and epidemics at large, this essay aims to expand and challenge the association between witnessing and speech, between witnessing and sight through a critical attention to the role of affect, vitality, human and nonhuman materiality, and other communicative modes in these novels. While representing pandemics and epidemics, both Saramago and Pamuk, I argue, represent life, death, and the relation between self and other “beyond the human,” with powerful implications for our contemporary understanding of history, community, and politics. Thereby, these texts create dynamic, and unorthodox narrative strategy for relating to, connecting with, and narrating other and more-than-human worlds, affected by heteronomy amid contagion.

All stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened.

José Saramago

Fear, like the idea of dying, makes us feel alone, but the awareness that we are all experiencing a similar anguish brings us out of our loneliness.

Orhan Pamuk

1 Introduction: The Figure of the Witness and Storytelling

We have been facing a pandemic in our lives and witnessing its devastating effects on many different levels for two years. Although we wish that this is a temporary condition, most of us already know that we have lost routines, familiar social connections, institutional and everyday structures and, to be sure, our sense of security. We are left struggling with a host of both physical and existential losses. In such a time of suffering in multiple and entangled ways, our usual concept of bearing witness to trauma and pain has also shifted from a straightforward understanding of witnessing to a more nuanced form, which I would like to call in this essay “engaged witnessing,” as a way of attending to the performative and transformative nature of human and nonhuman entanglement and affective encounters with the more-than-human-world, including animals, plants, landscapes, matter, and technology.

I was contemplating the concept of “engaged witnessing” in a freshmen class that I taught during the 2021 Spring semester amid the lockdowns and everyday pandemic restrictions both in the US and Turkey. Meeting over Zoom, I tried to create a safe and inclusive space, letting my students reflect on their own experiences of the pandemic, their modes of thinking about loss, grief, and temporality as we read fiction that revolves around different forms of psychological and collective trauma. In one of our sessions, a student reflected on how we are not used to this kind of collective grief, and how the dead sing to her in empty streets, desolated parks and gardens. This moving reflection reminded me of the American novelist Jesmyn Ward’s captivating storytelling regarding the loss of her beloved partner during the pandemic. Ward writes: “Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time.”

This sentence, I suggest, encourages us to reimagine witnessing within the web of affective and material human and nonhuman forces and performances. Ward’s emphasis of the sea of time is important as it offers another mode of temporality and knowledge production, where the witness can no longer be understood as a solitary and isolated figure; instead, the witness must be perceived within a collectivity of fluid actors, bringing in sensorial and affective modes of articulation and thinking of the past as something intimately entangled within the present. If we remember these lines from Derek Walcott: “Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, in that grey vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is History,” it would be apt to argue that the sea, something fluid and alive that holds the everchanging, is the record of our time and experiences, which pushes us to rethink the boundaries of vitality and agency in the face of loss.

In this essay, I take this idea of witnessing as my roadmap and provocation to think through a particular kind of storytelling regarding the witness figure in the narratives of pandemics and epidemics. I read José Saramago’s Blindness and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle as narratives of epidemics and pandemics that demonstrate entrenched injustices and inequalities in an unprecedented catastrophe. At the same time, these texts alert us to realms of existence, witnessing, and agency through the animate power of things and the nonhuman world as well as beyond the here-and-now. Saramago’s Blindness narrates an unprecedented epidemic of blindness that sweeps across an unnamed country in an unspecified time when people’s vision is narrowed down to “a milky sea.” People suffering are put in an asylum, where hierarchies of power develop. Blindness utilizes epidemic as an allegory of society, where the distinctive boundaries between subject and object, mind and body, human and animal blur. Pamuk’s The White Castle, on the other hand, focuses on Istanbul in the seventeenth century. In this work, the Ottoman Hoja, supposedly representing the Ottoman Empire, approaches a plague epidemic within the concept divine reality and trust in God, whereas the Venetian slave allegedly epitomizing the West considers the epidemic as a zero-sum game in which he strives to be the ultimate victor through strategic planning. While the struggle against plague is considered within East/West conflicts, the novel attracts our attention to the affective representation of life, death, and the relation between self and other with powerful implications for our understanding of history, community, and politics in times of epidemics and pandemics.

Through these readings, this essay is intended to ponder two questions. First, in what ways can we re-conceptualize and expand our understanding of the figure of the “witness” as we go through an unprecedented scale of pandemic? Second, how can it be possible for a witness to testify to both present predicaments and the anticipatory tumultuous set of feelings, reactions, and experiences? As such, witnessing in the texts that I analyze is not the pure act of bearing witness (testifying) to an event that took place at a determined moment in history. Rather, witnessing in Saramago and Pamuk, I observe, is conceived as an ongoing and anticipatory process that entails an accumulation of fears, losses and grievances in the context of epidemics and pandemics and the subjugation of certain subjects. The epigraphs to my essay also raise crucial questions on the relationship between witnessing epidemics and pandemics and the need of storytelling with regard to our individual and collective survival. Within this framework, this essay concludes with the idea that both Pamuk’s and Saramago’s texts urge us to comprehend the agency of literature in creating imaginative and plural worlds, refashioning the status of the witness and extending the practices of witnessing to the nonhumans and affective world, as they speak profoundly to the stress of our own moment.

In what follows, I will first discuss Saramago’s Blindness through an emphasis on the process of working-through an epidemic that surges inexplicably and abruptly, leaving whomever it touches without sight in an unnamed city. Though sight is privileged in the domain of bearing witness to an event, I will pay particular attention to other sensorial perspectives in Blindness, including inanimate witnessing which exposes the limitations inherent to “the human” as a framework for subjectivity. Marta Zatta and Beatrice Braut investigate Blindness from a public health point of view and propose that the novel illuminates the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic both socially and culturally, but neither they nor others have focused on the concept of witnessing itself as the novel’s major theme. I will then discuss Pamuk’s The White Castle which features an outbreak of the plague, one that needs to be re-examined within the text’s representation of material and somatic realities beyond their ideological articulations and discursive inscriptions. Read in tandem, these two texts rework received notions of witnessing and the prominence given to sight and speech, foregrounding novel accounts of agentic thrust that enable new lines of inquiry regarding the subjects of epidemics within an engaged witnessing, beyond an anthropocentric purview, and the dualisms of nature/culture, human/animal, mind/body, as well as East/West.

1.1 The Need for Witnessing

The term “to witness,” in its legal context, means to behold or to attest. Through the word attest, it also signifies perception through sight or apprehension and denotes an action of providing or serving as clear evidence of something. The word highlights the “irreplaceable performance of the act of seeing,” as a matter of public duty (Felman 206). Therefore, witnessing means more than a sole movement of seeing/hearing; it goes beyond an act of reproduction and launches on an act of transmission. Paul Ricoeur argues that “testimony is not perception itself but the report […] the story, the narration of the event” (123). “Bearing witness” then signals something formative and transformative, carrying gravity and consequences in history, literature, and religion.

1.2 The Idea of “Witness” in Literature

Literary witnessing has followed a different trajectory than the legal domain. In particular, in the late 1960s when the first major public interest in the articulation of the Holocaust experience emerged after the Second World War, the survivors of the Holocaust felt compelled to write their unimaginable experiences, and to testify on behalf of the majority who were killed in the camps. In the early1990s, contemporary critics associated with Yale University (such as Cathy Caruth, Geoffrey Hartman, Shoshana Felman, and Dominick La Capra) adapted Freud’s medical discourse on psychic trauma and its processes to the analysis of narrative texts, thus studying the cultural effects of the Holocaust in literature and launching cultural trauma studies.1 This era was based on the particular character of the Holocaust and the need for witnessing was associated with the loss of story, stemming from an ambivalence between an absolute absence and the survivor’s need to recite narratives that have been suppressed. Since traumatic experience constitutes a shocking interruption of the universe, a violent destruction of the usual systems of care and control, and a loss of connection in the world, it is difficult for the subject to recall and create knowledge of the past in the present, and thereby to be reborn without relapsing into fragmentation, silence and isolation. In fact, the articulation of a traumatic event constitutes a dialectical dynamic in which there is a conflict between the will to deny overwhelming and horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud, marking a paradoxical realm in recovered stories (see Michael Rothberg’s book Traumatic Realism).

For some, acts of witnessing signal production of evidence and demonstration of truth; for others, it implies a proximity to both catastrophic events and the listeners. These formulations situate testimony and its subjects from and within the limits of the humanist imaginary of the witness as a historical subject while prioritizing the association between witnessing and verbal articulation, witnessing and the supremacy of the sight or the “eye.” In what follows, by examining Saramago’s Blindness and Pamuk’s The White Castle as narratives of epidemics and pandemics, I will focus on limitations and violence inherent to prioritizing Western rationality and the human as frameworks for subjectivity, instead expanding subjects of witnessing from the angle of affective, material, and vibrant affiliations.

2 Plague, Fear and Blindness: Beyond the Limits of the Humanist Imaginary of the Witness

Saramago’s Blindness opens with an intriguing scene where the world of an unnamed man at a traffic stop suddenly turns upside down in a milky whiteness as he goes totally blind. After shouting helplessly inside his car, a “seemingly” helpful man outside hears him, and eventually takes the blind man to his home. We follow the path of this first blind man in the city as we later find out that the seemingly good Samaritan who helps him get home eventually steals his car. In his apartment, the blind man observes that he has been “plunged into a whiteness so luminous, so total, that it swallowed up rather than absorbed.” He soon knocks over a vase and cuts himself on a glass:

The blood, sticky to the touch, worried him, he thought it must be because he could not see it, his blood turned into a viscous substance without color, into something rather alien which nevertheless belonged to him, but like a self-inflicted threat directed at himself. Very slowly, gently probing with his good hand, he tried to locate the splinter of glass, as sharp as a tiny dagger, and by bringing the nails of his thumb and forefinger together, he managed to extract all of it. He wrapped the handkerchief round the injured finger once more, this time tightly to stop the bleeding, and weak and exhausted, he leaned back on the sofa […] He dreamt at once that he was pretending to be blind.

Saramago 7

This early scene provides a telling example of the representation of the witness beyond the traditional realm which is confined solely to the discursive realm of the humanistic boundaries. The sticky blood as vibrant materiality entails an action and expansion, challenging the category of the human as the only witness. The narrator begins by highlighting something curious about the man’s blood that turns into a self-inflicted white threat. Blood here, outside the human body, is altered and bears a witness to the man’s sudden tragedy. It creates productive friction with the act of becoming witness, which is defined within the domain of the testimony and speech it puts forth. Moreover, blood as an actor here rather than a pure metaphor, denaturalizes power relations and refashions subject/object, inside/outside binaries.

To be sure, the kind of witnessing we see here is a human witnessing, though based on non-verbal experiences. Thus, one cannot dismiss the validity of the human subject as it is my point of departure in the analysis. However, my emphasis on blood here takes its cue from a broader understanding of the nonhuman world and gestures toward a vibrant ecology of matter. Saramago’s text works to dissolve the binary between subject and object, showing matter or more-than-human can all be “actants,” in Bruno Latour’s terms in The Politics of Nature. When the human subject’s sight is gone in the times of the epidemic, we are left with the sticky viscous substance, something “alien,” or “outside” the human body. Therefore, blood as matter can be alive because of its subtle capacities to shape the web of interrelationships of which it is a part. It is fruitful here to briefly refer to the concept of “vibrant matter,” which feminist political theorist Jane Bennett explains as “the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans, but also to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett viiii).

With Bennett’s ontological reworking of the nonhuman and matter, we begin to think about the environment or context in which different poetics and politics might occur. Bennett builds on the ideas of early twentieth-century critical vitalists, as well as those of Deleuze and Guattari, to bring together materiality, affect, and vitalism in order to reposition of the human among nonhuman forces and question the stability of an individuated, liberal subject. If we circle back to Saramago’s text from this perspective, we can argue that the blind man is still there, but he is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies around him. This condition, I suggest, stretches both the concepts of action and the very act of witnessing as a solely humanistic phenomenon, dissipating the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, and will/determination.

When the blind man’s wife takes him to the doctor, we learn that he sees only white, to the puzzlement of the doctor. From the very first chapter, the excessive whiteness as a kind of vibrant mood that prevails the novel suggests something deeper and complex regarding the curious ability of whiteness to animate, to act, to produce dramatic effects. The “something more” is hinted at when the doctor scans the bind man’s eyes on a machine. Here, the narrator compares the scanner to “a new version of the confessional.” The expression might suggest that the scanner is alive beyond in a mechanistic way, destabilizing the humans as the active subjects in the world. Moreover, agency and causality get complicated through the white blindness, as one’s sight is lost merely by making eye contact with another person. The reader learns that the blindness becomes an epidemic as the man leaves, having infected the whole clinic, including the doctor. The man, now simply referred to as “the thief” by the storyteller, soon finds himself blind. The various people in the doctor’s waiting room go all blind, suddenly finding themselves in the milky whiteness. Eventually, the group is forcibly quarantined in an old asylum by the order of the ministry of health. From this point forward, the blindness epidemic spreads like wildfire and constantly initiates new processes and dissipates others.

In one of the scenes in the asylum, the doctor’s wife contemplates the white blindness as she is prepared to go blind, yet she still has her sight and can see the world around her. The doctor’s wife is the sole character who does not lose her sight. In the meantime, anxiety over the food supply becomes a threat against the solidarity and civility of the people. Law and order, social services, the government, and schools all begin decomposing, and people are stripped of every political social, and cultural status. They are reduced to bare life in the Agambenian sense, which encompasses being in the exception, inhabiting the threshold of the juridico-political community. Conditions of crisis and emergency reduce people in the asylum to a purely biological condition, one that not only loses any social and political dimension, but even any compassionate and emotional one. In this context, the doctor’s wife considers how this epidemic steals away the unique identities of all humans, leaving them at a ground zero point in life. She likens the ward’s inhabitants to dogs who only know each other by scent, as the privilege of the sight and appearance lose their ability to grasp the emergent catastrophe, as soon

we shall no longer know who we are, or even remember our names, and besides what use would names be to us, no dog recognizes another dog or knows the others by the names they have been given, a dog is identified by its scent and how it identifies others, here we are like another breed of dogs, we know each other’s bark or speech, as for the rest, features, colour of eyes or hair, they are of no importance, it is as if they did not exist …

Saramago 57

This passage opens up a number of avenues relevant to a potential reconceptualization of the witness. First, the inhabitants now are seen only as potential contaminators to be avoided at all costs. They witness the epidemic through an engaged witnessing, encompassing the enormous force of sensory and affective communication and interaction beyond the superiority of the eye. The emphasis on smelling as a major feature of witnessing spotlights a renewed interest in embodiment and sensorial experience, coupled with a pressing need to contemplate the limits of rational and bounded human subject and the role affect in bearing witness to epidemic. Second, this condition entails another mode of living, a creaturely life – the peculiar proximity of the human to the animal at the very point of their radical difference. Here, we can recall Eric Santner’s formulation of creaturely life, which is a product not simply of man’s thrownness into the (enigmatic) “openness of Being,” but also of his exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power and social bonds whose structures have transformed significantly in the modern world (Santner 2). According to Santner, creaturely life opens a new way of understanding how human bodies and psyches register the “states of exception” that punctuate the “normal” run of social and political life. Creatureliness will thus signify less a dimension that traverses the boundaries of human and nonhuman forms of life than a specifically human way of finding oneself caught in the midst of antagonisms in and of the political field (Santner 1–2).

In this view, the exposure to the unexpected material and affective interchanges in the asylum demonstrates another model for bearing witness to epidemic. In other words, the particular scent that the inhabitants rely upon, the groan that they hear and respond to, and the wound that they touch to cure, all manifest the idea that that the nexus of seeing and narrating, of speech and storytelling, are not sole principles in the act of witnessing. Living at a ground zero level, like animals and dogs who smell and touch in order to survive, becomes a conscious act of testimony that renders formative actions in the asylum. Through an engaged witnessing and creaturely life, the inhabitants breach human exceptionalism and the image of the rational “Man” as the measure of all things as the distinction between humanity and animality blurs. The text then reveals how narrative and materiality affect each other within networks of human and nonhuman actors.

When the government futilely tries to suppress the epidemic and maintain control through means that prove to be increasingly repressive and inept, the city’s inhabitants become more panic stricken and start to live at the edge of creatureliness. In particular, with the presence of guarding soldiers, a lack of access to hygiene becomes a major step to the blind inhabitants’ creaturely life. It creates a sense of desperation and fear as they quickly descend to a state in which their basic needs are not met, and hence the brutal fabric of the society unravels in this state of exception, which now becomes a rule.

Greed and chaos are revealed through brutal conflicts over food, while the latrines become squalid, due to the inability of the blind to clean themselves; the corridors of the hospital get crowded with people crashing into one another as well as with bodies crawling along the floor amid the rising tide of filth. Within this misery, unburied corpses due to armed violence pile up in the asylum. The rising of excrete and filth as well as the shocking increase of the dead bodies are of crucial importance in terms of stretching the witnessing in Blindness. Here, the traditional witness figure as an active, public person gives way to a figure or an entity across and beyond the divided of dead/alive and human/nonhuman divide. The filth and the dead bodies, as inchoate and unpredictable affective-material responses to violence, expose the limits of human rationality and present the modes of articulation that are not purely tethered to human consciousness and cognitive processes. This condition, I suggest, broadens how we perceive identity, subjectivity, and performance.

Thugs and even rapists emerge among the new blind arrivals, who start abusing the first group of blind inhabitants. Moreover, during a night of sexual violence, one of the women in the first ward is killed. Due to this mounting violence, the only sighted person in the hospital, the doctor’s wife, takes a decision that changes the course of all their lives, as she reveals the fact that she can see. Eventually, she leads her group out of confinement when a fire breaks out, discovering that the soldiers guarding them have disappeared. By this time, everyone is blind, and the whole city, and even the entire country goes milk white. In the streets, things become utterly chaotic; fires rage and dead bodies are strewn everywhere. It is precisely these moments that make Blindness unique in its representation of bearing witness to the violence of epidemics. What the inhabitants experience in the streets is a telling example of witnessing beyond a pure verbal act of narrativization, as we see that they attend to the force of liveliness of matter and the nonhuman world:

They go around not knowing what to do, they wander through the streets […] Little wonder that there are so many dogs, some of them already resembling hyenas, the spots on their pelts are like those of putrefaction, they run around with their hind quarters drawn in, as if afraid that the dead and devoured might come back to life in order to make them pay for the shame of biting those who could not defend themselves. What’s the world like these days, the old man with the black eyepatch has asked, and the doctor’s wife replied: There’s no difference between inside and outside, between here and there, between the many and the few between what we are living through and what we shall have to live through.

Saramago 241–42

Through an attention to silence and other sensory encounters beyond the supremacy of the sight, bearing witness becomes relational and more importantly entangled concept in which modernist categories of subject and object, inside and outside, human and animal, past and present dissolve only to form new alliances in the proximity to catastrophic events.

In this context, one can observe here that the figure of the human witness as a category is stripped of its exclusive status, through the persistent presence of the more-than-human-world, including landscapes, animals, plants, dissipated places, ruins, and epidemic debris. The witness figure neither refers to a heroic survivor nor an onlooker regarding what takes place. On the contrary, there is an ecological constellation of the witness, in an expanded sense, encompassing both human and nonhuman dimensions as well as material and affective registers that might reorient the representation of grievances and subjects of epidemics and pandemics. Elsewhere, when the doctor’s wife goes outside the asylum, she realizes that the scent of sausage she has just eaten now attracts a pack of feral dogs. Then one of the dogs licks her face, licking away her tears and horrors, once she befriends it.

Saramago’s text underscores the necessity of moving beyond the human in witnessing epidemics, gesturing toward a realm of the nonsignificant where a thing that is neither fully human nor fully animal, a kind of ghost, dwells together with the nonhuman world. In particular, animals, landscapes and the abandoned city render the expressive quality of the nonhuman realm and demonstrate how this realm bears witness to the white evil, the blindness. Blindness thus challenges our preconceived notions about the individual and community and refashions the self that is nourished by mutual dependency between the (human) organism and its (natural) environment; subject and object; inside and outside, culture and nature. This view is exemplified by the doctor’s wife’s moving closing words: “Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see” (Saramago 326). These words unsettle the normative conceptualization of the hierarchy of sight and thus re-conceptualize task of witnessing beyond the simply definied contours of speaking truth to power, as witnessing cuts across lines of senses, modes of communication, material and affective encounters, species, and communities.

3 The Witness Beyond East/West Encounters and the Drama of the Plague in The White Castle

Nobel prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk published his novel Veba Geceleri (Nights of Plague) in April 2021. To be sure, the novel’s publication is a timely arrival as we can relate with a plague outbreak on a fictional Ottoman-island called “Minger,” since, as for today, the world has been struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this was not Pamuk’s first treatment of such themes. Here I will discuss his novel The While Castle, which is set in the seventeenth-century Ottoman empire during the time of the bubonic plague. The While Castle tells the story of a young Venetian scholar (the unnamed narrator) who, while sailing from Venice to Naples, is taken prisoner by Turkish pirates and put in a slave camp in Istanbul. The Venetian scholar refuses to be treated as an ordinary slave, and he charmingly uses his limited European knowledge of medicine and astronomy to claim that his services would be better used as a doctor than as a slave. “After I had treated a few Turks, using my commonsense rather than knowledge of anatomy, and their wounds had healed by themselves; every one believed I was a doctor” (Pamuk 8). With this, he ends up in the hands of Hoja, who turns to be his doppelganger. Desperate to climb the social ladder and become part of the elite, Hoja desires to do anything to gain the Sultan’s favor. Hoping to convince him to modernize the empire, he engages in long and complex conversations with his Italian captive, from whom he extracts useful scientific and personal information.

Through this relationship, their conversations become a test of character for both individuals. Acting as each other’s mirror, the two are encouraged to come to terms with parts of themselves that even they had not previously faced. The ambitious Hoja challenges his captive’s science by claiming that the heavens are in fact defined by invisible forces that hold the universe together. The Italian points out his errors on these subjects, and yet Hoja rejects all feedback, finding no fault in himself, only in others. Pamuk weaves together here a tale in which the Muslim and the infidel, the slave and the master, the insider and the outsider, East and West come together as their differences and conflicts pave the way to a significant meaning about “otherness.” In this regard, Hoja and the Italian represent two antithetical yet partially compatible forces in which Self meets Other, blurring the distinction between East and West, science-driven skepticism, and God-fearing traditionalism.

One day, Hoja delivers the news of the bubonic plague, which is about to capture the city and its inhabitants. The Italian slave is perplexed to see how Hoja acts normal and calm on this urgent and deadly matter: […] Trying to check my agitation, I poured out all my medical and literary knowledge; I described what I remembered from the scenes of the plague in Hippocrates, Thucydides and Boccaccio, said it was believed the disease was contagious, but this only made him more contemptuous – he didn’t fear the plague; disease was God’s will. (Pamuk 71–72). Hoja’s fatalistic attitude toward the plague makes the Italian slave concerned and he goes outside to seek the truth, and to find the “Western” cure to the plague. The belief of Muslims in the concept of fate (kismet) is an important trope in Pamuk’s The White Castle. To be sure, Pamuk writes about the number of people affected by the plague, the type of sanitary measures available, issues of confinement, medical care or the state of the economy in The White Castle. At the same time, one can also see that Pamuk includes in his novel the conviction of the Muslims that the transmission of the plague is decided only by fate. However, as the two savants, the master Hoja and the Italian slave, become twin-like characters, this division between the fatalistic Turk and the European rationalist blurs in the novel. I read this as Pamuk’s critique of the sovereign or autonomous subjects associated with established ideas of East and West, as well as the political implications of recognizing complex web of identities and bodies, all affecting each other, competing and forming alliances.

Hoja is confident that the plague is not contagious, as he is destined to twist the knowledge that he acquires to suit his high ends and manipulate others. On the contrary, the Italian slave rushes to Western remedy and science to cure the emergent plague. This renders a dramatic irony in the text precisely because Pamuk attracts our attention to the idea that European epidemiological experience is viewed as global, which situates Europe at the center, capturing European experiences and excluding others. I suggest that Hoja’s witnessing to the plague and his particular attitude toward it can be read as a critique of this domination. Concerning Eurocentric perspectives on this matter, Nükhet Varlık argues that “the scarcity of historical studies on Ottoman plagues has rendered them invisible to practitioners of the new science. In the absence of historical studies to guide bioarcheological research, there is no evidence from former Ottoman areas comparable to what has been found for Western Europe” (199). Following Varlık’s argument and the invisibility of the Ottoman plague, one can claim that Hoja’s perspective is poised to subvert the Eurocentricity of plague scholarship. Being witness to the plague through spirituality and religious thought, rather than pure reason and rationality, Hoja unsettles certain epidemiological assumptions drawn from European analysis of the Ottoman plague, as can be observed in the following scene:

The next day at noon, saying he’d touched each of the children at school one by one, he stretched out his hands towards me; when he saw me balk, that I was afraid to touch him, he came closer and embraced me with glee; I wanted to scream, but like someone in a dream, I couldn’t cry out. As for Hoja, he said, with a derisiveness I only learned to understand much later, that he was going to teach me fearlessness […] Every night he’d reach for me with the hands he said he’d touched people with all day long. I’d wait without moving a muscle. You know how when, barely awake, you realize a scorpion is crawling over you and freeze, still as a statue – like that. His fingers didn’t resemble mine, running them coolly over my flesh. Hoja would ask: ‘Are you afraid?’ I would not move. ‘You’re afraid. What are you afraid of?’

Pamuk 73–4

This scene works in a twofold fashion. First, this moment renders tragicomedy in which we see the utmost conflict, dependence, and existential crisis, and an almost sadomasochistic arrangement between these two protagonists. Second, one can discern a different language of witnessing, especially when conceived in terms beyond the presence of human speech. Like Saramago’s blind subjects who witness the epidemic through touching and other sensory attachments, Hoja and the slave attempt to present what is beyond verbal articulation. Witnessing here bears a multitude of whirling emotional states for both figures. Touching carries certain material traces of the plague and turns witnessing into an immersive and complex, open-ended conception of the reality it suggests. Hoja’s touch manifests a particular texture and intimacy that exist as “an excess,” beyond the realm of language and discourse. Although one can find this scene disturbing in terms of power relations, it is also innovative, delightful, and affective, bursting the edges of bounded individual, and throwing the reader into a realm of unruly forces and engaged witnessing.

Materialities, such as the plague swelling in The White Castle, can be read as unruly intensities: they can be expressive as they might provide the plague knowledge and can register the local effect of epidemic disease:

As I entered by room Hoja called out: ‘Come and have a look at this, will you.’ His shirt unbuttoned, he was pointing to a small swelling, a red spot below his navel. ‘There are so many insects around.’ I came closer and looked carefully, it was a small red spot, slightly swollen […] but why he was showing it to me? I was afraid to bring my face any nearer […] He touched the swelling with the tip of his finger […] I found some excuse to stay in the garden until sunset. I realized I must not stay in this house any longer, but I had no place in mind where I could go. And that spot really did look like an insect bite, it was not as prominent and broad as a plague bubo; but a little later my thoughts took another turn: perhaps because I was wandering in the garden among the flourishing plants, it seemed to me that the red spot would swell up within two days, open like a flower, and burst, that Hoja would die, painfully. I told myself it might be an abscess caused by indigestion, but no, it looked like an insect bite.

Pamuk 78

The act of witnessing described above includes touching, smelling, or feeling as it moves beyond the human/animal, subject/object, inside/outside binaries. It can be argued here that almost every human experience includes these aspects and it is the Italian slave witnessing and experiencing the red spot. However, this intriguing moment renders a certain kind of intimacy with the disease among locals. To the shock and hesitation of the Italian, this intimacy bursts itself out and intervenes in the process of speaking and testifying to the plague. The proximity to the red spot might open up a space for other ethical practices that do not rely upon the image of an intrinsically hierarchical order of things. In this context, we can read the scene with the red spot through an attention to the nonhuman or affective matter which affects the way the plague is experienced by the slave. Thus, I suggest that the uncanny red spot uncouples the association between witnessing and speech, or verbal articulation, attracting the reader’s attention to the role of senses, silence, affect, and other gestures.

In particular, we observe how the red spot functions as an affective force that allows impossible connections with others, as well as an openness for the extension of the status of the witness as a historical agent. Affects, as Kathleen Stewart writes, do not work through pure meanings per se,

but rather in the way that they pick up density and texture as they move through bodies, dreams, dramas, and social worldlings of all kinds. Their significance lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible, in where they might go and what potential modes of knowing, relating and attending to things are already somehow present in them in a state of potentiality and resonance.

Stewart 3

Stewart brings us closer to dimensions of discourse and culture that cannot be grasped through solely semiotic analysis or a constructivist perspective; this is what the reader actually receives from Hoja’s reaction to the plague. Instead of looking at his response to the red spot within the contours of preconceived fatalistic meanings, it would be fruitful to think of Hoja’s behaviour as a counter-reflection to this meaning. In other words, Hoja’s insistence on touching his plague swelling and the emphasis on its materiality and texture expand the meaning of the word “witness.”

Moreover, the Italian slave’s ambivalent relationship to the red swelling, his fascination and fear about it, expose the impossibility of pure or authentic production of evidence and demonstration of truth in the face of a catastrophe. This brings in other communicative modes regarding witnessing the plague. Although their historical, cultural, geographical, and linguistic registers differ, it would be apt to argue that, like Saramago, Pamuk here aims is to bring into focus the interplay among witnessing, human reason, and rationality, in order to demonstrate the limitations and violence inherent to the bounded human body as a framework for subjectivity. With regard to witnessing the Ottoman plague, Pamuk offers a possibility for multiple, nonlinear, and outward-bound interconnections with a number of material and affective forces, challenging the dominant East-versus-West paradigm.

In the presence of Hoja’s understanding of the plague as God’s will, the slave sees the catastrophe as a zero-sum game, a competitive battle in which he desires to be the victor. However, through his intimate relationship to Hoja, and in particular through wandering in the streets of the plague-stricken city, he is pushed to rethink the boundaries of the disease and hence the novel constellations that emerge from and within it. In a way, as the Italian slave becomes Hoja as the novel unfolds, he also gets closer to the instincts of beasts, the wonders of science and technology, even to the stars themselves. After a while, when the piles of dead bodies increase immeasurably and the Sultan orders a “war” on the plague, Hoja conspires with the Italian slave to find ways to reduce the risk of plague through the exercise of Western hygiene. They build a rough map of Istanbul and mark on the map where plague had spread. They slowly start to see a pattern in the death tolls. With this, the city as a living entity both witnesses and suffers from the whimsical precautions to eradicate the plague. Cats, for instance, are specifically brought into the city to get rid of the rats that infest the city with plague (although the Sultan sees rats as Satan in disguise). Both Hoja and the Italian seek to gain power by telling the Sultan when the plague will end. They succeed by providing scientific clues, and yet they create a fraudulent story of how they actually know the particularities about the disease. Hoja is then elevated to the rank of Imperial Astrologer.

In an afterword to The White Castle in the original Turkish publication, Pamuk writes at length about how and why he draws on seventeenth-century Ottoman Istanbul and the other travelogues written before and after this period. In order to turn the Italian into a slave, Pamuk mentions how he benefits from the story of Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo, who were captured by a group of Turkish ships on their way back to Spain. Moreover, during the same year Cervantes was held captive, Pamuk mentions the significance of captivity narratives of Baron W. Wratislaw in the imperial embassy, while underscoring how these narratives also speak to the letters of the European observer Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, which describe the days and nights of plague in the Ottoman Empire. From these insights and through an engagement with a multitude of cultural and geopolitical settings, Pamuk utilizes plague as a litmus-paper in his fictional world in which he both differentiates and blurs Eastern and Western perspectives in The White Castle.

4 In Lieu of a Conclusion: Witnessing and “Worlds” of Epidemics and Pandemics

Switching our imagination of pandemics from singular entities to long-term processes and multiple events can help us to see pandemic history as a set of continuities rather than ruptures. This vision is evident in both Saramago’s and Pamuk’s texts, since epidemics and pandemics also become blueprints of societies that give shape the ways in which we think, communicate, and live in a world in which our very own familiar sense of dwelling can be turned on its head at any given moment.

Reading Blindness and The While Castle in tandem allows us to see how authors can demonstrate multiple voices amid descriptive and reflective passages that are remarkably well suited to the kind of epidemic stories they choose to tell. Pamuk and Saramago explore a web of traumatic experiences and grievances in the context of epidemics and the subjugation of certain subjects, be these human or nonhuman (landscapes, cities, animals). In this context, both in Blindness and The White Castle there are occasions in which things, thoughts, and lives are taken for granted by those who obviously think that they can see, observe, comprehend, and rule the epidemic. However, these two novels indicate that human agency is not as sovereign, contained in separate bodies, but are unruly forces immersed in an entanglement that paves the way for unexpected surprises, detours, and opportunities regarding the divides between East and West, subject and object, human and animal, inside and outside, speech and silence. Witnessing an epidemic in Blindness and The White Castle surfaces as an affective, engaged, and porous capacity that gives everyday life under contagion the quality of continual motion and different modes of inhabitation beyond binary divisions and the pure realm of verbal articulation. This affective capacity is important because it offers worlds that surpass a hegemonizing, homogenizing, and systematizing perspective, creating dynamic and novel spaces of difference and plurality. The affective encounters in ordinary lives under chaos engender a mode of looking into relationality between subjects and objects, nations and globes, particularities and totalities, as well as literary texts and plural worlds they create.

Within this context, we are encouraged to read Saramago’s and Pamuk texts as “world-making practices,” precisely because they entail an array of imaginative manoeuvres, increasing our receptivity to the uncanny, the unexpected, and the wonder as well as intensity of unfolding processes with regard to the representation of the white milky blindness and the Ottoman plague. Here, I would like to put emphasis on world literatures’ power to create new, open, polycentric and plural worlds. As Birgit Neumann and Gabriele Rippl remind us, we should rethink world literatures in terms of their capacity to create entanglement and mutual connectedness between multiple localized literary traditions and diverse socio-cultural practices, while seriously considering the agency of literature in creating other, imaginative worlds (10). Following Neumann and Rippl here, one can suggest that Saramago and Pamuk configure the world in terms of its immanent alterity, openness, and multiplicity, and thereby foreground the distinctiveness of literature as an enabling and active force in times of epidemics.

I would like to end this essay with a reflection. The term “pandemic” comes from a Greek compound: pan (all) and demos (people). Unlike the term “epidemic,” which describes a disease that affects a certain city or region, pandemic spreads across a large region, even worldwide, affecting many millions of people. As historian Monica Green warns us, we should take the “pan” in the term pandemic seriously – an observation that holds for past and present pandemics alike. At the same time, I suggest that we should also rethink demos in the term and consider it anew. Alongside demos, it would be fruitful to reflect on the term cosmos here, which might help us attune ourselves to the messy, complex world that we are enmeshed in. If we circle back to Saramago’s and Pamuk’s texts, the witness figure in their work is caught up in, and entangled with, complex assemblages in the cosmos beyond the understanding of the rational, bounded human as only active subject of history and the nonhuman realm or spiritual world as passive or inert. In their different cultural registers, these texts seek to expand the demos to include nonhumans and affective encounters. Thereby, thinking of cosmos in terms of spaces, atmospheres, spirits, moods, and nonhuman worlds which have agencies and vitalities themselves might deepen our sense of interconnections and interdependencies with others in times of witnessing crises. It would also speak to Jesmyn Ward’s sense of witnessing and grievances that I have mentioned above. Ward’s beautiful rendition of her own pandemic experience and loss, of the dead that sing to us from their boats to our boats, on the sea of time, offers a vital site for negotiating and contesting the very ground of preconceived senses of belonging and inclusion. This has important implications for the way we think anew about our changing world, or ourselves, or our human and nonhuman entangled communities, even amid our fear and the deaths.


This work has been supported by the Horizon EU 2020-MSCA-IF fellowship [grant number 101025604].


For a broader discussion on witnessing, trauma, and literature see Cathy Caruth’s Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995), and also Trauma, edited by Lucy Bond and Stef Craps.

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